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She was five years old when her mother and grandmother took her, one evening, down to the Elgin Theatre to a vaudeville show. Bea spent the first half of the show watching the audience, glancing at the stage every so often without interest. She liked the music well enough, but most of the acts didn't interest her. Then, halfway through the second part of the show, something happened. The orchestra struck up a very peppy introduction, the curtains parted, and a dapper dark man began to dance in front of the footlights. His feet tapped out amazing rhythms as he moved around the stage, dancing up and down a short flight of stairs that led to another level about four feet above the stage. Bea sat forward, clutching the top of the back of the seat ahead, and finally stood up in order not to miss anything. Clinging to the seat in front, she was unaware that her own feet had begun to move, trying to duplicate what she was seeing. The amused couple seated to her left smiled at the little girl dancing along with the man on stage.
When it was over, and the dark man was gone behind the curtains, Bea asked her mother, "Who was that man?"
"Bill Robinson. Come on! Let's get out before the crowd."
Bill Robinson. Right then, Bea decided she was going to dance just like Mr. Robinson.
Lillian laughed when Bea later told her, "I want to dance like the dark man."
And Agatha, Bea's gramma, said, "Nice girls don't go on the stage."
By the time she was seven, Bea knew that, according to the naming book at the library, "Beatrice" meant "she who makes others happy." She was very pleased her mother had thought to give her the name, although she doubted Lillian had any idea what it meant.
By the time she was eight, Bea knew that her mother had been born in Hartford, Connecticut. At seventeen, Lil had found herself pregnant by the son of a wealthy West Hartford family. Upon learning of Lil's situation, the mother of the family offered Lil a lifetime income if she'd agree to take herself and her belly far away. Lil didn't mind. She signed a lot of legal papers, accepted the first installment, and, with her mother who'd been widowed four years before, relocated a few hundred miles to the north and west in Toronto, which was as far as the two of them were willing to go.
Bea learned the story in bits and pieces, partly from her gramma and the rest through her almost uncanny ability to remain still and silent for so long that people invariably forgot she was around and conversed freely in her presence, never dreaming their words might imprint themselves indelibly on their silent audience of one. Along with her capacity for stillness, Bea had an exceptional memory. Lil never had to write down her shopping lists for Bea; she merely said what she wanted, and Bea came back with everything she'd been told to get.
Since neither Lil nor Agatha especially liked children, Bea was, from the start, always well down on their list of priorities. They agreed that Bea was a very peculiar child. She didn't seem to need the company or friendship of other children and was content to spend hours, even entire days, amusing herself with only the radio or the Gramophone for company. She sang, she danced, she performed lengthy melodramas in which she acted out all the roles. And she could always be induced to absent herself from home for hours merely for the price of admission to the moving-picture show. Lil or Agatha rarely had trouble finding the five cents needed to buy themselves some free time. There was, they agreed, something downright strange about a little girl who'd spend hours on end singing and making a racket dancing around on the living-room floor.
By age nine, Bea knew what she wanted for her future and had roughed-in many of the details of the spectacular life she would one day have. All she needed now was to convince her mother or her grandmother to finance her dancing lessons. Both women insisted they didn't have money to waste on such nonsense, and hadn't they already told her enough times that nice girls didn't aspire to a life on the stage? Nevertheless, Bea persisted, certain she could wear them down. They displayed far more resistance than she'd anticipated. She was utterly frustrated, first, by her failure to convince them, and second, by her own enormous sense of urgency. She repeated her requests at regular intervals, convinced they'd finally break down and give her the money for the lessons just the way they always gave her the money for the moving-picture shows. She couldn't budge them.
By the time she was twelve, and ready to make one last, desperate pitch to prove to them the greatness of her need, something called "The Market" crashed, and the monthly payments from Hartford abruptly ceased, without notification of any sort. One month the money just didn't arrive. Lillian wrote at once to the lawyers in Hartford - getting Bea to check her spelling and make sure it was all right - demanding an explanation. Their reply came in the form of a three-word telegram: "family gone broke."
