"Pure ozone to those tired of ordinary oxygen." The New Yorker
In this steamy sequel to The G-String Murders , Gypsy Rose Lee's noir thriller reads as if it's ripped from her own diary pages. When her mother finds a dead body in Gypsy's trailer during her honeymoon, Gypsy realizes that no one is who they seem to be, and everyone is worthy of suspicion.
Femmes Fatales restores to print the best of women’s writing in the classic pulp genres of the mid-20th century. From mystery to hard-boiled noir to taboo lesbian romance, these rediscovered queens of pulp offer subversive perspectives on a turbulent era. Enjoy the series: Bedelia ; Bunny Lake Is Missing ; By Cecile ; The G-String Murders ; The Girls in 3-B ; Laura ; The Man Who Loved His Wife ; Mother Finds a Body ; Now, Voyager ; Return to Lesbos ; Skyscraper ; Stranger on Lesbos ; Stella Dallas ; Women's Barracks .
About the Author
Gypsy Rose Lee (19111970) was born Louise Hovick in Seattle, Washington, and became the most famous burlesque actor and striptease artist of her day, renowned as much for her witty repartee on stage as for removing her clothes. First performing with her sister on the vaudeville circuit and later in striptease routines, Rose soon landed star billing in a top New York burlesque theater, and following her wild success there, became a popular fixture in Broadway theaters. In 1937 she moved to Hollywood. She went on to appear in twelve films and have her own television show. Rose's writing career included contributing regularly to The New Yorker , reporting on the New York social scene, and publishing two novels. She also wrote her memoir Gypsy (1957), which later became the inspiration for the hugely popular Broadway musical, Gypsy: A Musical Fable and the 1962 film version of the play.
Read an Excerpt
A TEMPERATURE OF ONE HUNDRED AND TEN, AT night, isn't exactly the climate for asthma or murder, and Mother was suffering from a chronic case of both. She pushed the damp, tight curls off her forehead and tapped her foot impatiently on the trailer doorstep.
"You either bury that body in the woods tonight, or you finish your honeymoon without your mother."
She meant it, too. I could tell from the way she fanned herself with the folded newspaper I'd been saving for my scrapbook. It wasn't a breeze she was after; a hurricane would be more like it. As the paper waved back and forth I could see the caption: GYPSY ROSE LEE WEDS EX-BURLESQUE COMIC IN WATER TAXI. Below, it read: Biff Brannigan, hit star from Rings on Her Fingers, and bride plan honeymoon in trailer.
The date line was a week old, August 13, Friday, to make it good. That has been my idea; it sounded romantic. The water taxi was my idea, too. I had romance mixed up with tradition on the last thought, but, as it turned out, it had been romantic. The water taxi was like an overfed gondola. A canvas stretched over the front half of it and wooden seats extended front to back. The captain was one we found in a waterfront saloon, and our best man we picked up on the way to the wharf. The Bible came from and all-night mission that served coffee and doughnuts with religion.
Even Biff was admitting that it was a wonderful way to get married, when the motor started up and we chugged out to sea. We sat in the back of the boat and I let my hand drag in the cool water. The moon was full and yellow.
"It's like a prop, ain't it?" Biff asked. His voice was low. I think he was awed. "Sort of a Minsky moon. I almost expect the tenor to start singing, 'I'm in love with the daughter of the man in the moon.'"
"Yes," I agreed tremulously. "Then the curtain pulls away and the chorus girls are posing in the sixteen-foot parallels in rhinestone G-strings. The one in the middle holds a flitter star."
One of the longshoremen up front was singing. I couldn't catch all the words, but the song was about a lubber who ought to have his gizzard skewered.
It had been very romantic. But that was a week ago, before we landed in Ysleta, Texas, and found ourselves a corpse. It wasn't a very nice corpse, either. It was quite dead and it had a hole in the back of its head that was big enough for a fist.
"You can't leave a decayed body hanging around in this hot weather," she said. "It's — unhealthy. Asthma or no asthma, I can't stand the odor."
Biff and I had been on friendly terms with corpses before, but even so we didn't refer to them as casually as Mother did. She thought of our latest one as a pound of hamburger or an opened can of beans; we couldn't leave them around in the heat, either.
