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THE MUSICAL VANITY BOXES
“Hear the instruction of thy father and mother, for they shall be an ornament of grace unto thy head and chains about thy neck. If sinners entice thee, consent not.”
Mamie, my grandmother, read that over twice. I tried to remember what instruction I had had. Don’t pick your nose. But I did want a chain, one that rang when I laughed, like Sammy’s.
I bought a chain and went to the Greyhound bus depot where a machine printed things on metal discs … a star in the center. I wrote LUCHA and hung it around my neck.
It was late in June 1943, when Sammy and Jake cut Hope and me in. They were talking with Ben Padilla and at first made us go away. When Ben left, Sammy called us out from under the porch.
“Sit down, we’re going to cut you in on something.”
Sixty cards. On the top of each card was a tinted picture of a Musical Vanity Box. Next to it was a red seal that said DON’T OPEN. Under the seal was one of the names on the card. Thirty three-letter names with a line beside them. AMY, MAE, JOE, BEA, etc.
“It costs a nickel to buy a chance on a name. You write the person’s name next to it. When all the names are sold we open the red seal. The person who chose that name wins the Vanity Box.”
“Hell of a lot of Vanity Boxes!” Jake giggled.
“Shut up, Jake. I get these cards from Chicago. Each one makes a buck and a half. I send them a dollar for each and they send me the boxes. Got that?”
“Yeah,” Hope said. “So?”
“So you two get a quarter for every card you sell, and we get a quarter. That makes us fifty-fifty partners.”
“They can’t sell all those cards,” Jake said.
“Sure we can,” I said. I hated Jake. Teenage punk.
“Sure they can,” Sammy said. He handed the cards to Hope. “Lucha’s in charge of the money. It’s eleven thirty … get going … we’ll time you.”
“Good luck!” they shouted. They were shoving each other over in the grass, laughing.
“They’re laughing at us … they think we can’t do it!”
We knocked on our first door … a lady came and put on her glasses. She bought the first name. ABE. She wrote her name and address next to it, gave us five pennies and her pencil. Precious loves, she called us.
We stopped at every house on that side of Upson. By the time we reached the park we had sold twenty names. We sat down on the wall of the cactus garden, out of breath, triumphant.
The people thought we were darling. We were both very little for our age. Seven. If a woman answered, I sold the chance. My blond hair had grown out twice the size of my head, like a big yellow tumbleweed. “A spun gold halo!” Because my teeth were gone I put my tongue up when I smiled, as if I were shy. The ladies would pat me and bend down to hear … “What is it, angel? Why, I’d just love to!”
If it was a man, Hope sold. “Five cents … pick a name,” she drawled, handing them the card and the pencil before they could shut the door. They said she had spunk and pinched her dark bony cheeks. Her eyes glared at them through her heavy black veil of hair.
We were concerned now only with time. It was hard to tell when people were home or not. Cranking the doorbell handles, waiting. Worst of all was when we were the only visitors in “ever so long.” All of these people were very old. Most of them must have died a few years later.
Besides the lonely people and the ones who thought we were darling, there were some … two that day … who really felt it was an omen to open the door and be offered a chance, a choice. They took up the most time, but we didn’t mind … waited, breathless too, while they talked to themselves. Tom? That darn Tom. Sal. My sister called me Sal. Tom. Yes, I’ll take Tom. What if it wins??
We didn’t even go to the houses on the other side of Upson. We sold the rest in the apartments across from the park.
One o’clock. Hope handed the card to Sammy, I poured the money onto his chest. “Christ!” Jake said.
Sammy kissed us. We were flushed, grinning on the lawn.
“Who won?” Sammy sat up. The knees of his Levi’s were green and wet, his elbows green from the grass.
“What does it say?” Hope couldn’t read. She had flunked first grade.
“Who?” We looked at each other … “Which one was that?”
“It’s the last one on the card.”
“Oh.” The man with the ointment on his hands. Psoriasis. We were disappointed, there were two really nice people we had wanted to win.
Sammy said we could keep the cards and money until we had sold them all. We took them over the fence and under the porch. I found an old breadbox to keep them in.
