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Season of Dreams

by D. J. Herda


About the Book

She was young, beautiful, intelligent ... and possessed of need--the need to be loved, the need to be accepted, the need to come to terms with her past, as well as with her future.  When she met the man of her dreams, he gave her everything she ever wanted ... and then some.  Before she realized what had happened, she was walking the streets of Hollywood, living a life of insanity, as far from her middle-class upbringing as she could possibly be.  Hers was a world of cheap tricks and liquor, of pimps and johns and cops and junkies.  When she crawled up out of the gutters to become one of the most successful madams of all time, she thought she had it made.
But deep down inside, she longed to get out, yearned to return to simpler times.  When she found herself on a downward spiral of drugs, money laundering, and murder, she turned to the only person in the world who could help. 

But would he?  Could he?  Or was it too late?  Only time would tell.


ONE

She had no business being there, and she knew it.  If she'd had half a brain, she would have packed her bags and gone home to Chicago, where she could have stood up like a man and proudly taken both barrels.  Her mother would have tried to pound some sense into that eighteen-year-old, I’ve-seen-everything,  I-know-it-all, I'm-not-just-another-dumb-kid head of hers about how much wiser and more mature she would be not to succumb to the whims and fantasies of a lifestyle that can lure a young girl into the most outrageous, the most deplorable, the most heinous of transgressions against man and nature. 

Young girls, her mother would intone, are not like young boys.  Young boys can take care of themselves.  They can, you know, do that.  Young girls are, well, (pausing for dramatic effect) vulnerable.   They’re more easily swayed, talked into doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Things they really don’t want to be doing. (Wiping the sweat from a wrinkled brow that looked to grow older, more dinosaurish by the second): Things they’ll regret doing the rest of their lives!

Danielle would have stared at her incredulously. Oh, mum. Poor mum. Papa’s locked you in the closet and you’re looking so dummm.  She would have said to herself, Is this it?  Finally?  The whole birds-and-bees thing in one, fell, ignorant swoop?

As if at the age of 18 she hadn’t already had plenty of time to figure it out for herself.  Not firsthand, of course, as probably half the girls in her graduating  class had already done, and this in a Catholic high school where chastity was a virtue and promiscuity, well, simply didn’t exist. Nonetheless. 

To make matters worse, she wouldn’t for the life of her been able to understand what would have triggered it all.  All that guns-and-roses tirade about how the world could be a horrible, cruel, merciless cesspool of sin and conflagration for innocent young girls, a world full of abusive, contemptible men just waiting for a chance to get their greedy clutches on an unsuspecting delicate young flower such as she, never mind the fact that she came from a strictly lower middle class Great South Side of Chicago family, such as it was. That is what the world has in store for girls who venture too far from home-- her mother would have continued pounding into her addled, underdeveloped brain--girls who left the sanctity and security of their loving family, girls who turned their backs on the parents who had worked so long and hard to provide them only with the best, girls who were sluts. That’s what happened to such girls, not to mention to girls with only half a brain.

Despite her mother’s best shot, Danny would have remained unswayed. After all, some people thought she was pretty hot.  With brains to match.  No matter that, even at her age, she was still relatively unencumbered by thoughts of sense and security and safety--and, of course, of brains.  So why not go for it?  And let her mother's warnings be damned.

Besides, she had something no man could ever steal from her. A tall, statuesque, Hollywoodish beauty that nearly everyone, including other young girls, had long admired.  She wished she had counted the number of times she'd  heard someone say how she should be a model or an actress or how she should be on television because, after all, she was much more attractive than that Lee Phillips person or whoever the hell she was and she even had her own television talk show or news show or something like that, Danielle couldn't exactly remember which except that it was on WGN-TV Channel Nine weekdays around noon or something like that and that it was really boring as hell and she hardly ever watched it at all, unless she was home sick and dying and had no choice in the matter.

She couldn't see it, herself, all this talk about beauty and crap.  She would sit around half the day sometimes, staring into the mirror, pushing a fistful of ashen blonde hair from one side of her head to the other, playing with some rouge or lipstick or liner or something else she’d managed to sneak from her mother’s room without her noticing, or maybe borrow from a friend, and she’d still fail to see it. To her, she would always be a little too tall, a little too heavy, a little too angular in her facial features, too big boned or whatever it is you call it.  But even when she tried out for the senior play, she passed auditions with flying colors, and Sister What’s­Her-Name--Felicia or Felicity or something like that, all lyrical and sweet and tender and not at all in keeping with the image of a 57-year-old dried-up old prune with a temperament as sweet as a plastic bag full of bees left sunning on the porch all day--even she had once told her how beautiful she was and that she just had to play the role of Scarlet in Gone with the Wind, or rather their own watered-down, pimple-faced, high-school version of it, such as it was.

