Ball Dome canning jars, which filled the pantry shelves of many American homes prior to 1960, were made in my hometown of Muncie, Indiana. The only other reason anyone might have heard of my birthplace was that in the 1920’s, two prominent sociologists wrote Middletown U.S.A., a book which designated Muncie as being “America’s typical city.”
At fourteen, I didn’t give a hoot about home canning, and dreamed of living in a town that wasn’t forever enshrined as average. It was June of 1959 and my life in Indiana felt as dull as President Eisenhower’s speeches. I yearned for adventure, but all I had to anticipate on the last day of eighth grade was another dreary summer. My desire to avoid a humdrum life would soon propel me out of Muncie and place me on a perilous path, but that June I was simply hell-bent on escaping boredom.
Not only was my hometown unremarkable, our house was on its outskirts. That final day of school, I felt like a prisoner aboard my mustard-colored bus as I watched my best friend Mandy on the front steps of our Junior High School. Her dark eyes sparkled with excitement as she joined her city friends for their short walk home. While I was stranded in the country, they’d spend the summer flirting with the neighborhood boys and roaming through the stores downtown.
Though I lived only a couple of miles outside the city limits, during the summer those few miles felt like a thousand. My only hope of escaping the monotony of the days ahead was a scheme I’d hatched with Mandy. We would spend ten days at her aunt’s house in Noblesville, 45 miles away. Since Mandy’s aunt, like my grandmother, spent most of her waking hours glued to the television swilling beer, the trip promised freedom.
The rickety bus’s air brakes hissed at the edge of the parking lot before we chugged away from Wilson Junior High for the last time that year. Roaring south on Hoyt Avenue, I caught a glimpse of Mandy’s house as we passed through one of Muncie’s blue-collar neighborhoods. Though, at first, the fresh coats of white paint glistened in the sun and red geraniums flourished in the window boxes, just a few blocks further on was a bleak, half-mile long stretch of compacted mud, crowded on both sides with ramshackle shanties backed by reeking outhouses. Since the tiny shacks resembled tool sheds, everyone called the area Shed Town. I was quite young the first time I saw that bleak place, but on some level I’d sensed that hope did not reside there. Mandy was terribly ashamed of living so close to “The Sheds,” but felt grateful not to live near Muncie’s “Colored” neighborhood. Whenever I visited Mandy, my mother always warned me to stay away from the Shed Town boys. “They know too much!” she’d whisper.
Yet Mandy and I always hustled to Ross’ corner grocery, just four blocks away. We’d sneak glances at the Shed Town boys who smoked cigarettes and guzzled Cokes as they loitered across the street from the entrance. We were intrigued by the boys’ churlish expressions and their pegged blue jeans that hung perilously low on their hips. Packs of cigarettes tucked into the rolled up sleeves of the boys’ stark white T-shirts drew our attention to their biceps. We also admired the boys’ rippling muscles as they combed their oily “duck’s ass” hairstyles, and loved watching them swagger with an arrogance that implied they did indeed know things.
Being near the Shed Town boys made my heart beat faster. They always hooted at Mandy’s curves when we passed by. I was rail thin and my chest was as flat and smooth as a pigeon’s, but even so, they often included me with a “Hey Blondie!” Mandy and I would giggle over their leering for days afterwards.
Staring out the bus window, I wondered what the boys would be like in Noblesville. I was dead set on convincing my mother to allow me to go.
Soon, the painted sign at the top of the silo on my grandmother’s farm came into view:
You Can Whip Our Cream,
But You Can’t Beat Our Milk
The silo was an empty relic now, and the tall black letters that boasted about my family’s past prosperity were badly faded. My mother believed that my grandmother’s decision to sell the dairy had marked the beginning of my family’s steep decline. My father had been hired by the new company as an assistant manager, but working for others didn’t sit well with him. Within months he’d asked his supervisor the same question he often asked my sisters and me, What are ya, a God Damn dummy? He was fired in April of 1957. Now, over two years later, Dad was still jobless. Yet he was too proud to scramble for a place beside his former Shed Town dairy hands on the factory assembly line in Muncie’s automotive parts plant.
My father’s scheme to raise and sell Thoroughbred horses had also turned out badly. He blamed that on the fact that Indiana had no racetracks. Dad’s only source of income from blacksmithing and horse-trading was insufficient to keep our family afloat. Grandma filled the vacuum. In return for paying our bills, she kept us under her thumb. She built our small, one-story red brick home on Cowan Road, just a quarter mile from her farmhouse.
My friends assumed that my family owned the vast cornfield and pasture full of grazing cattle between our house and the remains of my grandmother’s farm. I never told them that the true owner was Mr. Anderson, the most prosperous farmer in the county.
Oh, was it quiet on Cowan Road. The only sounds after dusk on summer evenings were the chorus of humming cicadas. Eight mature maple trees in our front yard buffered noise from the occasional passing car, but sometimes, late on Saturday nights, I’d be awakened by the roaring engines from teenage drag racers. From the safety of my bed, I longed to be inside one of the cars. To feel excitement, or fear…or anything besides the glum desperation of being fourteen.
I was plotting a strategy to obtain my mother’s permission to go to Noblesville with Mandy when the bus reached my house. I jumped off and kicked bits of gravel up the length of our drive, scuffing my saddle shoes. Mr. Anderson’s white-faced Holsteins contemplated me from behind the fence. I paused to toss a few stones at them, but instead of flinching, their steadfast, dewy-eyed stares caused me to turn away in shame.
Our lawn was full of bald patches, but the unmowed grass had perked up after a midday thunderstorm. Irritated by the cawing of the crows perched in our catalpa tree, I entered our home through the back door, and then slipped down the hall into the bedroom I shared with my younger sister, Anne. She was stretched out on her bed, immersed in a book, but focused her deep brown eyes on me and grinned as I came in.
