FOLLOW MY GLEAM
NEILL C. WILSON
I WAS patting the day’s hamburger into little cakes, and Bee said: “What we could do if we had a thousand dollars, Val.”
“Only a thousand? Why not wish for a million?” I asked.
“A thousand would do what I have in my mind.” “Well, what would the pretty grand do?” I took up a corner of her little apron, and wiped her eyes and kissed them. It was dicing onions that made them wet that way, but it also made them shine.
“I’d blow the roll, Van. Boy, would I blow it!”
“On a car?”
“We need one, but I’d not blow this on a car.”
“On a neon sign, then? That’s what this joint lacks. A big red neon sign. ‘Bee & Val—Bar-B-Q— Dancing.’ ”
“No, Val. Not a neon sign either. I’ve enough signs.” She took my finger and touched it to her temple. “Wrinkle. Saw it this morning.” She rubbed my finger against her throat. “Comes a double chin.” She pressed it above her girdle. “Once I had a 24 waist. Imagine!” She bent her brown noggin with its frilly white cap. “Any lustre left?”
“You suit me,” I protested.
“Lover, the wife rattles like an old bus. She needs an overhaul. What I would do with that thousand! I’d go straight to Magda’s on dear old Sunset Boulevard and I’d take the works. Foam baths. Oil. Steam. Kwaff resculp. Massages. Exercise. Ten years off the face and figure. Then to Adrian’s for a slender little number. If I’d had the thousand to do it all with two weeks ago, tonight you and I would be going to Velma Girard’s latest preem!”
“Wouldn’t we!” I exclaimed, catching the idea. “Down from your limousine, beautiful madam. Up the red carpet. Searchlights dancing. News cameras popping. Autograph hounds baying. Loudspeakers shouting, “Here come two old favorites, the lady lovelier than ever in a slinky black gown with gold sequins, only you’ll have to take our word for the gown, because it’s covered up with ermine . . .”
I took her shoulders in their trim blue smock and gave them a good squeeze. Bee’s shoulders had developed a gallant set. It was eight years since they stopped drooping at studio trouble, sickness, bank trouble, and took that brace. She was patting her cap back in place when a customer came in.
We get all kinds out here on the Glendale-San Bernardino highway. This one was the color of an old gunstock or a rusty shovel. He had on a faded serge suit, clean enough, but wrinkled as if it had spent years in a chest. He called from the door, “Sell gas here, mister?”
I told him we don’t sell gas.
“How far to Los Angeles?”
He sniffed the air of our tavern and caught the coffee in it and forked a stool. “Ham and four eggs, son.”
Son! I’m 40. He may have been 50 or he may have been 70. You can’t tell about these desert men. He was shortish, with a chewed mustache and strong
eyebrows that had taken on the color of desert sand.
I put his ham on to fry and broke four eggs.
There was a light thump of the counter flap as Bee went through from my side. She crossed the room to tidy up the booths that line our dance floor, four to a wall. The customer followed her with his eyes, as if a woman was something unusual. But, of course, Bee is Bee. She moves with a rhythm that has never left her. Even her forearms move with that rhythm when she wipes tables.
I put down his ham and eggs before him.
He put away his snack and a small ocean of coffee. He slid what I thought was a silver dollar across the counter. I rang up 80 cents and started to give him his change. And 1 saw he’d given me a double eagle. Remember those? Gold, and the most beautiful coins ever minted, though out of circulation for years. So I knew he’d been holed up somewhere. It almost cleaned out the cash register, changing that 20.
Chawed-mustache got down off his stool, but he didn’t go. Maybe, having been in the hills so long, he wanted to talk to folks. He said: “Nice place you’ve got here, son. Real fancy.”
It gets us by, but I wouldn’t call it fancy. Just knotty pine.
“Is the little lady your wife?”
He didn’t ask it to be nosy. 1 could see that he wanted to be sociable. I assured him that Bee was my true and only.
“I thought it was time 1 came down from the Calico Mountains and saw what’s been happening in the world. I’m Bill Judah.”
I told him that I was Val and Bee was Bee.
The customer spied the photos of some celebrities on the walls. We have dozens of signed stills.
“Will Rogers. Doug Fairbanks. Sure, I remember those fellers.” He moved along.
“Jean Harlow. Marie Dressier. Why, every picture is written on! ‘Love and all the breaks to Val and Bee, king and queen of the hamburger circuit!’ ”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, sagebrusher. We get some professional trade here.”
“Any of those famous people been in lately?”
“Well—that particular bunch have gone on. Time passes. You know how it is.”
“Time sure does! It’s 10 years since I was last off on a ripsnorter, and that was only to Bakersfield. But now I’m a tailcurled scorpion that’s down from his rocks, and I’m agoing to whip!”