"What do they mean gone broke'?" Lillian wailed. "How could they be broke, with all their money?"
"Must be some kind of trick," Agatha mused skeptically. "Their sort just doesn't go broke. Better get on the telephone, Lil, and see if you can't get some straight answers."
The two women marched purposefully down the street to the drugstore, to the enclosed telephone to one side of the front door. Bea hovered near the druggist, watching him shape little pills and then pour them into a brown bottle, while at the front of the store her mother shouted into the mouthpiece of the telephone as if, because Hartford was far away, it was necessary for her to raise her voice in order to be heard.
"They could probably hear her in Hartford without the telephone," Bea said softly to herself, chagrined and somewhat embarrassed by her mother's habits. She watched the druggist's nimble fingers shift powders and liquids, creating concoctions that went into various phials and tubes. The man glanced over at her and smiled.
Bea wandered up to the front of the store and stood by the magazine rack, waiting for Lil to finish on the telephone. Her grandmother stood just outside the booth, both arms folded across the handbag pressed flat to her breasts.
Her mother and grandmother looked a lot alike. They were both fair-haired and blue-eyed; angular women, their hipbones jutted prominently, and their arms and legs seemed too long and too thin; their breasts were large for their narrow bodies, and there was something about them that made men stare. Lil was very pretty, but her mouth had a kind of looseness, a prominence in the lower lip that contributed to the impression she gave of being malleable. Agatha exuded an aura of wiry strength. When it came to arguments, though, it was Agatha who always gave in, while Lil hung on with a ferocious tenacity that could be positively alarming. Agatha liked to threaten, but rarely made good her threats. Bea usually approached her gramma for the things she wanted. There was a better-than-even chance Agatha would forget why she'd been saying no and all at once give in. Where money was concerned, Lil never forgot a thing and couldn't be persuaded to part with a penny if she'd made up her mind.
Bea didn't look one bit like them. Although nobody ever actually came right out and said so, it was accepted that she took after her father. And according to Agatha and Lil, this was a downright crying shame, because poor Bea got stuck with too much dark brown hair - a good brushing session usually resulted in Lil getting angry and Bea starting to cry, until Bea was finally old enough to take over caring for her own hair - hazel eyes that were sometimes blue, sometimes green, and most often the color of cigarette smoke; and a nose Agatha was forever saying she hoped Bea would grow into. She had a strong jaw; a high, smooth forehead; and a wide, well-shaped mouth. Altogether, despite her diminutive stature, she had a very mature look.
"That child was born old!" Agatha said often, with slightly narrowed eyes.
Bea considered this a compliment. She'd long-since decided she didn't care that she wasn't a curly headed, big-eyed cutie like her mother. She was going to be famous one day, and probably rich, too. And when you were famous, it didn't matter if your jaw was kind of square, and your chin had a little dent in it, and your eyes, according to Lil, "kind of give me the creeps."
Lillian emerged from the telephone booth pale and distraught. "What're we gonna do?" she asked her mother. "They're not gonna send any more money."
Agatha sucked in her breath, then let it out slowly. "Well," she said, "I guess somebody around here's gonna have to go to work."
"Not me!" Lillian looked horrified at the prospect. "What do I know how to do?"
Agatha gave her what Bea thought was a not very nice smile, one that made Lil look even more horrified.
"If it comes to the worst, my girl," Agatha said, holding open the door, her words going directly into her daughter's ear as Lil went out past her in a daze.
As usual, they'd forgotten her, and Bea followed along after them like a small, dark shadow, listening to their worried exchange.
"We'll stop and get the papers, start looking at the want ads," Agatha stated.
The idea of want ads intrigued Bea. It was something she'd never heard of before, and she wondered if you could make up a list of all the things you wanted and then put it into the newspaper so people could read it and then go get you those things. If that was the way it worked, maybe she'd write out her own want ad and get it put into the newspaper. Maybe then somebody would finally give her her dancing lessons.
"Oh, and I suppose you'll be getting a job, too?" Lil snapped at her mother.
"How much've you saved, Lil?" Agatha asked calmly. "Years of money and how much of it did you put aside for a rainy day?"