I flashed a half-hearted smile. Anne was kind and loving, but for reasons I couldn’t begin to understand, I was rarely nice to her.
After putting my new 45 on my record player, my thoughts turned to Elvis in the army. “I hope you’re not too lonely,” I whispered to his photo on the record cover as I wiggled my hips in sync with Blue Suede Shoes. After pulling off my dress and utterly unnecessary brassiere, I slipped into shorts and a sleeveless blouse, and then dumped the contents of my school bag onto my bed.
I tossed the horrid, one-piece, royal blue gym suit I’d have to endure for one more year into our laundry hamper, and then hid my lock whose combination - 43-23-32 - had been a daily reminder of a figure I could only dream of. Finally, I brushed the remaining candy wrappers, broken pencils and unfinished assignments into the grocery sack that Anne and I used for trash.
I found my mother perched on the edge of her chair at the kitchen table. As she clutched her ever-present cigarette and a cup of coffee, sunlight illuminated the strands of gray in her short, chestnut-colored waves. Mom stared out the picture window beside the kitchen table for hours at a time, but there was nothing to look at except our empty, sagging, weather-beaten barn. Mr. Anderson’s flourishing acres of corn lay behind it.
Most of the men in our small universe farmed the land or worked in the local automobile parts factory. Their wives cared for the children, cleaned the house, baked casseroles, and squeezed clean laundry items through a wringer before using clothespins to clip them onto a line out in the sun. My mother had once done all these things. She’d also filled Ball Dome canning jars with produce from my grandmother’s garden, and taught elementary school.
Two years earlier, my mother had had a consultation with a psychologist in Indianapolis. Since her entire teacher’s salary was being consumed by my father’s gambling habit, the doctor assured her that if she were to return to her proper place as keeper of the house, my father might reclaim his rightful position as head of the household. Mom resigned, but Dad hadn’t reclaimed anything.
Now, it sometimes felt like my mother was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her gaze was often wary, and she had little motivation for much of anything. Even on days that weren’t consumed by depression, a simple thing like making a pot of chilli was a Herculean task for her.
Mom often explained her lethargy by hinting that she was enduring “the change.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew that Mandy’s mother, who was also in her late 30’s, had the energy to keep house and work full time in a clothing store. I also knew that it wasn’t just my mother who was depressed. My whole family was creaking with pain.
I fixed a glass of Tang and pulled a three inch stack of Oreos from a package on the counter before I sank into a chair opposite my mother. As she studied me with eyes puffy from lack of sleep, I knew she was wondering why I hadn’t yet retreated into my bedroom with my snack.
It was ironing day, but there were no freshly pressed and folded clothes on the board that had been up since the previous week, and Mom was wearing the same floral housedress she’d had on for days. Its faded blue background matched her eyes.
My parents and my two sisters had dark hair. Being blonde always prompted jokes about my being adopted, but I had my mother’s eyes. Sky blue, and seemingly on the brink of tears.
“How are you feeling Mom?” I asked, hoping to bring up Noblesville at the right time.
“Ok,” she sighed. “I should fix a meatloaf but who can do anything in this heat?”
When she finally looked at me, I fidgeted.
Despite her weary demeanor, she was alert enough to ask, “What’re you so antsy about?”
I shrugged. “Nothing.”
Still scrutinizing my face, she said, “If you say so.”
My mother set down her coffee cup, balanced her cigarette on the groove of an overflowing ashtray and raked her short hair behind her ears before picking it back up.
Although smoking would ultimately kill her, it was something she did with sophistication. I tapped out one of her Salem’s, the brand my sisters and I would eventually choose, and mimicked her Joan Crawford pose. Mom smiled wearily, took another intense drag from her cigarette, and then abruptly crushed it out. Deep red lipstick stains on its filter matched our Formica tabletop. Makeup sometimes signalled a brighter mood.
“Guess what?” I blurted. “Tomorrow Mandy’s going to Noblesville to spend a week with her Aunt Velma. She’s invited me to come along.”
The corners of my mother’s mouth sagged, and the backs of my thighs felt glued to the vinyl chair. They made a smacking sound when I hopped up to refill her coffee and grab more Oreos.
“Thanks, sweetie,” Mom said, grasping her cup tightly.
I sat down and separated the chocolate cookie discs. Before I started licking off the sugary white filling, I said, “Mandy really needs me Mom. She’ll be bored to tears if she goes by herself.”
The good thing about my mother’s lethargy was her low tolerance for badgering. After a mere minute of coaxing, she sighed, “I hope you girls won’t be a burden.”
I jumped up to kiss the crease line between her eyebrows. Heat rushed into her face to meet my lips and made me realize that it had been a long time since we’d touched.
The next morning Mandy and I shifted with excitement in the back seat of her family’s Studebaker. Mandy’s sullen older brother Rick let us know how unhappy he was to be saddled with us by frequently swerving over the median and roaring down the highway like a madman. Mandy didn’t scold him. I knew that she would threaten to reveal his irresponsibility when we needed transportation in the future.
Mandy and I had been best friends for several years. I loved going to her house because it was walking distance from downtown, and she adored riding horses on my grandmother’s farm. Now, the prospect of a whole new adventure made us both giddy with excitement.
In less than an hour, before we saw any sign of even a sleepy town, Rick turned off the highway. After another quarter of a mile, he pulled up to a modest two-story home that stood alone on a small, treeless lot. It was backed by the White River that also flowed through Muncie.
The population of our hometown was 60,000. Mandy had warned me that Noblesville was much smaller, but it was disappointing to see that vast fields of soybeans surrounded the house for as far as the eye could see. Once Mandy realized I was frowning at the seeming isolation, she assured me that if we cut through the fields, a twenty minute walk would get us “downtown.”
