by Pat Nolan
Blackie had his repair shop at the rear of the antique store. Delicate cut glass and enameled trays, porcelain knick-knacks and art deco jewelry, chipped Chippendale settees and Tiffany lamps filled the gloomy antique space of mirrored shelves and mahogany hat racks. A heavy beaded curtain disguised the entrance to the brightly lit confusion of motorcycle frames and engine parts. An assortment of wrenches and sockets along with glass jars filled with odd nuts, bolts, springs, and pins were neatly arranged along the back of a workbench. I examined the collection of mementos above it while Blackie fussed with Mr. Coffee. Besides the motorcycle jacket framed trophy-like with Blackie emblazoned below the larger patch that read Road Devils, the rogue’s gallery of black and white photos told an intriguing story.
There was a smiling Blackie leaning on a big motorcycle with his arm around a beautiful blonde betty. Why he was known as Blackie was evident from the commanding jet-black pompadour. Among the assortment of snapshots were a few professional photos of a beautiful woman in a postwar coif smiling confidently at the camera. There were group pictures: Blackie and his pals with their motorcycles sporting tight sleeveless white t-shirts, sunglasses, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. In one, a young man in an Army uniform looked out of place. Another large group photo depicted a line of young men posing with their machines and attendant women in front of a flat roofed industrial building with a sign that read Blackie’s Hole over the doorway. Blackie’s arm was around the woman in the studio photo. There was something radiant about her smile, one that instantly beguiled. I knew that smile. Intimately. Most of the women were attired in short denim jackets or peasant blouses, pedal pushers and sandals, with their big hair wrapped in decorative scarves. From her broad smile, one of the girls appeared quite proud of the way she filled out a knit tube top. She looked very familiar. Perplexed, I realized I was looking at a young Rhonda. Blackie had come to look over my shoulder.
“That’s Arlene.” He said pointing at the photo.
“That’s not Rhonda?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s Rhonda there, next to Chip. No, this is Arlene here in the picture with me.” He was smiling at the old memories. “This is her here, too. She was a model. Kinda like you.”
Blackie was right. She had the poise of a fashion model. And she had the right kind of cheekbones.
“Hell, we were all models back then. The women you see here were some of the hottest models in Los Angeles. Most of these guys were surfers or bikers who also did a little modeling, part time.” He looked at me and his smile widened, mischievously. “Hey, there was a demand for photos of tan muscular men.”
“And big breasted women will never go out of style, certainly not in men’s imaginations,” I had to add.
Blackie had an easy laugh that undoubtedly had enchanted more than one young woman. “Oh yeah, well, Rhonda, she graduated.” The tips of his ears turned pink. He pointed to the man in the uniform. “That’s my older brother, Al. He was killed in Korea. And this guy here, with Rhonda, is Charlie Pierce. Everyone called him Chip. He was Rhonda’s first husband. He lost a leg in a motorcycle accident.” Blackie shook his head. “He got hooked on drugs because of it. Rhonda got into her line of work to support his habit. But he overdosed. She really loved the guy.” Blackie cleared his throat of the burr of emotion that had crept in. “This place in the picture was a garage where we hung out and worked on our bikes. Tommy Perro, this guy here.” He pointed to a short muscular man, cigarette jutting jauntily from the corner of his mouth. “He’s the one who painted the sign over the door. We never called it that. It was always ‘the place’ or ‘the box’.”
JJ had told me a little about Blackie when I had once asked about the good-looking old guy hosing down the sidewalk in front of the office. She had made some lame joke like ‘Blackie Widower’ but I also learned that his wife, Arlene, had run the antique store while Blackie puttered around in the workshop. After his wife died, he had kept the business open in her memory. It had always been called Blackie’s Antiques and Motorcycle Repair Shop. That had been Arlene’s idea. She thought that the unusual name would bring in the curious. It did, but, according to JJ, the curious just like to look, they rarely buy anything.
“How old are you in this picture?” I pointed to the one with him astride a big motorcycle. He didn’t look older than seventeen.
Blackie gave a laugh that started as a groan, as if reaching that far back stretched some memory muscles he hadn’t used in a while. “There? I’d say about twenty. Or close to it. I always looked young for my age. I was being carded well into my thirties. How old do you think I am? Now.”
I passed an appraising glance over his trim figure. He looked solid enough though his leathery weathered face was creased with the erosion of age. I imagined that it was the full head of hair, even shockingly white, that knocked the years off. “Oh, sixty something.”
He nodded, smiling appreciatively at the graciousness of my guesstimate just as Mr. Coffee came to life, ejecting a stream of dark aromatic liquid into the carafe amidst a grumble of boiling water.
“How do you like yours? Cream? Sugar?”
I told him sugar, no cream. And I had guessed right, he took his black. The rain, as if cued by the coffee maker, started in earnest. It was a heavy rain and it banged on the metal storage shed out behind the shop and fell elsewhere with an earth-denting thud, etching itself onto the tiny dirt-smeared window that let in a skimping gray light. I brought the cup to my lips. I didn’t want to miss a word of what Blackie had to tell me.
Arlene and Rhonda had been inseparable friends when Blackie met them hanging out on Venice beach. They were young, they were wild, they were supremely confident in their prospects. His description of the modeling scene in the early fifties confirmed that nothing had really changed or would change in the dog-eat-dog backstabbing world of commercial modeling. The sheer boredom of photo shoots, the humiliating treatment by the photographers, the indignities suffered, the mammoth egos of dueling star models were all very familiar to me. He could write a book, he said, name names, about who did what to whom and who wanted it done, all the dirty behind-the-scenes manipulations of the agents and fashion magazine editors. It was a sad comment on human nature, the blind, lustful, grasping sickness for fame and fortune that only led to certain emptiness. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
By sheer accident, Blackie and his gang of Road Devils, on a road trip up the coast, had turned inland onto Highway 8 at Feather and stopped in Timberton. Arlene had taken one look around and claimed to have found paradise. The pines, the firs, the redwoods, the river all spoke to her spiritual inner self. Blackie couldn’t argue with that. When they got back to LA, they packed a few suitcases, sold everything they couldn’t carry and moved up to the Corkscrew River.
A chair scraping across the floor above broke the spell and reminded me that I was directly below the Grapevine’s office and that the furniture moving was probably being done by my erstwhile editor, JJ. Blackie’s story had been diverting but I still had to find the Countess.
“She and her boyfriend live a cardboard box under the bridge,” Blackie volunteered. “But don’t go down there now, you’ll get drenched. I’ll go with you once the rain lets up.”
I wasn’t in a hurry to get wet. Besides, the strong coffee was beginning to have an effect on me. Blackie read my look and pointed to the door near the entrance to his shop and a small, reasonably clean bathroom. With the door closed, the noises from the office above resonated in the confined space. I heard JJ talking. She was on the phone. I tried not to believe my ears.
“No, Miss Malone will be unable to make the appointment with Detective Santos. I will be taking her place.”
THE CARDBOARD CASTLE
My satin high heels were sucked into the oily mire of the narrow path snaking its way through the tangle of undergrowth. Tall, brown and dead, the weeds on either side blocked any peripheral view. Up ahead, a bridge loomed in tatters of mist. Colorful scraps of food wrappers festooned the occasional shaggy shrub. Lucky Charms cereal boxes and a scattering of beer cans adorned an open space of matted grass at the edge of the trail. Dogs barked in the distance. A rusty bike missing its seat leaned against a fence post.
The trail led down toward the Corkscrew River, a roiling rushing gray mass carrying anything in its path out to the sullen winter sea. Plastic containers, barrels, and old tires bobbed by on the suds-specked waters accompanied by various pieces of lawn furniture. The sign from a local resort jammed against the branches of a large uprooted tree drifted by, its claim to be Close To The River still readable above the water line. Smoke from cooking fires rose in the distance, blue threads against the dark of the mist-bound bridge.
