Monday, November 30, 2009

This is nifty

For sale on eBay, a large original one sheet post of Fay Lanphier made to promote the 1926 film, The American Venus. That film, of course, was the first in which Louise Brooks had a creditted role. Kinda cool, don't you think?


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

This is cool

For sale on eBay, a rather large, 6 panel art print of Louise Brooks. Kinda cool, don't you think?


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 10

Here is the tenth and final installment of "The Vanity," a short story by Robert Murillo. Thank you for reading.

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What could possibly be in the garage? What would Eddie have given Louise for a wedding present that George wouldn’t want her to keep? Could it actually be the car? That seemed a little exorbitant. And what type of condition would it be in today? Was it a fur coat? I could imagine its condition! A diamond engagement ring? Other jewelry? Possibly. Just what thing of value could still be sitting there after all these years? Something not taken by Eddie when he sold the house. Something never investigated by the Stephens family, something never checked out by the real estate agent. What could it be—if it’s still there—that Louise would want me to have?

For the next thirty minutes, I hacked and hewed and attacked that unyielding hedge from hell in front of the garage. Vines and ivy fell. Weeds toppled. Still, they fought back. I took a couple of thorns in the forearm through the sweatshirt, was doused by dust clouds that caused vicious and prolonged sneezing attacks, and possibly suffered a pulled muscle in my lower back due to some exuberant swings with the hatchet. Finally, I had the advantage: I had taken the enemy down to ground level and raked my opponent into a neat pile. I stood there triumphant and beaming, leaning on the rake, sweat pouring tap-like down my face, my UCLA sweatshirt drenched.

“Veni! Vidi! Vici!”

While I had battled Mother Nature’s merciless garden, the lock had enjoyed several generous dousings of WD-40. I cradled the padlock in my left hand and, with my right, I took the key from my jeans’ watch pocket and inserted it. I cautiously turned the key to feel for some internal give. I wiggled it and put a little pressure on the tumblers. A little more. A little more. Suddenly, there was a click and I could almost hear the lock yell out “Hallelujah!” The arm popped out the base and I pulled the padlock off  and flipped open the metal latch plate that held the doors together. I stuck the lock and key in the pouch of my sweatshirt and pulled open first one door and then the other. I wiped the persistent sweat from my forehead and shaded my eyes. Though the sun had passed overhead, there was ample light to see clearly into the garage.

An Egyptologist discovering a pharaoh king’s tomb could not have been more awed. I gazed upon Louise Brooks’ pristine Duesenberg. Not over eighty years old. Not decomposing or rusting out. Not a home for rats and insects. But in perfect, showroom condition, exactly as I had seen it Sunday morning in front of my house. Could it be? I looked at the license plate number on the car:

255-323

Of course! Louise had figured it out! Anything sent now—during this time connection—would retain its age in the future—and vice versa. Otherwise how else was I able to receive her letters in the condition I did—and she, mine? The car then, delivered to the garage in her time, would also be preserved as if it were just parked there Sunday morning. After all, it had been! 

“Wow! That’s a  ‘27 Duesenberg,” came a female voice.

Still stunned with my discovery, I continued to stare into the garage before realizing that someone was behind me.  I turned to see who was there—and was about to say, “That’s right, but how did you…?”—when I locked eyes with an athletic, lithe and lovely woman, not too tall, with large green eyes and a silly smirk that can only be described as adorable.

She stood there, holding two tall glasses of what looked like lemonade. She wore a maroon sweatshirt with white letters that spelled TEXAS A&M across the front, white capris that went—and fit—well with the white sandals that finished off the ensemble. Her dark hair, loose and falling, was damp. For a few awkward seconds, our eyes would not let go till finally we broke the silence with an embarrassed laugh.

“I was watching you from the window next door. I told Lorraine that you were attacking the garage. She said, and I quote, ‘Darlin’, he’s nevah done that before. He mus’ be sufferin’ sunstroke. Now you go out there and take ‘im a glass of lemonade, right now!’  So here I am.” Her green eyes sparkled. She took a step toward him. “I’m the infamous Connie. And you are Mike Lundy?”

I awkwardly nodded.

She handed me a glass of lemonade, we clinked glasses but didn’t drink. I still hadn’t said a word; we continued to stare at each other.

Connie?” The word popped from my mouth like a hiccup. I stood there like the Scarecrow in search of his brain. “But…I thought…Jay said…” And promptly and properly stuck my foot into my mouth.