"You know perfectly well how much I have!" Lil flared indignantly. "It went to pay for everything."
"Well, then." Agatha sniffed triumphantly. "People here will be going out to work, I do believe."
After her mother and gramma had gone indoors with the newspapers, Bea sat down on the top step of the porch, elbows on her knees, to view the passing traffic on the street. Through the open window behind her came Lillian's and Agatha's voices as they read aloud from the newspapers, then discussed the ads which, as it turned out, were nowhere near what Bea had thought. Annoyed at her own foolishness, she sat, her toes and heels tapping out a gentle rhythm on the wooden steps. If she just could have metal plates on her shoes, when she set her feet down there'd be a wonderful, clean click instead of the muffled, unsatisfying sound of leather soles meeting worn, splintery wood from which the paint was peeling. Swinging her knees back and forth beneath her elbows, she imagined a great, shiny expanse of something like marble where every step you took would click back at you with that swell sound.
Suddenly, she had an idea she thought might just work. She jumped up and ran into the house. At the kitchen door, she made herself go quiet, then moved inside and began opening and closing cupboards and drawers. Finding what she wanted, she shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat - she refused to wear clothes without pockets, an eccentricity that maddened Lil and prompted Agatha to accuse her of troublemaking - and stood for a moment watching Lil lick the tip of her pencil prior to circling something in the newspaper. Two empty teacups sat to one side on the table, and in the middle was an ashtray with lit cigarettes perched on two of the three metal lips.
Back on the porch, she undid her shoes one at a time and slipped them off. She placed a bottle cap on the toe of each shoe, put several rubber bands over the entire front of the shoe to hold the caps in place, then put the shoes back on. They felt tight and kind of lumpy, but she thought they really might work. Down on the front path she tapped her left foot experimentally, gratified by the slightly tinny but nevertheless metallic sound of the bottle cap meeting the cement. Heel toe, heel toe. She wished it wasn't so cold and that she didn't have to wear her heavy coat. She hated not being able to move freely. Heel toe, heel toe. It would've been better if she could've figured out some way to attach caps to the heels as well, but this wasn't bad. Pleased, she tapped her way down the length of the walk, doing quick little hops, a fast turn, and landed on her toes, her arms outflung.
"What're you doing?" a small voice asked.
Bea looked over to see Becky and Franny Armstrong. They were identical twins. Bea had always been able to tell them apart when nobody else could, because they walked and moved in totally different ways. She never could understand why she was the only one who could go right up to both of them and pick Becky out to talk to.
"Tap-dancing," she answered.
"Those aren't taps," Becky the pragmatist said, pointing.
"I didn't say they were," Bea defended herself.
"What're they, bottle tops?" Franny asked, about to laugh.
"They're magic buttons, if you must know. Buddy Rogers, the great movie star, gave them to me," Bea replied, then wondered for a moment if this might not just be true. Maybe this was how magic worked. You said something that you very badly wanted to be real, and saying it made it happen.
"Magic buttons," Becky repeated, her freckled brow furrowing slightly. "What makes them magic exactly?" Becky was the nicer of the twins, although she was forever asking all kinds of questions about absolutely everything.
"They're magic, all right. And if I tell you what they can do, they won't be magic anymore. They'll lose their power. I promised Mr. Rogers when he gave them to me that I'd never tell a living soul what they can do."
"Honest?" Becky asked, halfway to believing.
Captured by the potency of possibility, Bea tapped her right toe several times with pleasure, as she did, wishing with all her might for the money to pay for her lessons. Unfortunately, the friction was too much for the rubber bands which frayed and flew apart, causing the bottle top to drop from her shoe with a little tink. It lay, its metal interior revealed, on the path, and Bea regarded it ruefully, saddened by life's failure once more to provide magic.
"Magic button, my Aunt Hatty!" Franny scoffed. "That's just an old bottle top, and I knew it the whole time. Come on, Beck! Didn't I tell you, she's just silly!"