Mandy’s elderly Aunt Velma, still wrapped in a cantaloupe-colored chenille robe at noon, rushed onto the front porch.
“Come’er ya rascal,” she said, capturing Rick for a hug before he escaped to the car.
Velma embraced Mandy and me, and then pulled us into her living room where she quickly settled back into her armchair and popped on wing-shaped, frosty pink eyeglasses.
It was disheartening to realize that Mandy’s aunt was watching my grandmother’s favorite television soap opera. She told us that the transparent yellow plastic that was stuck on the screen of her tiny black-and-white TV created the effect of a color television, but the only difference I noticed was the greenish pall that it cast over the faces of the actors.
The scent of lemon oil that permeated Velma’s living room signalled that Velma’s house received more attention than ours or my grandmother’s. Her furniture was old, but the wooden parts were buffed to a high polish, and the backs and arm rests of the overstuffed chairs were covered with starched, white lace doilies.
Though Mandy said that her aunt rarely left the house, there was rouge on the cheeks of her wax white complexion and the grey roots of her jet black dyed hair wouldn’t have been noticeable if her hair hadn’t been set in tight rows of pin curls. Velma also had long, carefully tended scarlet fingernails. She showed them off by holding her cigarettes in a sophisticated way, yet she sucked deeply on them to inhale just like my father did.
Like my grandmother, Velma relished company while watching television. She spoke only to dispense titillating gossip about the real lives of the television actors if Mandy or I shifted restlessly. I soon had the all-too-familiar feeling of being held captive, but during a commercial break Velma led us into her kitchen. Since my grandmother’s drinking seemed to stifle her appetite, I was delighted when Velma showed us a freezer full of Swanson’s frozen dinners and ice cream. “You girls help yourselves whenever you’re hungry,” she said.
It was mid-afternoon before Mandy and I managed to retreat to our upstairs bedroom. Mandy and I stretched out on the carpet and searched through Velma’s cache of magazines for beauty tips. We’d be in high school in a year and our heads were filled with plans for dating.
Mandy was excited about an ad in the pages of Woman’s Day.
“Wow!” she gasped. “A lotion that gives you a tan without sunbathing! And a cream that’s guaranteed to increase the size of your bosoms in only ten days!”
“Heck with phoney promises,” I groaned. “I already wasted two bucks on that so-called, ‘jar of magic’ that seemed to shrink them.”
“You can’t keep stuffing Kleenex in your brassiere forever, Sara. Guys are gonna be tryin’ to touch ‘em and…kiss ’em.”
“Get outta here!” I said, sitting up and squeezing a pillow against my flat chest.
Mandy’s raven hair gleamed as she shook her head back and forth. “I’m tellin’ ya, Sara, besides cars, girl’s boobs are about all I ever hear my brother and his buddies talking about.”
At 8:00 p.m. Mandy and I ambled downstairs and discovered Velma fast asleep in front of the television. We simultaneously locked our eyes on her pack of Chesterfields on the table.
“Should we?” I whispered.
Mandy nodded and carefully tapped one out. We rushed to the kitchen to huddle over an ashtray. Mandy got it going without drawing deeply. When it was about to go out, I took a shot at inhaling, then coughed until tears came to my eyes.
We soon decided that smoking was not all it was cracked up to be, and carefully flushed all evidence of our attempt down the toilet. After eating canned soup for dinner, we gorged on ice cream topped with chocolate syrup and whipped cream. Once satiated, we headed back upstairs to plan dieting strategies.
Mandy adopted a deadly serious tone to say, “Sara, you won’t always be able to eat whatever you want and stay as skinny as a rail.”
“You’re right,” I said. “Some of my clothes are getting too tight. I read in Coronet that everyone needs to have ‘success strategies’ to achieve their dreams.”
After much discussion, Mandy and I made a list of goals:
Buy tanning cream tomorrow
Get bust cream soon
Give up sweets forever
I knew the Sandra Dee-like beauty we dreamed of would require sacrifices, but when Mandy underlined the word forever, I urged her to date our list for the following day.
After she wrote, June 6, 1959, we made one last foray to Velma’s freezer.
In the morning, we set out to explore Noblesville. “Downtown” was four blocks long. Most of the store windows were boarded up, or filled with nude, wigless mannequins, but the local five-and-dime was open. We found Quick-Tan, but even pooling our money didn’t give us the $1.49 we needed to buy it. While sitting at the soda fountain twirling our stools and sipping cherry Cokes, I saw Mandy’s frown. In an effort to cheer her up, I said, “Let’s check out the price of hair color.”
Mandy’s dark eyes widened, and her sandal hit the floor to halt her stool so abruptly that the tips of her raven pageboy swung to her nose. “Sara, you can’t be serious about dying your blonde hair. It’s every bit as pretty as Sandra Dee’s!”
“I’m thinkin’ redhead,” I said, then quoted from the magazines. “I need a whole new look.”
We soon discovered that hair dye was also beyond our means, and couldn’t find anything we wanted that we could afford, even in a store with a sign that promised “yard sale prices.”
Nor did we spot anyone under forty, let alone any teenage boys.
While approaching Handyman’s Hardware at the far edge of town, Mandy said, “Dad’s cousin has a print shop under that store. I hafta say hi to him.” She led me around to the back of the building, through an unmarked door, and down a dark, steep stairwell.
The mingling odors of cigar smoke and mildew and greeted us before we reached a small, dimly lit reception area. A stout, gray-haired man sat at a folder-laden desk. He was examining a negative by holding it up to a lamp.
Once he swivelled toward us, the glare from the light made him look ghostly pale, and turned the thick lenses of his glasses opaque white.
“May I help you?” he said.
“I just wanted to say hello, Uncle Jake.”
He pulled off his glasses and squinted at her without recognition.
