When Alexander reigned, it is reported
that there was a very beautiful strumpet in Alexandria that from her childhood
always fed on spiders. And for that reason the king was admonished
that he should be careful not to embrace her lest he be poisoned by venom.
--Edward Topsell, The Historie of Four-Legged Beasts and
Serpents, London, 1607
It is a typical California twilight, clear,
perfect, and balmy. You can smell sea air and pizza. White-clad
window washers on scaffolds are lowering themselves down the face of the
monstrous Tomb of the Unknown Veteran they call the Federal Building, a
bland concrete monolith overlooking a veterans' cemetery which extends
to the horizon.
You park your black Jeep in the Federal Building parking lot and jaywalk across Wilshire Boulevard and into Westwood Village.
Snug up against the sprawling campus of UCLA, Westwood is a high-roller sucker's carnival jam-packed with chic movie theaters, restaurants, and swank boutiques.
High-rise condos spring up overnight in the spaces between the gridlocked traffic. One block east of the Federal Building on Wilshire is the busiest intersection in Southern California. They call it the Golden Strip because if you live there you pay your rent in gold.
Saturday night is date night and swarms of tanned Valley Girls are pawing through expensive clothing beneath the brittle glitter of bright lights while legions of yuppie law students and acne-scarred aspiring medical men troll through the attractive assortment of Valley Girls.
Westwood is the Times Square of Los Angeles, the heartbeat, where sounds of lust and shopping swallow up catcalls, shameless bragging, screams of terror and delight, and from passing LAPD prowl cars darting down the San Diego Freeway comes the sad and lonesome wail of sirens--police sirens--the song of the city.
The sirens grow louder and louder and finally converge and the warm night air is shattered by the mechanical scream of stainless-steel robots dying agonizing deaths in a stainless-steel hell for their stainless-steel sins.
You've driven to Westwood
with a key you picked up in Brentwood. Brentwood is where you go
to live if you get kicked out of Beverly Hills. Very understated.
Very elegant. In Brentwood the grass is not cut, it's manicured.
The sexy little darling who gave you the key in Brentwood is the widow of the famous entertainment lawyer Thorne Blue.
They had been the perfect California couple--he was eighty, she was eighteen, Methuselah and the hard-body--their immortal love story will sizzle on the screen, coming soon.
And she truly was a jet-propelled piece of mogambo, top-drawer burnished gold ultragorgeous pampered pussy, a Midwest Valley Girl to whom bubble-gum music was the ultimate truth, an airhead who imitated authentic Valley Girls she had seen on TV by sneering and saying as a stock response to every remark, "I'm so sure."
The Valley Girl phenomenon was a social breakthrough which elevated mindlessness into an art form and allowed women without money to act like snotty bitches in a way that had previously been a jealously guarded franchise of the congenitally rich. The first Valley Girl was Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat sushi." Valley Girls never go to bed on the first date, but they do bring along certified public accountants to audit your books.
The Widow Blue gave you a heavy brass key while standing in the center of a powder-blue room the size of a Latin American country and she said some things, but you were being rude and not paying attention.
The Widow Blue was wearing a bikini made from white string and four sky-blue plastic oyster shells. Under the blue oyster shells were breasts, tanned, dark, heavy, and round. If you weren't quite listening to what she was saying, it was because you were thinking about how looking at her cleavage was more fun than reading a magazine. You were ready to bet cash money that if she ever allowed you to see those breasts you would go blind.
Inside her blue plastic bikini was the fullness of her breasts, but inside her head was space, the final frontier. You can admire a woman for her mind, if she has a mind. If not, it's only charitable to give her credit for any good stuff she's got showing.
As you walked past, you peeked into a room with six inches of white sand on the floor. Fourteen surfboards--a rainbow of shiny candy colors--were mounted on the walls like trophies in a shark's house.
You followed the Widow Blue down the corridor and into her husband's study, even though everything about her was shifty, including the way she walked.
The gold-brown hardwood floor in the study glittered like a jungle pool. There was a lot of antique furniture and white doilies. On top of the antiques and doilies were china jugs and cut-crystal bowls. The air in the room was too clean, too stuffy, and too precisely regulated to be real life. The room smelled like the sealed cargo hold of a rocket ship.
The house was very quiet. The grieving widow's high heels tapped on the hardwood floor and echoed down the long corridor to where a fat Mexican maid in a black and white uniform, eyes downcast, was emerging from one room and disappearing into another room, pretending not to exist.
The rhythm of the Widow Blue's steps felt calculated, as though her sky-blue high-heeled shoes were tapping out invitations to unnatural acts in some secret code.
The grief-stricken young widow with the antigravity tits had called you up at your bookstore in Hollywood the day after the funeral and offered you the hundreds of books in her husband's home study and Westwood business offices for one hundred American dollars. She wanted to redecorated the house as soon as possible, she said, and she needed the space.
You said you'd take a look. You and your partner, Red Kelso, enjoy buying books at estate sales because dead people don't haggle--unless, of course, they're agents.
Widows are the backbone of the rare-book business. Rich husbands loves books, works hard, kicks off, the widows lives on forever, widow considers books a childish self-indulgence, please haul this junk off and thank you very much.
Pacing nervously in her husband's study, her kill-time-of-your-life body playing peek-a-boo behind blue plastic sea shells, the Widow Blue explained that she doubted that I'd be interested in buying her husband's books because they'd been given to him as gifts, apparently, because people had written their names into every volume--people with names like Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Kerouac, and whole bunch of the books were signed by some jerk named E. A. Poe.
The Widow Blue could not for the life of her make any sense out of why her husband, who could have afforded to buy as many brand-new books as he wanted, preferred instead to fill the shelves of his Brentwood mansion with dreadful old secondhand first editions.
Biting your lip painfully and begging for the discipline to ignore the deeply tanned curve of a partially visible breast tipped by a brown pearl of nipple, and suppressing a groan, you said, looking at the books with disdain. "People sure are funny sometimes, ma'am. I'll tell you what I'll do. For a hundred bucks I might be willing to haul this junk off for you. And to show you that my heart's in the right place, I'll take this key and I'll drive all the way over to Westwood right now and haul off any books in your husband's business office. That's money out of my pocket to drive out of my way like that, but I figure it's an investment in goodwill."
The Widow Blue smiled sweetly and opened her black alligator purse. "I won't pay a penny over twenty-five dollars."
You said, "A hundred bucks. Take it or leave it."
She said, "You'll accept a personal check, of course."
Scratching your chin, you said, "No, ma'am, I got to have it all in cash--in advance."
So now the sun is going
down and I'm walking up Gayley Avenue with the brass key given to me by
the grieving Widow Blue. I'm looking for the street number of a dead
lawyer's office where maybe an unknown treasure of rare autographed first
editions awaits, or maybe a leather-bound volume that will turn out to
be William Shakespeare's handwritten diary, or maybe only a cardboard box
full of Charlie Brown paperbacks with broken spines.
One street away from the main drag in Westwood, Gayley Avenue serves as an open-air asphalt big top for freelance circus acts.
Jugglers stand in the street, entertaining passengers in the passing parade of Porsches. The snail race for cars called a traffic jam is not purely a California invention, but no one will deny Californians credit for having brought it to its purest state of perfection.
Acrobats walk among the cars on their hands or whirl by doing somersaults. Ragtag Bob Dylan clones stand trapped inside smelly leather jackets and shamelessly inflict cruel and unusual punishment on out-of-tune guitars.
I'm working the trail of books with instincts not deadened by civilization when one of Westwood's street mime population, walking backward in front of me, grabs my arm and swings me around. I collide with a drop-dead gorgeous true-blue redhead. The street mime has kidnapped the redhead with his other arm.
The redhead is totally surprised and is completely naked except for her clothes.
The redhead is tall and slender, with maddeningly elongated legs. The woman has legs all over her body. Her ice-blue eyes move on me like cold fingers of light. Bedroom eyes. Eyes full of stories. Eyes that could make a serpent eat apples. The redhead is a stylishly dressed woman in earth-angel white. She has .45-caliber lips and more charm than the law allows. She is the girl next door; now all I have to do is find out where she lives and move next door to her.
The street mime's face is covered with white greasepaint, lips red, eyes outlined in black. The stone fox redhead and I both try to pull away--we are busy people with promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep, and so on, and no time to waste and no office to make small talk in. But the street mime grips us both with a stubborn streak wider than anything he could have learned in mime school.
The mime holds out his hands, together, palms up. He reads wedding vows from an invisible book, silently and solemnly. He asks me if I do, and I do. He asks Long Legs if she does, and she sighs, and nods.