We took three cards and left through the alley, in back. We didn’t want Sammy and Jake to think we were too eager. We crossed the street, ran from house to house, knocking on doors, all the way down the other side of Upson. All down one side of Mundy to the Sunshine Grocery.
We had sold two whole cards … sat on the curb drinking grape soda. Mr. Haddad kept bottles for us in the freezer, so it came out slushy … like melted popsicles. The buses had to make a narrow turn at the corner, just missing us, honking. Behind us the dust and smoke rose around Cristo Rey Mountain, yellow foam in the Texas afternoon sun.
I read the names aloud—over and over. We put Xs by the ones we hoped would win … Os by the bad ones.
The barefoot soldier … “I NEED a Musical Vanity Box!” Mrs. Tapia … “Well, come in! Good to be seeing you!” A girl sixteen, just married, who had showed us how she painted the kitchen pink, herself. Mr. Raleigh—spooky. He had called off two Great Danes, had called Hope a sexy runt.
“You know … we could sell a thousand names a day … if we had roller skates.”
“Yeah, we need roller skates.”
“You know what’s wrong?”
“We always say … ‘Do you want to buy a chance?’ We should say ‘chances.’”
“How about … ‘Want to buy a whole card?’”
We laughed, happy, sitting on the curb.
“Let’s sell the last one.”
We went around the corner, the street below Mundy. It was dark, matted with eucalyptus and fig and pomegranate trees, Mexican gardens, ferns and oleander and zinnias. The old women didn’t speak English. “No, gracias,” shutting the doors.
The priest from Holy Family bought two names. JOE and FAN.
There was a block then of German women, flour on their hands. They slammed the doors. Tsch!
“Let’s go home … this isn’t any good.”
“No, up by Vilas School there are lots of soldiers.”
She was right. The men were outside in khakis and T-shirts, watering yellow Bermuda grass and drinking beer. Hope sold. Her hair stuck now in strings over her olive Syrian face, like a black bead curtain.
One man gave us a quarter and his wife called him before he got his change. “Give me five!” he yelled through the screen door. I started to write his name.
“No,” Hope said. “We can sell them again.”
* * *
Sammy opened the seals.
Mrs. Tapia had won with SUE, her daughter’s name. We had an X by her, she was so nice. Mrs. Overland won the next. Neither of us could remember who she was. The third winner was a man who bought LOU, which really should have gone to the soldier who gave us the quarter.
“We should give it to the soldier,” I said.
Hope lifted up her hair to look at me, almost smiling … “Okay.”
I jumped the fence to our yard. Mamie was watering. My mother was playing bridge, my dinner was in the oven. I read Mamie’s lips over the H. V. Kaltenborn news from indoors. Grandpa wasn’t deaf, he just turned it up loud.
“Can I water for you, Mamie?” No thanks.
I banged the front door rippling stained glass on the wall. “Git in here!” he yelled over the radio. Surprised, I ran in smiling, started to climb into his lap, but he rustled me away with a clipped-out paper.
“You been with those dirty A-rabs?”
“Syrians,” I said. His ashtray glowed red like the stained-glass door.
That night … Fibber McGee and Amos and Andy on the radio. I don’t know why he liked them so much. He always said he hated colored people.
Mamie and I sat with the Bible in the dining room. We were still on Proverbs.
“Open rebuke is better than secret love.”
“Never mind.” I fell asleep and she put me to bed.
I woke when my mother got home … lay awake beside her while she ate Cheese Tid-Bits and read a mystery. Years later, I figured out that during World War II alone my mother ate over 950 boxes of Cheese Tid-Bits.
I wanted to talk to her, tell her about Mrs. Tapia, the guy with the dogs, how Sammy had cut us in fifty-fifty. I put my head down on her shoulder, Cheese Tid-Bit crumbs, and fell asleep.
* * *
The next day Hope and I went first to the apartments on Yandell Avenue. Young army wives in curlers, chenille bathrobes, mad because we woke them. None of them bought a chance. “No, I don’t have a nickel.”
