Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard

Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard

by Erin McGraw


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"I couldn't cook but I could sew. It would have been better the other way around." Trapped in Kansas at the turn of the twentieth century, Nell Plat is seventeen, unhappily married, and the mother of two baby girls. No reality could be further from her secret dreams of glamour and excitement, dreams that will tempt her to do the unthinkable and run away to the glittering wonderland of Los Angeles and the burgeoning motion picture industry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547237855
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 08/01/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,195,862
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Erin McGraw is the author of four previous books, including The Good Life and Lies of the Saints (a New York Times Notable Book). She has published stories and essays in the Atlantic Monthly, Story, and other publications. She is married to the poet Andrew Hudgins and is a professor of creative writing at Ohio State University.

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I couldn't cook, but I could sew. It would have been better the other way around. Luelle Morrisey had a face like a mud hen's backside, but everybody in Mercer County knew she could make a good meal, even at the end of winter, when nothing was left in the root cellar but tired apples. Folks talked about Luelle's knack for food, and at church socials her pies were bid up past three dollars. "A good cook is good value," said Or-dell Rightsbaugh, one of three ranchers courting her. By the time I was nine years old, I could sew a straight seam, and at fifteen I could make a hem stitch that no one could see, but nobody assigns value to what he can't see.

I didn't have the right mind for putting meals on the table. Staring into the crusty frying pan and waiting for onions to color, I got bored. Hot and itchy, I would stroll out to lean on the garden fence and look at the dim horizon as if it might have changed in the last ten minutes. The flat dirt, gray-brown, folded into the flat sky, gray-white, and behind me the onions burned. At night Pa poked his fork at my stew, lumps of flour floating next to the shingles of black onion. "If we auctioned you, you wouldn't bring in as much as a mule," he said.

"More than chickens, though," I said.

"How many chickens?"

"A dozen, easy. I am good value," I said.

"For somebody who already ate," he said.

Meals would have gone better if he'd just let Mama or one of my sisters cook, but he had ideas about things, and Tuesdays were my cooking days. He thought I'd learn. My family and the hands, the years we had hands, learned to avoid dinner on Tuesdays. Me, I was skinny as a whip and could get through the daylight hours on an apple.

No matter what Pa would admit, I had my value. I could weigh a spool of thread in my hand and tell if it was rotten at the center. I could stitch a buttonhole in brand-new denim, and I could mend a tear so that it blended right into the cloth around it, invisible even in church when the eye needed something to rest on.

There were other values: I was good with people, unlike my shy sisters. When Ernold Brown, who had already put two wives in the ground, twitched and snuffled his way up to Nussine Potter after church service, I saw that he was fixing to marry again. I hiked all the way to his place with a bunch of coneflowers he could bring to Nussine. He gave me a nickel, the first coin I didn't have to drop in the collection plate, and I had sense enough not to tell Pa about it.

I was smart about Pa, too, and I could judge when he had drunk one glass of whiskey too many and was itching to hit something. My doughy sisters never learned to clear out of his path, but I could tell a beating was coming the same way that a person can smell rain. "That's bad- looking leather," he'd say, looking at a patched harness. "Cheap. Everything about it looks cheap." Then he'd raise his head and say, "It's not one thing worth a tinker's damn on this place." Or in this county, or in this state. The fury would sweep over him like storm clouds. Folks knew him as a joke teller, but he wasn't always amiable, and his jokes could turn rough in a hurry.

Even Mama, so dim she never seemed to recognize anything, said Pa and I were cut from the same pie. Like him, I was restless all the time, ants under my skin, and a day spent plowing would leave me fretful with wanting something I couldn't put a name to. The prairie's rough grass surrounded us like a belt that kept out soft fabrics, sweet-smelling pillows — anything that might ease a life. No wonder Pa drank. When I trudged out to the barn, my eyes cut over our paltry hundred- sixty acres of wheat the same way his did. Everyone around us was buying up acreage before land prices went up again — soon ours would be the smallest farm in the county. It didn't need to be so. Pa could have borrowed money to expand. For pity's sake, the bank was loaning money to the Pecks, who hadn't met a payment in five years. The manager would have loaned to us. But Pa looked out to the west toward what he didn't own, what nobody owned. He didn't want more of what he already had.