So anyway, there she sat, sipping lightly from a glass of Chardonnay and mulling over all this stuff and wondering just what the hell she should do next, exactly.  It was her first time away from home.  Alone.  And she just couldn’t get used to making decisions like these.  As if that weren’t bad enough, she slowly began to become aware of things.  Little things.  Things she’d never noticed before.  Like the bartender staring at her.  Not gross or perverted or anything like that, not with lust in his eyes, just staring.  Staring.  Until she began to wonder if she had her makeup on crooked or if maybe he was getting suspicious about her age, which naturally she’d lied about when she told him she was 22, although she certainly looked that old and possibly older.  She thought, too, that she noticed from the corner of her eye another man, older, staring at her from the end of the bar, a customer, less obvious than the bartender, more timid about his actions, as if he couldn’t help but stare but would rather die than let her know that he knew that she knew what he was doing.

She’d been in Miami Beach only a couple of weeks, and--maybe she was hallucinating or fantasizing or what she don’t know--but she swore she felt the difference.  She had a hard time getting used to the smiles she was getting from men on the street.  She found it disconcerting, too--the attention she was getting from the bellhops and doormen, calling her by name. Yes, Miss Franks. No, Miss Franks.  It would be my pleasure, Miss Franks. One doorman in particular seemed especially attentive to her, rushing to open the door of her cab, racing around to her side to help her out when she returned as she slid her tall, thin frame along the scratchy vinyl seats.

And it wasn’t just older men and bellhops and barflies and people like that. She caught a number of younger men, too, following her movements with their eyes, waiting for the chance to match her gaze with theirs, eyeing her hungrily, greedily, as though she were all in the world they wanted or needed and would kill to possess it, if only for a moment, for a minute, or less.

It was as if she were Alice passing through the glass.  Floating through an endless spiral of hopes and dreams, of promises to be fulfilled, of a future yet to come.  In Chicago, she was Little Danielle, pure and simple, fresh out of high school, not smart enough or ambitious enough or connected enough, she wasn't sure which, to go to college; but cute enough, she guessed, to get a job, meet a man, get married, have a child, take a month or two of maternity leave, and then go back to work at some dead-end position, probably as a secretary, probably for the rest of her life.

But in Miami Beach, everything was topsy-turvy. she couldn’t explain it exactly.  Maybe it was because in the few weeks between being graduated and making the pilgrimage south, she’d grown up.  At least that’s the way she looked at it.  Maybe she had at last stepped out of her little-girl’s cocoon and emerged a radiant, fluttering butterfly.  Certainly she couldn’t see the metamorphosis in the mirror.   She still had the same teeth, the same eyes, the same funny little up­turned nose she’d always had, so far as she could tell.  But something had changed.   Or at least something had appeared to others to have changed.

Which is not to say that she didn’t appreciate it and milk it for all it was worth. She would have been crazy not to.  So when a bartender asked her, all stooped forward over his lacquered rosewood bar with hand-carved filigree and mortised backsplash, all hush-mouthed, eyes glued to hers, fingers tapping nervously above the well, what she’d like to drink, she told him. Vodka and tonic, please, with a twist.

It was just such a night, after a long day of sitting by the pool and sunning, which was how every woman in Miami Beach spends her days, that she met him.  Finally.  After years of waiting and a lifetime of hoping, simply met him. All smiles and confidence, specked with the kind of insecurity a woman finds hopelessly alluring. You look familiar, she’d told him, not coming on to him with a line or anything, but because it was true, to which he responded, Yes, and so do you. They gazed at each other for a few moments, awkward moments by anybody else’s standards, and yet they felt perfectly comfortable, perfectly natural to her, and then he added, Of course, we have already met. A million times before.

She nestled back into the soft leather of her seat, amusing her mind with a million fluttering thoughts as the Miami cityscape roared by.  The sun clung tenaciously to the sky, a fiery ball of yellow and orange just inches above the horizon, which was partially obscured by a thin ribbon of clouds that severed the heavens into two neat strips.

“It won’t be long,” the man sitting next to her said.  He smiled confidently and reached out to turn the car’s thermostat down to 68 degrees, then fiddled with the console until the haunting strains of a Vivaldi sonata snaked their way out, filling the rear chamber with the magic of a time and place far removed from here and now.   And yet it all seemed to fit, it all seemed so right.

“Hey, I like that, you know?  Real nice.  Real classy, like.  A lotta people, they don’t go in for that kinda stuff.  That classical music and long-haired stuff. Me, I always liked it. Calms me down.  Takes my mind off my problems, you know?”

It struck her curious that a man with the apparent background and upbringing roughly analogous to that of a sloe-eyed newt could have problems.  Still, she leaned back and smiled.  He was older, her chaperon, in his mid-fifties, greying at the temples and slightly overweight.  His suit was too shiny at the elbows and sagged a bit at the knees.   But for some reason she liked him.  He reminded her of her grandfather--or what she remembered of him.  Just a hard­working guy trying to make a buck, to make his life a little easier, a little better for himself and his family.

Not that her grandfather had ever been chauffeured around in a Rolls Royce. No one in her family had ever done anything like that, at least not to the best of her knowledge.  Still, she couldn’t help but feel a certain warmness for him in his awkward attempt to put her at ease.

“You ever play music like that?  Take lessons or somethin' when you was a kid?  I always wanted to play the violin when I was young.  Jeez, them strings always sounded so sweet and clear, like a cooing dove.  It brought goosebumps to me whenever I heard ‘em.  But my old man wouldn’t let me have anything to do with music, you know?  Said violins was for sissies.  I don’t know, maybe he was right.   In our neighborhood, you got caught playin’ a musical instrument or somethin’ like that when you shoulda been out rollin’ drunks on the corner, you got your ass kicked, you know what I mean? Pardon my French.”

She laughed. “I took piano lessons in high school.  I really enjoyed them. But we were on a budget after my father died.  My mother just couldn’t afford them anymore, so I quit.”

“Jeez,” he said, a thick, dark furrow suddenly scarring his forehead.  "That's tough.”

She wasn’t quite sure why she’d come to Florida, why Miami Beach.  She’d told herself at first it was to find a job.  She wanted to be a model.  She’d taken a few classes back home and had been told she showed promise. Everybody she talked to said, Go to New York or You ought to be in L.A. Hell, she wasn’t comfortable in Chicago, her own home town, with its crime and pollution and weirdos and all.  She wasn’t about to push her luck, pack her bags, and head out to the coast--either coast.   But Florida seemed different somehow.  Kinder.  Gentler.

Besides, all the major agencies had offices there.  To provide models for the swimsuit and boating shots that were so much in demand, she guessed.  So on her second day in town, she began making the rounds.  By the end of the week, she’d visited a couple dozen agencies.  Dropped off dozens of portfolios.  Had scores of interviews.   Everyone was very nice, very encouraging.

Still, after three weeks, there she was, sunning herself by the pool at the Fontainebleau.   Watching all those size­eighteen sausages stuffed into size-twelve suits waddle by.  Still unemployed.  And getting hungry.  Nervous. Scared.  She wanted to work, wanted to show everyone back home that she could make it on her own.  The last thing in the world she wanted to do was to run out of money and have to catch the next Greyhound back, all broke and hungry and ready to listen to her mother tell her what a fool she’d been, wasting all that her time and energy on a pipe dream, just another dumb kid too naive to realize there wasn’t anything better Out There than what she’d left at home.

And then it happened.  Out of the blue.  Like a bolt.  Now here she was, staring out the window at a group of young children playing in the corner school yard.   The tallest one reminded her of herself when she’d been her age.   Whenever the rope she was jumping swung around in her direction, her pigtails bounced up and slapped her in the face.  Her dress was a faded cotton frock two sizes too small.  She stood out from the others like a bull thistle dancing in the wind above a field of sweet clover--too tall, too gawky, too awkward to fit in with the rest of the world around her.  A sudden rush of pain swept over Danielle--for her or for herself, she wasn’t sure.

