Dinner At The Bigelows

by Linda Boroff

A Hollywood cad tries to seduce an innocent teenaged girl only to get what he deserves. 2,824 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.

At age sixteen, Tessa Markey learned once and for all that fate would not be thwarted. No matter how elaborate her avoidance strategy and cautious her moves, fate simply bided its time, and then it came for her.

Tessa’s father was a singer and actor who had once “turned Hollywood on its ear,” according to Tessa’s mother. But the bottle would not leave him be. His frequent absences had elongated, like a piece of chewing gum stretched, until the connection with his family became a tenuous strand. The year was 1966: Tessa and her mother now lived in a grimy white stucco apartment house in south Santa Monica that stood as a testament to the past decade’s casual building codes. The place even had a name, “The Spafford,” written with a flourish above the entrance in silver glitter gone gray and dour, like an aged starlet. Tessa thought of the suffering that resided behind every door in her neighborhood. The homes were flimsy, with cheap siding and fiberglass awnings bolted on cockeyed. The yards were patchy and sparse, littered with battered toys and obsolete engine parts. A fever seemed to emanate from the windows, from the very crevasses of the sidewalk. At night, shouting and screams pierced the dark along with sounds of shattering glass and occasional gunfire.

The Spafford fronted the deadly torrent of rush hour traffic on Olympic Boulevard, which every morning Tessa crossed at her peril to catch the city bus to school. The high school clerks knew of Mr. Markey’s fondness for pills and liquor. They also knew that, after her husband left, Mrs. Markey’s own nervous condition had worsened, limiting her to part-time work.

“Well, Mom’s in the bucket, too,” noted the junior class guidance counselor to the attendance clerk. “Either we find little Miss Markey an after-school job or she is going to end up on the wrong side of the tracks.”

So the high school placement officer sent Tessa Markey to babysit for the Bigelows’ two children. Hugh Bigelow was the vice president of finance for a large movie studio. (“I count the beans for the big boys,” he would explain.) He was a pear-shaped Texan with watery blue eyes and flaxen hair pasted across the reddish dome of his skull. His accent was redolent of sagebrush, dogies and lariats, which may have been why Ida Bigelow talked over him. Mrs. Bigelow was small and quick, with curly light brown hair that fell to her shoulders. She came from one of those states that were all jammed into the upper right side of the country and whose names had to be printed out in the Atlantic Ocean.

The Bigelows lived in north Santa Monica near San Vicente, a short geographical distance from Tessa’s home but a vast social dimension. Tessa thought of the Bigelows’ neighborhood as “gentle money,” the kind that did not sock you in the eye and steal your breath, as did the houses lording it over Sunset Boulevard even farther north. Those homes seemed to hurl Tessa’s own poverty at her, making her cringe. But homes like the Bigelows’, whose owners might be just as rich, were older and smaller, their landscaping relaxed and not harshly barbered. Evergreen trees shed cones and needles in the Bigelows’ front yard, and palm fronds wafted onto the lawn. The children dug in the shrubbery.

In the Bigelows’ study were framed photos from the forties: Mr. Bigelow, in wartime Italy, wore an Army uniform and looked much as he did today. But Mrs. Bigelow fairly leaped from her frame, proud breasts in a clinging red sweater, a teasing glance lobbed boldly at the camera. Now, two dissatisfied lines cleft the space between Ida’s plucked, arched brows. Her gray eyes often held a faraway gaze.

Mrs. Bigelow muted her world within pale gray walls with curtains the color of dried blood and hardwood floors polished to a Yankee gleam. The family home dated back to the twenties. “That,” Ida said to Tessa one day, pointing to a vintage loveseat, “is where John Gilbert betrayed Greta Garbo in 1925 with Renee Adoree. While drunk of course.” She sounded as disgusted as if it had happened that afternoon. “John was just an opportunist, that’s all.”

”He was,” Tessa said, trying for a point between question and assent.

”But he certainly didn’t deserve what he got. To be ruined that way. Louis B. Mayer just had blood in his eye.”