“I’m Sam and Helen’s daughter,” she said. “And this is my friend Sara.”
“You can’t be my little Mandy!” Jake gasped, as he hopped up to hug her. Next, he pulled me close for a squeeze. Feeling nauseous from the musty aroma that enshrouded him and pervaded the entire room, I barely paid attention as Jake grilled Mandy about her family.
Minutes later, he grabbed our wrists and led us into a completely dark adjoining room. Jake released us to fumble for the light switch. Fluorescent tubes flickered for a few seconds, then illuminated a concrete brick room which contained a fully extended home movie screen, a dozen folding chairs and two frayed and faded upholstered sofas that emitted a musty odor.
Mandy looked puzzled. “Isn’t this where you used to print brochures Uncle Jake?”
His skin still looked cadaverous, but his pallid blue eyes twinkled when he said, “That was several years ago. I’m a photographer for professional models now.” Jake winked and added, “But not a one of ‘em is as pretty as you two.”
We averted our eyes to politely ignore his gaze locked on Mandy’s breasts.
“C’mon girls,” Jake said, “I want to show you some of my work.” He motioned for us to sit on a faded brocade sofa with cotton stuffing spilling from its wounds, and then he turned his back to us to rustle through the top drawer of a bureau.
Jake turned back around and extended a handful of photos.
The first picture was a black and white headshot which starkly accentuated the dark roots of the model’s bleached blonde hair. The girl in the next photo had a pockmarked complexion. Several other girls had dark circles under eyes with vacant stares. None of them were terribly unattractive, but they didn’t remotely resemble the models in Seventeen magazines.
Jake slid a folding chair in front of us, sat down and said, “My main gals just left for modelling jobs in Chicago. I’ve been looking for some beauties like you two to replace them.”
As our nonchalance crumbled, Mandy and I turned to each other with widened eyes. We had often fantasized about modelling, but no one had ever suggested the option to us.
“Too bad we don’t look like models,” Mandy said.
Jake shook his head and said, “But you do.”
When he stood up to return to the bureau, I leaned closer to Mandy and whispered urgently, “Tell him we’ve practiced walking like models.”
Jake retrieved a larger stack of photos, and said, “Have a look at these, too.” As Mandy and I sifted through the second batch we shifted uncomfortably once we saw that the same models, now clad in black underwear, were posing on the very sofa on which we sat. Jake cleared his throat and began speaking swiftly. “I never tell my girls to take their clothes off, but sometimes they get to foolin’ around when they’re in front of the camera. Those pictures never appeared in any magazines,” he added. “I only use them to make adult comic book drawings like these.” As Jake flashed a few black ink sketches in front of us, I was distracted by a fierce pounding in my chest. The realization that he wanted us to model for him left me stunned.
“How much money do your girls make?” Mandy asked.
He pondered her question for only an instant and said, “Models as lovely as you two could each make fifteen dollars every afternoon...plus money for makeup and modelling clothes.”
As Mandy and I struggled to conceal our jaw-dropping amazement, we avoided eye contact. Jake smiled and said, “I’ll get us some coffee while you girls think it over.”
As he shuffled up the steps, I swirled to Mandy. “Can you believe this is happening? Money! Makeup! Modelling clothes! He even thinks we drink coffee!”
Mandy averted her eyes. “We can’t be parading around in our underwear, Sara.”
“Weren’t you listening?” I said. “He never tells his girls to take their clothes off.”
“I didn’t say no,” she said. “I’m just saying we have to think about it.”
I shook my head with exasperation, and looked her dead in the eye. “When do you think we’ll ever get the opportunity to model again?” Only in my wildest fantasies did I aspire to be a bombshell actress or high fashion model who could set men’s pulses racing with a mere wink, but posing like the girls in Jake’s photos didn’t seem beyond our dreams. Mandy and I engaged in a fierce debate about what we should do. Each of us changed our minds at different times until Jake returned with two steaming cups of coffee. A gulp of the bitter brew burned my tongue, seared my throat, and puckered my face. Mandy’s first sip caused her to grimace, but she turned to Jake and said, “We wanna try!”
“That’s great!” he said. “I’ll write out a shopping list for you.”
Mandy and I raced to the five-and dime and breathlessly searched through the lingerie department. Following Jake’s instructions to the letter, we bought black brassieres, panties, garter belts, and nylon stockings with black seams. When the elderly saleswoman eyed us suspiciously, Mandy turned to me and said, “Our Moms are gonna love these!”
At around the age of ten, I’d watched my mother putting on lingerie similar to what we’d selected. Even then I’d sensed that she was preparing herself for something special. Mandy interrupted my thought by grabbing my wrist. “Tell me, Sara, if we’re not gonna be undressing, why the fancy underwear?”
I pondered her question for only an instant before I said, “Your uncle is gonna be payin’ us a lot of money. Will it kill us to let him see a bra strap or a garter tip?”
We were in heaven in the makeup section as we scooped up black eyeliner, instant tanning lotion, and Fire Engine Red lipstick with matching nail polish.
“Isn’t this the most fun we’ve ever had?” Mandy gushed.
I smiled, but it was jarring to have her cave in to the excitement. Back when we were “tomboys,” I’d badger Mandy into daring acts like climbing onto the roof of our dilapidated barn. After relenting, she’d have to convince me to not back out. Now, we’d spent Jake’s money. There was no turning back. And I didn’t really want to. I felt certain the opportunity to model would never come along again. I couldn’t let feeling nervous interfere with my dreams.
Mandy and I weren’t expected at the studio for several more hours so we went back to the house. After finding Velma fast asleep in front of the television, we raced upstairs to apply tanning cream to our faces, chests and arms, and then munched candy as we awaited our transformation into bronze beauties. Nothing happened. We tried another application. Still no difference. After applying a third coat, we became too restless to await the results.