We took a bus to the Plaza, transferred to a Mesa bus to Kern Place. Rich people … landscaping, chimes on the doors. This was even better than the old ladies. Texan Junior League, tanned, Bermuda shorts, lipstick and June Allyson pageboys. I don’t think they had ever seen children like us, children dressed in their mothers’ old crepe blouses.
Children with hair like ours. While Hope’s hair ran down her face like thick black tar, mine stood up and out like a tufted yellow beach ball, crackling in the sun.
They always laughed when they found out what we were selling, went to find some “change.” We heard one of them talking to her husband … “Just come and see them. Actual urchins!” He did come, and he was the only one who bought a chance. The women just gave us money. Their children stared at us, pale, from their swing sets.
“Let’s go to the depot.”
We used to go there even before the cards … to hang around and watch everybody kissing and crying, to pick up dropped change beneath the ledge under the newsstand. As soon as we got in the door we poked each other, giggling. Why hadn’t this ever occurred to us? Millions of people with nickels and nothing to do but wait. Millions of soldiers and sailors who had a girl or a wife or a child with a three-letter name.
* * *
We made out a schedule. In the mornings we went to the train station. Sailors stretched out on the wooden benches, hats folded over their eyes, like parentheses. “Huh? Oh, morning, sweethearts! Sure.”
Old men sitting. Paying a nickel to talk about the other war, about some dead person with a three-letter name.
We went into the COLORED waiting room, sold three names before a white conductor pushed us out by our elbows. We spent afternoons at the USO across the street. The soldiers gave us free lunch, stale ham-and-cheese sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, Cokes, Milky Ways. We played ping-pong and pinball machines while the soldiers filled out the cards. Once we made a quarter each punching the little counter that kept track of how many servicemen came in while the woman that did that went somewhere with a sailor.
New soldiers and sailors kept coming in with each train. The ones who were already there told them to buy our chances. They called me Heaven; and Hope, Hell.
The plan had been to keep all sixty cards until they were sold but we kept getting more and more money and extra tip money and couldn’t even count it.
We couldn’t wait to see who had won anyway, even though there were only ten cards left. We took the three cigar boxes of money and the cards to Sammy.
“Seventy dollars?” Jesus Christ. They both sat up in the grass. “Crazy damn kids. They did it.”
They kissed and hugged us. Jake rolled over and over, holding his stomach, squealing, “Jesus … Sammy you are a genius, a mastermind!”
Sammy hugged us. “I knew you could do it.”
He looked through all the cards, running his hand through his long hair, so black it always looked wet. He laughed at the names that had won.
PFC Octavius Oliver, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. “Hey, where’d you find these cats?” Samuel Henry Throper, Anywhere, USA. He was an old man in the COLORED part who said we could have the Vanity Box if he won.
Jake went to the Sunshine Grocery and brought us drippy banana popsicles. Sammy asked us about all the names, about how we did it. We told him about Kern Place and the pretty housewives in chambray shirtdresses, about the USO, about the pinball machines, the dirty man with the Great Danes.
He gave us seventeen dollars … more than fifty-fifty. We didn’t even take a bus, just ran downtown to Penney’s. Far. We bought skates and skate keys, charm bracelets at Kress and a bag of red salted pistachio nuts. We sat by the alligators in the Plaza … Soldiers, Mexicans, winos.
Hope looked around … “We could sell here.”
“No, nobody’s got money here.”
“Worst part will be delivering the Musical Vanity Boxes.”
“No, because now we have skates.”
“Tomorrow let’s learn to skate … hey we can even skate down the viaduct and watch the slag at the smelter.”
“If the people aren’t home we can just leave them inside the screen door.”
“Hotel lobbies would be a good place to sell.”
We bought drippy Coney Islands and root beer floats to go. That was the end of the money. We waited to eat until we got to the vacant lot at the beginning of Upson.
The lot was on top of a walled hill, high above the sidewalk, overgrown with fuzzy gray plants that had purple blossoms. Between the plants all over the lot was broken glass dyed to different shades of lavender by the sun. At that time of day, late afternoon, the sun hit the lot at an angle so that the light seemed to come from beneath, from inside the blossoms, the amethyst stones.
