Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 16 • Winter 2005 • Featured Lodestar Writer • Fiction

What Do You See, Madam?

Djuna Barnes

Mamie Saloam was a dancer.

She had come from the lower stratum of the poor, who drape their shoulders with cotton and their stomachs with gingham.

The Bowery, which is no place at all for virtue or duplicity, had seen Mamie try on her first fit of sulks and her first stay laces. They knew then that her pattern was Juno, her heritage Joseph, and her ambition jade. At the age of ten she had learned to interpret Oscar Wilde, when Oscar Wilde had gone in, rather extensively, for passion and the platter, and had parried off creation with a movement and a beard.

On that moonlit night, when she chucked Semco, the sailor, under the chin, and swiped one of the park lilacs for keeps, Mamie grew up.

Between his lips and hers she had learned competition. His was the greater kiss, his arms the greater strength, his voice the master voice.

Mamie became fire and felt hell where it burns low among the coals, and the street that sensed her homecoming on staccato heels heard the wide-mouthed laughter she threw her mother as she rolled into bed.

Thereafter she swore that her life should be given to portraying detached emotions, to placing love on the boards. Her ambition was to kiss the lips of John the Baptist as they lay in plaster glory upon a little tin plate.

When a subaltern puts his head under cover, he is a coward. When Mamie Saloam sought the underside of the counterpane, she was merely looking for future ethics.

Mamie twisted the Bowery out of her air, threw her hips into the maelstrom of rightly moving things, and raised an organism of potato and cod to the level of caviar and champagne. When she turned about, she had taken three steps in the direction of the proverbial gentleman who follows after the world and the flesh.

The rich and the poor are divided only in the matter of scorn: eye scorn, lip scorn, and the sudden rude laughter that runs the gamut of Broadway. All these leaped into Mamie's saucy face as she looked at herself for the first time in a mirror that gave her back, whole.

When she walked out, one heard only the sound of slum slippers and the regular cadence of her knees as she descended the steps. She was used to uneven footing.

After the mirror she swore that she had taken the last cod bone from between her teeth and now she would chew only after-dinner mints.

When a girl gives up gum and alleys, and has known little else, she becomes something different, and the something different that Mamie became was a dancer, toe and otherwise.

Into the little world of the painted came Mamie. Into that place of press-agents and powder-puffs, of Lillian Russell and Raymond Hitchcock, of Irving and of Sarah, scented with lilac and Bel Bon, throbbing and pulsating with the sound of laughter; into that little stall called the dressing room, out of which none may come unchanged.

Mamie Saloam was a good medium on which to lay cosmetics. Everything merely accentuated those points that God and the Saloams had given her; in fact, the teamwork between the two had been sublime. Mamie was beautiful.

She was loved by the men down front because she had mastered the technique of the tights.

Her world held rows and rows of dusty caned chairs, and over these, like migrating robins, the pink anatomy of the chorus -- hips thrown out against the painted drop, listless eyes that saw only supper, a new step, and once in a while, some other things. Mamie Saloam could go where she willed. She could stoop or look up because Mamie breathed true ambition and heroic drudgery.

When she passed the boundaries of decency, it was a full run for your money; when she went up in smoke, those original little pasty pans of Egypt became chimney pots. If Helen of Troy could have been seen eating peppermints out of a paper bag, it is highly probable that her admirers would have been an entirely different class.

It is the thing you are found doing while the horde looks on that you shall be loved for -- or ignored.

Billy had caught Mamie pinning "Thou shalt not sin" up high on the door of her room in the house of chameleon thoughts. He then knew -- for even electricians can know things -- that the way to approach Mamie was to sit close and abide in hope, for opportunity comes once to every man.

While he waited, Mamie made up her one philosophy. It was made, of course, for the benefit of women. It read: "A woman never knows what she sees, therefore, she tries to see what she knows."

"Listen," said the stage manager one night from out of the gloom where Mamie sat restringing the beads that passed for combinations, underskirt, shift petticoat, bodice skirt, and withal, propriety for Salome. "Listen, we are in a fix. The P.I.B. is on to us and you."

"In what way?" inquired Mamie Saloam.

"They have gotten on to the fact that early in the season we are to present you as Salome. They have prejudices--"

"Of course they have," said Mamie calmly; "they have seen Mme. Aguglia, Mary Garden, Gertrude Hoffman, and Trixie Friganza do the stunt; they have all seen what they wanted to see because the aforesaid showed them what they wanted to see. I'll admit that John hasn't been properly loved since the original gurgle ceased; I'll admit that as we have gotten further and further away from the real head, we have dealt with rather papier-mâché passions.

