Gabby climbed into the streetcar and made a concerted effort to be in the present. She wasn’t going to give every second of herself to Marvin or the guy no matter how hard up she was. She might’ve walked to Fisherman’s Wharf, but she was in no mood. Before leaving her barren room in the Tenderloin she’d picked up that threeyearold Ladies’ Home Journal, the last thing she’d gotten from her mother. She had gone into her dead mother’s empty room and just taken it and a few other things on her way out for the last time. She didn’t know why but today she’d also taken those Elizabeth Woodward advicetogirls articles her mother had cut out from the Journal for her while she was still alive. Her mother’s faith in authority always touched her a little. The day Gabby left she had no money and nowhere to go. And of course, she didn’t find Marvin, Marvin found her. Sometimes she took stuff like the magazine with her and put it beside the bed while she was working. She had it all in a brown paper bag which she clutched in front of her as she stayed in the present. In a month she would be seventeen.
She took out a compact mirror and looked her face over. She had gone over to Susana’s Beauty Shop in the Parkside with a photo of Ginger Rogers and told the girl to do her hair that way. She got off a couple of blocks before the stop for the Panther’s Claw. Doing any little thing other than what Marvin had told her to do made her feel a tiny bit better. There was an Owl’s Drugs there and she went in and sat down at the soda fountain. After the kid mixed a coke, she sat and watched the little bubbles explode on the surface. Sometimes when no one was watching she would hold the glass up close to her face to feel the tiny spray. It was better than nothing.
She took out the Ladies’ Home Journal. She hadn’t intended on looking at it, but it was another small rebellion, taking her time. The thing was full of advice. To let you know how modern it was, the cover had a drawing of a girl in a natural waistline skirt, hair bobbed, heels, walking in front of some girl dressed like Bo Peep. April 1932. We were too smart for that Bo Peep dress now, right? It’d been three years since her mother died. She thought she risked getting depressed if she started reading any of that women’s advice, but the streetcar ride had been unfairly short. There was no way under the circumstances she would look at any of Elizabeth Woodward’s advice to young girls, though. There was too much of her mother mixed up in that sort of thing.
She opened the Journal to an article she had probably read before, “What Women Think of Men.” When she was fourteen she had read this sort of stuff with a great deal of hope. She would learn things she needed to know. She’d go into life prepared. For what? What had her mother thought of her father? Sundays they had sat on that Temple Methodist pew, a row of three, looking like some version of Skippy’s family. Her father stiff, upright on the hard wooden pew. Her mother looking sadly grateful, at least that is how Gabby saw her then. Her father the picture of the respectable working man. Wearing one of those scratchy ill-fitting suits that no one with any money whatsoever would ever come near. But showing up in church showed that he gave a damn. He was respectful. Where did that guy go? He had been formal, authoritarian, perfunctory when her mother was alive. Right after she died he’d become a little wild, afraid probably. He screamed at Gabby for the least little thing. She didn’t mind that though. She took it as a sign that he cared what happened to her. Until he started visiting her at night.
She forced herself to concentrate on the wisdomsoaked “intimate questions that define the ideal man.” He is “brunette with brown eyes.” He is “five feet eleven inches tall.” His clothes are “conservative in color.” He is “athletic.” “He never, never takes his wife for granted.” “He never makes petty criticisms.” “He is loyal.” “He wants children.” Had he? She doubted it now. Or maybe he had wanted a daughter, a Gabby, in case his wife gave out on him. She had a flask and she kept her eyes on the kid while she put a shot into her coke. She forced herself to concentrate on the article. There were drawings on the title page. A kind of matronly flapper on one side of the page, dressed in a full length gown. She held a pointer which rested on the face of the ideal man which was one among a row of possibility faces. Beside her, Cupid sat on a little grade school desk writing down all the important stuff in the lesson about the ideal man. Down in the left hand corner was a drawing of some woman in a full length dress from the Civil War period. On the wall beside her was the round portrait of her man, a soldier, probably Confederate. Maybe she should have asked herself what sort of man fought for slaves. Did he force himself on the slave women before he went off to fight? Were any of them young? Children maybe? This wasn’t very relaxing, Gabby decided, and she finished her coke, put the magazine back in her paper bag, and left.
