Thursday, March 10, 2011
Stairway To The Cloudy Stars (red COFFEE Chapter 4)
It wasn’t quite breakfast time when I was already standing on a tiny platform at Paramount Studios, standing erect as pins were being jammed into the material of the fancy dress I was swathed in. The pins went in farther and farther, just barely missing the flesh of my arms, my hips and my thighs. If these pins come any closer I’m going to bleed over the fabric. Lois Angelus, Hollywood fit model was being treated more like a voodoo doll than a mannequin.
King Vivian, the costume designer for this picture told his assistant, “The seam on the waist needs to be pinned more to the right, otherwise we’ll have an unsightly pucker”, and “Pull out that pin and lower it half-an-inch lower”. The outfit being fitted was for a costume epic, “The Fall of The Roman Empire”. Warren William’s stand-in was waiting impatiently for his chance to be fitted, occasionally glaring at me, holding me personally responsible somehow for his long wait. As if moviegoers will spend more time looking at Warren William’s outfit instead of Constance Bennett’s. Well, too bad. Men’s costuming always came after women’s.
King Vivian consulted his design sketches the way an architect looks over his floor plan, glancing from the sketch to the assistants carefully pinning the material around me. “What do you think, Mr. Vivian?” a production assistant asked him.
“We have the wrong girl, she’s so tall and Miss Bennett is so short. Why did they send her here? We’ll just have to scale everything down. She’s got perfect legs, perfect breasts and the tiniest hips but not really the size we want. Oh well, we’ll just have to work with it”.
Warren William's stand-in began pacing in circles harrumphing and cartoon coughing, making his disgust quite vocal. King Vivian’s seamstress, a little Prussian woman finally ran up to him and yelled, “Go in other room and sit down – will call for you”. The stand-in looked visibly hurt!
I had a lunchtime date with my agent Miss Lillywhite, who promised to offer me moral support when I’ll go to the Hollywood Precinct station to report everything I know about my night with the late Darby Wells. Miss Lillywhite was a mystery to us models; nobody knew her first name or even knew if she was really a “Miss” or once a “Mrs.”. All we knew was that she was proud of her friendship with Hemingway, old Gertrude Stein and Picasso. She hated F. Scott Fitzgerald though, calling him an alcoholic cry-baby. “And what a pain in the ass that wife was! Even my models never gave me that much trouble!” Although she was getting fed up with Vi from Norway.
“We’ll call you next week for the Hepburn fitting”, King Vivian smiled before he dismissed me so he could deal with the William fitting.
I had time to kill so I walked down Hollywood Boulevard in my sunglasses, slowly perusing the penny arcade seductively inviting me. I walked into a cacophony of explosive sounds and flashing lights. There was Harry The Drunken Clown, laughing and dancing for you, Los Tres Mariachis, Mexican marionettes playing weepy music, old pinball games of chance, little peep show machines “French Dames Say Oui-Oui, Grown-Ups Only”, guys eyeing me and then looking into their peep scopes. The juke box in the corner was playing hot jazz very loudly, too loudly.
A fortune teller machine loomed above me with a huge mannequin of an exotic old gypsy witch with a veil and a deck of Tarot cards in front of her. Madame Hindou.
The sign above her head promised in large golden script, “MADAME HINDOU PEDICTS YOUR FATE AND FORTUNE FOR ONLY A NICKEL. DO YOU DARE TO LOOK DESTINY IN THE EYE? MADAME HINDOU TELLS ALL!”
I stood back and lowered my sunglasses to get a better look at her. “Okay, Madame Hindou, I guess it’s just you and me. Let’s both look destiny in the eye, shall we?”
I plunked down my hard-earned nickel (earned working for geniuses like King Vivian, thank you). The light above Madame Hindou’s head glowed and the theme from “Scheherazade” played, her eyes robotically blinked a few times, her wrinkled hands mechanically hovering around the cards below her, The Hanged Man, The Lovers, The Tower, Temperance and all the rest. In less than a minute a small ticket spat out of a slot below the fortune teller.
“The stairway to the stars is cloudy – be careful”. I frowned at this silly message, and spat, “Nuts!”
A woman laughed uproariously behind me. “Did you get taken for a nickel by that brazen gypsy? Well, serves you right!” Miss Lillywhite smiled. “Getting your advice from dummies now, are you? Well you know what they say about girls that do that, don’t you?”
I gave her a sheepish grin. “I was just killing time before our meeting at the police station”.
“Too late. It looks like you’ve already been robbed!”
“Psst!” Miss Lillywhite hissed. “Stop biting your nails!”
“Well, you won’t let me smoke!” I hissed back.
“You can smoke later, shhh! Here he comes!”
