“Sally, you’ve been with this dance thing for long’en me,” said Evangeline, powdering her nose lightly as she jammed her sore feet into a washtub of ice, “if it’s a marathon, why do we get breaks?”
Sally stared at her younger sister, a wad of Chowards gum snapped between polished teeth and pink gum. “You’re one dodo bird. First off, I've only been here one day longer than you. Second: why do you think? So they can’t say they’re workin’ us to death. Every thee hours we get to sit down for fifteen minutes and the customers get to go piss or get some popcorn.”
“It’s like a circus,” said Betty from the hallway, where she’d been leaning since they called all clear on the floor. “You can’t give ‘em human cannon balls all the time – gotta space ‘em out with dancing ladies and elephants. And Dick Dart is our elephant.”
As if on cue, the sour strains of Dick’s voice reached their ears through the loudspeaker; he was halfway through murdering “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” wavering in and out of earshot depending on how slick the monitor felt like being. “Oh,” said Evangeline. “You think we’re really stars in this place?”
Sally popped her gum. “Shootin’ stars. All we have to do is outlast the Nigurskys and we’ve got a fighting shot at that trophy, and the money.” She yanked up her hemline a couple of inches and stood up, ready for a check from the floor matron whose entire life work seemed to revolve around making Sally’s life miserable.
Dick fumbled the high note. Evangeline rubbed her temples. Betty lit a cigarette.
Sally just laughed and reached for her . “’C’Mon, girls.”
They had taken The Starlight Ballroom’s dance marathon by storm six weeks before, those thrilling gals from the cornbelt, the Barry Sisters. And there were twelve – that’s right, folks, drink ‘em in – twelve of ‘em to pick between, and all of them were vying for the five thousand dollar grand prize.
There was Julie, the eldest, who looked a lot like Carole Lombard and who gave off a strongly patrician air; she had been dancing with her husband Fred since the marathon began. Next came…well, we’ll get to Sarah later. After her was Edith, who danced so fiercely she forgot her partner, tramping and stepping on his feet in her mad rush to get through the steps. Lately it seemed more and more that she lost sight of those around her, dancing blindly about the stage, self-possessed – in both meanings. Then there was complaining, somewhat charmless Shirley, who had the misfortune of being an unwed mother, a scandal that she used for free publicity and extra food sponsors at every opportunity. Her husband had died in the war, she said, though all the girls had heard things about his disappearance that left them on edge. Next was Mary, who often lived up to her name by ministering to her fellow competitors and trying to convert them through her boyfriend’s sidewalk ministry - he’d taken to preaching a few miles from the ballroom, always careful to tell the crowd to vote for Mary and buy from her sponsors. Then there was Elizabeth, nicknamed Betty, who was an ex-majorette and often had busloads of former classmates in the stands cheering her on in the school’s colors. She was, under her can-do pep, as cynical as the next one. The twins, Anna and Amanda, were never seen without each other and were frequently confused, though each girl became wildly offended if anyone would dare mistake one for the other. Typical twin stuff, as Sally put it. Sally? She was the crowd favorite, the one who looked like Joan Blondell, talked like Mae West and shamelessly hiked her skirts up and danced with any boy who would take her. Then came Joanna, the clothes horse, who took on the family’s fashion endorsements by accepting dozens of free outfits from Gimbals and twirling around the floor like an angel in costumes that cost more than any of the girls made in a week. Louise, who was so enamored of the free food the place gave out – and so good at selling herself as a hearty appetite bearer in that all-American-can-do-God I love these hot dogs way that she had been crowned Miss Kosher Pork Princess and Miss Vegetarian Health in the same week. And rounding out the group was Evangeline, a baby star if there ever was one. Little light in the brains department, sure, but still a killer diller.
The girls had everything a body needed to win in such a competition. Looks, wholesome breeding, and even a sad sack story – all twelve were dancing to win money enough to pay off the mortgage on their family farm, to take that burden from their widowed mother’s overwhelmed and dust-coated shoulders. For her they would dance until their shoes fell apart. They would dance until they dropped.
