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Authors: Jane Lotter

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Literary, #Contemporary Women

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BOOK: The Bette Davis Club
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“No, no! I mean, we’re not husband and wife.”

“Maybe don’t feel like it yet,” she says. She nudges me with her elbow. “But just you wait.”

“But I . . . I don’t want to wait.”

She giggles. “In a hurry for him?”

“Certainly not!”

“Oh, hon. First-night jitters?”

“No! Sorry, but you don’t understand. No one on this entire highway understands!”

At that moment, a pickup truck comes roaring down the road. Several young men in blue jeans and cowboy hats stand braced in the back of the truck, holding tight to the roof of the cab. The instant they spot the Love Machine they break into a chorus of hooting, coupled with some highly imaginative sexual pantomime. “Whoo-hoo!” howls a repulsive teenaged boy, waving his hat in the air. “Good lovin’ too-nite!”

The old woman clucks her tongue at the pickup as it speeds away, dust in its wake. “Nobody understands,” she says. “That’s how I felt when I got hitched. I expect you miss your ma. That it, hon?”

This is hopeless. She’s never going to get it.

“No,” I say. “The problem is . . .” She doesn’t seem to twig to the fact that I’m not exactly a blushing bride, that I’m old enough to be a mother myself.

“The problem is . . .” I repeat. Oh, what’s the use? I drop my case and throw up my hands. “I can’t take it anymore! I want a divorce! The minute we get to Palm Springs, it’s over! Finished!”

“Hon, why? What’s wrong?”

“He’s seeing another woman,” I say. “A teenager!”

Her mouth drops open in horror.

“It gets worse,” I say. “She’s my niece!”

The woman gapes at Tully, who’s standing next to the car, casually stretching while the old man checks the tire pressure. “But he looks so sweet,” she says. “Like a teddy bear with glasses.”

I jut out my chin and sniff. “He’s a complete stranger. And I’m quite sure he
never
loved me.”

She clutches at her chest. “Surely—”

“Never. Not the entire time I’ve known him.”

“But—”

“Nevermore.”

“Oh, hon! What a misery!” She takes my hand and pats it. “My ma always said it’s the bookish ones who go tomcatting. Well, get what you can from him. Ask the judge for that little car—it’ll come in handy when you go hunting for a new beau.”

The old woman snatches up her basket of laundry and trundles off in the direction of a frayed and sagging clothesline.

I pick up my case, cart it over to the restroom, and pull open the heavy metal door. I step inside, letting the door clang shut behind me. The room reeks of disinfectant and cheap air freshener, but the thick concrete walls make it cool and silent. Mercifully, I’m alone.

I stand there, resting my back against the door. Well, I think, I’m nearer Palm Springs than I was two hours ago. That’s something. And if all goes well in finding Georgia, I’ll soon be fifty thousand dollars to the better.

I put my case down on the cracked cement floor. I go into the stall and pee. After I come out, I bend over the rust-stained basin, wash my hands and face, and dry off with a paper towel. Then I take a look at myself in the mirror.

I have my father’s eyes and my mother’s full mouth and good skin. My hair remains light brown, without a touch of gray, because there are these marvelous chemicals you can buy that keep it your natural color in perpetuity. Short of a plot at Forest Lawn, it’s the closest thing to eternal care I can think of.

Like my mother, I wear my hair short and use a minimum of makeup, though I’m never without my lipstick. I believe in God and fair play, and I like old movies and old things.

I’m fifty—

Well, around fifty years old. In my youth, I was considered quite pretty. Nowadays, I’m happy if someone refers to me as handsome.

I open my makeup kit and take out a bottle of C’est la Guerre anti-aging serum. Anti-aging serum. What is that, precisely? They make it sound like life-giving fluid delivered in a blizzard by Balto the sled dog. “You’ve got to get this through, Balto, old boy. Millions of women are depending on you. If they don’t get this serum by nightfall, they’ll
age
.”

The stuff sells for three hundred and fifty dollars per quarter ounce. My friend Dottie swears by it, but I can’t afford it, so I nicked this particular bottle off Charlotte’s dressing table earlier in the day, about the same time I lifted the Donna Karan. Ordinarily, I’m neither a thief nor a kleptomaniac, but something about my relationship with my half sister compels me to help myself to her possessions.

I read the directions on the label: “Apply daily to fine lines around eyes, mouth, and chin. Reversal should be apparent in three to four weeks.”