He was squinting at the fence line when I came up to him one afternoon. He had put his hat aside somewhere, and the back of his shirt bunched up out of his trousers. The man was careless, shedding things wherever he went — shoes and papers and tobacco. Mama spent her life picking up his litter. Myself, I would have let it lie.

"Feller dies and goes to the seat of judgment," he said, eyes trained on the blurred horizon. He didn't even look back to make sure it was me he was talking to. "Jesus says, 'You've got yourself a bad record. You've cheated, stolen, lied. You're going to have to go to hell.'

"Feller falls down at the feet of the Lord. He cries and begs for mercy. 'It's true that I didn't lead a good life, but I wasn't all evil. I cared for my mama and gave to the poor. I gave money to your church.'

"The Lord softens. All right,' he says. 'I'll take mercy on you. You can start again, homesteading in Kansas.'

"Feller stops crying, and looks up at the face of the Lord. 'Is that spot in hell still open?'"

"Dare you to tell it to the preacher," I said.

"Not everybody wants to hear the truth," he said.

"Preacher says only the Gospel is the truth."

"This is a different gospel," Pa said. "For those who have ears."

"Dare you to tell it to the visiting preacher. He's coming to dinner. Mama sent me out to fetch you."

"You're not cooking, are you?"

"It's Thursday," I said. My sister Mae's turn.

"Lucky for him."

"Mama wants you to wear your Sunday shirt."

"Bad as going to church," he said. "If I have to wear my Sunday shirt in my own house, maybe Iwill tell him my joke."

He didn't get a chance, though. Reverend Farley had jokes of his own: the one about the lamb and the peacock, the one about the squirrel who went to Bible camp, the one about the three ministers who went to heaven. After a while, we stopped forcing ourselves to laugh, since our laughter made no difference to the reverend. While Mae's good pot roast hardened in front of him, he planted an elbow on either side of the plate and said, "Man finds himself at the pearly gates. The Lord says, 'Son, it's your day of reckoning. You lived a bad life. You smoked, you drank, you didn't do right in business. There's only one place for you to go.'"

"We know this one," Pa said.

Reverend Farley didn't even pause. "The man says, 'Remember when I saved that widow? Remember when I ran into the burning house and snatched up the baby? Doesn't that count for something?'

"The Lord nods. 'You're right. Those things count for something. You can go to Wichita.'

"The man says, 'Remember that hundred dollars I stole?'"

Into the quiet around the table, Pa said, "We tell it different."

"I imagine so. Everybody loves this one in Texas."

Mama got up a smile and shook her head. "You're a regular theater."

"Do you come from Texas?" I said. Girls in Mercer County didn't talk at the table, and Pa's glance was sharp.

"I travel so much anymore, I'm not sure where I come from. I know where I'm going when the Lord tells me to hang up my spurs, though."

"You're not wearing spurs," Pa said.

"Where, Reverend?" said polite Mama.

"California. Heaven on earth."

"I don't imagine that's part of your circuit," said Pa.

"I was ailing for a time, and I went to Los Angeles to recover my health. I don't mind telling you, I'd go back, even if it meant falling sick again."

"What ailed you?" Pa said.

"Tell us about California," I said at the same time. I could see that my chatter was nettling Pa, but he wouldn't lay a hand on any of us before company.

Reverend Farley put on a sharp smile that didn't look right on a preacher. "If California is not the promised land, it's the closest we'll see in this life. To walk in an orange grove is to be in Eden. The air smells sweet and tangy at the same time, and the leaves shine, and the oranges all but push themselves into your hands. Have you ever eaten an orange?"

Pa said, "We see a few luxuries. We're not poor."

"Your mouth tingles, but the fruit is sweet and so quenching you imagine you'll never be thirsty again. The flowers are tiny, but they put out a powerful scent. And then you get to the end of the grove, and the next thing you see is the ocean crashing onto sand."

"Salty soil kills most plants," Pa said. "Guess your orange trees are different."

Reverend Farley made a brushing motion. "Maybe not exactly at the end of the grove. But close."

"What does it look like?" I said.

