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Chapter 20 - Sheila

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In 1944, while she was filming the movie Kismet, Marlene Dietrich bronzed her legs with copper paint. Lead-based copper-colored paint. The lead leached into her skin. Almost poisoned her to death. Ms. Wright tells me this while I stir the wax melting in a double boiler.
Ms. Wright, she’s shucking off her long-sleeved top, her jeans and panties. Naked, Ms. Wright bends to spread a bath towel across the top of her kitchen table. Her two-room apartment, the bare walls busy with nail holes. Not a stick of furniture except a soiled white sofa that folds out to make a bed. Two kitchen chairs bent out of chrome, and a table to match. Ms. Wright spreads a second and third towel across the table. Spreads another until the towels add up to a thick pad.

The cabinets are empty. Inside her fridge, you’d maybe find some takeout, wrapped in tinfoil from the Greek place on the first floor. Balanced on the tank of her toilet, her last roll of tissue.
Sitting her bare-naked ass on the edge of the kitchen table, Ms. Wright says that the actor Lucille Ball always refused cosmetic surgery. No face-lifts for Lucy. Instead, she grew out the hair at her temples, long thick strands of hair that hung over each ear. Before she made any public appearance, shot any television or movie work, Lucy would wind those long locks of hair around wooden toothpicks. With a wig cap pulled tight over the crown of her head, Lucy would pull each toothpick up and backward, stretching and lifting the sagging skin of each cheek. Snag the toothpicks into the mesh of the wig cap, then pull on a red bouffant wig to hide the whole mess. Past a certain age, anytime you see Lucille Ball on television reruns, mugging and bawling for laughs, smiling and looking wonderful for her age, that woman is in agony.
True fact, according to Ms. Wright.
Nodding at the boxes stacked in the living room, boxes marked “Charity” or “Trash,” I ask if she’s planning a trip.
And Ms. Wright scoots her butt back on the towels. Hands clamped around the edge of the table, to keep the towels in place, she slides back until she’s sitting. Centered on the towels, Ms. Wright leans back to rest on her elbows. Draws up both her feet to rest on the edge of the table. All of her naked. Knees spread wide, bent to give her frog legs, she says, “Am I going somewhere?”
Her fingernails pick around in her bush, pluck out a curly gray hair, and Ms. Wright drops the hair to the floor, saying, “Don’t let’s be coy, okay?”
She says the actor Barbara Stanwyck used to spread Elmer’s white glue on her own face. The same way we’d spread that glue on our hands in grade school. The lactic acid loosened any dull, dead skin cells, and picking, pulling, peeling off the mask of dried glue would vacuum out her pores and yank stray hairs.
Ms. Wright says the movie star Tallulah Bankhead used to collect eggshells and grind them into a coarse powder, then mix this with a glass of water and drink it. The crushed eggshells rubbed, roughed, ruined her throat just enough to give her a deep, sultry speaking voice. Rumor is, Lauren Bacall did the same trick.
Ms. Wright eyes my hair. She tosses her chin and says to grind an aspirin and mix that in a little shampoo. Wash my hair with the mix, and it will fix any dandruff.
Me? I just keep stirring the wax.
And Ms. Wright says, her legs spread in the middle of the kitchen table, “Didn’t your momma teach you anything?”
Marilyn Monroe, she says, used to cut the heel of one shoe, to make her one leg shorter, to make her ass grind together as she walked.
The best way to fade a hickey is with regular toothpaste. To shrink swollen eyes, lie down with a slice of raw potato over each. The potato’s alpha-lipoic acid stops inflammation. Exfoliate your face with a baking-soda scrub, and never use soap.
The wax, I tell her, is ready. Not too hot or too thick.
On the stove, one pot of the soft wax, the yellow kind, that you boil in its own little can. Another pot holds a bag of those pellets from France, identical to a bag of split peas, only dark blue. Hard wax, melted to make a dark-blue paste.
Ms. Wright asks, “You cut the muslin?”
The roll of muslin tape, wide and white as a roll of cash-register or adding-machine tape, I’ve already cut a batch of it into small squares.
Watching me dip a wooden stick, what doctors used to call a tongue depressor, watching me dip and swirl the stick in the pot of yellow wax, Ms. Wright says to start with the dark-blue wax. The hard wax is easier to control. The dark-blue French wax gives you a better outline. Better control around the sensitive edge of things.
