Jessica Goody’s work has appeared in New York newspapers, anthologies such as Timepieces, Seasons of Change, Moonlight Café’s Poetry By Moonlight, and The Sun Magazine, as well as on the blogs Getting Along with Grief, Addictive Fiction, Riot Grrl Online, and Poetica Magazine.
The Stardust Room
The house was white clapboard, the front yard full of details that ladies’ magazines refer to as ‘darling’: an alabaster Cupid that was really just Plaster of Paris, a birdbath molded to look like a Greek column, filled but free of any aviary tenants. The shutters were a brighter shade of green than the bushes, and white stones hemmed a circle of spring flowers on either side of the lawn. The window box was full of half-dead carnations.
I rang the bell.
The door opened. “May I help you?” He inquired with a raised eyebrow.
I flashed my badge. The kid’s eyes lit up for a second, impressed. He inspected it suspiciously. “Ok,” he said sullenly. Before he had a chance to announce my arrival, the mother came to the door. She wore a pink floral-print dress and a lavender cardigan draped over her shoulders. Her hair was auburn and shiny.
“Hank Stanley, L.A.P.D.” I said.
“Mr. Stanley. Yes.” His mother greeted me with a handshake. “Won’t you sit down?”
‘Thank you, I will,” I replied to her retreating back. I lowered myself onto the green sofa.
She reappeared, carrying a tray. “Would you like some iced tea?”
She set it down on the coffee table. This was Lola’s mother, Betty Ingle. I gave her the once-over automatically. She certainly wasn’t hard to look at.
I cleared my throat. “Now, Mrs. Ingle — ”
“It’s Miz Ingle; Ms. My husband is…no longer with us.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied. “Would you…could you tell me something about Lola’s father?”
Jonas Ingle had been a sharecropper’s son. He met Betty Winden in May 1927, when she working as a door-to-door cosmetics salesgirl. Joe was proud that he had landed Betty Winden. He was also proud of his skills and eager to show them off in the backseat of a ‘borrowed’ Pierce Arrow.
When Jonas admitted the news to his parents, Peter Ingle inquired through his cigarette whether Joe was sure the baby was his. When Joe told him that Elizabeth had been a virgin, his father ground his cigarette butt into the floor and stalked off, saying, “Well, then, I guess you’d better marry her, son.”
The wedding took place eleven days later, Elizabeth wore her mother’s wedding dress and a circlet of orange blossoms on her head as per the 1920’s bridal fad. She carried a bouquet of sunflowers.
After they were pronounced man and wife, Joe and his bride caught a train to California. They had gone to Los Angeles to take part in its plentiful possibilities. Joe was unprepared that rainy night in their rat-trap apartment for the screams, Elizabeth’s strained by labor, the baby’s from the effort of being born.
Lola wasn’t her given name. Her birth certificate states that Mary Jane Elizabeth Ingle was born January second, to Jonas C. Mrs. Elizabeth May Ingle.
Mrs. Ingle turned the page of the photo album. “She was a beautiful baby, wasn’t she?”
“Sure,” I replied.
Further on the portraits became posed, stiffer. They featured a wide-eyed little girl in a variety of costumes; a spangled swimsuit and tap shoes, a white fur stole and long dramatic gloves.
“What’s that?” I asked.
With one gloved hand Mary Jane, five or six years old, holds a tiara on her head and clutches her fur collar with her right. A cardboard square was strung around her neck with words outlined in glitter: LITTLE MISS HOLLYWOOD 1934.
“She won a lot of pageants,” Betty Ingle intoned. “Won a lot of awards.”
A second photo album was brought out, featuring the reign of the beauty queen: The Pretty Baby Baby Food Contest, where the winner’s mug would be printed on all Pretty Baby Baby Food Company jars. “She didn’t win, but here’s her picture from the contest.”
The California Girl Dance Competition snapshot featured Mary Jane in a striped leotard and tap shoes. “She didn’t win that one either, but it was close,” her mother told me.
That first night, we discovered later, Lola gave us her motives and her confession in the lyrics she sang. She may have been a mediocre singer, but she was an excellent performer. She seduced her victims through her voice, like the mythical siren. In retrospect, it was meticulous, absolutely beautiful, the sort of thing people refer to as kismet when they don’t want to know the truth. On that first night she came onstage in a low-cut lame dress and silver heels that bound her ankles. The stage manager threw a klieg light on her, smack in the middle of the stage. You had to close your eyes. It was like looking at an eclipse. But if you didn’t look, just listened, it was quiet and powerful all at once. She was no opera singer. But somehow it was poignant and pretty. And entrancing.
“Life is short, short, brother, ain’t it the truth?
