Hurting Mother—Lottie—who already has been hurt enough is the worst thing about this plan. But it’s too late now and it can’t be helped.
She sits on the edge of her bed, fidgeting absentmindedly with her favorite bead necklace. Charlie is coming for her tonight. Handsome, rakish Charlie—who no one in her diminished family has met and nobody would approve of if they did meet. A cardboard suitcase is packed, stashed out of sight under her bed. She has tucked away her modest savings, a wad of worn-out bills and a few coins, in the deepest pocket of her thin overcoat.
Tonight Helen will flee Louisville.
She continues through her mental inventory, thinking of her family, guilt rising in her like the waters of the normally placid Ohio rise up after heavy storms upriver. Surely Uncle Wallace will be disappointed in her. She is sorry for that, too. He has always been kind to her, standing in for her absent father. And Grandpa and Grandma Wortham down in Vine Grove will be confused and hurt, although since Grandma’s stroke you can’t always be sure what she’s thinking and you’d have to be a fool to take Grandpa’s word for it.
Her thoughts keep circling back to Lottie. Lottie deserves better. Of course she is better off for having divorced Father whenever that was—nine years back?—but now she will be all alone, rattling around in the second-floor walk-up on West Chestnut. True, the two of them, Lottie and Helen, separated only by 20 years, more like sisters than mother and daughter, have had their differences and have bickered over little things. But now Lottie will lose her steadiest ally, her only ally, overnight.
Not that I’m all that steady, Helen acknowledges ruefully, reflecting on the succession of odd jobs that she has held since dropping out of the Academy several years back. None has lasted more than a few months, except of course the part-time job as organist at the Strand just down the street, a job that she’d fought hard to win and hold onto. For a dollar an hour, good money, she waits for the vaudeville acts to end and then slides across the polished bench of the Wurlitzer to provide background music for the short films that play between the live acts.
She isn’t a good organist—she doesn’t work the pedals very much—and when a new movie premieres she first has to concentrate hard on both the plot line, such as it is, and the keyboard. After a few screenings, she carefully ventures down toward the pedals.
Meanwhile, she knows, the raggedy crowd of regulars in the audience has been focusing more and more on her. The Strand’s managers, no fools, have noticed; that is probably why they continued to tolerate her limited musical talent. It was on a Friday night that she first found herself bathed in a spotlight from behind. The flare of the spotlight made the movie, dim and flickering up on the big screen, even harder to see, but no one seemed to object.
In some ways the spotlight and the scrutiny weren’t unfamiliar. Since her days at Nazareth Academy, teachers and classmates, sometimes even total strangers, told her how beautiful, how radiant she was. At first she assumed that this was no more than the kind of thing that older people, older men in particular, felt free to say to girls who were turning into women—the predictable, generally irritating backdrop to an ongoing metamorphosis that otherwise took its own course. But eventually she had to admit that, without much caring about it, without trying for it, she was garnering more attention than her classmates. Heads turned and eyes followed her on the street. Looking in the mirror at her dark blond hair falling in natural waves to her shoulders, bright blue eyes staring back, she never saw anything special. But others did.
Her beauty created its own momentum, as if it lived alongside her and might outrun her. She found herself being steered down a particular path. A good student, certainly bright enough for the academic track, she devoured H. L. Mencken’s acerbic essays, even tried her hand at writing a few of her own, but the nuns pushed her into the Special division, the track for artistic types, and gave her plum roles in the school’s annual productions of Shakespeare. Desdemona was her favorite: innocent, loyal, and beautiful. Do not doubt, Cassio. But I will have my lord and you again as friendly as you were. Four nights running, she brought down the house, and no, it wasn’t only her saying so; even the mighty Courier-Journal had noticed: If you have any compelling reason to be down in Nazareth this weekend, be sure to take in Othello at the Academy, where young Louisville native Helen Wortham shines. Nazareth’s town fathers bristled at the sly municipal slight, but Helen found herself warming to the creature living alongside her, sometimes outracing her.
She hated everything else about boarding school. Sister Agnes in particular, Christian doctrine and Bible history—Sister Agnes seemed determined to torment her. Miss Worth-Ham, she would say, accenting the second syllable to provoke giggles around the classroom, do we have your full attention? Helen resolved that she would adopt a more elegant stage name. Perhaps Worthington. No, too long. Worthing.
She dropped out, moved back in with Lottie, joined the Louisville Dramatic Club mainly working backstage, sometimes allowed onstage in crowd scenes and choruses, mostly frustrated by her slow progress. Then she’d go to the Strand and play the wheezing old organ and watch damsels in distress up on the screen, thinking, I could do that, and—soon enough—I could do better than that. I will do better than that.