The reverend stopped talking, which amazed us all. He looked around the kitchen, eyes skidding over the freshly blacked cookstove and the magazine pictures Mama had put up on the walls, over the hard dirt floor and the pie safe with a weeping willow punched into its tin door. He picked up a white enamel pot lid with a blue rim and said, "Hold this close to your eyes." When I held it up, he said, "Closer," until the edge of the lid was practically in my eye. "What do you see?" he said.

"The blue is wobbly, and then there's white over it. That's all."

"That's close," he said. "Except it's beautiful."

"I like the land, myself," Mama said. "I like seeing where I stand. Would you care for some pie?"

I kept staring at the lid. What I saw, the blur of blue into white, wasn't beautiful, but I could imagine it turning beautiful. I probably looked like a pure fool, staring at a pot lid as if it were a magazine picture, but the minister had given me something that I didn't understand. There was nothing of Kansas in that blue line.

After Mae's dried-apple pie, Reverend Farley put down his fork and announced, "Now that was cause for thanksgiving," the first churchy thing he'd said since giving the blessing. I put on a pleasant expression, planning to think about oceans while he talked about salvation. Pa looked sour. But Reverend Farley kept unsettling us; he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a harmonica. The first song he played was "Amazing Grace," which we none of us sang well, and after that he started on a tune I'd never heard. Sweet and slow, it had a clean ache, and I studied the tablecloth so that no one would be able to see my wet eyes. Mama joined in, her low voice true.

Oh, Shenandoah I long to hear you.
She sang only when she felt moved; sometimes years would pass. But when she opened her mouth, we all hushed. Suddenly the air was rich, and so it became poor when she stopped.

"That's no church song," Pa said while the last note was still hovering.

"It can be," Reverend Farley said.

"How?" Pa said.

"It's about having to go away. It's not what you want to do, but it's what you have to do."

I said, "Why does somebody have to go away?"

"Me, I heard a Call," Reverend Farley said.

"What about somebody who's not a reverend?" I said.

"Nell," Mama said.

"What does a Call sound like?" I said, heedless as a chick. It wasn't Mama who would hurt me. She could barely lift her hand to beat biscuits.

Reverend Farley said, "Two Episcopalian ministers arrive at the same church, with the congregation there waiting. It's a big church, folks are well dressed, there are fine carriages outside. The first one says to the people in the church, 'I heard a Call. I don't know what the other fellow's doing here.'

"'I heard a Call, too,' says the second preacher.

"'What did yours say?'

"'Lo, I will make you a leader of nations.' What did yours say?'

"'No one ever lost money on hog futures.'"

"'Preach on!' cried the congregation."

Pa snorted. Myself, I had never seen an Episcopalian. I said, "I don't think anybody gets called to Kansas for money. Nobody's got any."

Reverend Farley said to Pa, "She's the spit of you, isn't she?"

"Her bad luck," Pa said.

Reverend Farley stayed in town for a week, but we didn't go to hear him preach past the first day, when everyone went. I didn't want to see any more of the man. He had left me feeling rumpled, and even if I wasn't fool enough to repeat the experiment with the pot lid, I couldn't forget the glimpse he had given me of a view that was light and rested on a color I'd never seen in nature.

After he came I couldn't keep a mind to things. Even the chores I normally liked — watering the chickens, chopping back the galloping weeds — didn't keep my attention, and I made careless mistakes, spilling kerosene and leaving the lamp out overnight, the kind of mistakes my sisters made. Me, the sharpest of Pa's girls. I dawdled and sighed and drifted, thinking shapeless white and blue thoughts, and later when Mama asked where the eggs were, I couldn't tell her. I was unsettled, as nervy as a horse when a big storm is coming in. The horizon remained placid, without new wind or the purple blur of thunderheads, but that steadiness was no comfort. Something had slipped into me and burrowed down, and now I scratched and twisted, miserable in my skin.

Pa could see my distraction. I was never able to hide anything from the man if he wanted to look, and ever since the dinner with Reverend Farley he kept me close to hand. The Tuesday after the reverend's visit, he took me out to the barn. Doing chores with him meant I didn't have to make dinner, but it also meant Pa had something he wanted to say, so it was hard to know whether I felt freed or trapped. "Did you call me out here because you're wanting a piece of meat tonight that's cooked all the way through?" I said.

