Excerpted from Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, © 2022 by Sarah Bird, published by St. Martin’s Press on April 12, 2022.
The humidity that day was extreme. Shoes turned velvety green with mildew. Towels hung out to dry came in so damp they had to be cranked through the clothes wringer again. Saltines drooped limp as slices of bologna.
But nothing and no one was going to wilt me. Not today. I had already been a lot of things in my young life—vaudeville performer, dance instructor, waitress, dishwasher, pants presnot a cathoser, babysitter. And other things I won’t mention. Mostly, I was always what Mamie, my mother, needed me to be to earn money.
Today was the first day of the life that I chose.
By some miracle, I had won a scholarship to study at St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing, located on Galveston. I sat up even straighter on my dusty maroon velvet seat aboard the Houston-Galveston Interurban Railway. Even though the island was barely more than an hour away, this was my first time to visit.
The cabin was as sleek and modern as a rocket ship out of a Buck Rogers in the 25th Century comic strip. It was the perfect vehicle to launch me into my future. I was both terrified of what lay ahead and so thrilled that, had I been a dog, I would have stuck my head out the window and panted and drooled from sheer excitement.
But, being a seventeen-year-old girl from Houston’s notorious Vinegar Hill neighborhood determined to hide who she really was, I sat up primly and folded my hands in my lap instead. My palms were sodden with sweat, and butterflies churned through my gut. This was worse than any case of stage fright I’d ever endured back on the vaudeville circuit.
No one else on board appeared to have a care in the world. School had just let out, and jolly vacationers packed the car. Women in crisp white linen dresses and open-toed sandals. Men in straw boater hats. Boys in sailor suits. Little girls with long curls and short dresses with bloomers.
A party atmosphere pervaded the car. The men talked too loudly. Mothers let their children stand on the seats. A couple of the women, giggling behind their hands at their daring, lit up cigarettes and carefully blew the smoke out the window.
They all acted like naughty children playing hooky. And why not? Back on Vinegar Hill, we all knew that Galveston was a wide-open town where Prohibition was a suggestion instead of the law of the land. Where gambling wasn’t considered any worse than chewing tobacco. And the prostitutes who worked openly along Galveston’s infamous Line outnumbered spotted dogs.
Most important, everyone knew that the only rules that applied in Galveston were the ones enforced by the family that ran the entire, glorious empire of vice.
I tried to recall the family’s name but could only remember how all the small-time Vinegar Hill chiselers always spoke of the island’s ruling family with a combination of admiration and fear.
“Don’t ever cross that family,” they’d warned us kids who stood around, soaking up their street-corner wisdom. “Unless you want to end up in the Gulf of Mexico. Halfway to Havana. With your throat slit. And nobody in the entire state’s gonna do a damn thing about it. Because that family’s got every deputy and every sheriff in the county in their pocket. Shitfire. That bunch even owns the damn Texas Rangers.”
An empire of vice, even if it was run by a family, seemed an odd place to start a decent life, but my one and only chance to leave Vinegar Hill and Mamie behind waited for me on Galveston Island. If only I could impersonate a normal girl well enough to seize it.
To fend off the fears that I would be found out, I forced myself to concentrate on the view. We were hurtling across the Galveston Causeway. A vast flatness of sea and sky extended as far as I could see. A flock of gulls circled in a vortex outside my window. They hovered so close and so nearly motionless that I could almost touch them.
When a chubby boy in short pants tossed the crust of his sandwich out the window, the birds responded as one. In perfect synchronization, they angled their bodies toward the crust. In that instant, all their bodies aligned perfectly, and they pivoted as if they were one creature. The sunlight hit the flock in exactly the right way, and the seabirds were momentarily transformed into solid white paper sculptures. The origami birds floating in the sunlight were the purest, most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
I relaxed. What was I so nervous about? A place was waiting for me at St. Mary’s. My scholarship application had already been accepted.
Under false pretenses.
My mother’s hissing reminders became the voice of all the doubts slithering through my head.
We passed under the high arc of a sign that read “Welcome to Galveston. Playground of the Southwest.”
Three porpoises, their sleek bodies arcs of silver, leaped from the water at that moment. They dove back under, and a fizz of delight, of hope, bubbled through me.
The street approaching the school was lined with palms and hedges of oleander that dripped gaudy pink blossoms. Not the tiniest hint of a breeze blew. Ahead lay St. Mary’s Hospital School of Nursing. A ten-foot-high fence of black wrought iron surrounded the austere collection of two- and three-story brick buildings. It seemed like something out of Charles Dickens, too severe to belong to this free and easy city.
Young women in white uniforms crowned with white caps glided serenely about the grounds. My stomach tightened into a hard knot at the prospect of trying to pass as a normal girl among them. I would have to keep my trap shut and try to blend in as much as possible until I got the lay of the land.
A giant statue of Jesus’s mother stood atop the portico at the hospital entrance. Daddy, who’d been a Catholic, had always called her “the BVM,” short for Blessed Virgin Mary, just like she was his pal. I passed beneath Mary’s sorrowful gaze. Her head was tilted down and her expression was sad, as though she already knew that I was going to disappoint her.