But unlike the shoes –which were regularly replaced by sponsors – the women were irreplaceable.
Which brings us back to Sarah. Sarah, who had the only bit of ballroom training among the girls, having taught classes in New York for spare money while her husband was off at war. Yet only she had escaped the tangle of pain and fame that consumed her sisters when her partner collapsed atop her, felled by a heart attack in the middle of a jitterbug marathon and breaking her leg on the way down. Firmly out of the running, she took on the role of manager and it was her job to keep talking to the carnies that ran the show, to keep relations smooth and the interview time coming for her sisters. It was she who had tried extending the fifteen minute beak rule and demanded they get rid of the jogging marathon breaks. She was the one who sat in the stands with her foot propped up, writing home to mother fat letters stuffed with bills and newspaper clippings from the ballroom.
She was the one who had faded from view and – she feared – the only one who remembered that they lived in a Cinderella bubble that was ready to burst at any moment.
The girls had lasted for a phenomenal six weeks – six weeks with nearly nonstop dancing. They had outlasted twenty other couples, and now it was down to the eleven of them and a farming couple from Kansas, Ed and Ruby Huxly, who had the support of the crowd,of the poor ex-sharecroppers who had come west to stake their claims on the jobs and land leftover from the big citrus farming boom. Their dreams were as dead as Ed and Ruby’s son, as their farm, but in them there lay a level of hope and peace that seemed to symbolize all of the audience’s own unspoken dreams in a way the Barry girls couldn't reach.
They were a problem, and Sarah knew it.
There were, among them, only two malicious plotters. Sally loved attention but she didn’t care about stabbing people in the back when she could call attention to herself just by shimmying her hips; that kind of guile was beyond her. It was Sarah who was pragmatic, smart, and crafty enough to keep an eye on the affairs before her. She knew where the Huxlys kept their suitcase, and knew that they would be too tired and busy to note that Ed's Bromo had been replaced by sleeping pills. The next break they took would be long enough to put them under and disqualify them.
The lack of guilt she felt as she tossed the Bromo into the trash was simple and honest. It had been hardened and developed through years of watching her siblings go hungry.
Sarah Barry looked out for her own, and the Huxlys were definitely not her kin.
Two days after the Huxlys were disqualified Sarah gathered the girls together in their shared room, judiciously eyeing them all in turn.
“Well, it’s down to brass tacks,” Sarah said. “Edith, I think you should be the next one out. It’s not as if your heart’s in it, anyway.”
Edith’s fifty mile stare, focused on her own saddle shoes, gave no indication of whether or not she agreed to Sarah’s suggestion.
“Is this what’s it’s come to?” asked Betty. “Throwing the whole gig like it’s nothing?”
“Be practical,” Sarah said, puffing on her cigarette. “Most of you are going to have to lose. Doesn’t really matter how, as long as it gets done.” All that was keeping them in fans and sponsorship were the girls' individual personalities, their tiny cults of personality anyway.
Each girl showed a different level of reticence to Sarah’s pushiness. Sally rolled her eyes and lit up a Lucky Strike, Betty frowned childishly, the twins started chatting to each other in the language they'd invented as children, Shirley started protesting that the choice would cut into the rations she’d hoped to send home to her kids. Julie’s back automatically got up and she shot Sarah a dour look. Louise kept chowing down on the sandwiches and chips Danvers Deli had brought, avoiding all eye contact. Joanna picked at her glittery clothing desolately. Evangeline pretended not to hear, burying her nose in a movie magazine.
As always, it was Mary who tried to impose piety and order. “Sisters! We must look to God for advice and honor our mother,” she said. “If you need a lamb, I’ll join Edith at the slaughter.”
“Pah!” Sally laughed.
“There’s no need to be so dramatic,” Julie added.
“I speak from a place of faith,” said Mary rigidly. “The sooner we all leave this palace of sin, the sooner we will seem more like ourselves.”
