© 2018 Sandra Dallas. All Rights Reserved. 

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Los Angeles Times Book Review

Buster Midnight’s Cafe

BY SANDRA DALLAS

A wise and sassy narrator, marvelous characters, and a plot that blends Hollywood scandal, lifelong friendship, mystery and romance—these are the specialties served up in Sandra Dallas’s offbeat, inspired debut novel. 

Effa Commander is no spring chicken, but her spirit shines and her smart mouth still puts fools to shame. The fool in question is a gossip hound writing a scurrilous account of her beloved friends who, though departed, remain the most celebrated citizens of Butte, Montana: the great Hollywood legend Marion Street (nee May Anna Kovacks) and Buster Midnight, the boxing champion whose love for Marion led to the notorious “Tinseltown Crime of Passion” and the end of his career.

Prodded by her bosom buddy, Whippy Bird, Effa Commander takes pen in hand to set the record straight and tell what really happened on that violent night. But to do that, Effa Commander must recount the story of all their lives: hers and Whippy Bird’s and May Anna’s, and Buster and Toney McNight’s and Pink Varscoe’s. Childhood friends, they all became wives and husbands—with the exception of May Anna, of course. She went to work in Venus Alley, hitched herself to a big-time director just passing through on his way to Hollywood, and the rest is history.

Narrated by the irrepressible Effa Commander, this wry and loving chronicle of more than fifty years of friendship carries some universal, homespun truths about what’s really important in life.

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Author’s Note:

During the 1980s, I covered hard-rock mining for Business Week and often went to Butte, Montana, to write about the copper industry. Walking down the old streets, climbing the stairs of the Victorian buildings, eating in restaurants that had been in Butte for decades all evoked a sense of the past. Even my fortune cookie from the Pekin Noodle Parlor seemed to say something about life in Butte: “Comes Pleasure, Follows Pain.” One afternoon at home, not long after I’d visited Butte, the plot of Buster Midnight’s Café flashed into my mind, complete with names, setting, and the first line of the book. The idea was so compelling that I sat down and wrote the first chapter, which was then a couple of pages. It was all rewritten, although that first line stayed. I thought I was writing an historical novel, but I learned from readers and reviewers that I’d really written a book about loyalty and friendship.

AN EXCERPT FROM
Buster Midnight’s Cafe

You want to know about Butte, you go over to the twenty-four-hour Jim Hill Cafe & Cigar Store on Silver Street and ask for me and Whippy Bird. The lunch counter, not the bar since Whippy Bird doesn’t drink anymore, not after she got half of her stomach taken out.

Whippy Bird can’t eat very well unless she lies down. When I get invited to her house for dinner, she serves it in the bedroom, where she can stretch out. With real company, she lies down on the couch, but me and Whippy Bird have been family all our lives, so we eat in the bedroom. “Whippy Bird,” I say to her, “you have more fun in that bed with a pork chop than you ever had with your husbands.” And she laughs and says, “You’re right. You are surely right, Effa Commander.” Though I surely am not.

Everyone knows the Jim Hill on Silver Street. That’s because there’s a big sign in front that says JIM HILL CAFE in pink neon. Even without the sign, you’d know it was special. The front is covered in stainless steel just like an old North Coast Limited streamliner, and in the window is a blue neon champagne glass with pink bubbles coming out of it as flashy as May Anna’s diamond earrings, which she left me in her will.

Classy. That’s what I told Whippy Bird the first time we saw the Jim Hill all spruced up like that. “Whippy Bird, that’s classy. Just like Mary Anna’s house,” I said. Of course, that was forty years ago when people knew who Jim Hill was. Now people think Jim Hill is Joe Mapes. Sometimes Joe Mapes even get confused. Whenever a customer calls, “Jim!” he answers, “Yo!” I doubt Joe even knows who Jim Hill was. That was the name of the restaurant when he bought it in 1964. He didn’t have the money for a new sign. Then or now.

I don’t know how the word got out to the tourists about the Jim Hill being the place to learn about Butte. Maybe it’s the newspaper people from back east. Every time some paper wants a story on Butte, their boys come whipping into the Jim Hill and say hi, I’m a reporter from The New York Times, like we’re supposed to swing around and fall over backward off the stool. Then they ask a couple of fool questions like will the price of copper go up. Or down. How the hell should we know? Then they go back and write us up like we’re cuter than a bug in lace pants. Local color, it’s called.

You’ve seen those stories. They quote me and Whippy Bird, then they tell you Montana’s so quaint the governor has his home phone number listed in the telephone book. I asked Whippy Bird once if that was true, and she said she didn’t know; she didn’t have any reason to call up the governor.

