Friday, November 20, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 6

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


It was after seven. I rubbed my eyes, red from being parked in front of the computer most of the day, and realized I was starving. I wandered out to the kitchen, removed the Gouda cheese and hard salami from the refrigerator and sliced a generous serving.  I then added some walnut bread, all of which hit the same plate. I sliced up a green apple and threw that on too. And, of course, I yanked another cold Corona from the lower shelf of the fridge. Back in the dining room, I pushed some papers aside on the dining room table, set the food down, sat and let out a big sigh.

Before consuming my little repast, I leaned the letter against an empty Corona. I looked for something in the text that might give credence to its being a farce, a ruse. But—and with much reluctance I had to admit—the letter was starting to feel real. But to make that jump, where does one go? Time travel? Parallel worlds? A rip in the time/space continuum? As I said, I would love to believe the letter was real. But if the letter were real, why had it taken so long to reach its destination? Or had it? In her reality, she probably had no idea she was putting her letter into a mailbox that existed over eighty years in the future. So which of us was in the wrong world? Or the real world?

And to what “negatives” was she referring? And what “vanity?” And why was Louise Brooks mistaking me for her soon-to-be ex-hubby Eddie Sutherland! I stared at those last two paragraphs again:

One other thing. I want the negatives. It took me a year of court battles to get them, and I don’t want you getting any ideas. You know what I’m talking about, so don’t make this difficult. They’re where we hid them—in an envelope taped to the bottom of the right-hand drawer of my vanity.

I know you’re home, Eddie, so no games. I’ve seen you the past few nights standing at the window. Put the envelope in the mailbox this evening. I will pick it up during the night.

The truth is—and it makes me slightly uncomfortable to admit it—I have never fully explored every square foot of this house. I realize I’ve been here over eleven years, but I never had any reason to skulk about the attic or the basement. Over the years I have thrown a few things into the attic—and once I spent the good part of a day with some guy that replaced the central heating unit located in the basement. But as I am not a big fan of spiders, cobwebs and little things that creep around in the dark, for all I know there may be a colony of hippies living downstairs—or a gaggle of munchkins in the attic. But if either are there, they’ve been incredibly quiet tenants. And, as I mentioned before, in the backyard, there’s the dilapidated  and overgrown garage.

I’m wondering—you’re thinking it too probably—if that vanity might still be around here somewhere. But what would be the chances? We’re talking over eighty years ago!  Still, Jay’s comments kept coming back to me regarding these old “…museum pieces” and their “ghosts…” still frolicking about. If this letter were real—then maybe a tour of the basement and attic made sense.

Are you with me?

It was almost eight. I had the evening before me. The first thing I decided to do was secure some type of protection from any unfriendly intruders that may have laid claim to either of those rooms.  In place of an iron vest, I found an old UCLA hooded sweatshirt and pulled it on.  Next, I grabbed a broom –in lieu of a sword—for doing battle with any hippies or munchkins—or spiders!  With my four-battery flashlight in my other hand, I was ready.
Back in the kitchen, I opened the seldom-used cellar door and passed onto a small landing that led down the stairs. I yanked on a short chain that hung from a light fixture and a dusty, web-covered, bare bulb flicked on, barely lighting the stairs as they disappeared down into a vast gloom. I flipped up my hood and—feeling a bit like Indiana Jones—plunged downward into that cavern of creatures (and possible hidden treasures!) known as my basement.

At the bottom of the stairs I found another light and flipped the switch. A single low-wattage bulb began to glow about fifteen feet in front of me. There were a total of three light bulbs that stretched the length of the basement and two were out. But with the flashlight and that surviving, low-wattage bulb, visibility was adequate for finding furniture—particularly mysterious vanities. Basements like this one were typical in the Midwest, providing space that included just about the whole area inside the foundation. Many folks used the additional area to build playrooms, workrooms, extra bedrooms—even theatres and private offices. Mine, though, was a California classic: a place for insects, central heating units and items that should have been donated to the Salvation Army. My basement reflected the fact that all the owners of this abode—past and present—were sane folk, and sought life only above ground.

For the next hour, I examined every square inch of that clammy, creepy space. I saw a couple of spiders that—if inclined—could have carried me off, and a black beetle I could have strapped a saddle on and ridden down Rodeo Drive. I did find some furniture under a filthy blue tarp, but it was one of those fifties-style rectangular dinner-tables with the shiny grooved aluminum edge and tubular steel chrome-plated legs. A clan of mice or rats had torn apart and settled into the seats of the chairs.  I made a mental note to get an exterminator out here first thing Monday.

I found some spoke wheels (maybe for an old Model A Ford?), a steamer trunk with some iron pans and pots, cheap silverware, and table linen for maybe a seating of twelve, most of the linen eaten away by moths, rats or whatever. There was a kit with some old tools along with a large wooden container with a large fuse box, fuses that looked like shotgun shells, pipe joints, plumbing and toilet parts, and cans of paint labeled with a name I had never heard. There was an old neon beer sign advertising Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer (neon tube broken), a long stack of warped two by fours, and boxes of pinkish insulation that were currently inhabited by something unknown. Their Pink Palace. I stood in the center of the basement, flashlight in hand, and did a 360-degree turn, impersonating a revolving lighthouse.  There were no hippies, munchkins and, regrettably, no vanity.  I did find the staircase.

Break time.

Somewhat disappointed, I returned to the kitchen, leaving the broom at the top of the stairs. I set the flashlight on the sink, found the fridge, and grabbed a beer. After a long pull, I set the bottle down next to the flashlight and walked through the small utility room and out the side door of the house, where I stood on a small porch that exited onto my driveway. I took off my sweatshirt and gave it a shake. And another. Cobwebs, dust and other debris from the basement filled the air. With some reluctance, I pulled it back on and returned to the kitchen, where I decided to take a few minutes to finish the Corona—and assess my sanity.

I sat down in the alcove of the kitchen, which was comprised of a semi-circle booth that wrapped around a small round table. I leaned on my elbows.  I pulled part of a cobweb out of my beard. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I scratched at the label on the bottle like it had a bad itch, and then shook my head and smiled. Damn!  I really wanted to believe the car, the driver, the girl in the backseat were real and from 1927. The truth was, all I had was the letter. And with that, all I knew was that the stationery was old. Period! Is that enough to convince a sane person to spend another hour or so searching an insect-infested attic for Louise Brooks’ vanity—a vanity that might be there after eighty years? Come on, Mike! This is crazy!

But, crazy or not, somewhere between that haunting, lovely face and my wanting to believe, no spiders, no rational thinking was going to stop me from looking for that vanity.

And what if I did find the vanity? And the negatives were still hidden there? I’m sure they would be worth a fortune to somebody! Do I believe in Louise and stick them in the mailbox—possibly handing them off to someone who is scamming me?  Shit!  Too many questions!  Anyway, I needed to find this vanity first—if it still existed—then deal with all this. I looked up at the ceiling toward the attic. Was the vanity up there? Up went the hood.  I looked at my watch: 9:17.

The flashlight brightly flooded the narrow staircase to the attic with light. The smell was musty—a smell reminiscent of all that is undisturbed, unused and uninhabited. Uninhabited except by eight-legged creatures who now, spotlighted by the flashlight, danced and darted about their massive playground of cobwebs that hung from the walls and ceiling, creating shadows that danced and darted too. I pulled my hood down to the top of my eyes, bowed my head and plowed upward, the broom, lance like, leading the way. Don Quixote!

I stepped out onto the floor of the attic like a Wurlitzer organ rising out of an orchestra pit. No hatch or door to open, I was now standing at the far end of the attic. Although the floor was wide, the walls leaned in as they headed upward to meet above me—the peak of the roof. As long as I stayed near the center, I had plenty of space to walk tall. I looked up through the rafters and saw there were skylights; the glow of starlight trying to work its way through the dirty windows, barely cutting what would have been total darkness to a shadowy dimness; outlines of large objects could be seen—or imagined. Whether they were sleeping munchkins, waiting ogres, hibernating grizzly bears or forgotten bed frames, bureaus, bed stands—or even vanities—remained to be discovered.

I found a string just overhead that hung down from a large bare light bulb, the fixture attached to a large beam. I tugged, heard a click, the light lit, went “Puff!” and went out. I expected nothing more. What fun was there in a bright and cheerful attic? And besides, using a flashlight provided a feeling that I was doing something covert and clandestine.
The attic floor was large, probably covering a good portion of the second floor of the house below.  I could see many things—on both sides of the floor. Some were covered with small tarps and old dustsheets, most with spider webs. Above me, on a plywood loft, I spotted some chairs, an old box spring and some cardboard containers; there was a long, rolled carpet lying on some beams next to the loft and two old bicycles suspended upside down just beyond the carpet. I decided to start at the wall on my left and continue down to the end and then come back along the other side. Simple, but effective.

The search through the first few items was fairly predictable and uneventful—and all covered with cobwebs, dust and dirt.  I found a box of books and magazines, mostly Book-of-Month stuff and a ton of National Geographic Magazines. I had to smile. Isn’t it amazing how people never throw away their National Geographics? And just as amazing, they never ever look at them again? At best, someday, they get donated to the Salvation Army. The reality is, they usually end up waiting for another generation to dispose of them. At least, nowadays, they might get re-cycled.

There was a pair of pink end-table lamps (one broken) with huge coffee-colored lampshades—definitely from the fifties; two large pictures of flamingos (each different) framed with little square mirrors, an etched shower door with palm trees and a swan, three wooden tennis rackets next to a pail of once white Wilson tennis balls (now dirt-gray in color) and, my favorite so far, a wooden fruit crate filled with brass-framed pictures of Ike, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and Gerald Ford, along with a huge stack of letters wrapped with a thick rubber band that literally snapped apart when I went to remove it—all the letters were ‘thank you’ notes for donations to the GOP. The last items in that box were maybe a dozen or so neatly rolled black and white panoramic photos of Republican Party dinners. I unrolled one: hundreds of folks sitting around dozens of round white linen-covered tables.  All the men in dark suits, white shirts and narrow ties.  The women in dirndl dresses each with a tight bodice and low neck, split between either sleeveless or short full sleeves.  Aaah the Grand Old Party!

Next to the GOP box, there was an old blanket with something poking up from underneath. I yanked back the blanket and pointed the flashlight. Two huge eyes stared back at me! “Shit!” I yelled and jumped back. I was ready to throw the flashlight when I took a closer look. It was a deer head—a rather large one—with antlers at least four feet across. Thank God I didn’t have a gun. I would have put ten shots into that poor, helpless buck head.

I had come to the end of the left wall. Facing me now was the wall which ran straight up—against which sat a series of items larger than boxes and deer heads. These items were covered with dustsheets, which now, worn and tattered by age, barely hid what sat underneath. I shone the light and pulled off the first sheet.

Before me, leaning against two sets of single, rusting bedsprings was a large round mirror, maybe four feet across and layered with filth, barely reflecting the light of my flashlight. The mirror rested within an extraordinary cherry-wood frame which—at the top—had an elaborate Art-Deco motif, made of many sweeping parallel lines converging from both sides into a five-pointed star. I pulled the mirror away from the wall and saw that it was not a stand-alone but had the fittings to slide on to a bureau—or a vanity? Branded on the back was the name “DeCaccia Brothers, Los Angeles, California.”  Stapled near the brand was a cardboard tag with information regarding the mirror. I brushed away the years of dust and I could clearly read “Mood and Image, Deco Dream, I.D. 20643-001, KEM Weber, Hollywood, California.” It certainly appeared the mirror was from the twenties or thirties, but what do I know? I made mental note to google The DeCaccia Brothers and Mood and Image, Deco Dream. I could not find a date anywhere on the piece.

To my right, there were other bulky items covered with the same kind of tattered and well-worn sheet. I didn’t hesitate. I swept the cover off and there, leaning against the wall, was the cherry-wood backboards to the two beds, each with the same design of the mirror: parallel lines coming from either side, sweeping upward and joining to form a five–pointed star. Next to the backboards, standing like a sentry, was a six-drawer tallboy, definitely part of the cherry-wood ‘Mood and Image’  design of the DeCaccia Brothers. Although covered with the dust of the decades, the beautiful cherry-wood shone through the filth with just a single swipe of my hand. This was high-end furniture. I checked the rear of the bureau and found no attachments for mounting the mirror. I opened each drawer, hoping to find anything: an article of clothing, a book, a piece of jewelry—an envelope? But the drawers were empty. All of them. That is, except for a small clan of black beetles, one very long-legged spider and droppings from something that I hoped was smaller than a breadbox. I checked underneath each drawer—just in case—and found nothing. A few of the drawers still had the original drawer liners. A brownish paper in a tweed-like design. I reached in, peeled back the liner and underneath was a home-cut piece of newspaper that must have been used as a base for the liner.  But as I went to remove it, it literally crumbled in my hands. I was more careful with the next drawer. Removing the liner, I flashed the light on the newsprint, leaving it in place. The first thing I saw was most of a Christmas ad for ’Atkinson’s Basement of Los Angeles’ advertising Beaver Lamb and Wombat coats for $22.00!  Beaver Lamb and Wombat coats?

To the left, at the top of the newspaper, I could see ‘ngeles Herald.’ I carefully blew away the dirt (and other unmentionables) right below the title. With my fingertips, I gently swept away the thin dust that remained. I suddenly sucked in air. Clearly readable was December 17, 1938.  1938!  This furniture was from the wrong period. It was 1930’s, not 1920’s. This definitely would be the Stephens’s furniture. It couldn’t be the Sutherlands’.

Remember, Eddie and Louise had split in 1928, and he moved out in 1937. People lined drawers right after they bought them and/or just before they’re about to use them. I was betting the Stephens bought this furniture from The DeCaccia Brothers and lined it when they moved in here. I was beginning to wish I wasn’t getting good at this detective stuff. Damn!

This ‘Private Investigator’ wanted a vanity. And not Mrs. Stephens’s vanity.  If this were the Stephens’s furniture before me, then I was wasting my time here. But I wasn’t about to stop now. I needed to complete my little circuit around the attic. And I was glad I did because I discovered who the original owners of this furniture really were—and I found the Louise Brooks’s vanity! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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