* * *
Sammy and Jake were washing a car. A blue jalopy with no roof and no doors. We ran the last block, the skates thumping inside the boxes.
“Whose is it?”
“Ours, want a ride?”
“Where’d you get it?”
They were washing the tires. “From a guy we know,” Jake said. “Want a ride?”
Hope was standing up on the seat. She looked like she was crazy. I didn’t understand yet.
“Sammy—where’d you get the money for this car?”
“Oh, here and there…” Sammy grinned at her, drank from the hose and wiped his chin with his shirt.
“Where did you get the money?”
Hope looked like an ancient old pale yellow witch. “You cheating motherfucker!” she screamed.
Then I understood. I followed her over the fence and under the porch.
“Lucha!” Sammy, my first hero, called, but I followed her to where she squatted by the breadbox.
She handed me the stack of filled cards. “Count them.” It took a long time.
Over five hundred people. We looked over the ones we had put Xs by, hoping that they would win.
“We could buy Musical Vanity Boxes for some of them…”
She sneered. “With what money? There is no such thing as a Musical Vanity Box anyway. You ever hear of a Musical Vanity Box before?”
She opened the breadbox and took out the ten unsold cards. She was crazy, groveling in the dust under the porch like a dying chicken.
“What are you doing, Hope?”
Panting, she crouched in the honeysuckle opening to the yard. She held up the cards, like the fan of a mad queen.
“They’re mine now. You can come. Fifty-fifty. Or you can stay. If you come it means you are my partner and you can’t ever talk to Sammy again the rest of your life or I’ll murder you with a knife.”
She left. I lay down in the damp dirt. I was tired. I just wanted to lie there, forever, and never do anything at all.
I lay there a long time and then I climbed over the wooden fence to the alley. Hope was sitting on the curb at the corner, her hair like a black bucket over her head. Bent, like a Pietà.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We walked up the hill toward Prospect. It was evening … all the families were outside watering the grass, murmuring from porch swings that creaked as rhythmically as the cicadas.
Hope banged a gate behind us. We walked up the wet concrete path toward the family. Iced tea, sitting on the steps, the stoop. She held out a card.
“Pick a name. Ten cents a chance.”
* * *
We started out early the next morning with the rest of the cards. We said nothing about the new price, about the six we had sold the night before. Most of all we said nothing about our skates … for two years we’d been hoping for skates. We hadn’t even tried them on yet.
When we got off the bus at the Plaza, Hope repeated that she’d kill me if I ever spoke to Sammy again.
“Never. Want blood?” We were always cutting our wrists and sealing promises.
I was relieved. I knew I would talk to him someday and without blood it wouldn’t be so bad.
The Gateway Hotel, like a jungle movie. Spittoons, clicking punkahs, palm trees, even a man in a white suit, fanning himself like Sydney Greenstreet. They all waved us away, rattled their faces back behind their papers as if they knew about us. People like the anonymity of hotels.
Outside, across the heat-sinking tar of the street to catch a trolley for Juarez. Mexicans in rebozos—smelling like American paper bags and Kress candy corn, yellow-orange.
Unfamiliar territory … Juarez. I knew only the fountained mirrored bars, the “Cielito Lindo” guitar players of my mother’s war-widow nights out with the “Parker girls.” Hope only knew the dirty-donkey movies. Mrs. Haddad always sent her along on Darlene’s dates with soldiers, so everything would be okay.
We stayed at the Juarez end of the bridge, leaning like the taxi drivers, the wooden snake sellers against the shade of the Follies Bar, padding forward as they did when the clusters of tourists, bobbing boy-soldiers came off the bridge.
Some smiled at us, anxious to be charmed, to be charming. Too hurried and awkward to look at our cards, shoving us pennies, nickels, dimes. “Here!” We hated them, as if we had been Mexicans.
By late afternoon the soldiers and tourists squirted off the ramp, clattering onto the sidewalk into the slow hot wind of black tobacco and Carta Blanca beer, flushed, hopeful … what will I see? They gushed past us, pushing pennies nickels into our fists without ever looking at the upheld cards or into our eyes.
