Among the Daughters/Chapter 8
"A FINE OUTFIT FOR A SCHOOLGIRL"
School began ten days after Lucy began posing for Clem Brush. Vida had seen little of Lucy, for posing had become a daily routine. At last, thought Vida happily, she will have to stop going to that place, not knowing Lucy had promised to pose after school.
Though warm for September, on this first day of school Lucy and Vida were dressed in new winter woolens to begin their last year in grammar school. Vida's long-sleeved plaid, with its Peter Pan collar. >was a little scratchy, but only two inches shorter than Lucy's skirt and had a wide hem to let down in case it shrank. She had a black patent leather belt too and, out of sight of her mother, pulled it tight into the second last hole.
Lucy wore a suit. Soft navy wool, box-pleated almost ankle-length skirt and a short bolero jacket over a white crepe de Chine blouse with frills at throat and wrists. Mae had made it during lunch and after-work hours at the Bittner Sisters to avoid harangues from Mabel. The material, a bargain left over from a special order at the Bittner Sisters, was the best she ever had been able to afford for Lucy.
"A fine outfit for a schoolgirl," Mabel commented sarcastically.
How she hates my Pussy, thought Mae. She knew the suit was beautifully made, and navy was a refined color. Lucy looked like a young society girl in Mode. Let Mabel scold as much as she liked now'. At last they were able to save money in a going-away-from-Mabel fund. In the top right-hand bureau drawer a candy box contained $4.50 Lucy had saved from posing. Five dollars had gone for a bottle of perfume—Lily of the Valley. Mae's savings had not begun yet because of the new school outfit. Lucy's feet looked beautiful in the new black patent leather slippers with the high ankle straps. 'That artist ought to see her now, she thought lovingly. She would make a beautiful picture. Lucy had asked her to come along sometime and see that artist's studio but it was out of the way and she was so tired after work.
The two girls walked, crushing autumn's first shell-curled leaves. My goodness, thought Lucy, I've certainly learned a lot since Denver last year. Dirty old Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Brady wouldn't scare me now. How silly to be so excited because I could dance for five dollars at that dirty Bison Hall. Clem's nice. I don't have to ask him for my pay the way I had to ask Mr. Brady. Someday I'm going to surprise Clem and kiss him. His beard can't be so scratchy. He tells such interesting things about Paris France and New York City. Paris was a hazy mirage shimmering on the far horizon of a foreign sea. But New York was coming nearer and nearer; maybe she would be on Broadway's magic carpet right after the clock struck Commencement in the spring. Even though there isn't a dancing school in Congress I can practice fouettés in Clem's downstairs room, and by spring we'll have enough money if I keep on posing to go to New York and get a job dancing.
"Just think," Vida was saying, "next year this time we'll be walking to high school."
Lucy looked at her friend. Vida looked pretty. She was still summer copper and in her new plaid dress was like brilliant autumn leaves. Exciting colors. I don't look good in such colors. Vida's long braid is beautiful but she'd look cuter with short hair.
Vida had fluffed out her hair so at least from the front it would look bobbed. "Certainly not!" Ma prohibited when there had been that scene about bobbing her hair. "Certainly not! Do you want to look like that—flapper, next door!" "Certainly yes, but what's the use?" she had stormed tragically, and had rushed to her room to be alone.
Lucy's voice shattered her reverie. "I'm not going to high school."
Not going to high school! What nonsense! Everyone went to high school. She's saying that to be different. To annoy me. That was the trouble with Lucy, as soon as you thought you had her she came out with the craziest remarks. I'll ignore what she said.
"I wonder how you'll like Mr. Carson. He's very distinguished-looking," Vida said instead and began to worry not how Lucy would like Mr. Carson but whether having Lucy in his class would make him unaware of Vida Bertrand's presence.
Look at Vida, all excited because she's going to have a man teacher. I'm going to ask Mother to tell her to take off that extra petticoat so her dress fits better. She doesn't know a thing about fixing herself up, but she's awfully smart. Her cheeks look good enough to eat.