I had to agree with her about the odor, but I might have pointed out that her newest asthma cure, Life Everlasting, was no bed of heliotrope. As smells go, it ran the corpse a close second.
Mother stopped to wheeze, and Biff used the lull to get in a few words.
"But, Evangie," he said patiently, "when you find a body in your trailer you gotta call the cops. We've been able to stand the odor this long; we can put up with it for one more night and first thing in the morning I'll drive into town and tell the police."
Mother's wheezing ended on a high note. "I'd expect a remark like that from you," she said. "You don't care about my daughter's welfare. You don't care about her career. Go ahead and call the police. Let them drag her name through the newspapers. Let them ruin everything she has worked for all her life!" Mother's voice had reached the hysterical stage and her face was turning red.
Biff recognized the symptoms and rushed into the trailer for the asthma powder. While he was getting it I led Mother to a camp chair under the lean-to tent. As she sat down I tried to reason with her.
"But, Mother, someone sooner or later is going to find out about the corpse. One look and they'll know it's murder. Then they'll find out that he's our best man and ..."
"How could they find that out?" Mother asked. Her mouth was a thin white line. Her jaw was set firmly. "After all, the man was a total stranger to you. I can't vouch for Biff, but I certainly know you never saw him before in your life."
"Neither did Biff, and you know it. That isn't the point. The idea is we can't touch the body until we notify the police. There's a law about that."
Mother sniffed. "Well, fiddle-faddle such a law. It's inconsiderate."
Biff closed the screen door quietly. He tiptoed over to the table and poured a mound of Mother's asthma powder into a saucer. He touched a match to it. When the flames died down, a sticky-smelling smoke curled up. Mother put a Turkish towel over her head and buried her face in the volcano. Biff and I listened to her labored breathing until it sounded as though the worst part of the attack was over, then I spoke to him.
"Were they sleeping?"
"You mean the dogs, the monkey, the guinea pig, or our guests?" Biff asked. Then he laughed softly. "What a honeymoon! All we need is an olio and we got ourselves a first-class Chautauqua." After a second he answered my question. "Yep, they were sleeping, all right. As usual, they took up the whole damn trailer."
"Well, don't say it as though it's my fault. After all, Mandy and Cliff are your friends. If you want to play Joe Host to every comic on the burlesque circuit, don't blame me when you have no bed to sleep in."
"Gee Gee and Dimples, those two beauties of the runways, are your friends," Biff said pleasantly. Too pleasantly, I thought. "Should I have said no when they asked for a lift?"
"A lift," I said, "is around the corner or up the block, not clear across the country. Furthermore, you don't have to be sarcastic about them. They may not be the beauties you've been working with in Rings on Her Fingers, but I'd like to see one of those four-forty legitimate dames do the bumps the way Gee Gee does. Or do Dimples's quiver for that matter.
Biff was on the verge of answering me when we heard the scratching of the screen door. Bill, dachshund, and proud father of four sons, wanted out. His front paws clawed on the wire mesh. He was standing on a white arm. It was Gee Gee's Graham's arm. That was her night to sleep on the floor, and she was sprawled out in front of the door. Her red hair was wet with sweat and she was curled up like a child, with her freckled nose buried in her other arm. When I opened the door for the dog, she gave him a push that sent him rolling down the steps.
"Nice thing," Biff said. "Tossing our watchdog out on his pedigreed rear. Come here, Billy Boy."
Bill waddled over and allowed himself to be petted. Biff rubbed one floppy ear, then the other. The dog whined happily when Biff talked to him.
"He's a busy guy, keeping an eagle eye on his corpse, isn't he? On account of he found it he feels it's sort of personal property, doesn't he?"
Bill wiggled around saying yes.
Mother poked her tousled head out from under the towel. "Please don't forget that I found the body," she said. "And as soon as I get over this attack we'll bury it, or I'll take the first train east."
An angry voice from the trailer yelled, "Shut up!" It sounded like Cliff (Corny) Cobb. He was Biff's very good friend and the only comic in burlesque I really disliked.
"If he's got your place in the bed again I'm going to drag him out of it by his big, ugly nose," I said.