“Mary’s right,” said Julie. “Fred and I’ve been talking about it; it’s high time we got back. It’s planting season and I don’t trust those Donaldson boys to keep the fields tilled. We’ll pay off the lean on mama’s farm, and our debts with what’s left. The soil should be strong again after the summer. Everything else should go into the crops.”
What a load of hooey! There was no way they’d happily go back to the farm, to the plain life of Kansas after they were finished. Sarah almost rolled her eyes at Julie but couldn’t bring herself to blurt out a harsh word to the girl.
“That’s right, you know what we’re gonna do with the money,” said Betty. “All of it’s going to Mom’s. If she can keep the farm then we can move back home and...”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sally grumbled, sucking on her cigarette. “Me, Vangie and Betty are the best dancers in the family. I think it ought to be us in the end.” Mumbles of disagreement dotted the air but didn’t gather much momentum.
“We shouldn’t be talking like this,” said Edith. “What if Buddy hears?”
“Buddy can eat shit and die,” Sally said. “Without us, he’s got nothing and he knows it.”
Wildfire murmurs raced through the crowd. Sarah had to tap her crutch repeatedly against the floor until she had order restored. “We’re in agreement, then. Edith and Mary?”
The sisters exchanged glances. Edith sat frozen in place. Mary lifted her chin, an amateur Falconetti.
“All right,” said Sarah, as the klaxon blared.
The culling went smoothly. Mary left immediately under a rain of pietas to join her husband-to-be in his corner preaching, dignified and soft-voiced, leaving a trail of crying church ladies behind her. Sarah couldn’t bear the false sentimentality; she powdered her nose instead of paying attention to her sister’s speech. Making her way back from the ladies’ room to see Edith sitting on the bleachers, a large sandwich sitting uneaten in her lap, Sarah settled down heavily beside her, cast still propped on the railing. The orchestra was tootling its way through "I Met a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five And Ten Cent Store)”, and from her position she could see everything. Julie and Fred were leaning heavily into each other, barely shuffling their exhausted feet; Betty’s red lips glittered as she disguised a stumble as a wide sweep, her sailor partner trying to keep a rumba beat up with his hips; the twins and their twin partners stood still, rocking, their movements entirely identical; Shirley frowned, her eyes needle-sharp as she stared at one of the band’s horn players; Evangeline seemed daisy-fresh in her youth, offering a little wink for Dick Dart, which so disconcerted him he managed to strain the band’s limited talents and cause a terrible bleating sound to rise from the band; Sally had somehow managed to roll her hem another inch higher, turning her beatific face toward the skylight, her sweaty features somehow looking saintly under its encasing of powder. Joanne glittered. Louise held her rumbling stomach. It was twelve midnight on a Friday, the stands were loaded, and the Barry girls were at their best.
Sarah felt pride, such breathless, soul-deep pride.
That was when she heard a heavy cough from her immediate right and turned to see a dark-eyed man in a heavy trenchcoat sit beside her and reach into his front pocket.
“Mind if I smoke?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t mind if you caught fire,” said Sarah.
A smile crinkled the corner of his mouth. Sarah took in his face as he pushed a cigar between his lips and reached for a book of matches, concealed in his front pants pocket. His features were blunt, too rugged to be very handsome but bizarrely captivating. She followed his clublike fingers as they surprised her by gracefully striking the match to flame. “You’re the Barry girls’ handler, aren’t you? You must be awful proud.”
“I’m a Barry sister as well, and yes, of course I am.” She frowned. “I don’t know who you are mister…”
He responded by smiling and offering her a calling card. Sarah raised an eyebrow and stared at the small embossed piece of paper. John Smith, PI it read.
“I have reason to believe that something’s rotten in Denmark. Seems Buddy Wilson’s left a trail of fraud charges behind him. I’ve got reason to believe that he’s looking to ditch on this contest with the prize money, and one of your sisters's conspiring with him to do it.”