We were reeling, giddy from the nervous laughter, from the lurching out, darting out of the way. We laughed, bold now, like the wooden snake and clay pig sellers. Insolent, we stood in their way, tugging at them. “Come on, only a dime … Buy a name, ten cents … Hey rich lady, a lousy dime!”
Dusk. Tired and sweaty. We leaned against the wall to count the money. The shoeshine boys watched us, mocking, even though we had made six dollars.
“Hope, let’s throw the cards into the river.”
“What, and just beg like these sick bums?” She was furious. “No, we’re going to sell every name.”
“We’ve got to eat sometime.”
“Right.” She called to one of the street boys … “Oye, where can we eat?”
“Eat mierda, gringa.”
We got off the main street of Juarez. You could look back at it, hear it, smell it, like a huge polluted river.
We began to run. Hope was crying. I had never seen her cry.
We ran like goats, like colts, heads lowered clopping clopping over the mud sidewalks, loping then, muffled. Sidewalks hard red dirt.
Down some adobe steps into the Gavilán Café.
* * *
In El Paso, those days, 1943, you heard a lot about war. My grandfather pasted Ernie Pyle into scrapbooks all day, Mamie prayed. My mother was a Gray Lady at the hospital, played bridge with the wounded. She brought blind or one-armed soldiers home to dinner. Mamie read to me from Isaiah about how someday everybody would beat their swords into plowshares. But I hadn’t thought about it. I had simply missed and glorified my father, who was a lieutenant somewhere overseas … Okinawa. A little girl, I first thought about the war when we went into the Gavilán Café. I don’t know why, I just remember thinking then about the war.
It seemed everyone in the Gavilán Café was a brother, or a cousin, a relative, even though they sat apart at tables or at the bar. A man and a woman, arguing and touching. Two sisters flirting over their mother’s back. Three lean brothers in denim work clothes, stooped with the same falling brother lock of hair over their tequilas.
It was dark cool and quiet although everyone was talking and someone was singing. The laughter was unstrained, private, intimate.
We sat on stools at the bar. A waitress came over, carrying a tray with a blue-and-purple peacock on it. Her black-rooted hennaed hair was piled into wavy mounds, caught with combs of gold and carved silver and broken mirrors. Fuchsia enlarged mouth. Green eyelids … a crucifix of blue-and-green butterfly wings sparkled between her conic yellow satin breasts. “¡Hola!” She smiled. Brilliance of gold-capped teeth, red gums. Dazzling Bird of Paradise!
“¿Qué quieren, lindas?”
“Tortillas,” Hope said.
The lady-bird waitress leaned forward, dusting crumbs away with blood-red nails, murmuring to us still in her green Spanish.
Hope shook her head … “No sé.”
“No.” Hope pointed to herself. Syrian. She spoke then in Syrian and the waitress listened, her fuchsia mouth moving with the words. “Eh!”
“She’s a gringa,” Hope said about me. They laughed. I envied their dark languages, their dark eyes.
“¡Son gringas!” the waitress told the people in the café.
An old man came over to us, carrying his glass and a Corona beer bottle. Straight … standing, walking straight and Spanish in a white suit. His son followed in a black zoot suit, dark glasses, watch chain. This was bebop time, pachuco time … The son’s shoulders were stooped, in fashion, head lowered to the level of his father’s pride.
“What’s your name?”
Hope gave him her Syrian name … Sha-a-hala. I gave him the name the Syrians called me … Luchaha. Not Lucía or Lucha but Lu-cha-a. He told everybody our names.
The waitress was named Chata, because her nose turned up like a rain pipe. Literally, it means “squat.” Or “bedpan.” The old man was Fernando Velasquez and he shook hands with us.
Having greeted us, the people in the café ignored us as before, accepting us with their easy indifference. We could have leaned against any of them and fallen asleep.
Velasquez took our bowls of green chili over to a table. Chata brought us lime sodas.
He had learned English in El Paso where he worked. His son worked there too in construction.
“Oye, Raúl … diles algo … He speaks good English.”
