Excerpt from Delmarva Review Volume 8. Adapted for podcast production by Delmarva Radio Theatre.
By four o’clock Gypsy set out each day for Loew’s Jersey Palace on Journal Square. Her usherette’s burgundy uniform with the marigold braid, her military cap, gilt shoes, and flashlight stayed in her basement locker. She wore her own clothes to work, shuffling through mounds of slushy snow. Up ahead the marquee flashed: More Stars Than There Are In Heaven. Five Cents.
Above the Square, Jersey City’s famous movie house floated like a great ocean liner laced with chains of light. Usherettes could be seen through the glass doors, gliding moody-eyed in their dancerly gold T-straps. They roved like sleepwalkers across the thick carpets or leaned with folded arms against the radiators and twisted gold pillars.
When patrons arrived, usherettes woke up and came to life. They tore tickets in half and with their slender torches pointed the moviegoers to their seats. Their lives seemed magically easy, and they made twelve dollars a week.
Gypsy had been at Loew’s only a few weeks since she’d run away from her grandmother’s house, a distance of two miles up the Hudson Boulevard. She was fifteen. She needed money and had no trouble getting hired. Even if 1932 felt like the worst year of the Slump, patrons were always glad to pay a buffalo nickel for a movie, and a pretty girl could always get a job at Loew’s.
Right away, Gypsy made a new friend. Thelma was a tall, bony sylph with a sepulchral voice who paraded in her uniform with the dash of a drum majorette. Thelma sewed fine lingerie in her spare time. She was taking a great interest in Gypsy.
Together they caught glimpses of all the movies from the lobby and the back row. They talked throughout, speculating on what would happen. Whether Blonde Venus Marlene Dietrich, with her big hat and straggling cigarette, would give up streetwalking. Whether Jean Harlow, the Saigon tramp in Red Dust, could win Clark Gable away from his socialite girlfriend.
On their breaks, Thelma and Gypsy ran over to the Ming Vase for chop suey and a pot of tea. They liked the atmosphere, the red lanterns and lacquer screens. One evening Thelma bit into an almond cookie and bent her melancholy, horsey face on Gypsy’s. “You don’t look good,” she said in her calamitous drone. “You’re pea green, and your eyes are watery.”
“All the movies we watch,” said Gypsy. “I might need glasses.”
“I don’t mean that. Something’s eating you.”
“Since you mention it,” Gypsy blurted, “I might be—you know.” Her heart pounded with this admission, but what she had to hide couldn’t be hidden forever. Soon she would have to let out the waist of her movie trousers with a safety pin. She prodded a kumquat with her chopstick.
Thelma nodded darkly. “I had an inkling.”
That night after work, the girls didn’t go straight home but eased down in the plush seats along the theater’s back row. They kicked off their golden slippers and toyed with their paper fans from the Ming Vase. Thelma lit up, but Gypsy didn’t want a ciggieboo. The organ that could play thunder, gunfire, and a stringed orchestra had fallen silent. While the colored girls vacuumed the theater, Thelma and Gypsy had things to talk about in low voices.
Thelma propped her long knee bones against the seat in front of her. Without her military cap to hold it down, her hair, the dullish brown of lentil soup, frizzed out as if she were in galvanic shock.
“Who’s the fellow did it?” Thelma asked, seamlessly taking up the topic they had left off in the Ming Vase.
Gypsy bent to massage first one foot, then the other, so she wouldn’t have to look at Thel. “He’s not around.”
“But who is he? You’d know, wouldn’t you? Who it is, I mean?” Thel bored her fateful insinuations into Gypsy’s ear, her warm breath ruffling Gypsy’s blonde curls.
“I do know,” said Gypsy, letting Thel browbeat her.
“I’m not trying to upset you,” Thel said quickly. “We have to find him. He’d come through and do right by you, wouldn’t he? Since he’s the only one it could be. Isn’t he?”
“I said he is. What kind of a person do you think I am!”
Thelma grabbed her hand. “Don’t get sore, Gypsy. I didn’t mean anything like that.”
Gypsy freed her hand to pick up her gold shoes and cradled them in her lap. Her apprehension mounted, seeing how she had become a special charitable cause for friendly Thel. “He doesn’t know. He’s traveling.”
Thel dropped her cigarette butt on the floor and swatted it out with a shoe. “Isn’t that always the way when they knock you up! We have to do something.”
She dug into her big pocketbook and pulled out a cellophane Wonder Bread bag of dried fruit, peanuts, and carrots sticks she brought from home. “Help yourself.” She offered Gypsy the bag with the red-yellow-blue polka dots. Gypsy selected one raisin and set it on her armrest. “It’s not what you might think,” she said. “He’s very nice.”
