The costume was white with blood-red fringe. The blouse buttons were better than buttons. They were snaps, gleaming Mother of Pearl rimmed with silver. And, oh, the length of fringe! It dipped in a curve-swooping V in back and front, flowed along each sleeve, and swooshed to make even the smallest movement grand. The knee-length skirt was also fringed, cut deep enough to expose a good length of thigh. The tooled boots had hard heels, good for banging on a dance floor, and the white leather twined up the shanks with crimson hearts and roses, the appliqué wrapping to the back, where red-and-white was tied with silver conchos that tinkled like bells.
Dorothy Putavich knew this because after she shook them, she'd put the boots on and stomp-danced around at Neimeister's Music Store in the whole dang outfit. Dorothy very much liked the dark-haired songstress striking alluring poses in store mirrors, though she had to step back and lift a foot to see a boot in the half-length looking glass of the tiny dressing room. She also liked the expression on the shop clerk's face when this songstress met his eyes in the dream-world of that mirror as she drew back the curtain and beckoned him to come closer and bring some hats, would you please? He held out a flat-topped embroidered number that matched the boots, but Dorothy wanted the girl-sized ten-gallon in creamy cloud-white that had nothing to detract from the brim's halo of soft rabbit-fur felt, which, like her hair, would sparkle in stage-light.
"I'll put this on layaway," Dorothy said, looking past herself in the mirror to lock the eyes of the humbled clerk. "Two dollars will hold it, I'm sure." The young man's mouth was agape, but he nodded. Then, still wearing the costume, Dorothy Putavich counted an even two bucks in nickels and dimes from the frayed lining of her change-purse, and winked at the boy as she tucked the carbon of the receipt into her cleavage. His eyes followed.
"You'll remember me right away next week," she said. "The name's Dot. Stage name and real name, the same. I'm a gen-u-wine original." She nestled the hat in the tissue paper inside its box and gave it a little pat. "One day, you'll say you knew me when." And then she swished back behind the curtain strung across the dark corner of the store, and, a porcelain arm dancing, handed one red-and-white item at a time to the clerk as if he were her valet.
At two dollars a week—if she could pilfer as much—it would take Darlin' Dot the Swinging Singing Cowgirl twenty-four weeks to get her stage costume out of hock, and she hadn't half that long to rustle up a following big enough to create the loudest ruckus of applause at the county fair stage acts competition. Dot was certain that if she snagged at least the hat and boots, she could attach herself to a band where the boys would give her center stage. Getting out of her mother's house to the honky-tonks was trickier.
"Got me a job," Dot announced as she washed dishes.
"You already have a job," her mother, Irina, pointed out. She slid the glass-covered remains of her chicken supper onto a shelf of her icebox.
"Another job," said Dot. "Don't worry. I'm not quitting at Madsens'. Tuesday and Friday, I'll still be cleaning."
"This other job is what?"
Dorothy held up a soapy rag and dripping plate. "Washing dishes! Just like I do around here every day."
"Washing dishes where?"
"Dooley's, evenings." Dorothy waited to see how the lie would fly.
"Whatever evenings Dooley's says they need me."
Irina opened the stove and raked the coals.
"I start tonight." She took a deep breath. "I may not be back 'til eleven. Never can tell how long dishwashing will take."
"The pay?" Irina stood so close now that coffee arrived on the breath of her words.
Dorothy looked down at the suds. "Thirty cents an hour." Another lie.
"You're old enough now to keep half," Irina said, "to pay for your clothes and things like skating and movies with friends."
Dorothy breathed a small sigh. A tiny lucky break that extra, and it would make her under-the-table take thirty-five cents. Now, if she could get at least three nights a week.
"My girls are getting so big now, so responsible," said Irina, patting Dorothy on the back and giving her shoulders a little squeeze.
That evening, Dorothy shoved a red kerchief in her handbag and hoofed it across the street from the bus stop in Pottsville to Joey Previch's car, where she warmed up her vocal chords singing along to the Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, and Gene Autry playing on the radio. They were headed to Crossroads Tavern. There, she was sure, she would soon join the Boondock Balladeers on stage.
