by Daphne McVicker
Out of a jungle of nightclubs with too much praise, too little love, he found a candle at a window
Vic Mature lounged onto the set and stared at the girl they’d picked for him to kick around in this script.
“My God,” someone whispered. “What a gorgeous combination. Add up a couple of beautiful humans like that—Vic Mature and Rita Hayworth. What if—”
Hollywood is always ready for a new “what if.” Even though Vic was still married, and Rita and Ed Judson Hollywood’s prize couple. Ed was a husband who helped her with her career, adored her—and Vic was the man with a hundred girls. But “what if” they said. And, of course, Vic knew they were saying it. He grinned across at the red-headed gorgeous gal whose dark, shadowed eyes lifted to his with a question. “We know the answers, don’t we?” Vic seemed to say.
Did Rita know the answers? A little southern girl named Cansino had danced to Bobbie Maytorena’s orchestra down at Caliente. She was lushly beautiful—grandly gifted. She thought you could marry your good friend who offered you freedom and success. That would be a partnership and a partners” hip was fine.
A starry-eyed child swaggering under the new name of Mrs. Judson. With a million-dollar budget for her year in pictures.
The stars in her eyes went out.
Rita was growing up and the beautiful body was tense with frustration. She danced and sang through her days, and then turned back to the black shadows that reached clutching fingers of scandal for her till she screamed aloud in the night.
Now, they’d disappeared for the moment, for she was working on a new picture. With a towering, sulky lad opposite her whose eyes asked her a mocking question. “We know all the answers, don’t we, Rita?”
There was a long, whistled—”Whee—iooo!” at the magnificent love scenes as the picture went on. And Rita was laughing again. Vic kept her merry. He was swell. Sometimes they were just a couple of roistering children together. Vic thought she was super—not only beautiful. “A peculiar kind of a gal—with a heart that is mellow but dead on the level—” Well, that was a new one on Vic. A girl—love interest—dead on the level? In Hollywood? That was funny, that was.
The last day of “My Gal Sal,” after the final scene was completed, Vic beat loudly on Rita’s dressing-room door.
“Come on out, ‘Sal’,” he ordered. “We’ve got to launch this picture right. Break a bottle of champagne over your head. Drink a toast to it.”
Hair, flowing, lips curved and gay, Rita came to the door. “But I don’t drink,” she protested. “And I have to get home, because—”
“Sure, sure,” he cut in. “But this is champagne, and that doesn’t count. And besides, you wouldn’t want people saying, ‘Why, Mature drank that whole bottle alone, the hog!’ “
They had the drink and a lot of laughs.
They had raised their golden glasses in a toast. Their lips were parted on merriment. And then their glances met, and they set the glasses slowly down. Something lonely and terrified had looked out of each pair of eyes, and retreated, alarmed.
“Hey, Mature,” Vic told himself, backing away, “that’s the old trap that’s baited there. And remember the feel of the trap—the snapping of iron, tearing shrinking flesh? The shout of the pack as it closes in? Remember?”
He tried to remember that—scandal blazoned across white pages. Mockery and sneers and heartbreak. A lonely boy backing into his corner, striking back the only way he knew. Memory was playing ugly tricks tonight—instead of remembering what he wanted, it had stretched a screen before him, and it was throwing close-ups here before him. The way she looked when the lights touched her hair—as if her head were on fire. The gleam of perfect teeth, ashine. And how her eyes almost closed when she laughed — gee, you could scareely see them then, her lashes were so thick.
Memory and solitude were betraying Vic. So he had to try something else. Must stay the same old Mature, loving not at all, loved a lot. Head-free. Heart-free. Since his last marriage mess, he had learned to spot heartbreak and stay away.
So he dragged out his “Grummet Book” (Mature diction for dames, frills, wenches) and dialled another number.
That’s all brother. “Your sorrows, troubles and care—she was always willing to share—” Well, we won’t ask her. We know the answers. Don’t we?
There was an evening, much later, when Vic went over to the Beverly Brown Derby for dinner. He stopped outside and bought a paper. Someone said, “Hi yah, Vic,” and he saluted. He was going through the motions. To forget something a girl had just said to him. “Why, Vic,” the girl had said, in her faintly accented, gentle voice, “you’re the loneliest man in the world.”
“Hey,” Vic had gasped, startled, “you’re off the routine—”
But she went on.
“You pretend to be gay and careless of life. But you run from something. You run from love — like the burned child. But never can you escape it. It will catch you some day. And you’ll find no happiness till it does.”
