Harold’s silent swan song

My favouritest of Harold Lloyd’s silent features, Speedy, was released 7 April 1928. It was Harold’s final silent, and is such a beautiful, poignant farewell to this era of his career. Harold alternated gag comedies with character comedies, and this is a gag comedy.

New York City is a city of speed, progress, fast-paced lives, but not so for Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff), who drives the city’s last horse-drawn streetcar. He lives with his granddaughter Jane (Ann Christy), who’s going steady with Harold “Speedy” Swift.

Railroad officials have been pestering Pop to sell them his streetcar, but he refuses to take their offer. Either he sells on his terms, for his price, or not at all.

We now learn Speedy has a new job, the latest in a long line of short-lived jobs. Each time, he insists this job will be successful. His jobs all have one thing in common—being within phoning distance of Yankee Stadium.

Speedy’s latest job is as a soda jerk, and he constantly phones for the latest score. Speedy has a very clever way of communicating this to his co-workers, who love the Yankees just as much as he does. Harold always had such ingenious gags, perhaps partly a result of having to learn how to navigate life with only eight fingers. He had to figure out ways to do things other people might never consider.

Speedy knows he’s out of this job too when there’s a mishap with flowers he’s supposed to deliver to the boss’s wife. Pop and Jane are rather upset, but he assures them he’ll quickly find a replacement job, just as he always does. Speedy also promises Jane they’ll go to Coney Island.

The vice-president of the railroad company comes to ask for Pop’s rock-bottom price. While he’s writing the figure, Speedy sees a newspaper story announcing a planned merger of streetcars, which can’t succeed unless small franchises are bought up. Speedy conveniently arranges for the card with Pop’s price to fall on the floor, and Speedy changes it from $10,000 to $70,000.

Harold writes with his left hand in this scene. Though he was able to write with his three-fingered right hand, it makes me happiest to see Harold doing things left-handed. That must’ve been a huge shot of pride for the lefties in the audience, in an era when a great majority of them were bullied and shamed out of their natural inclination.

Speedy and Jane then go to Coney Island. I absolutely love the footage of real Coney Island rides, all of which now exist only in memory. These people were so lucky to be able to go there and experience all these wonderful attractions, food stands, games, prizes, kiosks, and rides, and to have such cheap subway fare.

Before a curved mirror, Speedy gives himself the finger, possibly the first known instance of this on film.

After a day full of fun, and many misunderstandings with other amusement park-goers, Speedy and Jane head home with almost too much to carry, and a dog who wouldn’t leave them alone. They ride home in the back of a furniture truck, and play at it being their own home.

Speedy proposes, and Jane says she won’t think of it until Pop’s affairs are settled. Speedy promises to get a job in the morning, and to help Pop.

That next job is as a cabbie, which of course quickly descends into disaster and comedic misunderstandings. One of the gags involves a suitcase leaking a trail of liquid in front of a cop, which 1928 audiences understood meant he was violating Prohibition.

In this era, it was only 15 cents for the first quarter-mile, and five cents per each additional quarter-mile.

Speedy eventually gets the passenger of a lifetime—Babe Ruth. During the drive to Yankee Stadium, Speedy barely watches the road, so overcome with star fever. Babe barely arrives in one piece, but nevertheless invites Speedy to watch the game.

Who should be right in front of Speedy at the game but his boss! Also at the game is the cop who wrote him two tickets.

While hiding in a phonebooth, Speedy overhears the railroad bosses hatching a plan to drive Pop out of business. If the car doesn’t run at least once every 24 hours, he’ll have to give it up. Towards this end, they plan to start a fight to distract him, and steal the car during it.

At home, Speedy notices Pop is sick, and asks if he can drive the car for the next few days. Pop agrees.

Now it’s up to Speedy to figure out a way to save the day.

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WeWriWa—Kit’s avant-garde turkey

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. This year, my Thanksgiving-themed snippets come from Chapter 19, “Happy Thanksgiving,” of the book formerly known as The Very First (which is set during 1938). The new and improved title will finally be revealed upon its release next year!

In first period art class, new immigrant Sparky (real name Katherine, born Katharina) is very confused to encounter the concept of Thanksgiving. Her best friend Cinnimin, whom she lives with, gives a basic explanation. True to form, their rebellious friend Kit decides to make a very non-traditional turkey.

At the next table over, Kit was defiantly using her watercolors to paint the white construction paper purple, green, bright pink, turquoise, teal, and blue.  She completely ignored the brown and black paper, and assembled her turkey only from pieces of the orange, yellow, red, and painted papers.

“That doesn’t look like a real turkey,” Adeline whispered. “Your folks won’t be very happy to see that.”

“My daddy will love it.  He loves everything I do.” Kit dipped a wooden stick into the bowl of homemade adhesive and applied it to the bottom of her feathers. “Abstract art is neater than boring paintings of angels, flowers, and lakes.”

The War of the Worlds at 80, Part II (The panic that never was)

The myth of mass panic re: The War of the Worlds was promulgated right from the jump. In spite of having a rather small audience, and even fewer of that small number being fooled so badly they went into panic, the media ran with a sensationalised story.

During the Depression, newspapers lost a lot of popularity as radio came to the fore (similar to how TV caused the popularity of movies to sink in the Fifties). Thus, journalists seized on the chance to paint radio as unreliable, untrustworthy, and irresponsible.

The very day afterwards, Halloween 1938, many newspapers began running fake stories about this panic that never was, and taking radio officials to task for letting this show air.

Following these early phony stories, a growing number of people began claiming they listened to the show, when they’d done no such thing. Soon, popular mythology had it that most of America was listening that fateful night.

The night of the broadcast, the C.E. Hooper ratings service phoned 5,000 households for a survey. A mere 2% gave responses indicating they were listening to Mercury Theatre. Hence, the other 98% were listening to something else, or nothing. Many were tuned in to the hugely popular Chase and Sanborn Hour on NBC.

While it’s impossible to ascertain how many people switched stations when the first musical interlude on C&S began, it certainly wasn’t millions, as the mythology claims.

Several important CBS affiliates pre-empted Mercury Theatre for local programming. The day after, CBS commissioned a national survey, and discovered most people never heard it. Those who did understood it was a dark Halloween prank.