Uncharacteristic of San Francisco, the day was cloudless and blindingly bright. Gabby would have preferred a fog cover. More darkness to cover up what went on. No one needed perfect clarity in this world. The darkness inside the Panther’s Claw made it hard to see at first. In the dim light the place looked like a black and white movie. When her eyes had adjusted to the dim light she wasn’t all that happy to see Marty sitting at the bar. So Marvin was worried about her. “So he sent you to keep an eye on me?” she said as she slid onto a stool. “It’s not like that,” Marty said. “I’m here for someone too.” Gabby didn’t believe her, but she didn’t much care either. Nothing Marty did would matter today.
“I saw that picture you told me about,” Marty told her.
“Which one?” Gabby lit up and ordered gin straight up. In this place, if you were under Marvin’s patronage, they didn’t ask questions about your age.
“The one with Joan, or is it Ginger?”
“Her mother’s sick and she goes to a relief office because they’re getting kicked out.”
“Yeah, that one. After everybody screws her over she becomes a gangster. That one’s all right. I wouldn’t mind shooting a few people myself.”
“There should be more women gangsters.”
“So are you all right for tonight?” Marty asked.
“I thought you weren’t here to check up on me.”
“I’m not. It’s just that Marvin wouldn’t ordinarily do business with this guy. But it gets harder and harder. Roosevelt hasn’t gotten down to us yet.”
“There’s no us in that world. I like to think Roosevelt doesn’t know about us. I can still like him that way.”
“You’re getting pretty hard for a kid.”
“So what do you know about this guy?”
“Really I don’t think Marvin or anybody really knows anything about this guy. Somewhere a rumor got started. And like I said, if Marvin wasn’t getting squeezed himself he wouldn’t even take a small chance.”
“I don’t see him taking a chance.”
“I wish you wouldn’t be like that. If we could do anything about anything, it would be different.”
Gabby changed the subject. “There was another picture.” Her favorite topic lately was the movies. “I don’t know who played the girl. The whole movie was a bunch of different episodes.
The only way they were related at all was that at the beginning this millionaire finds out he’s dying. He hates his greedy relatives and he doesn’t want them to get his money when he’s gone. So he brings his lawyer in, this totally stuffed shirt, and he tells him he’s going to start picking strangers out of the phone book. Wherever he puts his finger, that person gets a million dollars.”
Marty started feeling as though she was a child sitting beside a campfire out in the woods hearing a story that would somehow help her or make her happy.
“So this one episode is in a bar like this place. That’s what reminded me of the picture. There’s a girl there and she’s working the place. I don’t know who the actress is. I’ve never seen her before. The millionaire’s lawyer, this fussy looking guy, comes in squinting into the dark. He goes to the bar and asks for the girl by name, Violet Smith. The bartender’s surprised…”
“How come. It’s a bar, isn’t it? There are girls there.”
“I think it’s because the lawyer looks kind of effeminate. The bartender’s surprised he asks for a girl.”
“So the lawyer finds Violet and sits down with her. She thinks at first he’s a John. He tells her she’s rich and he hands her the check. Naturally she thinks it’s a gag. He tells her in no uncertain terms it isn’t. And he gives her his card so she can check up on him if she still doubts it. While she’s sitting there soaking it in a sailor sits down beside her. She reacts automatically. She starts working the guy, letting him paw her. Then she stops and thinks, shoves him off of her, and takes off. In the next scene she’s checking into a swank hotel, not the sort of place she would likely be working. She goes into her room, a totally ritzy place. She gets a bed for one. No double. She gets undressed. All lingerie under her dress. She stretches out on the bed, loving it, that she’s alone. She turns out the light, but after a second she turns it back on. She’s noticed that she still has her silk stockings and garters on, trappings of the trade. She rolls them off fast and tosses them across the room. Now she can turn the light off again. She was a working girl with no money, a woman of low character. She gets money, and she’s not a working girl. So now does she have character?”
Gabby stops talking and smooths her skirt, her eyes a little wide. “So you think maybe the rumors about the guy aren’t for certain true?”
Philip Hanson asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work