Then the street mime hands me the wedding ring, and invisible gold ring with a big invisible diamond. Long Legs groans with impatience, then extends her perfect hand so that I can slip the ring onto her perfect finger.
Passerby are starting to congeal into an audience but the ordeal of public humiliation seems to be over. Resisting the impulse to give the mime a handful of imaginary coins, I slip him two real one-dollar bills. But he hooks me back with that flawlessly polite brute force reminiscent of the Hong Kong tailors who used to drag us into their shops from the sidewalk back in the good old, bad old days on R&R from Vietnam.
The mime plays to the audience for support and they respond with a chorus of expressions of peer group pressure. The mime orders me to kiss the bride. I kiss the bride. The bride is surprised. A sparkle of warmth passes between us. Kissing her is light, pleasant work. I kiss her again. My cobwebbed cojones are bouncing around like Mexican jumping beans and suddenly my John Henry wakes up from a coma and starts vibrating like a tuning fork.
The tormenting street mime makes a happy face and then abruptly loses all interest in us and snags two strangers from our sidewalk wedding guests and kickstarts his act all over again.
My new bride and I are
left standing together. It's eight o'clock at night, lots of light,
lots of car horns. The rich-people shops are teeming with customers
and there are long lines of people waiting to get into the movie theaters.
Everybody looks about twelve years old.
"Excuse me," says Long Legs, and turns to go. This time I'm the one who lays a grip on her arm. I step back. I put my eyes on her and I let them look.
We stand on the sidewalk, the panting man and the cooly appraising woman. I'm giving her my look that says, you've got what it takes to get what I've got. She is responding with a look that says that she knows what I want and that maybe she wants me to have it.
The sparkle of warmth passes between us again. Meeting this woman has been like picking up a live electrical wire--scary but thrilling.
I say, "I'm so hungry, why, I could eat some food. Why don't we go somewhere and eat some dead animal flesh? I promise to show you a four-dimensional time."
She says, "Not a chance, Heathcliff."
Bouncing my words like rubber balls against the brick wall of the silent authority of her stare, I say, "Is this our first fight?"
"Our first," she says, "and our last."
I say, "I stand corrected, but firm. I mean, my mother warned me about you. My mother told me that it would be a big mistake to marry you."
Long Legs smiles. "Look, I'm not good company right now. It's the little bitch in me. A friend of mine..."
I say, "Go on. You can trust me. I'm family."
She says, "A friend of mine died a few days ago. I guess I'm not in the mood to be picked up. Not even by you."
I say, "Maybe I can help. I'm a very resourceful person. And a fair-to-middling listener, when I'm not talking. Maybe a drink would help?"
She smiles again. "Actually, I could use a drink."
I smile back. "That's diamonds. Let's get you a drink and maybe we can drop a lobster in on top of it. Then we can go home to our little cottage by the sea and see if the dog has eaten the kid's homework." I extend my hand. "Dowdy Lewis, Junior."
Long Legs shakes my hand. "Yvonna...Just Yvonna."
As we walk along looking for a restaurant, I say, "I'm not one of them."
"One of them, what?" she asks.
"One of them that you take me for."
Yvonna and I sit in
the White Tiger Restaurant and measure each other over our wineglasses.
Stylish courting yuppie couples seated at table all around us lean in close,
earnestly lying to each other and holding hands, billing and cooing and
trading tax loopholes, and endlessly reassuring each other that unbridle
ruthlessness in business is the sexiest thing in the world.
The men standing at the bar are all wearing the sane gray suit and the same black tie and every flunky and errand boy properly attired can pass himself off as a rich man or a king or maybe even a Hollywood movie producer. The men are all standing up tall and sucking in their expense-account bellies and staring at Yvonna.
Yvonna slices her pork with the delicacy of a neurosurgeon, takes a bite, taps the corners of her mouth with a napkin, and casually shakes lustful glances from her hair.
The menu is labeled in gold, bound in suede, and is as big as a barn door. There are golden dragons all over the reddest of red walls and paper lanterns strung over black mahogany booths. Friendly young Chinese people of both sexes attend us like royalty. The best food and the only good service in Los Angeles are by the Chinese. They bring us some of every kind of food there is, then fortune cookies.
Into the soft tinkle of falling ice cubes, Yvonna says, "Don't get any ideas. I know karate."
I say, "That's good to know, but then I'm not looking for a bodyguard."
"What are you looking for?"
"I'm a kind and considerate guy looking for a moody bitch for a love-hate relationship. I'm looking for a good woman who knows how to be bad. Women should be obscene and not heard."
"You can just check your flattery at the door, chief. I am not flattery operated."
"You know, Yvonna, I think maybe Jaws wouldn't bite you because he'd be afraid he might chip a tooth on your heart."
"I'm always cold when a man comes on to me like I'm a hot yam at a picnic. I just want to know what you want from me, okay? Up front."
"What is this, sweet pea, an audition?"
"What do you want it to be?"
"Maybe a meaningful exchange of illusions before the honeymoon hits bad road?"
"In this town men never say what they're really thinking unless they don't mean it."
"Women have an annoying habit of saying 'no' to questions they have not been asked."
"Oh, you'll ask. I'm just trying to save time."
"Fair enough, but if we're going to be making big circles together then you've got to stop bumping into me on the turns. I can feel it. Spaces are opening."
"Like there's almost any hope."
"You know, you're not the first woman I've met who thinks her ass is made of gold and that every man in California is out to make a discovery. What you get from a woman like that is all wrapper and no candy."
"Okay, so I'm a shallow, snotty bitch. And a frigid prick-teaser. And you don't like me. What a sad song."
"Look, I've got some A-B-C type information for you, lady. I don't believe a word you say but I like the sound of your voice. You are a jackpot of admirable qualities. You're the goods. You're a winner on all tracks. I can't resist you. I don't want to. You're so sweet you could shit chocolate buttons. I want you to have so much fun with me that you will fall in love with me forever."
"Why am I so important to you? You just met me."
"You're important to me because it's not often that I meet someone who doesn't make me feel like I'm alone even when I'm with her."
"I warn you, I ain't Auntie Em."
"And I warn you, I am not a male person, I'm a man. And if you expect me to play Prince Charming for you it will have to be on a rented horse. Success has lost my address."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Oh, just in case you've got a bad case of the horror."
"The horror. You know, the Valley Girl's horror of falling in love with a man who doesn't have any money."
"Right. I'm a gold digger and I was raised to believe that you marry the best possible provider you can stomach. So you're broke but I should overlook that fact because you're different, you're my one True Love. What makes you so special? You wear imported underwear or something? Well, you can just keep your squeeze off my tit until I give you the green light."
"I'm thirty-nine years old and I'm looking downhill at the business end of forty. I grew up on a failing hardscrabble horse ranch in Tick Canyon Wash near Bisbee, Arizona. The southern boundary of our land ran along the Mexican border. I lived with my mother. She drank. I was just a dutiful blob she had excreted for her own use. So I ran off to the Marines. I was with Force Reacon in Vietnam. That's the only thing I've ever done in my life that I'm proud of, and I have doubts about that, sometimes. My mother died. After a lifetime of inhaling an ocean of alcohol she took a swan dive off a brandy bottle. I went to live with my father. My father was ninety years old and owned a bookstore in Hollywood. He died ten years ago. Fifteen years ago I quit after putting in four years in a black-and-white as a cop on the LAPD. I hated the job. The cops I was riding around with were weirder than the dirt bags we busted. Now I own half of a bookstore in Hollywood. The bookstore doesn't make any money. I'm an alcoholic and a compulsive gambler. It's about time I married a schoolmarm and went into the farm-implement business."
"You got something to say, cowboy, or do you just want to complain."
"What I'm saying is that I am easily bored by women and the silly games they play. This ain't my first time at the rodeo. I'm not as horny as I was when I was nineteen, and not as dumb. I'm a little bit prematurely cantankerous and I will not tolerate endless pageants of coy bullshit from parasitic dingbats. My motto is never sleep with anyone crazier than yourself. This is not a sign that I am getting old; it is a sign that I am acquiring judgment and taste. So don't waste your Marie Antoinette impressions on me. I don't like it."
"So if you're a cowboy, where's your cowboy hat."
"I don't have a cowboy hat. I wear all of my cowboy hats on the inside."
"Have you ever been married?"
"Sure. For about five minutes. My wife left me. She wants to be a famous porno star. I hear that she gets screwed ten times a day but she still hasn't managed to get screwed on film. She'll keep trying, I'm sure. She has always been a very determined woman."
"So you're getting to be forty and your life is a mess and you think that maybe your only hope is to marry some brainless girl who is into mainling apple pie. What a typical male chauvinist you are. You probably thin the man should hunt and woman should stay in the cave and type."
"Don't tell me what I think."
"Okay, I'll take a chance. Say one thing that's not male chauvinist, if you can. Think fast."
"Roger copy, Wonder Woman. Has anyone ever told you that you've got a really nice set of wits?"
"Okay, fair enough, so you score one point. Beginner's luck. Now, you've told me, so I'm telling you. I don't want a job being somebody's wife. Men promise me diamonds and give me doughnuts. My idea of hell on earth is to be surrounded by little bottoms, all of them leaking. One item I most assuredly do not need in my life is a herd of golden-haired, jam-encrusted rug rats. I would not be a good mother. I have everything a woman should have except a shoulder to cry on."
"Has anyone ever told you that you talk like a Movie of the Week?"
"Of course. So do you. So does everyone. I don't mind. I lost my substance to veneer a long time ago. We're all just stealing dialog from television. You and I both know that we will have to pop every line from every Love Boat script ever written, sooner or later. We might as well get it over with."
"You're waiting to meet a rich monkey who'll fee you gold-plated peanuts while you pursue your career. Is that your basic plan?"
"That's it, cowboy. Nothing's too good for baby Yvonna."
"It's going to be fun grinding the rough edges off of you, little buzzard."
"Hey, cowboy, I can keep this up as long as you can. When are you going to say that I'm too wise, too glib, and too afraid of feelings?"
"Didn't I cover that one already? I thought I covered that one."
"No, you must have forgotten. Senility, no doubt. I hear people get that way when they're almost forty."
"You just keep in mind that I am not a ball of string for the cat. I figure I've already put in my time as the pinball in some bimbo's ego machine."
"Hey, I can play that one. Let's see how many crazy things you can tell me about yourself and let's see how many of them I can believe."
"I must admit, you are a magician at being a woman. I only wish I knew what game you're playing so I'd know what cards to keep."
"That's good. That's a good move. Well, why should I care what you think of me? It doesn't mean that much to me to mean that much to you."
"Talk straight to me, bitch, or get out of my face."
"Obscenity. A classic defense reaction, and avoidable after therapy."
"Are you offering to introduce me to one of your Beverly Hills shrinks?"
"Have you ever been in the business?"
"The business--films, movies."
"Movie making? Is that a business? I thought it was a cross between a gang bang and a Chinese opera. No, I'm not in the business. My father was. Back in the old days when the cowboy extras were all real cowboys. I know Hollywood. Maybe that why I hate Hollywood's guts. I suppose that question makes you an actress or some other form of female impersonator?"
"I'm an associate producer at Golden West Studios. Tennessee Williams wrote my life. I'm rich. I'm trying to prove I can make it without my family's money. I'm a cliché. Our parents gave us no love, so we go to Hollywood to be loved by the world."
"You make movies?"
"No. I go out for bagels and cream cheese. The men make the movies."
"That doesn't sound fair. You're a lot smarter than most of the men I know."
"In Hollywood, cup size trumps I.Q. every time."
"I don't anything wrong with your cup size."
"No, but then I can't produce with my tits. I could be an actress with these tits--that's all you really need--but I don't want to be an actress. I want to be a producer. Or I wanted to be. That's over now."
"Yvonna, I feel like you're talking to me through the gun slit of an armored car. Why are you playing your cards so close to your vest?"
"I'm sorry, Dowdy. It's just that I feel like I'm being set up for a guest spot on The Gong Show. Only it's life and death and it's not funny."
"Death? What death?"
"Somebody murdered my girlfriend, the girl I work with."
"Who did it?"
"I don't know. I don't want to talk about it. But I'm scared. I came to Westwood tonight because I had an appointment with a lawyer I use to go out with. He was going to give me the name of a reliable private detective. But he didn't show."
"Maybe I can help."
"Oh, that's very reassuring. How protective you men can be when you want something for yourself."
"You're very hard to understand. On the other hand, you're easy to dislike. On the other hand, I think that kissing your thighs would be like eating candy."
"Why do you want to seduce me, use my body, and then discard me if you dislike me?"
"Maybe because you're scared and preoccupied and I'm only human, despite appearances. I do want to help."
"You don't know what you're saying."
"Don't tell me I don't know what I'm saying. I been speaking English all my life."
"Maybe you can help, at that."
"Me? Why me?"
"Maybe because I'm sinking and you're the only land in sight. I'm at the crossroads of my life. I wish you'd stop by."
"Forget it. It wouldn't work. We couldn't agree on how to make Kool-Aid."
"Somebody killed Esther Finn, Dowdy. They killed my secretary. Somebody cut her open and gutted her like a chicken. The police found her in a shopping cart in the parking lot of an Alpha-Beta supermarket. She was naked and she was dead. Her throat was cut. I'm scared. I think I'm next. What should I do? Who can I talk to?"
"Is that all you want from me, legal advice and maybe a little muscle?"
"No, that's not all I want. But so much is happening. It's too much. I can't handle a heavy romantic involvement right now. I mean, I do like you. I do. It's been a long time since I've met an honest-to-God man with a full set of balls. I can handle the sex, but not the sighs. Give me time with the heavy scene, okay? I'll make you a deal--if you'll wait, I'll hurry."
"Okay, I'm easy. I'll bite your hook."
Suddenly, Yvonna leans over, runs her hand up my thigh, and massages my crotch like its Aladdin's lamp. I blush as her fingers gently outline the blue steel throbber she has inspired.
Yvonna laughs. "Don't be embarrassed. It's the only compliment a woman can believe." She kisses me on the neck and whispers loud enough to be heard by half the people in the restaurant. "Damn, you make me want sex."
I pantomime a scribble to a smiling Chinese teen angel and she hurries to our table and plops down a small plastic tray. On the tray is the check. Reading the check, I choke on my drink. The check looks like an S.S. officer's laundry bill.
As I count out all of my cash Yvonna smiles a smile that would turn a whorehouse white. She says, "So, pal, you want to come over to my place and see my stamp collection?"
I say, "Do the Chinese eat noodles and rice? Does a shark shit in the salt water? Does Superman fly in his underwear? Where do you live?"
Feeling like a fistful of aces, with my arm around Yvonna's warm young body, I say, "We'll go to my place. It's closer."
Yvonna says, "You haven't kissed me once this evening."
I say, "Yes, I have."
I park my Jeep on the
Faces move behind curtains as the people who live in the apartment building across the street from my bookstore on the southwest corner of the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue check out the strange sight of Yvonna's curvaceous Rolls-Royce body gliding along the sidewalk of my canned-beans neighborhood. Whenever possible, I like to bring some small ray of sunshine into the lives of my repulsive neighbors.
I live in a place where shadows come out when the sun goes down, and they don't come out to play.
Moon shadows from the apartment building across the street fall onto my store. The apartment building is a bloated variation of a French Quarter crematorium, a smog-smudged slab of rock packed tight with cockroaches, people, and televisions, with barely enough spare breathing space left over for those who stop by to kill time by visiting the newly wed and the nearly dead. Old people drawing Social Security checks eat dog food in that building. Wine is puked up in the halls. Bums mark out their territory by peeing in the stairwells. A scream from that building is routinely dismissed as anxiety.
I unlock the front door of my store and I take Yvonna by the hand guide her through the dark between high rows of bookshelves.
At the foot of free-standing stairs at the rear of the store I switch on the light in the loft. We hurry up the stairs.
Yvonna stands at the railing and surveys the shadowy shelves below. She says, "What kind of books do you sell?"
I say, "Books about the Old West. Rare books. Nonfiction books. No novels."
I search unsuccessfully for clean glasses in which to pour wine while Yvonna looks around. My bed is a war-surplus wood and canvas army cot covered with a red plaid sleeping bag. There is an open rolltop desk. The desk is over one hundred years old and has more spiderwebbed pigeonholes than I've ever had time to explore. On top of the desk are piles of papers, old bills, old letters, and other dusty fossils of long-forgotten business transactions.
On top of the papers are paperweights, a quartz crystal as big as a beer can, a small bronze bust of George Washington, the father of our country, and a giant desert scorpion encased in a block of Lucite. On the wall above the desk is a framed black-and-white photograph of a dozen raggedy-assed teenaged jungle heroes with painted faces and lots of lethal weapons holding up a long black silk banner that proclaims in white stitched script: SWIFT, DEADLY, SILENT.
On one wall hang about twenty-five framed photographs, sepia-toned, of Apache chiefs. None of the portraits is of Geronimo or Victorio or Cochise or Mangas Colorado. Just twenty-five hard-eyed faces of nameless Apache war chiefs--my adopted family. Solitude was an Apache science.
On the other walls are bookshelves loaded down with thousands of books on all kinds of bizarre and esoteric subjects, books culled from estate sales, garage sales, library-discard sales, and from books brought in by our customers.
While Red Kelso, my partner, runs the store, I'm out on the road scouting for rare books to replenish our stock. I track down rare books like an Apache collecting scalps.
All the non-Wild West books we pick up in lot deals at estate sales but can't use for stock go into my personal library, except for rare or first editions--we sell those to other dealers. The loft reeks with the familiar perfume of old dusty, musty books.
Yvonna says, "Dowdy, I want you to slip into something more comfortable--and I think it's me."
There is the metallic buzz of a zipper being undone. I drop a focal on Yvonna's bulging black lace brassiere.
Yvonna says, "Do you live like this? You live like a monk."
I say, "Bachelors don't live. We camp out."
And then I kiss her.
She is breathing like
a wounded animal now, her face contorted against the pillow while she begs
me to stop and then begs me not to stop and then begs me to invent new
things, wonderful things. She rolls over and pulls me down onto her
hot, oily flesh. Her firm, heavy breasts are rubbing against my chest
while her tongue rotates inside my mouth like a little machine. Her
fingers are eagle talons raking my ribs, her muscular legs are locked over
the small of my back, her belly is sticky with sweat as it slaps against
my body to the rhythm of our coordinated desperate breathing, and our bodies
are hot and strong and alive and vibrating with the energy from the muscular
joyful exercise of our animal powers.
We are getting down to the short strokes when the vibrating electric rainbow shoots up my spine and echoes up between Yvonna's legs. Yvonna groans as I fill her body with the ancient gift, a humble offering of life in the form of liquid pearl. Yvonna seems to enjoy making a point out of maintaining unwavering eye contact at that moment. Panting, with her eyes full of tears, she says, "You're making me come."
On the sleeping bag on the floor next to my army cot, I pull away from Yvonna and lie face down. Yvonna climbs up onto me and we lie together, breathing hard, not saying anything, while her nipples burn into my back like hot coins and she rubs her damp orange pubic fuzz back and forth across my buttocks.
Yvonna reaches for the phone on the floor next to my cot. She says into the phone, "Hello. Room service? Send up more midgets, more burros, and more Vaseline."
We laugh together, sinking into the fatigue that follows the warm red adrenaline of love. We talk to each other in the the dark.
Yvonna says, "You're such a good lover. What's your secret?"
I say, "I fake my orgasms."
The next morning is
Sunday, so we sleep late.
We go downstairs to the bathroom in the back of the storage room and we take a shower together. Yvonna says, laughing, "I love your shower curtain."
My shower curtain is clear plastic with a solid black silhouette of Norman Bates's mother brandishing a big black knife.
An hour later we are
driving in my Jeep north up the Pacific Coast Highway, passing by the Malibu
Colony. Malibu is the glamorous and mythic beach community where
everybody is a movie star and where every tumbledown shack is worth a million
dollars, and any shack with indoor plumbling is worth a million and a half.
Yvonna points out a nondescript little gray box wedged into the seemingly solid wall of nondescript gray boxes mounted on pilings along the beach and pounded by the surf. Yvonna says, "That's where I live."
I say, "You're kidding. I thought you lived in a palace, at least."
Yvonna laughs. "It's a one-bedroom bungalow. The rent is four thousand a month."
It is a hot dry adjective
of an afternoon. We ride rented saddle horses up into Topanga Canyon.
The horses, a bay gelding and a dappled gray, are as tame as doves.
Yvonna is afraid but tries not to show it. I say, "Relax. The horse knows this trail better than we do. Give him his head."
Yvonna says, "Is this really necessary? I mean, we've got cars now, right? Or maybe we could rent motorcycles or something. You know, trail bikes."
I laugh. I say, "Yes, we do have cars now. But my dad always used to say that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man. And I think he was right."
Yvonna says, "So, I mean, well, you know, like, do horses bite?"
I say, "Yes, horses do bite, but only if you bite them first."
Down in Topanga Canyon are eucalyptus trees with trunks like pale green snakes losing their skin, and a creek, and secluded houses inhabited by wealthy hippies. Even today the rich hippies are able to continue their protest against the fascist police state with great feeling and integrity because their parents owned stock in napalm factories and left the hippies well-heeled enough to be consumers of only pure and organically grown drugs.
The rich hippie houses are simple and rustic on the outside, decorated with colorful symbols of peace, love, and the sun. The symbols are fading but the colors are still pretty. Inside, the houses have been furnished by the most exclusive of the most exclusive Beverly Hills interior decorators.
We see day hikers, and underaged surfers looking for a place to make love, and aging bearded full-time backpackers who always have wild scary eyes and long dirty hair and look like John the Baptist on bad acid.
And we see fearless squirrels, assigned to the guard the forest. The squirrles monitor our approach and rotate acorns between black and strangely human hands. They do not run, but retreat a few feet at a time, brown bushy tails flopping out of control. The squirrels abruptly turn, stand their ground, and silently watch, taking notes on the intruders, jaws puffed out to the max as they eat, tiny teeth working on acorns like dental drills.
I laugh. I say to Yvonna, "You see? That's why we can't go back to the land. The land doesn't want us."
We dismout and let the horses graze free on clover and grass while Yvonna and I have a picnic down by the creek. I have packed our picnic lunch in a brown paper sack: two large bags of Famous Amos chocolate-chip cookies, and a six-pack of Coors.
Yvonna laughs. "Cookies? All you brought for us to eat are cookies?"
I say, "What, you want a pizza or something? I'm sorry. You're right. I guess I've pretty much gotten out of habit of shopping for two. I'll got get you a pizza."
Yvonna laughs again. "No. Cookies will be fine." She kisses me. "You know, Dowdy, you're such a gentle man. You must never get what you want. I thought Marines were supposed to be tough."
I say, "When you're almost twenty you want to be tough; when you're almost forty you just want to be human."
Yvonna is wearing a T-shirt from one of my old Recon reunions and my faded blue cutoffs. The cutoffs have long since faded, leaving only patches of blue scarred by white creases. On the T-shirt a little cartoon solider is diving headfirst into a giant mug of beer. Black letters on the T-shirt say: MESS WITH THE BEST, DIE LIKE THE REST.
As Yvonna eats chocolate-chip cookies I run my index finger slowly up the fine line of her inner thigh.
Yvonna says, "So you're in the rare-book business. Is that really what you want? No great ambitions? It seems like nobody in California is working at what he really wants to be. Everybody has a day job."
I say, "No, Longhorn Books is my boogie. For now. The store can't last. The chains--Crown, B. Dalton's, Waldenbooks--are killing off the independent bookstores. I guess after the store goes under I'll have to write an edible diet book or something. I'll probably end up as a street peddler selling Tootsie Rolls in Guam. Or maybe I can open up a yuppie insurance company and sell relationship insurance."
"No little Mary Lou waiting in the wings?"
I say, "What, me? No, I got tired of dropping my bucket down dry wells. After my wife left, I figured I'd shop around and cut one from the herd. I'd be a Stepford husband, you know, Dagwood Bumstead, shopping for a weed eater with a straight face."
"So what's the problem?"
"I don't know, Yvonna. In California people toss the word love around like a Frisbee. You lose your faith in love, I guess. You meet somebody, you think--she's so nice. But you've been there before. You know that in the end she'll turn out to be just another neurotic man hater, gold digger, or emotional black hole. Loving somebody who can't love you back is like pouring yourself into a hole. So after a while, you figure, why get your hopes up? Why not cut yourself some slack? You owe it to yourself. Why not save yourself the wear and tear?"
Yvonna says, "What was your wife's name?"
I say, "Sabine. But I always called her Spender. She's stopped calling herself Sabine Lewis. She uses her stage name now. Her stage name is Rosetta Stone. She's working as a stripper until she makes it big as a porno star. Maybe you're heard of her, if you spend a lot of time hanging out in lowlife bars. I tried to flag her off the track before she hit the wall. But even love has to stop somewhere short of suicide."
"She must have really hurt you."
I say, joking, "She was a quick cure for happiness, that's for sure. Loving that woman was like trying to suck orange juice out of a brick." Then, embarrassed by Yvonna's unresponsive silence, I say, "I've had a bellyful of love. I got nothing left to give. She gutted me. I was torn in two like a losing ticket at the track. I was a zombie for a year."
