When the Curtain Comes Down

The door closed on the last moviegoer, who slipped and disappeared into the diaphanous curtain of swirling snowflakes, their descent toward the sidewalk illuminated by the neon marquee of the Egyptian, its gaudy façade recently the recipient of a face lift. Only a year ago, the theatre, constructed in the 1920’s, was on the verge of being razed for a parking lot.

 Chicago in December could be harsh and inhospitable, but for the theatre’s janitress, who had been born and raised on the city’s south side, it heralded a welcome cycle of the seasons, and mattered not to a native daughter accustomed to wrap herself in woolen scarf and cap to fend off the bitter cold.

Dahlia locked the bar of the front entrance and plugged the vacuum cleaner cord into the electrical socket. Cleaning the lobby by dim interior lamps and the larger lighting the outdoor lights provided, she hummed as she worked—the routine so familiar that she could let her mind wander to other matters — to her four grown children, who would make their obligatory semi-annual appearance this month. Cassius, the oldest, practiced corporate law, comfortably ensconced in his Loop office. Melba taught Sociology at Roosevelt University. Despite her popular course on the socio-dynamics of the black family, Melba disregarded her own heritage. Cassandra, more pragmatic, held a secure position as head of the City Sanitation Department, a job she was uniquely qualified for, as Dahlia’s only child who managed to keep her bedroom tidy and debris-free. Caleb, a bit a rapscallion in high school, surprised the whole family when he attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer, finding a suitable career in the U.S. Navy.

Neatness was important. A life dedicated to cleanliness could not be accounted for nothing. Academics had been difficult for Dahlia, although she graduated from high school, immediately married and began work on the housekeeping staff of the Egyptian Theatre, conveniently located within walking distance of her house.  Justifiably proud of her children’s achievements, she still wondered how different they were from her and from each other. Widowed the last five years, Dahlia’s job as housekeeper at the Egyptian now was the focal point of her life.

She wheeled her cart of cleaning supplies into the bathroom. Since a community arts group had reconstituted the theatre to showcase folk artists and foreign films, the chore of scrubbing graffiti from the stalls had disappeared. During the last years of its operation showing Hollywood films, Dahlia had often wondered if the teenagers in spiked hairdos, nose rings and baggy pants revealing plumber’s cleavage had not stepped out of the silver screen in the currently running horror film.

Finishing the restrooms, their porcelain sparkling and mirrors impeccably bright, she sprayed air freshener toward the ceiling and pushed her cart into the lobby. Instead of billboards for the latest action adventure packed with gratuitous violence, profanity and sex, posters of West African drummers, Irish dancers and avant-garde films from China decorated the walls.  Even the candy wrappers and drink containers scattered among the seats had lessened under the new management. She pushed her cleaning cart into the dimly lit auditorium. After all these years the silence and spaciousness of the vaulted room at this hour of the early morning, the plaster columns gilded with gold paint and topped with pharaoh heads lining its interior walls, the  heavy maroon velvet curtains adorned with braided tassels, sent an eerie thrill and almost divine delight down her spine. Weaving down one side aisle and up the central one, she collected papers in the garbage bag hanging at the side of her cart. Then only in the dim recess below the arches of the balcony did she realize that tonight she was not alone in the sanctity of this shrine of the entertainment world.

She sat with one dimply, oleaginous leg crossed other the other, her hosiery the outdated kind with dark seams along the backs sides, in the front row of the theater, as if she were a ghostly apparition. The heady, gardenia scent of her perfume dispelled Dahlia of the notion that she was hallucinating.  Inspecting the white woman, her face layered in opalescent liquid make-up, bright cherry lipstick and bobbled platinum blonde hair set with spit curls above her ears; Dahlia experienced the vertigo of spiraling into a white porcelain toilet bowl, freshly scrubbed to an unusual sheen.

“Hi, darling, I’m Wanda Warner. Didn’t your momma tell you that it’s impolite to stare?  Although, once I desired nothing more than to be stared at.”

“The theatre’s closed. You best be outta here.”

“Hey, give me a break. It’s snowing out there.”

Dahlia noticed the rise in the woman’s eyebrows sketched thickly with dark brown pencil lines. Plucking eyebrows—another outmoded fashion, Dahlia thought.

“Listen I got work today.”

“Just let me stay until you’re done.” A plaintive note had entered her formerly confident tone.  There was a huskiness, a rasp to her voice, of otherwise perfectly articulated syllables, as if she had once circulated in the best white society, smoking one cigarette after another in swanky, uptown cocktail parties.

“I’ve had this job for thirty years and I don’t intend to lose it now by letting a street person sleep here.”

“No, no. I’ll leave when you finish up.”

“How do I know you’re not a thief?”

“Cross my heart. Hope to die.” She promised, making the motions over the bodice of her low-cut pea-green sheathe, revealing a wrinkled turkey neck circled with emerald beads. In that instance, the gaudy white woman swept Dahlia’s vision like a mossy, plankton overgrown, stagnant pool, where one lone frog croaked.

Was her heart softening toward this hapless woman? Under all that cosmetic mask and mascara was this woman older than she was? Was this the last vestige of dignity and self-respect, she owned, to maintain the semblance of style and high fashion she once could have possessed in abundance? Plain-spoken Dahlia impulsively asked her, resolved to determine the visitor’s benignity or malignity.

“Wanda Warner, you say?  That your real name? Sounds like a stage name, an alias. Tell me who you really are.”

“Okay. You got me. It’s a stage name, but I legalized it through the court. I was born Helen Warzinsky in back-of-the-yards Chicago. My claim to fame is leading lady in the 1963 production of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb. Yeah, I believed the dream. I was going to make it big all right. Yeah, I made some money in my day. It’s all gone now.”

“How do I now that’s true? Not just some sob story you’re giving me.”

“You wanta see my ID?” She fumbled in her big, floppy, black fabric handbag for her wallet. “See.”

Dahlia examined the photo. It was a California State identification card, not a driver’s license.  One too many driving-under-the-influence citations in the sunshine state, Dahlia thought.

Putting the card back in her voluminous purse, that appeared to contain every important document she owned, the faded starlet said, “I’ve lived in California too long. I came back to my roots because I can’t afford to live there anymore. I’m between a rock and a hard place, because I can’t stand the cold here. The wind off the lake rips through my bones.”

“All right. You can stay warm in here until I finish the vacuuming. When I’m done, you have to leave.” Dahlia rolled the vacuum cleaner into the auditorium. It took the rest of her shift to cover the carpet in the aisles and the upholstered backs and seats of the chairs. She replaced the cart and cleaning equipment in the utility closet, removed her coat, hat an muffler from a hook and pulled galoshes over her shoes. She stepped into the auditorium to tell the lady vagrant it was time to leave and found her snoozing, slouched in the theatre seat. Nudging her shoulder, she said, “Time to go, Miss Warner.”

Startled, the woman awoke with a jerk. “Movie over?”

“The movie has been over for a long time. Remember me? I’m the cleaning lady.”

“Oh, sorry.” She stood up and retrieved her large handbag from the floor.

“I’ve nowhere to go. I was evicted this afternoon. Would you happen to have room on your couch for a few nights—just until I get myself situated somewhere?”

At first, Dahlia thought, the woman’s effrontery was insupportable, what presumption to think she could take a total stranger in for a night. An instant later Dahlia was ashamed at her lack of charity. The woman’s pale blue eyes outlined with mascara threatened to mist with tears. The fear of such an emotional display prompted her to consider the request. A member of Ebenezer Baptist Church in good standing would not let this fragile former actress spend the night under a bridge. This would not be the first lost object she had found at the Egyptian Theatre and took home. Was a homeless Hollywood  has-been any less bizarre that the condom, false teeth and harmonica, among other trinkets, she had discovered under the auditorium seats?

“Okay. Just until you find a room.”  She would see that Miss Warner went to the Welfare Office.

The city bus pulled up at the curb where the pallid, pasty-faced white woman with nothing on her head and clad in a lightweight trench coat leaned, supported by the heavy-set black woman bundled warmly for the weather—an incongruous cameo under the street lamp as they waited for the bus door to open. Dahlia presented her pass to the driver and dropped extra coins in the box for her companion. Through frugality Dahlia and her husband, a steel mill worker, had purchased a yellow brick bungalow farther south in an integrated neighborhood. For the last fifteen years she had been riding this same bus line home.

“Watch your step, Dahlia. Old man winter is out tonight.” Quizzically, the driver looked at his regular rider and her unfamiliar companion, but Dahlia did not oblige him with an explanation and made her way to the middle of the bus. Now that they were seated side by side, she noticed Miss Warner was huffing and puffing with the exertion of boarding the bus.

“I’ll make you a hot cup of tea before you go to bed,” Dahlia said.

“Oh, never mind. What I really need is a cigarette and then I’ll sleep like a baby.”

They alighted from the bus at a main intersection and walked four blocks to Dahlia’s house on a quiet side street lined with maples. As soon as they entered the small front room furnished with outdated sofa and easy chairs all covered with afghans crocheted in Dahlia’s younger days; Miss Warner dropped onto the sofa and stretched out, not bothering to change into the flannel pajamas Dahlia laid out for her. Too exhausted, she had forgotten about that bedtime cigarette.

Mid morning, the sound of a hacking cough awakened Dahlia. She usually slept until noon. Glancing at her digital clock, she saw it was eleven. Sitting up in bed, she sniffed the air, detecting a new smell. Shoving her feet into bedroom slippers and wrapping a robe around her, she followed her nose to the source of the noxious smoke. She found Miss Warner sitting at the kitchen table, using a saucer as an ash tray.

“I don’t allow smoking in the house,” she said, looking at her house guest, who held a cigarette daintily between two fingers. “If you must, you can smoke on the back porch.”  She motioned toward the back door.

“Sorry. One of those bad habits I picked up in Beverly Hills,” she apologized and sidled out the door. Seconds later, she was back inside the kitchen. “Brrr . . . it’s cold out there.” She snuffed out the cigarette butt on the saucer.”

“What would you like for breakfast? I’ll make it.”  She smiled.

The omelet that Miss Warner prepared tasted delicious; making Dahlia think perhaps having another person in the house would not be a bad idea. Although skeptical at how easily Miss Warner could ingratiate herself, she congratulated herself on doing what was only humanitarian last night by bringing the homeless woman home with her. Nevertheless, she must be wary of the obvious charms Miss Warner had learned in Hollywood.

“You must be a great fan of the movies, working at the cinema for so long,” she said.

“It’s a fake world. I never paid much mind to them.”

“Without dreams, people wither and die. Dreams kept me going for years . . . in two-bit movies, playing dumb blonde parts, low-budget horror movies . . . but it was a life. I kept hoping to make it big. Sleep with a producer here and there . . . promised me the moon, but in the end booted me out the stage door. That’s life.” She laughed. “I survived. Here I am alive and well, back where I started from. Not a penny in my pocket, but still kicking.” She laughed again.

“You have family here?”

“Nope. Only child. Parents passed years ago. What about you?”

“I’ve got four kids. They have big houses in the suburbs. Plenty of money. That’s all they care about.”

She looked empathetically at Dahlia. “I get the picture.”

 

The Welfare Office put Miss Warner on a waiting list for low-cost housing. They were told a vacancy could arise any day. For the interim, Dahlia agreed to house Miss Warner. At first, despite her blather about who she knew in Hollywood and the usual gossip about their affairs and divorces, Dahlia did not mind her presence in the house. Her boarder liked to cook and she was not a slob. What quickly began to irritate Dahlia, however, were the nightly hacking bouts and the cigarette smoke from the bathroom. Her boarder frequently arose during the night to have her smoke clandestinely. How stupid Miss Warner was to think that Dahlia could not detect the odor emanating from under the door. Where did she get the money to buy a pack in the first place? Dahlia suspected her of panhandling for money while she was at work. How else could she get the money? She kept her valuables under lock and key and checked her purse regularly for pilfering. No such case.

Miss Warner’s breathiness bothered Dahlia. It seemed she suffered from some respiratory condition for which she needed treatment. Maybe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema. She suggested that Miss Warner go to the free clinic. Miss Warner adamantly refused, protesting that she did not believe in doctors, that they would kill a person faster than anything else. After all, they were in the business of finding things wrong with people. There was nothing wrong with her that a good cigarette would not cure. Better yet, a good martini, but she had sworn off the drink before she had left California.

Dahlia became eager for the day the telephone would ring with notification that Miss Warner had an apartment. The smoking continued despite constant admonitions to smoke outside. Wanda’s coughing in the early morning continued to break up Dahlia’s sleep and was driving her to distraction. She longed for the day she would have the house completely to herself again.

Her star boarder had been with her two weeks when Dahlia’s patience had worn so thin that she considered paying for Miss Warner’s room at a hotel one step above a flophouse for transients. The temperature had plummeted to just above zero when Dahlia  left work and boarded the bus home. It was two weeks before Christmas and the storefronts were decorated with bright lures for holiday shoppers. A talented boys’ choir had performed that evening at the Egyptian Theatre to the enthusiastic plaudits of the audience. Dahlia, obsessed with removing her freeloader from her residence, was far from feeling the warm charitable spirit of the season. As soon as she woke up at noon, she would announce to Miss Warner her removal to the Lake Hotel, all expenses paid until she received her City Housing Authority apartment.  Season Greetings from Dahlia Madison!

When Dahlia entered her living room, Miss Warner was not in her usual fetal position, snoring softly on the sofa with the television still tuned to a late night movie. She walked over to the television and turned it off. She did not detect cigarette odor from the bathroom, but noticed the light on in the kitchen. Entering the kitchen, she saw the fragile figure face-down on the green linoleum. She rushed over to the prone form, turned her over and placed her hand over nose and mouth, barely detected an intake of breath. Prying her mouth open, she applied her mouth to Miss Warner’s and blew her breath into her air passages, frantically searching for signs of response. Suddenly, she ceased her efforts at resuscitation, hustled to her feet and dialed for an ambulance. She covered Miss Warren with a blanket and anxiously wrung her hands while she waited for the paramedics. Hearing the siren, she ran to open wide the door for the men and their equipment. Soon Miss Warren was on the stretcher being wheeled into the street and into the back of the emergency vehicle. Dahlia asked to ride along. The paramedics motioned her into the front of the vehicle. She would just be in the way as they worked over the stricken patient in the back of the ambulance.

She paced back and forth outside the emergency room, waiting for news. Surely, Wanda could not die in a cold hospital room, alone except for Dahlia, the stranger who given her shelter. No one should have to die that way. Everyone should spend their last moments surrounded by loving friends and family. Finally, a white-jacketed doctor, stethoscope around his neck, emerged through the swivel doors. He was young, fresh out of medical school, she thought, as she turned expectantly to hear his announcement.

“We could not save her. She had a massive stroke. In any case, her life would have been diminished, confined to a skilled nursing facility for the rest of her life.  Are you the responsible friend or relative?”

Disconcerted, she shook her head. “I’ve only known her for two weeks. She’s homeless.”

“Then, we should notify the county?”

“Yes,” she mumbled. The doctor asked if she wanted to see the deceased. She shook her head and shuffled to the reception desk to call a taxi. She turned her back on this last act in a life that must have been full of disappointments. On the way home the taxi passed the Egyptian Theatre, its neon lights gaudy as ever, clearly delineating the row of Nile gods and goddesses sculpted across the overhanging ledge. Hollywood, the fraudulent harlot, had played Wanda Warner false. In its resurrected form as an avant-garde performing arts theatre, the Egyptian claimed a new lease on life, perhaps showing that the glitter of tinsel town could not dupe everyone forever.

Dejected, yet safe now in her living room, Dahlia lowered her ponderous body into a chair. The silence oppressed. Seeking relief, she hit the remote button. On the television screen, a talk show host was interviewing Chakra Gawain on the power of creative visualization. Half comprehending in her anomie, she yet must have caught a phrase, for on an impulse, perhaps summoned from the depths of her dispirited soul, she arose and picked up the telephone receiver and slowly dialed the number of Matlock, Rutledge, Madison and Associates. The crisp, efficient voice of the secretary answered.

“I must speak to Cassius Madison, please.”

“He is in conference now. May I take a message?”

“No. It’s an emergency. Tell him it’s his momma.”

The firmness of her voice must have convinced the secretary of the urgency of the call, for she did not protest. “Just a moment,” she said.

While a Bach violin quartet played in the background, Dahlia pressed the receiver against her right ear for what seemed like an eternity.

“Momma, this better be important.” She recognized the impatient baritone of her son. “

“Will you be able to identify my body at the Humana Hospital morgue, since you haven’t seen me in ten months?”

“What are you talking about?

“I just delivered a dying lady who has been living with me for the last two weeks to the hospital—dead soon after arrival. She starred in the 1963 production of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb—a leading lady at age twenty. Ever since, life has been all downhill for her.”

For a while there was dead silence at the other end of the telephone. Finally, her son said with careful inflection, “Mom, I think you’ve been working at the Egyptian Theatre too long.”

“Yes, far too long,” she said and gently replaced the receiver in the cradle.