More Bad Company; or Bring On the Clowns (Chapter Four)

May 4, 2010

The Las Vegas Girls were not Lilies of the Field. Daily, they toiled mightily. They sweated and stretched, pliéd and spun and kicked their legs as high as their bouffant do’s. They kept their mascarared eyes on the goal, restricted their intake of sugar and fat and loved their dance partners much more than their husbands or boyfriends. Center stage, they climbed onto rickety prop chairs in high heels and executed pencher arabesques, and no risk to life and limb, no horrible wobble of uneven chair legs could displace their effervescent smiles nor quench their steely determination. The woman had been part of the company for more than a year.

She had been recruited by Audrey Turner of The Pagets dance team (Audrey and John Paget had dissolved their dance partnership shortly after arriving in South Africa but had decided to form a Jazz Dance company together.) Audrey had seen the woman dancing at a house party in Sea Point and invited her to join their company. The woman was reticent at first, never having had any Jazz training, but the idea of dancing again since leaving the Ballet Company at nineteen and doing her miserable best to forget her dreams and conform to marriage and motherhood, proved irresistible. Now into her second marriage and second child, it had felt as if the last few years had stifled the very life out of her. She seemed to have been holding her breath, as if any deep inhalation would reignite the tamped down longing in her breast and implode into total destruction of the manufactured “normal” role expected of her. After the first few weeks of training she felt that she could breathe again and looked forward to each day with its morning classes and rehearsals. The challenge of learning a new style, the joy of being back in her body; feeling the ache in her muscles, the pounding of her heart, all this revived her. The rivulets of sweat that trickled over her skin seemed to penetrate all her cells and quench the inner thirst, hydrating the desiccated core of her.

At first being called a “Las Vegas Girl” embarrassed the woman. Doing the mambo to “Tequila” was a bit of a culture shock after Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Stravinsky’s (you really had to know the counts) Firebird. But it was a whole lot more fun, a great deal less technically demanding — and there were fewer dancers, so each could show off to advantage.

Besides, Audrey Turner and John Paget were strong ballet dancers who had been soloists with Ballet Rambert and Roland Petit before stopping off in America where they got together with Matt Maddox and choreographed The Pagets, a dance team that was featured at the Copa, opening for the Marx Brothers.

Audrey was tiny and dynamic; a mercurial technician with a helmet of black curls, and shiny black eyes that shot sparks when she and John fought, which was all the time. John was short and compact and could turn forever. He opened their act by strolling out of the wings in a long, loping glide, grifter-smooth slicked hair, dangerous eyes. In his immaculate suit with pencil trousers, he took a preparation center stage and whipped off eight turns with arrogant insouciance. Because he was that anomaly, a male ballet dancer who was heterosexual, he was belligerent and rude; a bantam cock that drank too much, and eschewing bars, picked his brawls with management. One fist-fight too many had sounded the strains of The Pagets’ swan song and Audrey stalked out for the final time and married her second John, John Clark, a singularly unattractive man, fat, florid and pompous, but also a director of South African theatres. This, in addition to his friendship with Owen Williams, theatre critic and drinking buddy (the two of them drank together with the serious dedication of English gentlemen at a Thorne Smith symposium) got The Las Vegas Girls loads of good attention from the press and multiple bookings from African Theatres. John Paget loathed John Clark, and vice versa, and Audrey hopped between her Johns like a frantic mother sparrow attempting to appease the voracious needs of two orphaned cuckoos.

Audrey choreographed the Girls’ routines and coached them in American Jazz Dance and John Paget gave them daily classes each morning. He was a dedicated and knowledgeable teacher and devoted almost twenty minutes of each class to pirouettes, his specialty. He was often rude and abrasive to the girls, but for some reason, he never fought with the woman, the oldest of the Girls and the only married one. With her he was eternally patient and supportive. When he was not angry and on edge he would regale them with long, convoluted comedy routines in a North Country dialect, his delivery verging on brilliant. Opening for so many great comics had bequeathed him an eclectic repertoire of “bits” that grew exponentially more hilarious and outrageous with every telling. Even Audrey, who had heard them all on countless occasions, would shriek with delight every time.