Fair enough. Though what you really want to do is pour gallons of the stuff into the bathtub and soak in it. More to the point, if there’s truly such a thing as an anti-aging serum, why can’t they discover a way for a woman my age to apply it directly to those areas where she needs it most—like her brain or her liver?

Resisting the urge to dump the entire bottle on my head, I put a dollop on my fingertips and rub it over my face. This I follow with a light application of liquid foundation containing a SPF of, roughly, 450.

Then I take off the Donna Karan. I fold the dress carefully and place it in my case.

I pull on a pair of black capri pants, a white cotton shell, and a matching lightweight cardigan, complemented with a darling pair of brand-new Ferragamo flats (Charlotte’s, but I swear they were the last thing I pinched).

I brush my hair, fix my lipstick, and throw a royal-blue chiffon scarf round my head and tie it under my chin. I take out a pair of wraparound tortoiseshell sunglasses and put those on too. I fancy I look a bit like young Audrey Hepburn in
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
, but the effect is probably more middle-aged, sex-crazed Ava Gardner in
Night of the Iguana.

I push open the restroom door and step out into the sunlight.

The old woman stands there. She appears to have been waiting for me.

“Hon,” she says, “I been thinking. You gotta give your man another chance. Try and patch things up.”

She thrusts a faded book at me. It’s a vintage marriage manual, easily fifty or sixty years old. The title is
Starting Your New Life Together—A Modern Guide for Modern Newlyweds
.

“That book helped me considerable,” the old woman says. “And excuse me being forward, but makin’ whoopee can be a high old time. I know. Had six kids.”

Don’t even try to set her straight
, I think. I choke out a thank-you.

The old woman moves slowly away. I stuff the marriage manual into my case.

Tully has pulled the car off to one side of the station. It’s dripping wet. The vinyl clings and shaving cream are gone, and Tully’s using a rag to shine up bits of the chrome.

“After the guy filled the tank,” Tully says when I come up to him, “I asked him to hose off all that junk.”

“Where are the balloons?” I say, peering over my sunglasses.

He points behind me. I turn and see a curly-haired little girl, about five years old, standing by the swing set. She’s holding the bouquet of red and white balloons.

I laugh. “She looks as though she might float away.”

Tully doesn’t say anything. I’m aware that he’s changed out of his wedding clothes into jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. For the first time, I see his bare arms. His biceps are surprisingly firm.

But where’s that tuxedo he was wearing? The one he hoped to be married in. Did he toss it into the garbage can in the men’s room? Or did he fold it up and put it in his suitcase—the same way I’m saving Charlotte’s Donna Karan for some future occasion. Could it be, even now, that Tully hopes for a second chance at walking up the aisle with Georgia?

For Tully’s sake, I hope he threw the tuxedo away. But his chapfallen expression and sloping shoulders tell me it’s more likely tucked away in his case.

Oh dear. Oh damn. Poor Tully. Perhaps he really can’t stop himself from chasing after Georgia. Perhaps love has caught him in its net.

CHAPTER FOUR

CARY GRANT AND ICE-CREAM

T
here’s a hamburger stand across the road. Not a modern-day franchise, just an old shack with a tin roof.

Tully’s eyes flick across the highway. “Food,” he says, like some sort of caveman. “You want anything?”

What I’d like is a glass of gin. But we’re in the desert in more ways than one. “No, thanks,” I say. “I’m fine.” Only I’m not. I’m considering lying down in the dirt, kicking my feet, and crying like an infant. To relieve the tension.

“Suit yourself,” Tully says, as though agreeing with my thoughts on throwing a tantrum. He looks both ways for traffic (there isn’t any), then strolls across the blacktop.

Alone now, I strap my case to the luggage rack and climb back into the car. The minute I sit down, the cell phone rings. I fish it out of my leather tote bag.

“Where are you?” demands a woman’s voice. Charlotte.

“I’m in the car,” I say, leaning back in my seat and gazing up at the blue, cloudless sky. “I’ll remain in the car until we get to Palm Springs. Then I shall exit the car.”

“Have you located your quarry?”

“Just a moment,” I say. “I’ll look.”

I hold the phone to my chest. The curly-haired little girl is at the picnic table, still clutching the balloons Tully gave her. While her mother lays out food on the table, the child ties the balloons to a baby carrier containing an infant swaddled in pink. The baby sister, I presume. The curly-haired girl stands back, waiting for her sister to float off into space. The carrier doesn’t budge.

