Today's Reading

When I got home, I wrote to Penny.

Maybe my luck is changing, Penny. Maybe this story will have a happy ending after all. Even if I don't deserve it.

I sealed up the letter and told myself it wouldn't be long now before I could go home to Odessa. First thing, I'd pay off the mortgage and the taxes so Papa would never have to worry again. Then I'd get one of those newfangled tractors that practically planted the corn for you. Maybe I'd buy a closetful of dowdy dresses and the sensible shoes Penny liked. We'd have steak every night of the week and twice on Sundays. That's what I'd do. I'd make everything up to Papa. Even Penny would have to admit I'd come through.

And it would all start tonight—right now—at Roy Lester's party.

Max waited at the top of the marble steps, looking like he was about to get a tooth pulled. The piano swelled to the chorus of "Ain't Misbehavin'," and a trio of men began to sing off-key. I took a deep breath and lifted my chin.

This was it, what I'd been waiting for. So why were my legs wobbling like a soused sailor?

Max looked down at me with what could have been a hint of compassion and tucked my hand in the crook of his arm. "Let's get this over with."

We stepped down, entering the whirl of color and sound. Max's arm under his midnight-blue evening jacket was rigid, his jaw set as if he were going into battle. Was he sore because of what happened between us, or was it something else? You never could tell with Max.

He guided me smoothly through the crowd. The women, all beautiful, moved as gracefully as if they were choreographed dancers. The men made elegance look effortless. Everyone held a glass—dainty bowls of champagne, tumblers of dark whisky, martini glasses of clear gin with the occasional olive. Like everywhere else in the country, the Eighteenth Amendment had not only failed to curb the consumption of liquor, it had made drinking a national pastime.

A maid, a lovely Mexican girl probably no more than eighteen in a black below-the-knee dress and a shapeless white apron, stopped short in front of us, glasses teetering on her tray. She stared at Max. I was used to it—women ogled him wherever we went—but the way her mouth dropped open looked like astonishment. Max took two champagnes and said something to her in a low voice.

She hurried away as if she were being chased.

"What was that about?" I asked.

He gave me one of the glasses and shrugged. "This joint is a waste of time, Mina."

"A waste of—" Changing the subject was one of his specialties, but I fell for it. "Says you." I turned on him, whispering furiously and jerking a nod at the piano. "That's John Gilbert over there." Gilbert, dubbed the Great Lover, earned more in one picture than my father's farm was worth.

Max downed his champagne in one gulp, then put a hand at the small of my back, guiding me toward the center of the room. "Gilbert's a liability. The drinking's one thing, but the women... He's probably traded pajama bottoms with every Jane in this room, except maybe your dear friend Louella." Max didn't hide his disdain. "Not to mention his voice. Gilbert's first talkie was his last."

I'd seen Gilbert's debut in talkies and couldn't help but laugh at his high, effeminate voice like the rest of the people in the picture house. I took a sip of my champagne, letting the bubbles dissolve on my tongue. "But look! John Barrymore." My voice fairly squeaked. Me, in the same room as an icon.

Max harrumphed as if the man leaning against the crowded bar wasn't Hollywood royalty. "Barrymore's downed enough gin to sink the Titanic, and it's starting to show. The suits in New York—the ones who hold the purse strings—they don't want that kind of trouble, not anymore. If they could break his contract, believe me, they would."

I looked closer at the man they called the Great Profile. Yes, there was a telltale slackening around his jaw. The eyes thousands of women had fallen in love with were bloodshot and puffy. But Max didn't need to be such a sourpuss.

Max guided me around the throng at the bar, to an alcove where we could see most of the room. "See those birds?" He jerked his head toward a trio of women dancing next to a crackling phonograph. Billie Dove, known by every filmgoer as the American Beauty, leaned against Colleen Moore, who had transformed girls' hair across the country with her Dutch boy bob. I'd seen every film either of them had made, sitting in the tiny Odessa Picture House, so caught up in the films I hardly noticed my beaus trying to hold my hand or sneak a kiss. Beside Billie, Norma Talmadge—the most glamorous flapper of all—whispered in the ear of a kid half her age. "Between the crash, budget cuts, and talkies, they're washed up." Max kept at his lecture. "Rumor has it none of them will work again, unless it's at the Macy's perfume counter."

That brought me up short. Could Max be right? I watched them over the rim of my champagne glass. Their laughs were a bit overloud. And yes, their eyes under the heavy liner and fake lashes held a desperate cheerfulness I knew too well.
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