And there is no other. Ain’t it the truth?
You’ve got to shake it down and stir it up with vermouth.
Ain’t it the gospel truth?”
She received a lot of applause for that opening number. After a brief bow, she signaled the old black bandleader to take over while she went over to a man sitting alone at a table. The band slid into a slow, muted version of “Smiling the Blues Away.”
The man who had bought her the drink was Jack Holly, a fifty-three year old insurance salesman from Ventura. Introductions were made amidst compliments and flattered preening. Oh well. We all have our vices, our blind spots, and Jack’s, like most men, was women.
For her part, Lola was interested in a man possessed of little confidence and a full money clip. Her ego was as full and fragile as a soufflé, and she resented the competition of Jack’s other companions, expecting and demanding that any attention lay squarely on her. This was her feeling whether she was onstage or with a lover. Perhaps that is why she killed him. Jack was as selfish as Lola; he refused to give her the attention she required.
After the interlude in which Jack Holly introduced himself to Lola and she, in setting her sights on him, set the events of this story in motion, Lola went back onstage and sang another song. This is important only in that it marks the start of the relationship between Jack Holly and Lola, which a mere three weeks later lay in tatters, just as the man himself did.
Los Angeles is a city of murder; there have been numerous, infamously unsolved cases here since the town was founded, from Thomas Ince to the Black Dahlia. But since I was the chief inspector on the Stardust Room murder case, naturally it is that one which haunts me. Nobody in the club or in the whole town, whether they were present at the actual performance or not, forgot Lola’s next song.
Lola’s sultry, magnetic voice gave its most arresting performance that night. Her version of the song was moody, not her usual come-hither number, and she performed it fiercely.
“Why don’t you do right, like some other men do?
Get out of here, and get me some money, too.”
A strange thing happened during her performance. Her voice grew strained, as though she was holding back tears, or she had just finished crying. It gave her voice the rawness of a blues singer, like a scratchy Ma Rainey record. She was no longer sensuous and pouty, no longer posturing, but howling. This was not a night club performance. It was an exorcism. She was wrenching some long-dormant ghoul from inside herself. When the music ended she stalked off the stage, ran down the hall to her dressing room and slammed the door.
“Why Don’t You Do Right” is about a pair of lovebirds whose relationship, like Jack and Lola’s, had gone sour. In the song, the girl complains that her lover, who had apparently made some money during the financial benevolence of the twenties now has nothing to show for it. He spent his money and now, empty-pocketed, all he can give her is wine: “Now, all you got to offer me’s a drink of gin; why don’t you do right?”
One assumes that the dame in the story booted lover-man out when he refused to get off his duff and provide for her.
Using this scenario to consider how Jack and Lola’s relationship played out, I had to wonder what money had to do with it. Sure Lola was a gold digger; the trait comes naturally when you’ve grown up not knowing if the roof you slept under last night will be there in the morning.
The boys at the station were puzzled and ready to give up, claiming that maybe the lyrics meant nothing; maybe it was just a song. But that night I had another idea. My mind flashed on the other man in Lola’s life: her father. Of course! She was railing at her father. Joe Ingle, the cad who had abandoned Lola and her mother after having his way with both of them.
She was telling him, by turns, to provide for his family, to be a protector instead of an abuser, and if he couldn’t or wouldn’t, then to vamoose, and good riddance. All those years of fear, of desperation, of physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, came roiling out onstage where they had been pent-up in her psyche, in her soul, in her heart.
We found Jack Holly’s body in a garbage bag along with the other sacks of refuse from the club.
The lid was found next to the trash can. Dusting with ALV revealed that both were sweat-smudged: Lola’s tented arch smiled amorphously from the side of the trash can, like a face in a portrait only half-developed within its basin of fixer.
After dragging and stuffing Holly’s thick, stiffening body into a trash sack, she had attempted to lift the bag and toss it into the receptacle, slamming on the lid so it appeared to be merely a sack of kitchen scraps instead of a human being. But Jack Holly outweighed Lola by nearly a hundred pounds; tensing into rigor mortis he weighed even more. Unable to swing his corpse into the trash can, she finally dragged the sack over to the wall to conceal it amongst the garbage. We found the sack with Jack Holly’s corpse a full day and a half after Lola hid it in the trash pile expecting the truck from the city dump to remove it. But we didn’t think the look in the trash heap behind the club until after Lola sang her swan song:
“A fine romance, with no kisses,
A fine romance, my friend, this is.
They think we’re like a couple of hot tomatoes.
But we’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes…”
That line struck me down my spine and bounced off my ear, ringing, until I felt the clue flame in my mind. It was so obvious.
A quick check of the handwritten menu for that night revealed an appetizer of potatoes au gratin. With that bug in my ear we ransacked the kitchen trash bin for clues, but found nothing but half a browning lettuce head and assorted vegetable peelings. We went out the back door where, thankfully, the garbage men hadn’t yet been, and discovered Jack Holly’s corpse. While Forensics carted the stiff to the lab for his autopsy, the other two sergeants and I garlanded the club with chartreuse police tape and went over the crime scene with a fine-toothed comb. Phillip Murphy, the owner of the Stardust Room, called in the entire staff. One by one we interviewed each busboy, each musician, the two cooks and all the servers.
I scoped out the club. In addition to the cosmetics I found stashed in a blue train case in Lola’s dressing room there was tiny bottle of Tanqueray gin. Why keep a snort in here, when there was a bar full of shiny bottles just down the hall? Was Lola drinking on the sly? And if so, how come?
Then I saw the portrait. A photograph taped inside the lid of the makeup case; a snapshot taken on a Brownie: a toddler goo-goo-ing for the camera. To the left stands a pubescent girl. The curve of a hip under a wool skirt, the silhouette of a well-endowed sweater, and a caramel-colored pageboy: Lola, I was sure, at fourteen. Neil about a year old, more or less. Lola looked almost too slender except for her chest. Fourteen. And nursing a baby. I tore the photo from the case with my examiner’s gloves and slotted it into an envelope, which I tagged and pocketed.
With that hunch I beat it over to Elizabeth Ingle’s the next morning. She received me in only a flowered robe, as I hadn’t thought to look at the clock in my desire to satisfy my curiosity.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a little ormolu clock on the end table: eight-eleven in the morning. Had I been to bed at all? I hadn’t realized it was so early, and I couldn’t afford to be obnoxious to our best source of information. “I can come back later, if you’d like--“
“No, no. You’re already here. Might as well say what you came to say and get it over with.”
I hesitated. “Ms. Ingle, may I ask you a personal question?
She studied me for a moment. “If you must.”
“Mrs. Ingle, do you remember the day your husband left? The exact date, I mean?”
She exhaled. “Joe left; when Joe left it was…let me see. We were still living in the apartment on Carmine, I know; we used to get roaches when it rained no matter how much bay-leaf I put out.”
“Ms. Ingle,” I interrupted. “That’s all well and good, but I’m looking for dates. Are you sure you don’t remember? Was it about now?” I asked. “When Joe--when Mr. Ingle left? This time of year? In spring, in the rainy season? It is March.”
“That must have been it, then.” She said it with dull conviction.
When I had stepped out of that downpour and into the Stardust Room, it had been March third. Jack and Lola had dated for exactly twenty-three days, making today the twenty-sixth.
I asked Betty Ingle point-blank, “was it March twenty-sixth?”
“You knew all the time, why didn’t you just say so?”
“I didn’t know off the top of my head, I had to remember. But I remembered. Number nine Carmine Street and the smell of beer in the kitchen.”
I saw she was crying.
“We had a calendar stuck on the icebox, I remember it was the end of the month and all the dates were exed out. And on the square of the thirtieth it was marked, the rent was due. And we didn’t have it. We had to sneak out so the landlord wouldn’t see us leave. And I scraped up our last change for bus fare. How could I forget that? The day we made our escape.”
She stood up, signaling that our time had concluded: She had revealed enough, she would not permit me to probe further.
“Thank you for helping us, Ms. Ingle. I know that was hard for you.”
She did smile then, thinly, bravely. “Not as hard as it was then.”
I got my hat and she escorted me out. Then something else came out of my mouth, unbidden.
“He’s not yours, is he?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The kid. Neil. He isn’t your son.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Stanley? Of course he’s my son!”
It made sense now. And I couldn’t have shut up if I’d wanted to. The words were like sparks flashing off flint.
“Your grandson, you mean.”
Elizabeth Ingle stood there defeated.
“You’d better come back inside.” This time, she initiated the conversation.
“You are right, Mr. Stanley. Neil is not my son.”
“I know that.”
“He’s Mary Jane’s son.”
“I know. By her father, is that right?”
She nodded, pale with exhaustion and pink with embarrassment all at once. “That’s right.”
“When he raped her.”
She flinched. “Yes.” She waited for me to assume another detail of the story. But I didn’t.
“Go on,” I said.
I thought for a second she was crying again, hiding her face, but she was breathing deeply, bracing herself for the truth. She tried again. “When he…did that…”
“Raped her,” I supplied. It was cruel of me, but I wanted to hear her say those words, instead of using coy or embarrassed euphemisms. The gravity of the situation, it seemed to me, required brusqueness, and truth. It wasn’t fair that despicable man should be lying in a peaceful grave while the women whose lives he had destroyed were raving on night club stages and weeping into their coffee with guilt and anguish.
“When he—raped her--there, I said it, you little prick — “
I looked up, startled.
“When he raped my daughter, when he raped my little girl because I was too pathetic to tell him off, because I was afraid of him. I was ashamed because I married him, I was in love with him and he was horrible, I was horrible. I should have protected her, she was my daughter and I should have protected her!” The sound was almost animalian in its desperation. I could think of nothing to do but pull out a white cotton pocket square and offer it to her. She smiled then, a genuine smile, narrow and sweet, grateful.
“Thank you, Mr. Stanley.”
I couldn’t help smiling, in spite of that painful scene. It is exhausting to bear witness to such a thing, though not as exhausting, I’m sure, as carrying it around for twenty-seven years.“
"I think you can call me Hank now,” I said.
On one of those frequent photo-album-and-iced-tea mornings, I asked Betty Ingle: “Ms. Ingle, are you happy?”
Elizabeth Ingle sits across from me in the fat flowered armchair, her treasured scraps of paper yellowing with age and smudged from being reread too many times. Of course she is unhappy. Her daughter is dead. Her pretty, vibrant little girl now exists only in photographs. The real thing is a convicted murderer, her hair rusting brown under faded bleach. Her dreams had been dashed. All Betty Ingle has now is this dollhouse, meticulously maintained, with its garden and its knickknacks, and her albums. And yet she perseveres.
The truth came out then. While Neil Ingle slept Elizabeth Ingle told me his story.
As I said, Jonas Ingle had been copulating with his daughter for some time. Mary Jane had developed early and had gotten her first period just before she turned twelve.
Menstruation is not always regular at its start. So when Mary Jane missed her period that April, neither she nor her mother thought anything of it. Then the vomiting started. Elizabeth assumed it was merely flu, and that the sooner it was all in the toilet bowl, so much the better. But lack of any fever, chills or diarrhea in tandem with the nausea, which did not abate, led them to realize the awful truth. Mary Jane ‘fessed up to what Elizabeth hadn’t realized had been going on. Elizabeth cried and cursed Jonas, and swore that if she ever saw him again she’d kill him. She promised her baby that everything would be all right. Then, once again, she held her daughter’s head over the john.
The baby was painfully born on November eleventh, and named Cornelius after a film hero. Small and red and wrapped in a stained towel, little Cornelius’ first memory would be these twin pillars, mother and grandmother, singing to him like the chanteuses they had dreamed of being. Baby Cornelius didn’t know about the terrible man who fathered him, nor of their abandoned dreams. To the little boy blinking big unfocused eyes, they were all he saw, all he heard. And to a newly born baby in a dingy apartment, they were stars. Movie stars. Polestars.
“Why Mr. Stanley,” Betty Ingle replies, her expression not changing at all, “what an odd question.”
She is inscrutable, irresistible. Maddeningly placid. I wait. But that is her only answer. And it is no answer at all.
The song Lola sang just before Jack Holly was found missing, was the song Rita Hayworth sang in Gilda, which had only recently been released: “Put the Blame on Mame”. Lola, like Gilda, had a sordid past as sheathed in mystery as Gilda herself was sheathed in satin. Lola, small and silvery with her blonde hair and slinky dress, postured and strutted and jutted her hips.
“There once was an earthquake, in San Francisco, back in nineteen-six.
They said that old Mother Nature was up to her old tricks.
That’s the story, that went around, but here’s the real lowdown:
Put the blame on Mame, boys, put the blame on Mame.
One night she started to shim’ and shake; that brought on the ‘Frisco quake…”
She held the last long note even after the smacking applause started. It was the perfect choice, really: Put the blame on Mame. She was Mame. She did it. Only Lola could have made a confession out of a torch song.
Maybe I was in love with Lola. Can one be in love with a dead person? Maybe I was in love with her mother, who invited me into her memories, but not her heart. Maybe it was just Lola’s voice I loved, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, that rich voice that was seductive not with sexuality but in the way it managed to create possibilities.
As I fell into her story, first through the words of her mother and her archeological digs of ephemera, ultimately, the reason I keep coming back to this case, years later, is that no matter how many times I’ve gone over it, there is no real conclusion, or even a disappointing climax--it is a dead end, a labyrinth of police reports and conflicting portraits that eventually, always lead to blank space. Each time I get sucked into her charismatic vortex I keep expecting it to be different, to see something which I had overlooked before, something, at last, I can pick up in my hand, the missing puzzle piece: the answer. But it’s never there.
One of the greatest misconceptions of psychology is that egomaniacs by nature are vain and careless, when in fact they crave attention because at some point, a vital person failed to give it to them. In Lola’s case this would be her father, whose retreats were episodic during Lola’s childhood and permanent once Lola turned eleven. What occurred in between was a raw wound on the flesh of a family, a blister whose pus was alcohol.
This is how incest occurs: as tragic and warped a practice as it is, it persists because the dynamic between parent and child is lopsided. For his part, Jonas Ingle resented his wife’s refusal. Elizabeth Ingle finally washed her hands of her husband and refused to have anything to do with him. She even slept on the stiff, narrow living room couch to avoid his nocturnal advances. Furious and frustrated, he turned to the only other warm body on the premises: his daughter. Elizabeth Ingle wasn’t aware of the sodomy while it was going on; Joe only attempted it when she was out of the house. Ruling his domain with an iron fist, he swore to his daughter he would commit worse acts than those he already had if she told. After a time the act became confused in Mary Jane’s mind; intercourse became, instead of a heavy, damp weight on her fragile frame, a comfort, a respite from other worries, a warmth and the acceptance and dare we call it, love, which she so longed for.
Lola’s confessions, encrypted within the lyrics she sang onstage at the Stardust were not the obscene boasts of a proud killer, but the frantic cries for help of a victim, a victim of herself. In wafting those clues into the air she was saying Please help me, I didn’t want to do this, I couldn’t stop myself, I didn’t mean it. That is not to say she is not responsible, but that she is not the only guilty one. Her father, obviously, for forcing himself on her, and then abandoning her. Her mother, too, despite her best intentions.
It is pretty clear why Lola committed her crimes: she was taking revenge on her father--who first ignored her, then abused her--by way of the very method he had shown her. In bed next to these paternal substitutes, painfully unaware of their fate, Lola’s remembered rage ignited, the anger and fear and pain of being forced, of being taken advantage of, and compelled her to murder her father, long dead from alcohol poisoning, in the form of the random businessman.
This case, the death of Jack Holly by Murder at the hands of Mary Jane Ingle, a.k.a. Lola, was assigned me by the Los Angeles Police Department. It is my job to figure out the whys and hows and what-fors therein. But I admit here, put this in the official transcript if you must, that I have failed at solving this case. Not because there is no answer, or because there are too many answers, any of which may be true.
I let her go.
The cause-of-death slot on Jack Holly’s certificate read ‘cardiac arrest’. He liked a nice rib-eye with a good Scotch, but his blood alcohol and cholesterol levels were both normal. A throat culture revealed a still-incubating viral infection, which explained the plethora of dried mucus in his nostrils: a stuffy nose, still chaffed from repeated swipes with a handkerchief. This virus explains why he was unable to detect Lola’s choice of murder weapon.
Potassium cyanide is an inorganic compound with a rough crystalline texture similar to sugar crystals, like rock candy. When crushed into powder, it can be slipped into food or drink, disguising its bitter nut flavor. Lacking antidotes in the form of amyl nitrite poppers or thiosulfate, the poison victim will expire in less than half an hour.
That is what happened to Jack Holly.
From what we can reconstruct via the Stardust staff’s observations, Holly arrived sober and was given a table. He ordered the house-special oysters and his favorite Glenlivet. Lola, it turned out, had requested that the food be sent to her dressing room. Two glasses of Scotch, presumably to stop suspicions, were delivered, along with the aphrodisiac oysters. At some point, Lola poisoned Jack’s drink. Had she sent him out of the room, on some fake errand with a message for the waiter? Or had she told him to close his eyes, leading him to think of a much pleasanter surprise than the one he received? We cannot know what she said. But Jack drank, his infection cloaking the scent of bitter almond that is the telltale odor of cyanide.
But where had Lola gotten the poison? From someone’s medicine cabinet? From one of the Asian shops in Chinatown which sell herbs and potions? Not likely. From one of the drug dealers in the city? Wherever she had obtained the cyanide, it seemed she was the only one in the city who possessed any. That was how she managed to get away with it. Lola timed her exit perfectly, after “A Fine Romance”, but before we made the connection, before the trash bag was discovered.
However both of these deaths occurred, Mary Jane\Lola and Jack Holly are dead, and will remain so. I have written a false outstanding warrant and filed it at the station. Lola may still be physically alive; maybe not, I don’t know. When I said she was dead, I meant that the idea of her is dead. There is no more Lola. And there is no more Mary Jane. Mary Jane Ingle died when a little redhead bleached her hair and stepped onstage.