"Damn, girl, you got all the words," Joey marveled. His hair was slicked back, and he'd cleaned the car windows, Dorothy noted from the streaks.
"I'll be humming while I wash glasses," Dorothy said. "When the band calls out something you know I can sing, you yell for the Balladeers to bring me on stage, you hear?"
"You be wearing that lipstick while your hands is in the suds, I take it. That red scarf round your neck too, I bet. You're a smart cookie, Dot. Ready at the drop of a hat."
"Don't count your chickens." Dorothy smacked her lips in the mirror of her compact. "There will be lipstick enough to mark up your face when I'm all done, just like I promised. You just be sure they call me out from the kitchen. I got me a story—dishwater darlin' sings her way to the spotlight."
"You been reading too many of them romance stories and gossip columns, Dot. You got it all mashed up."
"It is my story. I'm not making it up. It just hasn't happened yet. Just you wait and see."
"Dooley's doesn't pay me every night, Mama. It's not like Madsens'. They don't hand me cash on my way out the door. A week, maybe two." Dorothy had not gotten into the house farther than the kitchen table.
"For dishwashing, you wear nice clothes. They give you an apron?" Irina, in her nightgown, with her finger holding a place on the newspaper, looked over the rim of her glasses. The clock said 11:15.
"Yes, Mama, they give me a nice big apron." Dorothy tried to keep her voice light and friendly. "If a waitress or the cashier doesn't show, I can fill in if I look nice. Move up, more pay. I got my sights set."
"That is why the lipstick?" Irina scowled. "You are not sixteen."
"Oh, Mama, don't be so old-fashioned. It's just a little lipstick."
"For wearing an apron and washing dishes."
"For being ready to move up in the world."
Irina's finger remained on the paper while her eyes scoured Dorothy, first down, then up; although the image felt wrong, nothing specific murmured for pointing out.
"Come give your mother a kiss," and Irina tapped her cheek. When Dorothy bent to give her a peck, Irina took a deep breath, catching smoke on Dorothy's clothes, and, beneath that as Dorothy rested a hand on the table, the fading and uneasy but confirming scent of dish soap, but nothing yet that said or didn't say Dooley's.
Irina had banished Dorothy's vocal practice from the house. The child hummed constantly, breaking into yowling song whenever she was out of scowling range. The yodeling, however, was more than a body could bear. Beyond the shrieking and screeching, Irina could track Dorothy not just by footfalls, as she could her three other girls, but also by the toe-tapping. In strange and delicious moments, Dorothy was lost in quiet, and even as she felt the worry rise from her belly, Irina closed her eyes to enjoy peace.
Sometimes, the yodeling would flap down from the garage, where, sheet music in her hands or on her father's workbench, Dorothy stood at the window to practice, and where, high behind her father's rusting tools, Dorothy had stashed the box with the rabbit-felt hat. To spare his eardrums, Laszlo abandoned his garage-sitting, and sat instead at the far end of the house in the front porch glider, or ambled down to Yushko's Bar. When Dorothy entered the garage, patch windows closed.
The yodeling was coming along nicely, but financing was not. Dishwashing and coins swiped from Irina's dresser or pocketed from Mr. Madsen's top desk drawer were adding up, but not fast enough. Shortly after she retrieved the hat, Dorothy discovered its usefulness when held as cover for the palming of customer bar cash. But a girl could take that only so far, having, at her age, no business working her way down a bar. Dorothy fretted. The county fair was approaching and she had yet to perform in the full costume that would win her a boisterous following. The Boondock Balladeers had their own tag-alongs, true, but Dorothy had yet to secure a promise that, come the second Saturday in September, the Balladeers would let her stand at the microphone on the fairgrounds stage. She'd have to work on Hubert.