Inside, the hospital was a serene world of silent corridors with ceiling fans quietly circulating air that smelled of floor wax, carbolic acid antiseptic, and Flit mosquito spray. It smelled like the hospital where Daddy had died. Where the nurses were so kind and did so much to relieve his suffering.
I followed a sign marked “School of Nursing” and headed down a broad hallway. Almost immediately, two nuns approached. They glided forward in their long black gowns and brimmed veils. Their faces floated between starched white headbands and high bibs. They seemed like sentries, guards posted to repel intruders like me. I quickly glanced away and pretended to be fascinated by a painting of a saint in a loincloth, porcupined with arrows.
“Hey.” A peppy voice startled me. “You must be Evie Grace Devlin.”
The voice belonged to a girl my age dressed in a uniform of blue chambray with puff sleeves and a Peter Pan collar covered by a crisp white Mother Hubbard apron.
How did she know my name?
“Sorry to spook you. I assigned myself to meet the new probie, and since you’re the only one around here who’s not either in a uniform, a habit, or a bed, I figured that had to be you.”
With her masses of dark curls, thick, unplucked eyebrows, and the slightest hint of a mustache, she had the innocent but determined aspect of a curious woodland creature. A friendly chipmunk, maybe.
“Probie?” I asked.
“Probationer,” she clarified brightly. “Beginning nursing student?” she added when I didn’t respond.
I nodded, and she gave me a once-over so obvious I was about to tell her to take a picture, that it’d last longer, when she announced, “You’ll do.”
Like all the smart players who kept their cards close to the vest, I said nothing.
“First thing, you need to check in with the director of nurses. Let’s go.”
Without another word, she throttled off down the hall, leaving me to stumble behind. Slowing down, she reached back, ordered, “Here, give me that,” and snatched my suitcase away. “You pack light,” the Chipmunk observed, hefting the case up and resting it on the top of her head like a safari bearer.
What an oddball. I figured her for some lonely do-gooder whose only hope at making friends was picking off newcomers like me. Fair enough, I thought, I’d take any acceptance that came my way.
I followed her through a swinging door, and the world of silent serenity fell away. We entered a hive thrumming with purposeful activity. A student nurse pushing a cart clattering with dirty lunch dishes hurried past. A white-coated doctor with round glasses and a goatee dictated notes to a nun holding a clipboard. A young nurse hurried up a flight of stairs carrying a metal tray loaded with metal hypodermics that clattered with every step.
Chipmunk raced on. A cluster of girls dressed in chambray uniforms like the one my guide wore approached us. Expecting them to ignore my oddball escort, I was surprised when they all lit up like the Fourth of July, shouted excited greetings, and converged on her like they were autograph hounds and she was some kind of starlet.
“Make way, probies,” she said, shoving through the giddy throng. “I’ve got the new probationer here, and we’re late to meet the Director.”
Apparently, I thought, as we pushed on, this girl wasn’t the lonely do-gooder I’d had her pegged as. In fact, she seemed distinctly popular. Then I glanced back at the girls who’d been so eager to talk to her and saw that some of them were whispering madly to each other and casting odd looks her way. Looks that I couldn’t quite interpret.
On either side of the wide hallway, doors opened to large wards. Signs identified them as Men’s Surgical. Labor and Delivery. Bone Deformities. Women’s Surgical. Children’s.
I paused outside the children’s ward and peered in at a large room swept by radiant light beaming in from high windows that reflected off polished floors. Two long rows of beds made up with snowy white sheets were occupied by sick children.
At one bed, a nurse took a child’s temperature. At another, a nurse helped a little girl sip from a straw. Several rocking chairs were in use by nurses holding limp or sleeping children. It exuded the calm efficiency of the ward my father was in near the end.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” my guide asked, staring at the magical assembly line of care.
“Everyone knows exactly what to do,” I marveled.
“After three years, we will too,” my new acquaintance assured me.
She registered the hesitant yearning in my voice and, as if I’d passed a test I hadn’t known I was taking, she stuck her hand out. “Sofia. But if you call me that, I’ll clock you. It’s Sofie.”
“Evie Grace, but you already know that.”
A white-jacketed orderly, gliding up silently behind in his rubber-soled shoes, his vision obscured by the tall metal cart he was pushing, nearly crashed into us.
“Jeezo, probies,” he hissed, the steel instruments laid atop his metal cart rattling wildly as he veered past.
“Aw, go soak your head,” Sofie called after him, sounding exactly like one of my tough-girl friends on Vinegar Hill. “Can’t let anyone run over you, right?” she asked me.
“You can say that again. Sofia.”
Sofie balled up her fist, pretending she was going to clock me.
I smiled, figuring that as long as I could joke with a person, anything was possible.
At the Director’s office, a diminutive nun who had one of those ageless, merry faces that could have belonged to either a happy old woman or a wrinkled toddler slapped both her hands on her desk, rose to her full height of maybe four ten, and burst out, “There you are.”
