You might be surprised, but the real estate business does well in Laskin. Farmers retire and move to town, some people get a raise and buy bigger, some don’t and buy smaller, and a lot of the kids who couldn’t wait to get out of this small town move back as soon as they have children of their own. There’s a lot of turnover.
There are also a few white elephants. The Burrell place, for example, a white wedding cake of a house, complete with five Corinthian columns and a lot of gingerbread. It was too big for any family but the Burrells, who’d had fourteen children, and when Sig Burrell finally had to go to a nursing home the place was sold and chopped up into apartments. From there it peeled and sagged and popped until it had been transformed from a prairie Tara to Laskin’s Bates House and the only reason its windows were still intact was that people were still renting there. I couldn’t remember a time when it wasn’t for sale.
So it was the talk of Laskin just to hear that it had sold. But when we found out that it had been bought by movie stars! Ann Koerner! Mabel Pope! Julian Sargent!
“Who the heck are they?” I asked.
“What do you mean, who are they?” Phyllis Nordquist was shocked. “Ann Koerner was in that Lana Turner movie. The one where she kills the millionaire. Or was it Natalie Wood?”
“Lana Turner? Natalie -- How old are they?”
Old. But different. Ann – “Call me Annie,” she told everyone in the huskiest voice I’d ever heard from a woman – Annie still walked lightly, easily, quickly. She always wore dark slacks, a white shirt, and one of a variety of brilliantly colored sweaters. Her white hair was always neatly done in a French knot, with bangs, and wherever she went she wore a red beret that exactly matched her lipstick. Mabel seemed far older, in her dark dresses, moving slowly and carefully. But then there was her voice, her hair, and her eyes, all of them fluttery and girlish. The pair of them were so complimentary that it seemed obvious they were a couple. We knew what Hollywood was like, and we prided ourselves on our sophistication. But then what was Julian doing with them? And who?
Julian, we were told, had been in make-up. Julian had had been in set design. Julian had been a ski bum. Julian had been a surfer. Julian… He wasn’t tall or particularly handsome, but he had silver hair and a silver tongue, and when his eyes fixed on a female of any age, she melted. I watched him, at their housewarming, work his charm on my mother, who went from skeptical to intrigued to flustered to downright tropical. Granted, she was lapping up Manhattans – a drink no one else in town would ever have served – but no one but Julian could have persuaded her to drink at all in such a public place.
I left them in the dining room and went to the living room, where Annie was outlining her plans to give acting lessons.
“Why not?” she asked. “Half the fresh-faced little ingénues out there come from the Midwest. This way they can get a little training before they go out into the cold cruel world. And I can assure you there is nothing crueler than a Hollywood producer.”
“But Annie could handle them,” Mabel said proudly. Annie held herself a little higher as Mabel pointed out Annie’s name in the movie posters hanging on every wall. “Over here is ‘The Wide, Wide World’. Fifth billing, right above Nancy Olson. ‘Queen of Hearts.’ Seventh, but a very good part, absolutely loads of screen time. ‘Love in the Valley’. That was an absolute triumph. Annie played the best friend, who was secretly in love with -- Well, you just have to see it. A brilliant performance. There was talk of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Variety raved about her, and the Times said she was a wisecracking Jane -”
“Please!” Annie cried. “As if it was a compliment to be compared to that bug-eyed, flat-faced little bitch.”
Annie waved her hand, scattering cigarette ashes everywhere, and asked, “Does anybody here know anything about gloxinias?”
Later that evening, I had just stuffed a whole giant chocolate covered strawberry in my mouth – from my fourth plate of hors d’oeuvres – when Annie came striding up to me. I was already standing by the windows, in the fond delusion that I was hidden among the drapes, and under her eye I was fumbling for the window latch, when she said, “Stand up straight. You have the neck of a swan. Show it off.” And she swept off.
It was a wonderful evening.
I don’t know if Annie ever got any acting students – any that paid money. Probably not. It takes a long time for Laskin to trust newcomers, and these three were strange indeed. But a group of us, all early teens, all misfits, quickly gathered around Annie. There was Phyllis, who lived vicariously through gossip magazines and a good thing, too, because her parents were so strict she couldn’t even hang out at the Tastee-Freeze. Paul was so big and burly that it took me twenty years to realize he was gay. Jean was desperately shy. Brian, thin and sensitive and a major dork. Me. And a couple of others who came and went and didn’t count.
