I had just returned from a weekend in La Jolla where I had some unfinished business with a little dame I had to finish up with, and now it was finally over. I drove down Melrose and took a left on Vine, threw my car keys at Old Joe in the parking lot and walked a block to my office building. The elevator was hot and smelled of cheap cigars, Rite Aid perfume, and bubble gum. The odorous mix of Nirvana.
I opened the door to my office and bumped straight into Fritzi, bent over the bottom file drawer, and took in the yard of fancy nylon lace and her tight little ass. I wondered why this sort of thing didn’t bring me more business. My blue suede shoes must have come into La Fritz’s range of view, and from her bent postion said, “Someone in your office. Been there over an hour.”
“Hope she found something good to read,” I quipped, turning the loose brass handle and taking off my fedora. I shoved a bunch of manila envelopes about to topple from my desk with my knee and fell into the swivel chair without missing a beat. She was a platinum blonde done up like Lana Turner in that classic where she wants a dumb cluck to rub out her husband for her. White is always a good choice when there’s trouble ahead. She spoke from under her hat without turning to face me. I opened the venetian blinds without turning around to let in some light and saw her face for the first time.
It was the kind of face you see on billboards, everything blown out of proportion up close. Her pillow lips jumped out at me. Her eyes looked like marshmallows held open with toothpicks. She was all Hollywood B movies, and I knew she had a sequined gown in her closet and a shiny black car downstairs that sparked like lightning when it rained. Yes. She was perfect. I could hear the music begin.
“So, I said, lighting a Balkan Sobranie and throwing the used match into my huge glass ashtray, “You’re the kind of girl I see on that junk TV station kids watch, slick and slippery like a fish, the kind that shatters a martini glass if I hold on too tightly.”
“What the hell does that mean?” She said this with a New York accent in her gravelly voice.
I went for the jugular just to test her. “You are strictly to look at, Doll. Look, don’t touch.”
“Mr. Mallow,” she said, a note of exasperation in her voice, “They told me…”
“Yes, that’s my name.” I shuffled my feet and stood over her now, messing up the papers on my desk. Her voice came from far away now, Canarsie maybe. I could recommend an accent reduction coach when she finished with her sad story. I figured a dame like this could only have a sad story.
“What is it you want me for?” I bent down to look her straight in the big fishbowl eyes, the kind that always reminds me of the marbles I played so hard for in the lot behind our rooms growing up at the Ojai when they had empty lots on Whitley Avenue.
“This is going to sound foolish, she said, suddenly coy, and taking an Irish linen hankie from her oversized bag, she dabbed her eyes. I could tell the bag was not genuine even though it had Chanel Cs on the flap. I could spot a genuine designer bag in the first second. This came from fast summaries of character that come from twenty years of chasing clues in Tinsel Town.
I knew this one hadn’t shed a tear since skinned knees in kindergarten, so I sat on the edge of my desk to allow my pant leg to brush against her crossed gams. Her lips were pulsing now like Cleo in Pinocchio, and she was paying rapt attention to my every word. “The whole world is a foolish place, so of course anything you say will sound foolish. What can we expect Miss…Or is it Missus?”
She poured on the waterworks now, trying hard not to snuffle and break the sweet mood she was after, the innocent schoolgirl. She blinked those watery pools at me and said, “It’s Mrs. Barber. Mrs. Geraldo Barber.”
That was a good one. “With a U, is it?” She blinked and stared a few seconds. “Oh, you mean the spelling? She then spelled it out slowly. G-E-R-A-L-D-O. With an H sound. Like in Huh?
“Enough of this. What can I do to help you, Mrs. Barber? “I’ve been in this business too long. I walked over to the window and looked across the street at the billboard over the Western Union office. I remembered I hadn’t paid my phone bill or the water and power bill and soon all the bills would start coming in from La Jolla. I was a sap, a sucker for a good-looking dame. “Well, Mrs. Barber. My fee is five hundred a week, plus expenses. It will depend on the job you want me to do. Let’s just lay all the cards on the desk here and you tell me what you want from me. I have a lunch date.”
“Money is not a problem for me,” she sighed. “I can afford you.”
“Baby, money is always the problem. I bet what you are going to tell me something today is a problem you are having with money. Or someone else’s money. Let’s have it.”
“The money or the problem?” Ah- she was waking up to my style. I had to laugh. She had stepped right out of a time machine. Standing here in front of me, a real doll. Brittle and brassy and a real bombshell. I asked her if she would like to continue this in the little coffee shop at the W Hotel down the block where I could call my lunch date and cancel. I was hooked.
She accepted my offer as smoothly as if she were accepting a corsage. The kind that always got the girls in high school, orchids and camellias and those little white things that shiver like snowflakes when they shake their wrists. I had the feeling this gal knew what a corsage was and would expect a big bouquet after the first fight. My imagination was chasing its tail.
Old Joe gave me a knowing wink when he threw my car keys at me and I threw them back wagging my head, “Not this time, Joe.” And we turned the corner and walked down the boulevard towards the coffee shop, but she surprised me when she grabbed me by the elbow and pointed towards the Frolic Room across the street. “I’d rather have a drink.” We talked over Manhattans. One, Two. and she was clever and quick and after more than three grew easier on the eyes, her lips blossoming into big fruity plums and her voice more cotton balls and less sandpaper.
After an hour, she still had not told me her reason for her visit. I asked her where she had left her car and if I could drop her off somewhere, my mind rolling in the hay, but she said her driver had dropped her off and she was on her own until she rang for him. I told her I would be happy to take her home. That earned me a big red smile and closed eyes that promised me Geraldo was not at home this time of day. Curiosity gripped me like a choke chain on a bull dog.