“Meet Sister Theonella,” Sofie said. “Officially she’s the assistant director, but don’t believe it. Sister T runs the place.”
“Hardly,” Sister T answered, taking both my hands in hers. “And you must be Evelyn Grace. Oh, how we have been waiting for you.” Her open-hearted warmth made me suspicious. Open-hearted warmth on Vinegar Hill meant that someone was going to run a con on you.
At the Director’s door, Sister Theonella stopped to gather up the long, draping sleeves that covered her hands before rapping three times.
An exceptionally peevish voice echoed out from behind the closed door, demanding, “Sister T, did I not explicitly instruct you not to disturb me for any reason?”
Sister T gave Sofie a conspiratorial wink and opened the door.
Since I towered over the elfin nun, I had a clear view of the Director’s office. Everything in it was shadowed, except the boss nun’s face. Or rather the rectangle of face that pressed out between a stiff white headband and a tight, starched bib like bread dough that had risen too much. When she lifted her head to glare at me, the intruder, her rimless spectacles caught the light and hid her eyes behind two circles of silver.
Unbidden, the memories descended. Of Detroit. Of the men in the audience.
I jerked my thoughts away from a past I was determined to bury.
“Shut the door, Sister,” the Director commanded. “And if you disturb me again, all privileges will be revoked.”
Her threat was so chilling that I feared food and air might be regarded as “privileges” in this alien world I’d landed in. The only thing that was familiar was the Director’s imperious manner. She exuded the same cast-iron belief that the world revolved around her that Mamie did.
Undaunted, Sister T asked impishly, “Are you sure? Because look who I have here.”
The instant Sister T pushed Sofie forward, the Director’s bullying manner disappeared completely. “Sofia, Sofia,” she said, rising slightly from her seat. “Come in, please.”
The three of us entered.
“Sister,” Sofie said, “I just stopped in to bring you the new girl so that you can sign off on her admission.”
“New girl?” the Director asked. “But the probationer class has already assembled.”
Gesturing at the Director’s desk, Sister T said, “I put the application that we approved right there alongside her admission form. If you’ll simply sign, we’ll get her settled in.”
My pulse soared as the Director scrutinized my application. Surely I would be found out now.
Clearly displeased, the Director asked, “Is this the charity position that was confirmed during the time I was away in St. Louis at the Motherhouse?”
“That’s right,” Sofie answered. “All you have to do is add your signature, and we’ll get out of your hair.”
With a thin smile that appeared to cause her pain, the Director said, “Sofia, if you wouldn’t mind, perhaps I could have a moment alone with . . .” She searched the form.
“Evie Grace,” Sofie supplied.
The Director’s imitation of a smile vanished the instant the door closed and we were left alone. Tapping my answers with the point of a needle-sharp pencil, she asked, “Your father and mother are both dead?”
“Yes,” I replied, only half lying. My father had died when I was young, and Mamie, besides never wanting to be a mother to begin with, had told me I was dead to her if I stopped paying her bills and went to nursing school. So, if I was dead to her, how alive could she be to me?
“You graduated from Sam Houston High School?”
“Yes,” I answered brightly, since that was one hundred percent true.
“With a grade point average of B minus?” she said, more disapproving than curious.
“I had to work two jobs to support myself and my mother. When she was alive, that is.”
“I see that you worked in the school lunchroom and taught at a dance school. What sort of dance school?” she said, as if she were asking, “What sort of prostitution ring?”
“The Bennett Academy of Dance—my uncle Jake owns it. Mostly I helped him teach cotillion and debutante classes.”
Another half-truth. It had been years since I’d taught with Uncle Jake. Not since all the Houston swells had fled to the new suburbs like River Oaks, leaving Jake with barely enough customers to keep the school open. But “dance instructor” looked better than my other part-time job, babysitting for the women who turned tricks at the nearby train depot.
“And I see that the rest of your schooling was out of state.”
That was completely true if you considered “schooling” to be learning math from watching the all-night poker games played on the vaudeville circuit and being taught to read backstage by Marvin the Man of Marvels.
Marvin had enthralled audiences by tying his shoelaces, brushing his teeth, and buttoning his shirt. All by himself. And these were all marvels because Marvin had been born without any arms. Marvin could have read without my help, but after four or five shows a day, he was tired of being marvelous, so I held his books and turned the pages, and he helped me sound out words.
“Evie Grace Devlin,” Marvin used to tell me when I was sad or tired or in pain. “A person can do anything they put their mind to. Why, look at you? Two arms! Kid, the world is your oyster.”
The Director stopped reading, speared a question, peered at me above her glasses, and asked with sharp alarm, “You are not a Catholic?”
If there was one question I wished I could have lied about, it was that one. But if you marked that you were Catholic, you had to get a form signed by your parish priest swearing that you were a “regular communicant.” At his parish. And I wasn’t a regular anything. Anywhere.
“Not technically,” I hedged.
“Not technically,” she repeated, staring at me coldly.
I hadn’t fooled her. She saw who I really was. She saw the half-moons of sweat beneath the arms of my too-short dress. She smelled the stink of a girl who shared an outhouse in the alley with four other families and bathed using a pot of tepid water warmed on a hot plate. A girl whose last meal had been a cup of coffee and a doughnut eaten too long ago to keep her stomach from growling during the most important interview of her life.
The Director wrinkled her nose at the growling that marked me as the pitiable, half-starved beggar I was.
“No, no, no,” she said, putting the pencil down. “This will not do at all. We have never had a girl who was not Catholic at St. Mary’s. And we have certainly never had a girl who frequents dance halls.”
Just as I had never corrected Mamie, I didn’t correct the Director. Because there had never been any point.
“Sister T and Sofia,” she continued, “have gotten caught up in some dangerous ideas of ‘reaching out.’ Of seeking out a ‘broader’ range of students.”
She folded her hands. “I’m sorry that they decided to use you as the poster child in their little campaign to change this school, but I am the guardian of St. Mary’s, and I take my responsibility to uphold spotless moral standards very seriously. Galveston’s finest families entrust their daughters to me, and I shall never betray that trust by allowing unsuitable girls in. I cannot approve an admission that was made behind my back. You are not suitable.”
Already absorbed in another document, she held out the application I had poured all my dreams into without so much as a glance in my direction. Gutted, unable to move or even speak, I simply stood there frozen until she rustled the application impatiently.
I took it from her and left.
What’s wrong?” Sofie asked when I stumbled out of the Director’s office. “You look like you just swallowed a bug.”
“I am unsuitable.”
“What? Is that what she said? What a pill.”
“Problems?” Sister T asked, joining us.
“She told Evie she’s ‘unsuitable.’ ”
The little sister rushed to reassure me. “Don’t pay any attention whatsoever. You have been selected. Sofie and I want you.”
“Apparently she doesn’t.”
Sister T exchanged eye rolls with Sofie and told her, “I told you she hates Protestants.”
“Yeah, I know,” Sofie said, shaking her head in amazement. “It’s like something out of the Middle Ages. What she hates even more than Protestants, though, is poor people. No offense,” she said to me.
“This simply isn’t right,” Sister T said with a fierceness I wouldn’t have suspected of the little nun. “Thirty years ago, I stood beside that woman at the Motherhouse in St. Louis when our class took the pledge to care for all our patients without regard to race, creed, color, politics, or social standing. How can we do that if we only train girls who are white, Catholic, and well-off?”
“We can’t,” Sofie said with an almost offhanded determination. “Stay here,” she told me before marching back into the Director’s office and shutting the door.
I didn’t realize how desolate I looked until Sister T said, “Don’t fret, little one, all will be well.”
Any other time, I would have hooted at being called “little one” by a pixie runt nearly a foot shorter than me, but all I could manage was a sad nod.
Peering up, she said, “I don’t like your color. You’ve gone quite pale. Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll go and find a snack for you from the ward kitchen.”
Embarrassed, I answered quickly, “Don’t bother. I’m fine.”
I couldn’t think about eating. If I did, the light-headed wobblies that came with hunger, real hunger, would overtake me, and I refused to wobble. Not in front of all these do-gooders. Not in front of anyone. Not when I already knew how this story was going to end. How it always ended when the one in charge made up her mind.
“Thanks a bunch for trying to get me in,” I told Sister T as I gathered my things.
“You’re not leaving? You should at least wait for Sofie to come out.”
Why? I wanted to ask. So she could keep pretending that she had the pull to get me in? I didn’t know what the Chipmunk’s game was, but I was done playing. Plus, if I stayed another second, I might have started crying. And I didn’t cry in front of anyone. Ever.
“I have to get back to Houston,” I lied. Not only didn’t I have to get back to Houston, I didn’t even have the 55-cent fare for the train. I’d have to hitch.
I was already out the door when a voice called after me, “Hang on. Where are you going?”
It was Sofie. “What’s it to you?” I asked, mad that I’d let myself be used.
“A lot,” she shot back. “Since you’re going to be my roommate.”
I squinted at her. Hard.
“Oh, I am, am I?” I asked, letting my acid tone communicate that I was not the chump she’d played me for.
“Yep,” she responded cheerfully. “You’re a full-fledged probationer. Signed, sealed, and delivered.”
I didn’t believe her until she handed me my application. Which now had the Director’s signature on it.
Too baffled to be either jubilant or relieved, my only thought was, How the hell did she pull that off? And is it a con?
With a thumbs-up and a wave to Sister T, Sofie grabbed my arm and said, “Come on, we’re getting out of here. I need to show you Galveston.”
The light-headedness returned as she rushed me through the polished corridors, dodging orderlies pushing gurneys and white-coated doctors leading coveys of students. Though the familiar headache and exhaustion that came when it had been too long between meals clouded my thinking, I tried desperately to figure out if all this was for real, because I couldn’t see any way that this ditzy girl had managed to change the steely director’s mind.
Had she forged the signature she’d shown me?
I was bracing myself for the next ugly surprise when we reached the street and Sofie flagged down a trolley. Oddly, it ground to a halt even though we weren’t at an official stop.