Sarah arranged her expression into one of high moral dudgeon. “Mister Smith, I don’t know where you come from, but where I come from there’s such a thing as morality and decency. My sisters are good girls, and none's the sort who would dare take what doesn’t belong to her.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard your sister’s little homily too,” he said. “Every gal in the world’s got her breaking point. You’ve got eleven sisters. Maybe most of them are lambs but I’m willing to wager that four or more of them are lions willing to kill.” He puffed on his cigar. “I hope you don’t mind my staying to watch the show.”
“Of course not,” Sarah muttered quietly. She turned her eyes toward the ballroom's only window, the one facing the bleachers, so fogged through from the heating system that nothing could be made out of the world outside. She grumbled, feeling all the more like a trapped bird. “Damn well better stop raining soon.”
“I prefer the rain. Sweeps out the gutters,” said Smith. The scent of his cigar was making her sick.
Abruptly came her younger sister's voice from beside her. “You’ll see, Sarah,” Edith smiled simply. “Once we go home everything will be right again.”
“Right as rain,” laughed Sarah under her breath, but she patted Edith’s innocent hand. Then a shout from the dance floor distracted her from her thoughts.
Louise had fallen to the floor clutching her ankle, her eyes screwed closed in pain. Sarah had to hobble her way to the rescue as the referee counted Louise out. But Sarah was no help when the medics stooped to scoop her sister from the field of battle.
“You’ll be all right,” she said, having no idea if her blandishments were true or not. In fact, Louise seemed awfully green as they carried her away, her partner at her heels, sad-faced and disappointed as the crowd in the bleachers.
Four down, eight to go. Sarah marked off the time by trying to fuss over Louise, a distraction she was deprived of when Louise insisted on shipping herself home with her twisted ankle to look after their mother and the land. Three more weeks passed before the twins fell, Anna first, then Amanda, as if missing her sister's company. The two girls had attached themselves so thoroughly to their partners that at one point Sarah found all four of them together in a supply closet. By the time Joanne told he she was planning on throwing the competition to become a model Sarah was so thoroughly distracted that she simply let the girl go with a signed agreement, demanding she turn up for dinner every evening, which Joanne did sulkily.
Five more girls. Betty, Julie, Shirley, Vangie and Sally. Sarah had no idea which of the girls would fall first, but she was running out of sponsors to manipulate, and that detective fellow was always hanging around making her life too complicated to ply her usual tricks.
The tale turned, suddenly, when she found Shirley sitting alone in a stall in the ladies’ room, crying while clutching a note. Shirley was a born crier and at first Sarah thought to make a caustic remark on her ridiculous tears, but the frantic nature of it stopped her.
“They’re gone,” she said. “The twins went on and eloped and didn’t even tell mama!”
“What?” Sarah grabbed the note but it provided no more context than what Shirley had given her. Anger spread through her veins as she stalked out of the room - how dare they not secure her permission, disappear into the distance alone?
And Detective Smith was waiting in the hallway.
“Looks like your scheme’s coughing up a body count,” he said.
“Go take a leap,” she growled.
“Is that any attitude to take when I’m standing here offering you an out?” She rolled her eyes. “if you’ve got anything you wanna say, spill it soon – before someone really does end up dead.”
Sarah glared at him and she stalked away.
Shirley fell away with ease the following week, having made herself sick with anger and stress. She came to Sarah with her rabbit test and told her that the band’s horn player had been fooling with her for months. “It was bound to happen. Hard to find room enough to boil a Johnny in a place like this.”
“I could ask Marie if she knows a guy…” Sarah started. Or Sally, but she didn’t want to say that aloud.
Shirley shook her head. “He’s a fine enough provider, and he’s willing to put his name on the certificate. I won’t have to go home in disgrace to mama. And my kids’ll finally have a dad again, Sarah, can you imagine?”
