Here is my entry into the next short-story competition, and I see already that I’m full-on explaining. GD is right. My tendency is to create an immersive story, and characters with considerable baggage, needfully explored is my view, to set up a shady situation in all its screwball glory.
My MC here is another complex critter, an updated Sly (can’t get away from that guy) looking to conquer the world. At one point I knew this new nut as well as anyone alive; she had neither the need nor the impulse to conceal quirks from me. She knew my secrets, I knew hers.
This is not quite a story. It’s more an attempt to develop my thinking about how to present my curious past, and to envision a genuine plot. If I can get this going, I have quite a show for you.
I stumbled into that life and lived it for ten years, until I settled into a steady job with benefits. It’s time to see what I can make of it.
Me and Cee. Cee and Me. Almost True As It Can Be.
Hold Your Hats And Hallelujah:
A start on something that doesn’t involve talking animals.
Now, the thing with CeeCee . . . I’ll call her CeeCee . . . the thing with CeeCee was, like most all of us, she longed to be something she was not. But she took it to new heights.
C.C., those were her initials, originally. She shed last names like a snake sheds skins. She’s probably been through bunches of husbands by now. I google maiden, first husband’s and (so she projected) future husband’s names, nothing pops up.
What she was, kids, was a girl from a large Italian family in coastal Rhode Island. Six brothers and sisters, innumerable nieces and nephews and cousins, a home-heating-oil-supply father, the homemade-pasta-cooking (stay at home? You better believe it) mama, her brothers also small businessmen, several beautician – the height of their ambition – sisters. Traditional, goes without saying, right? She broke with the conservative family ethos early on.
I had a three-bedroom apartment in Boston. I needed two roommates. I put an ad in the paper. CeeCee showed up, with a girlfriend. Great! I was in business. But that’s neither here nor there. I can double back and fill in the gory details of that situation later.
That house-share didn’t last long, but Cee and I had become fast friends. We split up, moved around, like you do in your early twenties. She landed a boyfriend in Marblehead who owned a large house on the water’s edge, inherited from his mother. It was worth good money fifty years ago. Today, forget it.
The mother had acquired it, and also a house on Martha’s Vineyard, from a wealthy first marriage. The Vineyard house had to be sold to pay off a second husband’s gambling debts, but she held onto the property in Marblehead and lived in it until she died of breast cancer, shortly before Cee arrived on the scene.
Cee admired that lady, the way she had feathered a very cozy nest. Like the Eagles say, ‘A rich old man and you don’t have to worry’. She married Mitch, a nice enough guy, not rich, but he did own a really wonderful house. That marriage didn’t last. But an idea had been planted.
Meanwhile, tragically unemployable, having studied Costume Design in art school (bad move there) I had managed to find a job working for a costumer meeting the needs of go-go girls and strippers in Boston’s Combat Zone. It was fun for a while, a novelty. I sure met some interesting people.
The strippers (then, don’t know about now) made really good money. Cee, who had started on a professional career, a cosmetologist, she called herself, selling cosmetics in a drug store in Marblehead, took note. She was a beautiful girl, a dose of cellulite, but very sexy, and she determined to give it a try. She’d met some showgirls (as they liked to call themselves) through me, they seemed like okay people (they were okay people), the idea wasn’t as scary as it might have been otherwise. Cee, never a timid one, took to it like a fish to water.
We’ll fast-forward here. This is supposed to be a short story.
She got a way-too-large boob job and became a headliner at the Two o’Clock Lounge. Boston was her home base, but she made forays to, among other places, Las Vegas, toting trunks of elaborate costumes and a huge red velvet pillow that she did ‘floor work’ on. (That’s what they called it, floor work, the precursor, I suppose, of pole dancing.) Those airline baggage handlers must have flipped when they saw the thing. Too large to wrap up, she checked the naked heart-shaped, fringed and sequined blood-red pouf, about four feet round, a-foot-plus high, along with a mountain of gear. In those days, the costumes were outrageous, as if the customers ever wanted to see anything but a quick peel down to a G-string and pasties.
You could dream it, a costumer would furnish it. Southern Belle, Barbarella, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. (This was before Elvira, but you get the picture.) A Fairy Queen, if that’s what you yearned to be. The name of the game was layers, many pieces to shed in the course of a fifteen minute routine. G-string, thong-panty, full panty, a bra, usually a corset of some kind, all kinds of strap-things, straps were real popular, dress, gloves, boot-like leggings, often a gossamer negligee at the end of the act, to whip around artfully. Hats. Big hats. Lots and lots of big hats. Feathers and beads, and breakaway zippers, everywhere.
Where was I? Oh yeah, Vegas. In Las Vegas, Cee met a businessman from, of all places, Boston. He was married, par for the course, right? He took a shine to her, and the liaison continued back home. I always figured she provided the excitement he had missed out on, having spent his young years at Harvard Business School studying his heart out. It was also respite from a dull marriage to a wife who was obsessed with tennis. But excitement has its costs. Cee was labor-intensive, and then some. I wondered then, and I wonder now, why he put up with her and her ever-growing demands. It had to be the excitement.
It wasn’t her thing, as far as I know, but she would have made a good dominatrix. He pushed people around at work, maybe he wanted to be abused in his private life. (That’s the theory, isn’t it?) He was a big shot in a big firm and he had money like you wouldn’t believe. They were always off to somewhere. (He had left his wife by then.) Vienna for Christmas, London, Paris. He bought her a lovely big house on Marblehead Neck. But she wanted more. Like in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, she wanted to be the preppy trust-fund wife that her husband’s Ivy League partners tended to have. She wanted to live in Palm Beach during the season, and run in high society. She spent a winter there, hanging out with God-knows-who, maybe Roxanne Pulitzer, if she was lucky. (You don’t join high society, you’re born into it.) He rented her a house in Key West. That lasted longer, about two years.
