BY LESLIE PERRY
The fight had left Betty with a cut on her hand and a speck of metal oxidizing in her cornea. It all started when Bob was rehearsing for a Christmas special on NBC. He was supposed to kiss an elf. She wasn’t a real elf, of course, or even an actress – just some buxom crumpet from Minnesota with wax-tip ears and oogly, doped-up eyes. Bob swore she wasn’t a good kisser, but when he came home from a cast party one night, Betty saw that his script had been signed Eternally your’s, Franchelle. She acted like it was just the apostrophe that galled her, but it wasn’t, and she got so worked up that she broke a snow-globe against the wall. Afterwards, rinsing out her eye at the kitchen sink, she hummed a love song from her cabaret days. She missed those. Her last gig had been two Christmases ago: a three-week run at the Beer and Borscht Dinner Theater in Akron, Ohio, for which she was given fifty dollars a week and unlimited trips to the sauerkraut bar.
Bob called her half nuts, a weirdsmobile: she was making A Scene. It’s just like you, he said, to get worked up over nothing! While she stormed around the condo, hunting blearily for an ice pack, he threw his suede shoes and dinner jacket into a suitcase – he had to catch a plane out of Burbank for his nine o’clock show at The Sands. Just to show him she meant it, Betty stayed behind, porkchop to eyeball, barefoot in her evening gown. She wasn’t one of his yes-men. She’d raised his child, dammit. She’d sung on his records, danced in his floor shows. A life of a thousand swizzle sticks and cocktail napkins, from Honolulu to St. Tropez. One drab, woefully uncoordinated daughter named Mandy – who was off in London, studying philosophy and playing the pea-whistle in a band of weedy beatniks. Betty couldn’t stand to be in the condo by herself – not with the dreadful silence of the telephone – so she checked into a hotel on Vine, a place she and Judy had stayed when they were traveling with their sister act. In the elevator the floors clicked dully by. The whole place felt like a sore throat. She imagined the elf talking dirty to Bob in her goose-honk Midwestern accent. Oh, yah, right they’re! No, their!
She’d asked for a penthouse with a balcony and a view of the hills. What she got was a pigeon-sprayed hunk of concrete overlooking a wig shop and hamburger stand. Still, she lay out on the plastic lounge-chair and took a couple Valium. She leafed, squinting, through her mail. Her eye was still red and watery, which made it hard to read anything. A foreign body, the doctor had said. She pictured a miniature Russian man, a casualty of the KGB, floating on the scum of her eyeball. When the doctor offered to dig it out, she’d declined, hoping it would just go away on its own. It hadn’t.
She opened a Christmas card from Emma, the old housekeeper at the Pine Tree Inn. In his dotage the General had shot her in the leg, believing she was a German spy. Now she lived in Pensacola with three King Charles spaniels and a permanent limp. Her cane, Betty saw in the photograph, was decorated like a giant peppermint stick. (The year before it had been a shepherd’s hook, and the dogs were drooling magi.) There was another card, too, this one from Phil. He and Bob had retired their act years ago, but they still spent occasional weekends together in Palm Springs. She loved that strange, eerie drive through the wild Joshua trees and slabs of sun-baked rock – out to Phil’s ranch house, where everything smelled of coconut oil and blooming jasmine and bacon crisping on the range. All those idle Sundays spent in the shade of palmettos – pitchers of Bloody Marys, tennis rackets. Phil leaping about the court like a desert flower in tangerine breeches and goldenrod socks. At night they gathered around his piano and sang. His assistant Christophé had the most dulcet falsetto.
An old song came back to her now. Things you would not do at home come naturally on the floor. Yeah, she thought – of a showgirl’s dressing room.
She went down to the lobby and called Judy, who was wintering in Del Mar with her husband, a jockey. Judy said, “I’m getting on the train, Mama Hen. Don’t do anything dramatic.” She paused, then whispered, “At least not until I’m there to see it.”
Betty sighed. She wasn’t dramatic, for God’s sake; she was principled. She was also hot. Sweltering, in fact. Maybe it was the coat, or the Valium. She leaned against the greasy wall of the telephone nook. Something crackled in her eye – she imagined the Russian man in a tiny fur coat, firing at bears in a snowy river valley, drinking vodka out of a potato.
She went to Miceli’s for supper. She needed something real – a basket of dinner rolls. A goddamn meatball. She was sure everyone was staring at her as she slid, wet-eyed and fumbling, into the booth. When was the last time she’d dined alone? She thought again of Bob’s pleasant and sure-minded companionship. When they met, he’d seemed so down-to-earth, even a little bit square. That fuddy-duddiness had appealed to her, especially after all those vain, goofy boys who loafed around backstage, ogling the showgirls. But now she wondered if Judy and Phil, scheming matchmakers, hadn’t influenced her somehow. Perhaps they’d made Bob seem more exciting, more rarefied than he was. Judy – always so meddlesome; the baby of the family – grew bored on the road and craved sensation. Maybe Phil believed that if he shined the lights on Bob’s love life, people wouldn’t look too closely at his own. The romance had surprised Betty as much as anyone. She didn’t like show-people as a rule – all the preening, the horny riffraff. She’d thought of Bob as somehow above it.
And now Franchelle. Franchelle! What kind of made-up name was that anyway! A brand of fancy mayonnaise. A country-club salad dressing.