Hubert Buckner. He wanted to be called Buck, but the closest he was allowed was Bert, and usually it was Hubie. Still, every time he sold a tavern-keeper on letting him bring the boys in, he promoted the raggedy quartet in handbills and from the barroom corner to which they were relegated as Buck's Boondock Balladeers. The Buck part didn't stick until Darlin' Dot the Swinging Singing Cowgirl started bowing, thanking Buck on stage. And now, when Buck showed up, honky-tonkers asked whether Darlin' Dot would be with them when they played.
First the boots. Then the blouse, those pearl snaps undone deep. Then, the skirt, and, when Dot faced Buck as she bowed to him, she set the crowd roaring by flashing scarlet bloomers beneath the fringe. She worked a crowd, no matter how thin. For all of fifteen minutes after she had the room howling like a pack of coyotes, Hubie Buckner passed two hats and would have given Dot damn near anything. And then, instead of accepting a dollar and a ride to the alley behind Dooley's, she asked for a piece of the take.
"Darlin'," Dorothy told him, "you aren't Buck Jones, and it's not the Balladeers the boys come to hear."
Hubie reached into his hat and picked out another two bits. Dorothy dropped the change into her little purse and held up her palm.
"A third," she said.
"Twenty percent," Hubie countered. "There's five of us," he added, scrambling.
"Fair enough, for now." Dorothy slid the little purse into her cleavage. Then she pinched Hubie Buckner's cheek. "After the fair, we will have us another talk."
The morning of the county fair, Dorothy Putavich poured herself a cup of coffee and announced to her mother, father, and younger sisters that she would that afternoon not help at Saint Michael's food stand but would instead sing country music on the bandstand, where she would be backed by a banjo, guitar, bass, and accordion. Neither Irina nor Laszlo quite believed her, even when she packed a carpet bag and hat box onto the floor of the Dodge and ignored her sisters Geraldine, Julia, and little Elena on the drive in. Before Laszlo turned off the engine, Dorothy disappeared.
Everybody watching held their breath while the youngster in the blue-socked uniform threw fastballs that knocked peaches off the sausage-curled head of his gingham-wearing kid sister, until he missed and the realistic-looking hardball flew into the crowd, where it was revealed to be a paint-glued wad of wound rags. The kid was laughed at and booed, though the five-dog acrobatic ensemble was cheered to an encore, and the twin hula ladies juggling coconuts and rum bottles earned wide, encouraging, and mildly lewd commentary.
What Irina and Laszlo expected was not the roaring applause and wolf-whistling lifting from the boozy crowd when Darlin' Dot and Buck's Boondock Balladeers were called to mount the steps of the fairgrounds amphitheater. In fact, from Saint Michael's food stand, Irina Putavich did not recognize the girl in the gaudy costume caressing the microphone until she launched the band's performance with an all-too-familiar yodel. Irina's hands, mid-wipe in her apron, froze in a grip that could have—would have, if the girl had been within reach—choked the breath out of this stage-floozy, this Darlin' Dot with the brazen boots.
"She's good, no?" Baba Smolnyki elbowed Irina. "Maybe she be famous singer. We listen on radio. Make her mama proud. God give this girl such lungs."
Irina crossed herself, thankful Baba Smolnyki could not see well enough to note the dance-girl exposure, the thigh, the bosom, the fleshy bouncing-about of Darlin' Dot the Swinging Singing Cowgirl, a bellowing hussy with a bee up her bum and a bunch of bandy buccaneers behind her. Irina almost dropped to her knees in shame.
The yodeling won over the wanna-bes, the bouncing won over the boys, and the simple fact that Dorothy Putavich, one of their own, looked like a star won over most of the rest. And so it was that Darlin' Dot the Swinging Singing Cowgirl and her backup band the Boondock Balladeers took by far the widest applause. The four judges of the Anthracite County Stage Acts Contest simply could not ignore the crowd, or the applause, the hooting, hollering, boot-stomping, and prolonged whistling. Hubie Buckner was handed the trophy, and Darlin' Dot stepped up to accepted the cash.
"That was our Dorothy?" Laszlo asked later.