Additionally, it was listed in radio guides for the week, day, and month! People who read those magazines and newspaper sections knew what would be on tap.

Six weeks later, the American Institute of Public Opinion issued a report claiming about a million people were frightened by the show. In 1940, Prof. Hadley Cantril of Princeton published a summary of the findings, The Invasion from Mars (which is still in print). He claimed 6,000,000 people tuned in, and that 1.7 million believed it was legit. 

Cantril himself admitted the findings were heavily skewed and biased, since they primarily came from NY and NJ (the states the Martians attacked), and AIPO offered an audience rating “over 100 percent higher than any other known measure of this audience.”

Cantril also had a very élitist attitude towards people who weren’t highly-educated and from at least a middle-class background (i.e., a good portion of Americans at the time). Finally, he conflated descriptors like frightened, excited, and disturbed with a state of panic. Many people in the late Thirties felt frightened and excited by radio dramas.

Orson Welles telling reporters no one in his theatre company thought their show would cause mass panic, Halloween 1938

All the rumours spread in the wake of the broadcast turned out to be 100% false. There were no suicides, panic-related deaths, hospital treatments for shock, calls to join the military because of the show, car crashes, riots, fleeing crowds. A single listener tried to sue CBS for $50,000, claiming they caused nervous shock, but her lawsuit was quickly thrown out.

Many of the people who believed the story was legit thought the invaders were really Nazis. Welles tapped into very real fears about the threat of war and fascism. This was also an era where authority figures were overwhelmingly, automatically, unquestioningly believed.

In 2003, the show was one of the first 50 additions to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.

Happy Halloween!

To mark my favouritest holiday, this year’s Halloween story comes from Chapter 45, “October Oblectations,” of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. Most of the chapter is set over Halloween 1949.

Irina wakes up an hour earlier than usual on Halloween and goes right to her closet for the costume she designed over the last few weeks.  This year, she decided to dress as a flapper, in a teal knee-length velvet dress with shoulder straps and hundreds of silk tassels she spent countless hours sewing on.  Every time she moves, the entire dress moves with her.  The dress is very form-fitting, and shows off the still-developing but larger than average bustline and curvaceous hips she’s so proud of.  Her legs are covered by turquoise silk stockings held up by black satin garters with orange rosebuds.

 

Irina takes a deep breath, then ties her long hair back and severs it.  She sets the ponytail on her bureau and trims off the rough edges until her newly-bobbed hair has a smooth, uniform length.  None of the girls and women Irina knows still wear bobbed hair.  It’ll make her stand out even more, but the style she’s begun cultivating over the last few years has never been about blending in.  If she wanted to be just like everyone else, she’d have shoulder-length hair and dress like a miniature version of a housewife.  Irina has given herself the shortest bob she had the nerve for, stopping just short of being a shingle bob.  She doubts she’ll ever be brave enough to cut her hair as short as a man’s like Katrin, nor that she has the facial features and personality to pull it off.

After Irina covers her hair with a dark turquoise silk cloche hat she found in the St. Paul antiques shop Andrey frequents, she begins piling on the jewelry she picked up when she bought the hat.  A waist-length necklace of alternating black and red Bakelite beads; a three-tiered choker with purple pearls of all different sizes and shades; lapis lazuli French hook earrings in her first set of ear piercings; onyx French hook earrings in her second set; seven Bakelite bangle bracelets on each arm, in a rainbow of colors.  To avoid overcrowding and too much attention, she’s once again left off her costume rings.

Irina opens her top bureau drawer and pulls out a vial of kohl.  She slathers it liberally around her eyes with her mascara brush, then applies it to her eyelashes, just as thickly.  Irina combs her eyebrows across and down before smothering them in the darkest eyebrow pencil she has.  She coats her eyelids in dark teal eyeshadow.  Though she normally prefers unconventional colors for lipstick, today she applies very dark red.  Flappers never wore purple, dark blue, black, or dark green lipstick.  She painted her nails deep red last night, so they’d be dry in time.

Finally, Irina steps into evergreen leather pumps with embossed Sphinxes and spritzes herself with Shalimar.  She wishes Vadim were here to see her, but she could arrange for him to see pictures of her costume the next time their families get together.  Irina smiles as she pulls her new shawl around herself, imagining Vadim putting it on her when she’s old enough for him.  If she’s lucky, the ladies will stay away from him on account of his red hair, as they overwhelmingly stayed away from Yuriy, and he’ll be hers, all hers, once their age difference has levelled out.

Ivan almost drops the teapot when Irina comes to the breakfast table, while Lyuba crosses herself.  Sonyechka and Tamara, respectively dressed as a pirate and Renaissance girl, look at her in admiration.

“This costume is at least as good as last year’s,” Sonyechka says.

“Irisha, please tell us that’s a wig,” Ivan stutters. “Surely you wouldn’t disrespect us by cutting your hair in secret.  Girls are supposed to have long hair.  Only adult women should have bobbed hair.”

“It’s almost 1950, Papa.” Irina puts scrambled eggs on her plate. “Hairstyles change.  I look much more adult now, and more distinctive.”

“You just turned sixteen!  You’re not supposed to look adult!  That makeup is even worse.  You’re only allowed to paint your face on special occasions.”

“Halloween’s a special occasion.  I never dress like this on regular school days.”

“Only prostitutes and other disreputable women wear makeup, particularly lipstick.  I grudgingly accept Tanya wearing it, but she never cakes on nearly that much.”

“Tanya isn’t a prostitute or disreputable,” Lyuba chides him. “She’s a respectable married woman having her fifth child.  Would Kolya have wanted her as his wife and the mother of his children if she were a fallen woman like I used to be?”

“What’s a fallen woman?” Tamara asks.

“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”

“Did you just say Tanya’s having a fifth child?” Ivan asks. “When did this happen?”

Lyuba swirls her spoon in her tea. “She told me and Liza recently.  She and Kolya have known for awhile, but kept it secret.  Kolya wants another boy, after waiting so long for Vova.”

“Why are so many men obsessed with having boys?” Sonyechka asks. “Even modern men like Kolya act like having a boy is the greatest achievement ever.”