Once we’d popped frozen dinners into the oven, we tried to emulate runway models by strutting back and forth across the small room like runway models, and then we turned on the radio and danced wildly to “Great Balls of Fire.”
After eating barely warm chicken with mashed potatoes and peas, we rushed back to the bathroom mirror. Still perceiving no change in our complexions, we applied two more thick coats of the creamy tanning lotion, emptying the bottle.
We also read several magazines, but it was still too early to return to Jake’s. We finally headed downstairs to watch The Guiding Light with Mandy’s aunt. As the three of us waited for the television to warm up, Velma downed the last of her beer, pushed her eyeglasses up her nose and stared at us. I realized something was wrong when her eyes widened, but several seconds ticked by before she managed to slur, “Good God, girls…Your skin is orange!”
Upstairs to our mirror. Horrified, we scrubbed our faces. No help. We hastily applied a pancake-thick layer of Velma’s chalky makeup and prayed it would cover our folly. We added new lipstick and eyeliner, and then studied ourselves in the mirror. Unaccustomed to makeup, I frowned at my strange reflection. Instead of the sophisticated look I longed for, the black mascara and red lipstick on pale foundation had a clownish effect.
Mandy and I arrived at the studio expecting to be fired, but Jake seemed oblivious to our altered appearance. He steered us into a dingy dressing room and left us alone. Modestly turning our backs to each other, we pulled on our new lingerie, and then scrutinized ourselves in the dusty, full-length mirror. We didn’t resemble the models in the magazines at all. Mandy’s voluminous breasts and fleshy hips bulged from her underwear. I’d tightened my bra and garter belt in the back with safety pins, but they still hung loosely on my body. My ribs were visible, but I was still able to pull more than an inch of flesh from my thighs between my thumb and index finger. That meant, according to the “pinch test” I’d read about in Seventeen magazine, that I needed to lose weight. As Mandy and I continued to study ourselves in the mirror, I still wondered why Jake hadn’t objected to our rust-colored “tans,” and fleshy hips.
I turned to Mandy and asked, “Why do you think he hired us?”
She shrugged. “He probably can’t see a thing through those thick glasses.”
After deciding our sneakers looked ridiculous with our black-seamed nylons, we left the dressing area in our stocking feet and stood before Jake with downcast eyes. He instructed us to parade back and forth across the room, and then asked us to pause and put our hands on our hips for the first shot. After he photographed us in half a dozen more photos, he appeared to be so totally preoccupied with adjusting his camera that our self-consciousness disappeared.
Jake positioned us on the sofa that emitted a musty odor and took a few more pictures, and then he smiled and said, “OK girls, that’s it for today.”
Crestfallen, I silently berated myself for buying the tanning cream.
Mandy cleared her throat and said, “I’m sorry we’re not good enough.”
Jake smiled and reached out to pinch her cheek. “You girls are perfect! I just need to see how these first shots turn out.”
He retrieved his wallet from his back pocket and handed each of us two ten dollar bills.
All the way back to Velma’s I gushed. “This is the best job I’ve ever had! I sure hope our pictures turn out OK.” Mandy might live near Shed Town, but her mother bought her nice clothes and gave her an allowance every Saturday. Whenever I asked my parents for anything, the answer was always the same. “We don’t have the money.” It was a response that filled me with resentment because cigarettes and beer were ever-present at our house, and my mother complained bitterly about Dad squandering money at the card table. Now, taking matters into my own hands felt wonderful.
That night in Velma’s heavenly spare room, after Mandy drifted to sleep, I dreamily recalled my last encounter with our student teacher on his final day in my eighth grade English class. Not only did Mr. Jensen have Bobby Darin’s heavily lidded “bedroom” eyes, he’d shown a special interest in me. Except for being unable to lift my gaze from my saddle shoes, I stuck to the plan I’d bragged about to my friends.
I walked right up to Mr. Jensen and blurted, “How about a kiss?”
His face registered shock. “A what?”
“A kiss,” I repeated, thrusting out my trembling hand which held three glistening Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses.
His laughter made my heart bounce. His soft fingertips grazed my palm as he took one.
It seemed as though he was moving in slow motion as he deftly removed the silver wrapping from the chocolate morsel and popped it into his perfect mouth.
“Enjoy the reading list this summer, Sara,” he said. “And don’t forget to use your dictionary.”
As I relished the memory, I hugged my pillow and whispered, “I use my dictionary all the time Mr. Jenson, but I haven’t gotten to the books you recommended. I’ve been too busy modelling.”
The next day, our orange tans were less noticeable. Mandy and I applied makeup, put our freshly washed and carefully ironed sun dresses over our new lingerie, and headed to the studio.
Jake greeted us by asking us if we preferred to work together.
“Yes!” we answered in unison.
He positioned us on the sofa again, snapped a few shots and then asked us to wrestle. Mandy and I exchanged puzzled expressions.
“Show me who’s the strongest,” Jake said.
We stood up and tugged awkwardly at each other’s arms.
“I want to see a little more enthusiasm,” he urged.
Mandy pushed me hard. As I teetered backwards, I clasped her wrists. Once I hit the couch, she landed on my lap. I mimicked the models in one of the photographs by grabbing her hair and pulling her head back. We both burst out laughing.
Jake grinned and said, “You girls are doin’ great!”
Emboldened, I grasped the straps of Mandy’s sun dress and bra simultaneously and pulled them down her shoulders to expose a glimpse of her jiggling cleavage.
Mandy looked stunned, but Jake nearly shouted; “Now that’s what I call modelling!”