Watching me loop a glob of hot dark-blue wax and turn to lean in between her knees, Ms. Wright says how Dolores del Rio used to daub on the powder of grape Jell-O mix to stain her nipples dark. The better to show through clothes. Rita Hay worth used strawberry Jell-O mix to dye hers bright pink.
The pinup girl, Betty Grable, sprayed her bare butt and breasts with hairspray until they were wet. That way the top and bottom of her swimsuit stayed glued where she wanted. Hairspray inside your high heels works the same way.
Spread on the table, Ms. Wright’s gray muff. Bushy blond with gray roots. The pink line of her episiotomy scar trailing a tiny ways out the bottom. Wiping the wooden stick, I smear the blue wax, dragging the hot wax with the growth pattern of the hair.
Her leg muscles jump, spasm, cramp into patterns under her skin. Eyes squeezed shut. Ms. Wright says how the pud-pounder Lon Chaney used to boil eggs. Playing the Phantom of the Opera, Chaney used to bring hard-boiled eggs to the film set. Before shooting, he’d peel an egg and carefully pull the rubbery white membrane off the egg white. To look blind, Chaney would spread this egg membrane over his iris. A fake cataract. Bacteria collected under the membrane, and Chaney lost sight in that eye.
True fact.
With the tongue depressor, I loop up another gob of hot wax. Smear it to cover a little more of Ms. Wright’s bush.
To kill the pain, the tearing, searing, scalding pain when you yank off the hair, Ms. Wright says, most technicians press the spot. Press hard and it deadens the nerve endings. But the better way, she says, is to slap. Real experts pull off the wax, yank it hard, and slap the bare spot. Hard.
She says you should always shave your legs in the morning. At night they’re a teeny bit swollen, so you’ll never get the whole hair. By morning, you’ll have stubble.
Looping up another hot gob of wax, I ask why she had the baby she gave away. Why didn’t she just, you know, terminate? Why go through all the hassle of giving birth if she wasn’t going to keep it? And, leaning over that chrome kitchen table, I paint another steaming dark-blue stripe between her legs.
To exfoliate, Ms. Wright says to scrub with cold, used coffee grounds. The tannic acid gently peels off dead skin. To hide cellulite, press the skin with a layer of warm coffee grounds for ten minutes. Your dimpled thighs will look better instantly, but only for the next twelve hours.
She says the way her baby was conceived was so awful, such a betrayal, that she wanted just one good thing to come of it.
Ms. Wright nods her head at the next steaming glob of molten wax and says, “If you puts a knife under the kitchen table, I hears it cuts the pain in two ...”
In adult features, she says, the close-up of the erection inserted in the orifice is called the “meat shot.” Her eyes still closed, teeth clenched, her fingers balled into fists as the wax dries and sweat soaks into the folded towel, Ms. Wright says, “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my meat shot ...”
Says to rip off the wax, pulling in the direction opposite the hair’s growth pattern. Says to pull fast and slap the bare spot.
The church smell of burning candles. A birthday-cake smell, before you make your wish and blow. From her pussy, the bakery smell of warm bread.
Through her gritted teeth, she says, “I didn’t set out to be a porn star ...”
Ms. Wright says a classic French trick is to soak a washcloth with cold milk and hold it on your face for several minutes. Next, soak a washcloth in hot tea and cover your face. The cold protein of the milk and the hot antioxidants of the tea will increase the blood circulation in your skin, and you’ll glow.
Trails of sweat braid down her bare thighs. Soak darker spots into the pad of layered towels. Ms. Wright says, “Did you love your momma?”
And I pick at the edge of the blue wax. Peel a little up from the skin. Yank away a long stretch of the stiff dark-blue. Rip off a strip of blond carpet with gray tips. Slap the skin, hard.
This must hurt, because Ms. Wright’s eyes brim with tears.
From the waist down, reduced to a little girl. Smooth as a baby’s bottom.
Spots of blood well up from everywhere. Every hair follicle a pin-spot of red.
I slap again, to kill the pain, and a tear mixed with mascara tips out one eye and rolls a black stripe down Ms. Wright’s face. So I slap harder, leaving both of us spattered in her blood.

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