SHORT STORY CONTEST
EVERYBODY SHIMMIES NOW
by Drew Hardman
She went about the dressing room with her midriff exposed. Her navel and just a hint of pale belly. Her ample legs and elegant feet. Her delicate wrists and a long expanse of arm. It was all out there for me to see. She lived by the other set of rules—the ones I preached to her. But God help me if it didn’t make my hair stand on end, even at my advanced age.
She struck up a cigarette with a grace that was all her own. The matches were my favorite part. We had little books printed by the hundreds in cherry pink and apple-blossom white stripes. They were personalized with the company logo and her name in black script. The cigarettes were, of course, illegal, but easy enough to come by if you knew the right people. We kept them off camera at all costs, but who was I to deny the girls their smokes. It seemed a trivial thing.
The smell that wafted to my nose was metallic, electric. It was familiar to me—familiar to everyone who had the nasal filters installed back in the 80s, before the second and third generations. And anyone who didn’t have them put in back then was probably long gone.
When I was a very young boy, my mother took me to a carnival—that’s how old I am. What I remember most were the bumper cars with their seemingly dangerous sparks blasting above the wheeling carts, and the smell—that charred, ozone pong—that I now associate with exhaust, tobacco, or even a hard wind. The filters process anything harmful and turn it into nothing. Well, nothing save for the smell.
Jeanne turned to see me watching her by the door, feigning surprise. She gave me a smoky smile that perfectly matched her voice. “You should have said something, Charlie, hon. I would never keep you waiting.” And a little giggle for good measure.
Besides Jeanne, my mother was the only person in the world who had ever called me Charlie. I thought that was just fine. “They’re almost ready for the washroom scene. Makeup?”
“None for me, Charlie. Unless you think I need a touchup?” Her eyebrows rose in a look of pure innocence, and she appeared almost hurt.
“No. You don’t need it.” She never did.
She walked toward me, toward the vanity at my shoulder. She used that flexuous, sexy stride. Every bit of her seemed to move at once, in perfect harmony, swaying left then right, left then right. She walked like a wave breaking in the surf. Fluid. Measured. Perfect.
Jeanne paused at the mirror and leaned over to adjust her generous cleavage. It was too much, and I turned away.
“Don’t get bashful now,” she laughed, putting her arms around my shoulders and pressing herself against me. “There’s no sense in it.”
I relaxed against the warmth of her body, remembering how it was with her. From the very edge of my peripheral, I could see the smoke rolling up and away from the cigarette pinched between two of her slender fingers. “It just takes some getting used to when I get back here. Back to the compound.”
“Does it take some getting used to when you leave, too?” Jeanne said, breathing along the back of my ear. “I’ll bet that’s worse, without me there to ease the transition.”
I nodded. “It gets worse every time, kid. It’s so damned—”
“Sterile.” The way she said the word made it sound like a curse. Maybe it was a curse. “You ought to just stay here with me then, Charlie. They wouldn’t deny you that, surely. You and I make them rich. Don’t we do that?”
No, they wouldn’t deny me that luxury, I knew. Whatever it takes to keep the director happy. But I couldn’t bear to stay in this place any longer than I had to. Not while Jeanne was here, at least. Maybe not ever. “You make them rich,” I said finally. “I’m just along for the ride.”
Jeanne ran one hand through my thinning, white hair. “Well that’s one way to put it, I guess. But it’ll have to wait.” She gave me a playful little shove and turned back to the vanity.
I turned with her and really examined her body for the first time, not just the parts that captivated me. She was a little thinner, I thought, ashamed that I hadn’t noticed it before. Her ribs hung over her slender waist in a way that didn’t quite look healthy, and I could count the vertebrae through the creamy skin of her back.
She batted her eyes at me in the mirror, drawing my attention away from her spine. I slid one hand along her ribs and down her side, settling easily into the soft curve of her waist where she liked it. “You’re not eating enough, Jeanne. How are you feeling?”
Jeanne rolled her eyes with just a bit of reproach, a look that was spoiled when she erupted into a coughing fit. Surprised, I could do little but hold her shoulders as the coughing subsided into weak spasms, her back arching slightly as she stifled the urge in her throat. Once she had it under control, she snuffed her cigarette in the glass tray on the vanity. “Let’s not go over that now, Charlie,” she sighed finally. “I need to be in the right mood for this, you know.”
She was brushing her rich brown hair now, those full, natural, curls straightening and bouncing back like a spring. I traced the back of my hand along the silky hair behind her ear, but she swatted my efforts away with the brush, flashing another of her disarming smiles. “You know better than to muss my hair before a scene.”