Annie would let us come about once a week, in the afternoon: “No one who’s ever been in the theater ever gets up before noon, darlings.” Even then, she was always half asleep, her voice deep and drawling, her breath heavy with smoke and something sweet that Phyllis thought was mouthwash but I knew was gin. But she did put us to work. We read scenes aloud, practiced entrances and exits, sitting and walking, and what to do with our hands.
“Hands are the dead give away of the amateur,” Annie would say. “Look at Laurence Olivier, or Montgomery Clift. They didn’t hulk around with their hands in their pockets. Ladies don’t pick at their nails. No, you cannot hold them as if you were in love with yourself. And they’re not dead weights, either. They have life! Movement! But natural. Always natural. Even when a thousand people are watching.”
Hands were hard.
Usually, just as we were all dying of frustration, Mabel would come in with pop or lemonade or tea, and start talking about Annie’s movies. And then Annie would tell us stories about Hollywood, feuds and casting coups, affairs and tragic accidents, murders and suicides, and endless parties. It would have been more interesting if she’d ever mentioned current movie stars, but we listened raptly anyway. Hollywood was Hollywood, and stars were stars, and it was a leg up on everyone else who didn’t have an acting coach, much less one who had actually attended the Academy Awards.
For a while, everyone was curious about Annie and Mabel. Even my mother pumped me for information about what they wore, what they ate, what they said. But neither of them went out much, and after a while everyone lost interest. It was Julian who became part of Laskin. He did the shopping and ran the errands. Soon he joined the men at coffee down at Mellette’s Lounge in the mornings. “The ladies like to sleep in,” he said. (He always referred to Annie and Mabel as ‘the ladies.’) “I’m more of an early morning person,” even though no one ever saw him before ten. Then Gladys Johnson got hold of him and talked him into coming to duplicate bridge on Tuesday nights. Soon he was the life and soul of every public entertainment Laskin had, joking and flirting, and so courtly. That was my mother’s word. “He’s a gentleman of the old school. I’d love to know how he got mixed up with those two.”
So would everyone else. But he never spoke about it. Never really talked about Hollywood that much. “The ladies have all the good stories,” he’d say. “I was just grunt labor. Get up early, work hard, go to bed early, missed all the parties. Oh, I had some fun, but I like this a lot better. Small town living, good neighbors, clean air. I wish I’d come here years ago. Might have made something of myself.”
At which point some lady couldn’t resist telling him that he seemed fine to her. He was getting quite a following, and things might have gotten sticky, but he always turned down any invitations to private parties. Too busy. Had to run an errand. Promised ‘the ladies’ he’d do something or other. Always regretful, always wistful, always leaving the would-be hostess with hope.
And then Phyllis Nordquist got pregnant. Mother forbade me, on pain of death, to ever go near Annie’s again.
“But they had nothing to do with it!” I wailed. We’d been talking about putting on a play for months, and I knew that now they finally would without me.
“Somebody over there did,” she hissed at me. “Something was going on, something you never told me about!”
“But nothing was going on! We just read scenes and practiced –”
“How to…” I stopped. I suddenly knew that telling her that we practiced how to use our hands would not be a good idea. “How to make entrances and exits. That’s all!”
“Well, you’ve made your exit. And you’re not going back there. And that is final!”
Poor Paul and Brian were under suspicion, of course. Well, Paul was. No one thought Brian was capable of much of anything. And Phyllis – oh, God, I died just thinking about Phyllis. She was only fifteen, and she’d never had a boyfriend, and it just seemed impossible. Nor did it seem any more possible when a warrant was issued for Julian’s arrest. I really think popular belief would have stuck by Julian, if he hadn’t fled.
“That man violated my little girl!” Mrs. Nordquist said, quivering all over in the dairy aisle at the grocery store. “I hope they shoot him when they find him!”
“But…” I began, and stopped when my mother glared at me.
Mrs. Nordquist turned on me and asked, fiercely, “Did he do anything to you?” She turned back to my mother. “You’d better have her checked.”