When she had kids of her own, she promised herself, things would be different.  She’d see to that.  Her kids would get all the piano and ballet and tennis lessons they wanted.  They’d wear the best clothes money could buy--not some neighbor’s hand-me-downs.  They’d eat at the finest restaurants with their father and her, not at the corner burger shop or pizza parlor.  No brown—bag lunches for them.   She’d promise them that.  She’d promised herself that.

“Yeah, that’s really tough,” the man said, “your old man dying on you so young and everything.  Musta been hard makin’ ends meet.  You know what they say is true.  Money’s a curse.  You want it when you ain’t got it, and when you do, you want it even more.”

Vinnie Marello paused to punctuate his thoughts with a puff on a long, thick cigar.  The smoke rose in a cloud, momentarily obscuring his face before the automobile’s fresh-air system sucked it up and spit it out across the Miami skyline.  “You go over with these people I’m introducing you to tonight, you’ll be able to take all the piano lessons you want.  You’ll be able to take piano lessons ‘til they’re comin' outa your ears.  Take any kinda lessons you want. They’re talking fifty, a hundred, maybe two hundred grand a year.  That’s what a top girl makes in this business, you know?”

She knew indeed.  She hadn’t at first, but James had taught her.  He’d also taught her that modeling was a grueling, dog-eat-dog profession where only the best survived.  And he made her determined to be the best.

“What should I say when I meet them?  I mean, how much should I tell them about myself, about my experience?  I really haven’t had a whole lot.”

Marello’s eyes widened below two silver brows.

“Oh,” she said sheepishly. “James told you.”

He nodded. “Jimmy, he tells her everything.  Everything.”

She felt foolish suddenly, like a little kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar.   “Then, what do I do? she asked.  "What do I say?  They’re not going to want a model who hasn’t had any experience.”

“Don’t you worry about nothin’.  Just do what I tell you, and the rest will take care of itself.  Good girls, they got class.  They got that certain something, that kinda hoidy-toidy look, like they’re playin’ hard to get, even though you know damn well they ain’t.  Experience don’t mean nothin’ in my book.   If you got the look they want, you get the job.  And you got the look they want.”

That was exactly what James had told her-- in somewhat less picturesque language, of course—the day she met him.  How different things had been back then.   Before James.  Before Marello.  Before everything.  When a naive young girl from the great South Side of Chicago had arrived in Miami Beach with $463 in her pocket, her entire life’s savings, everything she had in the world.  And a heart full of dreams too, of course.

The money had long since disappeared, but the dreams lived on, and now it seemed as if her life was just beginning.

She had just settled into a green chaise lounge and pulled a flop-brimmed straw hat down over her face.  It wasn’t the most stylish of hats, she was sure, but then again she wasn’t exactly the most stylish of girls.  She’d been a tall, thin, gangly kid for as long as she could recall--the only girl on the block with bicycle-spoke arms and golf-ball eyes that never seemed to close even when she slept.  Or so her mother said.

She stretched out beneath the sultry Miami sun and wondered what her friends would say if they could see her now. What her mother would say. Her mother had been furious when she told her she’d had it with the rain and the cold and the snow and the working-stiff mentality of the people around her. Or maybe her mother been furious with herself for never having had the courage to do with her life what she’d really wanted, what Danielle was about to do.  It had been far too easy for her to meet a man, drop out of school, get married.  One child.  Then another.  All in her never-ending attempt to capture a piece of the Great American Dream.

But dreams don’t become reality by themselves.  Her mother finally came to realize that the day Danielle told her she was leaving.

“Don’t be stupid!” she snapped. “You just stay here and get yourself a good job.   You don’t know what you’ll find somewhere else. Here, you know.”

She’d been right about that.  Danielle never would have guessed in a thousand years what lay ahead.  Not that she was particularly worried.  Whatever would be would be.   That was her philosophy.  Sure, she needed a job.  She desperately wanted to get a call back from one of the agencies.  But she knew it would come.  She knew it would happen.  It was only a matter of time.

She pulled herself up and adjusted the back of her chaise, then popped the cap off a tube of sun screen.  She squeezed a thin snake of white onto her legs, which were beginning to glow reddish-bronze, and slipped the cap back onto the tube before rubbing the cream into her skin.  Down to her toes and back up along the inside of her thighs, then her waist, chest, neck.  As she wiped the last of the cream across her forehead, a dark-haired woman in a one-piece suit popped up in the chaise in front of her.