”In his eye?” said Tessa, an unspeakable image crossing her mind.

On Saturday nights, the Bigelows often threw small dinner parties for big and small Hollywood financial people. Tessa worked at these as a server and kitchen maid. For her, the dinner parties were ordeals like athletic events: tightly organized and strenuous. Tessa would arrive early to polish silver and set the table for twelve guests. Mrs. Bigelow owned an astonishing silver service: forks with two, three, or four tines, and knives that progressed in deadliness from blunt little butter commas all the way to scimitars. This, thought Tessa, was true civilization.

Mrs. Bigelow would loan Tessa a black tulle maid’s uniform to wear instead of her usual Carnaby Street-style mini-dresses. She pinned up Tessa’s smooth bobbed brunette hair that left her neck fashionably exposed. Then she tied on Tessa the stiff white apron and placed a white scalloped frill on Tessa’s head to complete the outfit.

When the guests arrived, Tessa would greet them with canapés on a monogrammed silver tray. Mrs. Bigelow herself prepared the cunningly shaped little treats. Tessa stood at the oven transferring hot canapés to doilies. She also refilled water glasses, standing to the left of the diner only. After the meal, she stood amid huge clouds of steam from the restaurant-quality dishwasher; yellow rubber gauntlets reached her elbows. Her hair curled around her flushed face, and rivulets of sweat tickled her back.

Here she was, supposedly beginning her life, but everything seemed as hollow and raw as a construction site. The boys at school were oafish and wild, shaped and driven by furious hormones, bloodying one another in sports and fights. Even the nice ones might turn into barbaric, lustful monsters after a couple of drinks. But Tessa’s usual desperation receded a bit at the Bigelows’. She even sometimes pretended that she lived at the Bigelows’ too, that the children were her siblings.

One Saturday night, Mr. Bigelow was gone. In his place at the table materialized a man named Warren, handsome in a decadent pouchy way, with sleek dark hair combed straight back. Warren wore a gold ring with a large blue stone and insignia that he flashed at every opportunity. The arriving guests all greeted and hugged him without a single hesitation or puzzled look. Whenever Tessa stole a glance at him, he was looking at her.

That night, Warren drove her home. He pulled over to the curb and turned off the car lights and put his head in his hands.

“Tessa,” he said softly from between his fingers, “It should be contessa.”

Tessa blurted a giggle and stopped herself abruptly.

Warren turned Tessa by the shoulders towards him. She saw pursed lips aimed at her and ducked, so that the lips encountered the top of her head. Warren pretended that was what he meant to do all along. “My dear one,” he said, nuzzling her hair.

Tessa tried to open the car door, but Warren reached across and took her hands.

“I really have to get home,” said Tessa.

“Just let me look at you for a moment,” said Warren. “I know this is wrong.”

“I… have a boyfriend.” Tessa lied.

“Well. he’s not worthy of you,” Warren said. “May I call you?”

“No. Please,” Tessa sighed and closed her eyes, pulling her hands backwards and twisting them until Warren let go.

“You ought to be a movie star, and I can make you one. Look, here’s my card. When you’re ready, you call me.”

He handed Tessa a card with “Warren Felder” engraved in gold and the words “Film Investor” and a phone number.

The next morning at school, Tessa stopped her friend Shannon in the hallway.

“Mrs. Bigelow’s husband is gone and she has a new boyfriend, and he tried to kiss me in the car on the way home. He said he can make me a movie star. He put his hands on my shoulders and said he wants to call me. He gave me his card, too.”

“Wow!” said Shannon. “What are you going to do?”

Tessa wrinkled up her nose. “I’m not going to talk to him. I’m going to hang up if he calls.”

Shannon rolled her eyes. “You’re so dumb. He’s in the palm of your hand. He’ll buy you stuff, dopey. Do you have all the money you need?” Tessa shook her head. “Of course you don’t. Your father is not paying his child support. We both need cash. Get him to give you money and we can split it.”