#

Fifteen months later The Las Vegas Girls were on their first tour. They had never been to Las Vegas but South African Consolidated Theatres were sending them to Durban as the opening act for an English vaudeville family — The Gladys Morgan Show, featuring Mrs. Mills, the huge, jolly English lady who thumped the piano and sang in a wobbly off-key falsetto. Mrs. Mills had truly made lemonade from life’s lemons; she was fairly huge back in England too, where every one of her LPs made the best-seller list. She was a sort of a solo-artist vicarage version of Spike Jones. If Spike’s music sounded as if it was rattling around in a tin can, Mrs. Mill’s voice rattled around in her two hundred pound plus frame until her happy laughter squeezed it up past her vocal cords which shivered and shook in shock before emitting notes that were so out of tune, listeners could only laugh with her. She professed to a life-long ambition to make people happy and seemingly did so. She evoked a response in the woman similar to “The Laughing Policeman,” which had made her laugh until her stomach hurt on Sundays when her father tuned into the Goon Show on the BBC, where they played it between Peter Sellers doing Bluebottle.

Gladys Morgan was a Welsh leprechaun, born in eighteen ninety-eight. She too, had made her name on radio shows — “The Frankie Howard Show” and “Educating Archie” — but had even greater success in the flesh where her toothless grin and maniacal cackle won her legions of fans. She was partnered by her husband, the ideal straight man, lanky, thin haired and with the lugubrious face of a Basset Hound. Her daughter, Joan, a brittle bottle blond made up the rest of the act with her husband, Bert.

Also appearing in Durban were Barnum and Bailey’s Circus and an American Country and Western star, more famous than any of them could ever hope to be.

#

En route to Durban, all six Girls were crammed into a second class sleeper as the train wound its slow Hugh Masakela clackety-clack woo-woo up to Kimberley and the Orange Free State where it would veer southeast to Natal. The carriage was cramped and uncomfortable, redolent of clashing perfumes and girl-sweat, piled to the ceiling with luggage that spilled panties and bras, dance togs and Kotex, make-up and good-luck mascots. But she did not mind. It was all so much happier than her first tour (to Bulawayo with the University Ballet) more than five years ago. She had been the youngest member of the company and the older dancers had banned her from the compartment to stand shivering in the morning corridor while they dressed, and Heather, the eldest, a tiny red-head who lead the Little Swans’ Pas de Quatre, applied orange-toned pancake over yesterday’s layer.

The Las Vegas troupe were all in high spirits, isolated in their little world, too far forward on the train to see the third class carriages trailing behind, far beyond the bend of track or conscience. Out of sight, where filthy compartments offered little comfort and less space to their non-white travelers, all sardined together on the hard wooden banquets, cramming the corridors and spilling out of windows in a teeming, sweating black mass; workers hoping for jobs in the mines, Nbele women carrying cloth-wrapped parcels on their heads, fat babies on their backs, hoping to visit their men. Their get-to-visit once-a-year sweethearts, those tall Zulu bridegrooms who were swallowed daily into the yawning, toothless mouth of Mother Africa. She, who ground them down to shadows of their manhood in her black entrails before coughing up the shining stones that enriched De Beers and the Oppenheimers and all the white masters with their cars and servants and swimming pools, their slender pampered wives who were exactly like the lilies of the field and neither toiled nor spinned.

#

Of the six, steely determination was Deirdre’s forte. She alone eschewed the ambition to excel as a dancer for ambition, period. When it came to acquisition of territory, sense of entitlement or ruthless aggression, this slightly plump, gap-toothed white girl put Chaka Zulu to shame. If she had been born one hundred and fifty years earlier, the Voortrekkers could have made her a general, worthy opponent of the Black Napoleon. But Deirdre had to content herself with conquest of the spotlight.