A laugh. He laughed now, to prove it—the harsh, scoffing merriment that he used as a shield. But his face refused to play the role right tonight. It got that funny, lost expression on it, the one he didn’t put out for the public.
sheep in wolf’s clothing . . .
Now looking like that, he sat at the Brown Derby ordering a thick steak from Everett, watching Rudi mix a Scotch and soda. (Rudi mixes that with a knowing look, for Vic hates the brew unless he’s low.) He listened to the sounds around him but they played obbligato only to those echoing, soft, insistent words, “Why, Victor you’re the loneliest man in the world—”
He tried to brush away the echo with a shrug of his big shoulders. He opened the evening paper.
The headlines read “—Hayworth-Judson Divorce Scandal—” There was a big picture of “Sal” on the front page… . Why, kid, that’s not my girl, that laughed with me—what have they been doing to you, Babe, to make your eyes look scared, to make you seem so alone? What were you seeing when you forgot to smile at me over the champagne? What are you seeing now? . .
His steak got cold and his Scotch got warm. He was holding her in his arms, her soft, fragrant body relaxed and confiding—but that was in the picture, of course. He was tipping her face up and bending his mouth down—only in the picture, of course. He was remembering the love scenes—but his thoughts got off the track, somehow. He was remembering her shy gaiety as if she were afraid to let herself go and have fun. He was remembering how unobtrusively “nice” and fastidious she was—when the off-color stories broke out, she wasn’t there, somehow, till afterwards. Her voice was awfully soft, always—and what perfume did she use that clung so to her red-gold hair?
He called Western Union on the phone. The operator must have been a little excited, a little suspicious of a hoax—”send a telegram—signed Victor Mature—yes, that’s it—to Rita Hayworth—you got it. Here it is—”
It was a screwy message because he wanted her to laugh. To tilt that round chin and shake the tears out of the half-shut eyes. He told her, in his fashion, that he was sorry she had to go through this kind of a deal. It told her, though, still in his fashion, that he wasn’t too sorry — not too sorry that bonds were breaking—
When he put down the phone, he wasn’t quite so lonely.
Rita phoned to thank him, and he was the swaggering, pleased kid when he answered. “Why, that’s all right—I’ll send one of those every day if you’ll phone to say you got it,” he laughed.
But you can’t just be a couple of wistful kids in Hollywood if you have names that burn in scarlet across a headline. Vic remembered that and his mouth twisted sardonically. They weren’t Agatha Williams, say, school teacher, and her boy friend. There were guests in Vic’s house always, drinking his liquor and eating his food. If they answered the phone and got “Miss Hayworth,” headlines would blossom.
jingles for Aggie . . .
And then Vic’s mocking face relaxed and his lips were strangely gentle. They weren’t Aggie Williams and her boy friend. But they could be. Vic couldn’t see her with the two divorces hanging fire—but Aggie could phone.
So he told her. During all those hectic days, Rita only answered phone calls for Agatha Williams. Pat, her secretary, knew before anybody else how her eyes lighted up when “Telephone for Aggie” was the news for Pat’s beautiful employer-friend. When those calls came, the bitter, aching disillusionment that blanked out Rita’s gay child dreams vanished—and that was odd. The wolf rampant, the world-hater on the phone, and they’d talk for an hour—and somehow Rita was back in her little girl world where the wolf was only Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and life was fun.
Vic’s and Martha’s lawyers had been talking divorce for weeks. Finally Martha filed suit, officially.
The ink was still wet on the first edition of the afternoon gossip columns when the telegram came from “Aggie.” The same sort of wire Vic had sent to her. “A peculiar kind of—a gal—” He was telephoning at once. Saying, stiffly, slightly tongue-tied, “Thanks a lot, Rita. Thanks for the message.” And she, like a frightened school girl, pushing back her hair, swallowing, said, “Why—that’s all right—”
Poor, funny kids, not believing in life when it was gentle, not able, quite, to take it in.
“How about a consolation dinner?” And then surprisingly, Vic remembered his new, anxious, careful desire that no publicity should touch his girl,—”over here? Katie will fix something?”
Something in this struck Rita a little roughly. Just a little bad taste, perhaps, to celebrate—And again that new, wondering understanding came to Vic.
