First published in Open City.
I don’t know how many folks outside of West Virginia remember Dagmar anymore, but once she was famous. Back in the early and mid-fifties, Dagmar had been black-and-white TV’s version of Marilyn Monroe, or, maybe more accurately, of B movie queen Jayne Mansfield. Dagmar was the resident dumb blonde with big breasts on the old Milton Berle Texaco Theater, where she cultivated a funny, startled, deceptively stupid look. She also appeared on the TV variety show Broadway Open House, and even had her own short-lived Dagmar’s Canteen in 1952, where Frank Sinatra was once a guest.
Dagmar had been my own first hope and inspiration for a future beyond the ordinary. She had become the source of all my earliest discovery and flight and fame fantasies. But I let Dagmar and her famous big breasts slip through my fingers.
Dagmar’s real name was Virginia Ruth Egnor, and she was born in 1924 in Huntington, West Virginia. When I was a boy, Dagmar’s folks had lived three doors down from us on Waverly Road in Huntington for several years. There were no fences around the small-frame houses on our road back in those days, and we kids darted in our games like free-range chickens across that little prairie of backyards. In Dagmar’s folks’ backyard there was a spreading old oak we often used as homebase, where I relished the role of being “it” during hide-and-seek. Being “it” meant that I could hover about that homebase old oak, where it was only a matter of time until one day Dagmar would discover me. Someday Dagmar would be visiting her folks, maybe sitting out at the kitchen table sipping coffee one morning with her Mom, when through the back window she would spot a swift, singular, beautiful boy fearless at his play, and with a mere glance Dagmar would recognize the shining of his inner star.
Dagmar would stub out the cigarette she had been languidly smoking, while trying to explain the enigmatic nature of fame to her old Mom, and she would rush out the backdoor to that special splendid boy, rush to enfold him in her fame, not to mention extraordinary bosom, her famous nipples fiery red through her filmy clinging negligee (I loved those words: nipples, negligee, nipples, nipples, nipples, which were among those magically learned juicy words of my childhood I would roll around on my tongue like holy cherry Life Savers.)
And then it really happened. Dagmar had actually shown up at her folks’ home on Waverly Road the summer I was ten. We awakened one August Saturday morning into all the ordinariness of our own lives to discover an enormous car parked in front of Dagmar’s folks’ little house. It was a CADILLAC! It was a Cadillac CONVERTIBLE! It was YELLOW! I loved that car at first sight. The neighborhood was abuzz. One of Dagmar’s prissy little nieces kept sashaying out of the house to preen and prance and keep everybody abreast of the radiant blonde being within. Apparently Dagmar had brought her latest husband home to meet her folks for a real low-key down- home family visit. I skulked and lurked about the little frame house like all the rest of the obscure neighborhood minions that Saturday morning hoping to get at least a peek at the inscrutable face of fame, but to no avail.
Around noon my dad, or Captain as everybody called him, piled as many neighborhood kids as would fit in his old battered green Plymouth station wagon, as was his Saturday afternoon custom, and hauled us down the road to a public swimming pool called Dreamland. Dad was called Captain because he had been the captain of the Second World War, which he had apparently won pretty much single-handedly. He was famous for this. When he had mustered out of the army at the end of the war a hero, some folks had encouraged him to get into politics. Captain was a big, gregarious fellow with an easy booming laugh, a full-blown sort of character folks always declared was a dead ringer for John Wayne, and it was true. Some folks even declared that Captain would be a natural for governor of West Virginia, although he was by nature neither a drunk nor a crook. Captain, who was a generally unemployed hero, hauled all us rowdy kids out of the neighborhood on weekends so that my Mom, who was an emergency room night shift nurse, and who pretty much brought home the proverbial bacon in our house plus cooked it up, could collapse in peace.
I recall Dreamland as a vast pool of wavy, faintly blue-green water splashing with sunlight, air thick with the pungent puzzling sweetness of chlorine and suntan lotion, joyful screams and squeals strangely echoey, smooth oiled teenage girls parading imperiously with their movie star sunglasses and implicating smiles and the sweet shadowy secrets of their shaved underarms. Music was always blasting from a huge white-stucco two-storied clubhouse trimmed in blue, and blue onion-shaped domes rose above dressing rooms on a knoll at the far end of the long pool. Dreamland was a Taj Mahal of a swimming pool I both loved and feared, a site of excitement and profound failure for me.
Dreamland was where I learned to swim my first spastic strokes, and where I failed repeatedly to muster courage enough to attempt swimming out to the deep end. I was not afraid of drowning in the deep end. It wasn’t that. It was, for one thing, my fear of not looking cool and sleek swimming around like the older boys, but dopey as a duck as I thrashed about in the water of the deep end. I was afraid of being embarrassed if I swam out to the huge circular concrete float in the deep end where the older boys hung out as they strutted and flexed their fulsome brown muscled bodies. Mostly, though, my fear of the deep end was because of the bad dreams.