Deirdre was hell to dance with. You might as well not be there, and if you were, stay out of range. Last year, when several of the Las Vegas Girls were employed in the chorus of the touring company of “My Fair Lady,” Deirdre outdid herself. On opening night in Cape Town, during the Convent Garden Market scene, she came hurtling out of the wings like a guided missile, her eyes widened until the whites showed and her eyelashes pierced her brows. She ricocheted through the opening bars of “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” and aimed herself downstage. Her grin splayed across her face like a seismic fault, she streaked past Henry Doolittle like the Roadrunner in skirts. She effortlessly wrested the spotlight from the star as she slalomed through the rest of the cast and soared over the footlights into the orchestra pit, right before Henry begged to be gotten to the church on time.

The real hero of the evening had to be the conductor, who hardly missed a beat. He covered his head with his left arm, but kept on pumping with his right. The entire company, stars, cast and management were furious — all but the dancers, who had to hide their guilty glee.

In the annals of showbiz Deirdre was the first member of the last row of the chorus to be a hard act to follow.

#

Once in Durban, the oldest Las Vegas Girl got to room with Nikki, the band-box beauty. Nikki was so pretty, so exquisitely groomed and so immaculately made-up, you could think of little else in her company. Without intending to in the least, she made you feel that your hem was coming down, you had food-spots on your blouse and your eyeliner was smudged. Nikki’s gorgeous self did not come without effort; given her exquisite cheekbones and large blue eyes, she examined the palette of her perfection and gilded the lily. She applied make-up with the skill of an airbrush virtuosa, and spent hours doing it. The results were well worth the endeavor. She was the fairest of them all, and jealousy would not make her less so. She was also sweet-natured and giving and her glacial perfection masked a fragile vulnerability. She was easy to room with and you could learn loads about make-up just watching her.

Settled in with Nikki, she prepared to enjoy the two days before opening, unburdened by household chores or childcare, out of range of censorious makeover notes from her husband.

The cast had a free day to settle in before dress rehearsal and when members of “Friends of the Theatre” graciously offered them a day on their estate, with horse rides around the country side, she and one of the girls, Val, eagerly accepted. When she explained that she had never ridden a horse before, their hosts brushed aside her protests and assured her that the horse she would be given was calm and old and would only amble sedately. It did not occur to them to explain that from this dizzy height on the aging but breathstoppingly huge mare’s back, she would mold her thighs into a death-grip around the unfamiliar saddle and fail to relax until she felt firm ground under her feet, more than an hour later. On trembling legs she walked back to their hosts’ house across an endless expanse of green lawn, and awoke the next morning, dress-rehearsal day, to inner thighs that burned with smoldering fire and protested at the touch of the silkiest fabric.

Striding across the stage in heels was reminiscent of Dante’s eighth circle of hell where sins included Fraudulent Rhetoric and Falsification; (“The horse is old and safe as can be”. And “You cannot possibly be hurt”).

The Inquisitors were well acquainted with burning inner thighs. For this they invented the Spanish Donkey, where they sat heretics — Muslims, Jews and random dissidents — on a wooden horse and attached weights to their feet. (Today Torquemada could have done it to music.) Performing high kicks after an equestrian afternoon in Durban was an adequate substitute.

If the crippling pain did not purify the soul, then the fact that she patiently endured the pianist-cum-conductor playing the wrong music for her entrance as Nellie Blye in the Frankie and Johnnie number — repeatedly — despite polite explanations and countless re-entries, should have earned her canonization at this honky-tonk auto-de fe.

Dress rehearsal was tortuous; opening night was purgatory. She could barely hobble through the routines, and when the conductor missed her cue one more time, the combination of physical pain and sweaty frustration coalesced into simmering rage. Instead of striding from the wings to center stage, she made a vengeful diagonal downstage detour, twirling Nellie’s beaded bag into a furious whirlwind, and hissed loudly enough to be heard in the front row, “Get my music right, you moron!”

For a timeless moment the man’s hands froze on the keys and his jaw fell open as he stared up at her. His nerveless fingers picked up the Nellie cue and she and the number limped through to the end, dancers and musicians in collective shock.

