By Liza Nash Taylor
The Studebaker pulled into the Palm Court of the Jefferson Hotel at half-past seven. The night was sultry, and the Jefferson’s signature pair of alligators swam in lazy circles around the fountain that was the centerpiece of the court. Sleek cars disgorged couples and groups of fashionably dressed young people. Shrieked greetings and shrill laughter rang out, adding to the atmosphere of anticipated gaiety. May’s door was opened by a smiling attendant, and she waited at the foot of the wide steps, pulling on her evening gloves. As Lush conferred with the parking attendant, May scanned the courtyard, hoping to find Elsie. She took Lush’s arm and they stepped inside the ornate lobby with its sweeping twin marble staircases. May’s eyes were drawn upward, by the sparkle of the crystal chandeliers.
A young woman grasped Lush’s arm, pulling him toward her. “Why, Luscious Craig, what a perfectly lovely surprise!” May knew at once who she was. Bitsy Ragsdale was petite and pretty, in a tensely brittle way. From her blunt-cut bob to her jutting elbows, she was made up of angles. The line of her gunmetal satin dress was punctuated by the jut of her hip bones and a silvery fabric band was tied around her forehead in the flapper style. Ignoring May, she patted Lush’s lapel, saying, “What have you been up to?”
“Bitsy. Hello, and hello, Maude,” Lush said, “How are you this evening? You look very nice in that shade of yellow.” His brilliant smile turned, like a spotlight, toward an awkwardly tall young woman, who started, blinked, and squinted, as if its unexpected beam was too bright to bear.
She blushed a blotchy crimson. “Fine thanks, Lush. I mean, I’m fine tonight, and… thank you.” She took a large swallow from her glass.
“This is May Marshall. May, this is Bitsy Ragsdale, and Maude Whitman.”
Taking a deep breath, May said, “I’m pleased to meet you.”
Bitsy frowned, as if she were puzzling something out, then her eyebrows shot up and she raised her glass to her thin lips. She smiled—a smile that progressed no farther than her mouth, and blinked at May over the top of her glass, holding it there long enough for May to notice the large emerald glittering on her left hand. “I’ve heard of you before,” Bitsy said.
Teddy’ Whitman’s older sister had prominent gums and a weak chin. Her stooping posture and squinting, expectant expression seemed to convey, in equal parts, hopefulness and a resigned aura of inadequacy. Maude squinted at May. “Are you dancing in the competition?”
“Yes,” May said, tugging Lush closer, “Lush and I are partners tonight. How about you?”
Maude yanked at the skirt of her dress and her dance card, with its little silk tassel, dangled dejectedly from her wrist. “Teddy will be representing the family.”
“How nice,” May said. “It’s been lovely chatting, really, but Lush, darling, let’s get a drink.”
“Good luck then,” Bitsy said, in a singsong voice, waggling her fingers so that her ring showed. May fluttered her fingers in response and continued to squeeze Lush’s arm as they worked their way through the crowd, into the ballroom.
“Lush darling?” Lush said.
“Well, at least that’s out of the way. I was polite, wasn’t I?”
A pretty girl called from across the lobby, waving her arm above her head. “Hey there, Lush! Save a dance, won’t you?” May counted five female heads swiveling in their direction, and took in the batting lashes and coy smiles aimed at Lush. She felt a certain proprietary pride, that she, May Marshall, was on the arm of arguably the most handsome man in the place. What was it, she wondered, that particular esteem, that comes from being associated with the popular and attractive? It was certainly what had drawn her to Teddy. He was charming, and lesser mortals seemed to flock around him. May had basked in his glow, and felt a warmth and false sense of security.
She craned her neck in search of Elsie. She was also looking for Teddy, though she had no idea what she would do when she saw him.
Lush gave her arm a pat. “How about a drink?” Around them snatches of conversations whirled like falling leaves:
“Yes, I think it must be. Pretty. I’d heard she was.”