I didn't try to keep my voice down; I wanted Cliff to hear me. He had been my pet beef since he joined us in Yuma. And I had my reasons for beefing, too. First of all, he invited himself; moved in, bag and baggage, even after I'd told him how crowded we were. He said he would help Biff with the driving. In the thousand-some miles we had traveled, he hadn't touched the wheel. He was supposed to pay his share of the groceries, too, and so far I hadn't seen the color of his money.
"He's a dead beat, that's what he is."
Biff tried to shush me.
"Oh, shush yourself," I said irritably. "Three weeks now, and he hasn't slept on the floor once. If everyone else can take turns, he certainly can. I told you what it would be like before we left Yuma, but oh, no, you know so much! He's your friend. He gets cleaned out in a crap game so he's gotta move in with us. It isn't like he's changed any, either. He was the same selfish, inconsiderate lout when he was on the road with us, too. If there's a good spot in the show, your friend Corny Cobb gets it. He's always grabbing the best makeup shelf, grabbing all your scenes, grabbing everything but a check. No wonder he's the only one who winds up with a buck in the bank at the end of the season. He never paid for anything in his life!"
I must have been screaming, because Mother heard me even though she was still under the towel.
"Gypsy's absolutely right," she said, her voice muffled.
Corny yelled from the trailer again. "Shut up, dammit. Where the hell do you think you are? In a boiler factory?"
I shut up. Not because Corny had requested it in his individual way, but because I had worn myself out. Biff can be so aggravating at times. Instead of putting up an argument when I have one of my fits, he just sits there quietly until I get tired. Nothing infuriates me more and I usually get so mad I want to cry. Instead of crying this time, I started to giggle. The whole picture was suddenly funny to me. A trailer full of people, including one dead one, and me beefing about a comic because he didn't pay his share of the groceries.
Biff wasn't sure that my giggle was his cue. He waited for me to speak.
"We haven't enough to worry about," I said, "I have to make a scene about Corny! I'm sorry, honey."
Biff walked over and kissed me on the nose. He might have done better if the Turkish towel hadn't stirred. Mother could sense emotions even when she was under a towel. After a moment she emerged, red-eyed but businesslike.
"Oh my," she said, "that certainly was a bad one." She folded the towel carefully and placed it on the back of her chair. Then she put out the last of the asthma powder by smothering it with the top of the Life Everlasting container.
"Now we get busy," she said. "You and Louise get a shovel to dig the hole. While you're getting it, I'll go look for a nice burial place." As she walked toward the woods she hummed a little tune: "I know a place where the sun never shines, where the fou-u-r leaf clovers grow."
She stooped over and picked up something. She walked back into the light of the kerosene lamp, examining the pieces of grass she held in her hand.
"See, children," she exclaimed happily, "a four-leaf clover. My little song never misses. That's a sign for you to leave everything to Mother. Everything." Without a backward glance, Mother tucked the four-leaf clover into her curly hair and walked back toward the woods.
"Biff!" she sang out a moment later. "Ask Louise to tell you about the time I found the seventy-one four-leaf clovers."
We both listened to Mother's little song as it became fainter and fainter. Then Biff turned to me. There was something strange in his expression: not exactly fear, but close to it. As though he were puzzled about something that would frighten him if it were true. He waited so long to speak that I became uncomfortable.
"That's true," I said. "About the four-leaf clovers, I mean. She really did find seventy-one of 'em once. On Mother's Day. We were making our jumps by car and, believe it or not, we had five blowouts! While we were waiting for the tow car, Mother started singing her song and before we knew it, there was Mother, with a fistful of clovers."
"Five blowouts doesn't sound very lucky to me," Biff said. He was still staring into the woods. Mother was out of sight, but he kept peering into the darkness.
"In a way it was lucky," I said. "The last blowout was near Akron, Ohio, where they make all those tires. Well, Mother fluffs up her hair and powders her nose and calls on the president of the company. How she gets in to see the head guy is still a mystery, but you know Mother. Anyway, she tells him how we're a travelling vaudeville act and how we have to make Springfield in time for the matinee. Then she cries a little, and ten minutes later, a mechanic comes out and put five brand-new tires on the car!