Back in the dressing room her heart was still pounding and adrenalin made her shake. Disapproval at her transgression froze the troupe into horrified silence, broken only when one of the girls broke into sobs and laid her forehead down in the spilled powder on the dressing table. “Oh, oh, oh!” she wailed, “Margot Fonteyn doesn’t yell at the conductor!”

“Damn right,” snorted a recalcitrant John Paget, her only supporter. “That’s because the conductor’s Constance Lambert and Margot’s fucking him.”

“Oh, oh, oh!” wailed all the girls at this bit of heresy, appalled to the toes of their ballerina manqué feet.

Temporarily cast out by her virtuous teammates, she did not hesitate when the famous Country and Western star appeared at the dressing room door and invited her out.

She hoped to get through the evening without revealing that she was not very familiar with his music. She was spared that ordeal when he himself did not mention it at all and instead laughed heartily at the onstage scandal.

“Would have done the same myself,” he laughed, “only louder and rougher. Honestly? Was thinking of inviting the gorgeous blonde. But that decided me.”

He was going to eat with a troupe of Italian clowns from Barnum and Bailey’s. This was so novel an idea compared with the usual restaurant wine, meal and obligatory pass, she abandoned all guilt, let him take her hand and walk her through the warm Natal night to the seashore where they strolled across the packed sand. The sky prickled with a vast scattering of sequins reflecting in little explosions of light that bounced off the swells. A bright sliver of moon wrapped itself around the faded memory of its fullness and the shushing of the waves backed the singer’s slow drawl as he talked to her about his home, his wife and his kids. She felt a rush of warmth towards him for his honest friendliness and mildly affectionate companionship. She felt secure in the knowledge that all he wanted from her was an evening spent away from the fans, the entourage and an empty hotel room.

The quiet night filled with a swelling crescendo of sound as they approached the end of the beach and stepped onto the concrete of the oceanfront fun park, weaving through carousels and stalls, hotdogs and candy floss, hoarse cries of touts and delighted shrieks of fright from the Big Wheel, all the way to the huge tent and around the back.

A scattered line of trailers zigzagged about one hundred yards behind the main triptych of canvas. Sandwiched between them and parallel to the tent were rolling, steel-barred cages. A single animal occupied each; a lion, two tigers, a bear. Three uncaged elephants were tethered for the night. A large cage filled with poodles was set a distance away from the larger animals. The air was filled with feral odors, the yapping of the dogs and the occasional soporific rumble from the big cats.

The woman grabbed the singer’s hand and pulled him past the animals, turning her head away. The animals were healthy looking and well fed, sleek as house slaves, but she could not ignore her feelings of alarm. She had not been to the circus since she was a child. A single visit that she never forgot. She had loved the aerial acts, the fearless, flying acrobats; superhuman sorcerers who stopped your heart and dazzled your eyes, the pretty girls in sparkly leotards and dazzling smiles, sitting and standing, performing pencher arabesques, hopping to the sawdust and bouncing up again, all in time to the music, on the backs of horses white as unicorns.

But then there was an ominous roll of drums and wild animals burst out of tunnels at the back, followed by muscular shirtless hussars, with shiny boots and snaky whips that they cracked in accompaniment to inarticulate cries, their words muffled by the oompapa of the trombones and the frenzied shriek of brass; a cacophony that reached hooks down into her diaphragm and captured a huge sob which then lodged in her throat and made her hold her breath, eyes tight shut, before exploding in a fountain of tears.

“Look,” said her mother, “the horses are back.” She opened her eyes and felt better.

Not for long. Standing tall on the backs of their snowy mounts, the pretty girls waved goodbye and rode off just before a ragtaggle band burst out into the ring in wild orange wigs and round red noses, chalk white faces painted with unholy rictal grins, tooting horns and tumbling and fighting and yelling even louder than the animal trainers, and she feared them with a terrible anxiety that made her cry louder than before. The grownups had to take her home.

#

Visiting the Circus for the second time, she followed the singer back to the line of trailers that stretched out into the night perpendicular to the animal cages. She wondered at the fate that brought her into the company of an artist whose fame she knew but whose art she had not the occasion to appreciate and a troupe of clowns whose art she knew and had never appreciated.