"Didn't she even try to love you, Dowdy?"
I say, "Yes, she did. She did try. But she kind of loved you and killed you at the same time. She tried, but she just wasn't there for me. Maybe I wasn't there for her. I don't know. She didn't give her love freely but issued it in specific amounts, like rations. She could target a man's weak points with the precision of a sniper. And she could transform herself into a bitch quicker than Clark Kent can become the Man of Steel. But mostly, I think, we just ran out of gas. Marriage is like the finish on a new car. After a while you can't get the shine to come up. There's no reason for it. It's nobody's fault. It's just time. Time passing. You know why I'm so smart? Because I have mady so many mistakes."
We don't say anything for a while.
When I finally do look at Yvonna, the Mona Lisa smile on her lips is an invitation to a seduction--a strong fearless smile as hard as flint--and I can see a glint of wet silver in her ice-blue eyes.
We're wading in the
stream when Yvonna slips on a shadow in the water and falls flat on her
rump with a wholly undignified splash. When I try to help her up
she plays karate tricks with me and pulls me down.
We roll in the water, laughing, squealing as cold water splashes. We tug at each other's clothes, raping each other at leisure to the tune of the gentle warble of the water as it plows against white rocks all around us and then plunges downstream, impatient to fullfill its destiny to be water somewhere else.
Yvonna kisses my hands, one and then the other, then clamps my hands onto her breasts. Sitting on my waist, she finishes stripping off her T-shirt, then unhooks her frilly white brassiere. The brassiere is as frothy as cotton candy but reinforced by wire and sturdy enough to have been designed by an engineer. Yvonna rubs the brassiere on my face and says, "Isn't that warm?"
Leaning forward, Yvonna says, "Dowdy, suck on my big titties like a baby. Nurse me."
And while I'm holding on to and kissing first one sun-browned globe of flesh and then the other, Yvonna grips my hair with both hands and pulls me to her body until it hurts. She presses a big breast forward, into my mouth. "Like it?" she asks, fiercely. She gives me a stern order: "Tell me I can have some."
I say, "You can have some."
I bit her breast--hard--branding her with teethmarks. I lick salty sweat from the deep brown valley between her breasts. Yvonna groans, and then she says, without mercy, "Dowdy, are we going to be together forever, you and I?"
Yvonna stands up, strips off her cutoffs. Then, standing over me, she lifts her own breast, the breast with my teethmarks on it, lifts her own heavy, tanned breast, and repeatedly and lovingly kisses the red half-moon of teethmarks across the dark, engorged nipple.
Looking up at Yvonna's nude body, I observe that while in the dark a woman's pussy is delicate, a wet flower of flesh, a fragrant pink rose, in the light of day it is brutal and looks like a hairy gunshot wound.
We terrorize the minnows and we panic the frogs and the crawdads and we scatter our legal limit of tadpoles. Yvonna and I cannot get enough of each other. Yvonna gives herself over to loving violently, as if she were throwing herself down a flight of stairs, moaning and groaning and coming like a machine gun.
Any schoolmarms, bird-watchers, or Eagle Scouts who happen to pass by on the nature trails overlooking the creek will observe, rolling along in the muddy water, what might at first appear to be two giant land crabs, lockedin mortal combat.
We do the bad thing, and it's good.
I start Yvonna
Lablaine's tour of Longhorn Books by saying, "My father and Red Kelso,
my partner, knew Wyatt Earp. They were friends back in the early
days of Hollywood, when the cowboys in the films were all real cowboys--hard-eyed
old bastards with muscles in their shit and hands so callused that they
had to strain to make a fist. Red, my dad, and Wyatt Earp met when
they were extras in the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks movie, The Half-Breed."
On the wall behind the desk by the front door, between an Arizona topographical map entitled "Horse Tank 16" and a hand-sewn cloth that says THE BUCK STOPS BEFORE IT GETS HERE, is a framed photograph. I take the frame down and hand it to Yvonna. The photograph is a black-and-white lobby card showing Wyatt Earp, my father, and Red Kelso posing in a saloon in a scene from a cowboy movie and is signed in fading purple ink, "For Dowdy and Red from your ol' pard, Wyatt."
Yvonna says, scanning the bookshelves, "You mean the Wyatt Earp of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Your dad knew him?"
"Yes. He and Red were pallbearers at Wyatt Earp's funeral, along with Tom Mix and William S. Hart. But the O.K. Corral was not a gunfight, my dear. It was a hit. It was the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre of the Old West. And Wyatt Earp was a tinhorn and gangster and bald-faced liar."
"Really?" says Yvonna, stepping aside to allow in an old bag lady pushing a shopping cart loaded high with junk. The junk is neatly packed in clear plastic bags.
I say to Yvonna, "That's what we do here, ma'am, Red and me. We sell rare books about the Old West. Only our books are true to life. We don't hold with the Old West they got on television. We don't like novels. The whole world is based on novels. Even California is named after a mythical island in a fifteenth-century Spanish novel, an island rich with gold. If we stocked any Louis L'Amour paperbacks we'd have them classified as science fiction. Red and me, we don't like fairy tales about lightning-fast draws and pistols that shoot five hundred bullets and singing cowboys who wear fancy dude duds and kiss their horses. We like plain talk and plain people."
Red Kelso, my partner and my comrade-in-arms in the war against ignorant sons of bitches, emerges from the storage room in the back of the store.
"That's right, little darlin'," says Red Kelso, adjusting his steel-rimmed bifocals. "In Hollywood, an intellectual is anyone who buys a hardbackbook. The kid and me, we're fellers what likes to take an idea over by the light and have a good look at it. We're not too smart, but we have a real good time."
Red extends his hand to Yvonna in welcome and they shake hands vigorously.
Red says, "Most of our books are rare and out of print. We got a few mordern trade paperbacks, if we like the title, but we don't like pocket-size paperback books and we don't stock them. We don't stock book-club editions. We sell books, not junk. We like books that's been written by people who lived the story, cowboys, hard-rock miners, pioneer women, American Indian warriors, railroad men, explorers, frontier marshals, road agents, and mountain men. Or books about such people, if the writer will stick to the facts. In the Old West the real gold and silver were land and cattle. The kid and me don't like books by hacks like Zane Grey and Max Brand, who write pure undiluted horse manure, and we don't like academics who wouldn't know a horse from a pile of rocks but who spout stupid pet theories about the history of the Old West. Their ideas are too smooth and too small. We like books by people who have something to say, people who know something, not books by tenderfoots with wimpy little beards who mash up and misquote the words of honest men who had guts and vision into a disjointed stew and
then try--with a straight face--to pass that off as writing. I have seen the future and it is not worth reading."
Red shifts from his lecturing tone into courting sweet talk without missing a beat, and continues, "My name is Harlan Eugene Kelso. They call me Red from when I had hair back when I was a young Marine in France in the Great World War. I am ninety-six years old. I'm so old that at night I can hear the creak of my arteries hardening. I been in this store for more'n fifty years. I've had me six wives, some good ones and some mean ones, and I'd be mighty pleased and proud if you'd be number seven. And don't say that I'm too old for you. I'll never live to be as old as I look. I've always had the kind of face that looks lived in."
Yvonna looks at Red, then at me, then looks perplexed.
Red Kelso says, "Okay, so I'm suffering from an incurable illness called old age. If I knew I was going to live this long, I'd of taken better care of myself. But I got a dance or two left in me. If you don't marry me, little darlin', I'm going to donate my body to science. Hell, I might as well, for all the use I'm getting out of it."
Yvonna blushes and does not know what to say.
Red looks at Yvonna steadily, very serious, waiting for her answer, his face the kind of face usually found stamped on Roman coins, his body long, slender, and sinewy, his head as pale and as shiny as a cue ball. Red may be old, but he's still as sturdy as an oak stump.
Yvonna laughs and says, "Well, it's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Kelso. And I'm very flattered by your proposal, really, but, well, I'm sorry, I think I'm spoken for."
Red says to Yvonna, "Hell, girl, if you ain't gonna marry me the least you can do is call me Red." Then to me: "Better put your brand on this one, kid." Then he turns back to Yvonna and winks. "Did the kid tell you he was a war hero?"
Yvonna says, "Is that so?"
Red nods. "He was faster than the bullets. He's got a shoebox full of medals. The Navy Cross. Two Bronze Stars. Three Purple Hearts. And a hatful of ribbons."