Buddy almost pissed himself when she brought him the news. The wedding between Manny “Spit” Spats and Shirley Barry took place in the Starlight Ballroom as her sisters danced about her in matching bridesmaids gowns. It lasted twenty minutes and was well attended by their swooning cluster of fans and many eager sponsors, who donated over a hundred dollars in prizes to support their new marriage. There wasn’t time enough for mamma to come up for the wedding, and the old woman cursed her health and the girls’ impertinence in a blunt letter Sarah received and then threw into the ocean.
Shirley had been gone for a month when Sarah gathered the last four girls together in the alley, where Sally and Evangeline had taken to indulging in smoke breaks. “Lemme tell it to you straight,” Sarah said, “the crowd loves Betty. She’s probably the one we ought to go with for extra endorsements. Any objections?”
Sally sarcastically waved a hand but her sister chose to ignore it.
“I don’t give a damn,” Julie admitted, rubbing her weak eyes. “Good God am I tired. I’ll go next.”
“Then you lose,” said Sally. “I’m not ready to leave yet.”
“Just take the shot, sis. Sit down and we’ll finally get to go back home,” said Betty, pulling her coat close about her belly.
“No, you can move back home,” Sally said suddenly. “I’m going somewhere after this. You saw the way they were looking at me! Why, I could be the next Marie McDonald!”
Sarah’s laugh was all cynicism. Her sister’s head had been lost in the clouds ever since a small-time talent agent, Marie’s representative at the modeling agency, had started fluttering around her. “You’ve got bats in your brains if you think anyone from Hollywood’s paying attention to this little two-bit dance hall.”
“You’re just peeved because you went out first,” Sally said.
Evangeline pouted, her marcel waves burnished upon her scalp in the orange-yellow electric lights. “Well, I’m gonna stay here with Dick. He’s kind and has the sweetest eyes…”
Ever since Evangeline had taken up with the bandleader Sarah had been subjected to nonstop sermons on his alleged greatness. “You dumb dora,” growled Sarah. “That man’s using you for money.”
“The same way Rick Smith, Private Dick’s using you?” Evangeline asked.
“His name is John Smith,” Sarah blushed. Maybe she had been spending a bit of time with the detective recently, but nothing untoward or overtly personal. “And never you mind. All of you keep your noses clean and figure it out – draw straws, I don’t give a good goddamn! I just need two of you to fall on your swords so we can win this thing and go home!”
Sarah left her sisters alone in the alley, smoking, leaning their aching feet and backs up against the cool bricks.
The partners – disposable – never figured into the conversation.
She saw a shadowed form, laughing, her arm around Buddy’s shoulders. And then she heard Buddy calling her sister doll in the most sickening, syrupy voice possible. Money was exchanged. Promises were made.
The fix was in. Maybe from the beginning. Sarah should have known that there would be a sharp knife trained on their good luck, her good will, the whole time.
Sarah ran all the way to the one pay phone and, with shaking fingers, called Smith.
Sally, Evangeline and Betty. The audience was torn and their sister was nearly beside herself with anxiety. They had been within the ballroom for nearly a year now, turning milk-white from lack of sun exposure, getting raw-muscled and turning desperate as time grew longer. Now they competed in a foxtrot, elbowing at one another, snarling and snapping, all but brawling as they pushed for dominance on the stage.
The first punch was Sally’s, of course.
“Clod!” yelled Evangeline before landing a haymaker of her own. Sarah rushed toward the tumbling, brawling women, hearing Buddy on the house microphone, claiming that if there wasn’t a Barry on her feet at the count of ten all of the women would be eliminated from the competition. Their dance parters ineffectually pulled and yanked on limbs only to be shoved away and ignored. The other girls gathered around; Mary with her white robes, and pregnant Shirley, Joanna in her heavy make-up, Julie and her husband.
“And we have a count-out!” Buddy yelled. “What a shame! Seems the purse will stay unclaimed, but we’ll be donating over forty percent of it to the charity of the girls’ choice. Give a round of applause to the Barry girls! And be sure to tip your concessionaires on the way out!”