“May!” A feminine voice boomed. “So glad you made it!” May’s friend Elsie enveloped her in a bear hug, then, removing her long, gold cigarette holder, she gave Lush an exuberant smacking kiss on the cheek, leaving a vivid crimson lip print. Her distinctive, raspy voice made everything she said sound naughty and enticing. “We just walked in! We’d have been here sooner only I got pinched for speeding on the way, didn’t I Archie? I’ve got a table for us over here. You remember my date, Archie Nelms?” She waved her cigarette and yelled hello to friends who passed by.
Lush whispered, “Do you think there’s anyone she doesn’t know?” Elsie had her arm around a young man, and was telling him a joke, which caused him to roar with laughter and wipe a tear from his eye as he caught his breath. Elsie Curtis was wasn’t strictly a beauty. Instead, she was one of those refreshingly rare young women who think nothing of making a fool of themselves or being the butt of their own joke.
“Now then. May, you sit here next to me so we can catch up.” Elsie stood behind a chair, making broad gestures and dropping ashes on the floor. “Lush, you divine thing, you sit over there across the table so I can look at you. Listen everyone, we’re throwing a party at Mother and Dad’s afterwards, and Cook will make us a big breakfast when we get there. You’ll come, won’t you Lush? We’ll leave for the river in the morning.”
“Only if you promise to play the piano.”
Elsie smiled her wide, slightly buck-toothed smile. “Splendid. Anything you want to hear, as long as it’s ragtime or Jazz. I want to see you two come home with that trophy over there.” She gestured toward a table near the orchestra, which displayed a large silver loving cup and several smaller trophies. “Too bad Archie’s a gimp, or we’d give you a run for your money, wouldn’t we, Arch? Be a darling and get me another packet of smokes, would you?” Archie gamely rose and limped across the floor. Elsie leaned toward May. In her gravelly whisper she said, “Polio. Still, he started on the football team at V.M.I. He’s a jolly fellow even if he is a tad quiet. By the way, old girl, you’re looking awfully svelte. And those cheekbones!” Elsie held May’s chin up. “What I wouldn’t give for those cheekbones. And here I eat nothing but grapefruit and do slimming exercises every day, and I’m still stout.”
The orchestra began playing, and the clumps of young people divided as couples took to the floor. Elsie and Archie remained at the table, with Elsie regaling her guests with anecdotes while Archie looked on in amused admiration. May danced a foxtrot with Lush and a polka with someone else from their table. She was beginning to enjoy herself. She had not seen Maude or Bitsy again. Siphons of soda water and bottles of ginger ale were in constant demand from the harried waiters, as the young men and women brought out flasks of liquor and canning jars of moonshine.. Elsie showed off the silver flask she kept tucked into her garter, and the hollow walking stick she had given Archie. The brass knob at the top twisted off and she poured out a shot of gin. Around them, couples whirled and conversations buzzed as the orchestra played.
The bandleader tapped his baton and announced a break, saying that the contest would begin when they resumed. May continued to scan the ballroom, but did not see Teddy. Maintaining her countenance in a constant pose, she strained for the moment when she and Teddy would lock eyes. She had rehearsed carefree expressions in the mirror. She wanted to be sure she was laughing, or smiling. She wanted him to think she had never cared.
The bandleader read off the rules and the order of events, and thanked the patrons of the contest: Miller and Rhodes Department Store and the E.A. Whitman Tobacco Company. Four couples would dance in each round, then the winners would compete in successive rounds, with the winning couple receiving $50.00 each. When he tapped his baton on the podium, the ballroom became quiet.
Lush led May onto the floor for the first round. The music began. She knew he would lead her without hesitation or error. His effortless grace and good looks made him a pleasure to watch. When the dance finished, they won the round and waited at the sidelines, catching their breath and watching the other groups compete. Bitsy and Teddy won the fourth group.
As May watched them move around the floor she wondered why it was that the girl always paid the price for an indiscretion. The man might be known as a rake, but everyone seemed to laugh that off. The more May thought about it, the more determined she became to win. Teddy spun Bitsy, and when he looked over her shoulder, May caught his eye. He froze for a fraction of an instant, and paled. Bitsy jerked back toward him, a half-beat out of synch.