The air was redolent with a multicultural medley of cuisines that wafted out of the open doors of trailers. Women in silky wraps, faded kimonos and outsized t-shirts, called their families into the trailers to eat, or sat on the steps and spoon-fed toddlers. The men milled around outside, smoking and talking. A couple of them had rounded up several younger children and had them stretching and bending into impossible shapes; little wiry human pretzels, while a third man held a very young baby overhead by his feet. The infant crowed in delight, tiny body stiff in his triumph of balance, three or four teeth shining from a gummy smile that spilled drool onto his naked chest.

The Italian family was eating outside. In front of their trailer they had erected a large rectangular trestle table covered with a red and white checkered oilcloth. A woman stood in the open doorway passing dishes and cutlery to three older children who painstakingly laid place settings around the table. She had blond hair in a pixie cut, laugh lines around her eyes and wide mouth, and the body of an athlete that belied any childbearing. A second woman stepped from the neighboring trailer and carefully descended, two bottles of red wine clutched in each hand. She had an unruly mop of black curls and a wide white smile with an endearing gap between her front teeth. She was dressed in the ubiquitous wrap, this one green with big white tropical flowers, over which she had tied a large apron.

Ciao bellissimi!” She called out to the visitors. “Como stai? Come, come. Sit. Have some wine”. She circled the table pouring wine into plastic glasses, adding water to the children’s glasses. The first woman descended the steps of her trailer carrying a huge dish of pasta. She had changed into wide blue cotton pants with a large t-shirt. “Volare. Si!” splayed across her chest. Everyone was muscular and wiry, loud and welcoming. The three men were brothers, identically clad in blue jeans and white cotton sleeveless vests. The two eldest were married to the women. They were physically similar enough to be twins, although one was obviously older and thicker-set. Both had short black curls and dark blue-shaded chins. A younger brother was taller with the light brown hair and green eyes of a Northern Italian. He left for a while and returned with his fiancé, a tiny French acrobat from Rheims. The eldest brother sat at the head of the table, his wife to his right. The singer and the woman sat at the far end, the second brother and his wife on each side of them. The youngest brother sat in the center of the table, his fiancé at his side and the children were scattered on each side and squeezed into the gaps. The children bounced up and down between courses and ran around with pieces of bread clutched in their hands. It was hard to tell cousins from siblings, and the two mothers fed and admonished all the children equally, yelling “Basta! Basta!” and giving an occasional slap to the side of the head of anyone who became too unruly.

The woman sat mostly silent, attempting to unravel relationships and listen to the two elder brothers who embarked upon a strange duet as they explained that they were a high-wire act as well as clowns. As the conversation progressed, one brother then the other addressed her directly, sometimes finishing each others’ sentences, yet never addressing each other. They never looked at each other and their body language signaled alternate rapprochement and rejection as they inadvertently were drawn into conversation together, and then withdrew on realizing the breach of boundary. A couple of times one of them would ask a child to tell the other to pass the salt or the cheese. The woman watched this strange exchange in bewilderment, until the wives noticed her confusion and embarked on a duet of their own. Shaking their heads at the folly of their husbands and men in general they explained that the two brothers had quarreled some years ago, and had not talked since. This did not prevent them from religiously catching each other as they flew through the air, nor unfailingly presenting their crazy tumbling buffoon act each and every show, where the hurled insults and unflattering asides to the audience added fuel to the feud.

The woman sat there bemused; she couldn’t believe her ears. How did they do it? She would not have been surprised to see the Cheshire cat smiling it’s sometimes smile in one of the trailer windows, or a caterpillar with a hookah seated between the children. That English tea had been replaced by pasta and Chianti did not diminish the madness of this party. She wondered if the outraged Las Vegas Girls could sustain their recent silent treatment of her another day, let alone an entire season.

#

The Girls were not silent, but they remained tentative and edgy with her the rest of the week, as if fearful that she might perpetuate another monstrous breach of etiquette at any moment. This was not fun, and left her feeling alienated and a little rebellious, so when an older Bohemian-looking couple came backstage midweek and struck up a conversation with her, she welcomed their attention. The husband was ordinary, thick-set and balding, but with a humorous face and an easy-going manner. His wife was exotic with jet-black hair in a short boyish cut, heavily lined beryl eyes and long nails painted green to match them.