“Rotten luck!” I call to her. In a gesture that reminds me of Charlotte in younger days, the girl folds her arms and sticks out her tongue at me.

I return the phone to my ear. “I looked, but Georgia isn’t here,” I say. “Perhaps that’s because she’s in Palm Springs.”

“Contact me as soon as you have any data,” Charlotte says. “Let me know when you achieve your objective.”

Is there some reason she’s talking like a CIA operative? I can’t imagine. Then it hits me that Charlotte’s paranoid. She probably thinks the tabloids have hacked her phone.

“I’ll do that,” I say. “I’ll be sure and telephone you when I locate Miss Georgia Illworth, the nineteen-year-old runaway daughter of film producer Charlotte Illworth, of the wealthy and important Illworth family, key players in the Hollywood film industry, who reside in an oceanfront mansion high in the hills of Malibu, California, at—”

She hangs up.

I put the phone in my bag. My long legs are cramped from sitting. Without thinking, I reach down and feel for the adjustment lever at the front corner of the seat. There it is. I press the lever to release the catch, and slide the seat back so I can stretch out my legs.

How long has it been since I did that? I remember my father helping me adjust the seat when I was a child. Only in those days, we were sliding it forward. A dozen memories come to me. Of the car, of my father and mother.

My father was the screenwriter Arthur Just. You may have seen his name on a few old black-and-white films from the 1940s and ’50s, although he started out in New York, working as a very young assistant to Orson Welles. Early in our friendship, I mentioned this family history to Dottie. “Really, darling?” she said. “
The
Orson Welles? What was he like?”

“A whirlwind,” I told her. “That’s what my dad said. But he also said Welles was a genius, that nobody else had his talent or zest for life.”

In 1940, Welles went to Hollywood to direct his classic film,
Citizen Kane
. My father and his wife, Irene, came west a few years later, and my father began writing for the movies. He and Welles talked about doing a project together, but nothing ever came of it.

For many years, I’ve put a lot of energy into
not
thinking about my parents. Into not thinking about how, due to the death of my mother when I was eight and, two years later, the death of my father, my childhood came to an abrupt and heartbreaking end. Now, I sit in my father’s car, flooded with memories. And when I reflect on all that I have lost, a lump rises in my throat and settles there.

I look up to see Tully bending over the driver’s side, clutching two ice-cream cones. “Got you something,” he says. He holds out a cone.

I can’t help myself. Tully’s offer of ice-cream triggers a memory so sharp that tears well up inside me and push their way out, like people fighting for the exit during a real-estate time-share presentation.

“Oh jeez,” Tully says. He gazes at the cone as though it were a wilted flower. “Did you want a hot dog?”

I shake my head, I can’t speak.

“Don’t English ladies like ice-cream?”

In spite of myself, I laugh. “I haven’t lived in England for years,” I say, wiping a tear from my cheek. “And I am
not
a lady. I’m just having a rotten day.”

“Yeah? Me too.” He slings a leg over the car door and drops down in the driver’s seat, still holding the cones.

“Sorry,” I say, sniffing back tears. “Obviously, your day has been far more wretched than mine.”

“It’s not a contest,” Tully says. He licks one of the cones. “Okay, sure, I’m bummed about what happened, but I’m not so emo as to fall apart over an ice-cream cone.”

“It’s not only the ice-cream,” I say. “It’s . . . other things.” I touch the dashboard. “This car belonged to my father.”

“Did he used to take you for ice-cream in it?”

“Never.” I sniff. “He was allergic to dairy. But he bought this vehicle used—it was already something of a classic—when I was seven. He was working again, after a long dry spell. One day, when he’d had the car a few weeks, Cary Grant dropped by—”

“The movie star?”

“The movie star. Mr. Grant came by, and Daddy said he could take the car for a spin if he wanted. So Mr. Grant—”

Tully stops eating his ice-cream cone. “Cary Grant drove this car?” he says.

“Yes, he sat right where you’re sitting.”

Tully takes that in and then glances at the second ice-cream cone he’s holding, the one he bought for me. “Won’t you please take this before it melts all over the ghost of Cary Grant?”

I accept a paper napkin and the cone, licking the rivulets dripping down its side. After I get the ice-cream under control, I say, “Mr. Grant was very athletic. He was older, had already stopped making movies, but even so he vaulted over the car door and got behind the wheel. This was at our house in Santa Monica, and—”

“I thought your family lived in Malibu,” Tully says.

