How the West Was Won
How the West Was Won
Tired. Barely awake. Finally getting a ride home. We’re silent in the car. It’s fall. Mornings are close to freezing. My blue dress with the bell sleeves is ripped. Pantyhose gone. I’m not recognizing any roads. He turns on the heater. He lifts the hem of my dress and puts his hand on my leg. I start shivering. He says, Relax. I pull away from him. I say no for the millionth time. He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out something shiny, metal. There’s a pop and it turns into a knife. He lays the blade on my leg where his hand used to be. He’s driving on the freeway with one hand. I catch myself not breathing.
Poor Little Rich Girl. We’ve watched it before and when it comes up again I know all the songs by heart. Shirley lives in a big beautiful house with her father. She has a collection of porcelain dolls as big as she is, from all over the world. Her clothes are silk and taffeta. One day, she goes on an adventure and ends up living with the organ grinder. He’s Italian and has a big family. They eat spaghetti all the time. They always have an extra place at the table. Meanwhile, her father is frantic to find her.
We’re in a club listening to a new band. If Tim likes them, he’ll book them at the university. We came in early. Got a table up front. Introduced ourselves to the band. Met the sound guy and the manager. The first set was great. I wanted to dance. Tim didn’t. I ordered a beer. Tim didn’t. While the band took a break, Tim went to talk to the manager. The sound guy came over to our table and invited us to a party after the show. He said if we didn’t want to drive we could get a ride from him. He drove the equipment truck and there was plenty of room.
I never missed my favorite TV show The Girl from U.N.CL.E. on Tuesday nights. U.N.C.L.E. stood for United Network Command for Law Enforcement. Stephanie Powers was April Dancer: fashion model by day, undercover agent by night. She wore white go-go boots and patent leather miniskirts. Her partner was Mark Slate. When they needed to talk to each other they used communicators that looked like pens and carried small devices that looked like my turquoise transistor radio. Sometimes she wore patent leather caps that matched her skirts. She had long dark hair and wore heavy eyeliner. She was always getting Mark out of trouble. She was in charge.
Tim refused to go to the party. I told him I really wanted to go. He’d already accused me of turning into an alcoholic when he saw me having a second beer earlier, so it didn’t surprise me that he wanted to go home. I told him it wasn’t fair. I told him I wanted to go. We stood outside the back door of the club arguing as the band loaded their equipment. The sound guy walked by and offered us a ride again. I told Tim I was going and walked off to the equipment truck hoping Tim would stop me, follow me, grab my arm, say something. I was all the way to the passenger seat of the truck before I turned around. All I saw was Tim driving off in his blue Valiant. I stepped into the truck and shut the door behind me.
How the West Was Won was the first film I ever saw. It was a Western. It was really four Westerns in one film and it had more stars in it than any other film I’d ever heard of. It was filmed in PanaVision which filled up the movie screen with so much wide open space, you felt like you were right there in the movie with the actors. You were shooting down the rapids with the pioneers, you were galloping through the deserts and the forests with the mountain men, you were playing poker on the steamboat when Debbie Reynolds falls in love with the man who will leave her. And forever after, the song she sings as a grandmother to her three grandchildren, Shenandoah, will be the song you hear in your dreams, will mean the future is wide open, will mean you can be anything you want to be, will mean you will survive hardship and prosper and people will love you and you will have a happy life. And when you’re not even thinking about it, when you’re cooking dinner, or driving to work, when you first get up in the morning, or are in the shower, the melody will work its way back to you, only sad this time, and you won’t know why.
A Little Earlier
I had no idea where the sound guy was going, but the guitarist’s girlfriend had come along in the truck and she was very chatty and very blonde. I liked her. Seemed like we drove for an hour out of town. I focused on Sally’s voice and her stories of traveling with the band all over the state, how she’d skipped work and school to be with her boyfriend and how they were planning on getting married and how she couldn’t wait to have children. She knew they would be musical.
An hour later Sally and I were rolling around on the couch in the living room, giggling, watching Straw Dogs on TV, covering our eyes when the gang of roughs breaks in and attacks Susan George, coughing from all the smoke, falling off the couch and not bothering to yank our skirts back into place. Sally said she had to pee and grabbed my hand.