“It’s how history unfolded.  A lot of factors contributed to it, and these attitudes went unchecked and accepted for centuries.  By the time women and some enlightened men began questioning them, they were too deeply-entrenched to overturn overnight.”

“I wish I could study women’s history when I’m at university.”

“For now, all we want you to do is earn good marks in fifth grade,” Ivan says. “The sooner you finish breakfast, the sooner you can walk to school.”

“Don’t you want nice, respectable boys to notice you, Irisha?” Lyuba begs. “Even I never painted my face when I was a fallen woman.”

“Are you sure you can’t tell me what that means, so I can make sure I never become one?” Tamara asks. “I want everyone to like me, and want to find a nice husband and have a family when I’m old enough.”

Lyuba fondly smiles at her baby. “It’s a very grownup concept you’ll never have to worry about.  You’re being raised to love yourself, and have a wonderful father who treats his wife and daughters like diamonds.  Perhaps you’ll find your future husband among our family friends.  You’re just the right age for Petya’s Adam and Katrin’s Marek, and might not have to bother with outsiders.”

Ivan violently grimaces. “Don’t remind me of that.  I don’t want that crazy woman sharing blood with me.  It’d be an honor to share blood with Petya, but I’d be sick to my stomach if that crazy Katrin’s final child married our final child.”

“Oh, take it easy.  Toma’s more than ten years away from marriage age.  I was just thinking out loud.”

Irina takes her little sisters’ hands after they finish breakfast.  During the short walk to their respective schools, they all daydream about moving to the Twin Cities and then going to New York for university.  People in big cities are much more accepting of differences, instead of being hayseeds who lash out at anything outside their tiny bubble of experience.

4

Bogdana has been prevailed upon to put on a costume for Halloween and join Fyodora in the main house, though she’s refused to wear the type of fun, revealing costume she would’ve worn in years past.  She’s turned a baggy black sarafan as the basis for a nun’s habit, and made a veil and collar with black and white fabrics from Fyodora’s cast-off pile.  A prayer rope and the largest cross she could find hang around her neck.  Bogdana’s hemline drags all the way to the floor, covering the black flats she usually wears on Sundays.

Fyodora looks at the clock when the doorbell rings. “That couldn’t be trick-or-treaters already, could it?  It’s only four.  I’m not taking Ramona and Olik till six.”

“Maybe it’s Gilbert coming to play with me,” Oliver says hopefully, adjusting his firefighter hat. “He’s dressed like a policeman.”

Fyodora smiles when she gets the door. “Bogusya, come take a look at our first little trick-or-treater!”

Bogdana stands up and slowly ambulates over.  There stands Achilles, dressed as a bullfighter and holding a bouquet of orange, dark red, and white roses.  Only as an afterthought does Bogdana notice him holding hands with a tiny jack-o-lantern with big brown eyes.

“Happy Halloween.” Achilles extends the roses. “You deserve fresh flowers to make you happy.  I made them Halloween-colored, so they’d really stand out.”

“Thank you.” Bogdana takes the roses.

“I’ll put them in water for you,” Fyodora says. “Mr. Medved, would you like to introduce your companion?”

Achilles gently nudges her forward, smiling the biggest smile Bogdana’s ever seen him use. “What do you say, Klarika?”

“Trick-or-treat,” she says in a voice as tiny as she is, holding out an orange cloth bag with yellow jack-o-lantern cut-outs sewn on.

Bogdana puts an Almond Joy bar in her bag, then adds a pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  The poor girl has no mother, and deserves extra sweets from somewhere.

“What do you say now, Klarika?” Achilles asks.  When Klara doesn’t say anything, he kneels and whispers in her ear.

“Thank you.”

“Can you tell the nice lady that in another way?” He whispers to her again.

“Hvala.”

“Is that Slovenian?” Bogdana asks.

Achilles nods. “Klara’s eighteen months old now, and knows about seventy words in both English and Slovenian.  Being Klari’s Očka is the greatest joy of my life.  She’s the reason I wake up every morning and work so hard in med school.  It would’ve been easier to raise a son as a single father, but God wanted me to be the father of a little girl more than a little boy.  She’s Sabina’s eternity.  If you ever have a child, you’ll know the feeling of your heart walking around outside your body.” His jaw clenches. “Klari was in the apartment when my Sabina was attacked, but praise Christ, they never put their hands or anything else on her.  Sabina reassured me they never touched Klari.  When Sabina did what she did, Klari was with my sister Vivienne, so she didn’t have to watch her mother dying or go a week without milk.” His eyes grow soft. “I don’t want to imagine what would’ve happened had Klari been there.  The cops might’ve found her dead in her crib, and I’d have nothing left to remind me of the only woman I ever loved.”

Klara squeals as Peppermint darts into the room. “Mucka!”

“Yes, the nice lady has a kitty.” Achilles smiles another big smile at Klara. “This is a mačka, not a mucka.  Peppermint is an adult, not a baby.”

“Would you care to stay to supper?” Fyodora asks. “I’m taking my children out for trick-or-treating at six, and expect to be home by eight.  Ramona will be asleep in her stroller most of the time, but I can’t help showing her off in her cute little costume.  She’s a strawberry.”

“I can’t impose on your family.  I brought Klari to her grandparents and a few other friends’ and relatives’ homes back in Manhattan, and came here to check on Bogusya.  Klari was too young to trick-or-treat last year, and could only handle about twenty houses in a short range this year.  By the time she’s in first grade, she’ll be able to handle a normal Halloween night.”

“Please, I insist.  Did you have plans for a party?”

“Med students and single fathers don’t have time for social lives, I’m afraid.  I planned to go right home after coming here.  Klari’s bedtime is seven-thirty.”

“She can sleep on the sofa, and on the way home.  I’ve wanted you to come for a meal since I met you.  You’ll only be with my husband and Bogusya this time, but next time, my children and I will be there too.”

“Sure, if you absolutely insist.” Achilles picks Klara up. “Your little feet must be tired.  The nice lady and her aunt will give us a tour of this beautiful house, the guesthouse, and the garage, and then you’ll have a nice supper and go to bed.”

“Isn’t he a good father?” Fyodora whispers to Bogdana in Russian. “You always want to find a man who treats the women and girls in his life like diamonds.”

