The View from Upper High Hog: Excerpt Two
Bebe Gets the Hook
My eighth husband kicked the bucket on Memorial Day 1954. One day he’s polishing the chrome on that stretched-out funeral wagon the Scotts called a car, and the next, my Roger — he is the funeral.
Damn luck. Wouldn’t it figure? The only one worth keeping around, and he kicks the bucket, leaving me stranded in the lousy cricket-infested hills of the Hudson Valley.
I left a great run on the Orpheum Circuit to follow him there after the war. That’s how you know he was a keeper. Yeah, maybe I did think I’d be the one riding in the backseat of that swoopy black car he drove for a living, but that wasn’t his only appeal. I figured one day we’d ride off into the sunset in a swoopy black car of our own, live happily ever after in Upper High Hog.
Instead, I heated a thousand lousy dinners, no restaurants in sight. I played a thousand games of watered down poker with servants who’d never seen Manhattan. And I tried to make nice with folks who, as it turned out, thought I meant prison when I talked about being on the Big Time.
Then there I was. Stuck in a tiny garage apartment that still smelled like his Barbasol, no excuse to stay on and nowhere to go. Were my poker buddies gonna take me in? Hell no. To them, I was an ex-con.
I sat alone in that house for weeks, tearing deck after deck of cards to smithereens, fuming over their claims they’d watered down the games to let me win so I wouldn’t stab ’em in their sleep. Lucky for them they didn’t know how often I eyed my chopsticks that first week. Lucky for them, I didn’t feel like trying anything new.
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I’d been thinking. After dumping seven husbands, you’d think I’d know better than to get attached or take it personally. But I did. And I then took it out on each and every employee of the Scott estate who came down to rat-a-tat-tat on my front door, asking when I might be moving on, the new chauffeur needing the apartment and all. That last guy got a hell of a black eye for trying to stick his head in for one last remark. Talk about walking into a door.
After a week or two, that Mrs. Scott came shuffling down the hill in her sooty black silk to pay a visit — one viddo to anuzzer, she said. Her old man kicked the same bucket as mine. But I knew why she was there — trying to give me my walking papers, same as those other fellas. The woman never set foot near the garage ’til then.
Her husband, that Mr. Scott, he’d been down. Liked to talk shop with Roger. I’d watch ’em out there, peeking into the car’s engine like they thought they might find something to eat. They’da made a great act — my Roger, small and quick like a terrier, and that Andrew Scott, all tall, dark, and Frankenstein, gazing at Roger like a ghost trying to remember how to live or something. I think the poor guy meant well, didn’t mean to drag Roger into the dark instead of the other way around.
His wife, though — she was another story.
And now she was here.
Oh, she made chit chat and all, told me she’d heard I was a chorus girl, long ago. As if I were so old and decrepit! As if I were ever anything less than a headliner, thank you very much.
She started in on some business, looked like she figured she was on some charity mission or another. Said she had this job she needed filled, caretaker or something. Went on about travel and wages and living expenses.
Since I wasn’t interested, since I was already itching to give her the bum’s rush because of the old chorus girl crack, I didn’t listen. I just sat there trying to figure her out, matching what I saw to what I’d heard from the others. Real pale. Weird accent — couldn’t pronounce th, or w, and her vowels were a little off. Said it was from studying in Luxembourg in her youth, but sounded more like Transylvania to me. The cover didn’t match the story underneath.
Even before Mr. Scott and my Roger rode off into the blue yonder together, things had been getting real weird up at the house. Lots of yelling, lots of whispering, house staff saying they wasn’t allowed to get the mail anymore. There were phone calls, telegrams, lots of crying from Mrs. Scott’s room. And then, the night before Roger died, Mrs. Scott sent him on a late night job. He told me he went to Irvington and brought back a big fella carrying some kind of critter. Weird little thing, he said. Orange hair. Might have been a kid, but the man wouldn’t let it talk, just kept feeding it medicine. Probably something wrong with it, all wrapped up with summer coming on. Might not have been a kid at all. A neighbor up the road had a pet orangutan. Maybe the Scotts were just keeping up with the Joneses.
Roger drove Mr. Scott and his guest down the hill the next morning, heading for the train station. Didn’t get to ask him if they still had the orangutan. They never came back.
I was still thinking of asking if I could borrow the ape to form a new act when Gav Darby, the gardener, came up to me with his dirty gray cap clutched to his chest, the bearer of bad news about the car crash. Couldn’t have helped my reputation none that my first question was if the ape had survived.
Guess I was in shock. I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, but widow wasn’t one of them. Husbands didn’t die. Believe me. I had lots of experience in the matter. Just about starved myself, boggling over it at first.
In the end, I figured I’d hallucinated the whole kid/ape thing in my bereavement. My early inquiries on the matter just seemed to scare people. What’s more dangerous than an ex-con who thinks she’s seeing apes? That’s about the time the house staff started calling on me to vacate the premises.
And now Miz Kate. I should have felt sorry for her. The woman was already the color of snow, but I could see an extra layer of pastiness in there, could see her hand shaking and the shadows beneath her eyes. But she wouldn’t stop rattling on about some job.
I said, “What is this? A caretaker? Like at some house?” Did I look like a custodian, for god’s sake? I was having a hard enough time with my new careers as widow and an ex-con.
Miz Kate smooshed her lips together ’til they were the same flabby shade as her skin, finally saying, “As I said, no questions asked. I am demanding complete confidence, if you are able.”
Able? My first husband Floyd was a bootlegger. I wrote the book on keeping a trap shut. Was about to tell her so when she went on.
“Honestly, Mrs. Beemer–”
“Rosenthal.” I loved my Roger, but after eight husbands, I was sticking close to my own name.
“Name’s Bebe Rosenthal. Or, if we’re in the city, I go by my stage name, Bette Noire.”
I think I kinda scrambled her brains over that one. Her eyes and mouth flapped open and closed a few dozen times.
I said, “Don’t you have a maiden name?”
That woke her up. The woman turned to ice before my very eyes, all brittle and white but for splashes of pink around those cheekbones. “Mrs. Rosentle. What I am giving you — it is your only opportunity, very generous, and no vun shall have to resort to any unpleasantness.”
Too late for that, I figured.
She got up. “You really should be grateful to be having an offer of any kind, considering your age and position.” She smoothed out that poofy skirt of hers, patted that colorless hair beneath its prissy little round hat, and glanced out the window at a man who looked like a bouncer in a secret service suit. “I’ll have my associate bring up the papers.”
She might as well have socked me in the nose. I thought about socking hers.
Mr. Scott had been a few years older than me, and I figured the fine Miz Kate was no more than a few years younger. Anyway she was short a few screws and bone-deep ignorant, keeping apes and the like.
Besides, talking to her, I’d had an inspiration.
“You can stick your deal, Lady Dracula.” I took full satisfaction in her shock. “Just give me some time with a telephone. I’ll find my own way out of your cage.”
It was time to call the agent. Give him the thrill of a lifetime — a piece of The Fabulous Bette Noire’s great comeback. Goodbye housewife, hello name in lights.