I love CNF. I think the first class in gradschool at Binghamton was CNF. Kate mixes beats, flowing cascades of imagery, and powerful prose together in Gail. I couldn’t think of a better way to end 2018 than with Kate’s work.
Gail – Kate LaDew
When words come late at night, whispering in your ear, Follow me, do not be tricked. There are rules to investigating a fairy ring. Invitation guards against nothing. One must run around it nine times under the full moon, ignoring all distractions, and there will be distractions. Add a tenth circle and evil befalls the runner. One is lost, surely forever. You don’t know how many circles you ran but they added up to this studio apartment in Brentwood and a thirst that makes your hands shake.
That’s now. But there’s a before. There’s always a before. Before, when you hid under the piano, sketch book steadying your hands, even if it was really just a yellow legal pad from your father. You watched all the feet glide and stutter and stop like a complicated dance no one quite knew. Or maybe it was just you who didn’t know. The voices were loud and unintelligible, happy, unashamed pulses of sound pushed out into the air of your parent’s living room. Then, Where’s that pretty little girl? where’s little Betty? and you would shrink back further, willing yourself to disappear into the thatched slabs over you, to crawl under the hammers and strings, melt into the damper, praying no fingers would touch the keys and give you away.
It was your face, really. The dips and curves of it. No feature outstanding in its own right, but together producing a kind of symmetry that quickened the heart. Dark hair and eyes the color of the Pacific Dotted-Blue Butterfly (at least that’s what the boy next to you in Chemistry class said, his own eyes angling down. He never talked to you again). When you moved to Los Angeles and visited Paramount Studios, no one could stop talking to you, even after your mother’s pointed, She’s fourteen. They offered you a contract then and there at $50 a week and you watched her mouth turn up and down, saw the figures scrolling in her head. Then her chin shook back and forth. Not yet. She must finish school, and then — You spent the next four years ticking little lines into your forehead over and then, drawing and painting as fast as you could, doing the only thing you loved, wondering if they just forgot to ask you what you wanted, wondering if anyone ever would.
Your face is in the paper, much larger than your name, under NEW STAR. Outstanding. Beautiful. The next Hedy Lamarr. Your mother laments the loss of Betty. You were never told why you were signed under your middle name but then, you’re never told much. Except, speak louder, stand up straight, look your scene partner in the eye. Lower your hands. Keep your hands down. Could you please just keep your damn hands down. But your hands don’t belong to you. They are only yours when equipped with a pencil or paintbrush, so they rise and breath, up down, up down, in time with your heart, which pounds so loudly you wonder you’re not asked to stop it, too. They finally tie your hands to your sides with handkerchiefs.
It’s your second movie when it all begins. You are shaking uncontrollably, as they set and re- set the scene. The director is standing with his arms crossed, talking to a man in a black suit, flicking his eyes from you to the man and back again. Please, you think. Please just fire me. I can’t do this. I can’t breathe with all these people watching. I didn’t want — My hands. It’s my hands. If I could cut them off — or just paint. If you could just let me paint, then — and there are lips moving against your ear. Follow me. You stumble down a corridor to a little dressing room, something cold pressed against your chest. Go on. You look at the flask, sniffing, uncertain. Your mother once threw your father out for smelling like this.
Try it. Just a sip. Your hands are still shaking. Just a sip will stop those hands of yours. Just a sip will make you marvelous. So you do. It chokes and burns down your throat. Well. Maybe just one more. You finish the flask and finish the scene. And the next and the next and the day after and the day after and everyone’s smiling at you. Marvelous. You were just marvelous, really. You don’t see the man in the black suit again. The final day of filming, your director invites everyone out for drinks. You already have a flask or two in your belly, that’s how you measure it in these early days, but go anyway. And you’re bright and funny and everyone’s happy and you don’t know how you get home and you wake up in the morning and everything’s too bright and everything’s too loud but you did it. You’re an actress and everyone knows it and your face is on the poster and your name is on the screen, and you buy a house and you buy your parents a house and you buy a car and a marble coffee table and a TV and an oriental rug because that’s what people with money do and you don’t draw and you don’t paint and you spend less and less time waiting for a drink until it’s always, all the time and this is your life and you are famous and there are parties you can only handle loaded and it’s okay. Or at least, no one says a word and it’s almost the same thing.
One night, at the premiere of your fourth or fifth or sixth film, you can’t keep track, you step out of an expensive car in an expensive dress, unsteady as always now, trailing behind expensive people into an expensive house that’s three times the size of your expensive house. You feel like you’ve walked into a fairy ring, the ones your grandmother used to warn you about. They are beautiful, filled with beautiful people and beautiful music, but they are also filled with treachery. And it’s not the fairies themselves who are dangerous, its the nature of their world. Time moves differently in the fairy world. A girl could dance for minutes in a fairy ring only to discover it’s been days or weeks or even years in the human realm. You look at the ticking grandfather clock shining beatifically from the ridiculously sized dining room, and look quickly down before you can register the time.
There’s a grand piano in the foyer. You reach out, fingers hovering over the keys and freezing. What if you give someone away? The thought is immediate and startles you. It was so long ago, when you held a yellow legal pad against your knees, watching the feet, tracing their lines in charcoal, elbows dusted with black. But then, it was only a few years, really. Before was only a few years ago.