“Let’s celebrate ‘Sal’s, success, Rita. Bring Pat—we’ll be all chaperoned—
He walked over to the window and stood staring out. She’d said she would come — funny that he was so excited about that. Funny that he, Victor Mature—say it slowly, the million-dollar words—Vic Mature—was getting so steamed up about a little girl with big eyes who wouldn’t come to dinner unless she was chaperoned. Why, that was strictly off his beat—
His mouth twisted down at one corner. That was the thing you read about— big wolf lures little lamb to his apartment. Soft music—Vic grinned. They’d have music, all right, on that screwy phonograph he’d ordered in a hurry one night, which had never been adjusted. With a turntable that went too slowly, dragging Frances Langford out into an off-center Bing Crosby. Soft music— low lights—but he wanted the lights high so he could see Rita’s eyes shut when she laughed. A something served in a silver bowl—but Katie fried chicken like nobody’s business. The Gorgeous Gal dimpling at him with a leg of fried chicken in her fist—
Vic laughed harshly and his laughter died. He swallowed.
Why—this was funny, wasn’t it? He’d thought a good while ago that he had achieved the thing he’d fought and kicked and slammed his way up from a battered boyhood to get. And it had gone sour in his mouth and left him empty. Was it, maybe, that he hadn’t found the thing at all? That what he wanted was a girl coming in out of the wind, her hair blowing, her eyes—that was it— her eyes—trusting?
He called up a friend—one of the real pals. And at the first whistle, he said stiffly, “Stow it. That isn’t the way it is. It’s—different.”
That night, when Rita and Vic stopped talking, the records were giving a final howl. It sounded a little like the lone wolf surrendering.
“Gee,” Vic said, wonderingly, “I’ve had fun”—and Rita said, softly “The phonograph is better—at my place.”
Vic said, quickly, “I’ll be there—tomorrow night.”
But he wondered, afterwards. What was this—it was different, but what WAS it? Two scared children, dating—afraid to believe, afraid to face each other.
They went to the Navy Relief Ball, and that was their first time in public.
Life was trying to get tough with Vic again. He was signing up with the Coast Guard, and the public that he’d kicked around so long was slapping back. With nasty little lines in print, with tongues in cheeks. It was funny that this time it didn’t hurt, didn’t even faintly bother him.
Because he could laugh at it and for the first time, he could laugh like a wide-awake, carefree kid. He afraid of the army?—why, he’d kicked his way up from hard labor, sixteen hours a day, worked at anything that would get him a sandwich. And now there was somebody to listen when he told about that, his words falling over themselves, his eyes lighted.
Love that is rooted in friendship is hard to uproot, and Vic was forgetting to try. His jaw was still hard but some of the cockiness was gone.
He had to laugh at himself sometimes. When he remembered, in the middle of a poker game, that he was to call Rita to say good night at nine, he tossed in his hand. And when he came back and met the hoots of friends who had found it was a pat flush, he grinned and went back to call Rita again. Okay, he was crazy, but he liked it. He no longer cared if they laughed.
A kid with a present under his arm for his girl.
Simple things—things that were right for my gal Sal. Once or twice some splendid gifts.
So he was ready, now, for the Coast Guard. Ready—and eager to go. He’d be razzed, maybe, for being a glamour man, but he could take that and dish it out. He’d weathered that sort of thing before. He drove down town and stopped at the Biltmore Coffee Shop for breakfast. And then his eyes went absent, and he got up and completely forgot to order.
Was he worrying about something, somebody wondered — contracts —troubles —
closed corporation . . .
He was at the candy counter and his hands were spread apart—measuring. And the girl brought him his order— a huge box of candy covered with pink bows, saying “To my Sweetheart” across the top of it. He came back to exhibit it to some friends.
“Do you think she’ll like it? I’ll be busy at the Coast Guard and can’t call her up—”
Rita will like it.
She won’t say much. They don’t talk a lot, now, the two of them. The lost, shadowed look is gone from her face, though, and when, for a second, her fingers twine with those of her sailor lad, something almost too bright to be looked at shines in her face.
He’s a sailor now. His house is closed. Rita has his record collection, his cook, Katie, and his prized English bull dog, Genius, Jr.
But if you see them at a premiere, or somewhere, when he’s on leave, dose together, you know that she’s keeping something more precious for him. He has a new short hair cut and a sailor suit. He says, introducing people, “You know Rita?” He looks different. She’s keeping things for him while he goes away—she has custody of something else —his life. And he’s willing to throw that away, if she needs it, to protect her and the new-found, shining thing that can only exist in the America of today.