Jake moved closer. I noticed his stale smell and heard the ceaseless clicking of his camera. Mandy twisted around, slipped the ties of my sun dress down my arms and then pulled up hard on the straps of my bra. Instead of lifting my small breasts, the brassiere slid right over them. Two sharp black satin points peeked over the scoop neck of my dress. Mortified, I curled forward to discreetly reposition my bra.
“You girls are doin’ great,” Jake said, “Just keep movin’.”
Mandy leapt to her feet. I jumped up and grabbed her from behind in a bear hug. Heat rushed into my face as I felt the rigid, rocket shaped cones of my bra sink inward. Mandy wriggled loose and turned to face me. Determined to please Jake, I reached out and simultaneously gripped the scoop neckline of her sundress and the cups of her bra. Mandy looked aghast, but I whispered, “Let’s try to be sexier than the girls in the photographs.” She looked uncertain, but once I started moving my fingers back and forth across her nipples like windshield wipers, I felt them harden. Mandy’s mouth fell open and she half-heartedly tried to push me away, but I clung to the neckline of her dress and wrestled her back onto the sofa. After much thrashing, I wriggled on top of Mandy. To keep up the pretence of wrestling, I clasped her wrists and stretched her arms up over her head, then surrendered to the urge to nestle my face into the soft, welcoming curve at the base of her neck. I was totally focused on the powerful stirring in my pelvis until the smell of Jake’s cigar breath heightened my awareness of his hovering presence.
“You girls are doin’ great!” he whispered. “Keep it goin’.”
Still straddling Mandy, I clasped the straps of her dress and bra and tugged downward. Her giggling made her efforts to stop me half-hearted, but as she twisted and writhed, more and more of her heaving, melony breasts were exposed. I lay down on top of her to shield her from the camera, but when the sensation between my legs grew stronger I gyrated my pelvis against her. Instead of resisting, her hips started moving in sync with mine.
The furious clicking of the camera pulled my awareness to Jake’s presence. His shirtsleeve brushed against my bare shoulder, and then he dropped his camera to chest level and paused to cough. Mandy and I turned our attention to him. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a red bandanna handkerchief, shook it out and used it to blot the perspiration on his forehead.
We urged Jake to rest, but once he caught his breath, he huskily ordered, “Pull the bra down some more.”
I curled ten fingers around the scoop neckline of Mandy’s sun dress and bra and yanked downward. The instant her breasts burst free, it felt as though I’d just awakened from a dream.
Mandy looked equally stunned.
Noticing the absence of Jake’s stale smell, I turned and saw that he was watching us from behind a chest-high folding screen on the opposite side of the room.
“I need to adjust my camera,” he called out. “But you girls just keep right on actin’ professional.”
Jake’s distance seemed to bring us to our senses. I moved to block his view of Mandy as she put herself back together.
Jake cleared his throat and spoke with a raspy voice, “You girls have been just terrific, but maybe it’s time to call it a day.”
That night, as Mandy and I relaxed with our pillows on the bedroom carpet, we talked about everything except what had happened in the studio that afternoon.
Eventually, she said, “You seem kinda down in the dumps, Sara.”
“I’m OK,” I responded. “But isn’t your uncle a little weird?”
Mandy nodded. “Do you think we should go back?”
I shook my head. “We accepted the job and we’ve spent some of the money.”
“I guess we can’t quit,” she said, then her cheeks flushed as she added, “It really isn’t a whole lot different from when we used to play boyfriend-girlfriend.”
Now blood rushed into my face too. Mandy and I had never talked about the role-playing we’d engaged in around age twelve. We’d recline on the sofa fully clothed, give each other dry kisses and grind our pelvises together. We called it, “practicing for when we got married.”
“We were just foolin’ around back then,” I said. “And we never took our clothes off. And nobody was taking pictures of us. But nobody was paying us either. To tell you the truth, I’d rather be modelling for your uncle than not doing anything.”
“Me, too!” she said. “And I get a kick out of seeing how taken he is with your blonde hair.”
I lowered my gaze to her breasts and said, “There are only two things he’s really interested in.” We howled with laughter. At least her breasts had become an asset instead of simply being the object of the attention and derision from junior high school boys.
After Mandy drifted to sleep, I read True Confessions. Soon, I tossed the magazine aside with frustration. The titillating titles always captivated my attention, but the stories never measured up. Next, I pulled a Coronet from the stack and began reading the article, Can Promiscuous Women Be Cured? The answer to the question was uncertain, but the author claimed that promiscuous women engaged in masculine behavior like drinking heavily and calling men for dates instead of waiting to be called by them. Before succumbing to sleep, I crept downstairs to retrieve a dictionary I’d noticed.
Promiscuous: Consisting of different elements mixed together.
The next morning, we hit the stores. With the absence of cute boys, shopping was the next best thing, especially now that we had cash in our pockets. It was so fun to buy things that quitting wasn’t mentioned again.
In the following afternoons, Jake became progressively more demanding. He also began to caress our bodies as he guided us into poses. Mandy and I didn’t protest. We realized we’d crossed a line we should never have crossed, but after having done so, objecting seemed pointless. Our boundaries were also blurred by our desire to feel worthy of the money we were receiving.
On our fifth and final afternoon, Mandy and I didn’t bother putting our dresses on over our lingerie before leaving the dressing room. We were now barely self-conscious about what would have previously been unthinkable...parading around in front of a man in our bras and panties.
Up to that point Mandy’s breasts had only been accidentally exposed for a few seconds. Mine had stayed covered. But on that last day, Jake kept coaxing us to show a little more. By the final hour, Mandy was completely topless, and Jake was spewing out demands that immersed both of us in a mixture of ambivalence and arousal. “Pull her closer. Stroke her thighs. Rub up against each other. Sit on top of her and pinch her titties.”
Near the end of our last session Jake demonstrated what he wanted me to do for the final shots by hugging Mandy from behind and cupping her bare breasts in his hands. I stepped into position but clasped her waist instead. Jake didn’t complain, but he swiftly stepped behind me and put his arms around both of us.