TIRES, a whole lot of them, slithered to a stop outside. The tail-curled scorpion evidently liked the idea of company, for he started for the door to look out. He came back in a hurry. He was practically washed back. A wave of girls in slacks, shorts, halters surged in, brushing past him, chattering and laughing. “Hello, Bee! Hello, Val! Toss some chow — we’re hungry!” Half a dozen boys followed. Husky young puppies, they’ve long since done all right on Tarawa, Leyte and the Siegfried Line, but this was pre-war and they should have been mussing each other’s hair on some football field. While the juke box brayed the girls grabbed the boys and the maple floor became a mill.
The desert man stood where he had been shoved. As those youngsters ducked and dived, bumping irito him with, “Don’t mind it if we step on you, Shorty,” his face was a study. I suppose girls were that peeled-down only in their bedrooms when he last mixed with the world. But this batch of animated magazine covers was really special. I wanted to explain to him, “Stand-ins and bit-players and hopeful little extras today, prospector, but maybe Hollywood’s brightest stars, some of them, tomorrow.”
When one of the boys drew a comb and passed it through his marcelled hair as he danced, I thought the old-timer’s jaw would drop off’. His idea of a place for primping was probably a basin around outside, with a comb on a chain. Otherwise, a he-man’s hair got curried only by the slam of his hat.
I put the hamburgers on the counter and called, “Come and get ’em!” Giggling and gabbling, the kids sorted themselves along the stools.
Bill Judah, the desert outcrop, still stood where he’d been pushed. It was plain he’d never fed his eyes on such honey, taffy and butterscotch curls before. Or on such cinnamon, coffee-with-cream and coffeewithout-cream arms and legs and backs.
TWO MORE people came in. Babble at the counter choked down and stopped dead.
The new arrivals were from Mission Inn or a San Bernardino dude ranch. They paid no attention to the youngsters at the counter. “Hello, Bee. Hello, Val.” They made for a booth.
The man was a chandelier ducker. His western hat made him look even taller. He had on a purple shirt, orange neckerchief, silver-bossed chaps that jingled. But it was the girl with him that caught the eye. Lithe as a silver salmon. Hair like peach sundae when she threw her cowboy hat off, and cheeks like a pair of half hearts. Her white silk skirt was deeply opened, and brown jodhpurs hugged her long gams as if they surely loved their work. You knew by the way she stripped off her riding gauntlets that Velma Girard was box office and plenty aware of it.
“Ham on rye for me, Val, and a bottle of pop,” she said, in the throaty, fluty voice that thrills ’em every
night from a thousand movie screens. “And tell your young friends”—it was a sultana graciously notifying lesser mortals that they could go ahead and breathe— “to keep on with their fun.”
But her subjects were too on guard. The carnival spirit had vanished. It just was no longer the time and place for being carefree and noisy. Velma was known to have a memory as long as a carving knife for anybody who vexed her, and a smile and eye that could be deadly for any little upstart with too gifted a personality or too cute a 34. I think the kids would have preferred to be well away from there, if it could have been managed without looking like flight.
Velma’s escort, Ted Willet, was a not-bad sort, qnd it was his hard luck to be usually cast with Velma in her big pictures, and in private life to be required to play up to her moods. When they’d slid into the booth and Bee brought them tumblers of water, Ted said, “You’re looking mighty sweet today, Bee.”
I suppose he shouldn’t have said that, anyway not as if he meant it. Maybe Velma’s being at the peak of her popularity and fame, the way she was, made her touchy and suspicious of every woman who came near her showing any charm. Or maybe she was already cross with Ted over something else. Anyway, she said —and I could well imagine that smile of hers, which looks and is so warm, like acid—“Yes, Bee. You’re really too fetching in that white cap. Did you make it yourself?”
Bee knew why Velma said this. It was to remind her that she was simply a waitress, and her duty in life to fetch the great Girard a ham on rye, a bottle of pop, and the mustard, and not be slow about it. But Bee’s shoulders haven’t gained their gallant set
for nothing, or without practice. She replied evenly, “Yes, Velma, I made the cap. And I washed and ironed it, too.”
I suspect that Bee’s eyes met Velma’s just as levelly as her voice. Bee could remember darn well when Velma was only an undiscovered nobody, and not above carrying a tray in a restaurant herself when calls were few from Central Casting.
Velma saw she hadn’t got to Bee with that one, so she tried being unconcerned and sweeter. When Velma turns on the sweet it can be very sweet. But loaded. She purred, “Tonight’s the big night for Ted and me, honey. You and Val coming to our new preem?”
VELMA and Ted’s latest picture was to have its all-out world première at Sid Grauman’s Hollywood Chinese Theatre. You probably remember the picture — “Wedding By Consent.” Like their “Whirlpool,” it drew an Oscar. Velma can act, all right.
But Bee answered, “Afraid not, Velma. It’s a long time since we’ve been to a Hollywood preem.”