I say, "Red, I don't think that everybody knows that you're my mother."
Red says to Yvonna, "The kid is secretly plotting to put me into a nurning home. In nursing homes they make you eat Jell-O, every day of the year, day in and day out, disgusting little green cubes of Jell-O, little green chunks of Jell-O that look like greasy croutons cut from the belly of a garden slug. You ever hear of anything as junkyard-dog mean as that?"
I say, "Red, you've been playing with yourself for so long that your brain is starting to collapse in on itself. When you die, they're going to have to beat your mouth to death with a stick."
Red says, "Don't fly off the handle at me, boy. You and your damned green Jell-O conspiracy." Red sits down in the squeaky swivel chair behind the gray metal desk by the door. "Stop staring at me. What am I, a damned TV?"
I say to Yvonna, "He sends back checks to televison evangelists. He gets checkbooks from different banks all over town and then sends out fat check to every television evangelist he can find, only he never puts any money into the accounts. He thinks that's funny."
With a straight face, Red says, "You damn right it's funny." He picks up a rope from the floor next to the desk and kicks an old beat-up and decaying stuffed calf that Red mounted on wheels forty wheels ago. The littlecalf shoots across the floor and bangs into a bookshelf. Red throws the rope and pulls the battered calf back to the desk, as he has done, it seems, at least three million times. To Yvonna, he says, "I spent thirty-five years of my life choking cows with ropes."
Red says, jerking the noose free and kicking the calf across the store again, "Kid, we got boxes of unpaid bills. We got bills like baby birds crying to be fed. Every nickel we got is tied up in this store, and every nickel we dont' have. We're about as broke as you can get outside of jail. It's time we sent out one last message from the Alamo: Dear Colonel Fannin: Help! We're in deep shit. Send money, guns, and lawyers. We better pray for divine intervention, kid, or we both gonna be working for wages and crying
in our beer. Sometimes I think you were born with cow shit in your ears, kid. Sometimes you just don't face facts. The Indians are coming over the walls like red rain and these days the cavalry refuses to make house calls unless you've got a major credit card. I ain't just flapping my arms to keep the vultures away, kid. I'm serious. We got to do something and we got to do it now because desperation is not pretty."
Before I can respond to Red's latest tirade, Mr. Peewee, our cat friend, appears. Mr. Peewee has a live hummingbird in his mouth, head first. Red bends down and takes off one of his battered old boots. Mr. Peewee is a tiny black and orange Burmese cat and he likes to sleep on Red's foot under the desk while Red waits on customers.
Mr. Peewee is a freelance cat; we don't own him. He copes with the problems of life well. Whenever Mr. Peewee finds something he doesn't understand, he eats it.
Yvonna squats down and plays finger monster with Mr. Peewee and coaxes him to give up the hummingbird. Mr. Peewee growls that particular cat growl that means back off and get out of my face, can't you see that I'm eating?
Finally, after much debate, Mr. Peewee spits out the hummingbird. Yvonna pets Mr. Peewee in gratitude, but Mr. Peewee, pissed off, growls, then trots over and plops down onto Red Kelso's naked foot.
Yvonna picks up the hummingbird and we examine it. In her hand, the hummingbird lies motionless except for the pounding of its bean-sized heart.
Yvonna takes the hummingbird outside, holds up her hand, and the hummingbird zings away, an iridescent dart of purple and green.
Suddenly the front door opens and a customer barges in, another bag lady pushing another shopping cart. The shopping cart is a chrome cage filled with the droppings of Western civilization and sports a small American flag.
Unfortunately, at exactly the same time as the second bag lady is trying to come in, the bag lady already inside the store is trying to leave. There is a loud metallic crash and the comic spectacle of a gruesome yet bloodless traffic accident. Dressed in clothes that would embarass a scarecrow, the bag ladies curse and squeal like two Beverly Hills matrons who have had a fender bender involving a Mercedes and a Rolls-Royce.
Yvonna, trapped outside, looks at me through the plate glass window. I shrug, helpless. Yelling over the noise of the squawking hysterical bag ladies, I explain, "What can I say, it's a typical day in the book business."
Red yells, "It sure ain't much when it comes to making money, Yvonna, but it beats all hell out of setting your watch to somebody else's time."
Mrs. Dance, our obnoxious landlady, appears at the front door, sees the traffic jam, and bulls her way through, no problem. Yvonna follows in her wake.
Mrs. Dance's clothes are always fire-engine red and she always wears so much pancake makeup that she looks like Emmett Kelly in drag. Her skin is as old and as baggy as Charlie Chaplin's trousers. Her eyeglasses have gold suspension strings and were designed to look like the tail fins on an Edsel. Her voluminous breasts are homing in toward gravity with a determination which no combination of undergarments can resist.
Since Mr. Dance died, Mrs. Dance has amassed an impressive collection of beefcake calendars and has had the hots for handsome young men with muscles, but she is not in the real world on that point. She is loud and aggressive and never uses a normal tone of voice. Preceded by the changing fury of her multitudinous bosoms, she swings her arms when she walks, so that she needs the whole sidewalk to herself. She has unfortunate teeth and thirteen of the ugliest cats I have ever seen. And she's like ugly on an ape on the subject of unpaid rent.
Mrs. Dance says, "I hope you high rollers are late with the rent, just one more time. Boy, that would be some real red dynamite. You know why? 'Cause I got me a better offer. Going to break your lease, cowboys, just give me an excuse. Go ahead, renters, make my day. I got me a guy who wants to put a real store in here. A store that don't pay its bills with Monopoly money. Skateboards--now there's a business with a future!"
"Horse apples," says Red. He twirls his rope and flings the loop at Mrs. Dance. "Come on, kid, let's string up the old mama grizzly bear."
Mrs. Dance sidesteps the rope loop, smirks, and says, "It's gonna be really, really, really fun being rich. Have a nice day, deadbeats."
She slams the door behind her.
I say to Yvonna, "The only real money we make these days is when the rich people from Beverly Hills send their maids over here to buy books fro interior decoration. They buy them by color. And they'll buy any book bound in leather, no matter what the title or subject, because they think leather-bound books make their dens look like the libraries of British aristocrats."
Red says, "Sold two books today, kid: a signed Tin-types In Gold. And a Santa Barbara edition of California Ranger. Some tourist from Utah. And before breakfast I took that key over to Westwood and picked up some high spots from the lawyer's office."
I say to Yvonna, "They can't put a skateboard store in here. Not enough turnover. A little bird told us that there's a syndicate planning to knock down the whole block and put in a Jack-In-The-Box fast food joint. California is the birthplace of the disposable building. Longhorn Books is living on borrowed time."
Red says, "Leads us to drink, me and the kid. Especially the kid. But then life's too scary to look at through sober eyes."
I say, laughing, "Hey, I don't drink all that much. JUst enough to keep my arms from falling out of my sleeves."
Yvonna says, "Why don't we drive down to the beach and watch the sunset? We can rent the honeymoon suite at the Bates Motel. We can suck face and bump uglies. What do you say? I'll buy you an ice cream." She smiles, and her dimples speak to me of love.
I say, "You know, Yvonna, you really are becoming my favorite waste of time."
Yvonna says, "Eat shit and die."
As we leave the store, I say to Red, as usual. "If Sophia Loren calls, tell her to stop pestering me."
Outside, Yvonna is studying
the lay of the land in the hot stage lights of the sun. Directly
across the street is an apartment building of mouse-colored stone, waiting
for some crazy film director to use it as a dressed set for a postholocaust
monster movie. To the right is the Black Pearl Bar, my favorite dark
corner of which, beneath an arch of red neon, has been christened THE CAFE
Next to the Black Pearl is an abandoned gas station with a sign that says BOB TUTTLE AUTO COLOR. And next to that there's Sweet Mamma's, identified only by a sign that says ADULT BOOKS. At the far end of the street is the Denmark Arms Hotel, the kind of place where old men with spit on their shirts go to die, the kind of place where the light bulbs are padlocked inside wire cages. We call the sidewalk in front of the hotel "dead peckers corner."
At the other end of the street is El Gato Rojo--The Red Cat Bar--where the patrons are almost exclusively illegal aliens.
On our side of the street the buildings on either side of us have been abandoned, then boarded up, then systematically vandalized by punk kids, trainee felons with nothing better to do than steal junk office furniture and old file cabinets abandoned by their original owners as worthless.
Standing in the golden California sun, knowing that I have been eaten by the monster of love, I say to Yvonna, "So now that you know who you're involved with, are you still going to be hanging around and pouring your fine body all over me? You could do better, you know."