Charlie first showed up on a Monday, always the quietest night at the Strand, with the regular crowd empty-pocketed and absent after the weekend. “Charles J. McDonald, at your service, ma’am”: dark-haired and dashing, on the slim side, waiting at the stage door and flashing a dazzling gap-toothed smile. Looking ancient—maybe thirty, maybe even older—asking if he could buy her a drink at the lounge next door. Certainly not, she huffed; she did not go around with strangers, especially strange older men. Although, she admitted to herself as she made her way home, alone, this Charles J. What’s-his-name certainly was well spoken and even attractive in his own way for such an old fellow. And the next night he was back, apologizing, asking if he could buy her a coffee—any time, any place, he emphasized, smiling, your choice. We’ll talk shop. I’m in the business too, you know.
They met for coffee the next day. And lunch the day after that, dinner the next night. “I’m 34,” he declared, answering the question she was always too polite to ask. Ran away from home and enlisted in the Navy at age 17; on shore leave by chance In Havana when his ship, the Maine, exploded mysteriously, killing most of his shipmates. After mustering out he did odd jobs in the Northeast and Midwest for a decade until he stumbled upon Essanay Studios in Chicago, took up stagehanding. “We did a dozen Chaplin shorts two years ago,” he said. “Maybe you saw them? The Tramp?”
Of course she had. Everyone had seen The Tramp. She had played behind it at the Strand. Despite herself she was impressed.
Now, he said, he was in front of the camera. They had just finished one short—Little Miss Fortune—in which he had a small role. He was appearing in two more this year. “All of them have the word ‘little’ in the title,” he said, grinning, disarming. “Not very grand!” But already he saw a clear path to directing—making his way to the other end of the camera—at which point, he said oh so boldly, he would cast Helen as his leading lady.
“Oh, I’m sure,” she said, skeptical but flattered.
He was on one of his regular swings through the south, talking directly with theater operators about Essanay’s products and plans, scouting up talent in parts of the country where maybe it wasn’t quite as expensive as it was elsewhere and meanwhile avoiding just as much of the bad weather up north as possible. “That wind blows in off Lake Michigan,” he said, shivering a bit dramatically, “and freezes you right up, right up to the insides of your bones.”
“Ugh!” She had never been north of Cincinnati.
“Which is one reason why the industry is moving west. Forget Chicago, New York, New Jersey. The action’s in Los Angeles. Great weather, great light, plenty of open space cheap. I’ll be out there myself soon.”
“I’d love to go to Los Angeles,” she said, more to herself than to him. “To California.” The word, drawn out, sounded to her like perfume smelled.
“Come with me!”
Right then, she should have slapped him, stalked out of the restaurant, refused to meet him again. But she didn’t. Instead, in the moment, she exclaimed hotly that she was not the sort of girl who would just run off with some stranger, for goodness sake. She almost added that she wasn’t even eighteen yet, but decided not to. She dropped her napkin on the table and excused herself.
But Charlie being Charlie took that merely as the beginning of negotiations. He came to town every month or so, seeking her out, wearing down her defenses. You’re stunning, he would say, holding up thumbs and forefingers in a rough square to frame her face. Look at you. Just look at you. Tell me one good reason why you can’t be my leading lady.
From the beginning she hid him from Lottie. She told him he couldn’t send flowers to the apartment so he sent them to the Strand. Sometimes she missed a shift and arrived to find a shriveled and accusing bouquet on the bench of the Wurlitzer. She told him she couldn’t accept jewelry or clothing from him, so he brought her boxes of Stollwerck chocolates, all the way from Chicago. Soon enough he was telling her he loved her, that she was the most intriguing and talented woman he had ever met—although not the best organ player, again with his disarming grin—and that he wanted to marry her and make her his own. “We’ll elope,” he urged. “Drive overnight to Pittsburgh, where Joseph—my brother, the priest, the one I told you about—will marry us. In the church. Then on to New York. I’ll work my contacts for the both of us.”
He overwhelmed her with gaudy specifics: mansions, limos with chauffeurs, trips to exotic locales. And then we’ll move out to the Coast, maybe Santa Monica where I have some real estate connections, holding her hand in his, which she had only recently begun to allow, and we will conquer Hollywood. King Charles and Queen Helen, reigning monarchs of Film Land. He smiled, acknowledging without saying so that he sounded grandiose. But the sharp boring of his eyes into hers, dark brown into bright blue, persuaded her that he could make all of this real.
And so she is won, and so Charlie is coming for her tonight.