"John was rather lethargic in his response even in the beginning, and we have made too much fuss over him. When a man is dead, a certain respect is due him; it is a proper and a joyous thing to dance about him, but I do think he has been rather overkissed. I will show the ladies of the P.I.B. the necessary moderation, even if the gentleman is helpless. Leave it to me."

"By the way," she added as the stage manager pondered, his hand in his hair, "what is the P.I.B.?"

"It is the Prevention of Impurities upon the Boards," he said, and smiled at her.

"And what do they want?"

"They either want the performance stopped or -- they want to see a purely impartial rendering."

Billy looked at her from beneath his shaggy eyebrows. Then suddenly he let go of the thing that is called reserve and took her hand.

"Mamie," he said, "couldn't you respond to me; couldn't I ever be anything to you; couldn't I make up for all this" -- he waved his arm broadcast -- "this ambition stuff?"

"Billy," she said, and her voice was cold and practical, "I couldn't ever boil potatoes over the heat of your affection. Your love would never bridge a gap; it wouldn't even fill up the hole that the mice came through, and," she concluded, withdrawing her hand, "I couldn't ever consider anyone less than John."

Deep down in Billy's heart lay a terrible passion that itched to force this allegorical obstacle from between him and the woman. As he sat in his perch up in the wings and focused the blue light upon the platter and the white upturned plaster face, he knew what had put the word la mort into the dictionary and into circulation, and he groaned within his soul.

The next day they took away the dusty rows of chairs, the heaps of discarded tights, shed by human butterflies that had grown into something more brilliant or had died emerging from the chrysalis prematurely. They did not notice that it was dusty until they saw two spots some three inches apart, which looked as if someone had fallen upon his knees.

They did not speculate any further, but Mamie saw.

The stage hands cleaned and fussed in preparation for the trial scene to be given for the benefit of the P.I.B. A pitcher, belonging to the dresser, very much cracked, and yet gaudy as the owner, was filled with lemonade, which first frosted the outside like a young woman's demeanor when holding the young man off, and finally broke out into great beads and slid over the hips of the pitcher to the table below like the tears that follow up the first grief.

It was quite dark back stage when they were through. The little bags of ballast that let down Florida or France from the ceiling hung swaying fifty feet above Billy as he tinkered with the lights.

Out front sat the stage manager between the starched ladies of the P.I.B., drinking the lemonade gently yet firmly from tall, frail glasses. They looked at each other across the chain-encircled vest of the stage manager with the macaw look which is strictly limited to boards of prevention and committees for inspection.

They would like to think well of Mamie Saloam, but as Mamie said, they had seen Mme. Aguglia.

Then out across the dusky stage came Mamie, tall and dominating. Her bares shoulders supported vivid streams of her hair.

For a minute she stood poised in the center of the stage, a voluptuous outline in the mist.

Then the spotlight fell, not upon Mamie, but upon the face of John, upturned and white, with half-closed lids, the hair and beard flowing over the edge of the plate. Dark loops broke the dead white of the forehead, a silent questioning of the painted lips awaiting the performance of Mamie Saloam, who had learned to kiss ten years before.

The ladies of the P.I.B., not to be fooled, leaned sternly over their glasses. They wanted to be sure that there was a simplicity in the way Mamie Saloam wallowed before her lord.

On she came, halting, and then suddenly broke into a semicircle of half-steps about the head of the dead Baptist, gurgling, throaty little noises escaping her lips. Slowly she lowered herself until, imperceptibly to the starched ladies, she lay upon the floor and sinuously wriggled toward the tin platter.

Sidewise, forward, approaching it with plastic hands, nearer and nearer and nearer till the platter was within the zone of her very breath. Over it she hovered, murmuring, while her eyes changed from blue to green and from green to deep opal. Then suddenly she dropped her chin among the strands of the flowing beard.

The starched ladies sighed and relaxed. Here was a woman at last who could do the thing with perfect impartiality. They turned approving eyes upon the manager.

"She has John under perfect control," they said, and passed out.

Then Mamie did a strange thing. She sat up, put her arms about her knees, and looked serenely at the face still motionless in the blue of the light from the unoccupied electrician's box. John the Baptist batted his right eye.

"Get up, Billy," she said. "It's all right. Let us thank the dark of a back stage night, and your ability to lie still. At last I have proved that a woman never knows what she is seeing."

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes was born on the 12th of June 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. She began her career as a reporter and illustrator for magazines, under pseudonyms such as Lydia Steptoe, and Gunga Duhl, the Pen Performer. In the 1920s she lived in Paris with her lover, the sculptor and silverpoint artist, Thelma Wood. She was a member of the influential coterie of mostly lesbian women that included Natalie Barney and Janet Flanner. Although she wrote many plays, short stories, and poems, she is best known for her novel Nightwood, written in 1936.

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