Though Anthracite County's was a small fair, in the crowd that Saturday were a number of on-the-way-up-or-down scouts, charged, as Dorothy and Hubie knew, with spotting new talent, and so, in full costume, Dorothy loitered backstage until they made their way to her. They were not hard to spot with city haircuts and clean hands, hanging back smoking, watching, gauging. Dorothy sat on top of a picnic table and gauged right back. Guitar slung on his back, Hubie hoovered, scanning, waiting, trying not to bite his nails. A man in suit and loosened tie took his hand out of his pocket as he stepped through the onlooker circle, but when Hubie stepped up, the scout walked right past him.
"You have you one powerful voice, Darlin' Dot," the man said, sticking out his hand.
Dorothy took it in a lady-like clasp and then let go. "Why thank you very much, sir."
The man, nice looking but going soft around the gut, hiked a pant leg and rested a worn but fine wing-tip on the seat of the picnic table, close enough to touch Dorothy's foot and waft dust onto her pretty boot. She looked down, and the man brushed the dirt off her white leather.
When she lifted her eyes to his face, he was already grinning.
It took only days, the smirk on Dorothy's face fixed. No matter what Irina said, despite the slapping down Irina meted, regardless of the pain and pity draining Laszlo, Dorothy went through the motions of daily habit and chores with a steel-sharpened step, her back rigid, her hair no longer tied back but flowing in rippling waves. The patch had never seen a transformation so rapid, never witnessed a gathering of clouds so roiling.
Matthew Stegman knew better than to ask for permission and Dorothy didn't offer information. She met him not at home but in the dark of night in the lot beside the Crossroads Tavern, and she did not look back at Hubie and the Balladeers watching bug-eyed as she entered Stegman's car and the two of them drove away, her full pay from Madsens' and the whole of her mother's weekly budget cash tucked into her bra.
He was good in the first weeks, solicitous, courteous, looking out for her. It was business, but he was nice. She tasted French fries at fairs, burgers at bars, and ice cream at block parties all the way to Pittsburgh, where he finally peeled off some of her winnings for a room. She didn't complain. She wasn't that green. One room, that's what she'd known there'd be. She let him push her in front of house bands for a whole week before she pushed him out of her bed.
They zigzagged all the way to Toledo, catching the end of the season at the resorts, busting into the line-up at county fairs and country festivals. She sponge-washed her costume, hung it from the window of the car while she stretched in a chaise along the Erie shoreline and let an Indian Summer sun bake them both. She painted her nails, read movie magazines, and parted her hair like Veronica Lake. They were making money, bankrolling a shot at the big time. Pittsburgh, Toledo, they were peanuts, practice. He caught Route 20. They'd take it all the way to the West Coast, he said, and then he'd drive south, get her a shot at Hollywood, let her pave her way singing down the Pacific Coast. He'd get her on stages down all of California Highway 1, and by the time Darlin' Dot arrived in Los Angeles, everybody would know her name, guaranteed. Trust him. He had a plan. They had a plan.
At Elkhart, Stegman watched as Dorothy let the handsome young band leader slide his arm around her waist, and, beer in hand, she slipped with him out the back door. Stegman watched from the car and was waiting when the neon flicked off and Dorothy flopped onto the backseat. She wrapped herself in a blanket and got out twice in the night to relieve herself. The grease on the morning diner's over-easies put her off.
"Not too much coffee," he said, holding up a slice of dry toast. "A little of this will soak up the hurt." But he did not accuse. When he stopped for gas, he bought her a Coke and aspirin.
"Keep it in your purse," he said when she tried to give the tin of pills back. "You may need it later." She expected more, but that was the only advice he peddled, and as he drove, she slept, her head cushioned by the costume.
They worked the honky-tonks around South Bend for three days. While she slept, he trolled for venues.
"Not much on the prairie," Stegman pointed out as he tuned the hotel room radio to the Series. "We'll stay here awhile, save up for Chicago." He leaned back on the bed pillows, hands behind his head, cigarette on his lip. "Got you a sweet little gig for the weekend."
Dorothy brightened. "Two nights in the same place?"
