“You don’t smile much, do you,” said the man next to me.
“Smiling gets me into trouble.”
“I’m sure it does.” His eyes wandered the length of my body, from my shoulders to my shoes. I wondered if he could tell that I’d faked my stockings and that my seams had been drawn on with an eyebrow pencil. I tucked one leg behind the other, hoping to hide my ingenuity.
It was Friday night and I was at the Five Star, sitting next to this nameless man who’d just bought me my second bourbon. Glancing at my fingers, peppered with paper cuts and ribbon stains, I closed my eyes, trying to ease the headache I’d had since Tuesday. A chorus of Smith Coronas striking letterhead and the ping of two dozen carriage returns going back and forth nonstop echoed inside my head. I had just survived my first week as a typewriter for the insurance offices of Schlemmer Weiss & Unger. The job was dull—a real flat tire—and the pay was lousy. Of the twenty dollars I got in my weekly salary envelope, eight had already been grabbed by my landlady when I stopped by the rooming house to change out of my work clothes. I didn’t know how twelve dollars would carry me until my next payday, but I refused to admit that my mother was right. I was eighteen years old. Other girls my age got jobs and lived on their own. They managed. I’d find a way, too.
I took another sip of bourbon. It went down easy, smooth as Coca-Cola. I’d been in only a handful of speakeasies but I could see why they were so popular. Everyone was smiling and laughing, having a swell time. From the get-go, anyone with half a brain could have told you Prohibition wasn’t going to prohibit a damn thing. It only added to the allure of that forbidden fruit. People who didn’t even like to drink before 1920 now knocked on unmarked doors, whispered their way inside and lingered over rows of gin and whiskey bottles lined up like tin soldiers. If the Volstead Act had outlawed chewing gum instead of liquor, what do you think we would have chomped on with our friends, spent our last dollar on, and kept hidden in our garters? We always want what’s just out side our reach.
But Prohibition and speakeasies aside, I was no stranger to liquor.
“Good lord,” the man said, shaking his head, “how the hell can an itty-bitty dame like you drink so damn much?”
I wasn’t all that itty-bitty, not really. If I’d been standing, he would have seen that I was five-foot-three. But I was skinny. My body was as straight and sleek as my hair, which I wore bobbed to my chin with a thick row of bangs. Between my jet-black hair and dark eyes, made even darker thanks to my kohl eyeliner, I had that modern look, and it wasn’t lost on men like the one sitting next to me.
“I’m serious,” said the man. “How’d a little lady like you learn to drink like that?”
“My mother,” I said, swirling my bourbon in my glass. “She soaked my pacifiers in schnapps when I was a baby so I’d fall asleep.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He knocked back his drink and fished a cigarette from the crumpled package peeking out of his breast pocket.
I finished that round with him, slid off my barstool and went looking for Evelyn. I was bushed and ready to go home. As I teetered across the wooden floor, I knew it was too late to rethink that second bourbon or the meager bowl of soup I’d regarded as dinner. I perched my hand on the wall to keep the room from tilting.
The Five Star was packed, everyone sardined in, standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Couples filled the dance floor, doing the bunny hug and the Charleston while the South Side Jazzers played onstage. I went upstairs and found the second floor was just as crowded. Cigarette girls roamed the room in their short skirts and top hats, peddling trays of Lucky Strike cigarettes and White Owl cigars. Clouds of smoke floated above the blackjack tables manned by dealers dressed in red vests and matching bow ties.
Off in the corner, I spotted Evelyn by the slot machines, standing alongside a man with an unlit cigar jammed in his mouth. She’d been end-of-the-week beat when we’d arrived but not anymore. Each time the man pulled the one-armed bandit, she jumped up and down, her long brown spiral curls bouncing as she clapped, hoping the cherries lined up.
I accidentally bumped into a man at the craps table who had a floozy on either side of him. I apologized without really looking at him. It wasn’t until after he threw the dice and his girls gave off an exaggerated round of “Awwwwwwws” _that he got my attention. Tall, fit, and with his necktie askew and shirtsleeves rolled up, he had a slightly rumpled look about him that only truly handsome men could get away with.