'No charge,' he tells us. 'The boss is happy to help poor folks out.'"
Biff answered me only because he was trying to be polite. He hadn't been listening very attentively.
"Well, that seems only right to me. Tires are guaranteed," he mumbled.
"Yes, but Mother didn't tell him we'd traveled over fifteen thousand miles on the tires. And I know she didn't mention how they were retreads when we bought 'em."
Biff didn't say anything. Listening to the story again after so many years, I suddenly thought it sounded sort of crooked. I tried to clean it up a little.
"Mother felt that the tire people were rich, and, well, five measly old tires aren't going to break them." My explanation was wasted on Biff.
"Punkin," he said seriously, "I don't like the way Evangie's been acting lately. She's not herself. Oh, I know all the cute little gags about tires for free and swiping other acts' music, but this is different. It's this heartlessness, this coldness, that gets me. I'm a man and I'll be damned if I have nerve enough to bury that body in the dark woods. I should dig a hole and put that corpse in it! The thought of it scares the hell outta me. But look at Evangie! Four-leaf clovers in her hair, humming away like she hasn't got a worry in the world, and out there alone looking for a good burial spot! A good spot, yet, to bury our best man. Do you think maybe the heat's gone to her head or something?"
"Darling," I said slowly, "you knew all about my mother before you married me. You were the one who insisted that as long as she missed our wedding she at least should get in on the honeymoon. You were the one who wired her to join us. Besides, I don't talk like that about your family."
"My family are in the Ramapo mountains," Biff said.
"Don't bring them into it. My mother never wore shoes in her life and my old man never saw a streetcar. They're nice, simple people. They wouldn't know how to cook up schemes like Evangie."
That might have gone on and on, but I heard Mother coming back. She was still humming, and I thought her voice sounded happier than it had for some time. When she neared the trailer I could see her dimly: the pale-blue organdy dress, the half socks to match, the black patent-leather Mary Janes on her feet. Even when she walked into the full light of the lamp, she looked like a little girl. Her cheeks were flushed and she held another four-leaf clover in her hand.
"You know, children, I've just been thinking," she said. Her voice was too calm. I knew something was up. "I've decided that Biff is right. We will wait until morning, then we'll tell the police about the body."
It was too good to be true. I watched Mother closely as she gathered up her toothbrush and towel and things. I watched her as she walked toward the washrooms at the far end of the trailer camp.
"Maybe she means it," Biff said uncertainly.
"Of course she does!" I said. "Are you insinuating that my mother is a liar?"
Biff gulped noisily. Then he began fixing the bed in the back of the automobile. The mattress, the blankets, the pillows — all the things Mother always traveled with were in the trunk of the car. Biff made up the bed and turned on the dome light overhead. He poured out a glass of water and placed it on the small shelf he had built near the headboard for that purpose. Then he put the asthma powder and the matches next to the glass.
"Maybe if we make her real comfy she'll get a good night's rest," he said hopefully.
"Oh, I will." Mother, back from the washroom and scrubbed until she shone like a beacon light, looked fondly at both of us. "How sweet to fix everything so nice," she said. She kissed Biff. Then she kissed me. "Sleep well, darling," she said as she scrambled into her bed.
Biff eyed the folded-up army cot that was his bed, and I peeked into the trailer at the two feet of floor Gee Gee had left me. "We'll sleep like logs," Biff said. In an undertone he added, "And who's kidding?"CHAPTER 2
AT FIVE MINUTES PAST FOUR I WAS STILL TRYING TO get the stove to work. Biff and I had wanted a cup of coffee since we tucked Mother in at midnight. The stove wouldn't draw.
"It's a mechanical difficulty," Biff said for the fifteenth time. He kept poking at the valve with a broom straw.
"It's no fuel, you mean," I said. "I told you to buy a new tube of rock gas before we left San Diego, but oh no, you know everything."
Biff grabbed my arm. "Look!" he said, and pointed.
I thought the red sky was the sun coming up. Suddenly I saw smoke. The camp is near the town dump, as most trailer camps are, and I thought the smoke had something to do with garbage being burned. Then I saw the flames. A second later the entire wood was on fire.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mother Finds a Body"
Copyright © 1981 Erik Lee Preminger.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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