“Please, please,” he begged, “let me hold you girls for a moment.”
I found the urgency of Jake’s tone strangely satisfying. He had been giving us orders for five days. Now, it seemed like he’d do anything in the world for us. I’d never felt so powerful.
Jake pushed harder against me and gasped, “I’m going to miss you girls so much.”
I tensed when it felt like he was touching my behind, but realized I was imagining things because both his arms were around us. Jake hugged us so firmly the rigid cones of my nearly empty bra collapsed inward against Mandy’s back. As he pressed himself tighter against my panties, I pushed harder against Mandy. Soon, all three of us tumbled forward onto the floor. Mandy and I couldn’t stop giggling until we realized Jake wasn’t laughing, he was coughing. Mandy helped him to a chair and I rushed for a glass of water. We hovered over him until his breathing returned to normal.
On that last afternoon, Jake recovered his strength and took us through our paces one last time. Afterwards, he gave us each a couple of 5X7 photos from our earlier, modest poses. When he paid us for the fifth time, he leaned close and whispered with a voice still raspy from coughing, “If you girls would like to pose for my photography club tonight, you could double what you’ve earned this week.” Mandy and I were flabbergasted by the mention of such a vast sum, yet we seemed to realize that we were being invited into much riskier terrain.
I was trying to figure out how to communicate my objection to Mandy when she said, “Thanks, Uncle Jake, but we’re busy tonight.”
Mandy’s brother arrived for us shortly after lunch the next day. Aunt Velma, with her hair still in perfect pin curls, missed the last dramatic moments of Guiding Light to walk us to the car. Even though I knew that the final scene was always shown again at the beginning of the next segment, I was touched. My grandmother didn’t even answer the phone during her shows.
Since little had transpired during the week that we could talk about in front of anyone, Mandy and I immersed ourselves in Velma’s old movie magazines during the trip home. My issue was full of photos of Lana Turner and her sad-eyed, daughter Cheryl. The fourteen year old had inexplicably stabbed Johnnie Stompanato, her mother’s gangster boyfriend. I hoped she wouldn’t go to jail for what must have been a terrible mistake.
At home, I rushed to my room to hide our new lingerie, the photos, and nearly fifty dollars under my mattress. Not only would I be unable to explain having so much money, I knew from experience that if Dad sensed I had any money, he had a tendency to “borrow” it.
Next, I addressed an envelope to Hollywood Creations in Lincoln, Nebraska, and inserted two one dollar bills and sixty-nine cents in change along with the order form for a bust-enlarging cream. After waiting until dark, I carried the envelope to the end of our drive. Before placing it in the mailbox, I prayed fervently for the potency of the product, and then raised the red flag.
That night, I dreamed I was in our school gymnasium waiting to see the annual showing of Red Nightmare, a film about the perils of Communism. What flickered on the screen instead was a collage of images of Mandy and I posing for Jake. The horror of having ninth grade boys see flashes of black garters, red lips, and Mandy’s bare breasts, caused me to awaken with a start. Feeling shaken and disoriented, I focused on my sister Anne’s steady breathing in order to calm down. I rolled out of bed and lifted my mattress hoping to discover that the entire week in Noblesville had also been a dream, but the evidence of our experience was in place.
I groggily studied Jake’s photos of Mandy and me in the eerie glow of my night-light. It was now clear that the chalky makeup, scarlet lipstick and black eyeliner hadn’t made us look beautiful at all. Instead, we looked grotesque. Our tugging at each other contorted our bodies, and glimpses of our black bra straps and the dark seams of our stockings were clearly visible.
My only solace was the fact that Mandy and I, knowing how vital it was for a girl to have a good reputation, had made a solemn pact to keep our irresponsibility a carefully guarded secret. I turned the photos face down on the dresser, wondering for the first time what would happen to the more revealing photos. I climbed back into bed and dozed fitfully for the rest of the night.
The following morning I stood at our kitchen counter wolfing down slice after slice of toasted Wonder Bread slathered with margarine and topped with mounds of cinnamon sugar. I’d had a tendency to overdose on sweets for as long as I could remember, but that morning my hunger felt like an insatiable monster gnawing inside me. My mother appeared and sent granules of sugar flying by slapping my photos on the counter in front of me.
“Don’t you think I have enough to cope with without you giving me trouble?” she yelled.
Though my heart was thudding wildly, I managed to shrug nonchalantly and whisper, “Mandy and I were just doing a little modelling.”
“Modelling?” Mom shrieked. “It looks like LESBIANISM! Do you know what that means?”
“Yeah,” I lied, struggling to look unconcerned, but the tone of her voice made it a jarring moment. Finally, I muttered, “We were just posing for comic book sketches.”
“Comic books, my ass!” my father shouted, startling me with his abrupt appearance. His swarthy, unshaven face was aflame with color, and his bristling dark hair had yet to receive its daily dose of Vitalis hair oil. He thrust my Hollywood Creations envelope in front of me and yelled, “What the hell is this?”
“Just an order form,” I mumbled, relieved to see that the envelope was unopened, but dampness surged in my armpits. His rage made me fear he was on the verge of hitting me.
“He shook the envelope angrily and snarled, “There are coins in here! Don’t you know you can’t send cash in the mail? What are ya, a God damn dummy?”
I kept my eyes locked on the colorful squiggles in our kitchen linoleum.
“Someone will always take an envelope with cash in it,” he spat.
“I can see that, Dad.”
“Are you trying to be a smart ass?” he demanded. His face, now engorged with blood, looked frightfully fierce. Women’s attraction to him, which so profoundly wounded my mother, had always baffled me. He was ruggedly handsome and blessed with deep brown eyes, swarthy skin and a lean muscular body, but he was a coarse man. Even when he wasn’t in a rage, he rarely spoke without swearing, and when his chores prevented him from holding a cigarette, his cheek bulged with a jawbreaker size wad of chewing tobacco.
