I started this blog a year ago, which is a sobering thought considering I started it to promote the book I have only just finished. What can I say? I’m slow, but I get there in the end.
You can now purchase Summerland at Amazon.com or at your local branch of the Amazon Kindle store – just click on the book cover at the side of this page. If you love the cover art (And you should, because it’s marvellous.) hop on over to visit the designer Delilah Des Anges, who when not producing cover art for extremely lazy authors also writes novels and extraordinary poetry. She has also written a very funny and entertaining writing advice book which contains almost as many rude words as I use while typesetting. Almost.
So, here we are. I hope I can tempt you with a free sample for today. Stay tuned – more later.
She took one look at the kimono and laughed. “No. No way.”
“Come on. It’ll be great.”
Mort dangled the garment like a puppet, making her shudder. She remembered Mort’s brand of persuasion; once he’d taken her aside for a serious talk about how she would have to quit. He couldn’t work with her, he said. He wanted her too much. She was too much of a distraction. She’d either have to go or…
She’d filled in the ‘or’ herself, being only nineteen at the time and dumb enough to think of Mort as an older man, forbidden and therefore exciting. Now she was staring down the end of her twenties and he’d never looked worse, yellow around the eyeballs from years of bad liquor, his remaining teeth brownish and wobbling in his gums when he talked.
Summer’s lease and all that, she thought, trying to square the wreck beside her with the faded nineteenth century posters of Mort in his glory, the strongman in leopard skin, bulging muscles bared for bloodless, prurient spectators.
“Come on,” he said, again. “You saw the new poster, didn’t you? ‘Exotic girls’.”
“Well, you’d better go find some,” she said. “I’m not exotic – I’m from Ohio.” She carefully combed out a piece of her hair, laying it over the curling iron. Her hair was damp, and sizzled. The rain hadn’t let up for days.
“Honey, don’t be difficult. I can’t compete with the fuckin’ Houdinis, but you can.” He made to put his hand on her shoulder but she menaced him with the hot iron.
“Hey – if Big Annie was still alive you wouldn’t even be in here,” she said. “She’d have kicked you in the nuts and thrown you back out in the mud.”
Mort retreated a couple of paces, which took him from her dressing room/bedroom into her dining room/kitchen. She’d lived much of her life in tiny rooms that fulfilled more than one function. The one time she’d settled in a real house she’d felt exposed, overwhelmed by the feeling of space, baffled that the beds didn’t even fold back.
She peered into the mirror and watched Mort picking at the crocheted edge of the tablecloth. The kimono lay on the chair beside her. It was pretty – black with big red flowers – but there was a principle involved. She had no desire to make her life more difficult that it already was.
Mort caught her looking at the kimono. “You like it, don’t you?” he said, as if she were the simple-minded, magpie-eyed child he’d once lured into bed. “You’ll look beautiful. You’re billed as Yu-Fang – Jewel of the Orient.”
“Yu-Fang?” she said, trying not to smile.
“Yeah. It’s Chinese. Means ‘jade flower’. I have it on good authority.”
She began to giggle. “Chinese?”
“You’re Chinese, right?”
“No. I’m American. I was born here.”
“Yeah, but you’re Willy the Chink’s kid, right?”
She doused the Marcel irons in a bowl of water and sighed. “I really don’t have the energy to get into this right now, Mort,” she said. “Besides which, that’s a goddamn kimono. It’s Japanese.”
“Chinese, Japanese – what’s the difference?” said Mort. He had saggy muscles where most people had brains. “Come on. One night. Be my dragon lady. They’ll love you -they’re all crazy for Anna May Wong.”
“Does Anna May Wong have to listen to sideways pussy jokes?” she asked, although she knew the answer already. Of course she did. People were assholes.
Mort stepped out of the dark behind the mirror. He was holding something behind his leg, something big and heavy, like an Indian club. She tensed instinctively. “Toughen up, cupcake,” he said. “I didn’t think it was your style to be sensitive.”
She’d have been less surprised if he’d hit her. Instead, with a flourish, he placed a bottle in front of her.
“All yours,” he said. “All you have to do is put it on, flutter a fan and take it off.”
She stared at the label, her mouth already watering at the promise of luxury. You’re a child, she told herself, a kid hungry for candy. But she’d never even tasted champagne before, and here was a whole bottle. Real. French.
“Who, where, how?” she said. Chicago was two states away and a half a continent stood between them and the real bootleggers of the East Coast, the guys who could make New York parties flow fizzy with cocktails and champagne. Here your best bets were apple cider brewed up by enterprising farmers in remote areas. Some of it was even good, but no homebrewed booze could ever hold the moneyed lustre of the bottle before her.
She caressed the foil at the top, feeling the shape of the cork’s wire cage like delicate bones beneath the thin gold skin. The glass was cool, curved. She could drink the whole bottle – make herself sick on it if she wanted.
“Guess it followed the Houdini show into town,” said Mort, too easily. She knew he had to have more. If this was the only bottle he had then he wouldn’t have spent it trying to bribe kootchie dancers.
“Fine,” she said, with a sigh. “I’ll do it.”
“Good girl,” he said, moving towards the door. “We’ll clean up – you’ll see. Houdini’s a fucking prude. He’s forgotten where he came from.”
“What? Wisconsin?” she said. She vaguely remembered reading something about him being from there, although she couldn’t reel off his life story in the same way she could reel off Howard Thurston’s. Her sister was crazy for Howard Thurston.
“From here,” said Mort, by way of a parting shot. “The travelling shows. He’s nothing but a carny who got lucky.”
“I’d take some of that luck,” she said, alone now. She cradled the bottle. It was astonishingly heavy. She could have cried at her own greed, but she told herself it would be worth it. When the show was over and the jeers and leers had faded she could curl up in her trailer with a cigarette and sip champagne and dream that she was in Paris, under rainy skies beside the wide, winding Seine, gilded statues weeping into the water.
The wind howled and the trailer rocked. Some hope, she thought. She didn’t even know how to open the fucking bottle.
“Hello? Excuse me?”
The voice was so faint at first that she thought she was hearing things, but as she approached the door she heard a woman say “Oh dear.” She stashed the bottle down the side of her bed and opened the door.
A woman peered up at her. “I’m sorry to bother you,” said the woman. “But do you have a basin or a cup I could borrow? I’m leaking quite badly.”
“Oh God. Come in.” It didn’t matter what the woman was leaking – blood, piss, amniotic fluid – there were moments in life where one woman could say a single word and any other woman with a heart and brain would know she needed help.
As the woman stepped out of the rain and into the light, the smell revealed all. Her pretty white kid purse was streaming booze all over the floor – well, could have been booze. It smelled more like rubbing alcohol.
“I must have bumped it against a wagon wheel or something,” said the woman. “Oh dear – it’s everywhere…”
“Was it a prescription?” They unwrapped the sodden brown paper from the bottle and poured the indeterminate alcohol into a measuring cup.
The lady (She had to be. She wore a mink-trimmed coat and hadn’t said ‘fuck’ even once, in spite of the mess.) shook her head sadly. “I guess they saw me coming,” she said. “It’s supposed to be cognac. I’m so sorry – I’ve made your whole place smell like a still.”
“I don’t mind.” Truthfully, she didn’t. In a funny way Prohibition had made ordinary people strangely cosy with one another, conspirators against government insanity. The straightforward desire for a tipple was a great leveller – lot lizards and mink-trimmed wives alike.
“I heard there was champagne,” said the lady. “A whole truckful came through town, but I guess they must have seized it.”
“I guess.” The bottle was snug down the side of the bed. Maybe her luck was changing.
“Ugh, I reek,” said the lady, sniffing the sleeve of her white coat. “My husband is going to kill me.” She was so small as to be miniature – tiny hands, mud-streaked feet strapped into Lilliputian silver sandals. “Thank you,” she said, with a blush that said she was ashamed to have only just remembered her manners. “You’re very kind. And so pretty!”
No. No she wasn’t pretty – not with this lady in the room. She might lay claim to ‘striking’ or even ‘beautiful’ in the right light, but the lady in white was so pretty it was almost absurd. ‘Pretty’ was the only word that fit the intricate charm of tiny things. Her almost ageless face added to her strange, fairy allure. Her smooth Cupid’s bow lips and arched, unfurrowed brows made the threads of silver in her Marcelled brown hair look like a pixie touch rather than a simple sign of age. She looked as though she’d arrived in a carriage hollowed out from a nutshell, drawn by spiders – Queen Mab.
“What do they call you, dear?”
“Anything,” she said, a lump in her throat. The thought of Shakespeare had made her lonesome for her sister, who could recite that speech from memory. “Cupcake, Toots, Honey. Tonight I’m Yu-Fang, Jewel of the Orient.”
“You don’t sound very happy about it.”
“I’m not. I never wanted to be a dancer in the first place.” She dipped a finger in the bowl of alcohol. It tasted even worse than it smelled. “I’ll be thirty soon. I’ll kill myself before I do this for another ten years.”
“Oh, you mustn’t do that. It’s a mortal sin.”
