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Jean Harlow Postcard by Stephanie Dickinson

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Apr 25, 2020 · 8 min read

BOMBSHELL

Harlow & the Whitest House in the World

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“Like the family in Bombshell, Harlow’s mother and stepfather built a garish mansion with Harlow’s money. The two-story, four-bedroom house had a French interior, and outdoor pool with two dressing rooms. Furnishings alone cost $25,000 and included a walk-in refrigerator and polar bear rug. Harlow called it a ‘half-paid-for car barn.” Adjoining her white-on-white bedroom was a sitting room filled with Harlow’s favorite books. Who would believe she read them?” — Bombshell, David Stenn

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You want a tour? The lawn is deeply grassed and my pebbled feet (size 3) sink in. Yucca spikes up against the grillwork fence and half-potted pampas grass. Mansions are tombstones, thin columns with fire tips. The hibiscus cold with its dead-white petals. Everything is white — the moon, the lily pond in its somberness, the hoot owl between the quaking aspens. I watch through sheer curtains. The phone rings again as Mother Jean floats from the bath, hair in a towel, the elder Harlow, a steamy Nefertiti, footsteps on a stair, thoughts shaded by overhanging trees, limbs quiet as a riverboat gliding over the bay’s nerveless quivering. Follow me. I take silky reptilian steps that do not disturb the Georgian façade. I light a cigarette. A patio door has been left open, and so let’s tiptoe into the quiet house. Night lamps cast silvery nets and try to catch me. My foot wobbles. I’ve been drinking. The white carpet is pale quicksand. White tassels, white bear rug. The stillness of death, which are the wages of sin. Baby, I need to see you, Mother Jean calls. Coming, Mama. I sit on the love seat. I feel her hands around my throat. Laughter bubbles inside me like strange fish somersaulting. The bathroom itself is a guest room with wrappers on the water glasses and an ermine toilet lid. The faucets sparkle, but we won’t go in there. I can’t quite scrub away Mother Jean and her husband performing fellatio in the tub. No one believes these books are mine but how else can I escape. Invisible and without wants, I read and rise to grace.

BEAST IN THE CITY

Harlow & the Sadness

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“She was a sad girl, driven by her mother, madly in love with a man who wouldn’t marry her and drinking too much,” wrote Rosalind Russell. — Bombshell, David Stenn

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Mist smudges the tree shards that poke from the water. What did you think my life would become, mother? A green dusk of money? A midnight to heighten your light? You got me as far from Kansas City, Missouri, as geography allows. The cypress and moss trees might pale, then absolve you of your guilt. Would you like to eat the shrimp grass on the bank that look like bamboo shoots? My life to you is a diamond mine to drink even the sky’s color away. Long after I’m gone, your obituary will embarrass me. Damn you, Mother Jean (weren’t you a honey-mama bear). I’m not calling you mother, since you played Russian roulette with me, destroying my marriages, pushing me into movies, barring father from seeing me. Chew the shrimp grass’s sinews and clean your teeth with its ligaments. Hear the mullets plopping. Mindless fish slime. Not bright (brilliant even) like you. Always on the lookout, I’m sure you knew before I did that I wanted a child. Mother of hangovers and berserks, here all is teeming fleabane and salt marsh pinks. The water is the loveliest place to be on a hot summer night — the stars blazing. Sitting nakedly in my chemise I breathe early death.

BEAST IN THE CITY / 2

Harlow & the Morning Kiss

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Mama Jean told Hollywood gossip columnists she never let her daughter wake up without finding her sitting by the bed waiting for her eyes to open. “I started when she was a tiny infant and I have never let anything interfere with my kissing her good morning as soon as she opened her eyes. Sometimes I sit for an hour watching her in her sleep.” Even the movie people were surprised when Harlow’s mother iced her daughter’s nipples for the shoot.

— Bombshell, David Stenn

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In the dark you resemble an animal. Your tongue is long, rough like a cat’s licking at the corner of your lips. Certain creatures eat best when they devour one of their own kind. Watching me in my sleep, how does it feel to see that my lids don’t close all the way and my irises roll back. What a shine. White eyes. Eyes in need of an exorcism. Exorcist eyes. Am I a child or a being wreathed in smoke and shadow? A female dog, a bitch with red ribs, long canine teeth, and hunger in my animal soul for your throat. Is that why you watch? The future turns misty gray — the damp earth partly swallowing the sun. I thought God was a cloud. Always drifting with dire warnings. The place where God should be inside me is empty. Mother Jean, what do you think I am? A baby with a head the size of a knuckle? A tadpole in raspberry jam? Or a carnivorous horse with needle teeth? In my mind you begot a ludicrous life form, not a rhino-like creature with six blunt horns, but me, perfect from the top of my head to my size three feet. A freak.

