Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 3

Here is the third installment of "The Vanity," a short story by Robert Murillo.

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I rolled out of bed, showered, shaved (just my neck—I’ve a closely cropped beard that’s showing way too much gray), dressed, walked to the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. I took some vitamins with a large glass of OJ and had a piece of peanut butter toast while the coffee finished brewing. As soon as the coffeemaker made that familiar gurgling sound, I filled my handleless mug, strolled into the dining room, switched on the computer, and continued my walk into the living room to the front window. No, neither she, nor the sedan, was there.

How different things look in the brightness of a Southern California sun. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that we allow the night—or the dark—to make the ordinary, strange and the strange, stranger. In the late morning of a beautiful day, all things seemed harmless, logical, and in their place. Standing there, I was somewhat embarrassed, certain my nightly sightseer was just some pretty little kook who had bought a Map of the Stars.

What was out my window this morning was my neighbor, Jay Johnson, who was retrieving his mail on schedule—a few minutes after the postman had slipped it in his box. Jay always wore the same flamboyant V-neck argyle sweater (I was hopeful he owned a week’s worth of the same style) and was gregarious almost to a fault. He reminded me a little of Seinfeld’s Kramer. Our mailboxes were side by side out near the street. He looked up, saw me and waved. I waved back, decided I’d check my mail too and, coffee in hand, walked out to greet Jay—and Saturday’s argyle.

“How’s it going Mike? Got that book finished yet? You know, you should turn it into a screenplay. Betcha it’d make a great movie. Can’t stand all this digital and horror shit that’s coming out now.” He let out a short snort that was the prelude to his laugh, laughed and then scratched his chest.

I liked Jay. Folks could do a lot worse than having a neighbor like him. Jay owned four car lots: two in Hollywood, one in Inglewood, and one in downtown L.A., all known as JJ’s Cars for the Stars!  All offered high-end cars like Jaguar, Ferrari and Mercedes—all were very successful. He and his wife, Lorraine, had been good friends since Jeanne and I first moved in here. And they had been a great comfort for me when I thought the world had ended when I lost Jeanne.

Now they were keen on the idea that I should start dating again and—as a bonus—Lorraine, who was originally from New Orleans, had this cousin Connie from Texas who was a real knockout…and available. Right. I had no trouble imagining why this “real knockout” would still be around. As Jay explained it, Connie was a schoolteacher at some school near Houston—taught a foreign language or something. Said  she was in town indefinitely on a sabbatical, taking or teaching—he wasn’t sure—some classes at USC during the fall semester. Jay said Connie had lost her husband about five years ago in a fire—he had been a fireman. Jay said she took it pretty hard and had gone to the Middle East to teach for a few years, but he was unsure (again) of where and told me to ask Lorraine for the details.  Anyway, I had no interest in pursuing a lonely, four-eyed, academic with a twang like Lorraine’s. I had told Jay many times: one, that I had no desire to be related to him—and two, that I was way too busy for seeing anyone right now. Jay hadn’t mentioned Connie for a few days, and for that I was thankful. Still, the moment Lorraine saw me, I knew she would start right in. Guaranteed.

“Well, I’m writing into the night, Jay. The pages are stacking up. Never considered a screenplay. We’ll see. By the way, you weren’t up late the past few nights—like around three?”

“Hell, Lorraine and I are lucky to make it to nine. Why? You see somebody creepin’ around?”

“No. Well, yes, I have. The past three nights, a big black car—something out of the late twenties maybe—has cruised by here. Slow like. Saw it stop in front of my house early this morning. About three. I think its occupants were looking for someone.”

“Missed that one. You know, that’s the charm of living in these museum pieces.  There are ghosts still hiding in the walls and in the attics—and apparently in the streets now.” Jay snorted again and laughed; he was organizing his mail when Lorraine appeared on their front porch.

Buxom and blonde, she was candy to the eyes. But she was also relentless. She yelled out, “Hiyah, Mike. How you?”

I waved and limited my eye contact. She had a Southern accent born in Louisiana and urbanized in Texas. “Connie’s comin’ over ta’morrah night. Y’all want to join us for dinnah?”

Without a pause I said, “I am meeting with my agent tomorrow night, Lorraine. Maybe next time?” I lied. My agent was in New York for the weekend.  Jay looked up from his mail, smiled and winked and headed back toward Lorraine.

“If your phantom car comes by before nine tonight, let me know. Seeya around.” Jay hesitated, turned and said, “And if you change your mind about tomorrow…” Before he got any further, I gave him my best Clint Eastwood Make my day stare. He resumed his trek back to the house, snorted and laughed.

I opened my old mailbox and reached in, already knowing that most of the contents would be junk mail, mainly those ubiquitous catalogs selling trash such as T-shirts emblazoned with Real Men Use Duct Tape and Old Guys Rule, two story doghouses, exploding golf balls, and cookie jars with images of Lucy and Betty Boop. Whatever other mail was left would be bills. I pulled out the stack while looking down the street—where the phantom car disappeared earlier this morning, taking with it that timeless, remarkable face.

As I sauntered back toward the house, juggling the coffee, I flipped through the mail, one item at a time, leaning each rejected piece against my chest. “Junk, junk, bill, junk, junk, bill…” I chimed.  It almost sounded like “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells” for God’s sake! Then I stopped. I looked down at the last item that lay in my hand: a crème-colored envelope, almost square. The paper was rich and thick—reminiscent of a wedding invitation. There was no address, no stamp, no return address. But clearly written, almost certainly with a fountain pen and looking like calligraphy, was the name:

Eddie Sutherland 

I sat on the couch in the living room clutching the envelope—my coffee and the rest of the mail safely on the coffee table. I stared at the name on the front. I had to grin. Come on. Who’s playing games here? With no stamp on the envelope somebody actually had to have put the letter in my mailbox. I turned the envelope over. It was sealed tightly. At the very tip of the flap—in the same style as the lettering on the front—were the initials

LB

LB? Who was LB? I didn’t know anyone with the initials LB. All this smelled of a joke. A letter addressed to Eddie Sutherland! He hadn’t lived in this house for over seventy years! And what was I supposed to do with it? I couldn’t return it. It obviously wasn’t delivered by the post office. I felt the envelope and there was definitely a note inside. I held it up toward the front window, allowing the sunlight to strike the back of it. Nothing to see. The paper was too thick. Then, as I aimlessly looked out that front window…it hit me! The car, then the letter. Of course! This letter must be from my mystery maiden. I mean, the car probably was the same vintage as this old house—the same period when ol’ Eddie lived here. Was she trying to tell me this morning about the letter? Jesus! This is beginning to look like material for a goddamn Twilight Zone! Or another L.A. scam of some kind.

Suddenly, the phone rang. I tossed the envelope on the table with the rest of the mail and walked over to the dining room, picked up the receiver and quipped, “This someone with good news or money?”—a line from a favorite movie. On the other end was my agent, Alan Hooper, wondering if—and when—I were ever going to grow up.

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