“Nothing happened to Linda,” my mother said through clenched teeth. Then, taking my arm, she spun around and marched us out of there. She raged all the way home: “I can’t believe it! Telling me… Any one with any decency would have stayed home… But no, she’s out parading around telling everyone… The shame alone… I can’t believe…”
When we got home, I put the groceries down as quietly as I could, and started to drift away, back to my room. But she stopped me.
“Now you tell me right now, was that man ever anywhere around you kids when you were over there?”
“No!” I cried. “He was never there at all!” And it was true. He’d never been there in the afternoons.
“Are you sure?”
“If you’re lying to me…”
“I’m not. It’s the truth, I swear it!”
“Well.” Mother had a grim smile on her face. “It’ll be interesting to see what he has to say for himself when they catch up with him.”
But they didn’t. Days went by. Two weeks went by. That was very weird. Usually an APB in South Dakota means a quick arrest. Sure, it’s a big state, but it’s a hard place to hide in. Everybody knows everybody else, and they can spot a stranger in a flash. How could Julian vanish so completely? The master of disguise, I whispered to Jean at church. She smiled so quickly only I could spot it.
With Julian gone, Annie took over the grocery shopping and the errands – at a much later hour – driving around in the big old Lincoln with her red beret sticking up above the steering wheel. She acted like nothing much had happened. With the whole town seething, her only comment – to Gladys Johnson, who always rushed in where everyone else held back – was: “Nonsense. It’s just a huge misunderstanding. If Julian wasn’t such a coward… But that’s all Julian’s guilty of. Or could be. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about.” And she actually chuckled as she walked away. That stirred the pot.
Two more weeks went by, and the Nordquists were going to Florida, where Mr. Nordquist had cousins.
“It’s just been so hard on all of us,” Mrs. Nordquist announced, this time from the toiletries aisle. “We’ve told Sheriff Hanson to call us and we’ll fly back at a moment’s notice to put that monster away. But we all need some space. Some rest. A change…” And she picked up a bottle of aspirin and went to the cash register.
“Well,” my mother said, “Phyllis won’t be pregnant when they come back, that’s certain.”
“So that’s where they go around here,” Annie commented as she wheeled her cart up next to ours. She was looking at the check-out aisle, where Mrs. Nordquist was fumbling around in her purse. “This farce has gone on long enough,” Annie announced.
“Well, if you know where he is, I suggest you get him back at once,” my mother snapped back.
“Oh, I’ll do more than that,” Annie said, and swept away.
And the next day, Julian was back. He went to the police station and turned himself in. The Nordquists could hardly run fast enough down there, and they weren’t the only ones. It was amazing how many others managed to find some reason to be downtown. My mother, for example, decided she had to pay the electricity bill right then, though she usually just mailed it in. So there was quite a crowd on hand to find out, a few hours later, that Mr. Nordquist had been arrested for Prohibited Sexual Contact.
“Incest!” Gladys Johnson gasped.
“What about Julian?” Mother asked.
“I can’t believe it. Homer Nordquist?”
“What about Alva? Do you think she knew?”
“Oh, of course not.”
“Poor Alva. And they were going to Florida.”
“But what about Julian? How do they know --”
Chief Munson came out, looked at the crowd, and shook his head. “Folks, why don’t you go on home?”
Nobody budged. Instead, a flurry of questions rose up, all of which he ignored, except my mother’s: “What about Julian?”
For once in his life, Chief Munson cracked a smile. “We have proof that Julian Sargent is innocent of any and all charges.”
And they did. When Julian turned himself in, preparatory to putting him in jail, they searched him and discovered that he was a woman.
Alva and Phyllis Nordquist went to Florida, and never came back. Mr. Nordquist got sentenced to five years: he got Judge Bolland who, for whatever reason, decided he couldn’t give such a decent citizen the maximum of fifteen, and Homer ended up serving only three. When he got out, he moved. Nobody cared where.
As for Annie and Mabel and Julian, they stuck it out in Laskin. For a long time no one would speak to Julian, though we couldn’t help staring like crazy… But after a while everyone thawed, and soon Julian was again the life and soul of every function. He was just so much fun. And yes, we kept referring to Julian as ‘he’, just with implied quotation marks. Like I said, we’ve always prided ourselves on our sophistication.