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The View from Upper High Hog: Synopsis

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NaNoWriMo 2010

New York, 1954

An outrageous former Vaudevillian finds herself put out to pasture, fumbling between her perplexing new job as guardian to a Russian child and her misadventures trying to regain her former glory (not to mention a ticket back to New York) through playing what she dubs “The Jackalope Circuit.”

***

Jazz Age, Atomic Age, Space Age — meh. The Fabulous Bette Noire (a.k.a. Bebe Rosenthal) figures she’s seen it all. Life on the big time Vaudeville circuit gives a broad an extra broad perspective, not to mention the chutzpa to fight. She’s been through wars one and two and enough husbands to form a chorus line, so she’s up for anything.

Therefore, when her latest husband kicks the bucket, stranding her on his employer’s Hudson Valley estate, Bebe knows just what to do. Enough with this love nonsense. It only leads to trouble. And a little hay fever. Her fans must be clamoring for her after her long hiatus. She’ll call her agent and get back to her proper place in the world — the stage.

Unfortunately, she discovers a few more things have gone on hiatus since last she saw Manhattan: the Age of Vaudeville and her ability to find a role.

With no money to speak of and nowhere to go, Bebe finds herself lured by an offer from her late husband’s employer. Give up her apartment over their garage, and they’ll give her a job with lots of time off and travel. She just has to be ready to start the next day, no questions asked.

Sounds great to a gal who loves her freedom and wants to see exotic places. And no questions asked? Bebe’s first husband was a bootlegger. No problem.

Then she finds herself herded onto an Arizona-bound train with her previously undisclosed responsibility shoved into her arms as the train pulls out. To Bebe’s horror, it’s a child. And, not just any child, it’s her employer’s newly-orphaned niece, Tatiana, a four-year-old who draws attention with her crazy orange hair, ugly duckling face, and constant babbling in Russian — a dead giveaway of her Auntie Kate’s secret past on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Bebe figures that Aunt Katya’s a smart one, killing two broads with one stone, setting her burdens adrift on an ice floe. Smarter, she’s put Bebe under the supervision of  “Grandpa Joe,” a muscular enforcer from down on the (collective) farm.

Thus, Bebe begins her new life as hapless guardian to an alien life form in an alien land — the dust and neon planet of Route 66. She’s caught between the needs of the child, a feud between Aunt Kate and the headmistress of the child’s school, and her own urgent need to escape what she dubs The Jackalope Circuit.

In a series of misadventures, including stalking famous musicians, sending hate mail to Betty Hutton for stealing her schtick, and and trying to form a theater company using the residents of a flea-bag motel, Bebe struggles to reclaim her former glory, independence, and relevance in the world.

Meanwhile, the newly-renamed child, Elizabeth, looks on from the shadows, trying to make sense of a world equally alien to her and longing for Bebe to give her the attention, stability, and love she’s never had.

Against the backdrop of the burgeoning Cold War, the two dream their own versions of happily ever after, or, as Bebe refers to it, Upper High Hog. And Bebe fights what she considers the scariest age of all — old age.

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Written by Caroline

November 30, 2010 at 21:33

The View from Upper High Hog: Excerpt Three

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Northern Lights

(Opener to Act II and start of Elizabeth’s point of view)
1960


Bebe always said, “If you’re gonna do something, toots, do it big or get off the stage.” She practiced what she preached. When she was ready to make a change, there was no simple announcement. Nothing less than a world-shattering kaboom would do to say, “Hey world, I’m comin’ for ya.”

One chilly night in the summer of my tenth year, Bebe dragged me from my happy perch in front of Leave It to Beaver and herded me outside, showing me a ladder tilted against our low bungalow’s wall.

“Climb it, kiddo.” Waving her cigarette at it as she exhaled a thin plume of smoke, she nudged me with her other hand. “Go on, now. Life’s too short.”

I started my climb.

She grunted below me. “Shorter than ever, thanks to things like this.”

