Mabel and Me, Jon Boorstin’s new novel, features fictionalized versions of Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mack Swain, and other silent movie stars. Enjoy the video trailer below and scroll down to read Ch. 27 of the book. Which silent era legends can you spot?
CHAPTER 27 of “Edendale/1912”
Morning fogs in. Mabel’s trapped at the beach forever. I track Limey to the dressing room he shares with Fatty and Swain. They never pick up the place, nobody else does neither. Clothes and props and makeup spread all over a sofa and a busted club chair, like a twister hit. Fatty and Swain and Chester sit around a card table on toothpick chairs, playing pinochle. No Limey.
“Come on, Flicker,” Chester says, “ten points a penny.”
“I’m looking for Limey.”
“He’s too cheap to play,” Fatty says.
“So where is he?”
“He thinks you’re here to can him,” Chester says. “Where you think he is?”
“We got work.”
Nobody buys it. “It’s too dark,” Swain says.
“Got work anyhow.”
Swain looks at Chester. Chester looks at Fatty. Fatty flattens his cards against his tank chest and points at the closet.
I stomp for the dressing-room door, talk loud. “You see him, you say Mabel needs him, now or never.”
Loud card-table chorus. “So long, Flicker.”
I slam the door like I’m gone.
Closet opens. Limey’s pale little face pokes his nose out, a rat holed up in all the garbage, sees me still here. “What’s on the little darling’s mind?” Limey steps out, scratching his back. Mack’s right about the smell.
“Mabel thinks maybe she wants you for her picture,” I say.
“Do I want her?”
“That depends if you want your job.” I see why he ticks people off. “She gotta see a new look, she don’t like the frock coat and the stovepipe.”
“That’s my music-hall persona with Mack’s picture adjustments.”
“Mabel don’t like it. She wants not so tight, so you can move better, and not so old. And she hates that phony aristo. Someone people see themselves in.” That part was me, but what the hell.
He looks at me like I’m a bellboy stole his suitcase. “You are telling me how to dress?”
“I’m telling you how not to dress.”
“How old are you?”
“If I’m old enough to can you, I’m old enough to tell you how not to dress.” The card table yuks that up. Limey freezes ’em with a hard smile.
“Creating a character is complicated and delicate work,” he says. “You may tell Miss Normand that I shall call on her in a few days when I have pulled something together.”
“We shoot tomorrow,” I say. “If it don’t work, I need to know now.”
“Bingo, a character? That’s outrageous.”
“Character can wait. I’m talking about a costume.”
“There is a teensy-weensy connection.” Limey holds up thumb and finger like he holds a fly, like he knows all along I’m the village idiot, and now he got proof.
“So yes or no?”
Limey appeals to the table. “Will you explain to this yobbo the intricacies of creating a character?”
The three card players look at each other, shake their heads like one person, a undertaker.
“Canned theater.” Limey sighs big, like he’s in the land of the nincompoops, and looks at me like I’m nincompoop-in-chief. “What, dear sir, is the part I am to play?”
“You’ll have to ask Mabel.”
“And where is Miss Normand?”
“At the beach.” Truth is, she don’t know neither.
“So I’m creating a character on the spot for a part that doesn’t exist.”
“Whatever you wanta call it.” I am one inch from canning the guy. “I just need it now.”
“This stupid business has no art. Why does anybody want to see a shadow on a screen when they can see the real thing?” Limey punches himself in the hips, waits for the end of pictures.
His head disappears under a tent. “Hey Limey, here’s not so tight,” Fatty says, and everybody laughs, Fatty’s high hard cackle on top. Limey pulls his head out from under Fatty’s trousers.
“Charlie, Charlie, Charlie!” He shouts at Fatty for the rest of ’em. Nobody calls him Limey to his face but Mack.
“Just clean ’em when you’re done, for God’s sake, Charlie.”
Limey stares at the pants. His little mouth pulls down to cry. He got a choice. He can spit on ’em, throw ’em back at Fatty, tell the pictures kiss his vaudeville ass, march on back to music hall, or not. His hands shake, he wants so bad to stuff it. I’m sure we’re done with him. Then I see something I never seen before, except in me. Limey stares at the pants and stops not crying. His face blanks out. He turns ’em back to front, pokes his arm in a leg, pulls at the seat. Like a automaton, he drops his trousers and pulls up Fatty’s. Trousers on, Limey wakes up. He grabs a fistful of waist and pirouettes like a dancer at the makeup mirror. He moves different in Fatty’s tent, every which way, cause nothing holds him back. He gives a little mule kick at the end.
“Not bad,” Chester says, and means it.
“That jacket of yours that’s too tight, Chester, would you mind?” Limey pulls the belt off his own pants and cinches Fatty’s. Chester got a gag jacket a couple sizes too small.
“On the sofa.” Chester feels bad, maybe, about the piss-war zapping. “Same deal as Fatty, you wear it, you clean it.”
Limey pulls on the little jacket. It fits him tight under the pecs like a corset, but cut so short he got plenty movement, like a Spanish dancer. Limey flexes his shoulders, beats his arms. The jacket holds him like a suit of armor made of little rings, holds him up and guards him. Guarded makes him stronger and faster.
“Tight on top, loose on bottom, that’s good,” Swain says. “But you gotta follow through.” Swain burrows around his corner of the room and pulls out beat-up balloon shoes. “My fifteens. You can have ’em. They died long ago.” Limey steps in, laces ’em up, and steps right out. Too damn big. He switches feet, they stay on. He pulls a graceful skip and a clumsy trip, soft-shoes the mirror. They finish off the pants perfect.
“Not bad,” he says.
“I got just the lid.” Fatty flips him a beat-up bowler. “My father-in-law wore it out.” Limey clamps it on and it fits good, just enough too tight. He turns himself in a circle, wiggles the bowler from the back so it says hello. Fatty and Swain and Chester clap and laugh good laughs. Limey twiddles his tony gentleman’s cane.
“Gimme a sec,” I say.
I pump myself up the writers’ stairs of doom. Sir Meltman’s in place by the window. “Flicker, so sorry it didn’t work out.” Sir Meltman phony mourns, cane waves so sorry. I grab it.
Back at the dressing room, I toss the cane at Limey. “Here. I’m just sayin’ it’s funny is all.”
Limey leans his weight and likes how the bamboo gives. “Have to cut it down.” He spins it, likes how it stops sudden in the hand. He flips it behind so it tips his derby my direction. “This just might do.” Like maybe, just maybe, I ain’t the village idiot.
This excerpt from Mabel and Me by Jon Boorstin, published by Angel City Press (print ISBN-13 978-1-62640-016-0; e-book ISBN-13 978-1-62640-017-2) is used with permission of the author and publisher. Copyright © 2014 Jon Boorstin; all rights reserved.