Offended as well as disappointed, Bea faced them, with deadly seriousness saying, "You'll be sorry you said that, Franny Armstrong. It is magic, and now you'll be cursed" - she paused dramatically for impact - "for the rest of your life." The somber quality of her tone and the dire prediction undid Becky who burst into tears and began tugging frantically at her twin sister's arm.
"You take that back!" Franny demanded, shaking away Becky's hand.
"Oh, no. I'm afraid I can't." Bea lowered her already husky voice even more. "It has nothing to do with me. You're cursed now, because you didn't believe. I am very, very sorry for you." Enjoying her role as guardian of the magic button, she bent, retrieved the bottle top, and, holding it secure in her fist, walked - one shoe silent, the other squealing against the cement - back up the front walk to the porch. Behind her, Becky was crying, attempting to move her deeply offended sister back across the street to safety.
"I'm putting my own curse on you!" Franny raged. "I'm cursing you right this very moment."
"Oh?" Bea stopped at the top of the steps. "What's the curse?"
"Franny, you stop this!" Becky pleaded, positive terrible things would happen to all of them.
"One of these days you'll break every bone in your body!" Franny hollered. Since their mother regularly threatened to break every bone in her or Becky's body, this seemed to Franny the preeminent curse, and, satisfied, she turned, marched past her bleak-eyed twin, and crossed the street.
"She doesn't mean it," Becky told Bea wretchedly.
"Oh, yes I do!" Franny shouted from the middle of the road. "Oh boy, I sure do!"
"Better watch out for that car coming!" Bea pointed up the street, and without looking, Franny galloped to the far side, then turning, saw there was nothing coming and screamed at Becky to come home that very instant.
After pausing to remove the rubber bands and bottle top from her other shoe, Bea went inside to the living room. She shut the door behind her, folded back the rug, and began trying to drop her heels and toes on the hardwood floor in rapid succession, thereby producing a steady tattoo of sound, the way Mr. Robinson had. If only she could have met him. He could've showed her how to do all of it. She knew there were special steps she could learn that would enable her to create all kinds of different sounds - she could hear them inside her head - but she just couldn't figure them out on her own. She'd already made up lots and lots of steps, but she needed a teacher to show her more. And she needed taps for her shoes.
She had nothing to lose, so she asked again for dancing lessons, and this time Lil went wild. "Are you nuts?" she cried. "We don't have money for dancing lessons! When, when, when are you going to quit nagging about those damn dancing lessons?"
"It's very important."
"Well, that's just too bad. You'll be lucky if we don't all starve to death."
"Why would that make me lucky?" Bea wanted to know.
Waving the hand that held her cigarette so that ashes scattered all over, Lil said, "Go to bed or something, and stop bothering me! I've got things to think about."
"It's only six o'clock. We haven't even had supper yet."
"Ooohhh!" Lil sighed. "Be a good kid, and go play for a while. Your gramma and I are trying to talk."
"Why'd you have me anyway if you never want me around?" Bea asked, wondering if this time she might get the real true answer instead of the usual runaround. Just once she'd have liked to hear her mother say the truth right out loud.
"Who knows?" Lil shrugged.
The usual runaround. Bea would've loved it if Lil had answered, "I had you for the money," or "I wanted a kid," or "Who said we never want you around?" But it was pretty silly to hope for that, Bea reasoned, from a woman who liked to tell strangers she was a widow when she didn't even have a wedding ring to wear.
"Soon," Agatha answered from the stove.
"Half an hour."
"Okay. I'm going out for a walk."
"Don't you go too far!" Agatha called after her. "When I say half an hour I mean half an hour."
Bea strolled up the street, looking around, every few yards trying an experimental dance step. She really needed taps for her shoes. And somehow, some way, she had to get dancing lessons, and soon. If it took very much longer, she'd be too old to learn all the steps. Those lessons were just the most important thing in her life. She could already sing, and she knew she was good because a lot of the time she liked to sing out loud when she was going for a walk, and three times people had stopped to give her money, patting her on the top of the head and smiling at her.
Recalling the way people had stopped to compliment her, she thought maybe she'd just have to find a way to get the money for the lessons by herself.