The son remained standing, elegant behind his father. His cheekbones shone amber above a bebop beard.
“What are you kids doing over here?” the father asked.
Hope held up the stack of cards. Fernando looked at them, turned each of them over. Hope went into her sales pitch about the Vanity Boxes … “The name that wins gets a Musical Vanity Box.”
“Válgame Dios…” He took the card over to the next table, explained it, gesturing, banging on the table. They all looked at the card and at us, uncertainly.
A woman in a bandana turban beckoned to me. “Oye, somebody wins the boxes, no?”
Raúl had moved over, silent, to pick up one of the cards, looked down at me. His eyes were white through his dark glasses.
“Where are the boxes?”
I looked at Hope.
“Raúl…” I said. “Of course there are no Musical Vanity Boxes. The person that wins the name wins all of the money.”
He bowed to me, with the grace of a matador. Hope bowed her wet head and cussed in Syrian. In English she said, “Why did we never think of that?” She smiled at me.
“Okay, chulita … give me two names.”
Velasquez was explaining the game to people at the tables, Chata to a group of men at the bar with strong wet backs. They shoved two tables into ours. Hope and I sat at each end. Raúl stood in back of me. Chata poured beer for everyone seated around the table, like at a banquet.
“No tengo … ¿un peso?”
Hope stacked the money in a pile in front of her. “Hey … we still get our quarter cut.” Raúl said that was fair. Her eyes glittered under eyeshade bangs. Raúl and I wrote down the names.
The names themselves were more fun in Spanish, nobody could say them right and kept laughing. BOB. Spilt beer. It took only three minutes to fill one card. Raúl opened the seal. Ignacio Sanchez won with TED. Bravo! Raúl said he’d made just about the same amount working all day. With a flourish, Ignacio scattered the coins and crumpled bills onto Chata’s peacock tray. ¡Cerveza!
“Wait a minute…” Hope took out our quarter cut.
Two peddlers had come in, pulled chairs up to the table.
They sat with straw baskets in their laps. “¿Cuánto es?”
“Un peso … un quarter.”
“Let’s make it two,” Raúl said. “Dos pesos, fifty cents.” The new men with the baskets couldn’t afford it, so everyone decided they could go for one this time since they were new. They each put in a peso on the pile. Raúl won. The men got up and left without even having a beer.
By the time we had sold out four cards everyone was drunk. None of the winners had kept their money, just bought more chances, more food, tequila now.
Most of the losers left. We all ate tamales. Chata carried the tamales in a washtub, a casserole of beans we dipped into with hot tortillas.
Hope and I went to the outhouse behind the café. Stumbling, shielding the candle Chata had lent us.
Yawn … it makes you pensive, reflexive, to pee, like New Year’s.
“Hey, what time is it?”
It was almost midnight. Everyone in the Gavilán Café kissed us good-bye. Raúl took us to the bridge, holding each of our tiny hands. Gentle, like the pull of a dowser’s branch, drawing our bony bodies into the pachuco beat of his walk, so light, slow, swinging.
Under the bridge, on the El Paso side, were the shoeshine hustlers we had seen that afternoon, standing in the muddy Rio Grande, holding up cones to catch money in, digging in the mud for it if it fell. Soldiers were throwing pennies, gum wrappers. Hope went over to the rail. “¡Hola, pendejos!” she hollered and threw them all our quarters. Fingers back. Laughter.
Raúl put us in a taxi and paid the driver. We waved to him out the back window, watched him walk, swinging toward the bridge. Spring onto the ramp like a deer.
* * *
Hope’s father started beating her the minute she got out of the taxi, whipped her up the stairs with a belt, screaming in Syrian.
No one was home but Mamie, kneeling for my safe return. The taxi upset her more than Juarez. She never went anywhere in a taxi without a bag of black pepper in case of attack.
In bed. Pillows behind me. She brought me custard and cocoa, the food she served to the sick or the damned. Custard melted like a communion wafer in my mouth. The blood of her forgiving love I drank while she stood there, praying in a pink angel gown, at the foot of my bed. Matthew and Mark, Luke and John.
Copyright © 2018 by the Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP