When Becky Shelling was eleven, her father, the trumpeter Ernie Shelling, took her to see a live musical show at a fancy theater with a red stage curtain and velvet seats, in the heart of downtown Baltimore. A jazz man by trade, Ernie had gotten the tickets from a bar buddy, a used-to-be from the bygone heyday of the swing bands, who knew somebody who knew somebody who played in the orchestra there. Never one to turn down free entertainment, he told his little girl to put on her best dress, a satiny pink number with princess sleeves, which he bought the last time they passed the Debbie-Lynn Shop. It had a nylon inner layer that puffed the skirt and scratched her legs, but he said she looked like Rita Hayworth in that dress; and she’d do anything for her dad, especially when he was offering to take her someplace. They were close, and he didn’t get much free time.
It was 1971. Americans were singing “Joy to the World,” with the Three Dog Night, and Ernie considered himself lucky to be working as a jazz musician at all, much less making a living at it. It was a job that kept him hopping; from wedding reception to resort gig; from the Eastern Shore to the Poconos to Atlantic City. Arlene, Becky’s step-mom, wanted him to take a job at National, like Bert Spivak; or Bethlehem Steel, like Al Gianetti, who’d started as a laborer but now was a foreman, Becky knew, not because anyone had specifically told her, but because the furnace ducts whispered it one night, as she lay awake wishing Arlene wouldn’t yell so much. As for Becky, having a father who travelled for a living was pretty neat. He brought her things – a cocktail napkin from a place called The Hideaway; a pencil inscribed “Shoreline Motel, Your Home Away from Home” – things that mightily impressed her friend Issie Lebsack, whose father drove a trash truck. And she liked the tingle of surprise she felt climbing the stairs in the morning to find him at the kitchen table after several weeks away. A tired eye winking over a cup of coffee, he’d hold an arm open; and she’d nuzzle his whiskered cheek. His five o’clock shadow would remind her of a cartoon hobo – the stogie-stuffed mouth, the kerchief of belongings tied to a stick – but the resemblance ended at his chin. Ernie Shelling didn’t smoke, and he was the best-dressed man Becky had seen outside of the movies. When he took his family to dinner at the White Swan or the Athenian, he wore pleated khakis and soft V-neck sweaters, a tuft of reddish hair visible beneath his collar bone.
The day of the show, he sported a black suit jacket with matching pants, and a whiter-than-white shirt that he’d just pulled out of a dry cleaner’s bag. Arlene grumbled that they might be able to buy a house someday if he’d let her wash his shirts; but Mr. Kaczmarek had just the touch when it came to starch, he said, and he didn’t spend half his life on the road to deprive himself, besides.It was a bright day – mid-May – with temperatures in the 70s and a moist breeze off the water. With two weeks left of school, Becky’s step-sister, Abbie had been so restless that Arlene gave her the day off from housecleaning. If Ernie was going to play favorites, she said, taking his daughter to a show while leaving her daughter out, Becky could clean double-hard when she got home, “end of story.” Puffing her lower lip, Becky whined that Abbie wouldn’t want to go anyway. She’d be more likely to spend the day smoking cigarettes by the railroad tracks with her horsey friends than see a live musical show, she wanted to say. But then she spied her dad, over by the door, shaking his finger at nothing in particular as he silently mimicked Arlene’s words; and she skirted past them both, her hand over her mouth to hide the giggles.“After you, Madam,” he laughed, his palm tapping her bottom.Shooing them away with a glance, Arlene settled into the sofa. Her feet on the coffee table, a thick robe gathered tightly over pajama pants; she started flipping through a stack of papers she’d brought home from her job keeping the books at Crown Cork.
“If you see the bus, you yell,” Ernie said when they reached the corner.
Then he disappeared into the Half-Mile bar, his “haunt,” his musician friends sometimes said.Squinting past the cinder block-propped door to the lighted backboard of the Shuffle Bowl machine she played when Arlene sent her here to look for him, Becky’s nose caught a whiff of Pine-sol and beer. Along the bar, she could make out the lumpy outlines of men slouched over their beers and shots, but little else. She heard her father’s voice, though, when he called, “You see that bus yet?”
“Not yet,” she answered, gazing eastward on the Avenue, her palm shading her forehead like a sailor on the lookout.
Shortly, he grabbed her hand, whisking her over a gas-streaked puddle into the street as the number 10 hissed to a stop on the other side. Cars honked. Becky waved at a passenger, and Ernie yelled for the driver to wait. They sat on the long seat in front, Becky pressing her knees together like the lady she’d soon be, while he extended his arm across the back of the seat and said “How ‘bout them Orioles?” to the driver. It was small talk, Becky knew, her father being a New York City native who loved the Yankees. But it brought a smile to the driver’s lips, and Ernie Shelling loved to make people smile – Becky knew this better than anything – and, despite the nylon of her dress pricking itchy little bumps all over her knees, she felt good. She’d dreamed of a career in show biz ever since she watched Gene Kelly dance Rita Hayworth across the screen of Grandma Evie’s wide, blonde-wood floor-model; and her dad had been promising to take her to see real, live dancers for what seemed like forever; months, at least, of using his connections to land the best seats, while other concerns jumped onto his schedule. Laying her head on his shoulder, she inhaled a waft of aftershave and whiskey. This was how he smelled when he returned to the apartment late at night, tiptoeing into her room to kiss her forehead as she slept. This was the smell – candy-sweet booze mixed with stale aftershave and the sweat of late nights – that would conquer her senses for years to come, reminding her of her father and their trip to the theater to watch shapely dancers sashay across the stage in fluffy kitten suits.
