Monday, November 23, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 9

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

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I fell into my old leather chair after turning it slightly toward the window. I put my feet up on the ottoman, put my head back and closed my eyes. God, I hope my note doesn’t freak her out. It was obviously too late to pull it. Maybe I should have placed some sort of a memento from my time in the envelope—a movie magazine, today’s newspaper, even a Macy’s catalogue—to prove to her I existed, that my letter was real. I wondered if I…

Leave it alone, Mike. Let it go. Your note’s enough. Stay on your side of the net.

A few minutes before three. I grabbed a Corona, turned off all the lights in the house and found my way to the front window—crunch time. Would she show?

Then I thought, what if she just sends her driver? I mean why would she come?  If she’s confident Eddie’s going to come through, she may not feel it necessary to personally collect the negatives. Or—and maybe wisely—she may want to avoid the possibility that Eddie might confront her.

What a disappointment if she didn’t show!

I would know soon enough. To my left, I could see the orange glow of those two round headlights growing larger and larger and larger.

I took a step back into the living room. In the dark, I was sure I could not be seen. The car pulled over, stopped in front; the soft hum of the engine barely audible. The driver’s door opened, then closed. Around the backside of the car came a large individual, maybe six foot, well over 200 pounds. His athletic body filled his black suit, and he sported a driver’s cap and wore driving gloves. He never looked toward the house. He marched to the mailbox, removed the envelope and walked quickly to the car’s rear passenger door, closest to the house. The window went down and a white-gloved hand reached out and took the envelope. Immediately, the overhead light in the backseat went on. The driver returned to his position behind the wheel. The car stayed. I was sure she was checking the contents—and reading my letter? A few minutes went by.

Suddenly her face appeared in the open window of the rear door—and I held my breath. How pretty she was! She did not seem confused, as I had anticipated. She appeared focused, those large dark eyes curious, her celebrated bangs dangling and her plum of a mouth forcing a smile. She stared straight into my front window and right into my eyes—eyes I knew she could not see. Or could see? Suddenly, a gloved hand appeared, almost like a puppet, from the lower part of the car window. She waved it slowly, back and forth. Her mouth went from that tight smile to form three words I actually could read. ‘Thank you, Mike.’  She then sat back, disappearing from view; the driver shifted the black beauty into low gear and the motorcar rolled silently into the night.

Two things.

One, as the car pulled away, I noted the license plate number,

255-323

I hadn’t thought about getting the license plate number. But the night was clear, the numbers were large and lit and easy to remember. And now that I had the number, I had the opportunity to check the auto’s registration. How? Because I had a wonderful but rather acerbic sister-in-law (Jeanne’s sister), Janet, who worked in Sacramento at the DMV. If anyone could check the registration records for the original owners of vehicles with California license plates going back to 1927, it would be her.

And two, sometime early Monday morning, probably at three o’clock, Louise Brooks returned and left a note in my letterbox—along with a small gift. How I wish I had known she was coming again, to be able to see her one more time. The thing was, I had no reason to believe she’d return. We had completed our business, and I figured the portal between the present and 1927 had closed.

I spent part of Sunday afternoon getting the chapters ready to send off to Alan. Later, Molly actually dropped by and we worked to about eight that evening before we both conked out. I hadn’t forgotten that Sunday night was the night I was supposed to be out with Alan—my excuse to avoid dinner at Jay’s with cousin Connie. Because I was genuinely tired, I decided I would turn out the lights and go to bed early. I ended up falling asleep around 9:30 and not waking up until after eight the next morning. Long after Louise’s early morning visit.

After my usual morning prep, I retrieved the newspaper off the front porch and found myself in the kitchen, starving. After putting the coffee on, I started with a three-egg ham omelet, diced potatoes, and two slices of wheat toast. I made a small smoothie for a jumpstart while things cooked and perked and finally set it all down on the round table, scooted into the booth and while I ate, I read the paper. Nothing about a mysterious car cruising Beverly Hills. No law suits against photographers. No Louise Brooks’ movies playing.

I grabbed a second cup of coffee, wandered over to the dining room and picked up my cell phone. Deep breath.  I tapped Janet’s work number off the speed dial and prepared for her onslaught. After a friendly exchange of ‘how are you’s,’ I presented my request. Listen in: “You can’t be serious?” “Are you crazy?” “How in the world do you expect…?” There was more. But finally she said she would get back to me one way or the other “…if she could locate the skeleton keys that opened the rusted gates down to the dungeons where those archives might be!” My “Thank you” was cut off by her hanging up. You had to love her. The thing was, that’s just the way she was. Her sarcasm was her personality. I remember when Jeanne was alive; we often drove up to Sacramento to spend long weekends with Janet and her husband, Chuck. It didn’t matter whether we visited local sites like the apple harvests, Old Town, the Train Museum or we’d jump up to Tahoe or Reno for something more exciting, Janet always had an opinion: the traffic, the tourists, little kids, the food—even the slot machines at Reno were not exempt. I still can hear her dryly addressing a tightfisted, chromed one-armed bandit when it finally dropped a few coins with the likes of, “Can you spare it?” or after a particularly long dry spell, “Should I just write you a check, or can I pay you in installments?” I honestly believe she could have been a successful stand-up comedienne. Anyway, point being, that Janet really was a sweetheart of a lady once you realized that her bark was far worse than her bite.

I knew that if those records still existed, my lovable, caustic sister-in-law would find them. Forty minutes later, my cell rang. “The car was a 1927 Duesenberg, originally registered to a Mary Louise Brooks of Beverly Hills, California. Okay, kiddo, you going to tell me what the hell this is all about? Who’s Mary Louise Brooks?”

“I owe you one, Jan! All details later. Love you!” And I hung up. The car actually belonged to Louise. Fantastic.

I looked at my watch. Ten after eleven. I decided to wander out to check the mail. It was a magnificent Indian summer day. The sky was crystal blue, a color not often seen over the L.A. area. The temperature was already pushing seventy and that soft breeze from the Pacific danced through the taller palms across the street. Things were in their place.  Again. No Jay this morning, but that was normal. On Mondays, he would be gone by now, making his rounds at his dealerships, checking sales, talking with his managers and whatever else he did. I glanced up and down N. Bedford. No Duesenbergs. I removed my stack of mail from the letterbox when I heard her front door open.

“Mike! Oooh, Mike!  Oh there you are!”

It was Lorraine.

“You been hidin’, Mike?” she drawled. She had a clear shot of me over the short hedge that separated our yards.

“Hey! Lorraine! No…of course not.” I smiled broadly. “How are you this fine October morning?” Lorraine stood on her front porch, wearing a bright pink peasant blouse, doing things to the material that would have made Jayne Mansfield envious.

I waved a polite goodbye, looked down at my mail and started walking back toward my house, wishing my hedge were taller.

“Mike, you sure-er were missed las’ night!” Here it comes. She continued, “I so want ya to meet my Connie!  She’s spent tha’ night and is still here-uh. She’s in the showah now. Any chance, you can come, stop by a lit’l later? I’d just so want you two to meet!” Lorraine is the only person I know that can divide the words ‘sure’ and ‘here’ into two syllables.

Come on, Mike. You’re a writer. Use your imagination! Think!  You did it the other day!

“Aaaaah… I don’t know, Lorraine. I’m awfully busy right…”

Way to go, Mike. You’re a frickin’ Clive Cussler, Stephen King and Dean Koontz all rolled into one.

“Oh jest for a few minutes of your time, Mike. Howabout we say one o’clock?”

“Yeah, sure, Lorraine. One o’clock.”

Good job, Mike. Pulitzer prize for Oratory Response.

Lorraine giggled and jiggled. “Bye bye, Mike. Seeya in awhile!”

I waved. Guess it’s best to just get it done, get it out of the way.

As I walked back toward the house, I filed through the mail doing my usual “Junk, junk bill,” when there at the bottom of the stack was an envelope I immediately recognized. On the front, in the same handwriting on the same stationery as Louise had used for her original communiqué to Eddie, was neatly scribed:

Mr. Michael Lundy

Once inside, I tossed the junk mail on the dining room table, located my Fuller Brush letter opener, and neatly and quickly ripped the top of the envelope. A lilac smell sweetened the air. I removed the note and read:


October 10th

Mike—

I guess I don’t need to tell you how your letter struck me upon my first reading! I thought Eddie was playing some sort of joke on me. But, knowing Eddie, he could never have written a message like that. Your sincerity, Mike, along with your comments about the future—will there really be a Louise Brooks Society?—convinced me that something strange was going on. And I do realize that from wherever—or whenever you are—you did not have to return the negatives. That you did, I am forever grateful—and indebted to you.

This morning, I came by and delivered something to Eddie. He had bought it for me as a wedding gift. My George—jealous to a fault—was adamant that I return it. Which brings me to the enclosed. Mike, I never put that key in the envelope with the negatives. But I’m glad you did! It made things much easier.


I’m sure you will figure out where it goes. And what you find within, if it’s still there, is yours—small compensation for what you have done for me.

I wish we could have met, Mike…

Louise—


My eyes went from the letter to the key that rested on the table. It definitely was the key I had found in the envelope with the film sheets. But what did she mean, she had never placed the key in the hidden envelope? How could that be? And why would she say “glad you did”?

I’m sure you will figure out where it goes.

But there is nothing in the house that this key…

Oh my God!

I picked up the key. It goes to the padlock on the garage!

I pushed back my chair, stood up and quickly marched through the kitchen, through the small utility room and out the side door that led to the driveway. Turning left, I half-jogged toward the garage. At the end of the two concrete driveway strips, well into the backyard, stood two large wooden doors—the front of the garage. Its paint long chipped off, hinges rusted, each door sagged in pain. A set of window panels filled the upper third of each door, but they were so filthy from the years, it was impossible to see anything inside the garage. A mossy grass, thick with its own weeds, plastered the roof. Around the garage, about three or four feet high, a dense hedge of blackberry bushes, ivy and weeds held the frail sides together. A few of the blackberry vines had found their way up the sides and to the roofline, the ivy intertwining and weaving its way through—adding any needed support to the structure.

Fortunately, because of the concrete strips leading right up to the front of the garage, the heavier growth was limited to the other three sides. Mounted on each of the wide doors, about five feet up, were the rusted metal plates that allowed for a padlock to insert its arm through a steel loop where once through and then locked, would secure the doors together until someone either came along to open the lock—or the whole garage collapsed. By the looks of things, if I didn’t hurry, the latter might happen first.  And whatever I find will be destroyed.

And what you find within, if it’s still there, is yours—

How could she have hidden anything in this overgrown mausoleum?  Unopened for over four generations?  Again, I was forced to believe the inconceivable: when she was here this morning, it was 1927.  Here stood a new garage with a new padlock—and she had the key.

For me, though, the old padlock hung like a pendant on the rusting metal latches. I leaned over the thick hedge of wild growth between the concrete, shoved the key into the rusty lock, and it slid right in. I quickly pulled it out. I wasn’t going to chance breaking the key by attempting to open the lock—and possibly breaking any spell that may accompany it. I needed to find some 3-in-1 oil, WD-40 or something to free the tumblers within. And to get those big doors once again to swing open, I would have to chop away the dense, wild hedge in front, including the thick vines that escaped and slithered their way across the doors and up to the roof like great thorned snakes. I foresaw battle here. I returned to the house to prepare.

I found a pair of old Levis hanging from a hook in my closet. My unwashed UCLA sweatshirt was curled up on the bedroom floor. There were work boots on the rear porch and a brand-new pair of leather gloves in the cupboard above the washer and dryer. I located some WD-40 underneath the sink in the kitchen. I tracked down a small hatchet, an old pair of hedge clippers, and a rake in the utility room next to the kitchen. I was ready: Paul Bunyan, Private Investigator. 

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