mrs. duncan

Julia bought a mourning dress at the Lazarus department store, a boxy white tower that rose haughtily over downtown Columbus. Her widow’s costume was a black silk shift, with a subtle filigree made from tiny black beads sewn into the fabric….”

 

by brendan costello

 

Julia watched a lemon-colored Studebaker crunch up the driveway, grinding a cloud of brown dust that hung motionless in its wake. Two men wearily extracted themselves from the beautiful machine and approached the house. Outside the window of her lace-choked garrett, the August heat was merciless. Inside, the thick, stifled air felt like death.

She heard the men knocking at the door, then Mother answering, then a low murmur of politeness and conversation. When the car had turned off the road, she assumed they were from the bank, or maybe some farm insurance salesmen. But what kind of bankers drove a car like that? Insurance men wouldn’t be driving a brand-new 1929 Studebaker Big Six.

Back in March, Julia left with the bill collector from Akron Savings and Loan, stowing away in his car for a ride into the city. She never considered her trips indiscreet; once she got to town, she was very selective, but always found a suitable man who’d pay for dinner and a hotel room. Inevitably, a heavy guilt brought her home within 48 hours — transit supplied by a random gentleman-with-car who could not resist her flirtatious request. On that last trip, her parents had not bothered to call the police.

Now, almost six months later, Julia was ready to escape again. These two men, rumpled but young, would surely bring her somewhere more exciting than the bankers, insurance men and feed merchants had.

* * *

They drove down smooth black roads that cut through immense seas of corn, sweltering and ripening in the fiery afternoon. The day was hot, but with the windows open a strong breeze flowed through the Studebaker. Julia crouched behind the front seats, enjoying the secret wind that fluttered gently on her cheek. The flotsam scattered on the floor — two empty pints of what smelled like scotch, a few cigarette butts and a Hershey wrapper — made her wonder whether she had made a mistake. Maybe these young men did not have a destination as flashy as their car.

After nearly an hour on the road, she wondered why they hadn’t noticed her, and decided to make her move. Julia learned on many previous trips to use surprise to her advantage. Besides, her legs and shoulders were cramping, and the men’s conversation had been stilted and lifeless.

“Hey fellas, where we going?” She sat up and crossed her legs.

The driver, a tall man with curly blond locks and a seersucker suit, spoke first. “About time you quit playing hide and seek. It’s a good thing you didn’t decide to hide in the trunk.”

“Your mom told us you’d be back there,” said the other, turning from the passenger’s side to face her. He was shorter than the driver, with a dark pinstripe suit and brown, red-rimmed eyes. His dark brown hair had wilted, the pomade no match for the humidity of August in Ohio; it kept flopping into his eyes despite repeated efforts to press it against his scalp. “My name’s Al, this is Greg. We’re going to Columbus.”

“Actually outside Columbus,” Greg muttered.

“You guys don’t seem like salesmen at all, you know that?” She enjoyed this. “You two aren’t from around here, are you?”

“What do you think, sweetheart?” said the driver, gruffly. “We’re from New York. Musicians.”

Mr. Rumpled Pinstripe in the passenger seat turned again. “Greg plays coronet in the Whiteman Orchestra and I’m the piano player for Frankie Trumbauer.”

“Wow, real musicians.” Julia hoped they noticed her sarcasm. “What are you doing out here in farm country?”

“A friend of ours died, we’re heading for the funeral.” Greg gazed steadily at the road ahead.

“Oh.” Julia sat back for a moment and fingered the hem of her cotton dress, a colorful floral print on a black background. She lunged forward again, gripping the backrest of the front seat. “Why were you at my house? Directions?”

“Actually, we were looking for you,” Al said.

“Yeah, your mom didn’t want you to go, but she knew you’d be hard to stop. We explained the situation, and reassured her that our intentions were strictly honorable.”

The two men allowed themselves a small laugh, and for some reason Julia found herself laughing along. Musicians — jazz musicians — with honorable intentions? Not in her experience.

“You’re Julia Gorham, right?”

“Yes, of course,” she said to Al.

“Well, you had a portrait done at Wilberforce Studios, remember? A nice picture — the one your mom showed us in your living room. Old Man Wilberforce liked it so much he sold it to the Pyramid Framing Company, and for a time they used it in all their frames shipped to places like Woolworth’s and Lazarus. Just a photo to fill the frame while it’s on sale, and when someone buys it they take it home and replace it with their own picture.”

Greg picked up the story, shifting his hands on the steering wheel. “Our buddy Dan Duncan, the trumpet player? You’ve heard of him?”

“You guys know Dan Duncan? Who plays on ‘Clementine’ and ‘There Ain’t No Sweet Man That’s Worth the Salt of My Tears’?” She paused and shook the excitement from her voice. “Of course I know who he is. What, you don’t think we have radios out here?”

Greg cleared his throat. “Well, he bought one of the frames with your picture and sent the photo to his mom, telling her it was his wife. Uh, I mean, that you were his wife.

