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The Farthermost View

Essays and Stories

 

  

My Mother Was A Cabaret Singer: A Short Story

My Mother Was a Cabaret Singer

 

My Mother Was A Cabaret Singer

 

First published in Willow Springs

 

 

My mother was a cabaret singer, and during the war she traveled the country singing in nightclubs and lounges to keep up the spirits of the women who remained behind. Night after dreary night, bar after smoke-filled bar, she sang the songs that kept the homefires burning; and women who had worked long days in factories, or in offices, or repairing streets or delivering milk, coal, or babies, crowded into hot, dimly-lit bars to sit elbow-to-elbow and listen to my mother sing.

 

She started out singing in clubs near her home, but before long she was taken on by Lurline Dupres, a large woman who had once been a soprano and who now managed a stable of singers. Lurline Dupres arranged tours for my mother, first out into the small towns of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and then west to Ohio and Minnesota, and eventually as far as Utah and Washington State. In time my mother gave up her job at the chemical company, because Lurline Dupres and my mother's roommate Skippy had convinced her that her singing was a more important contribution to the war effort than secretarial work.

 

My mother had a low, smoky voice which was more than once mistaken for that of Marlene Dietrich. In the few recordings she made you can still hear what women must have heard in the little nightclubs of America during the war: the deep, thick tones drape themselves over your ears and slide down your neck and into your lungs with a sort of rasping, whispering promise that your every dream and secret longing is on the verge of fulfillment and exposure. Even on the scratchy old recordings, the dark and languid voice holds you captive in fear and delight.

Her voice would drift through the room with the cigarette smoke, and the listening women not only heard it but felt it, so scratchy and odd did it make their ears and hearts feel. They sat breathless, watching her lips moving close to the microphone, in her hand the trademark cigarette, a thick white filtered Kent with bright red lipprints on one end.

 

If the club was big enough for a moveable spotlight it followed her as she moved across the stage, lighting up her dark curls and catching the sequins on her evening gown. She always dressed up for an engagement, no matter how small and rural the nightclub or how cold the weather, because it was part of the war effort. The working women of America listened to my mother sing and remembered what they were working so hard to support: beauty, strength, music, the American way of life. They drank and smoked and leaned forward with their own lips parted, memorizing her words and gestures, so that the next morning, when they climbed back onto the combine or resumed their places on the assembly line, they sang under their breaths in my mother's voice, having taken new heart.

 

After the last song of the evening my mother went back to her dressing room and sat down and smoked while she waited for the club to empty. When the manager gave her the all-clear my mother pulled on her camelhair coat and slipped out the back door; with her scarved head down, her flashlight dimly lighting the way, she walked through the dark streets to the hotel where she was staying for the night. She climbed the uncarpeted stairs to her room, and with a yawn she shrugged off her coat and her sequined gown and slipped under the covers to lie in her black silk slip in the dark, waiting for sleep, imagining that in the less cautious times of peace a neon light would be flashing on and off, on and off, outside her window all night.

 

There was glamor in that traveling life but it wore thin, and my mother was lonelier than she had ever been before. She missed her roommate Skippy and she missed her fellow secretaries at the chemical company, and she even missed Lurline Dupres, who could be a hard woman sometimes but was one hell of a manager. My mother lay awake in the darkness and thought of the women who'd come to hear her and now were driving home to their farms through the night; and she thought of Skippy sleeping alone in their one-bedroom apartment, with my mother's twin bed standing empty on the other side of the nightstand; and she knew that war was hell, and she wished the war would end.

 

My mother traveled coach. She loved sitting for hours gazing out the train window as the American countryside whipped by. She loved the winter scenery, grey and dismal and dim, great leaden clouds lying heavy on the dead prairies. She loved spring as well, a billion flowers springing from the sidings along the railroad tracks, meadowlarks and starlings flying at eye level above the fencerows, and redwinged blackbirds perching easily on the blowing reeds in the marshes, their heads raised and their mouths wide in a tweedling song my mother could only imagine as her train sped by. Most of all she loved seeing the cows in summer, their black and white bulks lying in lumps in the meadows, or plodding in long stately lines toward the source of food in the evenings of their thoughtless ritual days. They were placid, without worries as they stood in the barnyards chewing beside huge steaming mounds of their own manure as the sun sank into the fields. My mother would have liked being a farmer, feeding and milking and walking with buckets of fresh milk at night from the cow-scented barn into a warm golden kitchen where someone was just taking hot rolls from the oven to eat with a baked ham.

 

But she had a different job to do and she did it well. The train stopped and she gathered her magazines and her cigarettes and descended into the next little town to trudge down the main street to the clean hotel, settle in to her room, and go out for a light meal in the diner across the street. She ate pea or bean or chicken noodle soup, and bread, which in those times was homemade or close to it, hot from the oven, slathered with real butter if it was to be had, or with dyed oleomargarine if she wasn't in dairy country. After her meal, with a polite thank you to the waitress who was also the owner, she headed out into the darkening street to walk down the block to the local nightclub and introduce herself to the manager. The small band, or the lone pianist, would arrive and my mother would shake hands, try out a few songs, and sit down to wait for the show to go on.

 

 

The war would end eventually but at the time no one knew that for sure. Lurline Dupres, for one, was depending on the war to go on for a good long time and make her a wealthy woman. "Money is not my primary reason for having entered this field," she would say over a drink, "but as long as I'm at it, I would like to have something to live on when I'm too old to work." She sat at an ancient beat-up wooden schoolteacher's desk in a cold room above the bar her sister Quilla Marina owned in downtown Philadelphia, waiting for her long distance telephone calls to be connected, and she marked with pins on a wall map the locations where her girls were booked to appear.

 

Lurline Dupres herself had never been west of the Monongehela River. She would sit in the alcohol fumes and wisps of smoke that drifted up through the floor with the music from the bar's jukebox and daydream about the little towns of the West. In her mind's eye every town had one hot, unpaved street down which women swept in long dresses that trailed in the dust behind them. She pictured a train pulling into a tiny station and one of her girls -- my mother, for instance -- stepping down from the last car, shading her eyes as she looked around, her overnight case in her hand and her black sequined dress gleaming in the late afternoon sun. What a sensation she would cause! By seven o'clock the streets would be empty and everyone in town was squeezed into the bar; and their hot and dusty troubles were forgotten when my mother began to sing.

 

Lurline Dupres sometimes thought she might have been one of those girls if things had been different, if she had been ten years younger or twenty pounds lighter, if she had been not an operatic soprano but a husky, drawling, cabaret-style alto. Bars didn't want a soprano, not with all those glasses. If she'd had a choice in the dark time before birth she might have requested a deeper voice, one more resonant with the deep parts of the body, where listeners felt the kind of songs Lurline Dupres would have sung. By the beginning of the war her voice had roughened and fallen out of the high range where Lurline had been able to hurl it at will for so long, but the time was past for Lurline to go on the road. That was left to other women, like my mother; Lurline's job now was to stay at home upstairs from Quilla Marina's bar and pull the strings that managed her girls, book them into clubs and halls, make sure they got their money and gave the listening women of America what they required to keep their spirits up.

 

 

My mother's roommate Skippy worked at the chemical company for the duration, day after day taking dictation and minutes and orders for coffee from the executives. Now and then she ventured down the hall into the scientific part of the complex, taking a message to a chemist's laboratory or hand-carrying a newly-typed list of references for a scientist to incorporate into a research paper. The scientists worked night and day for the war effort. Few of them could type, and none could take dictation, and sometimes Skippy felt that if it weren't for the secretarial staff who tripped up and down the halls bearing information from the scientists to the administrators and back again, the laboratory wouldn't work at all; one hand wouldn't know what the other was doing, and the whole would collapse from a lack of cohesion.

 

Sometimes as Skippy sat at her Underwood typewriter, her fingers flashing across the keys, she imagined my mother out in the night--for in Skippy's imagination the continent west of Ohio lay always in darkness. She closed her eyes as she typed and heard in the keys the rhythmic chugging of my mother's train, and saw the engine pull into a brightly lit station in Chicago or Salt Lake City or L.A. the City of Angels, which all looked a lot like Union Station in downtown Washington, D.C., that being the station Skippy was most familiar with.

 

She saw the train roll to an easy stop, and doors open all along its length, and conductresses let down the steps and turn to assist their passengers. Down into the night would come elderly ladies in veiled hats, and business women in tailored suits, and traveling farm women, dressed in black, home from visiting ailing aunts back East, toting large boxes which held their aunts' antique mirrors with roses carved into the frame, like the one Skippy's own grievously healthy aunt had in her front hall. And then Skippy would see the conductress put up her white-gloved hand and my mother's own long ringless fingers lightly take it, my mother's open-toed shoe and her slim ankle step onto the top step, and my mother herself in spangled evening gown, clutching her overnight case, step carefully down the three stairs onto the platform. Skippy saw my mother's sparkling eyes as she turned to thank the conductress, and then heard the clop-clop-clop of my mother's heels as she briskly walked up the platform toward the gate, where she would step out into the Western city and blend with the populace in the dusk.

 

When my mother was out on the road Skippy sometimes sang the songs my mother had practiced in the shower for so long, but since her own voice was high and piping and not particularly trustworthy beyond a certain limited range, she sang them in my mother's voice. She would stalk through the apartment in her slip with an unlit cigarette in one hand and a glass of gin in the other, singing deeply in a foreign accent, stopping to lean toward a mirror without taking her eyes from her own eyes, pooching her lips out at her own lips, and then shaking her hair back, though it wasn't long enough to get into her eyes anyway.

 

Skippy loved being a secretary but sometimes she wished she were a cabaret singer, a woman with style and a certain weight in the lives of American women, a woman whose life had more meaning than a secretary's life. Once, during the lunch hour, she had crept into her boss's office and called the office of Lurline Dupres, above Quilla Marina's Bar in downtown Philadelphia, and said in a disguised voice, "Would you or your singers ever have need of a secretary? I'm free to travel."

 

Lurline Dupres had hooted a nasal hoot across the lines and said her girls kept track of their own affairs on the road, though she'd take her name for future reference. But Skippy had quickly hung up, embarrassed, and then had been struck with a chilling fear that in these days of war the phone might have been tapped, and that not only could Lurline Dupres have the call traced if she became suspicious, but Skippy's own boss might have been listening in the whole time. For days Skippy kept her eyes on her shoes when she went into the boss's office, but her boss, Caspia Reagan, never referred to the call, and in fact one day told Skippy that she deserved a raise, but since there was a war on the best she could do to show Skippy how much her work was appreciated was to give her her own door key. Which was an honor Skippy felt she didn't deserve, but of which she was very proud.

 

 

Caspia Reagan had once heard my mother sing. She had no idea that my mother was Skippy's roommate, and in fact it had happened before Caspia Reagan even noticed how excellent Skippy's work at the chemical company was. Caspia Reagan rode herd on the secretarial pool and was sometimes hard put to it to differentiate between secretaries; they were young and often good at their work, and they all wore a new pair of artificial stockings every day because the chemical company provided them free to employees in order to test their durability. Caspia wore them herself, being fiercely loyal to her employer, but secretly she wished that real stockings, in silk and in cotton lisle, were what the company offered.

She had gone to Quilla Marina's bar in downtown Philadelphia one Saturday night in a fit of despair, because she was forty years old and her mother Oona was dying. Her mother had worked day and night to put food on the table and make life better for Caspia than it had been for her. She had wanted Caspia to be a physician like Dr. Elizabeth Woody, whose office was in the next block up from their apartment house and who had made a house call when Caspia lay in bed with a strange unnameable illness when she was seventeen.

 

Dr. Elizabeth had walked into Caspia's room with her black bag in her hand, sat down on the edge of Caspia's bed, and said, "What seems to be the problem?"

 

Caspia's eyes had filled with tears and her mother, hovering at the door, said, "She's doing so poorly, doctor. She can't get up."

 

Dr. Elizabeth said without turning around, "Please leave us alone, Mother, and close the door," at which Caspia's tears had spilled over, but Oona Reagan had closed the door without a word, and Dr. Elizabeth smiled at Caspia and said, "What's all this about?"

 

"I can't walk," Caspia whispered, but Dr. Elizabeth shook her head.

 

"There will be time enough for that in later years," she said, and she pulled a stethoscope from her bag and listened to Caspia's heart, which was sorry and sluggish from lying in bed for a week. "Your life will be a full one," Dr. Elizabeth said, "and you will find much joy. But you will have to walk."

 

She stood up then and pulled back the covers, and Caspia got out of bed and followed her out of the bedroom and down the hall to the kitchen where Oona Reagan was trembling with worry.

 

"All set then," Dr. Elizabeth said, and Oona had seized her hand and thanked her as Caspia walked around the room in her nightgown, her thin blonde hair flat against her head where she had been lying on it for too long.

 

Caspia had been full of hope then, and she went through with her high school graduation and even took the train to New York with her cousin to see the World's Fair. But in New York she had dreamed that her cousin stepped into a manhole, and after they returned home safe Caspia could never bring herself to leave town again. But she walked every day, out of her bedroom and down to the street, then twelve blocks to the chemical company and up the sidewalk into the huge brick building where she would work for the rest of her working life.

 

She remained ready for the happiness Dr. Elizabeth promised, but years went by and her thin hair was thinner than ever, her pale cheeks were lacking in even the slightest hint of rose, and sometimes she sat for hours in the evening beside her mother, listening to the radio without even knitting. Her mother had long ago given up on Caspia's medical future, and Dr. Elizabeth had retired and moved to a town on the Delmarva peninsula.

 

The night Caspia walked into Quilla Marina's bar was the very night that Lurline Dupres heard my mother sing for the first time and knew at once that this was a voice to be shared with the nation. Caspia Reagan had no idea as she sat with a drink in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other, leaning forward to catch every word, the slightest breath from my mother's lips, that this was a night when the fate of the nation hung in the balance and the tide of the war might be destined at last to turn. Caspia Reagan listened to my mother sing and for three hours forgot that her own mother lay open-eyed in the back bedroom on Schlatzer Street, struggling to breathe, waiting for Caspia to come home one last time before she said goodnight. Caspia hung on my mother's words, memorized every movement she made, breathed deep the smell of whiskey and of women's perfume that drifted with the cigarette smoke across the bar. Caspia felt the vibration of the walls as Lurline Dupres, a large woman, came down the stairs from her office to look into the room to see who possessed this voice.

 

When at last my mother stopped and the spotlight went off and the lights in the bar eased on, Caspia Reagan sighed. She stood up and pushed her way through the crowd and out into the street. She walked quickly home through the rain, and she never noticed the taxis that splashed her as they bore wealthier women away from the bar, just as she never noticed a dog eating from an overturned garbage can or the odor of magnolia blossoms that lingered at every street corner on that cold November evening. Caspia Reagan hurried up the steps into her building, and up to the third floor, and she went in to sit beside her mother's bed in the dark.

 

"Tell me everything," Oona whispered, and Caspia told her about Quilla Marina's bar, and the crowd of women, and a fat woman who had thumped into the room to sit down at her table in the middle of the show. And she told her about my mother's hair, and her dress, and the shoes she wore and the shade of lipstick that stained her lips, and the way my mother's voice had floated across the room right through the smoke and the crowd and rolled down Caspia's throat into her lungs and her heart and something that, if she had had to name it, she would have called her spleen.