“I’m ruined,” Bogdana says. “Even if I weren’t, Achilles is far too old for me, and he’s a widower with a child.”

“That shouldn’t matter if he’s the right man.  That cute little girl needs a mother, and you need someone to love you just as much as he loves her, in the way only an adult man and woman can love one another.  I’d be shocked if Achilles doesn’t have feelings for you.  He’s probably having a hard time figuring out how to express these feelings given your complicated situations, but the way he acts towards you paints the picture of someone who really cares for you.  I also doubt a caring single father would introduce his child to just anyone.”

Bogdana hurries to catch up with Achilles and Klara.  She lets Fyodora do the talking during the tour, mostly thinking of the excuse she can use to get back in the clinic as soon as possible.  During the brief stop in the largest bathroom, a smile breaks over her face.  She can use a harsh soap that gives her a rash.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

5

Milena holds Meri’s hand tightly as they start on the walk through Marble Hill.  For the Lindmaas’ first Halloween, Milena made Meri a fairy costume with a gauzy pink dress and pink, mint, baby blue, and pale orange wings.  For Tarmo, she made a monkey costume, and a yellow trick-or-treating bag with appliquéd bananas.

“People in Sweden don’t do this,” Tarmo says as they approach the first house. “No one in Estonia does it either.”

“It’s a very American, British, and Canadian custom,” Milena says. “They don’t call it trick-or-treating in the United Kingdom and Ireland, but they have a very similar concept.  Who wouldn’t want the fun of dressing up and getting free candy?”

Tarmo rings the bell, and he and Meri repeat the greeting Milena taught them.  The woman who answers the door gives them each a 5th Avenue bar and smiles back at Milena.  People who don’t know her assume she’s these children’s mother, and she’s not eager to reveal the truth.  If it were possible for her to marry Vahur and adopt his children, she’d do it in a heartbeat.

“Won’t you miss going to your grownup party?” Meri asks as they walk to the next house.

“Helping you is more important than a party.  With you, I can pretend I have real children, whereas at a party, I’d be constantly reminded I failed to find a husband and have children.  Only pathetic women are spinsters at my age.”

“You’d have a husband if you married Isa,” Tarmo says. “You’d be a great new ema, though I’ll never forget my first ema.  I barely remember her, but I have a few fuzzy memories.  Isa’s being stupid when he says Taara didn’t want me and Meri to have an ema.  He’s too young to not have a new wife.  Old men who lose their wives are supposed to never remarry, not young men.  I’d find a new wife if I lost my old one in my twenties.”

“Your isa’s just too old for me, and I can’t marry or date anyone who’s already been married and had kids.  He’s also made it clear he doesn’t want to remarry.  You should respect his feelings, instead of forcing him to change his mind.  I don’t mind acting like a surrogate ema.”

Isa’s only thirty-one, and you’re twenty-five.  I didn’t think that was a huge age difference for adults.  Isa always says time passes much faster for adults, and that only kids think a year is a huge amount of time.  You and Isa are both grownups, and you’re not a new grownup.  I think Isa would like you as a wife.”

Milena holds her tongue as they ring the next bell.  Every night, she thinks impure thoughts about Vahur undressing and sleeping on the same floor of the house, imagining what he looks like, what it’d feel like to do intimate things with him.  The first time she’s fallen in love, it had to be with a widower who’s over six and a half years older and has two children.  If only the war hadn’t interfered, she might’ve been married and a mother by now.  Not everyone’s life is meant to unfold on the same timetable, but it’s never pleasant to be reminded one isn’t in the same place in life as most of one’s peers.

6

This year, instead of going to the NYU Halloween party up in University Heights, Igor and Ilya have decided to go to the private party Andrey’s hosting in his apartment.  While it’s not as large or action-packed, nothing beats the shorter commute on a weekday night.

Igor pulls his woolen, ankle-length Ionic chiton and heavy himation tighter around himself as he gets out of the Ford to pick up Luiza and Susanna, thankful for his long woolen undergarments.  Ancient Greek clothing wasn’t made for late October in New York.  Ilya and Milada are dressed much more warmly, as a pair of Harlequin clowns.  The makeup on their faces adds an additional layer of warmth.

“Can you warn us when you get back this time?” Ilya asks from the backseat.

“Would you really unglue yourselves from each other if you did know I was coming back?  You’re always too distracted to notice anything or anyone else.”

Ilya looks away. “If you ever have a girlfriend, you’ll feel the same way.  You’re so overdue to have a date with someone, anyone.”

“Violetta will be mine eventually.  I just have to be patient.”

“What if she never wants to date you?” Milada asks.

“I accept that tragic possibility, but I’ve got over two and a half years left to make my case.  If I graduate still single, I’ll take it as a sign from God I’m meant to marry someone else, not the first girl I ever loved.” Igor hops up the Eristovs’ stoop and rings the bell.

“You don’t have to ring or knock,” Matryona says when she answers the door. “Family never needs to announce themselves.  You’re allowed to come over anytime you want to.  In fact, you still haven’t taken up my offer to share a Sunday meal.  I don’t see you often enough.”

Luiza adjusts her brown fedora. “You should come visit, Gorik.  Viktor’s always whining for an older guy to do things with.”

“I hate being so outnumbered,” Viktor grumbles. “I never asked to be born into a family with almost no men.”

“It’s teaching you compassion and understanding for the other half of the species,” Matryona says. “Men who grow up with almost no women and girls often aren’t very sensitive towards us.  If your sisters are smart, they’ll marry men with more sisters than brothers.” She looks disapprovingly at Luiza. “Those clothes are too mannish, even for a costume.  I want you to send the right impression.”

“What else is a lady gangster supposed to wear?” Luiza asks. “I’m not cross-dressing.  Everyone knows I’m not a man.”

“I wish you’d chosen something more feminine, like Susya’s butterfly, but there’s no use arguing now.  The costume already exists.” Matryona gives the side-eye to the machine gun in Luiza’s holster. “Please tell me that’s a toy.”

“It’s a real gun, but not loaded.  I’m not stupid.”

“Where did it come from?”

“Legal channels.” Luiza twists a lock of hair around her finger. “Susya and I will be late if you keep interrogating us.  We’ll be home by eleven.”

Luiza darts outside and claps her hands after Igor opens the car.  When Ilya and Milada continue kissing, Luiza leans into the car and claps again.  The lovebirds guiltily separate and look straight ahead as Susanna gets into the backseat, gathering in the voluminous Monarch butterfly fabric sewn onto the back and over the shoulders of her orange, yellow, and black strapless evening gown. Luiza takes the passenger seat.

The moment Igor begins driving, Luiza unbuttons her long brown skirt and maneuvers it off over the course of several blocks.  Underneath, wide-leg tweed trousers emerge.

“My folks have no idea I bought pants,” Luiza says as she lets the skirt fall off the remaining inches of her legs. “Why should I pair suspenders, a tie, and a man’s fedora and dress shirt with a stupid skirt?  A few women gangsters were very brave and shunned dresses.”

“Are Zosha and Danka already there?” Susanna asks. “I wish I could rip my wings off my shoulders and properly position them to only cover my back, but I’d never get away with that.  My folks wouldn’t let me leave the house again if they discovered I wore a strapless dress in public, and at a private mixed party.”

“They got their own ride.” Igor refrains from honking at a crowd of trick-or-treaters walking in the road.

“That ikon Letta got you must really be magical,” Luiza says. “Your mood has improved dramatically over the last few days.”

“My mood will improve most when Letta becomes my girlfriend.”

“That might never happen.  She still shows no signs of wanting to date anyone.  I hope you find a date at this party.  Before long, no self-respecting woman will want to date you if you’re so completely inexperienced.  You shouldn’t just be learning how to kiss at twenty.  I’ve heard people who don’t date at a normal age become overly attached to their first partners, and have a hard time accepting the end of that relationship.  Your college relationships should be all about fun and getting your feet wet, not lining up a wife.”

“You can have fun while seriously dating,” Ilya objects. “Why should Mila and I break up when we like each other so much?  Even if you start out only wanting fun, you can’t predict if you’ll get real feelings for someone.  I hope Andryusha and Zosha rethink their plans to break up after an arbitrary date, just to try out more people.”

“That’s entirely their business,” Susanna says. “Modern people aren’t contractually bound to marry their first and only partner.  I can’t believe just kissing someone before marriage was considered scandalous in our parents’ generation.  I’d never rush into engagement or marriage all because someone caught me kissing a guy.  Even intimacy shouldn’t be limited to one’s future spouse, though I don’t intend to become the Great Whore of Babylon.  If I’m very attracted to a man, and trust his intentions, why not cross the point of no return?”

Igor almost drives onto the sidewalk. “Respectable people never do that with people they don’t intend to marry.  What if you had a child?”

“I’d go to the same doctor Bogusya saw.  Problem solved.”

Igor drives in silence the rest of the way to the Lower East Side.  He finds a parking spot as close to the restaurant as possible, and is walking towards the fire escape when he sees Zoya, Zhdana, Violetta, and Maja approaching.  Zoya wears an ordinary red blouse with a white scoop-neck collar, knee-length black skirt, and brown boots, while Zhdana is dressed as a cowgirl with a gun on each hip and an above-knee skirt Igor supposes she changed into after leaving the house.

Violetta wears a long black gown festooned with silver bats; bicep-high black gloves; a black eye mask; black shoes with small silver bats; black hair flowers; French hook bat earrings; silver bat bangle bracelets; an onyx bat necklace displayed against her uncharacteristically exposed collarbone; and a large, rectangular piece of sheer fabric hanging off the back of her dress.

Maja wears a white blouse; a red vest with black beading and embroidery on both sides; a green calf-length skirt with a red poppy motif, covered by a white apron with intricate lace patterns; a coral necklace; lace-up black boots; and a crown of red poppies.

“No costume this year, Zosha?” Igor calls.

“This is very much a costume.  It matches Andryusha’s.  When you go upstairs, you’ll see.”

“My costume is traditional Polish ludowy outfit for girls in Kraków,” Maja says.

“She means ‘folk.‘” Violetta lifts the fabric sewn to her back, extending her arms as far up as they’ll go. “I liked last year’s spider costume more, but I can’t reuse a costume that soon.  Bats symbolize rebirth, the ability to see through illusions to the heart of the matter, intuition, visions, dreams, journeying, and long life.  Inga told me about some of that symbolism when she showed me the bat necklace Yuriy got her for her birthday, and I researched the rest.  It’s a shame so many Westerners fear or hate creatures traditionally considered good luck in other cultures, like spiders, bats, goblins, and dragons.”

“I don’t want to go up the fire escape,” Susanna says. “We should show off our costumes to as many people as possible.  I doubt any of our relatives besides Dyadya Seva are there, and he’d never tattle about Lucha wearing pants and Danka’s short skirt.”

Igor follows the others into the restaurant, dragging at the back of the line, behind Maja and Violetta.  Everyone in the restaurant stops to stare at the nine costumed people, particularly Susanna, who walks and flaps her butterfly wings very seductively.  Luiza and Zhdana point their guns around the room, laughing, while many patrons scream and duck under their tables.

“They’re not loaded,” Igor hastens to explain.

Pozhaluysta, go upstairs without bothering my customers further,” Vsevolod begs. “I won’t tell anyone about Zhdana and Luiza’s unladylike costumes and shocking attempt at dark humor, or Susanna’s grotesque display.  That’s not how any of them will land respectable husbands.”

“We’re not in the market for husbands,” Susanna retorts. “We only want fun.”

“You’re working on a holiday, Captain?” Igor asks Nestor. “I hope you didn’t feel kicked out of your own home because of Andryusha’s party.”

Nestor continues wiping off a table. “I can’t crash a college party.  As soon as my shift ends, I’m heading to Ustya’s party.  What does a guy my age want with a bunch of students?  Andrey and I have our own lives, and never impose on the other.”

Igor hurries up the stairs, cringing in shame for his cousins still putting on a show for the patrons.  The last person to enter the apartment is Susanna, her body and wings undulating like a burlesque dancer.

Andrey is dressed in blue pants, a navy blue shirt with a wide red collar and golden buttons, and a white sailor’s cap, a pipe clenched between his teeth.  When Igor sees an anchor painted on each arm, it dawns on him that Andrey is Popeye and Zoya is Olive Oyl.