"Three. With the same band."
He pushed a box toward her. "And I bought you a little something."
Inside was a white-on-red costume almost a duplicate of her red-on-white.
"Mix and match!" Dorothy beamed. "It's like I have four costumes." She stroked the white fringe. "Red and white are my signature colors now, I guess."
"They're working for you pretty well, I'd say."
In the patch, it was no surprise to anyone but Irina and Laszlo that Dorothy had run away. Laszlo sank into a funk from which he could rouse himself barely enough to get to and finish a shift at the slope. Tears trickled riverbeds in the dirt on his face, and when the miners took their lunch, Laszlo, his mind freed from shoveling, put his head down and wept. The other miners raided his lunchbox, but, out of pity, left him the pickled egg.
Irina allowed herself sorrow, but as anger and shame welled, they lit first to a boil that rendered Irina so quick to snap that Elena, eleven, reverted to the thumb-sucking she'd given up years before, and Geraldine, fourteen, without being told, threw herself into the outdoor chores, taking time to perform them thoroughly, well away from her mother, a wide path tracked also by Julia, thirteen. Dinner was a nightmare. Laszlo tried to put on a good face, but tears so strangled his breath that he could barely eat for hiccoughs. He reached repeatedly for his daughters, his hands rising more than once to caress their cheeks, tears brimming.
When Dorothy had not returned from Madsens' the Friday after the county fair, Irina assumed the child had taken off with the band. But the Balladeers played the Crossroads that Saturday, and though Laszlo leaned his sorrow on the bar there, Dorothy never appeared, which, from the cat-calling, clearly disappointed the crowd. Irina visited Father Yspecky, who twitched neither his face nor the hands spread across his cassock-covered thighs as Irina confessed the deeds of the daughter bringing such despair. Father Yspecky used the church office telephone to dial up Joe Dincho, Clareville Chief of Police, who had the operator connect him with the Pennsylvania Motor Police in Wilkes-Barre. By mid-afternoon that Monday, a white-and-black ghost car rolled the patch and stopped before the Putavich home.
Few facts emerged. Salient among them were these: Dorothy had gone willingly; nobody knew the name of the man who seemed so enamored of her behind the fairgrounds stage; no one, not even Hubie in the parking lot that night he'd watched Dorothy enter the car and roll away, had thought to write down the license plate.
The newspaper was paid to print copies of its photos of Dorothy accepting the contest cash, but the blow-ups isolating Dorothy were grainy, and they grained so much more when transmitted by wire that, in half-tone newsprint, the girl in the picture could have been any dark-haired ingénue.
The costume was, it was thought, a strong clue, but it was a hootenanny standard. Besides, by the time the trail led to the small towns of the Midwest, Darlin' Dot had added three years to her age and was outside Chicago, where she declined the invitation of a county sheriff to be escorted from the company of Matthew Stegman and set on a train headed back east.
Until Dubuque there had been two beds, but the land thinned west of the Mississippi, and Stegman claimed they needed to save the money. At Waterloo, Dorothy gave in, a little, holding him off with spooning. By Sioux City, a patient man, he was nuzzling. Nebraska was a boring blur and when his hands roamed, she didn't complain. And then they stopped in Casper, where there was money to be made.
There were also real cowboys, the kind who wore pointy boots every day and smacked dust from their hats before they came through a door, and while they wrangled sheep or tended refinery flame instead of branding irons, they ventured, as always, into town on Saturday night, ready to be lit by liquor and an adventure with a pretty girl, heating up on the spot for a young one yodeling up a storm and flashing ruffled red bloomers under the hem of a short, fringed skirt. Casper ate up young Darlin' Dot and the cowboys made sure she never went thirsty. Stegman sat back in a corner, stayed there quiet while Dorothy bowed to the bar band and then picked a handsome young cowboy, handed him her clean white hat, and asked the bar crowd to show her how much they liked her when the cowboy came around. She perfected blush and gush as she faked surprise at the take, and left the stage for a short break, leaning for the cowboy to take her by her narrow waist and lift her down.