“That’s horrible.”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” said Shannon. “Grow up.”

That evening, the girls stole a bottle of wine from Shannon’s mother’s cache and brought it to Tessa’s and drank it while listening to the new Beatles album. The music and the wine gave Tessa an odd ache. The Beatles were a reminder of how puny and inconsequential she was. She dwelt on the peripheries of other peoples’ lives, a parasite of their dramas and romances.

The Bigelow children, decorous as usual, did not mention the substitution. The only change in the Bigelows’ household now seemed to be the omnipresence of Warren. Until the day that Tessa arrived to hear Hugh Bigelow’s angry voice bellowing from behind the front door.

“I’d just like to know what the hell is going on around here, that’s all.”

Mr. Bigelow opened the door and turned away at the sight of Tessa without greeting her and walked into the living room. Ida was sitting on John Gilbert’s loveseat. “I’m telling you, the man is a bum,” he said. “I ran his Dun & Bradstreet, and it made me sick.”

“Since you believe that Dun & Bradstreet sums up a human being, then I suppose it would make you sick.” Ida paused. “You sick man.”

I’m sick? I am not having the adulterous affair. You are the one betraying your marriage vows for all the world to see. And how you can keep throwing these ridiculous dinner parties to flaunt your shame is beyond me. All I’m saying is that either Warren goes, or the children live with me. It is not good for them to be in the midst of… turpitude.”

Mrs. Bigelow looked at her husband’s crimson scalp with bottomless loathing. “They are not,” she replied.

“And you so irrational all the time.”

“I am not.”

“Will you shut up,” Hugh shouted. “All you do is contradict …”

Ida Bigelow’s mouth opened to say “I do not,” but no sound came out.

With trembling hands, Tessa quietly removed the silver in the dining room and began to polish. Her thoughts were racing in circles. After the dinner partry, she escaped though the front door into the quiet Santa Monica night. She walked quickly, ducking into backyards or behind shrubbery. Dogs barked at her. When she arrived home, her heart did not stop pounding for an hour.

Later that night, Tessa fantasized Warren lying naked across a bed, lips pursed, private parts engorged, his arms reaching. She could not get the picture out of her mind. The image of Ida and Warren made Tessa shudder.

“Just tell him you’ve been thinking about what he said,” Shannon whispered to Tessa.

“I can’t,” Tessa answered. She threw the phone and the business card at Shannon, who picked them up and dialed confidently.

“Is this Warren?” Shannon said. “Hi, I’m a friend of Tessa’s.”

There was silence.

“Yeah, she’s here, but she’s a big chicken. So you’ll have to talk to me instead.”

There was silence again, and Shannon laughed, low and sexy.

“I guess you could say I am,” said Shannon. “And you’re a naughty boy.”

Tessa ran to Shannon’s bed and buried her face in the pillow so she wouldn’t scream.

Half an hour later, Shannon met Warren in the alley behind her apartment and returned after fifteen minutes with a pint of vodka.

“We’ll get more next time. This was just for starters,” Shannon told Tessa.

“What did you have to do for it?”

“Just watch him,” said Shannon. “What a relief.”

The girls mixed the vodka with orange juice and drank the whole pint. Afterwards, Tessa went home and threw up.

The next Saturday, when Tessa arrived, Ida Bigelow looked like an angry rodent.

“Mr. Bigelow was here yesterday in defiance of our agreement,” she said. “He came in while I was out buying spinach for the canapés. I fear that he may become violent.” Ida hurled herself onto a chair, head tossed back. “I’m so confused. These men, battling over me…”

Tessa felt she must try to help Mrs. Bigelow face the truth about Warren, who was evil. Otherwise, the whole situation was soon going to spin out of control.

“Mrs. Bigelow,” Tessa said, “you should know. Warren tried to kiss me when he took me home. Then he wanted my phone number.”

Ida Bigelow rose, eyes wide. “I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true. He said he would make me a movie star. I told him not to call.”

Ida Bigelow seemed to stumble. She grabbed for the back of the chair to steady herself.