That was Velma’s moment for the lunge. The rapierlike run-through-the-body. “Oh. I dare say Sid Grauman forgot you. Sid, of all people! Ted, you go straight to the phone and call him up.”
But Velma’s thrust slipped harmlessly under Bee’s arm. She laughed. “Sid didn’t forget us, Velma. The ducats came. It’s just that we—well, to be frank, we would hardly have the things to wear.”
I remembered what Bee had said earlier about wishing for a thousand dollars.
Ted Willet hopped on that moment to make his second mistake. Trying to be a good head, he
Even with her luck gone, a gallant actress can get new courage from an old admirer
cracked, “Why, Bee, you’d look plenty nice at our preem exactly as you are!”
I couldn’t see La Belle Girard, the partition of the booth was in the way, but I knew the time had come to break this thing up. Velma was in no mood to have Bee or anybody complimented in her presence. Bee, too, has been known to get mad, and it Isn’t good for trade. I called out loudly to the old-timer from the Calico Mountains, who was standing near to all this, “Don’t forget, prospector, while you’re in Los Angeles, to go to every picture you can find of Velma Girard and Ted Willet’s. They’re tops.”
I should have remembered. I should have remembered he’d been holed up 10 years. He shouted back, “Velma which? Ted which? Who are they?”
You could hear the stillness that followed. You could slice it. It lasted for seconds. In the presence of Ted Willet himself and the surpassing Velma Girard, a voice had been raised to holler, “ Who arc they?"
You can imagine what
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it did to the kids along the counter. To those kids who hated and dreaded Velma for her jealousy and temper and her power to blast and destroy. And you can imagine what it did to Velma, realizing that they had heard. Realizing what they’d do with the story up and down Hollywood Boulevard as soon as they could get there with it. I held my breath lest somebody snigger. Then I got a better idea. I dropped a tray. It made a loud smash, because there were coffee cups three-high on it, but it took some tension out of the air.
But the imp was in Bee. This was too good a chance to lose. She said to Bill, “You’ve never heard of Velma? Well, well! Velma Girard, let me present Bill Judah. Ted Willet, this is Bill Judah.” I hope she was having a lovely time, introducing the currently greatest names in Hollywood to a oneman section of the American public.
I saw Bill Judah stiffen. I saw a look of attentiveness come over his face. I thought, “Oh, oh, Bee, the names meant nothing, but maybe the face and figure do.” Audiences on five continents pay hard money every night to see Velma Girard’s mere shadow on a screen, and here was all that dazzle in the flesh. He took a step or two forward. He moved as if pulled on a wire.
I thought, with a sinking feeling, “Oh, oh! Now Bee has done it. Bill’s going to move in there and join them. He’s going to annoy Velma.” When
Velma is annoyed she’s not one to spare the furniture.
Bill Judah kept moving into tnat booth.
TED WILLET must have caught a flash from Velma’s eye. He rose, though awkwardly; he was pinned in by the table. When Ted Willet rises, it is trouble coming into view like a tank. Since that day Ted has won his share of oak leaf clusters for charging up places and capturing pillboxes. But in that year he was still only the rasslingest, fightingest man in Hollywood. I still couldn’t see Velma, she was behind the woodwork, but I could see Ted’s handsome profile and six-lane shoulders come into sight.
And then, from the tilt of the sagebrusher’s chin, I realized that he wasn’t even looking at luscious Velma. He was gawping at a photo on the wall above Velma’s head.
Ted snapped, “Private table, partner. Scram!”
“Set down, friend.” The man from the Calico Mountains held his eyes on that photo.
Ted Willet reached for the neck of the mining man’s shirt.
Bill Judah’s hand went out, open. It went over Ted’s face and pushed Ted down in his seat hard enough to rattle the bullion on his chaps. Though I doubt if the tough old sun beetle really knew that Ted was there. He stared at the photo. Ted, jarred by the drop, just sat. Asking himself, I suppose, whether it made business sense to put hls $3,000-a-week worth of looks up against a scrapper in a hickory shirt without even a camera around. Figur-
ing also, most likely, that this queer one was too sawed off and old and maybe too brittle to hit.
The kids at the counter sat, too. Like mice. But oh, so interested.
The desert man bent over the table between the two great ones. He put his face close to that photo. It’s a big hand-colored still. It’s of a frontier dance hall charmer in a short black dress with a tall comb in her hair. Bill said, “That’s her. Beryl Eddington in ‘Silverheels.’ I remepiber her in ‘Madge of the Mesas,’ too. And ‘Sierra Spring.’ And ‘Rita Rides the Ranges.’ And ‘Arizona Moon.’ But ‘Silverheels’ was best. She sang a song in it called, ‘Follow My Gleam.’ Does your dance box have a record of that?”
I told him, “We had it once, but it broke.”