When she finished her brushing, she turned and gave me a mock curtsy, hands off to her sides as if clutching the invisible folds of a skirt. Instead, she wore only the revealing undergarments her scene required. She looked gorgeous. The whole world thought so.
She was Jane Russell reincarnate, I thought for the thousandth time. To me, she would always be a young Jane Russell, with her chocolate hair and sultry eyes, just as the actress had been—what?—a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe it was crazy that I compared her to a woman I had never seen, save for the picture archives and those ancient, blurry films. A woman I had never known, save for the way most men know Jeanne: wrapped in the warm and virgin folds of the imagination. But you always remember your first. Isn’t that the saying?
* * *
My first was The French Line, a musical starring a young Jeanne Marie Broyer in her feature debut. She was nineteen years old then and just as healthy as could be. So healthy that I began to question the realities of this world—a rookie mistake, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it any easier to live with.
They say the 1953 original was in 3-D, or what silly tricks passed for third-dimensional shooting in those days. Jane Russell in 3-D. “It’ll knock both your eyes out!” claimed the great Howard Hughes. They just don’t do advertising like they used to. If we went that far today, the censorship bureau would shut us down in a heartbeat. Or worse.
Our poster for The French Line was simple and sweet. We took about a hundred pictures of Jeanne on that first shoot. Who could blame us? But the only one that ever saw the light of day was little more than a silhouette: her exquisitely curvy profile against one of those antique studio flash kits with the big umbrella reflector.
She was clothed, of course, in a clingy black dress with heels, practically a nun’s habit next to Jane Russell’s cutaway swimsuit. Even so, the photo was considered indecent by today’s standards, and most of the attention we drew was negative. But any publicity is good publicity, so they say.
We ran that ad in the liberal e-zines and housed a landing page on the telnet. We even launched an underground campaign that hit the digitals in the men’s rooms of the not-quite-legal speakeasies you can find in every major city. Jeanne and her black dress went viral. That picture made the rounds in a hurry, and next thing you know, we’ve got protestors lining up on the street. Meanwhile, the presales made us rich seemingly overnight.
Curves like Jeanne’s were a thing of the past. Seventy years or so of mandatory mastectomies would do that to a culture. Oh, it started slow, like anything else, but cancer has a way of changing minds—and bodies, for that matter.
They called it “The Big C” when I was a boy, but by 2040, they had moved another letter down the line. Ever-changing and incurable, cancer was the grim reaper’s scythe, and not a one of us was immune from its touch. It held sway over the media and the policy. Healthcare, after all, is one of those mythical stocks, pointed steady northeast like an economist’s wet dream.
By that time, nine out of ten women were flat up top and happy to be alive. And evolution works fast when you force its hand. That got the ball rolling well enough, but no one could have predicted the direction it took. For starters, the ideal body image of the fairer sex took a dramatic shift, and, just as demand drives supply, the most influential ladies across the globe embraced the new archetype, shunning implants, alterations, and image editing alike.
Sex appeal suddenly had a lot less appeal to me, but the rest of the world adjusted well enough. The objects of sexual attraction have shifted so many times in my lifetime that I’ve lost count. But back then, the desire—the need— was still intact.
It was perhaps a decade later when men started volunteering for orchiectomies, which killed two birds with one stone, pardon the pun. Testicular cancer and prostate cancer had become as common as a damn sinus infection. Before long, they started that process at the tender age of eighteen. The boys that hit the reproduction lotto donated their sperm to one of a hundred privately owned genetic banks, another prized moneymaker in an otherwise rotten economy. Then, they went under the knife for a quick snip snap—the ultimate vasectomy, so to speak.
This effectively took the sex out of reproduction. Artificial insemination is the only way to get it done nowadays, and it costs a pretty penny. Many people don’t even bother, which, alongside “The Big C,” is helping to alleviate the strain of overpopulation.
Add all that history together with a government that was leaning hard on censorship as a means to quell dissension, and you’ve got a society that’s leaning hard toward asexuality. One generation and then another born of nonsexual reproduction. I watched, complacent, as they neutered and spayed our culture.
It was the year 2101 when a group of washed-up filmmakers contacted me about an ambitious—that’s how they phrased it—revival of some historic pictures. Most of them were old-timers like me, and they remembered with fervor the freedoms our society celebrated less than a century past. They proposed that the current social and economical climate was starved for sex, whether the masses knew it or not. It was a culture ripe for a return to the risqué films of the mid-twentieth century, or so they guessed.
By that time, I had watched the prime of my life come and go through the yellowed nitrate prints of the old split reels, collected piecemeal over the years. I agreed to sign on as their director, though I don’t think I truly committed to the endeavor until I met the ephemeral Jeanne Marie Broyer.