The contest continued with a polka, then a Charleston. When the bandleader announced that the final dance would be a Tango, a murmur rose from the crowd. There were four couples remaining. The music began, the tempo slowly building and becoming more complex. Lush’s arm was at May’s waist. She knew exactly where Teddy and Bitsy were standing. She locked eyes with Lush and they began. Sweep, turn, halt. The desired facial expression for the Tango was one of intense concentration and fixation on one’s partner. They were playing parts, alternately dominant and submissive, defiant and acquiescing. Sweep, turn, halt. Her skirt swirled around her legs, one beat behind. Lush squeezed her waist. Sweep, rotate, sweep. Their heads turned stiffly in unison and their bodies moved sinuously. The faces in the crowd slid by in a centrifugal blur. Click, click, freeze. Like marionettes. Then the slow, sensuous folding backward. Trust. Melt. Hold. Breathe. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Lush broke into a grin and pulled her upright and squeezed her hand. They were both flushed and beaming. May did not look toward where Teddy and Bitsy were standing.
After the noise died down, the bandleader thanked the sponsors again, and the crowd hushed as the winners were announced. The third place couple received a gracious round of applause and a small trophy. A flash went off and a reporter from The Richmond Times scribbled their names on his pad. May and Lush were announced in second place. Several seconds passed before the applause began sporadically. The crowd began to hum. Bitsy and Teddy were announced as the grand prize winners, and the applause turned tepid, mixed with an increasing conversational buzz. May’s face remained flushed. Bitsy flashed a triumphant smile at May.
As May and Lush returned to the table with their trophy, Elsie hissed, “That was fixed!” Bitsy and Teddy were holding the large first-place trophy aloft while the photographer snapped their picture. “His father was the sponsor,” Elsie continued, “Y’all danced circles around them! That Tango! Gawd,” Elsie fanned her face. “I told Archie I was holding my breath, it was so steamy. Didn’t I, Archie?”
“Phooey, it doesn’t matter,” May said, fanning her cheeks as she sat down. She caught Lush’s eye across the table and shrugged. He was patting his forehead with his handkerchief.
Elsie leaned toward May, whispering, “Really, old girl, that darling man is mad for you.” She waggled her brows and puffed her cigarette.
“Lush? Oh, go on,” May said. “We’re like brother and sister. And he’s got a new girl every other week.”
“The way he looked at you while you were dancing…” Elsie tapped her ash onto the tablecloth.
“That’s just acting. Besides, I’ve sworn off men.”
Behind them, Maude Whitman was making her way toward their table. She was weaving slightly and clasped each chair back as she passed. She came up behind May’s chair and tapped her on the shoulder. Conversation ceased as May half-turned in her seat, looking up at Maude.
“Tooo bad for you,” Maude made an exaggerated sad face. May blinked slowly, regarding her without expression.
“Let me help you to your table, Maude,” Lush stood.
“No. I dunneed a seat. I’m jesh fine.”
“She’s just squiffy, forget it,” Elsie said. Watching Maude weave, May felt embarrassed for her. Sad, even.
“I don’ wan’ny coffee. Get yershelf shum.” She flapped her hands at Lush. “S’ too bad you losht. You’re not gon’ win hanything in thish town, sishter.”
May’s jaw clenched. She rose to face the taller girl, and white fury came over her like a shield. “Don’t you dare call me that. I’d never want to be your sister.” Maude looked surprised, and swayed, releasing her grip on the chair. She fell backward, and, as if in slow motion, her arm knocked a waiter’s tray, sending glasses and soda siphons crashing to the floor at the same moment the band finished a number. The ballroom became silent, then a collective gasp was audible from the onlookers. Maude sat like a rag doll, blinking up at May, then looked down. She screamed, and held up her hand, which was bleeding onto her yellow dress.