God, where to begin?

“My father owned the Malibu house, yes,” I say. “His wife lived there. So did their daughter, Charlotte—your intended mother-in-law.”

“Yeah, but—”

“My father never married my mother, all right? Daddy’s
wife
, Irene—Charlotte’s mother—was . . . well, she was Catholic, among other things. She was also not a nice person, not a kind person. In any event, she and my father didn’t get along. When he was fortysomething, my dad fell in love with a twenty-three-year-old English actress. She brought grace into his life. She also rather quickly got pregnant with me. But Irene refused to give my dad a divorce. I think, legally, maybe he could have gotten one, but it was about so much more than legalities. So Daddy wound up keeping two homes: one in Malibu with Irene and Charlotte, the other in Santa Monica with my mum and me. And that’s what I called her, by the way—Mum. She liked me to call her that. She was from England.”

“Your father kept two households at the same time?” Tully says.

“Yes.”

“Very Continental of him. Must have been pricey.”

“It was.”

“Was he rich?”

“Not really, he was a writer. Screenplays. He made excellent money in the 1940s, before I was born, hence, the Malibu house. But by the time I came along, he’d been through the Red Scare, the blacklist, all of it, and his career had suffered. He ended up writing for television, which he hated, just to pay the bills. When he bought this car, he was writing for television.”

Tully has draped himself sideways in the driver’s seat, his back resting against the car door. He munches his ice-cream cone, eyeing me over the top of it. “What about your mom? Is she still alive?”

“She drowned in the ocean when I was eight.”

“Oh jeez, I’m sorry,” Tully says. “I didn’t . . . you mean . . . like an accident?”

I shrug. “She was unhappy. She wanted to be married. She wanted to work again—she sometimes played small parts in films. She adored my father, but so many things had worn her down. I think one day Mum made up her mind to go for a swim and . . .” I’m going to start crying again, I know it.

“Anyway,” I say, backing off the topic of my mother. “Cary Grant. So there I was on the lawn in Santa Monica, watching my father and Mr. Grant. When Mr. Grant got in the car, he noticed me standing there. He winked and said, ‘Hiya, kid.’ Then he asked my father if I could come along and go get ice-cream. My dad laughed and said sure, and lifted me up and plunked me down in this very seat. And I, seven-year-old Margo Anna-Louise Just, drove off in a red convertible with Cary Grant.”

“And he molested you?”

“Certainly not! Absolutely, unequivocally no!” I wave my ice-cream so hard, the top scoop goes soaring off into the desert. “In those days, only Joan Crawford was gaining a reputation for child abuse. Mr. Grant was a wonderful man. He loved children. I always understood he wanted a large family, but that didn’t happen for him.”

“He was gay,” Tully says.

“No, he wasn’t.”

“Gay,” Tully repeats. “It’s like an open secret. He was at least bisexual.”

“If you mean those old photos everyone’s always going on about—the ones with Randolph Scott—that could have been a one-off. Anyway, Mr. Grant’s sexual orientation is beside the point.”

“You think?” Tully says. “Then what is the point?” He tongues what’s left of his ice-cream into a curving white peak.

“The point—and I don’t necessarily expect you to get this, but give it a go—the point is, don’t you see how an adventure like that could imprint on a little girl’s brain? How driving off at the age of seven in a red MG driven by Cary Grant would be difficult to top in later years? You don’t get over it; no woman could. To some extent, it’s influenced everything I’ve ever done. Millions of women melted from just seeing him on the screen, and I . . . I rode with him in a convertible. And that’s why I cried when you brought me ice-cream. Because once—when my parents were alive and I was young and happy—I sat in this very car and was offered ice-cream by—”

“The greatest male star in the history of American motion pictures.”

“Precisely. Thank you for understanding that.”

I lick my cone. Tully watches me. His eyes are a deep, compelling brown, a bit crinkly at the corners. In his rumpled way, he’s rather nice-looking. I suddenly feel protective toward him. “Look,” I say, “I’m sorry about just now, becoming emotional. I’m not always so sentimental, but recently I’ve been going through—”

“Menopause,” Tully says, with the same know-it-all tone he used in outing Cary Grant.

I lift an eyebrow. “No,” I say slowly, “as a matter of fact, my medical practitioner tells me I have a few more years to go in that department.”

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