Maybe all those tourists read about the Jim Hill in the newspaper stories or maybe they read about it in Hunter Harper’s book, which you might have seen. Its title is That Hellhole Called Butte, which I think is a stinking name. Nobody but Hunter Harper ever called Butte a hellhole. I never liked Hunter Harper much, and I hated him after that book came out. He hangs around the Jim Hill counter, sitting on the corner stool with his legs crossed, smoking one of those little cigars, the kind that look like you can’t make up your mind if you want a cigarette or a real stogie. Hunter Harper wears Levi’s and boots and a hat that’s too big and a yellow kerchief around his neck. He thinks somebody might mistake him for a cowboy. But anybody who knows cowboys knows yellow scarves are bad luck.

I started reading Hunter Harper’s book, but I never got to the end. It’s just made up of stories he picked up around the Jim Hill that he never got right. He tries to sound like he’s one of us, but he isn’t. Nobody who grew up in Butte uses words like heretofore and built environment. You have to have a dictionary just to get through the first page. Of course, Hunter’s not a Butte native. He’s just a summer person, who teaches history in Iowa the rest of the year. Folk history, he calls it, us being the folks, I guess.

I asked Whippy Bird if he was a queer, but she didn’t think so. Not that we care. Butte had “sissies,” as we called them when we were growing up, but not very many. It isn’t a good idea to be a fairy with all those miners and tough cowboys in Montana.

It’s a funny thing about tourists. They come here to see us, but they really don’t want to get to know us. They want to find somebody who’s like them. You see tourists walking down the street in their baseball caps saying SIOUX FALLS ELKS and wearing orange jumpsuits with the Expand-O waistbands. They nod a little to everybody, but when they see another tourist in a baseball cap and and Expand-O jumpsuit, they get real friendly, like they just found they were war allies in enemy territory. Even though Hunter doesn’t wear a jumpsuit, the tourists spot him for one of them just the same.

Your better class of tourists, however, look for me and Whippy Bird.

Mostly they say the same things, like how far they drove that day or is it always cold up here. Then real friendly like, they ask about the history. Whippy Bird likes to go into detail about the copper kings who got rich here and had big mansions and race horses. Or she tells them about Columbia Gardens because it was the best amusement park in the state of Montana. Also, it’s the place where Buster got his start.

If she’s feeling sassy and has the time, she draws it out so those people are sorry they asked. If she’s busy, she lets them get to the big question right away. Sometimes she even brings it up herself. But mostly, she makes the tourists get around to it on their own with a lot of heming and hawing. Sooner or later, they always do, like it was something that occurred to them just then over their bacon and eggs.

Take yesterday. Whippy Bird was behind the counter as she sometimes is when the Jim Hill is shorthanded or Alta, who’s the regular waitress, has trouble with her bunions. Me, I help, too, if they need me, but I’ve cooked about a million meals in my time back when we had our own restaurant, and enough’s enough, so I was just sitting on a stool in front, enjoying my morning coffee.

Whippy Bird was half paying attention to what this particular tourist was saying, a real windbag, I thought. First, he had to talk about everything on the menu, asking were the eggs fresh and was it link or patty sausage? And did the Jim Hill serve skim milk, and could he have blueberry pancakes instead of regular? Then he said to his wife did she remember when he got fresh-picked blueberries in his hot cakes in the year of 1979 in the state of Vermont? Your fatties surely like to talk about their food. Then after he ordered the short stack of pancakes, even though they didn’t have blueberries, he cleared his throat. “You from around here?” he asked in kind of a casual way.

“I been a native all my life,” Whippy Bird said.

“You know, I read Marion Street was from Butte.”

“Marion Street?” Whippy Bird asked.”

“Yeah. You know Marion Street?”

“Is that a person or an address?” She pronounces it “ay-dress.” I’ve heard Whippy Bird ask that about a thousand times, but I always have to put down my coffee and laugh.

The tourists think that address business is funny, too, but not for the same reason. You see, me and Whippy Bird know that Marion Street took her name from an ay-dress. Hunter’s book tells you that her real name was May Anna Kovak, which it was not. It was Kovaks – but it doesn’t explain that when she turned out, she wanted a fancy name, and me and Whippy Bird came up with it. We just looked up at the street sign and got the same idea at the same time. May Anna thought it was the funniest thing she ever heard. When I told Pink about May Anna’s new name, he said she was lucky she wasn’t standing or Porphyry Street when we got the idea.

Then that tourist at the Jim Hill leaned over the counter on one elbow, with his Expand-O waist riding up halfway to his armpit, and said in a low voice, “I heard Marion Street used to be a hooker here.

He sat back down, and his wife punched him in the arm and said, “Now, Harold.”

Whippy Bird was flipping a pancake just then. She turned around and let the pancake land on the floor. “Marion Street was a hooker? You mean a whore?” She said it so loud you could hear her outside, only nobody from Butte who was walking by paid her any mind because she’d said it so many times before.

The tourist turned red as Heinz 57 ketchup – which isn’t really Heinz 57 at the Jim Hill because Joe Mapes fills the Heinz 57 bottles with the cheap kind you buy by the gallon. Then Whippy Bird slammed down his short stack, which was even shorter since one of the pancakes was on the floor, turned back to the grill, and pretended to cook, but I know she was laughing.

That pancake on the floor was a good touch. The timing doesn’t always work out like that. Even Hunter, who was sitting with his legs wrapped around each other puffing on one of those smelly smokes of his, making you wish the Jim Hill was no smoking, started laughing.

Whippy Bird cleaned off the grill with the edge of the pancake flipper and turned back to the tourist, who had his head in his hot cakes. “Where’d you get an idea like that?” she asked him.

He shrugged, keeping his eyes on his breakfast.”

I guess when you get to be as beautiful and as famous as Marion Street, people just naturally say nasty things about you.” Whippy Bird clucked her tongue. “And her being dead like she is! She was just as famous as Marilyn Monroe. And just as sad. You know, she was older’n me?” That’s true, though not such a big deal as you might think because Whippy Bird was talking only three weeks’ difference in age.

I thought old Harold would gag at that. People remember pictures of Marion Street with her platinum hair and her mouth a red slash of Max Factor at the Bob Hope USA shows or at the Cocoanut Grove with Cary Grant, and you forget they were taken during World War II, more than forty years ago. Once she became a star, there wasn’t a picture of her that wasn’t glamorous. She’d even get dressed up just to take out the garbage. Your actresses had class back then.

I could see Harold there compare that image of the glamorous Marion Street with Whippy Bird in her road-stripe orange corkscrew curls and rhinestone earrings, looking like she was going to a canasta party. That’s not to say Whippy Bird isn’t pretty. She always was prettier that May Anna. In fact, even with the sickness she’s had, Whippy Bird doesn’t look as old as she is. Still, she looks plenty older than May Anna did in those pictures Harold remembered.

The rest of us, we got old, but not Marion Street. She’s frozen as a Hollywood Legend Sex Goddess now, and people remember her the way she looked when she died in 1951. Just like they do Marilyn Monroe. You don’t think, why she’d be in her seventies now. You just remember her being about thirty or thirty-five. Or at least me and Whippy Bird do. The rest of the world thought she was younger, since May Anna always lied about her age.

“Did you know her?” Harold was back in the saddle.

“Did I know her? I guess me and Effa Commander knew her better than anybody.” Whippy Bird is always willing to share the credit.

“Do you know about the Love Triangle Murder?” Nothing could stop that boy now.

“That was a long time ago,” Whippy Bird said. Me and Whippy Bird don’t like it when the tourists ask about the murder. We talk about May Anna, her being a famous tourist attraction in Butte now, but the murder is none of their business. I expect old Harold read Hunter Harper’s book or those articles that came out after the book was published. Hunter picked up on all that old Hollywood gossip and thought he figured it out about the murder, but he was dead wrong. With May Anna and Buster gone, me and Whippy Bird are the only ones still around who know what really happned, and we never talked. Especially to that damn fool Hunter.

Whippy Bird turned to scrape off the grill, and Harold there slurped down his pancakes and grabbed his wife and beat it out of the Jim Hill. Funny thing. You’d think tourists would be mad at Whippy Bird for embarrassing them – take the wind out of her “sales,” as Whippy Bird says – but they never are. Good old Harold left Whippy Bird a two-dollar tip.

After they left, Whippy Bird wiped off the grill again, looked me straight in the eye, put down her pancake flipper, and said, “Effa Commander, it’s time somebody told the truth about the May Anna Kovaks – Buster McKnight murder or else the world will keep believing what that damn fool Hunter Harper said in his book. And you are that person,” she said. “I am going to the Ben Franklin as soon as Alta comes in and buy you some steno pads, and I’ll even get you Flair pens instead of ballpoint. You write it down, and I’ll type it up for you. You made a promise to Buster once that you would do the right thing.”

“I thought I did the right thing,” I told her. “At least I did what Buster wanted.”

“That was then. Now the right thing is to tell the true facts,” she said. “You owe it to Buster and May Anna and the world.” Then she added softly, “Mostly to Buster. Don’t you think he deserves the truth being known?” I thought it over for a long time while Whippy Bird poured me more coffee, then I said thanks to you, Whippy Bird, for the coffee, and maybe you are right like you always are.

It’s for you to do, Effa Commander, because I may not last that long. Besides, I’ll look over your shoulder and tell you if you go wrong.”

She surely did that, all right. Whippy Bird surely did that.