"You're a stubborn thing." He handed me the flat tin of barn salve that we used on all the cows' cuts and wounds. The salve had been white once, but it had aged to a thick yellow and smelled like bad cooking fat laced with kerosene. The barn stank whenever we opened the tin, and this summer we had to open it a lot. Both our cows were eaten up by biting flies, their rumps pink with weeping, crusted sores. The cows could hardly stand to be touched, even to be milked, and their lowing was full of long misery. They were normally sweet-tempered animals, but in a minute one of them would try to nip us while we kept dabbing on the sticky ointment. Pa said, "You could make things easy, but you won't do it."

"What's easy?" The smell of the greasy salve stuck to me. The cow twitched her flat rump and huffed irritably.

"Girls half your age can manage to make a loaf of bread that doesn't come up gummy in the middle."

"It's a knack. I haven't got it."

"I think we all can see that much." He reached across the cow's back to flick a bit of salve from my face. "Girl, what do you want?"

If Pa had looked mean or angry, I would have known what to say, but his face was stony. Mostly, I was aware of the rich, sweet smell of the cows, the tang of manure, and the acrid medicine that was smeared halfway up to my elbows now. "I like to sew."

"I went to town last week. Jack Plat asked after you. His daddy's spread is bigger than this one."

Everybody's spread was bigger than ours. Pa knew that I knew that. My hands shook a little when I said, "What did you tell him?"

"I told him you were tolerable."

"You don't help a girl much, do you?"

"I don't see as that's my job." Jack Plat's daddy's three hundred acres spilled between us. The Plats had a house with a window, and it occurred to me that it would be a fine thing to look outside of a house during the daylight. Pa said, "What should I have told him, Nell? That you spent half an evening looking at a pot lid as if it could tell you something?"

"No, don't tell him that."

"Jack'll come to see you, if I don't stop him."

"That's what people do, I think. They come to see each other."

"I'm only going to ask you this once. Is Jack what you want?"

He let me take my time. Jack was a new thought. Marriage was a new thought, though it shouldn't have been. Just last month, the reverend read out Nussine and Ernold's banns while Nussine sat like the queen of Sheba in the front row, thinking on babies, Ernold's wood-frame house, and a new wringer-washer. She wasn't but a month older than me. Unbidden images tumbled through my head: Berlinda and Marlon Mallory ran off to Hutchinson to get married, and for months after they came back, Berlinda told about the hotel there, and the wide streets.

"No one has called on Mae yet," I said unsteadily.

"There's no law."

"It wouldn't be easy here, just her and Viola." Mae was already seventeen, but little Vi was only nine, and not handy.

"We'll manage. Listen up, Nell — if you don't want Jack, I'll tell him."

Mrs. Jack Plat. Jack was shorter than me, with bandy legs and hair so curly that we used to say baa to him in school. He had stopped school at twelve, rather than boarding in Hays for high school, but I saw the Plats at church and in town; a person had to put his mind to it to disappear in Mercer County. Like everyone, I knew that Jack's mother was a tyrant, his father a quiet man who stayed out of his wife's way. Even at church Orris Plat could find a way to stay on the other side of the building from her, a skill we all admired.

Jack favored his mother, and I wondered whether that should worry me. His lamblike curls were hers, and his strut, and his quick, cutting words when he was exercised. But he had once spent better than an hour flat on his belly under an outhouse, coaxing two kittens to come to him. He must have washed them, because when he brought them home in a basket they were as fluffy as kittens on a greeting card, and he talked his mother into keeping them. I hadn't seen any of this, but everybody knew the story. I would learn other stories, different ones, if I lived in the Plat place.


Excerpted from "The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Erin McGraw.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful read that will keep you turning pages as far into the night as Nell sews. I loved Nell's voice, her spunk, and her grasp of reality. This book could make a terrific movie.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is devoid of a plot. Rather, it is a series of repetitive events and pointless descriptions of clothing. I want my money back on this book!
picardyrose on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wow, what an amazing story. I was blown away -- I expected something silly and this was something real.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting but goes nowhere at a snail's pace. Makes me happy to have missed the vaunted "Jazz Age".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Womans soap opera novel or old lending library two hanky book. if it still works dont fix it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago