When They Shake What God Gave Them

Amber Sparks


One month before the jazz babies were born, their father sacrificed himself on the altar of the god Mammon; that is to say, he finally overworked himself into a heart attack in the accounting offices of the J&J Department Stores Incorporated. The jazz babies' mother didn't like to talk about it. Mention of the incident gave her a tremendous attack of nerves, accompanied by a terrific headache. Ever since the father's death (and probably before), she had become the sort of person who avoided telephone calls and rung doorbells in case the bearer was that of bad news.

One day before the jazz babies were born, Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes was dancing the premiere performance of The Rite of Spring at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. This was across the Atlantic, it's true, but the babies' mother swears the ripples from the cataclysmic concert rocketed her into early labor and doomed her twins to a life of aggressively modern behavior and a love of dangerous music.

One hour before the jazz babies were born, Al Jolson was recording "You Made Me Love You," for wax cylinder, a song the twins' mother would sing to them often in the next year, while dreaming of the menswear salesman with whom she went dancing with on Saturdays (after a respectable period of mourning, of course). Fifteen years later, the jazz babies, (so-called, self-named), are over the moon about Al Jolson tying the knot with Ruby Keeler. The twins have a dance act, and both hope they look like Ruby while soft-shoeing it on the front porch of their mother's and the menswear salesman's new bungalow.

The twins are blonde with big heads, skinny bodies floating below like strings under balloons.  They are that mysterious age, not nymphets but not quite children, either; the age when awkward figures leave open the question of what they will develop into in a few short years. They lack grace but have a kind of buoyancy. It worries their mother, as does everything else under the sun, from animal attacks to the Oriental influence to modern bathing costumes.  

It has been in all the papers, the menswear salesman tells the mother.  Grown women wearing bathing costumes in the middle of the park, the palazzo, the promenade; gathering en masse in bathing costumes and eating pizza. Lips smacking, thighs jiggling, arm fat flapping – the salesman shudders and stops, unable to go on. The mother does not own a bathing suit, and in church the next Sunday she prays, in her nervous, insincere way, for the souls of the sinners that do. She also prays for her first husband in heaven, for the neighbors' dog to drop dead, and for a new wireless set.

The jazz babies' parents forbid them to continue their dancing on the porch. Once it was adorable, a sweet novelty to watch the two little girls, indistinguishable but for a small splotch of birthmark on the left heel of the eldest twin, hoofing it to the sounds of Hoagy Carmichael, Fats Waller, and Jelly Roll Morton. Their big finish had always been "Hard-Hearted Hannah (The Vamp of Savannah)," though the only reason they got away with it is that their mother, unfamiliar with Theda Bara, thought the lyrics were about chastity.

Now, however, they are attracting a different kind of crowd: leering men, drawn to the gangly girls' early puberty and no longer quite innocent hip flares and flashes of skin. They went from the Charleston to the Black Bottom to the Lindy Hop—this last one, with its obscene shimmies and twists, giving their mother and the menswear salesman fits. Now when they shake what god gave them while Dolly Kay belts out "She's a gal who loves to see men suffer," the whole scene takes on a distinctly unwholesome tone. Grown men begin hanging around the bungalow after dark, watching the girls catch fireflies. They follow the girls to school, offer to carry their books, make marriage proposals behind hedges. It is as if these men—most of them well past forty and fathers themselves—can sense a sort of dormant, smoldering sexuality, and want to be first on the scene when it burst into full bloom.  After the babies' mother catches two men climbing through the bathroom window to wait for the inevitable, she quickly and somewhat hysterically puts a stop to the whole thing.

No more Lindy Hop, no more jazz, she tells them. No more vulgar public displays. If you want to dance you can take ballet lessons like every other nice little girl.

We're not nice little girls, says jazz baby number one. Her name is Patience, but everyone calls her Patty.  She's the twin with the birthmark, just a minute older than her sibling.

That's right, Mother, says jazz baby number two. Her name is Charity, but everybody calls her Cat. She, born second, always agrees with her elder sibling.  We aren't nice and we aren't little girls, either.

I don't care what you are, says the menswear salesman, I'm not having a pair of harlots skulking about my home all day. I paid for this place by the sweat of my brow and by god, I won't have you girls turning it into a house of sin. The menswear salesman, like many middle-class men of his age, is always talking about his house: the work he's done on his house, how much he paid for his house, and the sweat and tears and blood and various other fluids that went into the purchase and upkeep of his house. The twins are confused about this—they don't understand how sweat and tears can buy a home and they're not quite old enough for metaphors yet, though they understand somehow that this metaphor is false, in fact sticky and ripe with falseness. They are bright girls, emerging diamond sharp through the fuzzy haze of puberty, and not the sort who have ever been forgiving of sentimentality. They are hard-hearted Hannahs, Cat and Patty. They are emblems of this new age, tricksters unable to be tricked. And as they go into temporary retreat after the belt and the broom are threatened, they start making plans to kill their parents.

They change their stage name, from the Blue Falls County Jazz Babies to the Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies. They wonder how much an axe weighs and if they are strong enough to wield one. Separately? Together? They draw detailed pictures and check out all the books about Lizzie they can find in the library. They discuss ways to blame a killing on intruders, on strangers. They discuss ways they could charm the police.  They play their records on the gramophone, over and over, and dance the Lindy in the sad, audience-free solitude of their bungalow bedroom. "To tease them and thrill them, to torture and kill them, is her delight, they say…" They study hard and get good grades, to deflect suspicion. They take ballet lessons.

Then Cat, Cat the second, Cat the accomplice, starts dating a boy. He is a nice, clunky-looking thing, half-formed in that way that most young men are, and he is sixteen and strong and Cat thinks he is beautiful. He stops by the house to court her, and the menswear salesman likes the creases in his trousers. No bad young man, he tells his wife, would wear such sharp creases. Besides, his father is a wealthy farmer in the next town over, and they own a brand new, mahogany-colored Model Q.  The menswear salesman approves of modern consumerism, if not modern music.

Patty approves of none of this. For the first time in their whole lives, she refuses to speak to Cat. She feels like driftwood, like something dragging along—a useless appendage. She feels betrayed. Cat cries all night, offers to introduce her to the young man's cousin. She begs her twin to speak to her again. Patty slips her a note: GET RID OF HIM.  Cat cries again, but refuses. She believes she is in love. She believes that, for the first time, her heart is kindling, her body a brightening blaze. For the first time, her fingers and toes are no longer numb, her face no longer frozen in the confusion of youth. Her heart is a little oyster shell, opening, opening.  

Patty, meanwhile, continues to make plans. But she no longer shares them with her sister. Every day after school she heads to the library, where it is assumed she is studying diligently, but where she is really researching the Borden murders. She wishes her family were wealthy, so there would be a maid to blame. She wishes she were just a little bit bigger; there is no way for her to swing an axe alone, and anyhow, her mother and the menswear salesman do not own an axe.  She makes lists of poisons, and how to attain them.  She saves her pocket money. She is, though she refuses to believe it, desperately lonely for the first time in her life. She has not yet decided if she will poison her sister, too.

Somehow, the twins begin to grow, quite literally, apart. It is as though the rift between them has taken on a physicality, a kind of separation that finds itself in form as well as function. Cat continues with ballet and remains buoyant, floats long and lean, while Patty takes up tennis and becomes muscular and compact, all her grace anchored firmly in the earth.  Cat is lovely and serious; Patty is sensual, all smiles and come-hither stares. She steps out with men older than the menswear salesman. She goes to wild parties, takes up smoking, hems her skirts to hit above her knees, hides racy novels under the mattress. Cat reads Moliere and dreams of marriage with the wealthy farm boy. She goes to bed early and gets up early and feels relief only when in his company.  She has never had to carry a conversation; that was Patty's job. She feels, always, at a loss for words. She is sometimes content, but often she thinks she may drift away entirely, so unmoored by the loss of her sister she has become.  Patty feels cleaved, still lonely, but liberated. She learns how to work a previously underutilized dimple on her left cheek, and fine tunes the tones of innuendo in her pretty, deepening voice. She becomes popular.  She decides to become an actress, though she does not tell her mother and the menswear salesman, who have definite opinions of women who "go onto the stage."

The jazz babies still listen to jazz but are no longer an act, no longer a pair. They still share a room but Patty has strung a bed sheet across the middle of it, halving it neatly, and they do not cross into each other's spaces. Patty keeps her pearls and poison lists and Gershwin records stockpiled in a locked drawer, and Cat has no idea her sister is still planning nefarious things. Cat keeps her toe shoes and Fats Waller records in plain sight.  Neither sister knows where Hard-Hearted Hannah has gone to. It seems somehow to be the part of the sisters that disappeared in the split.

One night Patty comes home very drunk from a party and passes out on the divan. The menswear salesman and their mother are due back any moment from bridge club, and Cat does not know what to do. She looks at the clock, at the door, at her sister's face, sweet and young in such sleep, even under the rouge and the lipstick and the jeweled headband. She dithers and waits—she has not touched her sister in months, not a kiss or a hug or a caress—but finally she hoists Patty by the armpits and half-walks, half-drags her to their bedroom. She is surprised by her twin's weight—when did Patty get so solid? But they finally make it, and Patty is laid out on the bed, and Cat removes her boots and stockings, her dress and corset, as gently as a lover would. Patty snores like an old woman. When she is laid out, fully bare, somehow pinker and gentler than a baby, Cat stares at this new body, no longer a mirror of her own. They have different muscles now, different thin and fat places, different soft and hard places. Cat pulls the covers up to her sister's chin and kisses her forehead. Patty's eyes pop open, just for a moment, flicker into consciousness. I think, she says to Cat—the first words she has spoken in six months to her twin—I think I will let you live. 

Later that night, when Cat is tucked in her own bed and dreaming of riding in the wealthy farm boy's Model Q, her sister suddenly intrudes. In the dream, they are driving around a sharp corner, and Patty appears just around the bend, planted in the middle of the road. They stop the car, just in time, and they realize, too late, that Patty is holding an axe behind her back. She swings, and swings, until the farm boy is a bloody blur on the road, and then she turns to Cat. I think I will let you live, she says, and Cat kneels on the pavement beside the farm boy's remains. She puts her trembling hands over his body, butterflies over flame. His body is so warm still, her own hands on fire over the heat of it. Behind her, the car is dead, its arteries grown cold.