Taking off her extra petticoat made Vida feel closer to Lucy. It was a secret between them. Each morning she went into the girl's toilet, removed the offending garment and for the rest of the day her coat sleeves hung, stuffed like red sausages, from the cloakroom hook. Madge and Emmie, former chums, were distant, disapproving the change in her since she took up with that awful boy-chaser Lucy Claudel, and said no wonder Vida Bertrand got more B's than A's now because of her bad influence. Someone really ought to tell Vida's mother, they said, tsk-tsking as they watched the boys ogling Lucy.
But not only Lucy distracted Vida from attention to her studies in class. Mr. Carson's smile as he called upon her skyrocketed Vida into tongueless confusion. When he was severe she sought to discover whether he was trying to conceal love for her or whether, as she feared, it was Lucy he loved. Not that she blamed him. Sometimes walking home she thought she could not resist taking Lucy in her arms and kissing her Lily of the Valley-scented cheek—and lips, the way she herself would like to be kissed by Mr. Carson.
Lucy, to Vida's amazement, didn't seem to be interested at all in Mr. Carson. She did her lessons well, except compositions which Vida helped her with at home. With an elaborate pretense of indifference. Vida tried to get her to say something about Mr. Carson, but Lucy only laughed.
"I guess he's all right. Sure he likes girls. What did you expect?"
Lucy decided against telling about Mr. Carson squeezing her arm, because anyone could see Vida was crazy about him. What I don't like is how he plays with the gold chain on his glasses or sticks his fingers in his vest pocket. He reminds me of how Semy Klug looks up under my skirts when I go upstairs.
When it got too cold to go out during recess without a coat, Vida hid her petticoat back of the cloakroom radiator. One day the inevitable happened—she forgot it.
"What's the matter with your dress, it hangs queer," her mother asked in the suspicious tone with which she greeted any deviation. Never think well of anything, for the world is a cheat.
Vida was dizzy with panic as her mother snatched up the skirt.
"Your pa will switch you for sure, running around with no clothes on like that—that thing next door. Reform school, that's where she belongs, and you too."
I hate Ma, I hate her, I don't care what the Bible says. "I left it in the gym. I forgot it because I was in a hurry." She grabbed the dress from her mother's sullying hand and heard it rip at the waist. I don't care if I am a liar, she thought desperately, slamming the door of her room.
But her mother rushed in as if crazed. "Here I slave and slave to dress you good and bring you up right and see what thanks I get. Tear your good clothes, will you?"
The razor strop beat on her head and Vida put her arms up to shield her face. The rage spent itself and Mrs. Bertrand sniffed in self-pity. "Let that teach you."
Vida lay sobbing on her bed, her ear hot and swelling. Why should I feel I've done something bad? Four years at high school, a prison with no Lucy.
It froze and snowed all November and Congress lay in winter silence listening to the miniature polyphony of sleighbells, clanging streetcars, and shouts of small boys. Storm windows barricaded homes, and parlors were closed off for the winter to concentrate heat. Local news traveled slowly because it was too cold to stop and gossip. That Claudel girl was hardly ever seen on Twelfth Street because she did not come home right after school like nice girls. Mrs. Bertrand's cackle spread the tsk-tsk tidings that Lucy was posing for an artist. That nutty feller from Pawnee Street who had his picture in the paper when he came back from Paris France. That's where he and she belong—Paris France—quacked Twelfth Street; heads like dummies on sticks nodded.
Mr. Bertrand washed in the men's washroom at the factory and plastered down dank hair the color of the inside of a wall. Not a bad-looking feller, better than the nutty limper with a beard, he approved his image in the mirror. After two quick ones at the speakeasy he proceeded homeward. The gin and the intense early night saturated him in erotic reverie.