“Can’t win ’em all, can you?” he said, giving me the once-over along with a mischievous grin, a kind of wonky, self-assured smirk no doubt prompted by the scores of innocent hopefuls who’d preceded me. It was men like him who ruined it for the next guy who came along. And there’d be the next one and probably one after that, because men like him were never anyone’s last stop on the road to happily ever after.
I was exhausted and not about to give him the satisfaction of knowing he was as good-looking as he thought he was. “Better luck next time,” I said, and turned to walk away.
“Hey, not so fast, doll.” He grabbed my hand, and it touched off a spark I wasn’t expecting. “I was winning until you showed up. What’s your rush?” He flashed that smile of his just as a few locks of hair fell forward onto his brow. Soft brown, the color of chestnuts. “If you don’t mind my saying”—he leaned in closer—“you’re a beautiful-looking woman. You must be a model.”
“Oh, c’mon.” I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Can’t you feed a girl a better line than that?”
“Okay, then how about an actress?”
“Please—do girls actually believe you when you say things like that?” I crossed my arms, hoping to stop my urge to reach over and brush that lock of hair aside with my fingertips.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let me buy you a drink. What’s your name?”
“Vera.” I looked over at Evelyn. She was still with that man at the slots, and there was no way she’d be ready to go. She’d no sooner leave his side than he’d leave a hot machine.
Even though I’d had those two bourbons already, I agreed to let him buy me a drink. He introduced himself as Tony Liolli and boy, I could tell right off he was some operator.
We almost made it to the bar when a red light overhead flashed and an alarm sounded. I flinched, it gave me such a start.
Tony put his arm down like a crossing gate in front of me. “Oh, goddammit!” The alarm sounded again, longer this time.
“What is that? What’s happening?” I gripped his arm, sobering up fast, thinking the place was on fire. My heart was racing.
“Raid!” someone shouted. “It’s the feds! Raid! Everybody clear out!”
All at once people began hollering as they shoved past us, rushing toward the stairs. A dealer rammed into me, nearly knocking me over, while he and another barkeeper raced around, trying to get rid of any traces of liquor. I saw one of them pull a handle on the side of the bar and all the bottles on the shelves went whoosh and disappeared through a trapdoor. Two other men bolted past me, grabbed hold of the bar and flipped it upside down, making it look like an innocent hutch. Within seconds all the slot machines were spun around; their flip sides were disguised as bookcases.
“C’mon, we gotta get out of here.” Tony grabbed my hand and weaved me through the crowd, heading for the doorway. The alarm blasted again and again while everybody charged toward the staircase, knocking tables and chairs out of the way. I trampled over someone’s lost fedora and nearly tripped on an abandoned pocketbook.
“Wait!” I turned around, my heart pumping like mad. “Where’s Evelyn? Evelyn!”
“Who the hell’s Evelyn?”
“Evelyn. My roommate.”
“Forget Evelyn,” Tony shouted back, “unless you wanna see the inside of a paddy wagon.”
After one last look for my friend, Tony and I were on the move, working our way toward the front, when the direction of the crowd suddenly reversed and people started backing up, rearing into one another. The feds were heading in, and everyone who’d been trying to get down the stairs rushed back to the main room. A heavyset man wearing too much cologne stepped on my foot just as the agents burst inside with their whistles blowing shrill, high-pitched chirps.
“C’mon,” Tony said, pulling at me. “Over here.” He moved fast, yanking me toward the back of the room. When we dead-ended into a concrete wall, I froze. But Tony grabbed hold of a brass knob, turned it and the wall slid to the right. It was just a facade concealing a rickety staircase. The dealers, barkeepers, waiters, and even the cigarette girls crowded in behind us.
I took one last desperate look around for Evelyn. “Evelyn? Evelyn!” It was no use.
Tony herded me and a dozen others down the stairs. There was no railing and not much light until we made it to the first-floor landing. Tony and another man unlatched a second doorway that led to another flight of stairs. We heard screams and cries coming from the upper floors. It sounded like a stampede.
When we reached the basement, Tony guided us to a long, narrow tunnel littered with garbage, smashed beer and whiskey bottles. It smelled of urine, and God knows what else. I began to tremble. I couldn’t see much, but I knew we must have somehow entered the sewer tunnel. Something scurried across the floor and I yelped, watching a long, skinny tail whip back and forth before disappearing into the shadows.