The audience’s reaction was a muffled roar of disappointed white noise. Sarah felt blood rush to her ears as Betty struggled her way out of her sister’s grip.
“But,” Betty scrambled to her feet, “but you said you’d take care of us,” she whispered, loud enough for Sarah to hear it.
“You must’ve heard wrong,” Buddy said nervously, squirming under Betty’s intense gaze. “But the orphans will be pleased to have your generous contribution!”
“You’re telling me I nearly danced myself to death,” she snapped, “I had to spend months buttering you up and you’re telling me I DIDN’T win?!”
“Oh brother,” Sally laughed, shoving her corsage back and to the side, “looks like miss Pepsodent 1933 has a dark side.”
“Shut the hell up, Sally!” Betty yelled. “You’re one to talk. How much’ve you been squirreling away under the table?” Sally turned red and struggled against Sarah’s grip.
“What about Vangie’s little party with Dick?”
“Dick loves me!” Vangie piped up, and Dick tried to hide behind his bandstand.
“You turned each other in,” said Buddy, trying to edge toward the exit. “There ain’t nobody to blame but you!”
“You really think you could break the bonds of sisterhood?” rang out Mary’s voice, as Sarah condemned her quietly as a fool. “No, the real varlet stands before me in glitter and a wig!”
With that, all nine of the remaining Barry girls closed in on Buddy. He smiled nervously, eyes darting from face to face. “Now, girls! We can work this out! I'm sure there's something I could give you that would put us all on the same page..."
"The charade's over," came Smith's voice from the stands, ambling closer. "We've got witnesses willing to put you in some very incriminating positions with Miss Barry, probably including Miss Barry herself. But we all know these girls've danced their knees off for your benefit for months. Paying 'em's the only fair thing."
Buddy's eyes shot wildly from face to face before his eyes locked on Sarah; they narrowed at her as she bit her inner lip. Buddy shouted, "fine! Take the damn money! But I’m cutting out – this dog and pony show’s over!” He shoved the sack of cash at Sarah, hurting her, almost knocking her backward and earning him a fist to the face from Sally. In outrage, the women and men closed in - he produced a gun and waved it in their direction. "Stay back!" he demanded, was ignored after firing a warning shot that shattered the frosted-over skylight over their heads. Glass rained down as the crowd fled in a panic. Having had enough, the sisters, John and Fred descended on him en masses; even Dick tried to land a few kicks. It was John who grabbed the conman by his lapels, carrying him out the side door and threw Buddy right out of the ballroom and over the railing, into the Pacific.
(He lived, but his toupee was never the same).
Everything devolved into chaos. The sack holding the contest’s money split in the struggle - paper bills rained down across the floor like feathers ripped from the back of a strangled bird. There was a hole in the roof from Buddy’s errant pistol shot, and Edith drifted toward it, standing in the sunbeam, closing her eyes. It had been nearly a year since she’d seen actual, real, unfiltered light. Tears came, she didn’t understand why, but they rolled and poured down her chin, her neck, her shoulder.
The spell had been broken.
The sun poured in. What was left of the crowd – bereft of an orchestra or direction – started nervously chatting with one another. Sally collapsed bonelessly into her partner Carl’s arms (the girl always did know how to make good press). Julie started to cry. Betty wrapped an arm around Edith’s shoulder and stared up into the light. Evangeline rushed the bandstand to wrap her arms around Dick and kissed him shamelessly, right there in the orchestra pit.
Sarah soon found herself being kissed senseless by Smith. It was Mary who counted the money twice and gathered every last dollar up and rolled it away to safety in the belly of her Bible. She was planning on a steak dinner, damn it. And a trip back home in a real automobile.
This was how the Barry Sisters won five thousand dollars at the Starlight Ballroom, saved their mother’s farm, found self-respect (in some cases), love (in others) or just plain didn’t change (Sally, Sally, Sally). They were free now. Bloody-footed, exhausted, but finally, blessedly, eternally free.
But not, I believe, by you, dear reader.