The following is an excerpt from Lola Dances. Terry Murphy is a sissy—little, effeminate, the butt of jokes and the victim of abuse, he sticks out in the rough milieu of the gold mining camp like the proverbial sore thumb—until the day he stops at the local saloon to look for work…
MLR Press (March 2008)
"You can't leave just this minute," Willis said, obviously angry. "I've got a room full of miners out there, waiting for you to come on stage."
"Let them wait, what do I care," she said. "Old Jake is in a hurry, and I don't mean for him to go without me."
"And you're just leaving me in the lurch, is that how it is?"
"Listen, I'm sick of you. I'm sick of this saloon and this whole damn town. Old Jake's been saving up his dust, he's got a fortune, practically, and I mean to spend some of it for him. No more dirty mine camp for me, I'm going to live in the city and be a lady."
"Well, what about all this stuff?" Lem gestured at the racks of dresses and the dressing table littered with jars and bottles. "What am I supposed to do with it?"
Lizette laughed. "You can eat it, for all I care. All those cheap dresses? You think I could wear them in Frisco? This is what I'm taking." She picked up a small carpetbag from the chair. "Travels fastest who travels lightest, is what they say. Anything else I need, Jake can buy it for me when we get to Frisco."
"Listen, you," Willis said, but she didn't wait to hear him out.
"No, you listen. It's goodbye and good riddance." And with that, she threw open the back door and went out, slamming it after herself. From outside, they heard a man's voice say, "About time, I was fixin' to go without you."
"You ain't going nowhere without me, you old sugar," she said, and her laugh quickly faded.
"Good riddance is right," Willis said, staring at the door through which she had disappeared. "Damnation! I ought to have thrown the ungrateful bitch out on the street a long time ago." He turned, and saw Terry standing in the doorway. "What the hell are you looking at?" he demanded, "who are you?"
"I'm Terry Murphy. Brian's brother."
"The mean son-of-a-bitch? I didn't even know he had a brother, unlest it was Old Nick. Well, what do you want?"
"I came by," Terry stammered, "I'm looking for work. I thought, well, maybe I could get a job here, at The Dollar. Maybe you needed somebody."
Willis laughed mirthlessly. "You want a job? Why don't you put on one of those dresses and go out there and dance for those damn fool miners. That's what I need, sonny." He stormed out, muttering angrily to himself.
Alone in the dressing room, Terry glanced about. The room was untidy, the air heavy with cheap perfume. His eyes fell on the dressing table. It was littered with toiletries, shabby little pots of rouge and black for the eyebrows and lashes. He picked up a Spanish fan that lay there and snapped it open.
Back in the Bowery, in the dressing room at the theater, Rosaria had entertained her fellow dancers often with her fan. "In Spain, a señorita doesn't need words to tell a man what she wants to say, she can say it all with her fan," she told them.
Clicking the fan open and shut, Terry strolled to the rack of dresses that stood along one wall, the costumes Lizette had left behind.
Why don't you put on one of those dresses…Willis's words seemed to echo inside his head. He thought of that time as a child when he'd dressed as a girl, how different he'd felt. He took one of the dresses from the rack and held it up before himself and looked speculatively into the standing mirror. The dress was black, vaguely Spanish in style, and lavishly trimmed in ruffles.
Even at a glance, he could see it would fit perfectly.
* * * * *
He stopped inside the dressing room door and gaped in astonishment at the beautiful woman seated at the dressing table, scarcely able to believe what he saw. "Jesus H. Christ," he swore aloud. "It can't be, but…but it is, isn't it? It's…is it really you, Murphy?"
"Not any more," Terry said. "Not tonight. Tonight, I'm Lola Valdez. And I'm going to dance on your stage."
"You must be plumb loco. Do you have any idea what kind of men those are out there?"
"A pretty good idea."
"They'd kill you for fooling 'em like this."
"They won't know, if you don't tell them," Terry said. "Look at me, Mister Willis. If you didn't know, would you ever suspect?"
"You go out there and tell them there's a new entertainer just arrived in town tonight. Lola Valdez, you tell them, just back from a triumphant tour of the continent, where she danced for the crowned heads of Europe. And tonight, Lola dances for The Lucky Dollar Saloon."
"They'll string me up with you," Willis said, but after another long, hard look at the face in the mirror, he gulped and shook his head, and hurriedly disappeared out the door.
Terry followed him more slowly. He paused at the edge of the moth eaten curtain, peering past it at the crowded saloon. For just a moment, his legs felt like they would fail him.
"He's right," he told himself. "You must be crazy, Terry Murphy, to think you could get away with this."
There was a mirror tacked up just off stage. He looked at himself carefully in it. His hair hadn't been cut since he had come here, and by this time it naturally hung all the way down to his shoulders. He'd used Lizette's pins and a couple of Spanish combs to pin it up, and let the dark curls tumble down either side of his face.
He'd had to leave his glasses behind so he saw things through a faint myopic haze that, he did not realize until later, gave his glances a peculiar intensity. He had outlined his eyes to make them look even bigger and darkened his lashes. His mouth was painted a little fuller than it really was, and he'd made his complexion a bit lighter with powder, carefully not too much, and painted roses of rouge on his cheeks.