Andrey has decorated the apartment with die-cut skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, black cats, witches, cauldrons, bats, spiders, ravens, and owls; Halloween postcards; orange and black streamers; strings of skull and jack-o-lantern lights; black and orange balloons; overflowing candy containers shaped like skulls and jack-o-lanterns; and black cat, jack-o-lantern, skull, and devil lanterns.  The table is set with pumpkin pie; butternut squash soup; cookies shaped and frosted like ghosts, jack-o-lanterns, witches, black cats, cauldrons, skeletons, and Vampyre faces; apple cider with cinnamon sticks; corn on the cob; stuffed squash; a bowl of green punch with red gummi worms floating in it; and a fortune cake.  Almost all the food looks storebought.

“The rest of the guests should be here soon,” Andrey says. “You can start eating and playing games anytime.” He motions around the living room, where he’s set up a Ouija board; a large metal tub with apples; walnut boats; several board games; Pin the Tail on the Donkey; and several fortunetelling games.

Violetta eases into a cushioned chair at the far end of the room, by a smaller table with non-Halloween snacks like potato chips and pretzels.  She looks around at the decorations, games, and festival food, a sad look in her eyes, before taking a few pretzels.

“Not going to participate in this party either?” Igor asks.

Violetta shakes her head. “Having fun is for other people, normal people.  I came because so many of my friends did, and since it’s not on-campus and full of strangers.  Less people will bother me about being a wallflower.”

“You’re not tempted by anything?”

“Of course, but I have to think of nobler things than hedonism.  Nothing’s stopping you from participating.  Go have fun, and enjoy the evening.”

Igor shakes his head and goes to bob for apples.  He briefly considers sitting by Violetta the entire evening, but doesn’t want to unsettle her with too much proximity.  It’s awkward enough being around her after revealing his unrequited feelings.  But hope springs eternal, and there’s always next Halloween.

7

As soon as Nestor’s shift ends, he darts into the restroom to change into his costume.  He doesn’t want to disturb Andrey’s party, even if it’s his apartment too.  No one wants to be the awkward third wheel at a party one wasn’t invited to, particularly when there’s a significant age difference between oneself and all the guests.

Nestor has never properly celebrated Halloween, owing to how traditional and old-world his parents are, and so has gone all out on a pirate costume.  He pairs a white dress shirt with a brown leather vest, red-and-black-striped pants, brown boots, a red peaked cap, and the Marine sword his chaplain bought him a few Christmases ago.

As always, his Eagle, Globe, and Anchor pendant hangs proudly around his neck, though he tucks his baptismal cross inside his shirt.  Pirates aren’t supposed to be religious, and Nestor only wears that cross out of a mixture of force of habit and superstition.  He’ll never have the kind of pure, sincere, unquestioning faith someone like Father Timofey has.

Nestor puts his work clothes into his duffelbag and gives it to Vsevolod for safekeeping, then heads out to catch a bus to Hamilton Heights.  The party is at Dragomir and Vasilisa’s apartment, since they have the most space by far.  On the ride uptown, Nestor daydreams about what he’d like to do with Yustina if she were his bride, and not repelled at the thought of marrying an amputee.  She might enjoy kissing him now, but she could never tolerate the sight of him in all his mutilated glory.  Briefly seeing his uncovered stump on Vancouver Island was bad enough, but Yustina didn’t have to see all of it.  Even if they only ever have relations in complete darkness, there aren’t any positions to avoid skin-to-skin contact with that.  Yustina would feel what she couldn’t see.

Nestor is grateful for the lift which presents itself.  The party’s only on the third of ten floors, but he never takes stairs if he can avoid it.  He’s newly-glad he vetoed Artur’s suggestion to wear an old-fashioned pegleg for this one night.  Nestor has only ever had experience walking on his own, modern prosthesis, and doesn’t want to risk falling flat on his face.  It was bad enough when his leg came loose and fell off in St. Nicholas Park.

Yustina, dressed in a teal silk dress with peacock-patterned fabric sewn to her back, swings the door open when he rings the bell.  She gives him a big smile and wraps her arms around him.

“Come have a seat, golubchik.  No one expects you to stand and walk the entire evening.  I’ll bring all the food and drinks to you.” She looks him up and down, still smiling. “Had I known you were a pirate, I would’ve been a lady pirate, but couples shouldn’t have to match their costumes all the time.  Independence is always good.” Yustina squeezes his hand. “Taavi and Sulev’s English has become rather good, but they don’t understand everything yet.  Mira and Ilme will have to translate some things for them, but it shouldn’t slow anyone down.”

Nestor hobbles into the living room and sinks onto the brown leather davenport.  In addition to the pumpkin welcome mat outside the front door, his hosts have decorated their home with cobwebs; rubber spiders and rats; black and orange streamers and balloons; strings of orange lights; three-dimensional jack-o-lanterns, black cats, owls, and bats made of tissue; ghost garlands; red, orange, and yellow roses in ceramic jack-o-lanterns and cauldrons; cut-out spiders, bats, skeletons, witches, and ravens; and an entire wall of Halloween postcards.  The floor and tables are littered with classic Halloween games, while Kuzma’s old bedroom has been turned into a miniature haunted house with eerie sound effects records playing.

The kitchen table boasts orange and black macarons with red filling; pumpkin poundcake, bread, cheesecake and soup; candied apples; caramel-drizzled popcorn mixed with roasted peanuts and M&Ms; cookies shaped and decorated like autumn leaves, ghosts, witches, jack-o-lanterns, black cats, ghouls, bats, spiders, and tombstones; cupcakes with thick, high green and orange frosting; chocolate sandwich cookies with orange and yellow filling; roasted pumpkin seeds; red Jell-O with green gummi worms inside; a spider cake; hard-boiled eggs dyed green, orange, yellow, black, and red; large bowls of blood orange mocktail and hot apple cider; apple cider doughnuts; a cheeseball shaped into a pumpkin, with homemade bone-shaped crackers; stuffed orange and yellow peppers with jack-o-lantern faces; a chocolate cake with spiderweb icing; green macaroni and cheese; orange potatoes with olives for eyes; beet salad; and a fortune cake.