Becky loved the show – she loved it so much, in fact, that she didn’t even bat an eye when he shuffled up the carpeted aisle and back out to the lobby. Oh, she watched him leave, all right, glancing up from her comfy seat as he smiled his man-about-town smile and pressed a finger to his lips. She even snuck a peek between the swinging doors to spy him by the candy counter, light beaming off his shiny flask as he slid it out of his jacket pocket and poured a little in his Coke. When he returned to his seat, she sank back, gathered her knees to her chest and laid her head on his arm to watch the dancers sideways. Arlene got mad when he drank, but Becky didn’t mind. Why should she, when he was the one who got free tickets to live musical shows?
The show, Guys and Dolls, was about a gambler named Nathan and his girlfriend, Miss Adelaide, who went to work every night in a theater like the one they were in. She had a dressing room, with a comfy lounge chair and a vanity covered with perfume bottles. She sang and danced in a kitten suit, while a string of other kittens kicked and strutted behind her. But when she wasn’t dancing, she was sad because her boyfriend, the gambler, didn’t want to marry her. That was the part Becky didn’t get: why a girl who had her own dressing room would fuss so over getting married. But the show ended happy and this made Becky happy. She’d have been disappointed if the show had ended sad – if the gamblers couldn’t gamble, if Miss Adelaide had continued to whine – because her father had gone to such trouble to get these tickets; and to see that his daughter, his one true love, he sometimes said, had the time of her life.
The sun had sunk behind the tall buildings when they filed through the double doors and onto the sidewalk. The air felt cool and thin as Becky clung to her father’s arm, feeling like a princess alongside stylish downtowners. Tucking his tie into his jacket pocket, Ernie said they were going to meet a friend of his, the one who’d been so kind as to give them the tickets.
“What instrument did he play?” she asked.
Ernie glanced around, his eyes narrowing as they landed on his daughter. “Who?”
“The guy in the band.”
“Chorus; she danced in the chorus. Her name’s Lori; but if anybody asks, it’s Lou and he’s a trumpeter, like me.”
Lori Swanson, Miss Lori, Becky’s dad said, had a white-white smile and black-black hair, shiny and straight all the way to her shoulders, where it flipped up like a big fish hook. Becky’s dad knew her from a downtown club, where he worked sometimes when he wasn’t on the road. She rode the bus back to Highlandtown with them, chattering about how the show was “right up her alley,” as her fingertips tapped rhythmically on Becky’s dad’s knee.
“Which kitten were you?” Becky turned in her seat to ask.
“Oh, you wouldn’t recognize me,” Miss Lori said, waving a hand. “We danced the same moves, wore the same suit. But it’s a break, huh, Ernie? A far cry from the club circuit.”
“Darned right,” Becky’s dad agreed.
When they reached Milton Avenue, he scooted Becky to the front of the bus and bent to kiss her forehead. She should run on home, he said; help Arlene with dinner. He and Miss Lori were going to stop at the Lamplighter. A few more stops up the Avenue, the Lamplighter was a bar Becky had never seen on the inside.
She walked down Fleet to the alley, past yard after tiny yard with patches of daffodils and new revolving clotheslines, her fingers dinging the chain links until she reached her yard, the one with a single line stretching from a hook on the house to a pole in the yard. She trudged up the steps and into the kitchen, where Arlene stood at the stove, poking big, sizzling pieces of chicken with a fork. Grease spattered; chicken hissed. Arlene hissed back, sucking air through her teeth as she gripped her burnt hand then continued poking.
“Where’s your father?” she asked without turning to look.
Sinking noisily into a chair, Becky flipped through the programme the usher had handed her to a full-page photo of the show’s star, a redhead named Daphne Grier, who her dad had called a “looker.”
“She’s a redhead like me, and some day I’m gonna be a star like her,” she said, holding the photo beside her face.
“She has red hair, not ‘she’s a redhead,’” Arlene replied. She didn’t even bother with Daphne Grier; but went to the refrigerator for a gallon of milk, which she plunked onto the table with instructions to “Pour, please.”
Studying the programme in her room that night, Becky scanned the photos and the credits, her finger running down the list of names under the heading, “Chorus,” until it landed on “Lori Swanson.” She’d finally landed a “professional gig;” Becky’s dad had said, though no one in the audience would’ve known that the tall one, who’d laid her head on his shoulder and called him her “very best friend,” was Lori Swanson. Still, the chorus was a “darned-right” start.
She set the programme on the vanity and backed away from the mirror. Pinching her nightgown tight around her waist, she struck a slant-hipped, sassy pose.
“Starring Rebecca Shelling as Miss Adelaide,” she said in her best TV announcer voice.
Swishing her hips, she gathered the skirt of the nightgown into her hand and swung it like a cat’s tail.Pushing her hair back, she searched the mirror for the striking, high-cheeked profile of Daphne Grier, but found instead fat cheeks, a pouty mouth and a spray of freckles that made her face look like it had been splashed with muddy puddle water. Then she remembered a photo she’d seen on the back of a playing card she’d found in her dad’s nightstand drawer. On it, a topless blond perched poolside, her chest held high in a proud pose. Her ears tuned to the whisper of Arlene’s slippers in the hall upstairs, she inched closer to the mirror and raised her nightgown to her chin. Though still in the fifth grade, she had budding breasts that trimmed her waistline and made her step-sister jealous; and her dad – surrounded by bar friends who bought her cokes and gave her quarters for Shuffle Bowl – called her his “princess” and said she’d be a looker one day, too.