The green nails did it. The woman was fascinated. When Larry and Pat, her admiring new friends, practically begged her to spend Sunday at their home, promising to return her to her hotel early Monday morning, she accepted. South Africa being South Africa, there was no show on Sundays, God-fearing Dutch Reform Church-goers made the rules. Alcohol consumption and fun on Sundays came shortly behind inter-racial sex on their list of sins. Even their Black maids were given every (second) Sunday off.

The clean-up rehearsal at noon on Sunday was relaxed and brief and by three o’clock the cast was free. The other dancers were going to the beach and she left them at the hotel packing bikinis, towels and Bain de Soleil.

There was bus that went directly to Larry and Pat’s apartment and by five she had showered and changed into cotton Capri’s, strapless ruched white tube and sandals. Overnight needs; cotton pajamas, face cream and a toothbrush went into her dance-bag and over her shoulder.

The bus ride took all of fifteen minutes and she was soon approaching the double glass doors that led into the foyer of a large u-shaped modern apartment complex with clean lines and three stories of high-ceilinged flats. Tall glass windows overlooked lush lawns with two jacaranda trees spilling a bruised violet carpet onto the green. Rows of roses, agapanthus and arum lilies wound around the pathways and a white marble bird-bath stood in the shade of a sturdy avocado tree. Dappled shade was stippled by slivers of sunlight that pierced leaves and branches, and where the lawns stretched beyond the trees they burned with blinding emerald light. The breeze, swooning with the scent of roses, stirred her hair and banished the smell of grease paint. Her spirits lifted, she took the lift to the third floor and knocked on the door of 3C–

–and stood frozen and speechless when the door was opened by Larry, naked but for a large white apron with the assurance that “Chefs Do It Hot” curving its way around his burgeoning paunch.

“Come in. Come in!” in his left hand he waved a wooden spoon that threatened to drip tomato sauce onto the cool marble floor. He genially shook her nerveless fingers with his right. Without waiting for a response, he turned his back, revealing a skinny naked bottom and marched on bowed legs to the rear. Fearing to appear unsophisticated or narrow, she silently followed him into a gleaming kitchen where he proceeded to pour a generous amount of red wine into his bubbling sauce.

“Offer you a drink? Help yourself, help yourself. Beer and white wine in the fridge. Make yourself at home. Unload your bag. There’s a girl! Ice in the other door. Pat’ll be here in a sec. She’s getting ready.”

What Pat was doing to get ready was a mystery for when she ambled into the kitchen, slender glass of white wine in her middle fingers, pinky floating free(nails painted black today) she too, was stark naked. Not even an apron to cover her winter-white body or her pubis (cunningly shaved into a curly chestnut heart — the jet on her head must have been Clairol). Perhaps the preparations involved cosmetics and perfume for there were plenty of both.

The extremely nude condition of her hosts was somehow rendered insignificant by their apparent ignorance of any element of surprise, elevating it all to eccentric expression or benign innocence. When she politely declined an invitation to join them in partial or total dishabille, they remained unruffled and politely solicitous of her comfort. All they wanted was for her to be happy and “make yourself by the house, dear.” She slowly donned the mask of cool sophisticate and relaxed guest, and became almost as comfortable with her welcoming committee as they appeared to be with themselves.

She tried not to think about where and how they would eat, but they calmly carried the dishes into the dining area and laid small hand towels on the seats of chairs so that their bottoms would not stick. Dinner conversation was mundane and polite. They asked questions about her life and career, idly bandied theories about the relative charms of Cape Town and Durban, the cultural life of both cities and South Africa in general. They professed to love theatre and opera and the cinema. They both loved photography and promised to share some of their “little pictures” with her later. But not before Pat demonstrated her true passion: the dance.

