CHRISTMAS FICTION: During the holidays, a domestic stays loyal to a screen bad blonde. 2,642 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Mamie the maid drove around the block four times before she found a parking space for her old Nash Rambler. Her heart gave a tripping little beat — how Barb was going to laugh when she saw Mamie still driving that heap today, in 1966. Barb’s son Johnny had named Mamie’s car “Balky,” for obvious reasons. Each time they got on the road, Mamie would make promises to God: if it would only let her reach her destination, she would be cash-register honest from now on, or teetotal for a year, things like that — promises usually broken within hours. Mamie knew it was odd to think of Johnny being seventeen now, nearly a man. He had been such a fragile little thing, clinging to Mamie’s hand as if she were a life preserver; a gentle, persistent little presence, all those times when his mother the movie star was in trouble, or in court, or falling down drunk or just falling apart.
Falling. The thought made Mamie want to turn the car and head out of this dismal East Hollywood neighborhood as Christmas approached. Grimy holiday decorations on Yucca Street. Already, Mamie’s mouth was dry, and her hands shook on the steering wheel. She tried to remind herself that nobody else wanted to be here either. This place was for people on their way out, not for those who still had hope, or a chance to amount to something.
“Barb Payton, I’m gonna find you,” Mamie said aloud, “if I have to prowl this street forever.”
Mamie knew that these days, Barb was hardly ever in the same place from one night to the next, but these apartments were her last known location. When Mamie’s most recent letter came back with “addressee unknown” scrawled across it in a blurred, drunken hand, Mamie knew she had to venture down here, scared as she was.
“Mamie,” Barb always said, “stop your worrying. I know what I’m doing. People constantly try to rescue me, but I don’t need rescuing!” Mamie knew that was Barbara Payton, all right: one part bravado and the rest self-delusion, perhaps with a little truth thrown in — truth so ugly that she had to protect others from knowing it.
The world knew Barbara Payton as Hollywood’s reigning loose woman, veteran of every depravity; pilloried on the cover of Confidential more often than any other bad blonde in town. Ironically, Barb was never really “bad,” or so Mamie thought — not like Jean Wallace, that volcano of venom, or Joan Crawford, with her poisoned claws. Mamie saw how Franchot’s exes had hated Barbara with a fierceness that was never reciprocated. Barb just didn’t have much malice in her, except of course toward herself. Mamie couldn’t believe, now that Barb had become a hopeless derelict, how Hollywood was clucking and tut-tutting about guilt and cautionary tales. It made Mamie want to slap somebody, if she could only narrow down the field.
Once alcohol buried its fangs as deep as it had in Barb, Mamie realized there was no earthly power that could bring her back. So Mamie wasn’t down here to preach or scold, much less to remind Barb of all she had lost. How she had once been the fastest rising star in Hollywood, and nearly the highest paid at $5,000 a week. How she had walked the red carpet at the opening of Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye on the arm of her co-star, Jimmy Cagney himself. Who had held her own too, even the reviews said so: “Holiday Carleton in all her doomed glory.”
Mamie was there when Barb had showed them a thing or two about talent. And glamour. Barb had gone to the races with Frank and Ava. And shared her bed with Brando. Mamie gave a snicker recalling that he had climbed in the window, Mr. Stanley Kowalski himself, and torn his pants. And how Barbe had starred with Lloyd Bridges in Trapped and started a little liaison best forgotten. Men couldn’t keep their hands off her, and who was to blame for that? Barb was gorgeous just as God made her, and who should know better than Mamie?
For a while It had seemed that Barb’s magical trajectory would just keep soaring heavenward without a wobble. But all this time, Mamie foresaw that some horrible sickness within Barb had been gathering strength, lying in wait, until it burst forth to destroy her, leaving her hideously wounded and broken, wandering the streets in some kind of living death. Mamie heard Barb was spotted among the crowd at openings, in dirty clothes and flip flops, her hair ragged and sparse, teeth missing, her face and belly swollen from organ failure. Mamie’s devout mother read every tabloid and never missed a detail.
Mamie slammed on her brakes as an elderly jaywalker wandered into her path, staring defiantly at her through the windshield. He slowed his pace, taking his time, running his hand over her car’s hood, daring her to move. Mamie could see his shirt was dirty; his pants stained yellow at the crotch. Holding her gaze, he swaggered to the opposite curb, where another like him was sitting, feet in the gutter. The two began to pass the time, glancing suspiciously at Mamie, as if she were here to do them harm.
