Tableau Vivant

Fiction

Clara’s well into her thirties now, but she can hoof it enough for the chorus line, and hold a tune if it’s catchy. It’s her first season touring with Sam T. Jack’s Creoles, “the pre-eminent terpsichorean diversions of the day in the Afro-American line.” (Sam tells the press they’re Egyptians or genuine Louisiana Creoles at least, but the fact is he hired most of them in New York, and picked Clara up when he was passing through Toronto.) The Creoles don’t cork up, and all that dumb-darkie Jim Crow stuff is gone by the wayside. They’re a pretty classy troupe—burlesque, but not the dirty kind. Sam’s girls sing airs from opera, they shake their spangled skirts, nothing out of the ordinary and that’s what’s somewhat extraordinary to Clara. The Creoles travel in their own comfortable Pullman to avoid any possible unpleasantness at hotels, especially in the South. They’ve got their comedians with them, their first-rate olio men and some star females too. They pack houses all over the States and nobody asks them any questions.

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In the night, though, Clara finds it’s a whole other story.

Where did you get the name Clara Ford?

It’s mine.

But who gave it to you?

Mrs. Stow, when she found me on her doorstep in a box, she called me Clara.

Why?

I don’t know, she had to call me something. She left me at the Foundlings Nursery and the matron there wrote me down as Ford. I guess everyone needs two names for the record. Then when the matron sent me back, the Stows handed me over to a maid of theirs, Mrs. McKay. Now she didn’t give me any more names but she did keep me even when the Stows stopped paying, so I guess that makes her my mother.

How she made the Toronto jurymen gape and laugh.

Clara’s never quite asleep when the questions start up, she’s in that place between. The funny thing is, it’s always the same voice, a man’s, she thinks— though who can be sure—but no particular man she recognizes: not the judge, not one of the police or lawyers or newspaper men.

But these various people who took an interest in your welfare, Miss Ford, they were not your people. Who were your own people?

I don’t know of any others.

Isn’t it believed that the unfortunate who brought you into the world in or around the year 1863 was a Negro maid who lost her virtue to a white man?

Beats me, I was a baby at the time.

No doubt it was the trial that jammed Clara’s head, all those interrogations coming and coming like rain on a tin roof, and she was a match for them, oh wasn’t she just. She never met a question she couldn’t answer, or spin anyway.

Would you describe yourself as a mulatto, Miss Ford, or a quadroon or an octaroon?

No.

Would you say your complexion is nearer to chocolate or yellow?

I don’t believe I would.

How she made the Toronto jurymen gape and laugh. Clara thought she’d sleep easy once the trial was over, but it seems it doesn’t work that way because here she is touring what feels like every town in America with the Creoles, the world is their goddamn oyster, and still she spends her nights accounting for herself.

What were you doing hanging round Parkdale, Miss Ford?

I liked to take my book down to the lake.

You used to go to the city’s most fashionable suburb, to read?

In my part of town, York Street, I couldn’t find a quiet spot.

But you also hung around the Parkdale boathouse crowd, didn’t you?

I was acquainted with a few of them.

Including Frank Westwood, heir to one of the city’s best families, who was eighteen on the night of the sixth of October, 1894. The night when, dressed in men’s clothes, you lurked outside the door of his parents’ villa on Jameson Avenue, rang the bell, and waited for the boy to light the gas and open the door, whereupon you shot him in the stomach.

Let’s not forget I was acquitted.

It’s not that Clara’s ever stuck for an answer: different ones each time, if someone’s going to have the last word it might as well be her. But sleep, here’s the thing, she needs some sleep. Feels like she hasn’t really slept since she was a girl back in Toronto working in the biscuit factory.

Were you a hired killer, Miss Ford?

Pull the other one.

Did you form an improper attachment to the Westwood boy and pester him with your jealous attentions?

Ha!

When you confessed to his murder, you told the police he’d insulted you—

They’d sweated me all night, they were putting words in my mouth.

But was that “insult” as in, plain insult, or as in, insulting a lady’s honour? Did Frank Westwood lay hands on you, Miss Ford, lift your petticoats?

As if I’d have let that boy near my petticoats . . .

Your alibi was that you were attending The Black Crook at the Opera House. I’m wondering if you saw yourself that night as the plucky heroine of a melodrama, donning pants to punish the villain?

I never heard such guff.

If he didn’t assault your womanhood, what possible reason could you have had for gunning Frank Westwood down?

May I remind you I was acquitted?

Yes, that’s a matter of record. Your lawyer asked the jurymen to save a “poor, lone, Negro girl” from the gallows.

Clara’s been a free woman for years now, earning a good wage from Sam Jack. The man’s a speculative character, says the U.S.of A. is a mongrel nation and the day is surely coming when folks will stop fretting over the colour line. But in the meantime, he’s happy to make a buck out of the novelty factor of his lovely Creoles. Forget about your past, he tells Clara, who knows or cares what you did or didn’t do back in Canada?

But still, when she lies down in her bunk in the gently jolting carriage, the questions start up again tap-tap, rat-a-tat-tat like fists on the door.

Do men’s clothes cause you sensory excitation, Miss Ford?

You procured a suit, a fedora, a moustache and a revolver.

I wouldn’t say I procured them.

So you had them already?

It was a matter of protection.

Which, the gun?

The whole shebang.

Among the Parkdale boathouse crowd, Miss Ford, did you try to pass for a man?

No.

Don’t you think some of your acquaintance could have taken you for one?

That was their lookout.

But it’s said that you sometimes wore trousers under your petticoats. It is hard to see what kind of protection that could have offered. Do men’s clothes cause you sensory excitation, Miss Ford?

I wear what fits me.

And your hair, why do you keep it so short?

Don’t talk to me about my hair.

Is it because it’s so wooly, would it become unmanageable—

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I said don’t talk to me about my hair.

Even when dressed as your proper sex, you wore a stand-up collar, a white shirt. On the Parkdale streetcar, passengers have said that you often swung on and off without waiting for it to stop.

Since when is that a crime?

On one occasion, some young men were heard to make derogatory remarks about you. Can you recall what you did?

I got off.

Got off with them, and struck the ringleader in the face.

That fellow never gave me any trouble again.

Like Frank Westwood?

Read my lips: I was acquitted.

Every evening and matinees too, Clara shakes her satin petticoats and clicks her heels in the Creoles’ chorus line. She goes to bed with nothing on, nothing but her skin. When her legs throb she reminds herself it’s easier than all the other ways she’s earned a living since she was twelve years old.

Sometimes she misses Toronto. Even the bad gigs. Sewing till her eyes felt every prick of the needle. Scrubbing pots at the Gladstone House on Queen Street, her hands turned to lobster claws—

The other girls report you used to make fists, strike pugilistic attitudes.

Oh, we were just joshing around.

You enjoyed impressing impressionable females, did you?

It passed the time.

They recall you saying that you should have been born a man. That there’d been some kind of mistake.

That’s true.

That you made the remark, or that you should have been born a man?

Maybe I shouldn’t have been born at all. What d’you reckon? Spare everybody a deal of bother?

Curious thing, if Clara asks a question instead of answering one the voice goes dead.

But she can’t seem to call a halt to it for long. On the very verge of sleep the questions start up again like blows behind her eyelids, one-two, one-two, her heartbeat keeping time.

Would it be fair to say that you have a chip on your shoulder, Miss Ford? A bee in your bonnet?

That’s all my eye.

Your old neighbours report that as a child you always flared up if anyone spoke to you about your race.

Well, why did they feel the need to speak about it?

Shouldn’t it be speakable?

Depends on the reason for speaking.

It’s said that you wouldn’t associate with the Negro children of Toronto.

I wanted to mix, that’s all.

With whites?

With whoever I might come across. Just to walk across my own city without being told to go home.

Every day you put yourself in the way of little cuts and insults, Miss Ford. Was that not an unwise policy for a person so high-strung?

I didn’t have a policy, I just lived my life.

Did the Westwood boy mock you?

If he did, he was just the last in a long line.

What did he say—Zigabo? Dinge? Crow? Moon cricket? Or was it about your going around in pants? Did he call you freak, invert, morphodite? Is it conceivable that you’d form a grudge against a young man simply become of some remark?

It was an easy gig, a tableau vivant: Clara just stood there in suit, fedora and moustache, gun held high.

Remarks are never simple.

Would you not agree that since the day you learned to crawl, Miss Ford, you’ve been a troublemaker, a bad hat, a she-hellion, a spitfire, in the vulgar parlance a shit disturber of the highest order?

There’s a lot of shit out there, it doesn’t take much to disturb it.

There are questions Clara won’t answer, of course; everybody’s got a few of those. A man, a couple of women, even some children she’s lost track of over the years and, rest in peace, she’s not going to rake over those old coals now. She’d rather stop talking entirely but that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Some nights Clara thinks with a peculiar fondness of that gig she took on Yonge Street just after the trial. (Well, she could hardly go back to the rag trade or hotel work, once she was famous.) Despite the name, Moore’s Musée was just a dime museum. Education through entertainment, that was his catchphrase. Clara appeared right after the Human Pin Cushion, before the Somersaulting Wolves. (The reek of their fearful piss, she has it in her nose even now.) Moore would wait for the barrel organ to scrape out its horrible chords:

The sight the authorities couldn’t ban, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the unique, the thrilling, the spine-tingling tableau vivant of a certain bloody crime that took place less than a year ago in a quiet neighbourhood not far to the west of this very establishment . . .

It was an easy gig, a tableau vivant: Clara just stood there in suit, fedora and moustache, gun held high. The rubes and dupes would crowd the edge of the stage as if this was the real deal they were looking at: the Parkdale Mystery, re-enacted three times nightly for their convenience.

The papers call her the Mulatto Man-Woman. Fact or fiction? Mistaken identity or police conspiracy? Brazen murder or honourable self-defence? Only you can decide. Is she or isn’t he? Did he or didn’t she? The jurymen said not guilty. But only Miss Clara Ford will ever know for sure . . .

Clara could have laughed. All she showed them was what they’d already seen in their feverish dreams. (Could you blame them? Toronto was only a one-murder-a-year kind of town.) A tableau vivant wasn’t allowed to move a muscle, even to nod or shake her head. So though Clara did hear questions—bawled over the lights, or quavering voices from the dark at the back of the hall—she didn’t have to answer a single one. In fact, by the terms of her contract, she was obliged to hold her tongue. So they were oddly restful, those evenings, frozen in the glare, the gun aching her hand. Her mind could wander. She got to just stand there, for once, and let the world make of her what it liked.

Too good to last, of course. Her lawyer called Clara in, pointed out that she was making a spectacle of the entire system of jurisprudence in Her Majesty’s Dominion. Said she should cross the border or he would see to it she did.

She hasn’t been back to Canada since. So many years, but Clara will never not be that woman who stood up in court in her little black jacket and swayed a little, and kept on answering questions.

These days she sings and dances in the chorus line, she chats with the Creoles as they’re sorting their stockings in the Pullman at the end of the evening, she gives back answers with the best of them. Apart from those brief weeks of the tableau vivant, her tongue has never known a rest.

And just as well, maybe, Clara sometimes thinks in the colder part of the night, when the train pulls her along through space and time going shicka-sh, shicka-sh, shicka-sh. Time enough to shut up when she’s dead.

Note

All details about Clara Ford’s background and trial come from Patrick Brode’s invaluable study, Death in the Queen City: Clara Ford on Trial, 1895 (Natural Heritage Books, 2005). 
Her name shows up in a cast list for Sam T. Jack’s Creoles in the New York Clipper, August 24, 1895. On that groundbreaking troupe, see Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889–1895 (University Press of Mississippi, 2003), by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff.


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