“Nice or not, it ends up being the same thing.” Thelma munched thoughtfully on a prune. “I can put you in touch with someone to help you get rid of it.”
A willful twinge nipped at Gypsy’s belly. “I don’t know, Thel, I really don’t. It’s a little soon.”
“It’s never soon. You have to act fast.” Thelma gnawed a carrot. “How far gone are you?”
“A couple of months, maybe,” Gypsy said in a faint voice. She knew exactly how long it was.
“Heavens above!” Thelma nibbled nuts from her palm like a pony eating sugar. She dusted her fingers. “I can put you in touch with someone to get rid of it. Let me look around.”
Thelma’s snoopy, good-hearted determination terrified Gypsy. The idea of going under the knife terrified her. She couldn’t say which was worse: dying in a mess of blood—she would surely die—or being chained for life to the small microbe rooted inside her.
“No, please don’t.” She brushed off a stray peanut that had fallen on her lap. “It’s probably nothing.”
“I’ll get on it right away,” said Thelma.
Gypsy felt a fresh battery of palpitations. She squinted up at the immense ceiling where spurious clouds wandered overhead and turned to mist. To Gypsy, the shutting-down of the star machine in the ceiling looked like the end of the world. When the house lights dimmed, the faraway stars winked like the eyes of a hovering cosmic malice. They died, but they would be back tomorrow night.
Most days Gypsy felt as if she’d swallowed a dozen gin fizzes, bourbons, and Scotches, though she never touched a drop, and she didn’t even know how to find a speakeasy. She was always drunk. There was no immediate cure for this hormone hangover without doing something desperate. The thing kept unfurling its fetal fumes throughout her body. She was a dream-walker plastered on baby-dew. She pictured herself as a shimmering cocktail cradling a cherry, giving temporary haven to a hapless olive. So brimful, the next breath of air would spill her.
When she showed the movie patrons to their seats in the three-thousand-seat theater—or was it four thousand—the beams of her flashlight dizzied her. She swayed like a drunkard in the cavelike lobby of Loew’s with its amber blaze of Moroccan lamps, naked statuary, and balconies dripping vines, pan-pipes, and mandolins.
One evening after the last show, she found a November Ladies Home Journal left on one of the velvet seats. Idly paging through it, she alighted upon a story called “Lovely Expectations.” She ran down to the girls’ locker room and sat alone on the scarred bench, reading with fearful fascination. The story warbled about “your precious bundle” and “your blessed gift from heaven.” Dry-eyed, Gypsy scanned the columns and found the damning lines: Some of you ladies may feel you have tippled a cocktail. There is no reason to worry. This is a natural symptom of the wonderful changes you are undergoing.
She ripped the pages from the magazine and tore them to shreds that she flushed in the toilet.
On Wednesday she arrived at work early and stood without removing her coat. In the lounge’s spotty glass, she examined her face, bloodless and moony as an opal left to perish in a cave. Mirrors remained coldly mute these days and gave no flattering messages. She didn’t care how cute she looked in her uniform or how the gold braid matched her hair. All she could think about was the unseen thing that had fastened itself in her body to sip at her, that would not let go, that would not give itself up to bleed.
Thel, gaunt as a pipe cleaner, hurried into the lounge to where Gypsy was standing by the mirror and the gray lockers. She was bursting with news.
“I found somebody for you,” she murmured in her secretive sinkhole voice. “I’ll go with you when you get it done. I’d like to see the place for myself.”
Gypsy panicked at how fast Thelma could move. “I don’t want to put you out, Thel.”
“No, I’d love to. You’ll need fifty dollars in cash.”
“Fifty!” That was more than four times her Loew’s weekly salary. She stood frozen. “I can’t. It’s too much,” she said.
“This is not a time to pinch pennies. Look what you’re getting for it. Value for money. I can loan you some, I have quite a bit set by, and for a case like yours, I am glad to help.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You can. Besides,” Thel reasoned, in syllables low and tragic, “it’s illegal, so they have to charge over the top. Some doctors charge a hundred or two.”
Gypsy pulled off her galoshes. In the mirror her face was yellow as old piano keys. She shed her coat, scarf, and cap, which crackled with static from the cold weather. She tossed them in her locker. “I can’t make up my mind.”
“You’re crazy!” Thel softly wailed. “You can’t do this to yourself, throw your whole life away. With that bun in the oven, your life is worthless.” She sat on the bench, took an emery board from her handbag, and filed at a thumbnail. “You can’t go looking to the phonies who advertise in the classifieds. This person is good. She’s not a doctor, she’s better than a doctor.” Thelma scoured her thumb in a fury.