Sofie started to put some coins into the fare box, but the streetcar operator covered the opening, saying, “Your money’s no good on my car, Miss Amadeo.”
Though Sofie told the driver, “Thanks, Charley. Appreciate it,” her bubbly mood darkened. It darkened further when a ripple of whispers followed us down the aisle.
Amadeo, I thought, bracing myself against the sway of the trolley as I followed Sofie to a seat at the back. I noticed how the local passengers in work clothes, but not the sun-hatted tourists, swiveled their heads to watch Sofie pass.
I slid onto the seat next to her.
At last, it came to me.
Amadeo was the name that the Vinegar Hill chiselers spoke with such fear and respect. The name of the family that ran Galveston. The one that kept the island floating happily on a sea of illegal booze and gambling. The one that owned the law and settled scores the hard way. The one whose daughter I was sitting next to right now.
I cut a sidelong glance her way. She was holding her froth of dark curls off her neck and, eyes closed, letting the breeze that rushed in the open window cool her.
It was clear then how this island princess had managed to get me admitted to St. Mary’s, but an even bigger question remained:
Why did Sofia Amadeo care about me?
Sparks popped from the overhead line, and the smell of scorched metal filled my head as the trolley made a sharp turn. I caught the name on a street sign: Seawall Boulevard. Metal shrieked against metal as the trolley rumbled to a stop.
“Welcome to tourist Galveston,” Sofie announced, hopping out of her seat. “Locals tend to avoid it. And that is exactly why I love it.”
Dodging beach umbrellas and picnic baskets, we joined the holiday visitors making their way off the trolley and onto the broad promenade that ran along the shore.
A dizzying burst of sounds and activity greeted me. The shouts and laughter of the tourists competed with the cries of hungry gulls circling overhead. A barker standing beside cutouts of a fat lady in bloomers and a thin man in an old-timey swimsuit yelled, “Step right up. Send the folks back home a funny picture. They’ll get a laugh, and you’ll get a souvenir of your time on Treasure Island.”
Saliva rushed into my mouth when the heavenly aroma of grilling hamburgers wafted our way from a nearby stand.
“Hey, should we grab a couple?” Sofie asked.
Just as I’d done with Sister T, I told her that I was not hungry. I might have been a charity student, but nothing on earth was ever going to get me to admit that I didn’t have a dime for a burger.
“Are you sure?” she probed.
My nerves were so on edge from the headache crushing down on my eyeballs that I snapped, “I said I’m not hungry.”
“Oh well.” She shrugged, stepping up to the order window. “Maybe we’ll need a little snack later on.”
I tried not to stare as her order was bagged up, along with a couple of pale green bottles of Dr Pepper, some paper straws, and even an opener to pop the tops.
Just as the trolley operator had, the vendor refused to take Sofie’s money. “Just, please,” he asked, his voice quavering a bit, “tell your father and your uncle JuJu how very, very, very happy Connie is.”
I assumed that he was Connie, since the name “Constantine Stavros, Proprietor” was painted on the side of the stand.
Though Sofie withdrew her coins and said, “Sure, Connie. Will do,” her smile had tightened.
Expensive motorcars—a Duesenberg convertible, a Jaguar roadster—purred along the boulevard, as sleek and exotic as the jungle cats the last was named for. I imagined their drivers and glamorous passengers to be playboys, debutantes, heirs and heiresses to vast oil or cotton fortunes.
This was my first real-life glimpse of the gilded princes and princesses of the Roaring Twenties that I’d read so much about. Far from roaring, the twenties had reached the shotgun shacks and abandoned factories of Vinegar Hill only as the most distant of echoes. A party that none of us had been invited to. But here in Galveston, thanks apparently to Sofie’s family, that party was in full swing.
On the other side of the street, a gaggle of pretty girls in billowy summer dresses strolled arm in arm, their Cuban-heeled sandals dangling from straps hooked over a finger.
“Oh, jeez,” Sofie said, quickly turning away.
But the girls had already spotted her. Waving and calling, “Hey, Sofie. Sofie!” they dodged traffic, trying to cross the boulevard to reach her.
“Let’s go,” Sofie ordered, storming away. We double-timed it, slowing down only when we’d left the girls far behind. Sofie stopped in front of a plaque embedded in the seawall titled “Galveston Storm of 1900.”
Silently, I read about the hurricane that had killed 12,000 people and totally flattened the island. “It’s still the worst disaster in American history,” Sofie said. “Can you believe that the survivors decided to rebuild? On a sandbar island. They had to raise the city seventeen feet.”
“That is kind of crazy.”
“Yeah, I guess we’re all nuts,” Sofie agreed, obviously proud to be the inheritor of such stubborn insanity.
The next stop was a sprawling two-story structure that floated above the beach like an enormous luxury liner on tall piers. A flag fluttering in the gentle breeze identified it as Murdoch’s Bath House.
Every inch of the structure was covered with advertisements for everything from Hires Root Beer to Kelly’s Tires. But the biggest one read “Bathing Costumes. Men and Women. Girls and Boys. 10 Cents a Day. Wash the Salt Off!! Private Shower 25 Cents.”
“You can’t be a real islander,” Sofie said, “until you’re officially christened.”
We joined the line of customers in street clothes on the walkway. On the beach seventeen feet below us strolled men wearing ties and women in fluttery dresses and cloche hats. Beach umbrellas scattered along the shore were an Easter egg hunt of bright color.
The bathhouse was a vast warren of rooms and noisy activity. Sofie led me to a counter where, for the 20 cents that she produced before I could object, the attendant gave us two wire baskets, with a towel and a bathing suit in each one.
With a glance at my pale skin, she pointed to the beach umbrellas for rent and said, “You’d better give us one of those as well.”
The locker room was crowded with women shedding their city clothes and wriggling into rental black suits. Their excited chatter harmonized with their children’s and echoed off the tile.
Completely at ease among the happy tourists who didn’t recognize her, Sofie shed her clothes. I pivoted away and quickly hoisted the straps of the rented black suit up over my shoulders. Thankfully it was baggy enough to hide my washboard chest and protruding pelvic bones. When I turned back around, we faced each other in our identical swimsuits, and Sofie exclaimed, “Look. We’re twins.”
I couldn’t help laughing at both the enthusiasm and the utter ridiculousness of her statement. Her voluptuous figure, creamy white skin, and black curls were the polar opposite of my own tall, bony silhouette, freckled skin, and flyaway blond hair. “Right,” I joked. “No one will ever be able to tell us apart.”
“Well, maybe not identical twins,” she laughed along with me.
It felt so wonderful to laugh that I caught a second wind, and my hunger seemed to vanish, along with some of my doubts. I thought again how hard it was for me not to like, even trust, someone I could kid around with.
We rushed down the stairs that funneled visitors from the bathhouse onto the sand. For an instant, the blazing late-afternoon sun blinded me, and the world became an overexposed mirage. When my eyes adjusted, I was staring at a horizon that went on forever.
The delighted screams of skinny kids bobbing in the warm, docile waves echoed along the shore. The screams were met by warnings from mothers stretched out on towels not to go out even one inch farther. The warnings and happy shrieks blended with the laughter of fathers joking about how hungover they were from all the bootleg hooch the night before.
But it was the waves that mesmerized me. The ocean foamed white and tan at the shoreline, then opened onto a silver-blue vastness that went on forever. It was a shimmering avenue just waiting to carry me out farther than I could see. Maybe even into the future I’d dreamed of.
I realized that I was gawking when Sofie asked, “Is this the first time you’ve been to the ocean?”
Though I’d “been” to the ocean several times back in the vaudeville days when we’d played Atlantic City, all I’d seen then were the footlights and the backstage of the Globe Theatre. First as my father’s tiny, comic dance partner and then, when his lungs got too bad, as the toe-dancing Pint-Size Pavlova, who Mamie claimed was only three years old long after I’d turned six.
“My first real time,” I answered.
“Oh, probie,” Sofie responded, oddly delighted by my answer, “you are the best. Come on, I’m taking you to my special place far away from the crowd.”
Shouldering the beach umbrella like a rifle and still gripping the bag of burgers, Sofie set off at a brisk pace. Grateful for my second wind, I followed.
The soft sand gobbled up my long strides, and I moved to the strip of beach packed hard by the waves. Sofie glanced back. The humidity had transformed her curls into a dark nimbus floating around her face. Laughing, she broke into a run.
Loping after her, I passed ladies with toenails painted red stretched out on towels, sunning their legs. A mustachioed man in high-waisted trunks building a sandcastle with turrets that flew pieces of sea grass for flags. Skinny boys chasing after each other, flinging wads of seaweed that marked sunburned backs like dribbles of black ink on pink paper.
I wondered what all the happy vacationers must think of me, a ridiculous, tall, bony, eternally hungry scarecrow of a girl galumphing past like a crazy lady.
I ran until there were no people and the neatly tended tourist beach disappeared beneath random piles of timber tumbled by the waves into smooth driftwood and hillocks of seaweed baking in the sun that smelled of sulfur, and I stopped.
Sofie was nowhere in sight. Was she hiding, spying on me? My fears that I was the butt of some perverse joke returned.
The only structure this far down the beach was the ramshackle hulk of a once-grand edifice sitting at the end of a pier jutting far out into the Gulf. I visored my eyes against a sun that had suddenly gone from radiant to blinding to read the peeling paint on its side.
As I was making out the words “Starlite Palace,” patches of dazzling brilliance began to flash through my vision. A film of sweat, clammy and cold even in the heat, suddenly coated my body. The hope-filled horizon I’d discerned earlier disappeared in the seething glare. The cries of the gulls grew piercingly, painfully loud.
And then the screeching and the glare, the hunger and the doubts, all stopped. All was blessedly quiet and dark, and I was back in the only place where everything could ever be made right and whole again.
“There she is. There’s my darling girl. There’s my little nurse.”
