Movieland - Chapter 32
Sticking to the script.
Eden was calling from another part of the apartment. He put down the yellow article in Hollywood Exposè, bookmarking his place with one of his business cards.
It was sunny out on the balcony where she lounged on a beach chair. The big glamorous sunglasses looked up from under the straw hat as he approached. She wore one of his daughter’s swimsuits, but it was mostly covered by the silk robe he had bought her. Only a slim leg showed along the slit. For a moment Tom was breathless. How was he so lucky to have such an exquisite woman hanging on his every word?
On her lap, face down, was the book she had asked for. She said she wanted to know him better, and so he had given her one of his works, a rather romantic reading of Thorncraft’s Riviera thriller, Jewel Thief by Night, making sure it held no allusions to the now troubling topic of Fog.
“I was just reading the section about the fireworks and the diamonds,” she said. “You write about it with so much feeling … such passion.”
She was referring to the scene where the debonair hero finds the beautiful heiress waiting for him in the dark of a hotel room. She stands by the big window, lit only by bursts of fireworks. She is all bare shoulders in a low-cut gown. About her exposed neck a diamond necklace flares up, sparkling with each sudden shower of light. “Go ahead,” she beckons in a low, sultry voice, “touch them.” Is she talking about the diamonds … or something else?
She comes closer in dark silhouette as the fireworks soar higher and higher. Her diamonds glitter. “You know you want them.” Our heroine believes our hero is the cat burglar responsible for a string of thefts at the hotel. And our hero knows she believes that. He says: “Even from this distance, I can see those are fake.”
She is now very close to him. “Yes, Robert…but I’m not.”
Eden looked up at Tom with admiration.
“I just had to put the book down to tell you. It’s wonderful! Now that’s a picture I would like to see.”
“We can watch it tonight. I have a beautifully restored copy.”
“I’m just so impressed, Tom, that you can get so much out of something that’s make-believe.”
Tom’s smile faded a bit. That was a Brett remark, something his ex-wife would say.
“What are you working on now?” she asked.
“Following a lead. Actually, someone you might have seen in the Nowhere Place.”
“The strange boy?”
“The boy with the serious eyes who stepped out of the shadows. He looked so earnest, like he was about to ask me a question. I remember thinking: But he has long hair! Boys don’t have long hair … not where I come from. Though, since I’ve been in Los Angeles …” Her voice trailed off. “Everything is so different here.”
“No, not the boy with the big mop of hair. The woman in the bathing suit.”
“The redhead! With all that hair whipping around in the wind! I couldn’t save her. I tried, Tom, but she fell backward. She went over the cliff.”
“Yes, she made you miss your escape. I’m glad she did.”
“You would have come out in 1964. I was a three-year-old in 1964, spending that Christmas in Miami. Far from home. We’d never —”
“Tom, I was wondering.” Her voice became low and husky. “When do I go home?”
For a moment the question hung there. Tom was totally stunned by it.
“My husband must be terribly worried.”
“Eden, I thought you understood. The movie screen. The DVD with your picture on it!”
“I just don’t think we should give up that easily,” she reasoned, obliviously. She paused, her thoughts stumbling over something. “Thing is … I can’t bring my husband’s face to mind. Isn’t that funny? I’m thinking of a different face. An honest, concerned face … ‘as American as a wheat field.’”
That was a description from the script.
“A detective?” Tom prompted. “A detective named Blackie?”
She rushed on. “I have a brother too, don’t I? Things are coming together, Tom. A kid brother, he’s a bit of a wreck, a playboy. He races cars, I think. And friends … I have friends … I’m sure I have friends.”
Tom adjusted his glasses though the black frames needed no adjustment.
“Shouldn’t we go to the police station?” she wondered breathily. “Wasn’t that the plan? Someone must be looking for me.”
It was no use. Tom saw that. Her script was taking over.
“Okay,” he said gently. “Not today, though, and tomorrow I have an important faculty meeting. But soon. We’re not in a hurry, are we?”
“Oh no, I didn’t mean that! You’ve been wonderful to me. I just don’t want to impose.”
Surely, Tom wanted to say, surely, Eden, you must know …
But he just smiled and assured her it was his pleasure.
She could see he was troubled. “I’m looking forward to the movie tonight,” she said brightly, trying to cajole him into a better mood. But it had the opposite effect. She spoke as if they had been discussing some simple matter and not, as Tom saw it, a drastic dislocation of time and space.
He went back to his office, thinking about what had just happened.
Fog had one focus only, the intimate relationship between Eden and the detective Blackie. His Eden could not remember her husband because she never had any scenes with the actor who plays her husband. And though she is described as a socialite, there were no party scenes, no dinners, no “friends.”
Tom looked down at the yellow pulp pages without really seeing the magazine article. He had fooled himself. He had accepted uncritically, wishfully, Eden’s sudden optimism, her vow to breathe and walk and think for herself. He saw now she was in shock, had been in shock from the beginning.
He should have understood that. The quiet talk on the promenade by the light of the docked boats. The “Moonlight Serenade” making it all so sweet and sad. What happened to me, she had asked. And so he told her. It was now he who was advocating the incredible.
It was too much: The unfurling of the screen, the maelstrom sucking them in, the discovery of her face on the DVD … too much! This was her way of coping. A blunt denial. A protective amnesia
He would, of course, go through the motions for her. The inquiry at the police station. The soothing words when nothing came of it. He’d do everything he could. Take her shopping, if that’s what she wanted, museums, restaurants, all of it.
