“A Girl Like You” by Beth Hahn
Stories that are written in fragments appeal to us, in part, because our memories work in a similar fashion. We see snippets of the past as we create narratives out of our lives. Stories that take on this form trust the reader to do some of the work of putting together the narrative thread, of making a whole out of its parts.
In “A Girl Like You,” Beth Hahn builds the story of her protagonist, May, through bits of story and fragments. Set in Los Angeles in the 1940s, the story uses both the time and the place to develop May’s character, and the historical framework, in turn, allows the fragments to become even more dreamlike, remnants of the past. And yet Hahn never allows the historical world to take over the story. This is a beautiful piece about a woman who is somewhat adrift, and the form echoes the way in which she moves through this world.
May took the trolley to the new grocer’s—the one on the boulevard with shining white aisles where the exit was near the back of the store on an otherwise blank wall past the butcher’s station, which smelled of bleach and blood, where married women or their maids ordered a cow’s flank and watched as the butcher hacked at it with his great cleaver.
She stood in front of a new product display and slipped a can of Dinty Moore stew into the bell-shaped curve of her sleeve. She wanted to take two, but the weight would be obvious. She’d practiced in her room, gripping her purse in a way that kept the can in the sleeve, keeping her face in the expression of urgency, as if she’d just remembered something important—like a dental appointment or a lunch date—and had to rush out.
A big man in a green apron blocked her at the door. He had great jowls that blurred the line between his neck and chin. He didn’t look at her, but said, “I saw what you did, Miss. I’d rather I didn’t have to tell anyone.” He held a broom in one hand and the other out to her, and he gazed at May’s feet as he spoke. May looked at her feet, too. She needed new shoes. On a wet day, the water soaked right through the sole.
In the lobby of the Hamilton, where the white walls were so bright with refracted sunshine that May had to squint, the porter turned on the radio and anyone who roomed there could come and listen to the news. When the war ended, the radio had played all day long, and people who didn’t room there were allowed to listen, too. They came in from the street and stood with their shoulders touching. When the announcer said that one day, the atomic bomb would be the size of a golf ball, everyone inhaled, making the sound of the sea pulling back. “Not long from now,” he went on, “a man will be able to hold twenty-thousand tons of explosives in the palm of his hand.”
Later, on the pier with the music playing, she couldn’t stop thinking of that, and when a man came and circled her waist and asked her for a kiss, she squeezed his hand so hard that he pushed her away from him and looked at her eyes.
Richard would be home soon.
The grocery clerk pretended to sweep as he blocked her way. “It’s all right,” he said. “Just give it to me and you can go.” She relented, and he put the can of Dinty Moore into his apron pocket. It protruded there—so much so that she smiled—and he said, “Never mind. It doesn’t matter that I have it.”
“I suppose not.” She looked up at his face. “But it matters that I have it. I’m hungry. Could you give it to me this once, please? I won’t come back.”
“I will take you to dinner instead,” he said. “A girl like you shouldn’t go hungry.”
Afterward she went to another grocery straight away and stole a tin of tuna fish without anyone noticing. In her room, she worked at the tin with a church key opener, the sort for bottles with a single silver fang. She cut her fingers on the ragged lip, but she ate the fleshy wedges right off, without washing, so that the tuna stippled red. She ate by the window in her stockinged feet, peering at the pigeons on the ledge.
When she’d eaten all the tuna fish, May sat on the bed and examined her old Oxfords, sucking the blood at her fingers, wondering if she could slip the tongue of another shoe into the soles. Outside, the palm trees’ leaves were dark at the roots. The wind blew. The sky was the color of the ocean on a cold day. Even in Los Angeles, it rained.
Only people with money turned down a dinner date.
She pretended that she knew what she was doing, but she’d learned the city by accident— pulling the trolley’s bell cord before she should, getting off of one streetcar and boarding another, walking in the wrong direction and then turning around, a map in her hand. More often than not, a man would stop, take his hat off, and ask her if she needed help. If he seemed too certain of himself, she said, “No, thank you,” and wouldn’t even smile, but lifted her chin a little in a way that she knew her mother and sister would not approve of.
She dressed carefully for the shoe store, choosing the rose red dress and the black bolero. She darkened her eyelids with an oily stick and pressed white powder over her cheeks. When she looked in the mirror, she saw another girl. Another May.
In the shop, she watched her reflection in the long mirror that stood by the cash register: a girl perched on the small white satin couch, leaning more on the right hip than the left, accentuating the curve. When the salesman brought the shoes, she tried them, slipping her feet in and out, letting him notice her fine ankles, the firmness of her calf. She noticed his bare left ring finger and the good watch on his wrist—meaning that he had money to spend, meaning that he had extra.
This one touched her like she was china, like a slim breakable champagne glass, a finger expertly dipping behind the heel to set the shoe on her foot. She walked back and forth in front of him, letting him watch her, turning her feet this way and that, asking him what he thought. “Do you like them?”
“I do. I think they suit you.”
“Watch me as I walk. How do I do?”
She heard the stifled pleasure in his reply. She sat back down, pretending to pout. “They are dear. I could never afford them.”
“I can hold them for you. Perhaps you can pay in installments?”
She was halfway there. She leaned over, undoing the small ankle buckle, letting him gaze at the shadowy space between her breasts, and when she knew he was looking, she straightened just enough so she could see his eyes. “Do you like what you see?”
The shoe salesman blushed, but she waited until he lost his first embarrassment and arrived in wonder, until he became a man like Mr. Perry, who had often waited impatiently for her at the end of a school day in his candy shop. Then he disgusted her, but not enough to end it.
You learned what needed to be done.
Once, she’d gotten to this point and simply stepped out of the door and on to the street. She’d stood in the sunshine looking down at her feet, enjoying the sheen of the leather, the way the shoe cradled her foot, thinking that soon it would be time to go back in and make a deal, but then, why not? It was only a pair of shoes, and instead of going back in, she turned and walked away from the shop. The salesman had rushed to the door and tried to pull her back in, but she was too quick, and even out on the street, he didn’t chase her. He stood on the sidewalk and watched her walk away. He yelled a name after her—a word for a woman that once would have made her blush.
She could only do that if a man were alone in the store, and this one wasn’t. There was another man—a fat man with a radish-colored nose—and she knew he was the kind who would be rough with her, who would leave a bruise on her wrist when he chased her down. He was the kind who took something for free. She couldn’t risk it.
Out of habit, she looked for an escape.
She came clear across the country—across the desert, along the red banked roads, traveling from one ocean to the other. She passed through towns where children waved at the train from dirt roads, where women looked up from hanging laundry, shielding their eyes in the sunshine. She saw cemeteries and ball fields and factories. When the train passed through those towns, she could almost feel the china shaking in the grandmothers’ cupboards, hear the pause in conversation, see the finger held up, the smile.
The train cut through the center of the country. There were lakes as big as oceans and there was Chicago on a blue day, rising up out of nothing.
At school, May had liked to look out of windows at swaying trees, her chin resting in her hand until the teacher came over and slapped the edge of her desk with a ruler.
Boring old brute.
There was something about the freedom of the leaves.
In Iowa, she rode in the back seat of a family’s car with their children, taking the candy they passed her with their sticky hands. She sucked, trying to take care with her teeth, which ached.
But it was worse to be hungry.
Over dinner, the grocery clerk, whose name was Harold, asked if she’d heard about the tunnels beneath Los Angeles.
“I suppose not,” she said. “No. I’ve never heard of the tunnels. Is that something I should know about?” She was used to being told things, used to being given information.
“Do you like secrets?”
“It depends on what they are.”
“That’s a funny answer.” Harold took a pen out of his jacket and drew a crooked map on a paper placemat. “There are tunnels that run downtown, and there are tunnels in Hollywood and Los Feliz.” As he spoke, he drew waving lines on the placemat. “They were used in the twenties to get liquor into the bars. But not just that. Some of them are the underground trolley stations they’ve shut down and the mining tunnels. Those are very old.” His map sprawled like a tree’s roots.
“Does anyone use them now?”
“Hobos. Derelicts.” He put an X near Hollywood. “There’s a place to get in here. They don’t all connect. I’m trying to map it out.”
Richard’s mother sent her ten dollars once, on the anniversary of his death, and she thought Harold might give her something, too. She’d sleep on the beach in a pinch, but it wasn’t safe. May liked to be clean. She liked to smell good.
If she took the shoe salesman into the canyons, she could get two or three pair of new shoes. She would just let this one, lean and harmless, look at her in a car, after dark, alone in the canyons. She could lift her skirt for him, bare her breasts, and let him pleasure himself in the dark, and she didn’t even have to watch him do it. She could look past him, into the darkness of that nothing of open sky. She could imagine Harold’s tunnels below them.
Or she could think of Richard in his airplane flying high above.
May dreamed she was in the tunnels. The walls were cool and wet. She touched a tree’s roots. She knew where it grew. It was a crimson maple, its branches casting shadows over Mr. Perry’s candy shop back east. She made herself into a bundle and wedged her body into the roots.
In the morning, she was stiff. She felt as if she’d slept inside of a wooden box.
When all the men were at war, jobs waited like shining factory cars parked on newly asphalted driveways. She was a clerk on a naval base. She was a waitress in a diner, a maid in a winter resort, shaking a freshly ironed white sheet over a bed.
Some of the girls at the Hamilton still had jobs. If May were up early enough, she stood at the window with arms crossed and watched them leave the building, their little gray hats floating down the sidewalk below like ships, wondering what they did. The women wore sober colors, shapeless coats. May imagined them walking into the tall pale buildings downtown, their faces turned to the sidewalk, but she stopped there. She stopped when they got on the elevator. She didn’t know what happened when the doors opened, when they reached their destinations.
She wondered if they’d finished school, who had taught them to take up space.
She told the shoe salesman about Richard, about the baby. She told him when she sensed he was on the cusp of asking for more, of wanting to touch her as well as look. She did not want to be touched. This was the Mr. Perry. The trade. The Mr. Perry involved nothing physical. You couldn’t even put a name to it, what they did in the car in the canyons. “The pregnancy was complicated,” she said afterward, when he asked her to a late meal. “I can’t be with a man.” She touched his hand across the table. “This is all I can offer.” The shoes were stiff in the box, inside of a bag that sat beneath the table, touching her ankle. She brought a handkerchief to her face and turned away.
“That’s all right,” the shoe salesman said. He gave her hand an awkward pat. “You’re a good girl.”
She waited for Harold on his front porch, rocking in the swing, wondering what had become of his wife. May could see that he’d had one. There was a room on the first floor with rose colored walls and a casketed sewing machine. She peered into the room, pausing on her way to the bathroom, briefly turning on the overhead light and then switching it off again. She imagined herself sitting there. She could see the way she’d look—her back to the doorway, her head bowed, her hands lost in work.
There was nothing like loneliness in a city this big. There was nothing so sad as all the lights blazing in a soulless room.
May counted the round scars on the wooden table where she and Harold ate the meals he picked up on the way home. Women weren’t so careless with cups and wooden tables. They knew what things cost. Harold drank gin from a juice glass; she used a teacup. She could see the dirty dishes in the kitchen. The teacup was wreathed with carefully painted leaves and chipped just at the edge. She liked to press her tongue into the chip, to feel the rough texture as she took a sip. She liked everything sweet. The doctor said that was the problem with her teeth.
She always put her teacup inside one of the rings. The more she came over, the darker the ring got. That was her spot.
Harold never tried to touch her. He let his hand hover near her arm sometimes as if he would take it, but he never did. It dropped to his side like a great lost weight. Once, when he made the gesture, he asked, “What will become of you?”
Her mother said that if one wasn’t clever, she should marry a rich man. “If I had it to do all over again,” she said. She was standing at the stove, telling the pot of oats as she stirred. May had been leaning against the kitchen door with her arms folded. “You won’t be young and beautiful forever,” her mother said. “The way men look at you—the way they stare—find a rich man now.”
In the winter, she was going south to waitress. Surely there would be someone suitable there. Florida made her think of money: big houses with palm trees out front—she would just have to choose the right street to walk down.
Later she thought those houses must be in California.
One night, Harold put a portfolio down in front of her. It was black, the sort that her mother kept her father’s death certificate in. “Have a look,” he said, untying the ribbons that held it closed. “It’s not organized yet.” He cleared his throat.
Setting her cup to the side, she opened the portfolio. Inside, there were several maps of Los Angeles. There was a large commercial map of the trolley and train system, full of wavy blue lines and careful print, a key with red dots. Atop the map, Harold had affixed a sheet of translucent paper. He’d marked it, the lines first drawn in pencil, then traced in black ink. “These are all tunnels?” she asked, running a finger lightly over the surface.
“Yes. I’ve tried to include the offshoot tunnels here, from the closed trolley lines. I haven’t explored those. They seem unstable.”
There were other maps, clippings from old newspapers, notes. It seemed an entire second city lay beneath Los Angeles, with new, unnamed roads, some cut through the rock. She wondered at the size of the tunnels. How strange it would be to walk beneath the city! How cold it must be, with no sunshine, and the cool smells of underground things: dirt and water and rock. Was it peaceful to be beneath the city? She watched Harold as he talked, as he grew excited about the newspaper clippings and maps.
He leaned over her. “Would you like to go sometime? There’s a legend that there’s gold buried in some of the tunnels. Knowing that makes it quite fun when you’re down there.”
“Yes,” May said. “Yes, I could go.” She imagined finding the gold, a big pot of it, dipping her hands in. The first thing she would buy would be a grocery store. She’d give Harold a job. It made her laugh.
Back at the Hamilton, May sat on the edge of her bed and took her shoes off. She stretched her toes, clicked and cracked her ankles. She picked up each old shoe and threw it to the back of the closet. A rap came from the other side of the wall. “Keep it down in there, buddy,” a voice called. She smiled. It wasn’t even that late. It was still early enough to go out.
The new shoes were nestled inside of a soft cloth bag. Inside the bag, they were wrapped in clean white paper. She anticipated the moment when the shoes would be free and on her feet.
She was clever enough.
On Sunday afternoon, Harold took her to Clifford’s. She ate chicken and mashed potatoes. She’d had nothing for a day, so she ate quickly as Harold talked about the tunnels. She ate her pie, too, the malted residue of chocolate thick on the back of her tongue.
Lily taught May how to fill in her cavities with wax from a candle stub. They stood over a hot plate, looking into a hand mirror that Lily had hung upside down on the wall like a horseshoe. Lily scraped at the candle with a paring knife. They watched the wax melt at the bottom of a dented saucepan. When it began to smoke, Lily pulled the pan from the heat. “You have to work quick,” she said, passing May a toothpick. Lily showed her how to build the tooth up until it looked almost right—right enough so she could smile when someone paid a compliment, so she could laugh without covering her mouth. Soon the translucent gray turned opaque white. “Now there’s a set of chompers,” Lily said, laughing.
May’s dress was tight at the waistband from the food, her breathing shallow. “How did you find this?” she asked, pointing to the space where Harold had pulled the boards away.
“A man told me about it.” His shirt was dark beneath his arms; a triangle of sweat showed between his shoulder blades. He’d left his jacket in the car.
“I met him at church one night. He said he was trying to piece all the tunnels together, like I was, and he showed this to me. We came walking over here after the sermon. He knows about so many of the tunnels.”
“I didn’t know you went to church.”
“I like it. It’s in a tent. I’ll take you some time. It’s a big show. It’s ghastly.” May stared at him. She’d seen the tents set up in the empty lots. She didn’t know how church could be ghastly. She wanted to ask, but he was impatient. “Should we go in?”
“You smell like a forest,” Richard had said, but his voice sounded as if it were coming from the other side of a great field. It was the night before he went overseas. They lay in bed together, in a hotel where she could hear the ocean. She was frightened that he might cry, and she was glad that she could not see his eyes in the dark. She stroked his hair. “You’ll be home soon,” she said, and she thought that when he came home again, she would have to stay in one place. She would have to fasten herself in somewhere, grow soft and round.
But then he didn’t come home. His plane was hit, and he was a ball of flame in a blue sky.
May made a calculation. She could go into the tunnel. She would ruin her shoes and dress to please Harold, and in the end, she’d have a pair of new shoes and a dress as a reward. “All right,” she said. “Turn that thing on first.” She pointed to the flashlight. It was the sort army men carried, brown with a crooked neck.
His face lit up. “You won’t be sorry.” He ducked into the mouth of the tunnel. He turned the flashlight on. “See?” he said. “Just like home.” He held it high and she could see ahead, to where the tunnel widened and she’d have room to stand.
“Is it paved down there?”
“Yes. It’s perfectly fine. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Come on.”
At first, it wasn’t strange to be inside the city. The sides of the tunnel didn’t touch her, but she could sense them there, and the farther they went the more her eyes adjusted to the single beam of light. There were noises buffered by earth and stone and dirt. Shifts from above. Unidentifiable echoes. Soon their voices bounced across the cavern of an empty trolley station. May could make out the long wooden benches where passengers had waited for trains. Harold moved the light across the ceiling, which seemed uneven and organic. “Are those bats do you think?” he said idly.
The entrance, when May turned, was a white pinprick of light.
“I hope not.” She caught the smell of urine, sensing the ground’s coldness below that, and when she put a hand to her mouth, Harold shone the light on her and she was blinded.
“Are you scared?”
She tried to shield her eyes from the light, holding up one hand. “No.”
“Does it bother you to be in the light?”
“Yes. Turn it away, please.”
He did. He let it linger on the opposite wall. Even though Harold hadn’t been here before, it was clear that others had. There were drawings and scattered writing on the tunnel’s walls. Symbols. May couldn’t make anything out. “Look at that,” Harold said. It was a black drawing of a bird’s outline—the beak comical, the eyes two x-marks. He turned the flashlight off. They stood together in the darkness. “Are you frightened?” Harold asked.
“There’s nothing to be frightened of. The city is so full of light. I like to come into the tunnels and think. It’s cool, you see. I know it’s not pleasant in the way most people think, but it’s cool and dark.”
“What do you think about then—when you’re here?”
“All sorts of things. The war.”
“Was it very bad?”
Harold didn’t say anything. “I’ve seen the way people look at you.”
“What do you mean?”
“They stare. Does it bother you?”
“Yes.” She said it hesitantly. Yes. But it was easy to say it in the darkness. She had the sense she was talking to herself, as if Harold’s voice were her own voice, the voice of her thoughts. She could hear Harold breathing in the dark. It sounded as if he were having trouble. She coughed, as if it might help him breathe. “The air is sour here,” she said. “It’s bad.” She coughed again. She wished she could see his face. In the pitch black of the tunnel, she felt as if she were falling through the center of the earth. She didn’t know how long they were like that. In the dark, a person lost track of time. “Harold?” she said, and he didn’t answer. “Harold, can you please turn the light on?”
“You shouldn’t do this,” the shoe salesman said to her. “A girl like you.”
“What sort of girl am I?”
He didn’t answer. He was a marionette with his strings cut.
She let him go, let him slip back into the shadowy back room of the shoe shop.
It was true. The city was full of light. The sun was always shining. She and Lily took the trolley to the beach and closed their eyes against the sun. At night, they went to the pier, which was strewn with the sort of lights they only used at Christmastime at home. There was always dancing at the pier. There was cold beer, and the smell of burgers and cigarettes and ocean air. Roller coaster cars clicked up wooden slats to the band’s roaring tempo, and the air was tinged with burnt sugar, sweat, and desire. They danced on wooden floors, scuffed and worn from other dancers; they danced outside, on the boardwalk, which was trampoline-like beneath soft shoes, the dancers jumping and spinning, the pop and pause of the break toss, the tandem send-out—and the dancers were from different places, from the Midwest or the South or the East, so their moves were varied and nuanced by place and attitude, and you could choose what you wanted to learn and then a boy would teach you, or a girl would stand off by the side to show you, letting you follow until you got it. They danced on the beach, even, shoeless, the sand cold between their toes. They danced with music and without. They danced into the small hours, past closing time, moving more and more slowly, disappearing with the first light.