I took that as warning of how deadly the ladder was and stopped climbing, shaking in my thin nightgown. I was just a kid, and maybe I should have been more sheltered and secure, unable to imagine that my Bebe was leading me to anything other than perfect safety. But I’d been raised by an actress who valued comedy over coddling and spent my school years under the careful abuse of Lefton Academy for Girls. I knew life was always ready to go crazy, turn its back on you, or kick you in the teeth — sometimes all three, sometimes just for laughs.

I guess I made it to the roof. I remember the feel of asphalt roof tiles beneath my palms. I had this idea that I couldn’t fall if my hands were planted firmly on the gritty surface. Or maybe I was just reaching for the fading warmth. The wind didn’t always make it down to the ground, but it had free rein up by the vent pipes. (No chimneys for our high desert neighborhood, just logs made of concrete and orange plastic flames that fluttered in the breeze from the heat register beneath. I used to believe in those flames until the light bulb in the back burned out and Bebe refused to replace it.)

I asked Bebe why we had to be up there that night.

She laughed, spreading her arms. “You ain’t seen fireworks like this before, Turtle. Neither have I. These are the kind of bottle rockets that can end the world in the wrong hands.”

I don’t know how long we sat there, just that I was getting antsy and wanting to cry by the time that brilliant flash lit the horizon. A tiny puffy arrow pointed at the heavens, which glowed obediently.

“What is it?” I was afraid that arrow would start pointing our way.

Bebe’s festive expression was gone. She held her cigarette close to her mouth, arm draped across her drawn-up knees. Her face was still, sober, her eyes distant — more distant than the hellish arrow.

I said her name again. Bebe was unreachable enough on a happy day. This colder distance always scared me when it came along, which was more and more lately.

Her eyes were still distant as she turned my way. “A sign.” Focusing, she squinted, took a drag and blew it out. “It’s the big one, Turtle. So big it got the first, most important letter of the alphabet.”

I looked at the arrow. Arrow started with A. So did Arizona.

“That’s all the way to Nevada right there. What they call a mushroom cloud.”

“Who’d they blow up?” Sally at school said Las Vegas was known as sin city. Maybe the president decided to kill two birds with one stone. Test a bomb, rid the world of sin.

“Couple of coyotes, maybe. Paper says we shouldn’t worry about the testing, these things are way out back of beyond.”

Well, then they’d changed their tune.

In school, they scared us that the bombs were right in our backyards. They’d have us watch these stuttery filmstrips with cartoon mushrooms and Tommy the Turtle. I hated him. Not only did he threaten to ruin Bebe’s nickname for me, he made us get under our desks and challenged us to do it better than he did. So I always felt like I was waiting for death and doing it wrong.

The teacher would pass out sheets of newspaper that we had to put over our head for reasons I’m still unsure of today. I was always convinced that it was a practical joke, that only I was dumb enough to follow orders, and that one of the girls would take advantage and bash me over the skull. I’d never hear them coming because the newsprint made me sneeze. A few times I got the obituary page, which I’d try not to read when I’d get bored of duck and cover — I’d just crouch there, imagining some other kid looking up at my name printed there someday.

When I was really little, I remember thinking that Tommy the Turtle was actually a duck in disguise, that one day he’d open his cover and show us his wings. Bebe laughed when I told her that. Said that was the kind of mutation everyone was worried about from the A-bomb.

So we sat on the roof that night when I was ten, risking turtle-duck mutation and not realizing it was the start of our personal war to escape exile.

Or maybe one of us realized. I always replay that part right after the explosion. Bebe saying it was a sign. Bebe always wanting to do things with a bang.

I blamed the bomb later on for giving her the idea, but I think Bebe would have seen the sign she wanted just about anywhere, even if it was just the neon glow of the lounge at the Monte Vista Hotel.



Written by Caroline

November 30, 2010 at 19:49

The View from Upper High Hog: Excerpt Two

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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.

“Pardon?”

“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.

My age?

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.

Written by Caroline

November 30, 2010 at 19:33

The View from Upper High Hog: Excerpt One

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Downstaged

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.

Spotlight regained.

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.

Written by Caroline

November 30, 2010 at 19:05

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