And then they’d come home. Little by little, she would get used to the idea of living in this world.
Living in this world with him.
Hours later, Tom lay on his futon, staring at the ceiling. It was the middle of the night, and he had slept only fitfully, catching a half hour here and there. The silence was large in the room. At such hours, one could feel it. Silence throughout the apartment, silence rising up from the streets of Westwood, still in its every artery.
Eden that night had wanted to cook. He would let her, wouldn’t he? It was, she said, her small way of thanking him “for helping me find my bearings.” Tom accepted this illusion of normalcy and applied himself to the moment. Of course, he “helped out,” doing the actual cooking, while Eden, who had never cooked, not on film, nor as “the wealthy socialite” in the character sketch the screenwriters had worked up for her, happily chopped and tossed and stirred, oblivious to what a real cook might do, graciously nodding at table when he complimented her for such a terrific meal.
The movie was a great hit with Eden. There were — a rarity in Thorncraft’s oeuvre — no murders in Jewel Thief by Night. Everything took place on rustic winding roads above the Cote d’Azur; in majestic white hotels where the lithe cat burglar prowled from mansard roof to mansard roof; finally, at a sumptuous 18th-century costume ball in a magnificent villa, full of bejeweled necklaces and diamond bracelets ripe for the snatching, where the women came in Marie Antoinette wigs and panniers, and the men in gold sateen waistcoats and high silk stockings.
As Tom and Eden’s evening wore on, it took on the flavor of the film: calm, witty, glamorous.
It was barely past nine when she begged off and retired to the bedroom. Her stamina never lasted long, and Tom estimated that she spent nearly as many hours asleep as awake. He wondered if this was intentional. Her character had been built as a drifting, haunted heroine, wandering San Francisco in a sort of somnambulant daze, ghost-like in her white cashmere coat, pale complexion, the ash-white French twist. Only the black scarf draped around her neck, blowing loosely behind her in the breeze, seemed to suggest something dark, something hovering, fluttering at her neck, the site of vulnerability that her hand was always flying up to protect.
Yet even the black scarf was sheer.
Was it any surprise that in his world her memories should be so out of reach, so ephemeral? That too, Tom knew, was the plot of Fog, the counter-narrative that presents late in the film, casting deep shadow over everything that had gone before.
There was no point in staring at the ceiling. Tom was awake now. He went to the desk and turned on the light. The magazine article was still open. Earlier, he had been too shaken by Eden’s backward turn into her script, the odd conversation on the balcony, to concentrate. He was settled now and went back to the inky paragraphs on the yellow pages.
He wanted to study again the final section of “The Strange Disappearance of the Wayward Redhead.” It had proved to be the most illuminating, though it had nothing to do with the missing Annie. In the concluding paragraphs, not only Thorncraft but the article’s second revenge target had been revealed: the Palatine Theater itself.
"Built in the ‘20s by occultist Arthur Aubrey and his ring of rich English crackpots,” — oh yes, this was Pennyworth on a bitter tear — “the Palatine Theater was long rumored to be the site of secret rituals of the Things That Go Bump in the Night variety. The roof was topped with a white dome that was said to be modeled on a Roman ‘temple,’ and, while moviegoers munched popcorn in the theater below, the temple on the roof was in full lascivious swing.
“Rituals they called them. Pagan orgies more like. ‘Those Who Know’ say that although certain Hollywood notables were on their knees in something resembling prayer, everybody was as naked as a Long Beach Burly-que! Then of course, there were the Caesars and Cleopatras crossing over from the spirit world, just the sort of Ouija Board sideshow that always sucks in the movie queens of both sexes.
“The Palatine Theater was the whisper that no one dared mention. Just a certain look, a certain vulgar hand gesture, too vile for this publication to specify …” — Tom smiled. Did Pennyworth mean this publication? With the urine yellow pages? — “Such coarse signals under the table showed that one ‘belonged.’
“And oh, belonging was once the star-struck thing. Gloria Swanson, Francis X. Bushman, Helen Twelvetrees, Ramon Navarro, and, of course, Nazimova, the Sapphic Oracle of Roaring Twenties Depravity, attended by her retinue of twittery Valentino boys and blunt-cut girl bouncers — they all passed through the "temple" at one time or another. Perhaps the Leggy Redhead may yet turn up in a dark byway of the Palatine Theater as some free-love sacrifice, a brainwashed girly-magazine white slave, living on wheat germ and raw sex! (the last two words in screaming red). A hapless tart Svengali-ed by the screwballs into a devotee of the godless Church of the Wanton (red) that runs things in Whoreywood (red)."
Tom would find out about this “Church of the Wanton” soon enough. Miriam had called the night before. Arthur Aubrey’s widow would see Tom when she returned from Palm Springs, two weeks from Wednesday.
"I think we're getting somewhere," Tom told Eden the night the call came through. Eden was out on the balcony, standing at the rail. She turned her face toward him. The lavender eyes, the pale skin, how beautiful she was! Then she looked back out over the Los Angeles night, serenely searching for something beyond the hills. He noted again that which could not be missed.
Eden was standing in a faint pool of perfect lighting.
Preview: When the camera loves you.