“I can imagine what Jay said!” she laughed, her teeth gleaming as white as the letters on the sweatshirt. “He’s got a good heart but he’s not a good listener. I teach Comparative Languages at A&M. Mostly French and Middle-Eastern dialects. I’m up here teaching classes in Farsi at USC.”

“So…you’re not some lonely-heart schoolmarm from the dusty plains of Texas?”

“Not exactly. But would it matter?” Putting me correctly in my place. She winked a forgiveness. I smiled.

“So how did a totally restored Duesenberg get into a garage that looks like it hasn’t been opened since FDR ran for class president?”

“Well, the thing…” I said, attempting to regain some of my cool. Was I really shuffling my feet? “…the thing is, the garage hasn’t been opened since 1927. So the car is actually original.”

“Well, well, I find that a little hard to believe,” she said, her twang nothing like the syrupy Lorraine’s. Just damn appealing. “Can’t be more three or four left in the world.” She stood there watching me perspire, smiling—those eyes could have melted steel—and then with a quick nod toward the Duesenberg, she said, “So tell me, Mike, why’d you pick today to exhume the body?”

“You really want to hear the story?” I looked back and stared long at Louise Brooks’ gleaming wedding present before turning back to Connie. “You’re not going to believe it.”

Connie looked down at her lemonade. “Well, try me—that is if you’ve got something better than lemonade.”

THE END

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. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 8

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

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A key?

There was nothing else in the envelope. No note explaining what the key might open, no small label taped to the key head giving a hint to what door, what lock, what keyhole it might fit. Short and flat, it wasn’t the type of key that I would use for my front door lock but more like a key for a drawer, a trunk, or a locker. I knew there were no locks in any of the drawers or cupboards in the main part of the house. And now that I had made the full tour of the basement and the attic, I could say with certainty there were no locks that required keys in the whole house. All the trunks and suitcases I saw were already open.

With no mention of the key in her note, I wondered if she knew it were there? But that wouldn’t make sense. Of course she would. In her time, it would not have been that long ago since she actually taped the envelope to the bottom of the vanity drawer. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why she would hide a key in the envelope.

I tossed it back, returned the film sheets, and before sliding the news clipping safely back into the envelope I made a copy.

I checked the time. 12:37. I sat for a few minutes deciding whether to write a message to her explaining what was happening. I felt compelled to share with her that these past three nights when she had driven by the house that it was not 1927, that Eddie Sutherland no longer lived there, that she had leapt into the future some eighty-plus years. But what kind of a note would convince her of that? Particularly if she wasn’t seeing me in the window, that she actually saw Eddie standing there.  She’d probably think the note was written by Eddie, that it was some feeble attempt at a ridiculous joke and wonder where in hell her husband had come up with the name Mike Lundy.

I sat there. Waiting to wake up from this Rod Serling-ian dream. I smiled at the thought of sharing this with Jay. Or Alan. Can you imagine if I were to say to Jay, “You know that car I mentioned to you the other day? Yeah, well there was this silent movie star in the backseat that used to live here back in the 1920’s. She left a note in the mailbox telling me she wanted some negatives she’d left taped in her vanity. Yeah. Pretty cool, huh?” Or saying to Alan, my agent, “Sorry about the delay on my book. I spent the weekend searching my basement and attic for negatives of Louise Brooks in the buff (No, I wasn’t in the buff!  She was!).  Yeah, the silent film star. She dropped by the house in her chic limo at three a.m. to pick them up.”

Oh yeah!

I was definitely into this solo. Dream or not, I believed the woman in the motorcar was Louise Brooks, a starlet of the 1920’s. I believed that she had confused me with her husband, a successful Hollywood film director, and I believed she had left him a letter that somehow ended up in my mailbox…in my time. I had also fended off foul spiders and other creepy crawlers in my search for an envelope taped to a drawer of a vanity that I didn’t know existed in my own house. I also believed that if I wrote a note to her and placed it in the envelope, it would travel back to 1927. I also believed I was a little nuts.

I found some stationery. Although it had been years since I had written a letter or even a note in script, I was not going to use the computer to write this message. No Word document, no Spellchecker, no Comic Sans font. And so, with that despondent and beautiful face before me, I handwrote the following:

Dear Miss Brooks,

You do not know me, but I am the man you have seen the past three nights standing in the window when you have driven by. I believe you may have thought I was your husband, Eddie, but I am not. Also, and I know you will not believe this, but I live in Eddie’s house some 80 years after the date on the letter you left here last night. I am writing to you from the 21st century.

I have no idea how this has happened—or why. But I have done some research and know for a fact that you and Eddie lived here in 1926 and that you left him in 1927 to be with a gentleman named George Marshall. I have also compared your letter with a sample of your handwriting provided by a society bearing your name, proving to me that your letter was authentic. And you will be pleased to know that even with all the time that has passed, your vanity still exists and was still hiding the envelope you sought.

Forgive me for opening the envelope. I can only say that in my world where nudity is more prolific and generally more acceptable, your timeless beauty would still set you apart from the models and celebrities of my time.

I do know your future and I will only say this: for all that you will endure, you will be admired for your spirit, your independence, even your ‘sassy’ ways. And always for your beauty and acting ability. Stay focused, never change and enjoy a long life.
Sincerely,

A fan from the future, Michael Lundy

By the way, I found a key in the envelope. You’ll find it there with the film sheets and the news clipping. 

Mike.


It took me most of an hour to compose the letter. I looked at my watch. It was one forty-eight. If there were any logic in this craziness, she would be here at the same time of her previous visits: three a.m. Seventy-two minutes. I slid my note without folding it into the envelope where it joined the treasures of another time and then closed off the envelope by inserting the flap inside. I leaned it against the vanity drawer and stared at the penciled lettering on the front again:

Louise Brooks

My mind wandered. I imagined meeting her. I thought about going out to the car when she arrived. Introducing myself, trying to explain to her who I was—that I was from the future and that I was the one who had found the vanity and her envelope. But I knew that would be wrong. Not so much that she would think I was a raving maniac, but because I knew somehow that it wasn’t part of the plan. Call it a feeling, but I knew I must follow the letter’s instructions, not alter what was unfolding before me. I was the pawn in this affair—to follow orders, perform my duty, make the sacrifice, and deliver the goods even if those instructions came from a young, egocentric, tough, unfaithful, beauty from 1927. It was obvious that Louise Brooks had no idea she was visiting the twilight zone. My theory? For her, this was no more than a clandestine business concern. She had written a letter to husband Eddie requesting he return the negatives she was fearful might prove scandalous. To recover them, she felt she had to sneak out in the middle of the night so her new lover, George, would not know. Meanwhile, it was my job to stay on my side, and she on hers—like players in a tennis match. Once I had placed the envelope in the mailbox, I would return to the living room—on my side of the net—and wait and watch for her return.

I got up, envelope in hand, and walked to the front door.  I opened it and was greeted by a warm, Southern California night. Was that lilac in the air? I would like to have thought it was, but, in fact, it was the sweet jasmine from Jay’s yard. The neighborhood was quiet—the only sounds were my steps on the pathway stones that led toward the street and my old mailbox. A cricket let me know I was not alone. My mailbox was next to Jay’s, both boxes mounted onto a stone pedestal that was mostly covered with ivy. They were really letterboxes, unlike the typical horizontal cave-like boxes prevalent today. They were made of something other than tin—maybe pewter? I was sure they had been there since the houses were built. Mine had ornamental vertical lines running top to bottom. In the center there was the same star motif as on the cherry-wood furniture. I felt sure that somehow that weathered box was a part of the connection between 1927 and the present. Then again, wasn’t the house? I opened the lid at the top—made of the same sturdy blue-gray metal—and dropped the envelope inside. It disappeared.

I immediately felt a change. The temperature? A slight breeze? Lilac? My unscientific guess was that I had just set off the sequence of events making the hand-off through time possible. And, I swear to you, I could feel it. I stared down N. Bedford. I knew—I knew—for sure she was coming.

And she would be here in less than an hour. 

Saturday, November 21, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 7

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

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I looked at my watch. It was 10:13. To my right, there remained one more piece of furniture to uncover. Chances were it was a headboard, bed stand, or even a vanity that matched the mirror and tallboy. All Stephens’ furniture. I pointed the flashlight and through the tears in the sheets I saw something made of wood. Cherry-wood. But from the shape, there was no way to determine what exactly lay underneath. To my right, at my feet, there was an old five-gallon bucket with an inch or two of paint that had long ago hardened into a solid mass. I flipped the bucket over and sat down, staring at the old threadbare cloth before me.  I know, I know. You would have already yanked it back to see what was there. But why? If this were the Stephens’ furniture, then this was an exercise in futility and frustration. Whatever was there—it no longer mattered.

And what I had seen along the wall returning back toward the attic entrance was mostly cardboard boxes, parts of an old stove, maybe some smaller appliances (kitchen items), some tall lamps, a fish tank, a couple of large suitcases, and a trunk with clothes hanging out. Nothing large, nothing covered. Certainly no furniture.

I stared at the scene before me. What if there was a vanity beneath the sheet? What if, by some miracle, it actually was Louise Brooks’ vanity? And, what if the negatives were still there, taped to the bottom of that right-hand drawer? What exactly was I supposed to do? What exactly was I involved in here? I mean, was I messing with some time warp here—or was I the warped one? Could I end up back in time by finding these photos and attempting to return them to Louise Brooks in 1927? Or was I the biggest butt of someone’s brazen joke?

I stood up, grabbed the corner of that old sheet and pulled it back in one violent sweeping motion reminiscent of the matador’s cape as the bull charges by. But my ‘cape’ ripped, dust flew everywhere and the flashlight slipped from my hand, falling hard on the floor.  It broke apart, pieces scattering.  Darkness.

I reluctantly crawled around, found most of the pieces and sat on the bucket,  in the near pitch black, attempting to reassemble the flashlight. And then I heard something. Or thought I did. I was not good with insects and darkness and close quarters. Claustrophobia? Arachnophobia? Trust me, knowing what it’s called doesn’t help. And knowing I couldn’t get the damn flashlight to work, I suddenly felt the anxiety of panic. I needed to leave.  Now.

I turned around and saw the dim light near the attic opening in the far end of the attic floor, a beacon to freedom.  I moved quickly toward it, stumbling about, ironically, like a Keystone Cop, tripping over the broom, eventually scrambling down the attic steps and into the safety of the well-lit second-floor hallway—clutching the flashlight as if it were a life preserver. After catching my breath. I looked around, collecting my sanity—and felt like a horse’s ass.

As I continued downstairs and on to the kitchen, I may have flipped on an extra light…or two. I placed the flashlight on the small round table and grabbed a beer. I took a long drink and assessed the damage to the flashlight. Not serious. A battery was missing—a most willing sacrifice to the spiders for allowing my safe return to where there was light. I found my supply of batteries in my “junk drawer,” replaced the missing one, flipped the on switch. Let there be light! I was back in business.

There was one more thing I needed to do before I went back upstairs. I walked to the dining room and turned on the computer.  I checked my email for any messages from the Louise Brooks Society. And damned if there wasn’t a reply from a Mr. Thomas Gladysz, the director and founder of the Louise Brooks Society. His brief note stated that he had attached what he believed was a sample of Miss Brooks’ handwriting. I grabbed my letter addressed to Eddie and held it up against the attachment on the screen. Here’s part of the letter to Eddie:

I will attempt to make this brief.  I know that I  have not been the “good wife,” but I will not apologize for what I am.

And here’s part of the handwriting sample that the Louise Brooks Society provided—an amazing note written by Louise Brooks regarding Bud Schulberg’s contract with Clara Bow! The date on the note was 10/4/25.

Schulberg made a fortune out of the contract he signed with Clara Dec. 1923 at $50 a week. (She worked in 13 pictures in 1925)—

The letter to Eddie was written slightly more than two years after the Clara Bow note above. And in ink. The Bow missive was slightly more slanted, and written in pencil, but there was little doubt that it was a match.

Okay. I accepted the letter as real. And let’s assume Miss Brooks left the letter in my mailbox. Why would she think I could get the negatives for her? And why would she think they were still here? Then again, if she were back in October of 1927, she would naturally assume the furniture she and Eddie had was still here—as would be the negatives. And am I making any sense?

I sat there in the dining room, took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Why did I have this feeling I was missing something? Or had forgotten something? It was like that brain fog we get when we find ourselves in a room wondering why we had gone there. I decided to let it go; if important, it would come to me if I didn’t think about it.

While I had the computer on, I thought I would google DeCaccia Brothers—the furniture makers. I found some pictures of the most amazing Art Deco furniture I had ever seen—much more art than anything functional. And then I read “…due to the high manufacturing expenses involved in the creation of Mood and Image furniture, DeCaccia Brothers stopped production during the early years of the Depression. 1933 saw the end of the line of Mood and Image.“

I paused. But not for long: The damn furniture upstairs in the attic wasn’t the Stephens’ furniture!  It was the Sutherlands’!

Eddie must have sold the furniture with the house. It also explained my brain fog—my mind trying to tell me how the DeCaccia Brothers furniture could be paper-lined in 1938 and still be the Sutherlands’. The Stephens probably re-lined the whole furniture set while they awaited delivery of their own furniture from New York or some local furniture outlet.

I finished the beer—grabbed the flashlight—flicked up my hood and headed back to the attic, skipping stairs, dodging spiders and arriving at the far end of the attic draped in cobwebs. I stared at the last of the unveiled furniture: two cherry-wood bed stands. And a matching vanity.

It was now 11:45. I had taken a long hot shower and put on some clean Levis, an old Hawaiian shirt and some flip-flops. I sat at the dining room table—my office. I had pushed aside manuscripts, research notes and my keyboard. In front of me was the right drawer from the vanity. A remarkable cherry-wood front with a detailed brushed-pewter circular pull of concentric rings seemingly receding into infinity. In the center of the rings was a small five-pointed star. Within the drawer, not coincidentally underneath the regular lining, was a carefully scissored newspaper lining from the same Los Angeles Herald I had discovered in the tallboy. Mrs. Stephens, for whatever length of time she used the re-lined vanity, never realized the envelope was as close as the thickness of the bottom of the drawer. Astonishing.

Equally as fascinating—or mind boggling—was the idea that if I gave the envelope to Louise Brooks, or whoever was in that car tonight, and it was 1927 in her world, would the envelope be in the drawer in 1938 when Mrs. Stephens was using the vanity?

Brain squeeze.

I had already carefully pulled off the tape, though in doing so I tore some of the surface of the envelope. I wiped most of the grime away with a dry cloth. Long parallel scratches stretched across the bottom of the envelope where the constant opening and closing of the drawer had worn away the surface of the paper. The envelope was the same coloring of the large manila envelopes still used today. And similar in size to ones I occasionally use to ‘snail mail’ my manuscripts to Alan. In spite of its four score years, it was in surprisingly good shape and the writing on the front was clearly readable. Written across the front of the envelope in faded pencil was:

                                                                                 Louise Brooks

In the upper left-hand corner, partly unreadable because of the tape damage, was a professionally printed return address:

De Mirjian Stu
Photogr
1546 Broadw
New Yor


Unbelievable. I sat there no longer doubting that I was holding an envelope that belonged to Louise Brooks. An envelope that for eighty years had somehow survived, shielded from the elements and possibly protecting these personal images of her. If it were a hoax, well, all I could say was, “Good job!”  For now I was a believer. Somehow, I was involved with a beautiful starlet from 1927 who not only thought I was her husband Eddie Sutherland but wanted me to fork over the envelope.

Still, I couldn’t keep the demons of logic out. Even if I were a character in this clandestine time-drama, it still remained an affair between Eddie and Louise—eighty years ago. Not only that, I could be messing with time. I admit my sources were not Einstein backed, but didn’t we all learn while watching Star Trek and Back to the Future the irrefutable fact that altering the past can have catastrophic effects on the future?

I looked long at the envelope. I thought about that wondrous face peering out of the rear window of that classic car, appealing for help and…

Goddammit—I’ll do it.
Whether she saw Eddie Sutherland or she saw me when she drove by, I was the one who saw her and I was the one with the envelope in my hands.

I turned the envelope over. The flap was open. Should I just tape it down and not look inside?  The fact that the envelope would be open probably never occurred to Miss Brooks—why would it?  On the other hand, if she thought I was Eddie Sutherland, then she knew I had already seen the negatives. Therefore, her intent was not preventing Eddie from seeing them but from his using them against her. Why else? Still, did this give me the right to take a peek? What do you think? I think I needed another Corona.

Back at the dining room table and with half the beer consumed, I had made my decision. As long as Louise gets the envelope with everything in it, then it’s not going to hurt anyone if I take a look. And to be perfectly honest, how could I not look? I was in the midst of some kind of rare and remarkable juxtaposition of time. I didn’t want to regret not doing anything. And never did she say in her letter NOT to look inside the envelope. Lundy logic prevailed. I went in.

For the second time that day, I was about to enter—via an envelope—a different time…a different world. I had no idea if I was about to discover poisonous spiders that were about to defend their adopted home or if I were about to unleash a bright flash of light hurling me through space and into a different dimension.

I took a deep breath, parted the opening and slowly reached in, carefully pulling out…a newspaper clipping! It was folded in half. I laid it on the table and opened it; surprisingly, as fragile and brittle as it was, it was in good readable condition. At the top half of the article was a headline and, just below, a photograph of a young woman I recognized immediately: my mystery lady—the beauty in the backseat—Louise Brooks.

There was no way of telling what newspaper the article was from. My guess was it was the New York Times. The story’s lead line was “New York, Dec. 26.”  The year was definitely 1925 as it preceded her marriage to Eddie, yet she was already an established Ziegfeld showgirl. For someone born in 1906, it was astonishing her accomplishments: her success as a dancer and showgirl, a featured member of the Ziegfeld Follies, a budding starlet and now suing the fairly powerful and influential photographer, John De Mirjian. All this by nineteen years of age!

The article, I believe, was poorly written and even smacked of sexism. Although she admitted to have done what was expected of all showgirls at the time, she still believed she was justified in filing an injunction suit to prevent camera man Mr. De Mirjian from ever supplying press agents, periodicals, and the public generally with any showgirl’s pictures—particularly hers.  A most courageous and inspiring undertaking.

That article appears on the following page.




She obviously won her case. I could not find when this happened, but I would assume because of the late date in 1925 when she filed the injunction, she most likely received the negatives in 1926. The same year she married Eddie. I reached again for the envelope. Were those famous negatives still there? And, if so, had they been destroyed by cruel and patient time—leaving nothing more than a crumbling pile of black dust? Or…?

My guess was that her intent was to destroy the negatives before Eddie might do something stupid with them. Particularly if his ego were damaged by her affair with new boyfriend George. With her meteoric success in the movies since 1925, she must have been concerned that if any of these photos appeared now, it might be detrimental to her continued success and her chances for real stardom. I had to think she regretted not destroying them when she first got them. Possibly, with the battle won and the negatives in hand, she never thought to. But now, separated from a cuckolded Eddie and without having access to them, she wanted them in hand once again. Maybe she felt Eddie might possibly sell them off to the highest bidder or worse—blackmail her. Whatever the case, my guess was she hoped that Eddie would be the gentleman she had known—although more recently a boring workaholic—and place the envelope in the mailbox.*

But had the images disintegrated—or whatever film does—over time? I do know that a dry and clean environment will protect negatives for a long time and being placed in an envelope and stored in the attic may have unintentionally but fortunately been best for their preservation. I hoped they were intact.  Because it was very important to her—and, to be honest, because I would love the opportunity to see them.  Nude pictures of Louise Brooks? Even in negative, I was sure they would be a pleasure to behold. And don’t think I don’t know what you’re thinking—and I’m not feeling guilty about it at all.

I slid the negatives—or sheet film—out of the envelope. No black dust. There were three of them. They appeared unblemished, perfect. These so-called sheet films were larger—maybe four by five inches—and slightly thicker than the negatives with which I was familiar. Each sat inside a paper pocket that covered the bottom third of the image. I’m sure they were used to protect the negatives from rubbing against each other—and probably a safe way to hold them up to the light without inflicting them with any oily fingerprints. Each pocket bared the name and logo of Mr. John De Mirjian, photographer.

Suddenly, the phone rang. Who in the hell…?

“Hello?”

“This will be your neighbor, Jay.” He was doing his Damon Runyon. “I am sorry to disturb you at such a late hour, but as I am taking a leak, I am looking out my bathroom window, and it is while finishing my call to nature, I am able to see lights flashing in your attic. As you have reminded me over the years that the attic is not a place which you are likely to frequent, my curiosity and concern as to whom is there, indeed got the better of me; hence I am phoning—you got ghosts, buddy?”

I let out a sigh of relief. “Jay, yeah. No. No ghosts. Things are fine. I was working on my book, and I thought I heard somebody upstairs. I took a break and grabbed the flashlight and did some exploring. That’s all. Everything’s cool. Probably some ghosts moving around. Appreciate the call, though. And, by the way, you do a lousy Nathan Detroit.”

Jay snorted and laughed. And was gone.

The room, quiet again, took on an almost queer, odd feel. The soft hum of my old electric Telechron was the only noise in the room. Both hands on the clock pointed straight up—midnight.  Sunday morning.

I laid out the negatives in front of me, randomly picking up the one on the right. I lifted it up to the overhead light. The image, reversed in its blacks and whites, showed Miss Brooks facing the camera in a three-quarter view, her arms extended out above her head in what appeared a ballet pose—she looked like a dark, enchanting nymph—her normally ebony hair, a brilliant white. She wore only high-heel shoes.

The second negative was a side view of her, facing to her right, again blacks and whites reversed. That famous ‘helmet’ of hair with the bob in the back and those bangs and spit curls gleaming white. Artistically posed, she held a large fan discreetly and strategically placed with her left hand, a drape hung over an extended right arm and she wore a necklace. Nothing more. This one, I will share.





The last negative of Louise Brooks was indeed the most revealing: a tribute to all that is woman. Facing the camera, totally nude, she appears to be emerging from a gossamer womb. My guess is Mr. De Mirjian was thinking Aphrodite, the goddess of Love and Beauty, who had just sprung from the foam of the sea. Without doubt, even in negative, a most artistic and remarkable image. Looking down slightly to her left, her arms delicately extended, allowing the gossamer to drape behind, she was undeniably the essence of female splendor.

I sat there for a few minutes, revisiting each negative, thinking I would never see them again once delivered to their rightful owner. I finally picked up the envelope with the intent of returning the negatives to where they had secretly lain for all those years. Except as I did, I noticed there was one more item in the envelope. I turned the envelope upside down and out fell… a key.

_________________________________

*  Interesting sideline: recently, I read an article in the L. A. Times, headline: “Celebrity Rocked by Nude Photo Scandal!” Nicole Ritchie lost her digital camera at a nightclub, and it seems the camera’s memory card had X-rated photographs of her and her celebrity friends. She had demanded the employees of the famous nightspot to turn on the lights and get everyone to search for the camera. Miss Ritchie was in a corner going totally nuts, fearful the photos would turn up on the Web. What’s that old saying? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

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.
Louise—


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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 5

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

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October 8th was today’s date.

I stared at the letter for a long time. Definitely not an invitation to a Merrill Lynch seminar on rollovers!  Still, this had to be an elaborate hoax. A good one, I admit, but still a hoax. I am a sane, fairly bright individual and this letter in my hand was not over eighty years old! A quick aside—and confession. As a writer—and a person—I have sometimes been reluctant to depend or rely upon logic or reality. I—we all?—want to believe in magic and fantasy—think that there really is a Santa Claus or a Mickey Mouse; that Star Trek transporters and H. G. Wells time travel machines really do exist. But the bittersweet truth is that I know they don’t. The magic is in the wanting, the pretending—in the imagination. Like when we walk up Main Street in Disneyland, watch the movie Back to the Future, or read Jack Finney’s Time and Again. And as much as I would love to believe this letter was really written in 1927—and by that lovely young lady who stopped by my house (was it just this morning?)—I was not buying it.

But, if it were a hoax, then why? And who would do it? This was far too elaborate for my neighbor Jay to pull off—and for what reason? Still, the truth is, he does have access to classic cars—and he was standing near my mailbox this morning. Maybe that was Cousin Connie in the back seat of that car!  But Connie’s not twenty—and this so-called Louise in the car was young enough to be my daughter. And why would Jay—or Lorraine—concoct this strange letter? Cross off Jay. And the same goes for Alan; it’s just not his style to mess around with something like this. Again, no reason, no motive, and besides he’s in New York. Not Alan.

Obviously, someone has too much time on their hands—but who? Yet I saw two people in that car. And there was this letter. Jay’s words came back to me: “There are ghosts still hiding in the walls and in the attics—and apparently, in the streets now…”

I made the decision to take all this to another level. I googled ‘A. Edward Sutherland’ to check for any information regarding his personal life during the twenties—particularly if he had been married in 1927. And he had been. To a Louise Brooks. L.B. Bingo! They had been married between 1926 and 1928. And what a celebrity she was! Point of fact, she had been much more famous than her successful husband. I found literally hundreds of articles about her, most in agreement stating she was one of the most recognized actresses of the silent movie era—and also one of the most beautiful. All were in accord that she was one of the most independent, liberated and sensual women of her time. Here are a few photos I found.




I jotted down these quotes from some of the contemporary journalists and movie critics from her time

“One of the most mysterious and potent figures in the history of the cinema…”

“…the only woman who had the ability to transfigure no matter what film into a masterpiece…”

“Louise is the perfect apparition, the dream woman, the being without whom the cinema would be a poor thing.”

“Those who have seen her can never forget her.”


Need I say that this “mysterious…figure…” this “perfect apparition” was the woman who stared at me through that backseat window this morning? Something is happening here!  I headed for the kitchen and another Corona.



I still refused to believe the letter was written by Louise Brooks in 1927. Nor did I believe that was she in the car. But I did decide to continue to search for the truth. I couldn’t find any examples of her actual handwriting on Google, but, believe it or not, I found a Louise Brooks Society. I sent them a note via their email address requesting a sample of her handwriting. Meanwhile, I thought I would check on the stationery. I was beginning to feel like one of those private eyes of the 1940’s. (Never could hear that term “private dick” without wincing. Right now, I’m sticking with Mike Lundy, Private Investigator.) And I was out to prove my client (me) was having his leg pulled. And to find out the reason why.

The stationery was obviously top-end. It had texture and a thickness only found in expensive paper. My knowledge of paper was limited, although Jeanne once took a class in papermaking and would come home with samples she had made from cotton-rag. I do recall her telling me that certain cotton-rag paper can last hundreds of years without much fading or discoloration. But truth be, cotton-rag paper is available today. Therefore, there was no way to place a date on this stationery unless…

I held the letter up to the light and looked for any markings. Down, just below middle, toward the right, was a watermark. The backlight brought the image out like a photo in developer. A bit smeared but clear enough to decipher was the following:


The name White and Wyckoff’s arched the top. The ‘Exclusive Stationery’ near the bottom of the watermark was a tougher read, but it really didn’t matter. White and Wyckoff’s was in business before 1928 as stationery makers—in fact, I found an old ad pre-dating 1928 on eBay that amusingly stated their stationery was “Autocratic Linen” and that it was “…so rich in character; so responsive to the pen; [and} so refined in appearance…”  Okay, I accepted that the letter was written on high-end quality paper, but what pushed me another step in conceding the age and authenticity of the stationery was the following:

The only White and Wyckoff’s in existence today was in the business of providing “information on 32 million companies” and described as a business services company. Definitely not a stationery company. And I could not find any info regarding when White and Wyckoff’s Exclusive Stationery folded, sold out, or merged with anyone. The stationery—in spite of its fresh, crisp appearance—was certainly from another—much earlier—era.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"The Vanity" - a Louise Brooks short story, part 4

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

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We talked for twenty minutes. I didn’t share anything about the nightly visits of the phantom car or the letter. But among other things, I did tell him that if my neighbor, Lorraine, ever asked where we went Sunday night, he was to tell her we had a long and expensive dinner at The Morocco. Once off the phone, I decided on another cup of coffee—and to head back to my office. Hopefully Molly would be there.

Alan wanted the first fifteen chapters polished and sent to his office in New York via email attachment by Monday at nine a.m. EST. I had told him it would be no problem; truth was, I still had some work to do; I had already roughed-out the first thirteen chapters but had no clue where the story was heading. I spent the next three hours revising parts of Chapters Two and Four and rewrote some dialogue in Chapters Seven, Eight, and Twelve before outlining the next couple of chapters.

About five-thirty, I leaned back with a big, hands-over-the-head stretch; I glanced toward the living room—and the coffee table. The morning sun, which pours through the front window, had long since climbed over the house toward Santa Monica and the Pacific. The living room existed in that wistful, quiet, late afternoon dusk. There was a peacefulness—a stillness—where no shadows played and most things had lost their color. Except on the coffee table.

I had nearly forgotten.

From my chair in the dining room, I could see the square, crème-colored envelope lying on the pile of forgettable mail in that warm, faint light. It appeared to glow—just enough to separate it from everything else on the table. I slowly got up, walked to the living room and picked up the envelope. It sustained a flush all its own in the semi-darkness. The name

Eddie Sutherland

written in peacock blue and constructed with great care, stood in almost violent contrast to the pastel crème of the envelope. I wondered what the message inside—for a long-dead Eddie Sutherland—could possibly be. Most likely it was an invitation to some financial meeting with a local broker. Or maybe—and more appropriately—an offer to buy a plot from Hollywood Forever Cemetery? It would also be interesting to know how they got Eddie’s name. Maybe someone had not updated the Beverly Hills list of potential leads for a long, long time. On the other hand, what’s with the fancy car? Why the clandestine time of night? And who’s the pretty girl who delivered the letter?

In my head, a voice cried, “Open the envelope. Open it now. ”

I know what you’re thinking: Open it, dammit! Well, I did. But not before I went to the kitchen, got a Corona, stopped by the dining room to pick up my letter opener—an old Fuller Brush Man giveaway—returned to the couch, put my feet up—and reached around to turn on the floor lamp behind me.

I wedged the plastic point under the fold and gently lifted up along the top. As the paper parted, a sweet lilac smell immediately filled the air around me. Lilac is a smell of the past. It reminded me of childhood bubble baths and small frilly handkerchiefs, grandmothers who once wore white gloves and T.S. Eliot’s “…breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire…”

I peered inside. I could see a folded sheet of matching crème-colored stationery. Carefully, with thumb and forefinger, I slowly pulled the paper out, set the envelope down, took a long pull on the Corona, set that down, wiped my hand on my jeans and opened the note. This is what I found:

October 8th 1927

Eddie—


I will attempt to make this brief. I know that I have not been the “good wife,” but I will not apologize for what I am. I don’t think I ever loved you, Eddie. Oh, we had some good times for sure, but that’s all behind us now. You and Charlie are working night and day on your movie projects, and Paramount, for now, is keeping me busy.

What I’m saying is I want out. I’m sure you have heard about George and me. I can only say that I love him and I want to be with him. Let’s you and I try to forget our mistake and get on with our lives.

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.

Louise—

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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