She sat on the toilet and I stared at myself in the mirror. My hair was a mess, my lipstick completely gone. I opened up a bathroom drawer at random but found only razors and soap, toothpaste and shoe strings in little packages. I took the tube of toothpaste out and squeezed some on my finger, then leaned in to the mirror and brushed my teeth with it. It tasted gritty.
Sally was throwing up behind me. I asked her if she needed any help and she just groaned. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I sat on the floor and held her hair back. Her dress had slipped off her shoulder and was hanging around her waist. When she was done, she sat back on the toilet. Her eyes were closed. I pulled the straps of her dress back up over her shoulders and asked her if she wanted to stay there or go back into the living room. She said she’d stay there for awhile and slightly bowed her head. Her hair fell like a curtain.
One Sunday, right in the middle of Shirley Temple Theater, I looked outside and saw snow falling. Snow in Cupertino is a once in a lifetime event. I jumped up, even though Poor Little Rich Girl was just about my favorite episode, put on my slippers and went for the front door.
Mother stopped me, insisted I put on a sweater. Father got up off the couch and we walked outside onto the front porch. All our neighbors were out as well. The sun was shining and everything was covered in white. Of course everyone had a big front lawn. Now, all the lawns were vast expanses of snow. There was just enough for it to stick. I ran out into the middle of it and reached down with my bare hand to pick it up. I tried to roll a bunch of the stuff into a snowball. My hands turned bright red. I threw it up in the air and it all fell away, powdery and glistening, back onto the lawn. My hands were cold, my slippers were wet and all the way down the street, every neighbor kid was doing the same thing, parents standing up on their porches watching, kids running around making footprints in the new snow. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.
The guitarist was so cute. He had long blond hair, like his girlfriend, cut in a shag and he moved so well on stage. Didn’t hurt he was a great guitarist, but it was his singing that really got to me. He had that kind of rock voice, hard and raspy.
I knew Sally was indisposed in the bathroom and I’d seen the guitarist go into the bedroom with at least two different women from the party. I wandered back into the kitchen and picked up a new drink, something in a glass with a lime in it. It didn’t taste too much like alcohol so I had a couple.
I wandered back into the living room. The Getaway was on TV. I loved Steve McQueen. I sat in the corner of the couch and watched bodies rolling around on the carpeted floor in the dark, under a strobe light. Then the light turned into a bunch of different colors. I put my head back on the couch and watched them dancing on the ceiling. Someone took my hand.
I looked up. It was the guitarist. I got up and followed him into the bedroom. He sat me down on the bed and walked out. The sound guy came in and closed the door behind him. I heard the click of a lock on the door, but from the outside. I thought that was weird.
The sound guy sat down next to me and put his arm around my shoulder and asked me if I was having a good time. I told him I was and asked when the guitarist was coming back. He said, in just a couple of minutes, why don’t you lie down for a while and wait?
It felt good to lie down. The room stopped spinning. He took my shoes off. I pushed myself up on the bed so I could have a pillow under my head. I almost closed my eyes. He reached up under my dress, the blue one with the bell sleeves, and grabbed the top of my pantyhose and pulled them down. He told me to lift my hips to make it easier. I lifted my hips. It felt much better to lie there without shoes and pantyhose. I almost closed my eyes. He lifted my dress up over my head, my blue dress with the bell sleeves, but I told him no, I don’t want to do that and pulled it back down. He yanked it up again and tried pulling off my underpants. I pulled his hand away, told him to stop it and rolled toward the edge of the bed. I was afraid my dress would rip. My sleeve was caught under his arm. I didn’t want to yank too hard, it was my favorite dress. He grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back on the bed facing him. He told me to stay put. He told me I was not leaving the room any time soon. I looked into his eyes, put my hand on his face and tried to push him away. He grabbed my arms and pinned me down on my back, spread my legs with his knee and pulled my underpants to the side. I twisted away but I was so tired. I was tired. I wanted to go to sleep. He pressed in on top of me. He was bent, crooked. It had never occurred to me that they could be crooked. I knew what was happening then. I stopped moving. I went limp. The bedroom door opened and the drummer walked through the room and disappeared into the bathroom. I said Hey, in my head, but it didn’t come out of my mouth. I heard myself grunting, I heard myself catching my breath, trying to get a breath, he was so heavy on top of me, his beard, my blue dress, please don’t rip my blue dress, the bed was the biggest bed I’d ever seen, I was lost, I couldn’t see the edge any more, I couldn’t see anything but his hair in my face, his breath on my neck, I was so tired, I wanted to close my eyes, I wanted to go home, but I was lost, so lost, his belt buckle digging into my thigh, his boots crushing my feet, the loud smell of aftershave, beer and pot on him, just wanted to go home, wanted to stop, wanted this to stop, stop now, don’t rip my blue dress.