Not many women of this day and age look like Jeanne. Her unspoiled genetics come from a level of such shameful poverty that the government freely denies it exists. But they do exist—in so many slums and subsidized communities across our nation. We found Jeanne at an open audition near the infamous Fairmount Superblock housing complex in Duluth, Minnesota.
I wish I could say I remember her audition in particular among the hundreds of girls that waited in line that day, but that would be a lie. The only thing I really remember about Duluth was the way the chill wind came off Lake Superior, numbing my face and putting a dull ache in my hips.
Jeanne signed her contract with a handful of other girls on the promise of fame and fortune, but, truth be told, that icy wind was all the motivation she ever needed. Jeanne’s family couldn’t afford to heat their flat that winter, and she would have signed damn near anything for an all-expense- paid trip to sunny California.
We delivered on that promise, along with the fame and fortune. Sometimes, I try to tell myself Jeanne made a fair bargain.
Our first collaboration was a musical short, featuring a group of girls dancing the shimmy to some nameless ragtime tune. It’s fair to say, Jeanne and her shimmy stood out among the rest. She had a grace to her movements, even then, turning the ridiculously perverse dance into a ballet.
The credits for that controversial piece listed the legendary Alan Smithee as director—to protect my anonymity, I asserted. The truth was, apart from Jeanne’s scant role, I couldn’t find any artistic merit in the short, and I was hesitant to attach my name to such smut.
Mr. Smithee had his good name attached to a number of other less-than-virtuous projects before my producers assented to a feature-length film. At another’s suggestion, I viewed The French Line for the first time, marveling at the specter of Jane Russell on screen and noting the wondrous similarities to her modern-day counterpart, the seductive Jeanne Marie Broyer. And a star was born.
The French Line remake was the first of many films directed by Charles Thomas. And nearly all of them showcase Jeanne in some prominent role. While I remember her best as Jane Russell, others might say she danced the shimmy just like Mae West. I can see her now, deliberately peeling one evening glove from her statuesque arm with a sultry elegance that was all Rita Hayworth. And hadn’t she stolen the screen as wholly as the great Marilyn Monroe—even without the iconic billowing dress. That scene, like so many others, landed on our cutting room floor.
Today’s scene had undergone so many rewrites that I lost track. This afternoon marked a sad graduation, of sorts, from the golden age of Hollywood to the raffish, sexploitation era that followed. In the 1960s, Jayne Mansfield shocked the world as the first mainstream pin-up to doff her clothes on film. Even sans-nudity, our daring remake of Promises! Promises! would, no doubt, incite a similar reaction.
* * *
Jeanne’s appearance in the studio drew a chorus of applause from some of the younger crew members. She smiled heartily at the cheers, even going so far as to plant a kiss on the cheek of some lucky perchman. When he blushed, she threw him an unabashed wink, softening the gesture by biting her bottom lip in a coy little grin, the perfect combination of playful and demure.
One corner of our massive soundstage was converted to a lavish, art deco washroom. As we approached, a pair of grips dumped the last pail of soapy water into an antique, claw-footed bathtub, sending a gush of steam up to join the mist wafting in the air. Jeanne ran one hand along the porcelain, following the tub’s curve from one end to the other, where the lip rose in a gentle arc like the spout of some great gravy boat.
She dropped her robe at the other side of the tub, casually tossing the silk garment to the floor with a twist of the shoulders. I retrieved the robe, folding it delicately over one arm as she surveyed the water. Jeanne held an arm out for me, and with my help she climbed easily into the tub, settling along the lip with her legs submerged to the knees in foam.
Suddenly, we were illuminated in the white glow of the key light. At the order of Gemein, our set designer and cinematographer, a pair of men hurried to rig an overhead to soften the light. Behind them, our chief camera operator and her assistant were busying themselves with color balance, making use of the pure white of the gleaming porcelain tub.
I gave Jeanne’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “In ten, kid,” I said softly. She offered a smile before turning to face the camera, her lips working silently as she worked through her lyrics. “In ten minutes,” I repeated, this time loud enough to catch the attention of Gemein and the rest of the crew.
As I eased across the soundstage, Jeanne’s robe fluttering along my forearm, I lifted the silk to my nose, hoping for even the faintest whiff of soap or cigarette smoke, only to be disappointed. I left the robe at the door of Jeanne’s dressing room, turning instead toward the dormitories. A trio of pretty girls passed me in the hallway. “Mr. Thomas!” They spoke in unison, laughing at the awkwardness of it. I only gave them a nod, hurrying along to the doctor’s office.