We drove through the Hollywood Hills and she pointed to a white wedding cake castle replete with plaster lions, fancy urns and four monumental Fleur de Lys on the roof corners. Something was beginning to smell fishy. Even with all the faux in place, this plaster monstrosity was not for a woman who looked like she did. I turned the key, allowing my vintage Jag to purr softly, and settled back to let her take the hint that I had no intention of getting out of the car unless we stopped at a motel. If we were going to get it on, this was not the scene for someone in my profession.
“Well, “I said when she didn’t take the bait, “I sure had a helluva time. Not sure what this is, or was about. Maybe tomorrow you’ll call me and let me know it was some kind of joke? I will have to bill you for my time, nevertheless. “
She put her big paw on the door delicately. Why do women wearing white gloves look like debutantes? “It was like a…. like… an audition, “she said as she bumped herself across the low-slung seat. “I just needed a ride home and I don’t have taxi fare. Spent it all at Katsuya last night. “
I took a long look at her, the last one, and said, “Babe, all you ever had to do was ask. And, this is going to cost you more than carfare, Honey. Time is money. And my time costs a lot of money.”
She settled back in the car and my heart dropped to my shoes. God, this could go on forever if I didn’t get more hard-boiled. “Listen Babe, it’s been real.” I tapped her on her bare upper arm. “Don’t waste any more money talking, or not talking as in your case. The meter’s running and I got places to be at.”
She batted her eyes at me. “I’m an actress.”
“How’d I guess? How’d I know that?”
“This is one big mean town. Everybody wants me to take my clothes off. Just for a couple of hours on the town and I got to take my clothes off.”
“Well, look here. All afternoon suckering me up and still dressed.” I almost choked when I said this.
I liked the kid, but she was beginning to look more and more like a fluke, and it was one of those hot sultry days in Los Angeles when you begin to believe you’re in a big movie, and you are only an extra.
I never saw her again after that, and sometimes when I remember those lips, I regret it. I hope she married a cop and moved to Lompoc or Oxnard or one of those towns Angelinos never go to, and I realized then for the first time that I am the kind of guy who gets a dame stuck in his craw the way a fisherman gets a dolphin in his tuna net and I guess I am still thinking like a sap. When she was with me it was interminable frustration, but with no chance of finding her again, it was even more frustrating. But then, I tell myself I got a job to do. I’m a private eye. A dick. I feel the importance of this especially when I drive out to the Santa Monica Pier and stare at the lights behind me in the hills, and I turn and look at the surfers eternally bobbing with hope for that one fantastic wave, or whatever it is they look for…. Or when I drive slowly through the morning fog, or on a hot day when I feel like a hamburger thrown all sizzling on a bun…. or…. Well, you know.
The next day was one of those sweltering days when you feel like the pickle in that cardboard hamburger. I didn’t want to be here, cruising down Sunset with perspiration running little rivulets around my eyes as I squinted at house numbers on mailboxes and curbs looking for 22558899. It looked exactly like the butler’s description on the phone. Overgrown shrubbery cracked plastered walls, the wrought-iron gate ajar with waist-high weeds struggling to escape the driveway.
“Madame is upstairs in the afternoons. Go right up,” he was right out of a movie, without the monocle.
It was cool, at least, in this mausoleum filled with faded tapestries, fake chinoiserie on the tomb-like fireplace. I could smell the dust. She slithered down the spiral staircase like a baby snake, all four feet twelve of her, cigarette holder for effect with the cigarette unlit. She wore enough makeup to hide her real face, and the weather didn’t call for the gimcracks she wore for jewelry. A simple ankle bracelet would have been enough for an entrance like that.
She said she wanted to follow me into the dining room so she could look at my ass as I walked. The old doll was candid, anyway. “I can tell by a man’s backside just how much I can trust him,” she said. Got to say, I never heard that one before. It would take some thought when I had a minute to think for myself.
She wanted me to follow some jerk that was living there and tell her where he was going at night, who he was seeing and how much it was costing her and what she ought to do about it. What the hell would I know about such things? Still, my sign said I was a detective, so I was. I told her, in all honesty, that it was not my style, hanging out at the drugstore drinking sodas when there was serious stuff going on in this town and too many Joes were dancing every night while the rest of us slobs earned a living.
She slithered around the massive table and gave my tie a little tug, “Cheap.” She said like a little bird. “I heard you were a tough guy, and witty and hard-boiled, but honest.”
“Yeah, that too.” I said, too close to that bad wig with a knife-blade part down the middle.
“I like your style. And your ass is cute. It won’t take you long to do all this for little me.”
She took an envelope from her belt. I opened it and saw the two thousand and shook her hand. It was a deal.
It wasn’t hard to find the crowd this guy hung with at the corner of Sunset and Western. I went to his digs on Ivar and the landlady caught me trying to card the door open. He was behind on his rent she told me as she left me alone. I went to his tailor on Wilshire; He owed plenty on a cashmere coat. I downed a few gins in joints along the strip, but nobody there looked like they lived in mansions and I have to admit by five o’clock I was more stymied than pickled. I gave up. This was definitely not my style. I drove up to 22557799, and it didn’t take a genius to see what had happened since I left the old dame. The butler was slowly leading her to a squad car and the flashing cameras were like lightning bugs. This had turned into a hotter night than I had imagined it would turn out to be. I pushed my hat back from my forehead and said to a looky-loo in the driveway. “Don’t tell me. I can guess. The old girl did her boy toy in for living a double life.” The cops pushed me along with the rest of the crowd. It was too hot for any more questions. But this old girl still owed me some cash for my trouble and I need it if I was going to get to La Jolla for the weekend, and pay the tab for all those gin and tonics. It had been a long afternoon, and I needed a cold drink in a warm swimming pool. My life could be a movie.