April Dancer was kidnapped by T.H.R.U.S.H. agents. T.H.R.U.S.H. (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) was the evil organization that all U.N.C.L.E. agents were sworn to stop. Mark Slate had to swoop in and, uncharacteristically, save her. They had placed her in a rolling desk chair binding her ankles and wrists with rope and wrapping a scarf around her mouth so she couldn’t scream. Then they left her alone. But they hadn’t counted on her U.N.C.L.E. training. She knew how to bite through a gag, untie the most complex knots and bust out of a locked room using the quarter-sized bit of nitroglycerin secreted into the heel of her go-go boot. Just as she had successfully blown through the steel door of her prison, Mark shows up, gun in hand, completely unnecessary, with a look of great disappointment. April runs past him, yelling for him to keep up, the T.H.R.U.S.H. agents were getting away. Mark shrugged his shoulders and took off after her, sporting white shoes, a white belt on his corduroy bell bottoms and a jaunty white cap. But April Dancer didn’t need anyone to rescue her. She was The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.
She spent the last part of the drive home with her head in his lap, the knife, cold, on the back on her neck. Every few seconds she choked on it, but he’d take his hand off the wheel and push her head back down. She thought she might throw up. She wished she would throw up.
She felt the car slow down. They were pulling off the freeway. Maybe it would be better to get out here, a couple miles from home, so he didn’t have the exact address. Had she already given him the exact address? She made a move to sit up but he pushed her down again, pushing the knife harder into her neck so she could feel its point.
Just as the car pulled to a complete stop he pushed her off of him and she sat up. He didn’t zip up, just pulled his shirt down. She sat frozen in the front seat of the equipment truck. She looked down at his hands but no longer saw the knife.
What are you waiting for? he said.
She looked up. They were parked in front of her house. The house she shared with Tim. It was early, but the sun was up. She looked through the front window, hoping no one was up yet. She put her hand on the door handle and hesitated. He reached across her and threw the door open. She wanted to get out as fast as she could, but her legs were stiff from being in one position, everything seemed to hurt. She rolled her legs out first, then stood up outside of the car, not really sure he was going to let her go. He reached across the seats, closed the door and pulled away from the curb. She was standing in the middle of the street in her blue dress, holding her shoes.
Now, right now, walking up to my house, I realize I don’t have my keys. I knock softly a couple of times. Tim answers the door. He just stands there in the front hall staring at me. I walk past him and go into the bathroom.
I’m shivering. I take everything off and grab my robe, walk back into the bedroom. He’s sitting up in bed. He won’t say anything, doesn’t even ask me where I’ve been, what happened, what had I been doing, who drove me home. I know what he’s thinking just by looking at his face.
What do you care? I ask him. You don’t love me. Why do you care at all that I didn’t come home?
I couldn’t cry. He doesn’t want to know where I’d gone, what I’d done. He assumes he knows what happened.
I walk over and sit on the bed next to him. He puts his arm around my waist. I put my head on his shoulder.
When we came back into the house, shivering from the snow, Shirley was just being reunited with her father. He had found a new wife while looking for Shirley and she was thin and blonde and kind. Now Shirley would have the family she’d always dreamed of. They all sang a song. But my favorite part was Shirley sitting on the floor in her bedroom with all her porcelain dolls sitting around her. She sang to each one in a different accent as each doll was from a different corner of the world. One day, I thought, I will visit all the places her dolls are from. I knew that anything was possible, that the future was wide open before me, that I could be anything I wanted to be, that every day would have a happy ending.