What that chippie wants is a man, a real man who knows what's what and how, not a pimply schoolboy. He went up the steps and along the walk to the back door of his home soundlessly, bug-eyes glued to the window of Lucy's bedroom. Maybe they would still have the shade up and she would be in that thing again they called a shimmy.
I'd just like to see how she poses for that artist. You can't tell me what Mabel told the Missus, that she just poses in a dance costume. But the shade was drawn.
The old overfed fox terrier sniffed querulously as Mr. Bertrand entered the kitchen.
"Seems to me you're getting awfully sporty lately," croaked Mrs. Bertrand, observing the plastered hair.
"Thought you always complain because I dirty your towels after work."
Mr. Bertrand yanked off sweaty shoes, put reeking feet on the supper table, hid the sight of his wife with the evening paper, and read what his opinions of the Bolsheviki and sterling President Harding would be tomorrow.
It would be a beautiful picture, hinted Mrs. Brush, pointing to the powdered-sugar snowdrifts as they ate buckwheat cakes, com syrup and pork sausage in her scrubbed hay-colored kitchen. Clem chuckled. Ma never gave up. He ought to paint her a snow scene, like a Christmas card, just for the fun of it. Only trouble was she'd show it to the neighbors and they'd think he was a chromo painter.
The wood fire in the old stove next to the gas range baked the round lids red hot. Cadmium orange and vermilion with a black background. But how to get that semi-translucence.
"Off to work, Ma."
Work, ruminated Mrs. Brush, pouring boiling water into the agate dishpan—work there wasn't even a nice magazine cover or a calendar to show for.
The blue-white drifts are wonderful, thought Clem, exhilarated, as he walked to the streetcar. If he was a kid he could go bellyplop or pitch snowballs or slide, but snow wasn't good to paint. Zinc-white or maybe blanc d'argent and blue shadows. Kind of a painting Ma would like, not the slushy-lined grey snow of Paris that Utrillo or Van Gogh painted. He almost slipped on the slide the kids had made, lucky he had his cane. Utrillo now, or Van Gogh. Who could feel like painting a clapboard and brick Nebraska street? Grey, bluegrey, brown and black shapeless forms with grey-ochre expressionless faces. Scarecrow pants distinguished male from potato-bag female, and love was a crime. Not crime passionelle as in Paris, no passion or pleasure here, just grubby crime. Long grim cornhusk faces, parched and leathered by prairie winds. In Paris each black window was a tantalizing mask for Maupassant life within moldy interiors. The sensuous malodorous water-closet odor of Paris. The only mystery in all Congress was Lucy, a dewy elusive mystery he still could not capture and set into any of the styles of the Paris painters, or Italian masters. One of these days he would settle on a style and then dealers and critics and people would say—that is a Brush Lucy, as they now said a Picasso Fernande, or a Renoir Gabrielle.
The blue in the clear eyes of children, forget-me-not blue, larkspur blue, lake blue, sky or sea blue, or the assortment of blues in tubes, never quite matched the hue of those candid eyes with enormous black pupils focused on him as he told her of Paris and the house of Raymond Figente in New York.
Lucy unwittingly had been responsible for a new doubt in his mind. She had brought a copy of Mode to show him something which puzzled her, a color reproduction of a Picasso cubist painting for which she demanded explanation. The ready-made key he knew by heart obviously would mean nothing to a fifteen-year-old girl, if she really was fifteen as she said. He tried to simplify the explanation but made no impression.
"Well, it doesn't look like a woman to me. You mean he doesn't care if I can see the woman?"
"No. The seated woman is only his starting point. He takes the figure and breaks it into related forms. That's what he's interested in: discovery—and realization—of forms."
Lucy laughed. "Well, I hope you don't make my form look like that. Do you like that picture?"
For the first time since the day in front of Cheever's window Clem was annoyed with Lucy. Damn her, why did she have to be so literal! Of course he liked Picasso, he was no old-hat academician. And then, her bringing a subject to a personal angle. Women always did.