“I used to be a doctor,” Harold said in the dark of the tunnel. “Before the war.”
“Did you know that some people are born with all of their organs on the opposite side of the body?”
She kept her eyes closed and didn’t say anything.
“Yes,” Harold went on. “It’s like a mirror image of you or me. The condition has a rather long name: dextrocardia situs inversus totalis. I’d love to see it one day, but it’s quite rare. Leonardo discovered it.”
“Leonardo da Vinci. The painter.”
“He was an anatomist—most artists are in some way.”
The darkness had dimension. She could not make out any single object, or even say where a wall might be, but the darkness was not as still and thick or impenetrable as it had been before. It was shadow cast upon shadow. The ceiling was alive with bats. “I’d like to leave.” She turned towards the white dot, her hands out in front of her in case she fell.
“Yes,” Harold said. He took her by the arm as if he’d done it many times, though he’d never once touched her. “Let’s go.” He tightened his grip. She tried to shake him off, but he held her tightly. He circled her waist. “Shh,” he said, when she protested. “Do you hear that?”
She tried to push him away
“Shh—it sounds like wings.”
“Stop.” She broke free of him and staggered ahead. He turned the light on and held it up in front of her.
“I didn’t mean it,” he called after her, but she had seen him.
She had never been afraid of the tree until the summer she became afraid of it, when she stood looking up into those dark pointed leaves—as bright as a black bird’s eye—absorbing all the light. How deep the roots of a tree that size must be. How far they must travel.
Mr. Perry offered her a jawbreaker from the glass jar.
“There are none left,” she told him.
“No?” He peered into the glass jar, and when he tilted his chin, she saw the round spot on his head where his hair whiskered away. “How funny. Never mind. I have some in the back.” He looked up, smiling. “You can come around the counter and look with me.” He put his hand on top of her head.
“Up there,” he told her. “I’ll lift you up.”
It was dark in the backroom. There were boxes piled as tall as men standing against shadowed doorways. A little higher, he kept saying, and when she found them and took them in her hands he lifted her down and squeezed her to him. He squeezed her as if she were his very own daughter, and she felt the husk of his stubbled chin press into the side of her neck.
He gave her a jawbreaker and licorice. “You can always see me for a trade,” he told her. She looked at the jawbreaker in the palm of her hand and wondered what he meant by “a trade.” She thought about saving the jawbreaker to put into her tea to watch it dissolve, but she put it in her mouth instead. She swallowed it too early, and it seemed to lodge in her throat. It was then that she saw the tree: standing there in front of the library like an enormous black-coated sentinel.
The way she got in was not always the way she got out. Sometimes there was no way to escape—doors were blocked, wedged with something heavy. There were unfinished basements, hills of raw earth. There were doors that led to alleyways, and alleyways that ended abruptly, that backed up to walls, to boat landings, to slaughterhouses. There were spaces beneath buildings, corners to fold into; there were pits in the hills, and there were tunnels beneath the city; there were blasted fissures of stone and upturned roots, the whole city sprawling below her like cracks running through a frozen lake.
She stood on the platform in the station and watched the soldiers disembark from the train. Everyone assumed that a life had a shape, but the act of living was as amorphous as air. Inside of the hand-wringing, the fear, the love—caught in the steam and sunlight—there is only a hunger for more.
BETH HAHN studied art and English at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of Pennsylvania and fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She attended Bread Loaf, and was in residence at the Ragdale Foundation and the Wellstone Center in the Redwoods. Her work has appeared in Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Writer’s Digest, Necessary Fiction, The Hawai’i Review, The South Carolina Review, The Emrys Journal, and as a digital short with Platypus Press. THE SINGING BONE (Regan Arts, 2016) is her first novel. Beth teaches Wednesday night fiction workshops at The Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. Her work is represented by Jessica Papin of Dystel, Goderich, and Bourret. For more information, visit beth-hahn.com.