Movieland - Chapter 27
On the night of The Cats premiere, Miriam Thorncraft had just put on her smart, cat-eye glasses, one of several pairs to match her outfits, here sapphire blue frames to approximate the midnight blue of her rustling satin gown.
She leaned over the ledge of the opera bay, where she sat with her father, analyzing the makeup of the audience, as her father taught her, as her father, the great director of the movie about to be screened, was doing that moment as well, when she had an eerie certainty that she was being stared at — more than stared at, that she was being weighed and found wanting.
The gold-tasseled curtain fluttered on the edge of her vision, and she now saw, not so much her judges, but their white bathing suits, quite fluorescent in the dark of the stage wings. The bright suits reared back into the shadows as she returned their impudent stares, two nobodies vying for a walk-on in her father’s still-to-be-announced next film.
Such was the inauspicious beginning to an evening of peculiar events that were about to befall Miriam, events that would be kept secret as a great burden she had to carry for decades to come. It was the night of a publicity stunt, or so she thought it at the time: The Hammerstein incident. The Strange Disappearance of the Wayward Redhead, as the tabloids, who came to feast on it, dubbed the disappearance when they blasted the story out into the public.
Miriam did not at first sense that something had veered off course in a theater that she well knew could have a mind of its own. In the excitement of the premiere, the arrival of stars, the squeals from autograph-seeking girls, Miriam was too wrapped up studying her father with the eye of an actress in training, watching him play the part he had created for himself, that of the droll Englishman, the Master of Murder Most British, nodding sourly to the applause when he was spotted in their royally appointed gilt opera box. It was only when the hubbub subsided that Miriam realized, with a small flutter of unease, that her kid brother had been away too long.
He had detoured to the candy counter when they arrived at the Palatine. He was probably standing there still, in front of the popcorn machine, a favorite haunt of his, mesmerized by the kernels as they spilled out behind the glass, keeping a dead accurate count. The lady behind the counter knew to warn him if he got too distracted.
But when the lights dimmed, Miriam looked about in dismay. Trevor was 16 now, and Miriam was determined to give him his autonomy. This took faith on her part and a bit of courage. For the moment, she calmed herself.
The girls in the white bathing suits paraded their smiles and curvy figures around the stage in a spotlit circle. From the darkness came the occasional wolf whistle. Beauty contests, under various guises, were the going publicity gimmick at the moment, to lure the public away from the formulaic (but free) fare on television. Sometimes these “talent hunts” were on the level. Not tonight. Tonight they were rolling out a blandly pretty ingenue secretly under contract to Paramount already.
Where, meanwhile, was her brother, Trevor?
It wouldn’t be long before the film began, and Miriam knew how unreasonable Trevor became, how he would simply sit out the film in the lobby counting the roses in the pattern of the rug, or lining up M&Ms by color if he missed the first note, the first frame of the opening credits.
Her father, the connoisseur, the gourmand, the genius, had no patience for lesser minds, let alone Trevor’s special abilities. He merely shrugged when she whispered her concerns.
Miriam gathered up her midnight-blue gown.
At 23, she was the lady of the house, the designated hostess on the receiving line.
Miriam turned the brass doorknob of the opera bay.
In her mind, she was standing forever at the family hearth with its British lion-and-unicorn coat of arms over the fireplace. Young Miriam, Keeper of the Flame, tending the dying embers at the heart of the family.
Closing the door behind her, Miriam set out to find a brother who was special in ways Father would never — nor could even —imagine.
Protectress was her role now. A role thrust upon her when—
… ever since Mother took up gardening … that’s how the Thorncrafts referred to it.
A carload of merrymakers had surprised Mother on Canyon Road.
They were driving “dark,” that is, with the headlights off — a prank to scare the driver's girlfriend, who was screaming and laughing and beating on the driver with her fists, stop it, Frankie
In the rearview mirror, another teenage couple giggled convulsively as they passed a brown-bagged bottle up front. The driver, who had recently graduated from permit to license, was flipping the headlights on and off, on and off, stretching out the darkness for longer durations. In his buzzed, numb-fingered way, he sometimes missed the shift stick.
Mother’s headlights did not carry far in the damp night mist. She was driving cautiously, if routinely, with her mind elsewhere, for the road leading up to the Thorncraft estate, with its sprawling Tudor Revival house, was a course she had traveled many times and for many years.
Too late, she saw the woodie suddenly light up, about to plow into her side.
Both cars went banging down the ravine. A stand of trees caught Mother’s Mercedes as the station wagon pounded past, snapping brush, crunching metal, spitting rock.