“Jessica! Jessica, where are you going, honey? Mommy doesn’t want you near the water!   Come back here now, do you hear me?  Jessica!”

Jessica. The word ripped through her like a rusted saw.  She watched as Jessica shuffled slowly back from the pool.  Danielle felt a sudden sense of urgency.  Her temples pounded.  Her heart beat furiously.  She had been barely eight, some ten years ago or more, the last time she’d heard those words.  At a picnic, at an outdoor table next to the grill, playing with her favorite porcelain doll, dressing her in the outfit her mother had made for her from leftover taffeta and lace only the week before.

“Danielle, go find your little sister.  Lunch is almost ready.”

“Alright, momma,” she replied, setting her doll on the table next to a big bowl of yellow potato salad ringed with small black flies.  She shooed the insects away as the smoke poured off the grill over which her father towered, struggling to work his usual magic, transforming uncooked pink links of sausage into savory Epicurean treats.

“Hurry along now, Pigeon,” he said, his face a contorted mass of eyebrows, nose, and lips as they battled the stinging smoke from the grill.  “The sausage is just about ready.  We don’t want it to burn.”

“I know, daddy,” she said, and she ran off across the lawn toward the apple orchard where she’d last seen her younger sister.

“Jessica?   Jessica!  Come on, now.  Daddy says lunch is ready.  Jessica!”

Danielle picked her way through several long, low-hanging bows brushing the tips of the grass and finally emerged at a steep bank where a gently rolling stream cut its way through the countryside.  Across the field, a solitary bird chirped plaintively, a meadowlark or a robin.  “Jessica!” she shouted again, trying to decide if she should follow the thin dusty path upstream.  Her eyes darted from one tree to the next, following closely the in-and-out movement of the shoreline until they came to rest on a dark spot some ten feet below. She shivered.  She froze.  At the edge of the stream lay Jessica’s dress, Jessica’s shoes ... Jessica! She was sprawled face down, a steady trickle of water grinding slowly past her, her tiny head nestled peacefully against a large pillow of granite swathed in red.

Within hours it was over.  The police had come and gone.  Jessica was no more.   They had all been questioned, she longer than the others, since she had been the one to discover her.  Tears stained her cheeks as the police swung shut the back door of the ambulance, then disappeared themselves in their black-and-white patrol car, roaring off so fast that soon the only sign that anyone had been there at all was a long ribbon of dust stretching lazily into the horizon.

The wake the following Tuesday began promptly at 8 A.M. and seemed to go on forever.  It was a long, vicious, debilitating affair attracting aunts and uncles and neighbors and even casual acquaintances from as far away as Algonquin, Illinois, more than a hundred miles from their home.  People she’d seen rarely or never before showed up to pay their last respects.  Or more likely to gawk at a spectacle that had become the talk of the town.  It is not often so young a girl dies so suddenly, so brutally.   In a matter of seconds, she is alive and healthy and laughing and feeling the sun, filled with the breath of a warm autumn day, and then she is as silent and cold as a winter’s night forever.

On the day of the funeral, their family met at Chanson’s Funeral Parlor to pay their last respects to Jessica.  When Mr. Chanson who is old and bald and wears the smell of death on his suit like a carnation finally walked up to close the casket, her father, who had been strong and silent throughout, broke down and sobbed uncontrollably.  It was then for the very first time that she realized what had happened, that Jessica would never, ever be coming back. She was gone forever.  Although the difference in their ages had kept them from being as close as they might otherwise have been, the realization that she would never again have anything more of Jessica to cling to than a fading memory from the pages of time washed over her like the angry waves of a Lake Michigan storm.   Jessica was dead, and looking at her father sobbing at the foot of the coffin made her realize that a tiny part of him had died with her. And that was the pain that hurt most of all.

She had always loved her father, loved his indomitable will, his spirit, his humor.   She’d seen pictures of him as a young boy, a solemn-faced, barrel-chested Yugoslav when he came to America with his parents at the age of twelve.  The family had settled in the East, where her father worked the mines digging for coal.  Some ten years later, he had managed to save enough money to pay off his debts and open a small yard somewhere in West Virginia.  With the money he made from that, he moved his young bride to Chicago, the melting pot of the nation, the land of unfulfilled promises, where he continued in the coal business for several more years before finally selling out to a partner.
 

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