“She’s a quack?” Gypsy got into her uniform piece by piece.
Thelma dropped the nail file in her purse and scrutinized Gypsy’s waistline. “Of course not!”
Gypsy cast another look in the mirror at the mouse’s belly under each eye. “I can let you know, can’t I?”
“You haven’t a minute to lose.”
“We’d better go up to our stations.”
“I did this for you, and all you can talk about is our stations?” Thelma gasped in a hollow tone, as if she’d been deprived of her rights to oxygen.
“But the movie opens in half an hour. Mr. Jago will wonder where we are, and I don’t want to be late.” She felt a wave of nausea at the thought of drawing the manager’s wrath.
Thelma gave Gypsy’s arm a hard squeeze of sisterly affection. “You’d be doing the right thing. I’m taking your problem very personally. Besides, she’s on Gifford Avenue. Near the park.”
“What do you mean, Gifford Avenue?”
“It’s a high-class neighborhood. It means she has an up-and-coming practice. She’s getting results.”
“I really have to think it over, Thel. I can’t decide all at once.”
“Think! Don’t waste time thinking. It’s a little pain and bother now, a few days, then you’re freed up for a life of fun.”
They went upstairs to the lobby. In a fog, Gypsy greeted the five o’clock moviegoers and guided them to their seats. She lit up the aisle with her flashlight for a man in a fur collar with his pregnant wife. She was draped in green brocade, big as a sofa.
With the movie playing, Gypsy stole a little time to sit in the theater’s back row alone. She tried to understand what was going on in the movie’s plot, but she paid fitful attention to Barbara Stanwyck’s entanglements with the bootleggers in Night Nurse.
She could think only about Axel, how they had twined their arms around each other, lying in the damp, late-autumn leaves and grass of Mosquito Park, under the monument of the Great War Soldier. Both of their fathers fighting on different sides of that war, Axel’s severe father an enemy leader, Gypsy’s father lost in battle in a French wood. The bronze Soldier, long dead, stood over the lovers, straddle-legged with his musette bag, ready to lob his grenade. He had all eternity to calculate his aim. Gypsy had little time, and time pressed her hard.
To think now about Axel afflicted her with an ache she thought would kill her. His black eyes, the trail of black hair running like an arrow from his navel downward, an arrow her fingers had traced with delight. If only that bodily ache would drive the blood from her insides, the way it drained the blood from her heart.
By Halloween she had reflected on the sucking pull of the autumnal moon on her body’s tides. Her grandmother’s wisdom was all she had, since both her parents were dead, her mother in the influenza epidemic. Her grandmother liked to say, “Girls are ruled by the moon.” Gypsy closed her eyes to concentrate on this dark dictum, but the blood would not be drawn. She pleaded for the cramping of her body that would mean she was okay. She saw her blood flowing, flowing in welcome rivulets, but the pregnant moon was not on her side. That secret blood she looked for each day remained hidden, and her spotless panties mocked her.
The embittering words of Thelma assailed her. Only a little pain now, and you’re freed up for a life of fun.
A fleeting superstition nagged her, that as long as she held on to Axel’s baby, she and Axel had a connection. The baby was a mightier charm than any, attached inside her by a slender string that tied her to Axel wherever he was, a string, a ball of twine that would draw him back to her. He was a high‑flying kite. If she held tight to her end, the wind might tug at him, but he wouldn’t disappear into an endless sky. She might hold on and be able to reel him in. If she cut the cord and let the baby go, that would be the end. She would surely never see him again.
Gypsy was glad when Thelma stayed home from work the following week with a sore throat. It was a throat so sore, a fever so high, she might be kept out for more than two or three days. So Mr. Jago reported. Gypsy felt relief at not having her friend around to advise and torture her. It was all decided, anyway. She was going along with the wisest thing to do, and she didn’t want to have to talk to Thelma about it anymore. She didn’t want Thelma coming along, either.
Instead of strolling over to the Ming Vase, she took her break walking along Vroom Street. She looked at the shops. She badly wanted to distract herself from the awful thing she planned to do, the fact that it was settled for tomorrow when she would carry out the most hurt she’d ever done to herself, but it had to be. Window shopping seemed a good idea. She might do something nice for herself, give herself a present.
She walked alone through the freezing streets. Her nostrils burned with the cold smell of icicles. Gypsy had her wool cap pulled down, her scarf tightly wrapped, but the bone-aching winter freeze bit into her gloved fingertips. In the gutter where dirty snow lay crusted, starved dogs pawed at rubbish barrels, desperate for food. Gypsy hugged the shop windows for warmth.