After disappointing forays into the realm of lovemaking Clem had concluded an artist should not marry. Yet he longed for the security of a love which would bolster his spirit. On the verge of marriage several times, something always had gone wrong, leaving him bewildered about the lack women seemed to discover. Women baffled him as much as the living lines of a Degas or a Lautrec nude. After the last relationship, a broken engagement to an American girl on a fling in Paris who left him for an Italian sculptor, he salved his hurt sporadically with a model who did for him, and others, in the traditional Bohemian manner.
Back in Congress his mother, thinking it would make him settle down and do something useful, had pointed out several available girls, but Clem had put marriage from his mind. He derived a guilty pleasure in picturing the scene if he told his mother about the women he had made love to. At least, he thought, it would put an end to her making him feel like a kid.
It was Lucy's first Christmas involving more shopping than a Christmas card for teacher, another for Aunt Mabel, and a present from the dime store for Mother.
"My goodness, from something Vida said I think she's going to give me a present—does that mean I have to buy her one?"
"I guess so, Pussy, and we'll have to give Mabel one."
"Oh boy, our New York money!"
There the matter rested while Aunt Mabel vied with Twelfth Street in seeing how many kinds of fancy cookies she could bake, not counting Stollen and fruit cake. At last, when crocks and tins were crammed with a supply which would last until Easter, the street conceded defeat because of a foreign confection of ground walnuts, honey, and poppy seeds wrapped in thinner than tissue layers of buttery puff paste, a "receipt" a Jewish lady had given Aunt Mabel years ago on the train to Lincoln when she had to find out something about Pa's will at the courthouse.
The morning of this triumph over her nearest rival, Aunt Mabel returned out of breath from carrying a laden basket and a three-foot tree for the parlor table. A short time later, hearing a brushing sound, Lucy peeked out her window and saw Vida helping Mr. Bertrand bring a tree up their front steps.
"My goodness, we'd better step on it and shop, Christmas Eve is tomorrow."
"Yes, meet me in front of Cheever's after work, the stores are open tonight."
Christmas shopping was a lark and Lucy wanted to buy everything in sight. Christmas was tomorrow and New York was a long wav off.
A quilted hug-me-tight, a fancy apron, and a box of candy for Aunt Mabel. A box of candy for Mr. and Mrs. Bertrand. An elegant volume of the Rubaiyat Of Omar Khayyám with a tooled leather cover and silk ribbon bookmark for Vida because she was crazy about poetry. Lucy couldn't think of a thing for Clem until she spied at Cheever's, while buying cards to send to Miss Shaver and Miss Klemper, a tiny globe of the world with a hole for sharpening pencils. Just what he needed because he always sharpened his pencils by hand. For Mae, Lucy secreted a big bottle of toilet water, and a new powder puff and rouge because Mother's rouge was so old it had turned a funny color that made her skin look blue.
Mae bought her employers candy and cards. Her gift for Lucy was finished. An Alice-blue broadcloth coat with a shoulder cape and matching bonnet edged with white rabbit.
Clem, uncertain about a gift for Lucy, while buying a handsome purse for his mother saw just what she might like. A bright red calfskin Boston bag, stamped L.C. in gold, for her slippers and sundries, to replace the old black oilcloth bag. L.C., entranced with her only luxurious possession, thereafter carried it continually here and there on one pretext or another, keeping its newness immaculate.
This crazy attachment was observed jealously by Vida Bertrand. For, after weeks of painstaking thought, Vida had settled on a silver chain memory bracelet with an oblong placque on which her full name was engraved to bind her forever to her friend L.C. (Unfortunately, there was only room on the placque for one full name.) A gift Lucy promptly, and insensitively, Vida sadly noticed, bangled with beads and trinkets from Woolworth's until it became a miscellaneous jingle of flamboyant color and sparkle eclipsing the reserved inscription of exclusive love.