It was taking me forever to get to the homeless encampment. I thought I heard birds and then spied two rather ratty specimens. They were in fact attached to sticks held in the hand of an adolescent guttersnipe. He made bird noises but they were more like the kissing sounds made to call a four-legged pet. He had been paralleling my path in the tall weeds all along and I hadn’t even noticed.
I was experiencing a kind of tunnel vision that only allowed a view of the world within the narrow frame of a full-length mirror in a dressing room. In that mirror I was wearing an orange and gold Felliniccio evening gown. I should have never worn the matching high heels. They were ruined.
I came to a clearing. A blue tarp was draped over a length of rope between two trees. Sections from a large cardboard box made a kind of floor beneath the blue tent. Motorcycle parts were lined up on a gray blanket next to a smoldering campfire. Sheets of discarded newspaper clung to the dingy bushes nearby. The path continued past a cluster of campsites, widening out into a trampled muddy bog.
A dog lunged from behind a shopping cart piled high with empty cans and bottles. It looked just like Hitler, Goldstein’s old Airedale. Maybe he hadn’t been shot after all. Maybe he’d just been kidnapped. The mud-spattered urchin, now a young girl with a wreath of dead flowers braided into her hair, followed me with the artificial birds. They were supposed to be finches but the sounds she gave them were like cats in heat.
Under a large oak dripping with lichen, a man in Bermuda shorts, seedy sports coat and straw hat stood as if waiting for a bus. The hair showing beneath the man’s hat was made of twists of orange yarn. The red ball of a clown nose covered his own. Folded in one pocket of his coat was a pornographic magazine, the pictures of nude flesh neon in the gray light. He lifted his hat in mute greeting and the curls of wool rose with it.
I was about to ask for directions when I saw it, tucked against the concrete embankment of the bridge like a wasp’s nest. An assemblage of large appliance boxes and packing crates had been fitted together to make a curious dwelling atop the riprap where the Timberton bridge began its span across the river. A turret had been fashioned out of cardboard and spires made of discarded lumber were strung with shabby pennants. The rocky slope to the cardboard condo was covered with green slime. I lost my footing and tottered over the foul swirling eddies.
When I regained my balance I was sitting inside a rather spacious cardboard room with a low ceiling that read this side up and a tattered Persian rug covering the dirt floor. A shaggy gray dog snuffled in his sleep behind the back of a woman whose shoulders were draped in an intricately embroidered gypsy shawl. She was cooking something over a low fire. It struck me as odd that the smoke wasn’t filling the cardboard enclosure. Occasionally, the flames from the cooking fire would rise and encompass her figure like an aura. A large badly dressed marionette was perched next to her. Bothered by the absence of smoke, I pushed open a flap that had been cut into the cardboard wall.
What I saw chilled me. I opened my mouth to scream but no sound came out, as if I were posing for Munch’s famous painting. The two men from the gray van with their Doberman in the lead were running up the path. I had to hide but there was nowhere to go. Terrified, I clutched my knees and hid my face in my arms. Maybe they wouldn’t find me. I waited. When I raised my head, they were standing in front of me, the oily skinny creep and the large bearded brute, grinning menacingly. The Doberman was inches away from my face, barking, barking like the ringing of a telephone.
I awoke and fumbled with the phone, glancing at the clock on the bedside table. It was 3:30 in the morning.
“Leeann? Leeann Malone?” The man’s voice was gruff, grave. He didn’t wait for me to answer. “Leeann, this is Harrison Tucker.” Harrison Tucker was my mother’s lawyer. And he had been my stepfather’s partner in the investment firm. My stepfather had another name for him, one not used in polite company. “Leeann,” he repeated, “Your mother’s in the hospital with pneumonia.”
I sighed. A week earlier I had told my mother that I didn’t think I’d be flying back to Chicago for the holidays. Now, a few days before Christmas, she had found a way of changing my mind. “How bad is she?” I asked.
“She’s in the intensive care. They’re doing tests.”
If I knew my mother, the hospital staff being was being tested. To the limit.