With candy under her tongue, Yvonna kisses me, and answers me around the sweet wet tangle of her tongue inside my mouth, "Want me?"
I say, "I'm so horny I could fuck a mummy in the British Museum."
Two days later, at dawn,
my telephone rings.
I roll over in my army cot. With trembling hands I rub some of the spongy dark gray sleep from my hungover face. With my eyes still closed, I slap around on the floor until I find the phone. I pick up the receiver and say, "Huh?"
I say, "What?"
A voice says, "Dowdy? Dowdy? Is that you?"
"Yeah, yeah. Who is this?"
"It's me, Yvonna. I'm in jail. I need your help. Can you come? Can you get me out? Please. Please, Dowdy. I need you. I'm at the Alvarado Street Police Station in Silverlake. I've had my preliminary hearing. They're going to transfer me to the Sybil Brand Institute for Women tomorrow. My bail is fifty thousand dollars. Will you come?"
I say, "Fifty thousand dollars? Jesus. What's the charge? Can't your parents help?"
The voice says, "I have to go. I can't talk any longer. Will you come?"
I say, "I'll be there, Yvonna. I'm on my way."
There is no reply, only the monotonic honk of a disconnected line.
You get up and open
your sportsman's refrigerator and pull a few strands of greasy spaghetti
from a plate. I hold the spaghetti high and swallow cold albino worms
smelling like wet chalk and tasting like the glue they use for sticking
up circus posters.
This is very harsh news. Something about Yvonna's call is giving you that feeling you get when you're playing roulette and not matter what combination of numbers you play, you just can't get arrested. So, humiliated, and wanting to win at least one spin if only to boost your sagging morale, you put down your money on all thirty-six numbers and thumb your nose at fate and the odds, and then you stand laughing at the table, flat broke and busted, when double zero comes up on the wheel, as you knew it would.
In civilian life, every man walks point for himself, and there's no safe way to approach a friendly perimeter. Every step you take is a risk. Everybody is trigger-happy because everybody is afraid. Love is a no man's land where you must fear more than just your enemies. One false move in the dark and you get wasted by your friends. That's the spider in the Valentine.
You fill half of a large Flinstones drinking glass with cheap burgundy; you fill the rest of the glass with cheap vodka. You need a drink. You need two drinks. You need some hundred-dollar chips and a weekend in Reno. You need letters of transit for the plane to Lisbon. Yesterday, all your troubles seemed so far away, now suddenly your morale has got sore tits and you're getting that old gypsy good-time feeling. You feel wired, too, and full of energy, and your energy is focused to a sharp point, like a bayonet.
The losing card is in all of our decks and sooner or later we have to lay it on the table. Just when you think your cold deck is getting warmer, fate starts dealing seconds from the bottom of a stacked deck of marked cards. And if that doesn't work, fate cheats. Fate deals you five cards, one card at a time, face up, all black queens.
In the land of black queens and black dreams, no man can survive the death of luck.
The man who lives under a curse is the man who is capable of doing what is necessary.
Arranging to get Yvonna
out of jail is more fun than filling sanbags in the rain.
First I phone around in the Yellow Pages until I find a bail bondsman in Silverlake who is willing to take the bond. The bail bondsman promises to send one of his minions downtown to the courthouse to pick up the proper legal papers.
I am instructed by the bail bondsman to sign over, in triplicate and in blood, everything I own in the world. Red and I sign over Longhorn Books to cover the fifty-thousand-dollar bond.
Then I bounce around town in a panic flogging off to other rare-book dealers the juicy high-spot signed first editions I picked up from that hot little hardbody, the grieving Widow Blue, over in Brentwood. Of course, every dealer I talk to smells blood and rapes me.
I beg Dave Walker, my banker, for a loan of one thousand dollars and I'm stunned when he gives it to me in cash without complaint.
Red Kelso digs into the actual dirty sock he keeps hidden under his mattress out in the immobile Winnebago parked on cinder blocks in the alley behind the store. I wouldn't be surprised if Red were hoarding money with pictures of Stonewall Jackson on it. Red throws five hundred bucks into the pot, even though Red is the kind of guy who sweats when he breaks a fifty.
I am able to make up--just barely--five thousand dollars in cash, the 10 percent of the bond required to pay the bail bondsman his nonrefundable fee.
By the time I drive to Silverlake the orange sun is going down and the pink stucco cubes piled high on every hill turn orange and on every palm tree the palm fronds, now sharp-edged and black against an orange sky, are slapping and clacking, dry floppy blades brought to life by the wind.
The bail bondsman's
office is surrounded by vacant lots blocked off by cracked sidewalks apparently
put in for some big residential development that failed to get built.
The neighborhood is only a few blocks south of the glamorous Sunset Strip,
bu the Silverlake area is way down at the slumy bad-news end of the strip.
The light inside the bail bondsman's office is the only light for blocks. You can feel the youth gangs moving in the dark, checking their weapons for tonight's Viking attack upon the world of the Normans. Silverlake is not a safe place to be after sundown unless you happen to have brought along the family grenade launcher.
All alone in the center of a concrete checkerboard, the bail bondsman's office is a red brick building two inches smaller than a broom closet at Alcatraz.
On top of the building is a flickering red, white, and blue neon sign that says SERGEANT SUNSHINE BAIL BONDS. Leaning against a dirty Venetian blind is a dusty wooden sign that says OFFICE.
After parking my Jeep, I knock once on the door and go inside.
As I step into his office, Sergeant Sunshine leans way back in his cockroach-colored swivel chair and props his black iguana-skin cowboy boots up onto his coffee-colored desk. His face is locked into the permanent frown of a constipated Ukranian laundress.
Staring over Sergeant Sunshine's big beer belly, I say, "I'm Dowdy Lewis, Junior."
Chewing with energetic vengeance on an unlit cigar the size of the Goodyear Blimp, Sergeant Sunshine stares back at me but does not speak. Sergeant Sunshine has a black Vandyke beard and could pass as Wolfman Jack if Wolfman Jack had eyes that said: I am a person with the hummanitarian warmth of a pawnbroker and as much sloppy sentimentality as Jack the Ripper.
I repeat, "I'm Dowdy Lewis...We talked on the phone."
Sergeant Sunshine says, "You're late."
I say, "Hey, it's not easy coming up with five thousand dollars in cash. It takes time."
"Hey, that's not my problem, guy. You're too late. Come back tomorrow. We're closed." He points to a sign in the window. "Can't you read?"
I say, "Look, my friend is in jail. She's scared. I've got to get her out, right now. Tonight. I've brought the money you asked for."
Sergeant Sunshine says, "Read my lips. Leave. Take your shoes for a walk."
I say, "No, seriously, that's okay, really. An apology is not necessary."
With a look on his face like a drunk about to turn mean, Sergeant Sunshine sits up, leans forward, and says, "Get out of my office. Right now. And don't let the door leave splinters in your butt on your way out. That's the easy way. Want me to tell you the hard way?"
I say, "Sure, we might as well hear both versions." I lean down over the desk and I say, "I'm up in your face. I'm going to stay in your face until I get what I want. If you want me to move, then move me. But please, don't bore me. I really can't stand it when you bore me."
Sergeant Sunshine brings his monster cigar up and aims it at me. "You got a piece of business with me, you'll conduct your business on my terms. Maybe I've changed my mind, maybe not. If you try real hard, and are real nice, maybe you can convince me to throw you a bone."
I reach our for Sergeant Sunshine's tie. I grab the tie. I roll the tie around my fist. I jerk him forward. I say, "Let me put this into Giant Golden Book terms even you can understand. I want those papers. You are going to give me those papers. You are going to give them to me now, or you are going to give them to me after sixty seconds of pain. If you don't have the papers, then get your girdle on, sweet pea, because we are going to go to where they are and get them."
Sergeant Sunshine says, "Fat chance. You got me crying real tears here. Tell it to my lawyer."
I say, "What is your major malfunction, numbnuts? I am not going to argue with you. I'd draw you a picture, but I don't have time. Some people are like cheap television sets. Some people need to be thumped on the side of the head until they get the picture. Put the papers on your desk, immediately fucking now, or I am going to tie your tie into a knot with your neck still in it. I'll pop your eyes out all over this room. I will break your hands in this desk drawer until your hands are claws. And then I'll pull out the desk drawer and I'll use it to pound the teeth out of your face. Are we communicating?"
Sergeant Sunshine says, choking, "Hey, champ, what's your problem?"
Letting go of Sergeant Sunshine's tie, I say, "I don't have a problem. It's just that my religion forbids me to take shit from anybody."