Around her the knives and forks were hitting the plates at a particular pitch – A-flat. In her eye the Russian man began to wassail. Betty chewed forlornly on her breadstick, then joined in with the harmony. The people beside her turned to stare.
Maybe it wasn’t the apostrophe, or even the kiss. Maybe it was just that Bob hadn’t suggested her to NBC. Not even as a back-up singer. She’d done a few shows on those soundstages before, eaten ham sandwiches in the commissary. Johnny Carson once shook her hand. It had been months since her last audition, and that was just for a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, a holiday special featuring The Froggettes, a chorus of high-kicking amphibians in mistletoe bows. She’d sung only three bars of a song, “Happy Grenou-Year,” before the director interrupted her. “All wrong, all wrong!” he’d cried. “It’s rib-BIT, not RIB-bit.” The part went to Debbie Reynolds instead.
She quaffed down a pill with her Chardonnay and trudged back to the hotel. She and Judy had been teenagers when they stayed there, all ruffles and hose and costume pearls. Everything had seemed glamorous then. The dapper young men they’d met! But she wasn’t like Judy, with her silky purrs and pin-up pouts. For Betty, the thrill had not been in flirting with those boys, but in brusquely, snappily turning them down. The hot swimminess she felt as she turned, high-nosed, away! The way their wolfish eyes had bored into her back as she made an arch, righteous turn up the stairs! Now the only man in the lobby was a rabbity oaf in a pork-pie hat. He stood in the corner, compulsively turning the dial on the gumball machine. As she waited for the elevator, he raised his hand in the air and announced, “Chef Boyardee, motherfucker!”
Judy arrived in the morning, bearing a hasty breakfast of Amtrak nuts and Hot Tamales. Sweet Judy – flibbertigibbet and confidante, trotting like a filly around the room, singing into the plug of an electric blanket. No wonder the jockey loved her. Even with her wrinkles and veins, her earlobes wagging under the weight of nacreous snowmen, she glowed. She sorted Betty’s mail, hung up her clothes, blew on her afflicted eye until it felt like an iceberg – one the Russian was apparently trying to climb with a pickaxe.
Betty buried her face in the pillow. “Oh, honey,” Judy said, stroking her hair. “That elf must have played some real angles, huh?”
“She’s all angles, if you know what I mean.”
“I bet,” Judy sighed. “She can probably pick her nose with her nipples.”
Betty’s eye watered harder now. Maybe it was just the Tamales. She sat up and reached for her shoes. “Enough of that,” she said. “I feel like a blintz.”
They walked arm in arm down Hollywood Boulevard, peep-toes snapping on the gum-black stars. It was Christmas Eve; the only thing open was the wax museum. Too depressing, Betty said, but Judy pulled her giddily inside. They wandered through a maze of cadaverous splendor, while the ticket-taker slurped down chow mein and read a gardening magazine. And there, under a spotlight – much to her heartache, but not her surprise – was a diorama with Bob and Phil. The Great Wallace and Davis! But no baby-blue suits or regrettable neckerchiefs. No mustard-brown turtlenecks and plaid blazers. They wore top-hats and white gloves and boutonnieres of plastic holly. They held silver-tipped canes. Bob looked just as peachy and bloodless as he did in real life, with that look of innocent, hangdog bemusement.
Betty leaned in, sniffed his neck. He smelled like wig-glue and dust. A brief whiff of urine from the exit door, ajar. She looked into his eyes, but they seemed just as passive and glassy as they had the other night, when the snow-globe burst against the wall and a miniature Vermont town flooded to the floor. Skiers stranded on thick-pile carpet. Wonderland rusting in her eye.
Lord help you, mister.
She and Judy would watch his Christmas special tonight – back at the hotel, she decided, with deep-fried shrimp and a bottle of wine. She would gaze out of one good eye as he spun the elf around a papier-mâché igloo. She would wince as he leaned in to kiss her. She had seen more horrifying things, surely. A pigeon flying into a windowpane. A drawer of her grandmother’s brassieres.
“Do you think I’m weird?” she whispered to Judy, lifting the hat from Bob’s head. She stared at his plastic teeth, his sandy sprout of hair. She felt the old songs, deep and warm in her chest, bubbling up like champagne. She twisted the holly free from his lapel and tucked it behind her ear.
“No,” Judy said, swimming into Phil’s coattails, brandishing his cane. “Brilliant, maybe. A little bit touched.”
Out in the street they stepped in time. They sashayed, then pirouetted. They linked their arms and began to sing. The Russian man made his daring escape – Betty felt the hot swell of water, the shiver of rust down her cheek. They doffed their hats at the hoboes, smartly twirled their canes. Soon they were joined by a baritone Santa in a mesh tank top, then a cowboy with a cereal-box guitar. It would be all right, Betty thought as she sang to the smog and the filth and the neon lights. She loved the shaggy palms, the dowager movie-houses. She loved everything about this crummy, glistering, down-about town. And it was mutual.
She was sure.
Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her first novel, Church of Marvels, will be released by Ecco in May.
[ed. note: over the next two weeks, we’ll be catching up with characters from beloved Christmas movies, learning how their lives have turned out after the cameras stopped rolling. We’ve invited some of our favorite writers to share these stories.]