“My husband put you up to this, didn’t he? Was it his idea that you seduce Warren?”

“No, I swear!”

Mrs. Bigelow reached back and slapped Tessa’s face with all her strength.

“Why you filthy slut. You little whore. You get out of this house right now.”

She approached again and Tessa cringed, running for the front door, past the open-mouthed children, past John Gilbert’s loveseat, past the battalions of silver all lined up ready to be polished. With a wail, Tessa ran from the vicious primitive lunges and besotted cravings and gluttonous impulses of the world. Through the yard she ran, her feet slipping on the pine needles; down the block of gentle money and into the street without even looking. Stumbling and catching herself and staggering again until she fell sprawling at the curb. Sitting up stiffly, she saw the pink scrape on her knee grow red with blood. And above her, blinding her, came the damned sun.

The next day, Sunday afternoon, two police detectives in business suits and a uniformed cop came to Tessa’s home with the news that Ida Bigelow had murdered Warren Felder that Saturday night with a steak knife as he slept.

“Mr. Bigelow told us that you babysat for the children and did household chores,” said one of the detectives. “Do you have any idea why she would have wanted to kill him?”

Tessa stared at the detective. “I only know that Mr. Felder was with Mrs. Bigelow and Mr. Bigelow had left,” she said, looking down.

“Did Mr. Bigelow and Mr. Felder ever have words?”

“Not that I heard.”

“Tessa, it is possible that you may have to give evidence in a court hearing. We will let you know, if it comes to that.”

“Why don’t you get out of here and let the girl alone,” said Tessa’s mother.

The detective looked around the kitchen and saw a bottle of rum on the counter. “Nice all-American home,” he said loudly to the other detective as they turned to leave.

When the school called Tessa into the office that Monday, she was sure that she was in trouble. But the junior class guidance counselor and the attendance clerk got up from their desks and put their arms around Tessa, who nearly suffocated under the weight of all that administrative compassion. They promised to find her another job right away.

Ida Bigelow was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of Warren Felder and given five years’ probation. Mr. Bigelow took Ida back, and Tessa learned that the family had moved to Texas.

Under the pressure of uncomfortable silences and dropped gazes, the friendship between Tessa and Shannon soon disintegrated. Not long after, rumors began to circulate that Tessa had been the reason Mrs. Bigelow had murdered her lover.

Tessa still pictured Warren lying naked across the bed. Only now the upper part of his torso was hanging over the side, with a silver steak scimitar from one of Mrs. Bigelow’s dinner parties protruding from his chest, and a puddle of dark blood spreading out on the shiny floor. “No!” Tessa would cry with a shudder whenever this vision invaded her mind. She would quickly try to substitute the image of Warren, still bold and intact, reaching out from his fate to kiss the top of her head in his car.

About The Author:
Linda Boroff
Linda Boroff is a film scripter and award winning short story writer. She adapted the biography Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story (now titled Fast Fade) for producer Don Murphy. Her short story in Cornell University’s Epoch literary journal was optioned by director Brad Furman and acquired by Sony for a series on The Sundance Channel.

About Linda Boroff

Linda Boroff is a film scripter and award winning short story writer. She adapted the biography Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye: The Barbara Payton Story (now titled Fast Fade) for producer Don Murphy. Her short story in Cornell University’s Epoch literary journal was optioned by director Brad Furman and acquired by Sony for a series on The Sundance Channel.

  One comment on “Dinner At The Bigelows

  1. Dinner at the Bigelows is beautifully written, and to my mind, evokes great Hollywood films like The Bad and the Beautiful and The Day of the Locust. Warren Felder’s smarmy character somehow brought to my mind the Lana Turner/Johnny Stompanato/Cheryl Crane scandal. The story is cinematic, and the era (mid 1960s) has long been one of my favorites, both in fiction, and as a subject for documentaries. I must also mention that artist Thomas Warming’s striking illustrations in both of Linda’s stories for Hollywood Dementia perfectly enhance the powerful text they accompany.

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