 

"Sing it to me," Oona whispered, and Caspia opened her mouth and sang a dark song in my mother's voice.

 

Oona lay back on the pillow and closed her eyes, and she saw my mother in Quilla Marina's bar, though Oona Reagan had never entered a bar in her life. She opened her eyes once more and saw Caspia singing with her eyes closed, and something like color in her cheeks in the dark. "You should have been a doctor," Oona whispered, but her voice was faint, and perhaps already gone, and Caspia kept on singing, hoping the morning would never come.

 

 

It was on the night train out of a small town in Kansas that my mother met Rose Betty Skinner. My mother had had to forego her night in a hotel in order to catch the train, which only passed through that particular town every twenty-four hours at two in the morning. The stationmaster's striped pajamas showed under her trousers as she flagged the train down, and my mother, the only waiting passenger, climbed on. As the train picked up speed she stumbled down the corridor through the dimly-lit cars, past the piles of coats beneath which passengers slept fitfully, and into the club car. It smelled of stale cigarettes and spilled whiskey, and my mother sank into a seat, slipping her small bag under her feet. The bar had closed for the night but the attendant brought her a Scotch.

 

My mother sipped her Scotch and lifted a corner of the heavy curtain beside her to peer through the window. Only the whiteness of snow lightened the absolute blackness outside for miles and miles, because even on farms and ranches in the middle of the continent no one dared light so much as a kitchen lamp which might draw the attention of the enemy.

She was staring out into the darkness, thinking somber thoughts about the war, when a woman's voice said, "You look lonely, stranger."

 

If life had been different, my mother might have stayed that night in a hotel; or she might have slipped into an empty seat back in the Pullman car and pulled her own coat over her as the train rushed west; she might have been asleep in the club car, her whiskey half finished on the little table beside her, or she might even have simply looked briefly at the strange woman who addressed her, nodded curtly, and turned back to gaze at nothing through the glass.

 

But time and fate and the war had brought her to a low ebb, and she was tired and vulnerable and wide awake at three in the morning; and so she looked up at the tall woman standing beside her and responded simply and honestly, "I am."

 

Rose Betty Skinner sat down beside her. She pulled a pack of Kents from her jacket pocket and offered one to my mother, then took one herself and lit both of them. They sat smoking together in the dark as the train hurtled across the prairie. The bar attendant turned out the last light and went off to her bunk, and my mother and Rose Betty felt as if they were the only women in the world.

 

"I've heard you sing," Rose Betty said, "and I can tell you right now, you're one of the great ones."

 

"Thanks," my mother said, "but that isn't true."

 

"Don't be modest," Rose Betty said. "It won't get you anywhere."

 

"I'm not being modest," my mother said. "I'm good but I'm not great, and I happen to know that if it weren't for the war I'd be singing in the shower and nowhere else."

 

"Let's not start out quarreling," Rose Betty said. "We've got the rest of our lives for that."

 

And as the wheels turned below them, carrying their train through the North American darkness, Rose Betty began to get my mother's past mixed up with her own. She knew at what bus stop my mother and Skippy got off to walk to work, and she knew what the streets looked like in the rain and what time of year the cherry blossoms began to spring into bloom. Rose Betty knew what time my mother had punched the clock in the office, and how the hallways smelled of strange chemicals mingling with coffee and the fragrance of women's perfumes, what time lunch was and where the secretaries went for their coffee breaks, and she knew the songs that they danced to on Saturday nights at Quilla Marina's Bar.

 

Rose Betty was an angular woman a few years older than my mother. Even that first night that she and my mother traveled together, she was dressed in white, but it was not until daylight had begun to filter under the blackout curtains and the morning attendant moved through the car emptying ashtrays that my mother realized that it was not an exuberant pouf of Rose Betty's platinum blonde hair that floated above her head but a stiff white cap.

 

"Why, you're a nurse!" my mother exclaimed.

 

"Yes," Rose Betty said. "I am." And in the dining car over a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, as silverware clinked against china, she told my mother about her work.