Sergeant Sunshine says, smoothing out his tie, "I don't give shit. I don't take shit. I am not in the shit business."
I drop a fat rubber-banded wad of one-hundred-dollar bills and it rolls across the desk and bounces off of Sergeant Sunshine's beer belly. "Five thousand dollars," I say. "Cash."
Sergeant Sunshine grunts, looks down at the money, but won't touch it. He says, "Parking-meter money."
I say, "This morning on the phone you thought it was a big-assed amount of money. I could hear you sweating waiting to count it."
Sergeant Sunshine grins. He says, glancing down, "I've got a gun in this drawer."
I laugh and sit down on the edge of the desk. "If you've got a gun, but it's in that drawer, it might just as well be in fucking China. You try pulling a gun on me, I'll blow your fucking kneecaps off and leave you here. Maybe you'll live, maybe you won't. If you do live, maybe they'll let you sell pencils down at the bus station."
Sergeant Sunshine says, "Let me give you a nickel's worth of free advice. Don't bail this broad out. I'm trying to do you a favor. Walk away. Forget it. Get drunk. Get laid. Watch TV. Women are the measure of a man's weakness. Don't be a sucker who believes in happy endings."
I say, "You're not a shrink, so you don't have to understand me. And I'm not going to tell you what I think, because you don't deserve to know. She is my friend. I've done a lot of cruddy things, cowardly chickenshit things, things a geek wouldn't do, but I have never betrayed a friend. I want the papers and I want them now. The talking is over."
Cautiously, in slow motion, Sergeant Sunshine reaches into a wire tray on his desk and pulls out a single sheet of pink paper and slides it across the coffee-colored desk to me. "I'll give you the paper, friend. And I'll cover your bond, every dime of it." He laughs. "I guess I've betrayed more of my friends than I can remember, but I have never welshed on my end of a business deal."
Picking up the paper, I say, "So why all the nickel-and-dime hard-assing?"
Sergeant Sunshine says, "I just want to know that you can handle yourself. I wanted to know that your promise is worth more than a popcorn fart. You've got to produce one warm body for trial at the right time and at the right place or you will lose your bond. And I sure as shit don't need a bookstore. There are more excuses for defaulting on a bond than there are recipes for chili. If I had a dime for every slimeball I've had jump bail on me, I'd have a lot of dimes. I try not to trust people more than I have to. It puts them under too much of a strain."
I say, "Yvonna Lablaine will be in court. I give you my word."
"I don't want assurances," says Sergeant Sunshine, "I want guarantees. I don't have any pencils with erasers for those who admit their mistakes. My philosophy is live and let live as long as I get my end of the deal in cash. You start to get into my pocket, I see you as trouble. I don't accept excuses, I don't accept alibis. I only accept gold and United States currency. I don't have a good side. I wouldn't give a blind man the dust off of my car. I wouldn't piss into your chest if your heart was on fire. You short me the price of a stick of gum and you'll be wearing your balls for earrings."
I say, "Careful, now, you're going to hurt my feelings."
"Listen," says Sergeant Sunshine. "You just listen to me, because I have got some very clean information, worth its weight in vital organs. This Lablaine broad is hooked up with some bad people, people you don't want to know. She's a junkie with an armful of stolen money. They nailed her for possession of a few O-Zs, but the word on the street is that she's sitting on a heavy chunk or horse and it don't belong to her. The D.A. wants to squeeze her and the wise guys want her dead. There ain't enough cabbage in the bank to get me to cross the mob. You start jerking these mob boys around by their neckties and you'll be found floating belly up under the Santa Monica pier with a meat hook through your head."
I say, "Let's keep this among the front-porch boys and leave the peddlers out of it, okay? What's your angle in this deal? Why get involved? Where's your sugar?"
"Well, everybody knows that I'm not really a player. I just pick up the scraps. I'm part of the woodwork. So the risk for me is relatively small. In risk, there is oppurtunity. I don't really trust you, Dowdy Lewis, Junior, but I'm more greedy than I am cautious. I smell money. I like to get my fat stubby fingers into deals where I smell money. The word on the street is that there's a nice chunk of money rolling around loose somewhere close to this Yvonna Lablaine."
I say, "Thanks for the information. And the warning. I'll remember you in my will."
Sergeant Sunshine picks up the big green roll of hundred-dollar bills on his desk. "You need a receipt? Or do you trust me?"
I say, "Give me the receipt. I trust you about as far as I could fart a cue ball."
Sergeant Sunshine laughs, picks up a fat, black fountain pen, laughs again. He scribbles out a receipt and hands it to me.
He says, "Fair enough."
I drive over to the
jail on Alvarado and turn over the legal document given to me by Sergeant
Sunshine, the bleeding-heart bail bondsman, to a black-browed pogue desk
sergeant. The desk sergeant is sitting on a high stool behind a screened
and barred window set into the wall at the far end of a dirty lobby.
I stand in the police station sucking on an orange--a trick I learned when I was an LAPD patrol officer--it gets rid of the smell of booze.
The desk sergeant is annoyed because I have disturbed his reading of The Wall Street Journal. The desk sergeant is about fifty, just starting to go to seed. His uniform is starched and creased and black.
An assortment of folded, spindled, and mutilated people sit on worn benches in the lobby and wait for the creaking machinery of the law to cough up their loved ones, their relatives, or their partners in crime.
The desk sergeant grinds the gears in his simple but sturdy brain, picks up a phone, mumbles a secret cop code into the receiver, and gestures for me to take a seat. "Sit over there and wait," he says, his voice as flat as Kansas.
While I wait, sucking my orange, the pogue desk sergeant nods forward like a sleepy Marine on guard duty and looks as though he's about to faint, like he's about to O.D. on boredom. The desk sergeant looks as though he has been sitting on the same stool and reading the same issue of the same newspaper for the past twenty years. He glances up at the clock every five minutes, and every five minutes he lip syncs a prayer for his shift to end. I spent four years in a black-and-white on the street.
Thank God I quit the
department before I woke up one morning and found myself transformed into
While I wait, I try not to breathe. The lobby is getting a little ripe, and smells of sweat, stale cigarette smoke, whiskey, dirty feet, and vomit. It is a police department policy that all police station lobbies must smell like the rhino tank at the zoo.
I've been waiting for over an hour when an old woman in a dirty white nurse's uniform comes in and puts on a show with the desk sergeant, complaining angrily that the neighborhood kids keep trying to set fire to her cat. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The desk sergeant ignores the nurse but allows her to kick and yell and send automatic bursts of obscenities ricocheting around the room until, finally, satisfied, she stomps out of the lobby. The nurse spreads a nauseating cloud of gaseous sugar through the lobby as she goes. The noisy old nurse with the highly flammable cat is wearing industrial-strength perfume.
The law is not pretty.
I've been waiting in
the lobby for two hours when Yvonna walks out through a side door, her
attention focused on pawing through the contents of a large manilla property
envelope. She seems to be searching for something that's not there
Now that Yvonna is finally out of the lockup, she doesn't have much to say to me. We both have to sign some odious government paperwork for the pogue desk sergeant, and then we're free to go.
Yvonna, vampire-pale and with black bags under her bloodshot eyes, is wearing white tennis shorts and a black T-shirt upon which a woman's cartoon face exclaims in a dialog bubble a sentence punctuated under the cloth by the hard lump of an engorged nipple: I CAN'T BELIEVE I FORGOT TO HAVE CHILDREN.
Yvonna kisses me on the cheek, twice, mumbles a few lame expressions of gratitude, then excuses herself to go to the ladies' room.
Left alone with a piece of paper, Yvonna's release slip, I read: "possession of heroin."
I ask the desk sergeant for the straight skinny, the story behind the paperwork. The desk sergeant looks up from scanning the stock market quotations in the newspaper and says, "That one? The looker? Oh, she's just another uptown junkie. You know, a heroin addict. She was muling smack. Open and shut."
I wait for an entire half hour before I barge into the ladies' room to a chorus of screams, kicking in the stalls and looking for Yvonna.
I return to the lobby and run up and down and all around, searching. I ask the pogue desk sergeant if he was seen the looker. No luck.
I run out the back door of the police station. I run down dirty steel-colored tunnels that are deserted alleys and I'm like a rat in a maze until I'm coughing and wheezing and I just can't run anymore.
Yes, no doubt about it, this is shaping up into a major malfunction Gypsy good time.
A sucker is born every minute and in America they live forever.
Or, as my father liked to say, there are more horses's asses in this world than there are horses.