Mamie could never parallel park worth a damn, and now she was so nervous that she botched it yet again. The two elderly drunks had settled by the front entrance to the apartment complex, one horizontal and one still fairly vertical, shading themselves under the tattered awning. A hooker passed up and down the block, looking sweaty and sick in the glaring sunlight, her ankles swelling out of her scuffed gold sandals. To Mamie, even the air here seemed hazier than anywhere else; it made her eyes sting and smelled of rot. Suddenly Mamie felt the old demons rise up all around like a red mist, but she would not let them scare her off this time. The drunks had roused themselves to watch Mamie’s parking attempt, grinning toothlessly and shaking their heads. Johnny used to go into gales of laughter as Mamie aimed Balky’s rear end toward the curb over and over, seeking that elusive perfect angle. Now, as she finally inched into the space, Mamie couldn’t help smiling at the applause and guffaws of the drunks. The hooker just stood and stared.
Sure, it was easy for Mamie to blame Hollywood for Barb’s fall, or to single out some “irascible” mogul — they were always “irascible” — like Jack Warner, starring Barb in Bride Of The Gorilla out of spite over her indiscretions with Bob Hope; and later calling around to scotch her efforts at a comeback. But Mamie suspected that Barb’s troubles had begun long before she ever set foot in Hollywood. People whispered that her father had taken liberties with his beautiful little daughter back in Minnesota. Mamie herself had seen the man’s face crumple into a tortured stare when his eyes fell on Barbara. That look alone was proof that nothing had been normal in that relationship.
After her parents moved to San Diego, Mamie had driven her down, with Barb three sheets before they even started out and drinking steadily all the way. They had arrived to find both parents drunk on their own butts. Mamie nearly pulled Barb back into the car and took her home — but there was no home to go to anymore, what with Barb evicted. And jailed over bounced checks, a lousy hundred bucks from a grocery where she had spent thousands. Little Johnny had gone to his aunt and uncle. And Mamie lived with her mother, who considered Barb to be Jezebel incarnate and the whore of Babylon rolled into one and swathed in white mink.
Mamie blotted her lipstick and shut her purse with a snap. This wasn’t the time for "if only’s." All she wanted was to reminisce a little over the good days, the fun times. And to remind Barbara the she, plump and reliable Mamie the maid, still loved her.
Ironic that those fun times often ended up the worst, in Mamie’s estimation. Like back in 1951, when Barb had met Tom Neal at some pool party while Franchot was back east. Tom, of the bulging trunks. Mamie grinned, recalling the giggles they’d shared over his prominent assets. But still, Mamie couldn’t understand why Barb had gone so far off the rails over that one.
“For me, Tom is a sickness,” Barb had told her, “and the only cure, the only relief… is more of him.” Mamie said nothing. She was busy applying a cold compress to Barb’s eye, which Tom had inadvertently blackened while beating Franchot Tone into a bloody pulp.
“Well, I couldn’t just stand by and watch the men I loved kill each other, could I?” Barbara dragged on her cigarette.
It had hardly been a fair match; Tom was a walking hunk of muscle, a weight lifter and pugilist at Yale, while Franchot was thin as a sparrow, with a glass jaw. Tom had fractured nearly every bone in Franchot’s face. Franchot had landed only that first drunken punch before being knocked twelve feet across the patio and pummeled.
“It’s my fault, all my fault,” Barb was saying, tears streaming from the injured eye. “Oh Mamie, what’s wrong with me?”
Mamie thought Tom an inflated little banty cock with no class, no money, and no talent. "You were in one great movie thanks to Edgar Ulmer’s genius. You’ll never be in another,” she almost told him one day. But she had said nothing, just kept on dusting. Even when Tom told her, "Franchot may look like an aristocrat but I’m a real one.”
For Mamie, the scariest thing about Tom Neal was that feeling he gave that the worst was yet to come. Like the week Tom and Barb were to be married. Barbara waltzed in wearing a dress of cream-colored peau de soie, her head framed by a gossamer veil seeded with tiny pearls. “Gorgeous.” Tom barely glanced at her. “C’mon Mamie, fix me a drink.” Barb wilted, and Mamie nearly threw the gin at his vain puss.
Barb’s lips quivered. “Go ahead, Mamie, fix him a drink and then come help me.” She said, too sweetly to Tom, “Darling, I have to run out for a few things." Glancing into the bedroom, Mamie saw that Barb had hurled the wedding dress to the floor. Uh-oh, Mamie thought, sensing the start of a black squall. Barb came out of the bedroom wearing a jersey and capris and kissed Tom, dodged his grasp and slipped out the door.