 

Just as my mother was a traveling cabaret singer, Rose Betty was a traveling nurse, her ward an entire country at war. It was rough and thankless work; glamor and praise were reserved for the nurses overseas. Yet health on the home front was vital; a sick nation was a crippled nation. But a country at war tended to overlook the cuts and abrasions, the nausea and the fevers of the women who remained at home; so Rose Betty traveled the country, healing the little illnesses and wounds that could devastate the nation if left untended.

 

Even as they sat over coffee, Rose Betty was eyeing the nearby breakfasters, to see they didn't cut themselves on their butter knives or scald their tongues on the hot coffee.

 

"You're like a guardian angel!" my mother said.

 

Rose Betty shook her head. "Just flesh and blood," she said.

 

And so my mother and Rose Betty Skinner began to travel together. As my mother sang her dusky songs into the microphone, Rose Betty worked the crowd, peering into women's ears and throats with a tiny flashlight, seizing an occasional wrist to take a pulse, tapping at crossed knees with her little triangular hammer. She dispensed aspirin and cough syrup and vitamin supplements, and the women listening to my mother stood up, never taking their eyes from the stage, so that Rose Betty could sit at their tables to write out dosage instructions, or count out blue and yellow pills from large bottles into little envelopes for women to take home, or bind up cuts and scratches.

 

By the end of the evening the women in the audience were as well cared-for as if they were still in their mothers' wombs, their physical needs met by Rose Betty's medical skills and their spiritual needs fulfilled by my mother's songs. Women boarded the night buses back to their one-bedroom apartments, or they climbed back into the old trucks which had brought them into town from outlying farms, and they drove home with their eyes on the tunnels the headlamps made through the darkness of the two-lane roads, feeling healthy and warm and as happy as women can feel in time of war.

 

What a pair they were! The tall, thin, blonde nurse dressed in white from her head to the toes of her white shoes, her medical bag and her pockets bulging with thermometers and hypodermic needles and neat rolls of torn-up sheets; and the equally tall but dark and voluptuous woman in the black sequined evening gown, clutching a little overnight bag that contained sheet music, lipstick, curlers and hairspray. It wasn't long before other traveling women began to look for them when the train pulled into a station, hoping to see the two of them on the platform ready to board. "There they are, there they are!" women cried, pounding on the windows beside them, lifting small children to wave. And my mother and Rose Betty, tired and overworked as they were, looked up and waved gaily back before climbing the steps into the Pullman car where the conductress warmly welcomed them back on board.

 

Companionship made travel less wearisome. What had been drudgery became something akin to pleasure: the shared experience of new towns, of trains and taxis, wet streets in the night, field after field of spring green flashing by as the train rolled through the American countryside. My mother saw her audience from the stage, saw their upturned faces and rapt expressions; but Rose Betty, moving from table to table, saw the rashes on their skin, saw their ground-down molars and the weary lines around their eyes. Lying on the narrow twin beds in their hotel room at night, my mother and Rose Betty shared what they'd seen, and put together a fairly complete vision of women in wartime.

 

"Isn't there more we can do?" my mother would say.

 

"We're doing the best we can," Rose Betty answered.

 

"But it isn't enough," my mother said, and Rose Betty had to agree. There had to be some way to make life better; not just to treat but to prevent the damaged souls and bodies they'd seen in their travels.

 

"Universal health care?" Rose Betty said, and they shook their pretty heads against their pillows at the thought that a nation could care as much about keeping its citizens healthy as it did about sending them off to fight the war.

 

My mother sighed and reached over to turn on the radio between the beds, and Rose Betty turned out the bedside lamp. They lay in the dark and heard the thin tones of a high voice; and as the radio warmed up the voice loudened and thickened and spilled out of the radio, rolling off the bedside table onto the floor and flowing across the room to bump gently against the far wall. It was the voice of the president, singing my mother's songs, and Rose Betty and my mother drifted off to sleep, comforted by the the melodious governing songs floating out over the airwaves.