“I’ve taken the liberty of booking you a flight out of Capitol City Airport. It leaves in three hours. I knew that you’d want to be at her bedside in her time of need.” Harrison Tucker assumed too much. My mother had taken up with him after Frank died. And unlike Frank, she had him wrapped around her little finger. But I wasn’t going to take the chance that this was the one time she wasn’t crying wolf. Shaking the sleep out of my hair, I wrote down the flight information and hung up. I dragged myself into the bathroom and startled myself with the bright light above the mirror. I looked bedraggled, like a bad dream. A wind driven rainstorm pounded the landscape with an urgent howl outside the tiny window. The image of the cardboard palace was still fresh in my mind.
I hate the way these things come to me. Call it what you want, a hunch, woman’s intuition. The bodies in the burned out gray van had included a dog. The police report had not indicated whether one of the bodies was that of a woman. I had a gut feeling that one of them was.
MY HOME TOWN
I hate Chicago. I hate Chicago in the winter. I hate that the snow is not white but a sooty gray. I hate that the chill winds swirl through the high-rise canyons, around your legs and up your skirt, so cold and impersonal. I love the view of Lake Michigan from my mother’s townhouse, sheeted over with ice and snow. I hate my mother’s townhouse. It’s a museum. Not a museum of Louis the XIV furniture or art deco lamps or Japanese prints. It’s a museum of me.
As soon as I landed at O’Hare, I took a cab to the hospital. Even in her heavily medicated condition my mother had cocked an eye at me and said, “You’re letting your hair grow.” I’d been spending my time between her bedside and the townhouse since I arrived. I couldn’t decide which was worse, being tortured by images of myself on every wall in every nook and cranny of the townhouse or sitting at my mother’s bedside watching her struggle to breathe.
The hospital was putting on its festive face for the holidays. There were decorated trees in all the alcoves. Strings of tiny lights festooned the frames of the corporate art on the walls. The nurses wore little red and green ribbon corsages by their nametags or sported Christmas ornament earrings. Good cheer was in the air despite the sickness and pain, the daily expirations, and the low ominous hum of the life support machines. I got to know a few of the nurses, some of whom recognized me from the fashion media. “Say, weren’t you in that perfume ad?” was an often asked question. “You’re still gorgeous” was the chorus.
On the walls of my mother’s townhouse were the constant reminders of how gorgeous I was. There were poster sized photo portraits of me by the cream of world famous photographers in the foyer. Discreetly off to one side before entering the glass walled living room was an Oglethorpe nude of me, all white flesh and black background. I was naked but none of my private parts showed. Not that any of my parts were ever private once I became a professional beauty. Still it was pronounced the most seductive image of the century. The oil baron who had privately commissioned the portrait had made that pronouncement. In the formal dining room, taking up a good part of the wall above the chrome and glass table was the most scandalous portrait of all. It was the canvas that the controversial painter, René de Ricane, had done of me, a thicket of violent brushstrokes whose suggestiveness left little to the imagination. My face, as they say, may have launched a thousand ships, but according to the painting, my body was responsible for as many shipwrecks. It was titled la Siréne, The Siren.
I had spent two weeks alone with de Ricane in an old convent that he had converted into a studio near Pau at the base of the Pyrenees. When he wasn’t painting, he was drinking red wine made from grapes he grew himself and smoking vile Turkish cigarettes. And he talked constantly, about art, about history, about politics, about the cinema. But most of all about his sex life, wheezing wistfully about his conquests and the one that got away, a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other on the terrace overlooking his sunset tinged vines. He had been born before the turn of the century and had known most of the significant artists of his time and judged them all to be charlatans. At first I tuned out his babble. He was as bad as cocaine high fashion photographers with their inane chatter. He was certainly more demanding, wrenching me into poses that no fashion magazine would dare show.