It was my father’s voice, but all I could see of him were his hands reaching out atop the clean, crisply ironed sheets. And then my hand appeared. It was small and warm and pink. His was large and cold and tinged a bluish color that I hated. I tried to warm his hands with mine. To make that chilly blue go away.
But a crimson flower blossomed across my vision. The terrible flower filled me with panicked terror as it turned into Daddy’s handkerchief spotted with red. I had to do something. I had to make the red flower and that awful bluish color go away. I wanted the hands that held me and protected me and guided me through the dance steps that mirrored his to come back. I wanted to save my father.
Then the nurse was back. The kind one in the winged cap with the gold pin gleaming on her chest. The one who adjusted his pillows so he could sit up and eat the soup she brought him on a tray with extra crackers and a glass of milk for me. The one who set up a cot beside Daddy’s bed for me to sleep on when Mamie didn’t come to take me home at night.
The one who always knew what to do. Who cared more than the doctor always passing in an impatient blur of white. I was certain that she would save my father.
She held a straw to his bluish lips and crooned in a voice that was comfort itself, “Take a sip, sweetie. Come on now. Just one little sip.”
But the straw never reached my father’s lips; it touched mine instead. I tried to explain that I was not the one who needed to be saved, my father was. That he was all I had. That he defended me from Mamie. That I would have no one without him.
“Just one sip,” the voice urged. “It’ll make you feel better.”
I sipped. A sweet, cool bubbliness filled my mouth. I was so thirsty and it tasted so good that I couldn’t stop myself. I drank, and when I opened my eyes, once again, he was gone and I was alone.
“Good girl,” Sofie said.
We were huddled in the patch of shade cast by her rented beach umbrella. With each sip, the memory of my father faded farther away, and I was left with the familiar sadness of all the mornings I’d woken to realize that he was gone.
“Here,” Sofie said, handing me one of the burgers. I wanted, badly, to merely pick at it, to act as though I could take it or leave it. I tried to save a shred of dignity by eating slowly, casually. And I failed. That hamburger, still warm from the grill, with the exact right touches of mustard, pickle, slice of tomato, melded into impossible deliciousness by a layer of melted cheddar, was the most delicious thing that had ever passed my lips.
Sofie watched with the same rapt pleasure I’d felt when I was able to coax my father into swallowing a few spoonfuls of porridge.
“You’re looking better. Not exactly rosy, but not scary. Great nurse I’d make,” she said with a snort. “Letting my first patient die of starvation. Jeez, kid, why didn’t you tell me you were hungry?”
That was a question only a person who’d never really been hungry would ask.
We sat on the empty shore and stretched our legs out into the water. The tickle of sand being sucked away beneath me was exquisite. The water rippled with wobbling bands of sunset color.
A whistling chirp caught my attention. The calls trilled in a way that could only be described as “piping.” Without having ever seen one except in books, I knew that the covey of small birds darting past were sandpipers. They wound in and out of the water in flawless unison, their tiny legs blurring into a ridiculous churn of motion that made us both smile.
Since evening was coming, I had to know if I could trust Sofie. If I couldn’t, I had to start hitching before it was full dark. So, wiping mustard from my fingers, I asked her straight out, “Why did you go to bat for me?”
Instead of answering, Sofie picked up a shell that had tumbled to rest between us and started drawing random squiggles on the sand. After a while, she said, “First, tell me why you want to be a nurse.”
I knew I should just play the grateful charity girl. But I couldn’t. I’d lived too long under the control of one spoiled, willful narcissist. Before it got any darker, I had to know for certain that my future wouldn’t be dictated by another. So I asked, “Why don’t we start with you?”
My tone caught her attention. The island princess was not used to being challenged. Her eyes went dark and complicated.
When she didn’t answer, I probed further. “Why do you care so much about me getting in?”
“Sister T and I—”
I stopped her. “Don’t give me that hooey about wanting to expose the other girls to some random non-Catholic poor person. That might be the reason why Sister T is pulling for me, but you? What’s in it for you?”
Sofie backed away and said haughtily, “I’m not sure I like the tone of your question.” The next second, a startled look came over her face. The snooty front dropped and she said, “Actually, that, that tone is exactly why I went to bat for you.”
“What are you talking about?”
I sensed the silent debate raging in her head. She glanced around as if someone might be listening, peered hard at me, and seemed to decide something. “Evie, I’ve had a lifetime of people being nice to me. Kissing my butt. Telling me what they think I want to hear. Because of my family. I pulled for you because you’re not BOI. You don’t even know or care that BOI means ‘born on the island.’ You didn’t grow up here. You don’t know my family and you don’t owe them a thing. You’re not awed by them. Or scared of them.
“Look, I’m not an idiot. I know what my family is. I know where the money comes from. I am sick of existing in this strange limbo where everyone acts like my family’s business is importing olive oil and I’m just this dumb, innocent Catholic girl and the business has nothing to do with me.”