There are two ways to insert yourself into that kind of crowd. One, you can be yourself, and be so amusing at it that you are embraced as an oddity and adopted. And, she was capable of that. She was lots of fun, when she wasn’t being a pain in the ass. That’s not the path she chose. She went the dicier route.
She worked to present herself as a true insider, of suitable pedigree. She worked damn hard at that. The boyfriend knew the truth, of course. What he thought of her often disturbing interpretation of class is anybody’s guess.
I spent a weekend with her in a suite at the storied Hotel Carlyle in Manhattan. Fifty years ago it was old-money-shabby-chic, downright dowdy. Exactly like the rooms of the Ritz Carleton in Boston. Glam on a par with Howard Johnson, maybe even a little less. It’s the climbers who fixate on shiny-new. Gleaming up-to-date matters (or used to matter) little to those raised with deep wealth and status.
We were shown to one suite, looked fine to me, like I said, nothing fancy. Cee threw a fit: Won’t do, won’t do at all. Quite unacceptable. I want the suite I had last time. We got relocated. The last-visit suite looked absolutely the same to me, I didn’t see a damn bit of difference. But she was mollified: A great improvement, thank you so much. She liked to make clear that she was someone, of nice taste, used to being catered to.
She’d come up in the world since the time we (actually, I) broke into a summer cottage in Swampscott, climbing through a window bare-breasted so as not to get my blouse dirty. (Relax. Friends of ours, not home.) If neighbors had called the cops on us, that would have been cute, no? Our friends were two wanna-be artists. Their neighbors may have come to the conclusion, you see something odd going on over there, you pay it no mind.
The boys must have had no phone, or we would have called ahead. We had hitchhiked up from Cambridge, busted (!!!) our way in, sat around two or three hours, gave up, and left a note painstakingly incised into an untouched jar of peanut butter: We were here, Mimi, Cee.
Her tastes had sure changed since her days of T-shirts stretched tight over braless boobs, with the slogan BITCH proudly displayed, often paired with hot pants (as they were known in the seventies, in an earlier era, short-shorts) and leopard-look platform-sole knee-high boots. A housemate of my brother told me, Your friend was in Harvard Square the other day (a hike, she was living in Marblehead) stopping traffic. I’d seen it many times, her little game, feigning scorn of the stares, loving every minute of it.
I’ll save that early stuff for another time. I’ve miles to go before I put this thing to sleep. I’ve barely gotten started.
I guess I have to come up with an honest-to-God plot, and feather it in somehow or other. Plots are not my forte, as some of you know.
I hung out with many odd characters in the wee-hours spaces after the clubs shuttered at two a.m. My plot would certainly have to include the black-belt owner of an escort service who longed to be an action star like Bruce Lee, who had to constantly be assured that he was good-looking enough to make it in Tinseltown. One girl went on to be a Penthouse Pet, and to model legitimately, internationally. And I cannot neglect to depict my costumer-employer. The first-done-on-American-soil-sex-change is how she billed herself on posters for her combo strip/hypnotism act. I saw what may have been the last performance she ever gave, and it was painful to watch.
She performed in cabaret-style settings. Her fan club, a gaggle of middle-aged women who followed her from date to date, didn’t recoil at her fiftyish spread, not unlike their own sad disintegration. They probably cheered her bravery. I think it was willful blindness to reality.
Disrobed down to droopy tugs and a G-string half hidden by an overflow of abdomen (OK, I’m exaggerating, but it was gross), she would set tassels, dangling (lots of dangling going on there) from pasties (sequined disks cloaking the nipples), set tassels aflame and get them twirling, in opposite directions. Did I see that or is it one of those false memories we read about? The flame part, I mean. Where does that image come from? I honestly don’t know. Fired up tassels or not, anyone who walked into the venue unaware of what was in store saw a show they would not forget.*
Sounds like I led an interesting life, huh? I did, but it was a life filled with crises. It’s more fun to write about than it was to experience it.
* Shock value was surely the bedrock principle of her showmanship, embraced at an early age as a means of survival. She had begun her career in the sideshows of Mid-West carnivals, performing in drag.
She was a big, muscular person, she’d been well able to defend herself. If she was bullied – I’m sure she was, she grew up in Kansas, not a stronghold of toleration then or now – it would have been largely confined to verbal abuse. But she had come to terms with her lot in life, and had made a good living off it.
I just looked her up. Man! There’s a ton of stuff on her due to the prominence of the transgender issue these days. When I searched ten years ago I only found three or four items. That’s her, above. Look at that face. Would you pick a fight with her?
She was a throw-back in many nasty ways, anti all kinds of folks and astonishingly open about it. That may have been the result of being born at a certain time into a certain place, but many find a way to move beyond prejudices learned at Mama’s knee. She did not. She may be a role model for some, but she was not admirable as a human being. If she were still alive, she would be the staunchest of Trump supporters, and for the very worst reasons.
My Lemony Snicket boxed set has arrived. I’ll proceed with the piece I’ve planned to write: Lemony/the books vs. Lemony/the Netflix series. I hope to learn something regarding the integration of show and tell. If anyone’s been successful at it, it’s Lemony.
Her name was Hedy Jo Star.