Mamie made Tom a weak gin and tonic, and then went home with a sick feeling. She was cooking dinner when the phone rang. It was Barb, and she was on a toot. “Mamie sweet,” she said, “Franchot and I are here at the Beverly Hills Hotel… and he wants to go to out on the town, but I don’t have a thing to wear. Stop by the apartment and fetch a nice cocktail dress. But don’t let Tom see you.”
Mamie wanted to shout, “What’s wrong with you, hitting the sack with Franchot the day before your marriage to Tom?” But instead Mamie turned off the stove and drove out to the apartment. She tapped gently at the door, then put her ear to it and heard a reassuring snore. Taking out her key, she let herself in to see Tom collapsed on the sofa in his boxers, a quart of gin half empty on the coffee table. He looked childish to Mamie with his cheeks flushed and lips sullenly puffed. Mamie entered the bedroom and chose a new pale blue sarong, a pair of sapphire earrings and matching necklace, and frothy pastel underwear in lace and satin.
Tom roused, emitted a groan, and to Mamie’s terror, sat straight up. She froze. As she waited, barely breathing, Tom got up, cursing, and Mamie heard him start to urinate in the kitchen sink. That was her signal. Praying for a long, noisy stream, she stole through the living room and out the door.
“You utter angel! You savior!” Barb had crowed when Mamie arrived. “We’ll make it up to you,” she said, looking significantly at Franchot, who rose from the bed — thankfully in his shorts — and fished a fifty from his wallet.
Mamie knew the rest of that night. Barb and Franchot partied at Ciro’s with friends, watched Lili St. Cyr’s strip show, and finally arrived back at the apartment just before two. Moments later, Tom and Franchot were at each other’s throats in a gruesome mismatch. Mamie always wondered what her own contribution to this near-murder had been; should she have gone to confession and done penance? She called her mother, who said that the Lord had told her to stop speaking to Mamie until she left that devil woman.
In those first days after the fight, Barb hadn’t realized that her Hollywood dream was over. Mamie had seen Barb haunting the hospital, stunning in a white sundress — nobody wore white like Barb — trailing reporters as she tried to sneak a thermos of martinis past the nurses into the room where Franchot lay comatose. None in that triangle were ever the same again. But beneath his veneer of gentlemanliness, Franchot had to be some kind of crazy, and Mamie witnessed him hurting Barb the worst — hiring those private dicks to sneak in and take pictures of her and Tom in bed, and then mailing them all over town and even to her family.
But Mamie knew it was really Barb’s ex, John Payton, who had really gouged out her remaining spirit, materializing at last to seize custody of Johnny and rush him off to Germany, where Barb could not follow; by then she could not even get a passport, thanks to the bad checks.
With Barbara Payton, it seemed as if every fresh ordeal was “the end.” Mamie thought, how can she survive another month, another episode? And then Barb would reappear, looking remarkable, trying for a new start. At least she used to… so many years ago.
These days Barb was unrecognizable to all except Mamie, that angelic beauty no longer able to withstand the repeated onslaughts of dope and cheap hooch and psychopathic johns and crooked cops and back alley muggings. Mamie had read Barb’s supposed autobiography, I Am Not Ashamed, ghosted by that hack Leo Guild. Not a word was really Barb’s. The photos made Mamie cry. People blamed Lila Leeds for turning Barb to prostitution. “Honey,” Mamie heard Lila say, “from what you’ve been giving away free all these years, you could be rich as Croesus right now.” Mamie had called Lila a hussy to her face, and then braced for the slap. But when she opened her eyes, Lila just looked kind of sad and pondering. Mamie had immediately felt sorry and said so.
Mamie left the car and edged past the drunks up the stairs and into the dim entryway of the seedy apartment complex.
“Who ya lookin’ for?” One of them shouted after her.
“Barbara Payton,” Mamie said. The drunks looked at each other and snickered knowingly.
“Oh, the movie star. She’s prob’ly at the Coach & Horses Bar gettin’ stewed. C’mon have a drink with us.”
“Best thing you can do for that one,” said the second drunk, “is leave her to God.”
“Thanks for that,” Mamie said. “I think I’ll just wait a bit for her.”
“You’ll be waitin’ until hell freezes over,” said the second drunk. “Cuz ya know what I learned in this life? You really wanna know? Some people, they just don’t know when enough’s enough.”
This story first posted here on December 21, 2015.