“And anyway,” he continued, “now that Dan is, gone….”

A stillness filled the car, a silence amplified by the drone of the engine and the wind whistling by.

Al turned and fixed his watery eyes on Julia. “God, you still look just like your picture. You’ll be perfect.”

“Perfect? So you’re taking me to the funeral?”

“Well, of course. Did you think we brought you along for company?” Greg shrugged once, the perfunctory gesture a grim imitation of laughter.

“Mr. Whiteman sent us to find you,” Al said, gently, “so that Dan’s mother would have a little solace. In her moment of grief, she doesn’t need to learn that her son lied to her.”

Looking out the window, she gazed at the cornfields, each passing row a flashing glimpse of eternity. “And suppose I don’t want to go to this funeral?” she asked, leaning forward again. “Suppose I don’t want to play a part in this fraud?”

“That’s not a problem, Miss. We can drop you at the nearest police station and they’ll bring you back to Marshallville. You see, we promised to see you safely home, and if anything should happen to you, we’d be the prime suspects.”

“Hmmphf. I’m riding with Leopold and Loeb.” Julia glanced at her smile in the rearview; she wondered if they could see the pain behind it, or hear sorrow creeping from the cracked edges of her sardonic tone. “Don’t think the police would go after you too quickly, since they’ve gotten to ignoring all my mom’s calls about me. You boys would have plenty of time for a clean getaway.”

No one in the car laughed, but when Al turned to look again he caught his breath. “My God, that’s the exact same expression she has in the picture!” His face lit with an excited smile of discovery. “I mean, that you have.”

“Oh, come on, now…”

“No, it’s true.” He unfolded a photo from his jacket pocket and handed it to her.

Julia stared at herself in black and white, her dark hair a graceful swoop from forehead to shoulder, her eyes, mouth and one eyebrow all engaged in that wry smile that she had just seen in the mirror. Perhaps a little more optimistic in the picture, none of today’s worry lines. The portrait had been taken during a sanctioned and chaperoned trip into Cleveland when she was 18. Back in 1926, her brother William had been home only a month, and nobody knew yet how bad things were. He accompanied her on a trip to the big city. Julia carried her secret dream: a modest start in theater or maybe music, leading inevitably to her “discovery” and the whirlwind transportation of her life from Marshallville farm to Hollywood movie studio.

“He bought two copies, one to send to his mom and one to keep. He liked the fact that you didn’t look like a flapper. We were with Dan when he got them — on the train from Cleveland to Chicago, he showed us the picture and told us his plan. We were all high on some Canadian scotch. Took one copy of the photo to mail to his mother and — I’ll never forget this — he flung the empty frame out onto the tracks, pretending to be angry. ‘You’ll never take me alive!’ Something like that — Dan was always joking around.

“This copy was from the frame he kept. It was in his apartment when they found him.” Al paused, then haltingly cleared his throat.

“Oh.” She handed the photo back to Al. “If you don’t mind my asking… how did he –”

“Drank himself to death,” Greg blurted. “He was twenty-eight.” His mouth clamped into a tight, flat line, and he squeezed harder on the steering wheel, staring into the dark blue distance.

The road hummed and the wind continued its flat, monotonous whistle.

“I gotta take a break. Get out and stretch my legs, shake a little something loose.” Greg’s voice was so curt, and so abrupt, that no one said a word as the car rolled to a stop.

The road looked like a long straight hallway, lined on either side by walls of corn, the stalks about six inches taller than Greg. After a few stiff-legged steps around the car, he loped through the green wall. Al waited around for a few empty moments, struggling to make a joke with Julia about finding a tree, then disappeared into the field.

She stood alone, shading her eyes against the sun. After the wind and speed of the drive, she felt enveloped by stillness. Down the road, the dark of a storm hovered over the horizon.

After a few moments, Greg burst from the field, lanky arms adjusting hat and jacket, followed by Al, from his own part of the field. The two men trudged toward her, beside the car on the embankment. When they were about two paces away, she suddenly announced “My brother died last year. We did all we could, but he just couldn’t control himself. William — he was twenty-nine.”

The two men stood together, two sets of shoulders in the same dumbfounded slouch.

Julia spoke quickly, her words tumbling from her mouth as though rolling down a hill. “William was troubled. He had always been such an upbeat young man, so driven. He had big plans to go to Princeton, maybe become a doctor. But in 1917 he decided to enlist in the infantry. He put off school to fight the Kaiser. He said it was more important.

“When he got back from the war, he abandoned all plans for Princeton. William didn’t want to work on the farm either. He ended up moving to St. Louis with some fellows from his regiment, and spent all his time drinking. Finally he got so low he couldn’t take care of himself, and he moved back home. He was in terrible shape.

“My brother tried to dry out. I’ll never understand — I guess there was just something inside that he couldn’t shake. He never talked to me, never told me why. To see him, shaking at the kitchen table — he couldn’t even get sugar into his coffee — it still breaks my heart. And we all felt so helpless, that we couldn’t make him stop.