Maybe it was turpentine intoxication, but after a couple of days the words started leaking through. What he was saying actually made sense unlike the double-speak of agents, fashion magazine editors, and sycophants. I started having thoughts of my own. I’d never had this kind of time to myself before. I had to hold poses for interminable hours. At first there was pain and discomfort, then numbness. There were times that I felt that I had left my body and was watching myself from a corner of the studio. What I saw was sad as well as beautiful in the way that birth and death are sad and beautiful. At the end of the two weeks de Ricane had grudgingly put aside the painting. “It will never be finished,” he proclaimed, “until you come to terms with your beauty.” He gave up the commission from the wealthy patron and handed the canvas over to me instead. “This will be your Dorian Gray,” he pronounced. A week later he gave up the ghost. I was left with a painting worth six figures that ostensibly had supernatural qualities and the conviction that I had to live my life differently. It’s more complicated than it sounds. In forging a new life, some destruction must take place. And it did. With it came the reputation that trails me like a tantalizing scent to this day.
Harrison Tucker insisted that I accompany him to a holiday society gala. I wore an original Jean Claude Penne that mother had saved, preserved in plastic like an artifact in the closet of the bedroom that she insisted would always be mine. I wasn’t surprised that it still fit. Once I stepped out of the limousine though, I knew it was a mistake. Bursts of camera flashes greeted me and I was swarmed by emotionally starved men in expensive suits and women who had made the wrong fashion decision, all wanting to have their picture taken with me. I was powerful yet I felt powerless. I signaled the valet and stayed only long enough for the driver to bring the limo back around.
I spent Christmas day at my mother’s bedside. One of the nurses brought me a plate of dry turkey, chewy mashed potatoes, gooey gravy, and runny cranberry sauce from the cafeteria and wished me a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah. I was grateful for the lack of attention. The society columnist with the Tribune that day noted my brief attendance at the gala, intimating that I was either rude, on drugs, or both. I had to face it. I was still a bad girl in my hometown.
I held mother’s soft mottled hands and couldn’t help noticing how much mine were beginning to resemble hers. Sometimes she was there, sometimes she wasn’t. I would get that glowing look of recognition when she woke to see me or a vague troubled frown when she didn’t recognize her surroundings. She had been a strong woman once, a gorgeous, vivacious woman, born in the Ukraine. I was a lucky combination of my father’s cocky Irish manner and her classic good looks. The way I looked was money in the bank to her, the epitome of the American dream. I had been packaged and sold. I’d come to terms with that long ago.
Harrison Tucker made an attempt to get me out for a New Year’s Eve soiree with some society stiffs. I begged off. I wanted to start the New Year off with mother. I’d picked up a doorstop of a paperback at the airport and caught up on my reading while mother slept.
The night nurse peeked in. “How’s everything going in here?” she asked. I indicated my dozing mother and smiled a “just fine.” She tiptoed over to my chair and whispered, “All the nurses and interns are going to watch the ball drop and have champagne in the waiting room. You should join us.”
I set the book aside and looked at mother. She wouldn’t miss me. A small group of nurses and doctors wearing funny hats clustered around the TV in the waiting room. I was offered a plastic cup of champagne and wished a Happy New Year. The ball dropped and still Dick Clark did not look a year older. Maybe he was father time. There was a tiny outburst of cheering suitable for a hospital zone and a lot of kissing. A young intern in his early twenties wanted to kiss me. I let him. One of the nurses had flipped the channel to a news station. A reporter was holding a microphone in a man’s face. It was Blackie! I grabbed the remote from the startled nurse and turned up the volume. Blackie was saying, “. . .well, the river rises like this once every ten years or so, but this is the highest I’ve ever seen it.” The caption below the report read Corkscrew River overflows banks. . . Evacuations ordered. It was good to see Blackie in his yellow slicker, rain dripping off his face, apparently unperturbed by it all. Then it was as if I’d stepped on a live wire. The TV showed a view of Timberton under water and the camera zoomed in on a man towing a rowboat with a rope down Main Street. Another man was hunched over, shivering, in the boat with a large brown dog. It was the unholy trio: the large bearded bully from the gray van, his greasy, rat faced partner, and their cockroach colored Doberman. Very much alive.