“You’re in hot water for going off to God knows where,” Dad shrieked. “And look at this Goddamn address,” he spat. “‘Lin, Neb.’ A letter won’t get nowhere like that. And you won’t get nowhere either if you keep running around with white trash from Shed Town!”
I flinched, swiped at a tear and said, “Mandy’s house isn’t in Shed Town,” but Dad was stomping away. His tirades would chip away at my self-esteem until there was only a mere kernel of belief in myself, and that wouldn’t grow and flourish until I’d been away from him for years.
My mother had been looking on with concern, but her face hardened upon hearing the angry whine of Dad’s truck ignition in the driveway. Once tires sprayed gravel, she cried, “Now look what you’ve done! No more visits with Mandy this summer.”
Mom’s words hit like blows. Spending time with Mandy was the spine of my existence.
As my mother furiously ripped my photos into tiny squares, I doubled forward with disappointment. Watching the proof I had been a model flutter down into the smelly garbage brought a gag reflex to my throat. I didn’t stifle it. I rushed to the bathroom to try and rid myself of a stomach full of sugary dough and my parents’ toxic words, but nothing came out.
Back in the kitchen, I sat down alone at the table and listened to the cawing of the crows that had settled into the Catalpa tree that partially blocked the view of our dilapidated barn and shaded our metal milk box. Two times a week, a milkman delivered milk in glass bottles with cardboard stoppers that bore the name of the company that had absorbed Whitney’s Dairy.
Later that afternoon, I walked to the only destination I could reach on foot, the remains of my grandmother’s farm. Several cars parked alongside Dad’s truck at the horse barn meant a poker game was underway, and that the barn’s office was filled with tension and cigarette smoke.
My father insisted he’d always be a “Lucky” man when my mother, convinced that menthol and filters blocked the harmful stuff, urged him to switch to her beloved Salem’s. Yet the word lucky didn’t apply to the results Dad achieved at the poker table. My mother referred to the cast of characters as “bottom feeders,” but we all knew that Dad was down there for the taking. There was an obese used car dealer named Carl Marks. His group of rough-looking friends varied a great deal, but Carl’s “luck” was consistent enough to keep our family at the brink of bankruptcy.
I continued on to my grandmother’s house. As long as I allowed her to entice me into her dark, smoky living room, and feigned interest in the latest crises on her favorite television soap operas, grandma didn’t complain when I demolished the contents of her candy dishes.
My life was already so dull I hated watching television with Grandma, but that day I felt so miserable I welcomed immersing myself in other people’s disasters. I also consumed a mountain of sweets. Sugar always offered solace or at least distraction from my problems.
Grandma held an ever-present Miller’s beer in one liver spotted hand and a Chesterfield in the other. Her skin was swarthy like my father’s, and her short, kinky gray hair had yet to be combed that day. Nor had she bothered to put in her dentures, but she had drawn on her eyebrows. She wasn’t at all crabby so I knew she’d already cracked open her first few beers of the day. On the screen, a perfectly coiffed actress in a full body cast was in a hospital bed, and a heart monitor bleeped in the background.
“Amy, you poor little dear,” my grandmother sighed. She had a penchant for addressing the sympathetic characters in “her shows” as though they were intimate friends.
“What the heck happened to her?” I asked.
“Female troubles,” Grandma snapped, and then she narrowed her eyes, hammered her index finger in the direction of her own lower abdomen and added, “Down there.” She drew deeply on her cigarette before adding, “Down where you never let any boy touch you.”
Her cigarette smoke caught in my throat and caused me to cough, but I finally managed to ask, “Why the body cast?”
My grandmother sighed. “She drove off a cliff after discovering she couldn’t have babies.”
When the television camera focused on Amy’s apparent rival, Grandma scowled at the screen, pursed her lips with disapproval and spat, “You no-count hussy!”
My grandmother became very emotional when television sagas mirrored her own life traumas. She’d endured the shame of divorce when my father and his brothers were youngsters. I had only the haziest memories of my grandfather, but I knew that he had not only left my grandmother for another woman, he had taken half of the land that she had brought into the marriage. Grandma rebounded by starting Whitney’s Dairy just before the Depression.
After selling the dairy, beer and soap operas filled my grandmother’s days. Her only other interest was The John Birch Society, an organization with the mission of protecting Americans from the threat of Communism. There was nothing anyone could do or say to dissuade Grandma from the notion that Communists were plotting to take over our country. Since she had her groceries and beer delivered, attending the Society’s monthly meetings was the only activity that inspired her to sober up enough to draw on her eyebrows and drive into town.
Once grandma dozed off, I carried my Coke and a bowl of caramels into her sunroom to read her gossip magazines. I was delighted to find a story on Sandra Dee in the June issue of Coronet. The popular actress had been designated as the “number one star of tomorrow.”
Sandra also spoke directly to my starry-eyed fantasies of romance. She was pictured with her mother whom she described as being “her best friend.” I envied that connection even more than her petite hourglass figure and herds of boyfriends. After devouring the latest information on Sandra’s career, weight, and new movie, The Reluctant Debutante, I consulted my grandmother’s mammoth dictionary.
Debutante: A person making a debut
Debut: The formal introduction of a girl to society
I flipped to the L’s
Lesbian: Referring to the ancient inhabitants of Lesbos, an island in the Aegean.
I looked in on my grandmother to make sure she was still asleep, then slipped into the bathroom and stripped down to my frayed cotton underwear before stepping onto her scale. Once the jumpy needle settled on Sandra Dee’s perfect weight of 99 pounds, my spirits soared.