“Don’t look so upset. I’m sure I won’t. I’ll probably starve to death before I kill myself – there’s no money in showing your tits once you’re over thirty.”
“What would you like to do instead?”
She shrugged. “Don’t know. Marry. Take up gardening. I’d like to be a person for a change, instead of a girl everyone wants to fuck – excuse my French.”
Little Queen Mab held up a hand in a ‘de rien’ gesture.
Someone called outside and she cocked an ear. “Oh shit,” she said, her delicacy evaporating like the alcohol. “My husband. May as well come clean, I guess.”
She got up from the kitchen chair and put her head out of the door. “Over here, Harry!”
When she saw the husband, she realised why Queen Mab had had that odd fairy gleam about her – it was the lustre of money and fame. Harry only stood a few inches taller than his little wife, but his eyes were as fierce they were in the posters.
“I was worried,” he said. “And now I see I had reason to be.”
“It’s not what it looks like,” said his wife, as if they were alone in the trailer.
“It is what it looks like. Bess, we’ve been through this before – I know you think it’s a lark, but it’s not. We have to be above reproach. There is no particle of dirt too small for our enemies.”
Harry Houdini turned on a (stacked?) heel and faced her.
“It’s mine,” she said. “It’s a prescription – rubbing alcohol. I smashed the bottle against the wheel when I climbed up and your wife was passing. She was kind enough to help me.”
She’d always thought him a little brash compared to the likes of Thurston and the Maskelynes but there was no denying that Houdini’s patent ‘master mystifier’ stare was intimidating. His eyes were a bright, clear grey, flecked with gold.
“And you are?” he said.
She wasn’t owning up to Yu-Fang and her real name was not important – had never been important. Her eyes lighted on the red flowered kimono behind him. “Poppy,” she said. “My name is Poppy.”
Houdini arched an eyebrow. “You’re a lousy liar, Poppy.”
“What can I say?” she said. “You caught me on the hop. I’m usually a lot better.”
He looked her up and down and evidently liked what he saw. He was a man, after all.
“Harry, Poppy’s looking for a change of situation,” said Mrs. Houdini, brazening out her disgrace now that she’d seen the glint in her husband’s eye.
Houdini sighed. “You’re a dancer, I guess?” he said, looking around the trailer full of fans, feathers and sequins.
“Only because it pays,” said the newly christened Poppy. “I’m really a magician, like you.”
Houdini raised his eyebrows, reached into his tweed coat and produced a deck of cards. “Nobody is a magician like me,” he said, handing her the deck.
She pushed the bowl of alcohol aside and spread the deck on the table, making sure it wasn’t gaffed in some way. A small but shrill voice at the back of her mind was screaming over and over that she was about to perform magic in front of Harry fucking Houdini, but she pointedly ignored it, knowing that if she paid attention to it she was finished before she even started.
“Pick four cards,” she said. He did – two of diamonds, king of clubs, seven of spades, three of clubs.
“My old man was a conjurer,” she told him, as she shuffled. “A bad one. It was a good thing he died before Prohibition – he’d never have survived it.”
Houdini watched her hands. She threw in a Charlier cut just to show off.
“It was the booze that killed him,” she said. “He was staggering home one night and tripped over a railroad track. Passed out.”
“Oh dear,” said Mrs. Houdini.
“A messy end,” said Poppy. “He taught me this trick, you know. Is this one of your cards?”
She held up an empty hand. Houdini looked disappointed.
“Oops,” she said. “Told you he was a terrible conjurer. Let’s try this again.”
She produced the two of diamonds from behind her hand, followed by the king of clubs, seven of spades and the three of clubs. It was an old trick but when performed with expertise it looked as though she was producing the cards from thin air.
Mrs. Houdini applauded. “In sequence,” she said. “And in short sleeves too.”
Houdini laughed. “Well, you got me,” he said. “I honestly thought you were bad for a moment. I know how you did it, of course – I first saw that backpalm performed in a magic shop in the Bowery – probably before you were even born. But that was nicely done, Miss Poppy. Nicely done.”
“You think I’m good, you should see my sister. She’s the real talent of the family.”
“Is her patter as morbid as yours?” said Bess Houdini, with a little moue of distaste. “Because I think you should leave that out – I’m not sure anyone’s ready for the railroad story.”
“That wasn’t patter. That was true.”
“Oh my goodness.” Bess swayed towards her, all sympathy.
Houdini was looking her up at down again, this time not in the way a man looks at a woman. “You’ve a strong stomach to repeat that,” he said. “Strong stomach, quick hand and with training maybe she can learn to lie properly. Tell me, Miss Poppy – have you ever attended a séance?”