 

 

How long that particular war lasted, no one knows for sure; it was a dark time when the hearts of women were sore and strength was to be found in the spare parts of a song or the lost smoke from a cigarette. But there came a turning point, and a curtain of darkness that lay over much of the North American continent was pierced by pinpoints of light, and the war began to fade.

 

My mother woke one morning and lay for a long time as the sun poured in the window, washing the wall with yellow light. She thought about all the days that had led to this one, and she thought of the dream she had had the night before. In the dream she had awakened in a bed not unlike this one, slim and white, and she had risen and walked down through the town, past the shops and cafes and the closed doors of the nightclub where she'd sung the night before.

 

She made her way to the end of the town and walked out into the fields where women were working in the morning light, some of them swinging scythes and some of them bending low to harvest the fruits of their labors, picking berries and ears and pods and dropping them by the handful into burlap sacks they bore on their strong backs. And as the women became aware of her they stopped their work, one by one, and stood up, shaking their hair from their eyes and wiping the sweat from their brows with the backs of their hands.

 

They watched her and held out their hands, and as my mother walked among them she became aware of a deep and throaty hum that rose up into a low strong song. All across the North American continent women stood straight and strong and sang in my mother's voice, and my mother knew as she walked through the field along the creek that what had been a dream was now something akin to truth. Whether it was my mother's songs, or simply the dawn of a new young day, something had carried the women of North America out of the sad mean years and into a clearing where the sun broke through the black and heavy clouds like a dark train breaking free at last of the icy drifts that hold it motionless; and just as a train may burst into freedom and throb across the clearing to plunge under the trees on its way at last to the sea, so the women of America turned away from their plans and dreams, the ideas and hopes of their various pasts, and began to look into the darkness of their own new futures.

 

And so it happened that one day my mother boarded a train and turned to find that her friend Rose Betty had stopped to bandage a knee, and as the train began to move my mother's heart caught with grief and alarm at the thought of Rose Betty calling and waving and dropping her bag to run after the train as it rounded a curve and carried my mother away forever.

 

But Rose Betty took on my mother's past as her own and boarded another train, leaving her own past behind, lonely and wreathed in thin smoke on the corner of the platform; not a bad past, nothing you'd want to forget, just somehow forgotten, mislaid, and available then for a woman who had little else; a woman no older than Rose Betty Skinner but not nearly so fortunate, no skills and no family and certainly no mission to heal the physical woes of American women in time of war. A woman who slipped into the station in hopes of a warm place to sleep and stumbled across a dun-colored bundle, tied at the top with the belt of an old chenille robe that Rose Betty Skinner had worn years before. The woman opened the bundle and out spilled Rose Betty's past, and when she tied the belt around her own waist Rose Betty's past settled around her like warm grey fog, and the woman slept well for the first time since the war had begun.

 

Be it by fate or power, grief or money, the war had passed away. And what my mother remembers now of those long and heavy years is hard for her to know, for all that remains are the few recordings she made, the scratches across the grooves by now as much a part of the songs as the tune and the words and the smell of cigarettes hanging over the room; and what was dream and what was the sharp cold night of a tiny town in Wisconsin is mixed and lost and as ever-present as the air she breathes.

 

So still it may happen in the private night that women who've spent a long day waiting on tables, or keeping the books of a smalltown bank, or patching for the fourth time the front tire of the old tractor and hoping to god they get the field plowed before it rains, will put their children to bed and kiss their old mothers goodnight. They stand with their hands on the shoulders of those work-worn old women, and say, "Oh, Ma, I wish you could go too--" and the mothers say, "Get along with you now, you deserve some fun. You're young."

 

And all over the states of Nebraska, and Kansas, and Indiana and Utah and Tennessee, women set out in old Fords and drive through the deepening night down the longest straightest roads in the world toward the bright white jewel in the distant darkness that is the small town where my mother is to sing.

 

 

 

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