We piled out of Captain’s old Plymouth station wagon that Saturday and charged for the ticket counters, bouncing about impatiently as we inched along in one of the two endless lines. And then I spotted her, in the next line, the famous monster girl with no face. I had seen her maybe two or three other times, and it was always a shock. She was a monster girl whose face had no features. It was like looking at a blur of a face. You got the impression of holes here and there for what could have been perhaps nostrils and a mouth maybe, and eyes, like unaligned marbles amid folds and flaps of flesh and hair that looked like fur and feathers. There were rumors that the girl had been born that way, or that her face had burned off in a fire, or been cut to ribbons in a terrible car wreck or by an escaped convict crazy man with a knife. Her blur of a face was at an angle to me, and I stared at it. I couldn’t help it. I blinked my eyes trying to somehow adjust them, to get them into focus, to compose something recognizable as the regular human face of a girl amid that pulpy mess of skin. Suddenly the monster girl turned her head in my direction and I jerked my eyes away. But she knew I had been staring. I could feel she knew I had been staring, and my neck burned with shame and embarrassment for her exotic horribleness. I couldn’t think of anything worse than being her, a person whose face could never show her sadness, or happiness, if she ever had any, whose only expression would be horribleness. How could a girl with no face ever leave a dark room? How could a monster girl ever crawl out from under her rock?
Let’s head for the deep end, Soldierboy, Captain said to me the minute we laid out our towels on a grassy slope above the pool that Saturday. Let’s go kick that deep end’s ass, Captain added, laughing that bold confident winner-of-the-Second-World-War laugh of his, and he gave my shoulder a poke with his finger that about knocked me down. I was this boney kid who had at best a baffled sense of balance. Then Captain gave me a snappy salute, which meant that I, his little soldierboy, was supposed to snap him a salute back, a little private father-son camaraderie he had initiated when I was maybe one. I knew what this meant in a heartbeat. This meant that my cowardly ass was grass and the Second World War was the mower. I hated the Second World War. This also meant Mom had ratted me out to Captain about the deep end and my cowardliness and I resolved at that moment to keep my heart hidden from everybody forever.
At noon each day when I came home from playing or school for lunch, there would be two pans heating on the stove. One pan contained simmering Campbell’s tomato soup. I loved Campbell’s tomato soup. A syringe and needle were being sterilized in the other bubbling water. After I had enjoyed my Campbell’s tomato soup, which I slurped with infinitely slow appreciation while nibbling with elegant slowness upon the crumbs of Saltines, Mom would lead me upstairs, and I would trudge forlornly behind her like the proverbial prisoner going to the gallows. I would lie face down on my bed with my butt bared, until such time as I had worked up enough courage to gasp into my pillow a feathered, fluttering little birdy whimper of that word: now. Whereupon Mom would deliver into my shivery little boy butt via that needle the approximate size of a harpoon my daily dose of raging male hormones (I had had a little undescended testicle problem that took four visits to the famous Mayo Clinic to eventually make all better). While I was working up the courage to say now, Mom would let me jabber my head off, as I stalled. If I sensed Mom growing impatient with me, I would attempt to distract her with entertaining albeit inscrutable stories. Sometimes I would be forced to pretend to confide in Mom, telling her what I hoped would pass as truthful, private things, making my revelations as puzzling and painful as possible to engage her interest and sympathies. Hence I had told her more truthfully than I meant to about my fear of the deep end, and then I had told her about the nightmares I had had for years that as I was swimming along happily, some horrible scary creature who lived on the bottom of the deep end would awake and see me up above on the surface of the water. Whereupon in my nightmares I would feel something grab my feet from below, and pull me screaming down under the water to be eaten raw.
So there was Captain treading water in the shivery blue green water of the deep end, throwing salutes my way and hollering above the pool racket to jump on in, soldierboy, the water’s right. But soldierboy just stood there looking down at his toes, curled like scared worms over the pool’s edge. You can swim like a fish, soldierboy, just jump on in and swim to your old dad. I’m right here, son, nothing will happen. You won’t drown, hollered Captain. But soldierboy knew he wouldn’t drown. That wasn’t it. Soldierboy stood there trembling. Like a cowardly leaf. Soldierboy wanted more than anything to be under the water of his beloved shallow end, holding his breath in the currents of uncomplexity at its bottom where nobody could see him. Come on now, soldierboy, Captain implored, gritting his teeth. I stared at my worried worms. Come on now, Goddamnit, Chuck, jump! Captain encouraged me and slapped the water with a cupped hand. It sounded like a shot. I flinched violently. Why don’t you go ahead and jump, chickenshit, a neighborhood boy said from behind me and hooted with laughter. They were all around me, the neighborhood boys and girls, all those creepy kids with their giggles, their laughter. I spun around and ran. I pushed my way relentlessly through hooting human beings who knew me.
I skulked around that lake of a pool and slipped into the shameful shallow end on the far side, among the comforting presence of strangers, where I felt at home. I bobbed about in the shallow water, a floating head, keeping a wary eye out for Captain or any of the evil neighborhood kids, while I plotted my revenge. If only I could transform this once sweet Persian dream of a pool into a lake of acid. Or have schools of gigantic piranha churn the waves into a foam of blood. If only the creature of the deep end awoke while Captain was swimming out there all alone, when suddenly it happened, and with but a shudder of his great muscles Captain would be pulled down into the deep end, and although my old man wrestled heroically with the groping tentacles, for he was such a big brave shit, they slowly entangled him, pulling him into the dark water toward the deep end monster’s huge yellow crazy eyes, and great bloody maw.
Then I heard an announcement over the clubhouse’s loudspeakers. They announced that we were all honored to have Dagmar, the famous star of screen and television, as a special guest that day at Dreamland. I stood up in the shallow end and looked around wildly. Dagmar, man oh man! I saw a crowd passing slowly along the side of the pool by the clubhouse stairs toward the picnic area on the same slope where we had our stuff laid out. In a momentary parting of the excited throng, I was certain I caught a glimpse of utter blondeness. For a moment I considered returning to my site of shame, swallowing my pride in order to see that famous blonde person and her wondrous breasts up close. But I didn’t. I had my pride. I turned and dogpaddled with dignity out to the float in the shallow end, where I pulled myself up and sat with my back to Dad and Dagmar and all they meant.
At some point, I began jumping over and over again into the pool. Time and again, I would run and hurl myself belly first from the float painfully into the choppy water. Then I would drag myself back up on the float and do it again. I didn’t care. I didn’t care if I knocked myself out and drowned shamefully at the bottom of the shallow end. I pictured Captain standing over where they had drug my pitiful drowned body onto the side of the pool, blue green water draining from my mouth and nose and ears and eyes. I tried to picture Captain crying his heart out, but I couldn’t. The only thing I could make come alive in my imagination was Captain carrying my limp dripping body up the clubhouse stairs while some sad song like “Endless Sea” blasted on the loud speakers, and all the evil neighborhood kids were standing around wondering out loud if I would come back from the dead and fuck with them, which, buddy, you can bet I would.
Then I pictured Dagmar swimming toward me underwater. Like a wondrous waterplant’s blooming, her beautiful blonde hair floated about her head as her face came toward my own until it filled my vision. Whereupon, in the moment before I lost consciousness, I felt Dagmar’s soft white arms enfold me. I was only ten years old, but I imagined myself being deliciously smothered in the immensity of Dagmar’s blonde breasts as she delivered the drowning soldierboy safely to the surface.
So there I stood on the shallow end float trying to catch my breath after a particularly painful bellybuster, when a kid came directly up to me out of the basic blue and excitedly said these exact words: “Dagmar saw you, boy!” Dagmar saw you, boy! That kid said exactly that. I swear it! I spun around like an insane top. I looked everywhere. I looked in the water around the float. I scanned the far sides of the pool, and the grassy slopes. Dagmar saw you, boy. When I looked back for the kid he was gone. But that boy had been real, and he had said those exact words full of more wonder than any other words of my childhood. I swear it.
Dagmar had spotted me. That much was clear. I believed that with all of my heart. I believe it to this day. Somehow my fierce painful brave bellybusters had caught Dagmar’s attention. Perhaps her blue famous eyes were settled upon me at that moment. They could be. They were. I sprang into action. I threw myself from the float like a virgin into a volcano. I exploded into that violence of water and began to swim frantically for the float in the deep end. I thrashed my arms and kicked my feet wildly. I chopped across the rough surface of the deep end, choking, my eyes burning, toward the distant float. The deep end’s water strangled into my throat with each ragged stroke and it dawned on me I might never make it. It dawned on me that I might actually drown like a rat. And for what? Fame? Fame wasn’t worth it I realized. Fame wasn’t worth drowning like a rat.
But at that epiphanal moment I felt strangely calm. I closed my eyes, and simply kept chopping, blindly, but unafraid, trancelike, and then suddenly I touched concrete. I slapped an astonished hand onto the surface of the float in the deep end and held on for dear life. I had not drowned like a rat after all. I had a second chance at everything, including fame. I was coughing and spitting and my sore arms trembled nearly out of control. I wiped water off of my face with my free hand and pushed my hair out of my eyes. I was there. Soldierboy had made it. Soldierboy was at the float in the deep end where he had always really belonged. Soldierboy loved that float. He gripped the edge of the float and looked around to see who had witnessed this amazing feat. He looked for the evil neighborhood kids. He looked for Dad. Soldierboy looked around for Dagmar.
And then suddenly somebody emerged from the water right beside me and grabbed the edge of the float. It was the famous girl with no face. I took one look at her and screamed. I screamed and screamed and fell back into the water, flapping my arms like crazy wings.