Most of the couples have matching costumes.  Dragomir and Vasilisa are a Medieval prince and princess; Yulian and Marina are Frankenstein’s monster and his bride; Ilme and Taavi are a witch and warlock; and Mireena and Sulev are an Egyptian princess and pharaoh.  Only Zhenya and Kuzma don’t match, as a mummy and Robin Hood.  True to form, Zhenya wears a white lace dress that barely meets the fingertip rule, with barely anything covered by solid fabric; a see-through lace shawl; thigh-high white fishnets held up by white satin garters; white shoes that are barely more than a few thin leather straps; waist-length pearls; and a pearl and diamond headband tapering into the shape of a rose on each side of her head, with egret feathers attached.  Nestor wonders where she got the glittery silver eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, eyebrow pencil, and lipstick.

“Welcome to our home,” Dragomir greets him. “Most of the decorating, cooking, and baking are the work of my princess, but I did a few things.  I got just the type of old-fashioned little wifey I wanted.” He smiles beatifically at Vasilisa. “She made these Medieval costumes by hand too.  I’ll never have to worry she’s unhappy as a housewife after she has the baby and can’t work anymore.”

“Better her than me,” Zhenya says. “I’d be bored stiff if I had nothing better to do with my time than boil diapers, mend socks, cook, wash floors, and knit.  Marusya and I will be the most sophisticated housewives and young mothers in the entire five boroughs.”

“Aren’t you glad we switched dames, Drashka?” Kuzma asks.

“Hey, Vasilisa’s a lady, not a dame,” Dragomir protests. “I never would’ve married a dame.  How could a princess be anything but a lady?”

“My point exactly.” Kuzma gooses Zhenya, who laughs and grabs his crotch in response.

Nestor looks away in horror.  Even if Zhenya and Kuzma are newlyweds, there’s no reason to behave so wantonly with company.  He doubts Zhenya will settle down once she’s a mother.  Still, he’d love for Yustina to touch him like that, and be able to touch her so personally.  If Yustina makes it to three months without losing interest or becoming repelled, he’ll take her up on her tempting offer of petting.

“Why don’t we invite Mila?” Mireena asks. “She must be home from trick-or-treating by now, and shouldn’t have to sit alone or only keep company with kids on such a fun holiday.  Vahur can’t object to her joining us.”

“Someone has to watch Vahur’s children,” Taavi objects. “I’m sure he’s home by now, but he can’t do everything by himself.  He might claim he’s both parents in one, but there’s a reason he hired Mila as a nanny.”

Zhenya smirks. “Oh, there’s a reason alright.  I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes his intentions known by next year at this time, if not much sooner.  No handsome man invites an attractive single woman to live in his home without any ulterior motive.  Nanny, my eye.”

Taavi and Sulev shake their heads after Mireena translates.

“How could Vahur think of Mila in that way?” Sulev asks in horror. “They’re almost seven years apart, and Vahur’s a lesk with two children!  He never wants to remarry, but if he did, he’d only choose another lesk.”

“It’s not like he’s forty or she’s fifteen,” Zhenya says. “Why should a young widower with kids feel obligated to only date widows who also have kids?  It’s hardly unheard-of for a second wife to be a never-married younger woman.  Vahur’s kids love Mila, so they’ll easily accept her as their stepmother.”

“Fancy you objecting to Vahur being almost seven years older than Mila when Mira’s four years your elder,” Marina chimes in. “Are age differences suddenly too taboo after a certain threshold?”

“No, but that’s a big age difference at their ages,” Sulev says. “They’re not in the same place in life.”

“Just about everyone would say a twenty-four-year-old woman has nothing in common with a twenty-year-old man, yet you eagerly asked Mira out and married her at those ages.  A lot of famous couples have much greater age differences, like Charlie Chaplin and his latest wife.”

Sulev and Taavi continued shaking their heads as Ilme places the call.

***

Milena leaves Tarmo and Meri to continue counting their candy when the phone rings.  She avoids looking at Vahur on the living room davenport, boiling with desire for him.

“Hello?”

“Mila, it’s me, Ilme.  We wanted to invite you to our Halloween party.  Your babysitting duties should be over for the night, and Vahur can’t object to you joining us.”

“With what costume!  Meri also expects me to put her to bed, and to be there in case she has a nightmare and needs to crawl into my bed.”

“It’s one night, not an entire day.  How could Vahur object to this?  We all expect to see you within the hour.”

Milena steels herself after she hangs up. “Vahur, I hate to disturb you, but I’ve been invited to our siblings’ Halloween party.  I told Ilme my priority is taking care of your children.”

“Sure you can go.” Vahur stands up. “I’ll go with you.  Tarmo, do you mind watching Merike for a few hours?  I trust you won’t open the door to strangers or tell people on the phone you’re home alone.”

Tarmo’s face lights up. “I can stay home alone?  No grownups?”

“You’re a big boy, almost nine.  Of course I trust you.  Mila and I are going to a Halloween party for adults.  I hope you’re not too jealous.”

“We already had Halloween fun.  I’d be bored at a party with grownups.”

“Make your costumes match,” Meri says. “I want strangers who see you to think you’re a real couple.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I can’t have another wife?” Vahur asks gently. “Men and women are allowed to be just friends.  Women fought long and hard for equal participation in public life, even for something as seemingly little as this.”

Milena runs into her room and changes into a floor-length, multi-tiered calico skirt and a patchwork calico blouse.  She ties her hair up under a red silk scarf and adds a ruby costume ring, a multicolored glass bead necklace, French hook emerald earrings, and an onyx headband.  When she returns to the living room, she sees Vahur in a traditional Estonian costume, a billowy line shirt, dark blue trousers ending a bit below the knees, a scarlet vest with black beading; an intricately woven belt; long white stockings; black, low boots; and a black top hat.

“Behave yourselves while I’m gone,” Vahur calls. “I expect both of you to be in bed by nine, and to not eat too much candy.”

Meri pets Lumi as she waves goodbye.

“I hope you’re not too annoyed,” Milena says as they walk towards the subway station. “You didn’t expect to give up your night to go to a couples’ party.  We’ll be the only single people there.”