And suddenly there are people everywhere, all around and you are kissed and petted and complimented and there’s not a single face you recognize from real-life, only movie screens and it is loud and bright and silver trays pass with flutes of champagne and you down one after the other, hand never empty and you are in a corner and there is someone beautiful looking at you and she smiles and so do you and she is speaking.
I said, how long have you been acting?
My whole life.
Yes and she nods, smile wider, but you don’t know what’s funny. Haven’t we all.
I wasn’t planning on being an actress.
No? With that face? No.
Well. What did you want to be?
You don’t speak for years, breathing like you’ve been holding one breath your whole life. An artist.
But you are, the words quick, quick like a laugh, quick like not listening. That’s what acting is.
No. No, you want to say. To scream. No. That’s not it at all. That’s not what I wanted at all. I wanted to sit by a window, surrounded with colors, creating the things I saw in my head. I wanted to be alone, nothing but me and all the colors and all the things in my head. I wanted — and she is turning away, waving at someone behind you and she didn’t really want to know. It wasn’t a question that wanted an answer. It was just something to say, to fill up the space, and you stifle an almost overwhelming urge to crawl back into a little girl, creep under the piano, slide under the strings and never, ever come out. You set the champagne flute on the black and white diamonded floor, take a step and then you’re being guided by strange and friendly hands, lips murmuring, Follow me, and you’re in the next room with even more people not listening, more sound and light and your smile fixes as if it’s been nailed into your skin, just nod and laugh, it’s all anyone wants, all anyone expects. No one cares. But you can’t stop yourself from looking back, back at the shiny black, the wood and ivory, the secret place where no one could find you. The place you no longer fit.
. . .
It is so quick and so violent a collapse you find yourself looking up, unsure of who or what pushed you. You can’t sleep without a drink. You can’t wake up without a drink. You can’t act without a drink. And you must act to have money to drink. There are movies, some good, and John Wayne is there, slipping you wads of bills, making sure you have a part, giving you long talks in your dressing room, everything in moderation, and you cut back to half a bottle a scene. Of course, everyone believes it’s something else and maybe it is but not quite enough for the scandal it causes. His wife sues for divorce, claiming she almost shot him when he broke into their home one morning after spending the night with you. You say, No, no. That’s not it at all. You’re arrested for drunk driving a week later. They hold the trial in your hospital room, your hands gripped under the blanket, unsure of how to behave empty.
The next year you drive away after rear-ending a car in North Hollywood. Two years later, on the Fourth of July, you drive your convertible into Jan’s Restaurant, pinning the janitor under your wheels. You had one, or two or four drinks. You don’t know how many you had but you keep them coming, and the next month you’re in General Hospital’s prison ward for failure to appear. Two police officers found you passed out in your Brentwood apartment, and have to ask over and over Are you Gail Russell? Not believing the bags under your eyes, the lines in your forehead, the sweet smell of something like decay could be what used to quicken their hearts a million miles high in a dark theater.
You spend a year in a clinic, nodding through A.A. meetings and promising, truly, but you don’t know what you’re promising. Your hands would never forgive you. They don’t belong to you anyway. Maybe someone could tie them to your sides again, keep them away from the bottle, but there’s no one there to do it. You go home where everything’s smaller, like copies of what you used to have, shrunken until they almost disappear. You won’t talk to your neighbors except through the window, ashamed of what your face has become, the shake that shivers up and down your body. Soon, they stop knocking, though you look for them every day. You want to say in that little girl voice everyone believed, It wasn’t me. Never me. My hands tricked me. I didn’t want this. Any of it. But your throat is drunk raw, esophageal varices the clinic said.
Enlarged veins connecting your throat and stomach. They can bleed, break open, choke you. And you almost want to let them. To scream in your boozy, wine-soaked woman of a certain age wail, It wasn’t me. I was cursed. Tricked. I heard the music playing and wanted to dance, just once. But I never wanted any of this. You want to allow your body to burst, finally showing what’s inside and letting the outside match. A blood soaked, beating heart with no bones to protect it. So you scream. You scream and you scream and you scream and fall to your knees in front of the ringed coffee table, the shattered TV, the frayed rug you salvaged from that dream of a house a decade ago. You breathe in and out. Waiting. Nothing happens. No veins burst. No blood pours. No concerned feet run to your door. Nothing happens because no one hears. You’re alone. You’re just an old lush, on your hands and knees, remembering when she wasn’t.
A month before your 37th birthday, you’re lying in bed in your pajama pants, a vodka bottle on the floor, the fingertips of your left hand just touching its label. Your butterfly eyes are half open, lips the same color. Muscles lose all tension when someone dies, so they’ve stopped pulling on your forehead, smoothing those worry lines you hated so much. Your liver is warm, it’s the organ that stays warm the longest, a fact you never knew but might have smiled at, and since it’s more than a day before they find you, the rest of your body is the same temperature as the room. Head and neck green, face unrecognizable, the smell of rotting meat. More vodka bottles circle you like a fairy ring. That old fairy ring. They say if a stolen person makes it back into the human world, the shock will kill them. When did you come back? When did you stop hearing the music? That beautiful treacherous music from all those beautiful treacherous creatures. Lying to you with a smile in their voice, Just a sip will stop those hands of yours. Just a sip will make you marvelous. Well. Maybe just one more.
Kate LaDew is a graduate from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with a BA in Studio Arts. She resides in Graham, NC with her cats Charlie Chaplin and Janis Joplin.