After-dinner coffee was served in the living room, where a space had been cleared so that Pat could share her terpsichorean gifts. While Pat went to set up the music for her “little show,” Larry handed her a stack of their “little pictures” to be more fully perused later in the comfort of the guest bedroom. Waiting for Pat in silence, she idly glanced down at the photos on her lap and rifled through a few. Up until now she had thought she was doing pretty well, and was beyond surprise, but as Larry explained that these were mementos of parties with a group of dear, dear, intimate friends, she just stared frozen at the pile of happy home-porn. Small groups of stupendously ordinary, seemingly inebriated Durbanites were entangled in varied serpentine configurations of sexual gratification; Hieronymus Bosch in the suburbs.

She was aware of Larry sitting at her side on the couch, but as before, there was nothing really threatening about his presence. He was just there. Before she had time to comment or either accept or refuse to hang on to the photos, the music started from a turn-table at the back of the room and Pat made her entrance to Peggy Lee singing “Fever”; coincidentally it was the piece to which the woman had been rehearsing a number with John Paget. Since he and Audrey no longer worked together, they had been teaching her their act. The slight shock at the unexpected theme of the photos (why so unexpected?) was replaced by bemusement as Pat bumped and ground her gauche way around the living room for three uncoordinated minutes. Slightly clumsy and a little sweaty, she nevertheless smiled hugely and delightedly, almost endearing in her naiveté. Her repertoire of moves was limited but energetic. She did not tire. At last, panting, she circled the carpet for a final time, swinging her heart-shaped crotch back and forth, up and down. Then she threw herself into a dramatic finale, dropping to her knees with a bit of a thump, throwing her head over and back towards her feet. There was a minor glitch when she did not really know how to extricate herself from the precarious back-bend and had to sort of role over onto the carpet before clambering back onto her knees. She crawled over to the feet of her guest breathless, swiped her hair out of her eyes and coquettishly tilted her head to one side, “I know, I know, I’m not a professional like you. But, did you like it?”

Then, without waiting for an answer, “My husband would really like to make love with you.”

The woman glanced sideways at Larry who was still wearing his chef’s apron which had tented into a white pyramid in his lap. He obviously had appreciated his wife’s performance. He stared straight ahead, beaming.

The woman sat speechless, the rabbit hole yawning at her feet. Pat hastily assured her in an endless, breathless outpouring that of course, she must do exactly as she pleased, and as it seemed that she was not really terribly enthused by the idea (still at a loss for words, feeling detached, not quite in her body), she was welcome to retire to the guest room (with the photos, if she wished, in case she changed her mind) and then, of course, of course, she could come to their room (if she did change her mind). But, really all they wanted was for her to feel welcome and to be happy.

#

Alone in the guest room, the woman slipped the pile of photos into the drawer of the bedside table and closed it firmly. This did not prevent the naked subjects from squeezing out during the night and joining the Mad Hatter for tea in the garden. A table was set on the shining emerald lawn. In its center was a three –tiered bridal cake, bright red cherries circling the white sugar frosting. The little bridal couple on the top was nude and engaged in an acrobatic-looking coupling. The roses and agapanthus and lilies turned startled painted faces to the Hatter as he brewed tea over a large pot-bellied stove which puffed streams of smoke into the night sky and gave an occasional whistle. He had upended his black silk top hat at one end of the table where it overflowed with red and orange and yellow wigs. On his head was a tall white chef’s hat with “Do it do it do it” spiraling all around. As the guests filed across the lawns they stopped and chose a wig from the hat before seating themselves around the table. There they each plucked a large cherry from the sparkling sugar on the cake. These they placed on their noses. The woman was sitting at the end in a long white institutional night gown feeling decidedly out of place at being the only guest with clothing.

The Hatter sat himself astride a wooden donkey at the other end but had trouble remaining seated; he periodically levitated and began a floating ascent, his body tilting dangerously sideways. Two of the clowns rushed forward and tied saucepans to his ankles to hold him down. His white chef’s hat morphed into the cloth cone of the Inquisitor, rising so far up into the sky that it pierced the crescent moon. His black eyes shone lasciviously through the eye-holes as he lifted the teapot and asked, “Shall I be Mother?”

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