Barely pausing for breath, she continued urgently, “But it always has. And it always will, unless . . . Unless I carve out a place for myself separate from them. Otherwise, I am going to end up marrying some guy who’ll immediately become part of the business, and then what? I’ll have five kids and join the Altar Guild? Spend my life making flower arrangements and living for the ‘highball at nightfall’ like the other wives? All while pretending I don’t know about the mistress my husband’s got tucked away in the penthouse suite at the Buccaneer.”
I didn’t know what to say, and Sofie, reacting to my silence and embarrassed then by her confession, tried to dismiss it with a weak laugh. “Hey, forget I said anything. I just thought that, with your background, where you came from and all, you might understand. That if I had even one friend I didn’t have to put on an act for, the next three years wouldn’t be so, you know, lonely or something.”
Without giving me a chance to speak, Sofie hurtled on. “Stupid, right? I don’t know what I was thinking. Forget the whole thing.” Waving her hand around as if fanning away a bad odor, she said, “Listen, don’t worry, you’ve got a place at St. Mary’s, no matter what. We don’t really have to have anything else to do with each other.”
She started to fold up the umbrella. I put my hand on hers and stopped her. After a pause, still searching for my thoughts, I said, “You know, Sofie, people talk a lot about how important it is to ‘be yourself,’ right? And to find someone who accepts you for who you are. And I’m sure that’s wonderful and all. But that’s not what either one of us needs right now, is it? I know it’s not what I need. We need someone who will accept us for who we want to be.” I paused, and, feeling like one of the poker players I used to watch backstage as he pushed all his chips in on a bet, I said, “Sofie, I am going to be that for you. Maybe you’ll be that for me.”
My skepticism had brought out hers, and she reminded me, “You still haven’t told me why you really want to be a nurse.”
Uncertain how to start, I said, “Okay, you leveled with me, I’ll do the same. First, I’ll tell you the smart reason. I want to be a nurse because if I don’t carve out a place for myself separate from my mother, I’ll end up back in Vinegar Hill. I’ll get a job. Get knocked up. Get married. Get beat up when the world beats him up. Or worse.”
I almost told her the “or worse” path. The one Mamie had laid out for me in Detroit. But that was one secret I had to keep.
Sofie no longer sounded rich or entitled or naive or anything but human when she asked, “And the other reason?”
“The stupid reason?” I asked, stalling for time.
“Tell me,” she prompted.
“Because I lost the only person in the world who loved me, the only person I loved, because I didn’t know enough to save him. I didn’t make him go to the hospital soon enough. I didn’t force him to stop working. I didn’t make him leave my mother.”
“How old were you when he died?”
“Almost five. I told you it was stupid,” I said defensively. “I know that I was too young to really do anything. That I’m crazy for feeling this way. That he’s gone and nothing I ever do will bring him back, but—”
“Stop. Nothing your heart tells you is true is crazy. It may not be entirely logical, but it’s never crazy. I’m glad you told me. I can’t have any more lies. I just can’t.”
“Me neither,” I said, thinking of the one lie I still had to hide and swearing that, with Sofie at least, it would be the only one.
“We’re really going to do this, aren’t we?”
“Promise?” She held up her little finger.
The gesture puzzled me until I recalled the normal girls back at Sam Houston High doing this, and I quickly held up my pinkie.
She twined hers around it, and I answered, “Promise,” as she shook it.
As if to celebrate our vow, thousands of bulbs blinked on at the end of the pier, transforming the heap of graying timber that they outlined into a castle of light.
“A giant albatross around my family’s neck?”
I darted a What? glance her way.
“The Starlite Palace.”
“The electric bill must be staggering.”
“The price of pride,” she said.
“So it’s completely abandoned?”
“Except for him.” She pointed, and I noticed that one of the lights was moving.
“He’s out there a lot. Comes at all sorts of odd hours,” Sofie continued. “Probably just some watchman that my father hired as part of the pretense that the old place is going to be reopened.”
Though I nodded, I knew immediately that the man was not a watchman. Back on Vinegar Hill, an arsonist everyone called Jimmy the Torch used to keep us kids spellbound by showing off his inside info.
“The worse the economy,” he’d tell us like we were a class of junior firebugs, “the better my business. We call it ‘Jewish lightning’ when a business is about to go under and it mysteriously burns. Don’t know why. Most of my customers is just regular panicked Christians.”
Jimmy had warned us about the arsonist’s worst enemy: fire insurance investigators. “Look out for guys in bad suits nosing around your target property. Regular watchmen never wear suits. And if they got clipboards and are taking notes, poking around where they got no business poking around, you are in big trouble ’cause the insurance company is wise to you.”
The guy poking around the Palace wore a bad suit and he was making notes on a clipboard. I said nothing.
Sofie gave a fond chuckle as she gazed at the Palace. “There’s such a long story behind that old place. It was the first structure rebuilt after the hurricane. Galveston loves the Palace. I’ll tell you the whole story about how my family’s been trying to bring it back to life, because we have time for stories now, don’t we? Time for all the stories.”
I spent more than a thousand days at St. Mary’s, but that first one, the day that Sofie and I became friends, allies, was the most important one of all.
This story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Texas Monthly. Subscribe today.