Stopping outside a parfumerie, she studied the banked clusters of Lucite bottles and artificial orchids. The poster of a girl kissing herself in the mirror. A caption read So soft, so clinging, so lovable, so French. Gypsy felt so cold she couldn’t unclench her jaw. She might have slipped into the shop just to get warm, but the door was locked and the shop looked empty.
She veered past Bond’s haberdasher, where headless mannequins stood clothed in rich wools, their virile wooden bodies stiff and perfectly formed. She imagined she saw Axel in the doorway, but it was a tall, bearded beggar with scorching eyes who asked for a dime.
She stumbled away, her snow-booted feet leading to a boutique called Baby Bunting. In the windows lacy shawls foamed and spilled from pastel garden baskets foretelling spring. The display left her cold. But that was the trouble. She was so cold she would stay cold forever, and she felt like going inside just to have a look. She loitered without deciding, but only for a moment. At least she could get warmed up, since the shop had nothing to do with her. All had been decided, the matter was settled, her mind made up, the appointment set.
She pushed the door to get her teeth to stop chattering. The overheated store smelled like Dr. Rose’s talcum powder. On a shelf teddy bears lounged, pretending to read books of washable cloth.
A dithery old saleslady waylaid her. She had fluffed white hair. Behind the rimless glasses, her periwinkle eyes shone hard as stones. Lavender flowers scattered her organdy-collared dress. She wore antique rings on every white, wrinkled finger and a cameo of a gold Cupid’s head on her chest.
“May I help you, dear?”
“I was just leaving,” said Gypsy, re-buttoning her coat.
The saleslady’s lenses flashed at Gypsy’s flat middle. “When are you due, dear?” Her sticky smile poured like pancake syrup around a question so blunt it was an accusation.
“I’m not.” She still shivered, although the shop was stuffy. Hurrying to the door, she said, to be polite for having soaked up a little warmth, “I have girlfriends who might be, but it’s too expensive for me.”
“How about these, for one dollar?” The saleswoman dangled a pair of yellow booties. “Remember, nothing in Baby Bunting is machine made.” Her tone was less sugary.
Gypsy smiled and brushed past, bumping into something close to the door that had nothing to do with her needs in this real world. It was a pair of red, soft leather shoes that would fit a kewpie doll. Silver buttons fastened the Mary Jane straps.
She didn’t dare to touch them. She couldn’t pass them by. “Would they walk in these?” She heard herself ask and was feeling afraid.
“Why, they’re more for dress-up and showing off. Not for a walking baby,” said the devious crone. “When your friend wants to dandle her little angel for Grampa. And they’re more for a wee girl. Isn’t it a little soon for these?”
Gypsy, feeling miserable, said nothing.
“They’re pricey. But the booties I could reduce to seventy-five cents. They would be perfect for your friend.”
“I don’t know,” Gypsy said. She doted on those shoes. They made her mouth water. She longed for a treat for herself.
“Well,” said the woman doubtfully. “These are all handcrafted in supple Italian leather. I can let you have them for four dollars.” She gave Gypsy a steely appraisal to see how the deal struck her.
“Could I have them gift-wrapped?” Gypsy pulled out her money before she could change her mind. The doll shoes were nearly half of her week’s salary at Loew’s, but she wanted them. They were all she wanted. “That silver tissue paper over there?”
“I’m sorry, we reserve the silver paper for gifts over ten dollars,” the hag demurred.
“I would like that paper, or I might almost faint,” said Gypsy. “I almost might faint.” She pressed her fingers to her temples. She wasn’t wholly lying. She was the only customer. “I don’t want anything like that to happen in your store.”
The woman’s tone turned biting. “I’ll make an exception in your case. These are so tiny they won’t need much paper.”
Gypsy ran all the way to the theater, the held-back tears now freezing on her reddened cheeks. She hugged the shoes to her chest. In the theater basement, she crammed the paper bag with the box inside into her locker before anyone could spy on her.
By the time she finished work and reached her room late that night, she hated everything in the world. She had fashioned a trap to ensnare her unwary footsteps. She opened the box and parted the crunchy silver paper that matched the silver rosette buttons. She held the baleful shoes, and yes, they made her mouth water. She pressed them to her face and sniffed the red tomato-raspberry fragrance of the cured leather. She forced herself to throw them back in the box. She couldn’t bear them. Not putting on a coat, she ran into the alley beside her boarding house and crushed them down into the metal garbage can. She never wanted to see them. She hated, hated, hated them. Let somebody find them.