But then, Dorothy laughing, the cowboy carried her into the crowd and Dorothy disappeared. The break lengthened. Fifteen minutes passed, twenty. Stegman went looking.
They had gotten no farther than a dinged pickup in the dirt lot behind the roadhouse.
When she lurched barefoot out of the truck, Stegman was waiting. He steadied her, gathered up and carried her boots. It was a long way through Wyoming, he said as she leaned against him on the way to the car. Things were different now, he said, settling her onto the seat. She'd lost the white hat, and things had changed.
Dorothy Putavich almost, but not quite, caught her breath two days later on the Targhee Pass in Montana, where, sometime before sunrise, her knees and hands scraped asphalt as she tried to right herself. Matthew Stegman had pushed her out of his car. In the grey dawn, Dorothy watched her hatbox and carpetbag fly from the car, their red and white contents taking wing. In the short time that Dorothy mistook her show clothes for birds, the stars cleared, and Dorothy heard a sound that was neither engine nor river but wind blowing east across the black and white peaks of the Continental Divide.
Later, when the Good Samaritans stopped, the man lifted Dorothy into his car and the woman gathered the clothes. The snow that frosted Dorothy's costume sparkled for a moment, glittered, then disappeared against the sky.
Laszlo and Irina pondered maps but could not figure how to get to Bozeman by train. Laszlo would, instead, in the Dodge, trace the same length of Route 20 by which Dorothy had escaped with her show man. Laszlo took with him the son of his friend, Pete Derchenko, who owned the corner store. Young Pete, Jr., recently released from the army, was familiar with coin-operated telephones. They would trade drive-time and sleep, aiming for a non-stop out. Pete would lend his experience with diners, auto-camps.
Dorothy barely opened her eyes and avoided the window, hunkering down in a nest of blankets on the back seat. The first time Pete turned on the car radio, when she caught Eddie Arnold's "It's a Sin," Dorothy screamed and covered her ears. Neither Pete nor Laszlo touched the radio again, and when they talked, they whispered.
Dorothy listed in a glass-eyed stupor. There would be no West Coast, no Hollywood. She was headed back east, back to the patch. But it was in Dorothy Putavich neither to starve nor to tolerate pain. When at last the ache in her belly forced her to eat, she refused to leave the car. She'd become an ascetic, a silent hermit. She would refuse to enjoy. Laszlo pinched pieces of sandwich and pressed the straws of drive-in milkshakes to her lips. Dorothy swallowed just enough to rid herself of the ache. At night, she closed the bathroom door and stayed so long in the dark that Laszlo knocked until, without even a murmur, she came out, wearing exactly what she'd worn going in. Why bother fussing up? Without the stage, what was the point? Laszlo did not mention this behavior to Father Yspecky when he made the nightly phone call.
Good girls did not go on stage. Good girls did not steal, lie, and slip away from home in the dark of night. Good girls trusted the teachings of their mother. They followed God's laws. They were quiet, hardworking, pious, obedient, and chaste.
They, as Dorothy now, did as they were told. Slowly, Dorothy's condition improved.
She had daydreams sometimes, of a red and white costume, and, when she caught the tunes from the open doors of the juke-joints she passed, the words of songs rolled up in her mouth, but she swallowed them down and touched the crucifix at her throat. Had she cupped her hands around a microphone? Had she worn a white hat? Was there at one time a pair of hearts-and-roses boots? The thought came to her sometimes when the sun lit a cold day that she had seen once the glitter of snow shaken or thrown against a blue sky.
Dorothy prayed with her mother, helped at home, took a job in the factory. Before work, Dorothy walked with her mother to church and knelt with a prayer book in her hand to be blessed by the priest and thank the Lord for his bountiful forgiveness. Everyone needed forgiveness, this she knew.
When Dorothy began to hum, Irina and Laszlo talked. Dorothy would join Saint Michael's choir. After practice, young Pete Derchenko would escort her home. Irina would invite him in for cake.
Title image "Fringe on Top" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.