Pausing outside a pair of double-swing doors, I surveyed the room through a little glass portal, making sure the doctor was alone. He was reading, I saw, his head resting heavily on one hand while the other turned the pages on the screen. He pushed himself back from the desk when I entered, standing to offer his hand. “Back at it, Charles? It’s been too long.”
I shook his hand earnestly, noting the tired look in his dark eyes. “Good to see you, Dr. Huerta. I wanted to talk with you about—”
“Jeanne?” he asked. “I thought as much.” Resigned, Huerta shook his head, directing me toward a pair of slimline illuminators along one wall. He gave me a stiff look then, taking the measure of me as he had time and time again. “Perhaps you’d rather not know.”
“Go ahead, Luis.”
He seemed to stiffen at the sound of his name. “Lobular carcinoma in both breasts—what else is new? Signs of endometrial. That much is treatable, Charles. A simple hysterectomy. Radiation therapy.”
“Have you asked her?”
“Only every week.”
He rolled his eyes. “She is unwilling, Charles. I don’t claim to understand it, but—”
“No, Luis,” I interrupted. “What else? What else are we talking about?”
Huerta flipped the switch to activate the nearest illuminator, looking me in the eyes all the while. On the screen, the x-ray revealed a pair of lungs with the telltale signs of cancer. A cloudy gray mass marred the right lung, while the left showed a tangled spider web of hazy lines. I sighed at the horrible sight of it. “How far along?”
“Metastasis to the lymph glands,” Huerta said, “probable at this point.”
“The tobacco?” I asked. “So fast?”
“Hell, it’s the air mostly: radon, SO2, NO2, lead—whatever. She won’t even wear the filters outside, Charles. You know how Jeanne is. She made her decision already.”
“I know.” I stared at the tile floor, ashamed nearly to the point of losing control. “What kind of complications can we expect? What will it be like for her, Luis?”
“Her nails.” Huerta cringed. “Charles, pretty soon you’ll have to keep her fingers off the camera for the close-ups. There will be further weight loss. Weakness . . . .” he trailed off, blinking away the moisture in his eyes.
When he was ready, Huerta continued, “We can expect acute respiratory disease. She’s already had a couple bouts of bronchitis.” He smoothed his thick black hair. “Charles, can’t you get her out of here? Take her someplace comfortable?”
“She’s comfortable here, Luis.” I met his eyes again, looking for the hatred that I sometimes heard in his voice. “Is there anything else?”
“What do you want me to tell you, Charles? She doesn’t have long.”
I nodded. “I’ve got to get back.” I could feel his gaze on my back as I left the office. At the door, I turned to see him switch off the illuminator. The x-ray image faded to black. “You know I tried, Luis,” I called. “It’s like you said, she made that decision already. I can’t change her mind.”
He watched me in silence for a moment, only to speak when I turned my back. “I can’t do this much longer.”
“That makes three of us,” I whispered.
There was a time, long since gone, when they could’ve halted the spread of corruption in Jeanne’s youthful body, buying her a couple decades, at least. Perhaps as much as thirty years. Some of the other girls had gone through with the operations, moving away from our studio to live relatively normal lives. But not Jeanne.
In the hallway, I could hear Jeanne’s pure, alto voice above the din of the film crew. She took her work seriously, singing the inane lines of I’m in Love with brazen gusto, even in warm-ups. I found myself leaning against the wall, stopping to listen to her sweet voice where no one could see the tears spilling down my cheeks.
I wondered if any in our audience could appreciate the true talent of Jeanne Marie Broyer. I wondered if any of them could see beyond the aesthetic. She was as gifted as any actress or singer or entertainer of her generation—any generation, as far as I was concerned.
There are no honors or awards in our loathsome industry. No prizes to recognize greatness or artistic merit in our pornographic emprise. No trophies to present to the best among us, even if her performance should captivate the hearts of millions and millions. But there is a weight to it, all the same.
That is what I tell myself when I leave this place. Surely, some of the people out there see what I see when they look at her, listen to her. Surely, some of them see the real power of her and what she represents. Surely, some of them see the beauty when she dances the shimmy.
A former journalist turned copywriter, Drew Hardman is a marketing communications specialist and freelance writer based in Pittsburgh. With published works ranging from news and sports features to substantive legal articles, case studies, and short fiction, his portfolio includes interviews with Grammy-nominated artists, documentary film makers, and subject matter experts representing various industries. Hardman earned his bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. He is a two-time West Virginia Press Association award winner, and his fiction has received honors from The Renegade Word, WritersType, and Scribes Valley Publishing.