That night she had to smother the sickness laid upon her by the lure of red shoes, and her brain burned with a bye-bye-baby song. She had to talk to it, explain things to it in its own language. “I got you started with mother-of-pearl knitting needles, belly-button to belly-button. I purled you a pair of ears, then I crocheted you a nose. Now we’re tied together with wires and nailed with spikes. I’m holding you, baby, I’ve still got hold of you, but baby, baby, I don’t think I can do it much longer. I’m not sure you and I will ever meet.
“You’re sailing by the stars, but there could be shipwrecks. Nine stars? Will two or three be enough, baby? Don’t be greedy, you don’t want that much living. Life isn’t a game, believe me. Being born is too hard, that choo-choo down a long, dark alley into the cold crying light; honestly, you don’t want that. Don’t ask for it; don’t ask for what I can’t give. You’re better off without me, so please don’t blame me.
“Can’t you stay wrapped up forever in your white sea-gown? Go sailing up and down the sky through cloudy caves in your wooden shoe, go fish for fishy stars with Wynken and Blynken and Nod. When the moon washes you clean with brine, you’ll roll over and over for a couple more millennia just waiting for me. I’ll see you out there, I promise you, baby, I’ll catch up with you. You’ll just have a head start on me and none of the grief. So can that be all bad?”
In the morning, Gypsy got up in her chilly basement room. She had already taken off Thursday and Friday from work. She said she had to visit her sick grandmother, agreeing to let Mr. Jago, the manager, dock her pay.
She padded across the room to boil water on the hotplate for tea. She moved, dragging her feet through heavy mud. She sat on the wicker chair with the faded cretonne cover to wait for the water to boil. Her grandmother said a watched pot never boils. It’s like saying a watched-for man never comes back. If only stories could have the endings she’d seen so often on the silver screen. If they’re in the movies, they must happen in life. At the last moment when all is lost, well, here he is at the door, pounding down the door. He’s been looking for her, and finally, after months of fruitless search, he gets her address somehow from an unknown well-wisher. He comes knocking, slamming her door down in a passion in the early chill of a midwinter morning, when frost flowers are diamonding the windows under the ceiling of her basement room. Sweeps her in his arms and carries her to his waiting limousine. He has passage reserved on the Normandie or the Europa, and they sail, the two of them, across the Atlantic.
Gypsy knows what it’s like to stand at the railing of an ocean liner, since she’s seen all the movies. Once on the far shore, they drive at breakneck speed in their private motorcar across the map to the old country estate. There at the altar, the fair-haired daughter-in-law, Gypsy, arrayed in pearl-hued bridal satin with a snowy veil….
Movies were so stupid, most of them. She could not be guided by them. Once she’d thought that being an usherette at Loew’s meant she’d watch the lives of the stars and would know what to do herself.
No, you had to make your own decisions. Gypsy dunked her teabag, and when it cooled, she drank her tea. She felt strong and confident, and she had made up her mind. She dressed carefully to bolster her nerve for the snuff movie she was about to make. She had to dress nicely for her baby’s farewell. Garter belt, stockings, teddy trimmed with real Val lace. She slipped her dress from its wood hanger, not the perfumed, satin, padded kind she once had at her grandmother’s. She buckled on a thin, red leather belt. Her waist was still twenty-two inches. Now it wouldn’t ever have to get any bigger. She had painted her toes deep red, for no blood must stain her feet. She kissed herself good-bye in her mirror.
She bundled on her old coat and scarf and cap and went out into the alley, heading for the Journal Square bus for Gifford Avenue. Passing the garbage cans, she took a last, over-the-shoulder look. Hungry dogs had overturned them, spilling trash, pawing at the foulness of the garbage, coffee grounds, banana peels, decaying bones. Rabid and starved, they were tearing apart the box she had stuffed there last night. Fighting over it, eating the red shoes.
“No,” she cried at them and ran to fight them. She kicked at them, swatted them with her purse, shouted at them to scat, get, shoo. They slunk away, yapping, protesting. She picked up the shoes. They were torn but wearable. She held them to her cheek, first one, then the other. She sniffed the soft flesh of the tomato-raspberry leather. They felt warm, vivid, filthy with the breath and slaver of dogs. They were too much alive. Small, malevolent creatures with open mouths. Mouths without tongues. They frightened her as if they could speak. No, not even speak but simply demand life, accusing and forlorn. She didn’t want to look at them ever again, but she did and pressed them to her cheek, to her mouth.
They had caught her unawares, and they opened their piteous red mouths to plead with her. “Let us stay, oh, let us stay, stay with you,” sang the red shoes to Gypsy’s innermost ear.