As Maude’s scream died out, May could hear Bitsy, making her way through the throng, calling, “Get out of the way! Idiots!” Teddy seemed to follow reluctantly. Bitsy grabbed a napkin and wrapped it around Maude’s hand, then attempted to help her rise. Maude outweighed her considerably, and Bitsy only succeeded in raising her a few inches before she plopped down again.
Bitsy turned to Teddy. “Teddy, you fool, do something!” Maude clutched her bloody hand and began to keen and rock. Bitsy glared at May. “Look what you’ve done!” she shouted, “You don’t belong here and you never will.” Maude had fainted, and was being hoisted up by a waiter, assisted by a beet-red Teddy. The rest of the ballroom was in a state of suspended animation and the orchestra had not begun a new number.
Elsie pushed back from the table and rose, her hands flat on the table and her cigarette holder clenched in her teeth. Her voice sounded like a growl. “Listen here, Miss Bitsy Ragsdale, she’s worth ten of you, any day, and don’t you forget it.” In a louder voice, Elsie said, “We all know who won that contest.” Bitsy stomped to where Elsie stood and glared up her. Elsie and May exchanged looks, and Elsie lowered her chin and blew a slow stream of smoke into Bitsy’s face. Bitsy’s eyes narrowed and she shoved Elsie, then stood craning forward, hands on her hips, defying her diminutive nickname. Her nostrils flared. Elsie laughed her gravelly laugh and May yanked Bitsy’s headband down over her eyes and returned the shove. Bitsy slipped in the spilled mess and went down like a toy soldier, arms wheeling.
“Teddy!” Bitsy cried, “Help me, right this minute!” There were hoots of laughter from the crowd, and Teddy didn’t seem to know whether to help Bitsy or go after May, but one look at Archie and Lush flanking her made him appear to reconsider.
“Come on, y’all,” Elsie said, “This party is over.” She marched out of the ballroom while Archie hurried to gather her belongings. Two officious-looking desk clerks were beginning to hurry through the ballroom in search of the source of the commotion. Lush took May’s arm and steered her through the buzzing crowd.
In the Palm Court, the alligators continued their laps, oblivious to the drama unfolding inside. The two couples stood on the steps waiting for Elsie’s car to be brought around. May had not spoken. Elsie held her by the arm, and said, “You come on home with me, old girl, and we’ll have some of Dad’s whiskey. Lush, you come, too.”
“Thanks, Elsie,” Lush said. “I have a room booked here, but I think I’ll head home tonight.” He motioned to the parking attendant. “Would you bring my motor around, please, and cancel my room for this evening? The name is Craig.”
“Certainly, Sir,” the valet said, and hurried off.
“But it’s midnight already!” Elsie said.
“I want to go home, too,” May said in a small voice.
“You’re supposed to stay all week,” Elsie smoothed May’s hair.
“I couldn’t take another scene like that.”
Couples were beginning to exit the hotel, and Elsie’s car arrived, followed by Lush’s Studebaker. May hugged her friend and kissed her cheek. “Sure you won’t change your mind?” Elsie asked. “You shouldn’t back down.”
“It’s true, what they said. I don’t belong here.”
“You can get along anywhere, gal, don’t you doubt it for a minute.” Elsie gave May another kiss on the cheek and held her by the shoulders. “We sure gave Bitsy the what for, didn’t we? Ha! It’s a damn good thing I made my debut last year. They’d blackball me now, sure as shooting!” She flicked the ash from her cigarette toward the entrance. “Ah, they can all go to hell.”
“Go to hell!” May yelled, and she and Elsie hooted.
Liza Nash Taylor is in her second semester of the MFA program at VCFA. Her work has appeared in Microchondria II, the literary magazine of the Harvard Bookstore, Bluestem Magazine, Rum Punch Press, Ekphrastic: writing and art on art and writing and is scheduled to appear this fall in Gargoyle Magazine. Her short story, Mrs. Walker, won the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Prize for 2016 in Fiction. She is currently revising the manuscript of her first novel, which is historical fiction set in the 1920’s.