“I don’t mind getting out every so often.  I’m not that old yet.  The last thing I want is to become a preternaturally old man with no social life.”

Milena avoids eye contact during the journey to Hamilton Heights, constantly cursing herself for thinking impure thoughts about Vahur.  She’s relieved women have no dead giveaway of their arousal as men do.  If that were the case, her lust would’ve been obvious months ago, and Vahur would want nothing further to do with her.

“Welcome to our home,” Dragomir greets them. “Come right in and make yourselves at home.  My princess made a lot of good food and put together so many great decorations and games.”

Vahur gazes at the feast upon the table, then the spooky décor. “I wish I had a princess for a wife, in spite of my Socialist beliefs.  Once Mila and her sisters move out, I’ll be back to living like a tragic widower.  I can’t cook, clean, or decorate that well.”

“Happiness can be yours for the taking, if you go out there and grab it,” Yustina calls. “Nestik would still be sad and lonely if I hadn’t told him what’s what and made the first move.  Don’t let sadness in your past determine the entire course of your future.” She leans against Nestor. “Why not take a slice of fortune cake and play the fortunetelling games?”

“If you walk out the door backwards at night, pick grass, and put it under your pillow, you’ll dream of your future spouse,” Zhenya says. “Your religion believes in spirits and prophecy.”

Vahur accepts a plate of fortune cake from Vasilisa, and Milena takes a plate from Ilme.  Milena eats her cake carefully, guarding against biting the charm, while Vahur immediately pulls out the baked-in ribbon and finds a moon.

“Opportunity,” Vasilisa translates. “What’s yours, Mila?”

Milena holds up an anchor.

“A life of stability.”

“As what, a childless old maid?”

“Stability’s nothing to sneeze at,” Vasilisa says. “If you’re not stable on your own, a husband won’t magically change you.”

“But having a husband’s even better.” Marina rubs Yulian’s shoulders. “You’re not frightfully old yet.  He could be just around the corner.”

“The veil between the worlds is at its thinnest tonight,” Ilme says. “Whatever you wish for might come true, even if it’s not right away, and you’re more likely to dream of the future.”

Milena moves to a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a haunted pumpkin patch after finishing her cake.  She represses the urge to smile when Vahur joins her.  Whatever wishes she makes and dreams she has, Vahur will always be a widower with children, and she’ll be an old maid, but hoping never hurts.  Amid all the unpleasantness of life, it’s nice to have a few oblectations thrown her way every so often.

The War of the Worlds at 80, Part I (General overview)

On 30 October 1938, Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast their most famous drama, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Popular myth has it that mass panic broke out in the U.S., but historical research has shown this is unsubstantiated nonsense.

A tiny number of people in the rather small listening audience were legitimately scared, due to not tuning in from the start, and then not having any commercial breaks for a long time. The drama also played into very real fears about goings-on in the world.

Just what was it about this story that’s captivated the popular imagination for 80 years, and keeps alive this complete myth?

Mercury Theatre ran for 22 episodes, 11 July–4 December 1938, and adapted short stories, plays, and novels. Among their other stories were Oliver Twist, Dracula, Heart of Darkness, The Pickwick Papers, and Julius Caesar. Mercury Theatre was an indie company created by Orson Welles, in business from 1937–46.

After their first radio program ended, they returned from 9 December 1938–31 March 1940, as The Campbell Playhouse, with 56 episodes, again adapting classic works of literature. Their last hurrah was The Mercury Summer Theatre of the Air, with 15 episodes, from 7 June–13 September 1946.

Mercury Theatre began Mondays at 9 PM on CBS, and later moved to Sundays at 8 PM. This schedule change put it into direct competition with the hugely popular Chase and Sanborn Hour. Some people tuned in to C&S first, and switched to Mercury Theatre when the first musical interlude started, but historical research has shown there was NOT a mass exodus on that famous night.

The story is set on 30 October 1939, and begins with Orson Welles making it obvious this is a fictional story. Then there’s a musical interlude, followed by an announcement about explosions on Mars. The music quickly returns.

The announcer says there’ll be an interview with a Prof. Pierson of Princeton re: the explosions soon, and the music continues.

Prof. Pierson (Welles) doesn’t think the explosions are particularly worrying, in spite of their unusualness. He soon gets a telegram about an explosion near Princeton, but still doesn’t see any reason to worry. The music returns.

The announcer returns, saying a meteorite has landed in a farm in Grover’s Mill, NJ. More music follows, and then things begin getting more intense.

A huge crowd has gathered in Grover’s Mill by the time Prof. Pierson and reporter Carl Phillips arrive. Prof. Pierson doesn’t think it’s a meteorite, since it’s so bizarre, and in one piece.

Mass panic begins, and tentacle-like objects emerge from the strange object. It’s a monstrous Martian.

Another musical interlude follows, and then we return to the increasing fear and panic. Martians respond to a white flag of truce with a flame-throwing heat-ray.

The announcer still doesn’t think there’s anything to panic about, and the piano interlude continues. Presently, there’s a report about the deaths of at least six state troopers. State militia are on their way to Grover’s Mill, and Prof. Pierson sets up an emergency outlook post in a nearby building.

News bulletins start streaming in from all over NJ, PA, and NY, and things go from bad to outright nightmarish. The entire country is soon locked in mass panic.

Forty minutes into the show, there’s finally another commercial break, announcing this is a radio production of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre.

The next voice we hear is Prof. Pierson’s, who’s hiding out in an abandoned house and convinced he might be the last living being left on Earth.

Prof. Pierson makes his way to Newark (which was a much nicer city in that era), where he finds a militiaman with horrific updates about the Martians. The militiaman plans to move underground and find other survivors, with whom he’ll defeat the Martians and take over the world.

Prof. Pierson decides he wants no part of this scheme, and continues on to NYC. The city that never sleeps is eerily devoid of life, but for a starving, territorial dog and a flock of birds.

Then, in Central Park, he finds the birds feasting on the dead Martians. The reason for the Martians’ demise always gives me goosebumps.

Orson Welles then speaks as his own self, saying this was a Halloween prank, Mercury Theatre‘s version of dressing up in a sheet and shouting “Boo!”