He said, “You know what I think I’ll do as soon as I reach Los Angeles? I’m going round to all the theayters and see Beryl Eddington and Valentine White’s newest pictures.”
I wanted to crack, “Old-timer, I doubt if you’ll find any new pix by that team, or old ones either,” but Bee threw me a look.
“Valentine White’s only run of the mine,” the wastelander went on. “Beryl’s the one that assays high with me. It just don’t seem reasonable, does it, for one woman to have so much beauty claim-staked and proved up the way Beryl Eddington has it?”
The sharp, hard laugh was from Velma Girard. She forgot to be fluty. “Well, pick handle, you’ve come down from your hills at the right time. You might as well feast your eye. Beryl Eddington is right behind you.”
Bill Judah spun around. Bee was there, her blue uniform shiny where the iron had gone over and over the seams; white apron, white cap and tray.
“That’s right, Bill,” she said.
Bill looked at her. At the photo. Back to Bee again. “Yes,” he said. “So it Ls. You’re her.” The bafflement cleared from his weathered face; comprehension took over. “So,” he exclaimed, “the ledge played out? It’s been a run of country rock for a spell? 1 understand fully, ma’am. The lode glitters, it widens—and pinches out. Luck’s here and luck’s gone. The downs follow the ups. The black follows the red. But may I say that you still go dancing ahead of me up all the trails? You’ve sung ‘Follow My Gleam’ to me in a lot of places, some of ’em pretty tight ones, like when I busted a leg, and my mule ran off, and I had to crawl four miles. I’d like for everyone present to know that in the mind of Bill Judah you’re the one greatest actress and the loveliest little lady who ever lived.”
I know that sounds pretty foolish, coming from a leathery old salamander to a woman carrying a tray with a jar of mustard on it, and all squarely in front of a sumptuous, gorgeous skinful like Velma Girard. But Bill meant it. And it did something ’way inside of Bee. She put down her tray and said, “Thanks, Bill,” and placed both hands in his and looked him straight in the eyes.
Velma got up. She wiped her mouth on a napkin and a streak of red went with it. She jammed her hat on and picked up her riding gloves and said, “Come, Ted. It seems to he Old Home
Week around here.” She said to Bee, “You do keep your fans in storage, don’t you?” And she pulled out. She walked like a queen, but her splendid proud back was all front, if you get what I mean. I’ll say Velma is an actress. That was her hardest and maybe her most magnificent exit. Ted followed her, looking sheepish; he was a pretty big man to be taking orders from 120 pounds of blazing madness in silk shirt and jodhpurs. He walked like he was afraid he would step on her highness’ train.
THE kids at the counter hadn’t squeaked, nor did they until Velma and Ted rode off on their horses. Then they went crazy. If Bill Judah had come down from his hills for a whee, he got what he wanted. They mauled him and almost pulled him inside out. The place was bedlam for a while, with the juke box booming, and Bill being danced about by those youngsters and having the time of his life.
In that din I saw Bee at the phone.
It must have been a job to talk and hear, but she made it, for when she hung up she looked radiant. Finally the kids decided to leave. They saw what kind of a car Bill had outside, and they hooted, and all of them wanted to ride into town with him. I guess most of them did. Bill left yelling: “I’ll be
back! I ain’t leaving for good!”
It turned out that Bee had called Sid Grauman. “I thanked him for remembering us with two tickets, Val, and told why we couldn’t come to the preem. He was a dear—sputtered that no celebration would be big without us. I didn’t bother to remind him that we haven’t been to any of his big nights for years. But I explained that he was
to hurry out here with everybody tonight right after his performance, because we’re going to serve hamburgers and coffee free as long as the onions hold out, and we want everybody in Hollywood to meet Bill Judah, the fan who doesn’t forget!”
They came, too. They came to our joint a little after midnight, those stars and producers and authors and agents, bringing two vans of caterer’s stuff and champagne. You had to wade through orchids to get into our place, and climb over mink. Ted Willet came, and whooped around, and banged Bill on the back and said Bill had given him his greatest lift since he tried to ride a horse named Sunfish. Even Velma came. She wasn’t mad any more. She said she’d had it coming, and that Bill was a downright gift to the dramatic arts, and that she only hoped she had a few scattered around in the rocks like him. And those kids, who’d come back clinging to Bill, met the big directors—I guess some destinies got a rocket-flying start that night. Everybody said I’d put on weight, and for gossake why didn’t I buy a toupee, but Bee was on the top of the world. They put her on a table and made her sing “Follow My Gleam,” and those who could remember back a decade said she hadn’t changed a bit.
But, of course, she had. She’d developed that gallant set to her shoulders, and I know they saw it and loved her for it, and hoped they’d have it too, when their time came. For when you can pick up your tray and carry it like Bee, brother, you’ve licked your fate.
Bill Judah said that not since the boys opened Goldfield had he seen such a night.