We were seated in Lieutenant Sparta’s office when he bounded over to his desk and plopped his burly frame down.
“Good afternoon ladies”, he shuffled a handful of paperwork, “You called in yesterday saying you had some inside information about the sailor that was found dead in the park a few miles away from a bar called….”
“…The Screen Test”.
“The Screen Test, yes, of course, okay, so tell me what you know”.
“Do we need a stenographer?”
“Not yet. I need to hear what you’ve got first, then we’ll see if it’s worth recording”.
“Oh, okay. Well, I met Darby Wells at The Screen Test, we had a few drinks and talked for awhile”.
“What time was this?”
“Around 9 pm, and –“
“How long were you with him?”
“Well, about half an hour, more like forty-five minutes, actually”.
“I see, Sailor Wells was found dead around midnight, so you left him about two hours before his body was discovered. Hmmmm, that’s not much to go on”.
He pulled out a pipe shaped like a bulldog, got a pouch of cherry-smelling tobacco on his desk and tamped some of it in the bowl of his pipe. I could tell he was starting to get bored.
“But it’s like this, Lt. Sparta, he seemed pretty agitated. I saw him argue with two guys at the bar before we talked, and he kept looking over at them like they were just staring at him all night”.
Sparta put his pipe down. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Did you get a look at these mugs?”
“Well, yes, but –“ I stammered, frozen and mute.
“- But? Yes??? Give me a description, hair color, eye color, were they thin, heavy set, something/anything?”
“I, uh, well, they were, uh-“
“Come on, Lois, try to remember”, Miss Lillywhite urged.
“Well, it’s hard. The club was so dark, and all I saw were shabby clothes…they were kind of thin…with their shabby clothes they looked like scarecrows”.
“Scarecrows? That’s it?”
“That’s what they reminded me of. Scarecrows”.
“Oh, I see”, he picked up his pipe and lit it. “Two scarecrows walk into a bar and then they kill a sailor much, much later”.
“I know it sounds crazy, but-“
“Well, it’s not much to go on. I’ll tell you what, we’ll send a detective down to The Screen Test to check things out. Leave your address with my secretary and he’ll probably want to talk to you, too”. He waved us away. I was so mad I could have kicked him. I’d like to see him identify two skinny bums in a dark bar sometime, the big oaf. Damn his fat ass.
Miss Lillywhite felt bad for me so she treated me to a phosphate at the Rexall Drugs soda fountain. I felt like a kid getting consoled after playing a bum piano recital at the Third Grade Talent Show. Damn it.
“Drink up, dear, Picasso loved Cherry Phosphates, now you’ll have something in common with him”.
“After that abstract deposition we have a few things in common”.
“Well, maybe you’ll remember a few more details later on. Don’t be so hard on yourself”.
“Did you see the way he waved us off? I could have kicked his big bu-“
“I get the picture, child, you don’t need to elaborate. Never forget you’re a lady”.
“Let’s go, I can’t drink this stuff, it’ll burn a hole through my stomach”.
She paid up and we walked through the cosmetics counter giggling over the cheap grease the store was pawning off to the customers as serious beauty product. I turned around, and crashed right into an elderly, tall man with the largest head, barely supported by his incredibly thin frame. A short woman as old as him was holding his arm tightly.
“Oops, sorry”, I said, my eyes widening at the sight of this strange, dapper man.
“No, please excuse us”, the small woman said, smiling gently.
“A sunflower that talks, Maria, amazing. Most extraordinary!” The Tall Man beamed broadly, staring at me happily. “Why her hair, so yellow, so tall, it’s a human sunflower”.
“I know who you are”, Miss Lillywhite stepped up, “You’re Augustus Scrimm, the famous English writer”.
“You have to excuse Augustus, he’s conducting a social experiment. He’s studying social patterns in Hollywood utilizing ancient tribal minerals”.
“Oh! My! How fascinating! I must tell Miss Stein, she will find this most stimulating! Is it marijuana?”
“No, rather it’s flora from the desert of the New Mexico natives”.
“I can feel sounds, car horns sounds so lovely, but the loveliest sight of all is this tall, beautiful sunflower”.
“Thank you, Mr. Scrimm! You’re too kind.”
“May I touch your blonde petals?”
“He means your hair, dear”.
“Oh, uh, okay, but just the hair”, I giggled.
His eyes had a glaze over them, he squinted hard, and then gently touched my hair, fondling each strand as if they all had a separate personality.
“The flower petals are talking to me, they’re sending me a message”.
“Oh, yeah, I’ll bite, what are they saying?”
“Oh my…the stairway to the stars is cloudy. Please, please be careful!”
I ran out of the drug store screaming.