Tony hustled the cigarette girls and the other men toward the tunnel’s opening and one by one they vanished into the darkness. It was my turn. “Go on,” he said when I hesitated. “I’m right behind you. Go!”
It was freezing and though the air was stale and sour, I gasped for breath. The tunnel grew narrower, and something was dripping from above, landing in my hair and on my shoulders. I heard the sound of shoes sloshing through the water on the floor as the others made their way ahead of us. With each step, more filthy, icy water seeped in through my soles, soaking my toes.
Each time I asked Tony where we were, he said, “Keep going. Don’t stop, Vera! C’mon!”
“Okay—all right! I’m going, I’m going!” My feet inched along in the darkness, my fingers grazing the dripping, crumbling tunnel walls. The water was up to my ankles now and I could barely feel my feet; my toes had long since gone numb. Deeper into the tunnel, the shadows began to fade, eventually vanishing until everything became the blackest of blacks. I couldn’t see my hands in front of me. The wall was all I had, my only source of reference. I was surrounded by the sounds of sluicing water and rodents scratching and scurrying about. If Tony was still behind me, I had no sense of him. I was alone in that endless blackness, shuffling and groping my way forward.
When I thought I couldn’t take one more step, I heard the purr of automobiles and the rumble of the streetcars overhead. Shadows of the others came into view as we worked our way toward another set of stairs. A haze of light flooded down and I raced ahead, splashing through the sewer water.
Once I made it to the top, Tony was right behind me. I couldn’t believe where we were: We ended up on the sidewalk directly across the street from the Five Star. Paddy wagons were parked in front and federal agents were everywhere. I saw handcuffs on the man who’d bought me the bourbons earlier. He was being loaded into a paddy wagon along with everyone else who hadn’t made it out in time. I did another frantic search for Evelyn.
Oh, God, please don’t let her be arrested. What if the feds had her? How would I get her out of jail? It took money to do that and twelve dollars was all I had to my name. Evelyn, where are you!
More people were hustled into the paddy wagons while others raced past us up and down the sidewalk, distancing themselves from the action.
Tony checked his pocket watch. “Think you’ll be all right now?”
“You’re leaving?” My voice went up an octave and I shivered. Goose bumps freckled my damp arms and legs. It was December, my feet were soaking and my coat was being held hostage inside the Five Star.
“I wouldn’t stick around much longer if I were you.”
“So you are leaving?”
He leaned over and kissed my cheek. “See ya ’round, Vera.”
“Yeah. Sure. See you ’round.” I stared at the tops of my waterlogged shoes. I was standing like a schoolgirl, pigeon-toed. I saw where the sewer water had washed away the seams I’d drawn on the backs of my calves. When I looked up again, Tony had already disappeared around the corner.
Don’t you dare cry. Do not!
Suddenly I spotted Evelyn halfway down the block, standing beneath a streetlight, hugging herself to keep warm. I began to breathe again. She searched up and down the street like a child lost at the fair, strands of her long brown curls blowing across her pale face.
“Evelyn! Hey, Ev!”
She saw me running toward her and raced in my direction. We collided, throwing our arms around each other, half laughing, half crying, both of us talking at once.
“Oh my God.” She clasped a hand over her heart. “How did we end up in the middle of a raid?”
“I can’t believe what just happened.” I was so relieved, I hugged her again. “C’mon, let’s get the hell out of here.” I reached into my pocket for a dollar bill, waved it in the air and flagged down a taxicab.
RENÉE ROSEN is the author of EVERY CROOKED POT, a YA novel. DOLLFACE, A Novel of the Roaring Twenties is her first adult work of fiction. Renée has contributed to many magazines and newspapers, including Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, Complete Woman, DAME and Publisher’s Weekly. She lives in Chicago where she is at work on a new novel, WHAT THE LADY WANTS due out next November from Penguin. Visit her at www.reneerosen.com.
Excerpted from Dollface, by Renée Rosen, copyright © 2013 by Renée Rosen. With permission of the publisher, Penguin/NAL.