AFTER THE THIN MAN

Harlow & the Three Day Rest Cure

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The mystery patient listed her profession as ‘Actress,’ and left her Religious Denomination blank. According to Good Samaritan Hospital records, she had entered the hospital to rest. Actually, she was there for an abortion. Harlow was released after three days.

— Bombshell, David Stenn

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After the first abortion, fireflies sparked in my cheeks until my whole face felt engulfed in flames. Now I want the child inside me. A child of mine, a child of his I desperately wish for but the studio and my mother insists. They’ve asked me to meet the doctor for my surgery. The housekeeping maid tells me she’s from the Sugar Islands. Pregnant too. Her name is pretty. Liliàne will not shuck what’s in her stomach before it ripens. She likes the food the guests leave on their trays, food that fills her with happiness and sleep — egg pies, butter, milk, red meat, and bread white and sweet as cake. Her young boy at home hates root vegetables, soft fruits, and chicken. Chicken is stewed lizard. When I shall be rich I’ll eat only egg pies. This is the first I’ve heard her tell me she has promised her baby to someone — an actress too — as a giveaway baby. “Liliàne,” she says, “what you are doing for me has a very high price.” “Do not try to cheat,” I tell her, “I am not a stupid Island girl.” The male seahorse bears the young, the female goes from male to male. She saw it, raped for the first time at age 7. Little that she does not know. “When I dance in the land of lava I pitch a tent in the rain, sometimes in the sun. Your eyes are jade-green, they need rest. I shall buy golden shoes and fill them with butter. I shall always have butter.” She whispers the name of the director and his paramour actress who can’t spoil her body. I give her my mother’s dried fruit. She indolently picks over figs in a bowl, when she eats with her right, her left picks another. The black-purplish hair shadow fell over her face. The strange tropical eyes that go deep, the exalted neck and chin, the intelligent forehead. “I already have a fat son. One day I took away my breast, gave him a cup, and told him he must drink from it and he did.” A slow smile curls on her lips. “This one in my stomach will cry for me even after I give him up.”

PLATINUM BLONDE

Harlow & Sunset Strip

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“I went into a lot of bars to try and get her out. She was too gentle for the Hollywood life she was leading.” — Bombshell, David Stenn

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The Strip asks, So you want to be an actress? It’s MGM blowing cigar smoke into your platinum hair and here’s the drill. Let’s see you in a black chemise, hand on hip for a screen shot and now throw your head back and laugh. This is a Sunset Strip routine with a sweet rum martini sung to the tune of “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” The rest of Sunset Boulevard is dressed in Belair high heels and Echo Park’s blowing tinsel. The icy rum feels as you’re swallowing a snowdrift. Sunset Strip is a floating dice boat. A trumpet player’s canopy of strut. The pulp of lip skin and thorn-splintered fingering. He’s singing through his horn, heroin to gold stem. Ligaments and lungs, heart, whatever he is inside — rushing out. A muck of spilled guts. A ten-piece jazz band. A starched white dinner jacket and black tie. Sunset Strip flirts with a red Cadillac parked in a puddle of urine. A dump at a bus stop? Another rum martini appears in your hand, the triangle glass chilled with fish eggs. Irises. It’s a hangover. You want some caviar, emeralds to match your eyes? Get on your knees and let the fat man greet you. Let’s play some craps. Sunset Strip is a knife slid across your throat, the Sphinx Club curls your fingers around the handle and stabs your left ventricle. Flash your breasts — blooms suspended over bone. What do you like — limes, maraschino cherries, unwashed men/women. Drink fast and try for a slapdash happiness. The bloom doesn’t last and long before your first gray moment the Strip tells you to pack up. The music is over. Sunset Strip lifts you off your feet, throws you over its shoulder, and carries you to a bed of luxurious emptiness and violent death. These hands have never executed anyone, the Strip says. I’m not that psycho. Reaching to the plate of black grapes under the lamp, it nudges apart your legs and vomits.

Stephanie Dickinson lives in New York City with the poet Rob Cook and their senior feline, Vallejo. Her novels Half Girl and Lust Series are published by Spuyten Duyvil, as is her feminist noir Love Highway. Other books include Heat: An Interview with Jean Seberg (New Michigan Press), Girl Behind the Door (Rain Mountain Press), and her just-released Big-Headed Anna Imagines Herself (Alien Buddha). Her stories have been reprinted in New Stories from the South, New Stories from the Midwest, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. At present she’s finishing a collection of essays entitled Maximum Compound based on her longtime correspondence with inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey.

Oyez Review

The literary magazine of Roosevelt University

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Written by

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Oyez Review is an award-winning literary magazine. We publish an annual journal of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and art.

Oyez Review

The literary magazine of Roosevelt University

..

Written by

..

Oyez Review is an award-winning literary magazine. We publish an annual journal of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and art.

Oyez Review

The literary magazine of Roosevelt University

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