The View from Upper High Hog: Excerpt One
Opening of Act One, narrated by Elizabeth
December 31, 1962
Bebe was gone. Bette Noire was in her eyes.
And Bette Noire wanted me to shut up.
It was party time, so I grew dim in the part of the living room I called Downstage. Bebe called it my box seat — a small bay window where I hid with books and dreams of Prince Charming, curtains drawn. But not right then. Right then I was a prop in Bebe– Bette’s routine.
“C’maaaan! Who’s the brat? You ain’t no mama. Ain’t never been!” Bebe’s old friend kicked his feet onto our chipped coffee table, popping a cigar back in his mouth like a pacifier. She favored him with a smile, but I didn’t like his wink — not at me, not at Bebe, not even at the fearless stage persona that is The Fabulous Bette Noire. He looked like a cartoon on a cocktail napkin. He smelled like wood polish and poison. I hoped he’d choke on a pistachio so he’d shut up.
But he didn’t, and others stared at my thirteen-year-old gawkiness until I itched like I was covered with flies. I hated it when downstage became upstage. At least I could always count on rescue, whether from Bebe or Bette.
Sometimes Bebe even smiled at me.
No smile that time, though, just Bette’s narrowing eye. Here it came.
With a flourish, the Fabulous Bette Noire put her fingers in her mouth and whistled until she shattered every eardrum from here to Kingman, grinning at her guests’ shock.
When I pulled my hands from my ears — I knew the danger signals — she was laughing into the imaginary heights of our low-ceilinged bungalow and positioning herself between olive velveteen curtains. Our front window was her favorite stage, our floor lamp her spotlight. That night, she was accompanied by reflected stardust glitter from our aluminum Christmas tree.
When all eyes returned to her, Bette launched into a well-worn monologue: the story of our origins. She had this whole routine worked out that she performed at parties. I only tuned in toward the end. I just loved to watch her move. She wasn’t afraid of anything, not ashamed of anything. She put it all out there and got away with it. At least at these parties. She was my guardian, but I believed her when she said was made for musical comedy.
A wave of her cigarette, the rasp of her voice, and she reached my favorite part. “So they lead me in. They sit me down. They ask if I wanted a drink. Well…” A knowing look and the room laughed on cue. Bebe held out her hands, a string of smoke curling upward from the cigarette between her fingers. “But then, instead of a drink or some happy hour grub, there she was! Wrapped in a blanket like a little shnookum sausage in a casing, all pink and round-cheeked. I looked that Miz Scott right in the eye and told her flat out, “No thank you, ma’am. I always keep kosher!”
Bebe always paused here for the inevitable roar of approval. The woman knew her timing.
“But apparently she knew I was bluffing because, next thing I knew, I was sitting in a train watching the prairie go by, holding that little sausage in my arms and wondering what to do next. A sausage! I figured I’d donate her to the diner car. Then she opened her eyes for the first time, stee-retched out that neck… And I realized. She wasn’t a sausage at all. By those giant pea green eyes, I knew I had myself a turtle. I said hi how are ya, and the turtle belched — the raunchiest, most musical noise I’d ever heard.” A shrug. “What are you gonna do? I fell in love. We’ve been together ever since.”
Love. She said loved me. And, this time, she smiled at me when she said it. Made all the staring men worthwhile.
There was more, but I didn’t listen. Bebe was a great story teller, especially when she was being Bette Noire, and her friends, even the ones who’ve heard the yarn a million times always rewarded her with heaps of pats, sighs of admiration, and crazy-loud laughter when she talked about my messy infancy.
Problem was, I knew it was total baloney.
Bebe Rosenthal didn’t meet me until I was four years old, more beanpole than sausage, eyes wide open all the time. Maybe I burped, but more likely I just wore her ears out, babbling at her in Russian until she could teach me enough English to understand that I needed to shut up.