“I guess William couldn’t make himself stop either, and one morning he shot himself in the barn.” Julia paused, her words having run their course.

Her brother had been out there all night, pacing and shouting at the walls. Julia had finally drifted off to sleep as the swallows began their early morning cacophony. Suddenly she was bolt upright in the half-lit silence, her ears full of the gunshot’s fading echo and the thin patter of retreating wings.

“Sometimes I think it’s better, that at least he’s not suffering anymore.” Julia’s voice trembled. “Trouble is, the rest of us still are. Mom walks through her chores like a ghost, and Dad stays out in the fields from sunrise till after dark. That house… that house is nothing but a mausoleum.” Julia turned toward the car, sobbing, her fist pressed against her lips.

Greg played with his sunglasses for a stifled moment, then cleared his throat. “We’d better keep moving — gotta stop in Columbus, get you a dress. Al, maybe you should drive.”

* * *

Julia bought a mourning dress at the Lazarus department store, a boxy white tower that rose haughtily over downtown Columbus. Her widow’s costume was a black silk shift, with a subtle filigree made from tiny black beads sewn into the fabric, ending in a hem that cut across her calves diagonally.

She had read about Lazarus, and been to their smaller outlet in Akron, but nothing prepared her for the opulence that this store offered. While the alterations were being done, she wandered through a fantastic jungle of polished surfaces; planes of crystal, brass and glazed marble gleamed everywhere she looked. Mirrors multiplied the effect, and Julia wandered in a world of pure light.

After passing an elaborate makeup counter, she came upon a large, free-standing triangular stack of picture frames. Immediately she recognized them — the Pyramid Company made an especially popular product. These frames all held the same picture — a young woman, probably just out of her teens, heavily made up and sneering into the lens. The model was a flapper, pure and simple, a trite and snide stereotypical modern woman. Her ruthless grin conveyed a smug confidence in the tyranny of youth, and in the conquering power of beauty. Julia wondered if she had looked as invincible when her face was behind the glass, waiting to be purchased.

“Where are you now, whore?” she muttered at the frames.

What the hell am I going to do with those two? she thought. Those boys aren’t going to take me anywhere I want to be — they’re too broken up. All I can offer is my face, a presence. An image. Julia closed her eyes.

I could have been out there, a showgirl or a dancer or maybe even a movie actress. I could have known Dan Duncan, met him while he was alive. I might have been his wife! He pretended I was, I could have pretended too, had I known. From what they told me about him, we would have gotten along. Maybe I should just take off, right now. She paused for a moment. No. That’s something that little flapper would do. I can’t take advantage of this — this moment, these guys. What if someone had done that at William’s funeral?

She opened her eyes and hurried back to the alterations department. Whatever lingering magic the crystal and brass carried had dissipated, and Julia moved quickly, no longer enchanted.

* * *

The funeral home looked like a private house, a cottage with rustic stone walls at the end of a long wooded driveway, comfortably nestled away from the road. The trees and shrubs around the parking area still dripped from a passing rainstorm that gave the dusk a cool moisture. Julia stepped from the Studebaker into the soft grey twilight, a black shawl clutched tightly around her shoulders.

Al appeared at her side, combed and shaven and cleaned and pressed after their quick stop at a filling station. He struck her as younger-looking, somehow, like an unruly young man dressed up for high school graduation. He gave her a soft, shy smile and said “You look wonderful, really.”

She looked down and pulled the thin veil over her face. They mounted the three steps to the foyer.

After passing through the narrow entrance hall, they strode through a doorway marked “Duncan.” The dark walnut-paneled salon was lit with incandescent bulbs in faux gas sconces arranged at eye level, forcing everyone’s gaze toward the floor. The carpet featured an intricate weave of gold vines, red signatory trappings of royalty and occasional, inexplicable fruit, plums and apples, all on a black background. The mourners couldn’t look at that very long either, so everyone milled around staring at each other’s kneecaps and jackets.

Julia noticed that even the most vibrant conversation paused at her entrance, her widow’s costume creating a wave of respectful silence that preceded her. Al guided her slowly toward the candlelit casket room. Glancing sideways, she recognized a few celebrity faces, musicians and film stars she’d seen in LOOK magazine. Most were holding drinks, all were staring at her. She wondered how many knew the secret.

Arrayed in front of the casket and its chrysanthemum moat, forty or fifty folding chairs held two small knots of mourners, with a lone elderly woman in the front row. She wore a black dress and veil.

Al released Julia’s elbow after they entered the flickering candlelight. She clutched her small purse in front of her, took a deep breath, and stepped toward the other woman in black.

 

Originally published:
Issue Twenty-Eight
October 2003

 

This article originally appeared in Lurch Magazine

Brendan Costello is a senior editor and contributing writer to New York’s Lurch Magazine . His work also periodically appears in Smokebox and can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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