Other than his face and neck, there wasn't much skin to be seen. He'd put on a trio of red petticoats under the black dress, and cinched it all at the waist with a gold chain. The skirt came down far enough to cover his stockinged legs but managed nevertheless to offer glimpses of scarlet ruffles when he walked. There were more ruffles that hid most of his bodice as well, and he had pinned a flowery lace shawl around his shoulders, that screened the rest of it while the glimpses of flesh showing through it created the illusion that they were was more to be seen than there actually was.
If someone who knew him, and especially someone who had any reason to suspect, looked closely enough, they might recognize him. But, who knew him here? Hardly anyone. He had almost never come into town, and then only briefly. They wouldn't be seeing him up close, either, but from a distance, and as they had said more than once in their dance classes back in the states, distance lends enchantment. Besides, there was no reason for anyone to suspect, to think he was anyone but who Willis was announcing to them at this very moment: Lola Valdez.
Willis came offstage, looked at Terry and, with a nervous grin, shook his head in wonder. "Go on, get our fucking necks wrung for us, if you're going to do it," he said.
Still, Terry hesitated, until someone in the saloon yelled, "Well, where the hell is she?" and someone else echoed, "Let's get her out here, then, and see what those crowned heads were so het up about."
No, Terry told himself. I'm not crazy. I can do this. And I'm not Terry Murphy, either. I'm Lola Valdez.
And the moment he stepped out past the curtain, strolled to center stage, sashaying and making the ruffled skirt and the petticoats swish and sway with each step he took, that was who he became, and Terry Murphy was left behind in the wings.
Lola held the Spanish fan before her face and gazed out at the men over the top of it, smiling with her eyes as Rosaria had demonstrated for them, her gaze sweeping the room. It was a gesture that said, "I find you very attractive," and her huge, dark eyes, just slightly out of focus, conveyed that message to every man in the packed room.
Something happened that had never before happened at The Lucky Dollar. The room went silent, a thunderous silence. No one spoke. Even the slap, slap slap of the cards at the poker tables went still. A hundred mouths hung open, a hundred pair of eyes were suddenly riveted on the little figure standing before them.
"Like a rose, suddenly appearing in the filth of that dirty room," one of them would put it later, a description that would be long remembered by many.
It lasted half a minute, that eerie silence—a full minute, longer yet. You could almost hear the seconds tick by until Lola took the satin skirt between her fingers and lifted it ever so slowly, ever so slightly, offering more flashes of scarlet petticoat and one slender ankle—even an inch or two, but no more than that, of net clad calf.
She gave the fan a quick, sudden snap, revealing her face in full for the first time, and smiled, brightly—and there was not a man in the room who wouldn't have sworn afterward that the smile was aimed directly and personally at him.
Pandemonium erupted. Male voices bawled like cattle in lightning, boots stomped, fists pounded on tables—so much noise that the very rafters shook and you half feared the roof might collapse, the building fall in on itself from all the noise and commotion.
Lola took a single step, rolled her shoulders. The silence fell again, as completely as before, as quickly as the noise had exploded.
She hardly knew afterward what she did. She was aware of the pianist banging out something on the piano, trying to follow the rhythm of Lola's dancing feet, the notes nothing more than a discordant jangle.
No one cared. No one heard them. There was attention for nothing but that slim-waisted figure twirling about on the stage, tossing her fan, flashing her ankles, laughing and winking and weaving in hellish abandon. When she spun about, they saw more womanly leg than it was possible for a man to see anywhere outside of Belle Blessing's whorehouse, and these legs were shapelier by far than any to be seen there. The mining camps didn't generally get the prettiest women. Certainly, here, none as pretty as this.
At first, they watched in a stunned, almost disbelieving silence, but then men began to cheer and clap, and now they were throwing money onto the stage, vying with one another to see who could throw the most: coins, paper money, even and increasingly, little bags of gold dust.
Lola rewarded them by dancing still faster, with ever greater abandon, until the stage was littered with tributes to her spell and she could hardly step without bringing her slippered foot down on piles of money or bags of gold.
Finally, she leapt into the air, gave a final spin, and sank in a weary heap to the floor of the stage, panting from exertion.
"She's fainted," someone shouted from the audience and there was a shifting of many feet and a scraping of chairs being pushed back.
At once, Terry sat up and scrambled to his feet, knowing that he dared not let them rush to the stage to help him.
He smiled out at the audience and curtseyed, and again there was that roar of approval, and finally, for the first time in his life, Terry knew love, felt it sweep over him in great waves from those cheering, shouting, clapping men—all their loneliness, all the grubbiness of their lives in this dismal place, their affection and desire, their excitement, coalesced into a great bubble of happiness that enveloped Terry and that it almost seemed he could float away in.
There was movement about the room, and no doubt some of them would have charged right up onto the stage, but Willis had the good sense to quickly whisk the curtain closed, and the last glimpse the miners had of Lola Valdez was the kiss she blew to them.
Terry quickly scooped up the money strewn across the stage, making a pouch out of his skirt to hold it, and ran for the dressing room. He had barely gotten there when Willis followed him in. The saloon owner was grinning from ear to ear, showing his blackened teeth, his face flushed with excitement.
"By God, you did it," he cried, dancing a jig. "You did it. I can't believe it. The toughest, orneriest men this side of creation, and you had them eating out of your hand."
"Yes," Terry said, sinking into a chair and looking at himself in the mirror. But it was not himself he saw, not the sissy boy whom others taunted or used for their pleasure, not the unwanted orphan, the butt of a lifetime of jokes. He saw someone beautiful, someone very much wanted, someone who brought happiness and pleasure to all who beheld.
He saw Lola Valdez.