A flash, a boom, the station wagon tumbled over and exploded into flames. In a moment the bottom of the ravine was ablaze, flames leapfrogging the dry, brown scrub up the slope, toward the trees where the Mercedes was precariously wedged. One of the tree trunks groaned, shifted, and the Mercedes slipped into a vertical position.
Mother opened her eyes to find she had died and was floating into black infinity. But no, she was aching too much to have died and now saw that infinity was vignetted by shards of glass. She was staring through a shattered windshield at the moonless sky. The steering wheel had pinned her in, and all she could do was stare straight up into the night as black drifts of smoke choked her throat.
It felt like endless minutes, but actually almost immediately there was a whoop-whoop-whoop descending from above. The Angel of Death was coming, roiling the crackling air with its enormous wings. Desperate to escape, unable to budge the deformed door, Mother did the very worse thing you could when fleeing a predatory angel: she screamed. And kept screaming. She was like a siren with a mechanical failure. She couldn’t stop, would never stop.
Then abruptly she did.
The suddenness took her breath away, and for long seconds she listened without inhaling as the sinister whoop-whooping scoured the grounds. Oil was burning, smoke was belching forth into the sky, blacking out clusters of stars. Any moment now the angel would snatch her up and enfold her in its deathly wings.
Except that it didn’t, for it was a passing weather chopper from a local TV station that had come in low when it spotted the burning canyon. Soon the slope was flooded with searchlights, scratchy voices on police radios, buzzing saws cutting away the side door, muscular arms pulling Mother gingerly from her slipping perch.
Mother was medicated, patched, and should have been released by mid-afternoon the next day. The doctors spoke quietly in a huddle. They wanted to keep her till the weekend. Shock, they said, shouldn’t linger this long.
That was out of the question, Mother announced. Spring planting had begun.
But Mrs. Thorncraft, it’s October!
Father was unreachable, always unreachable, on a shoot, in a script conference, in the editing room. Against their orders, Mother checked herself out.
Upon being chauffeured home in a private car that the Thorncrafts always had at their service, courtesy of Selznick Studios, Mother took up her tools and, rubbing the side that ached and was tightly wrapped in compression bandages, went to weed the garden.
No, she wouldn’t join them for dinner, she said, so many weeds, so much to do.
The lights in the pool were turned on so Mother could work through the night. Miriam was 14 at the time and sat beside her in the undulating shimmer, the aqua reflections playing on her mother’s intent expression, abstracting her further.
Midnight came and went.
Five AM came and went.
In his pajamas, while it was still dark, Trevor wandered to the pool, rubbing his eyes. Mother took no notice. Trevor was a distant child but always a gentle, affectionate boy when it came to Mother. He stretched out beside their sad-eyed Cocker Spaniel and, like the dog, tried to lay his head on Mother’s lap. Her spade turned this way and that as she steadily nudged them both away, then pulled her work gloves tighter, as if the intrusion had dislodged them.
Miriam stepped in. She went to ruffle her rebuffed little brother’s hair, but he grumbled and shrugged her off. Trevor had never warmed to Miriam, any more than he warmed to anyone outside of Mother, who, until tonight, had always been his staunch advocate, the benign, unmovable North Star in his insular life, who never in any way let on that he might be a difficult child, a child whose attention was myopically focused, yet a boy who somehow observed everything, who wandered about in a dream world of numbers and calculations, yet somehow was never trapped there.
Trevor sat up, in imitation of the spaniel, hands flat on the ground, watching the spring planting in October. Dawn was creeping up from the east. Miriam saw what had to be done. With a love no more complicated than that they were brother and sister, so simple that it could only be absolute, Miriam resolved to protect her little brother and, as best she could, moor him to a real life in the real world.
Days, months, eventually spring did come. Only the girlfriend made it out of the burn unit alive, hideously changed, having been thrown clear when she managed to fling open a door. Mother, by contrast, was unharmed, not hideous, but never quite thrown clear herself. Not really.
Mother’s first impression had proved correct. She had indeed drifted off into black infinity, but it wasn’t made of sky. It was made of soil and weeds and bulbs.
Mother was gone. Miriam was Mother now.
Inez was refilling the butter vat when Miriam approached.
“No, Miss. I don’t know where he went,” she said amid the oily, salty fragrance of the popping kernels. “He was here, yes, then I looked up, and he was gone. I asked him if he wanted a jumbo cup of popcorn, but he never does, does he, Miss.”
Inez knew the Thorncraft girl and her young brother from the time they used to come to Aubrey’s “thing” up on the roof, which Inez was supposed not to know about, certainly never to mention, but, like all the Palatine’s longtime employees, was tacitly aware of. From her perfect vantage behind the candy counter, Inez couldn’t miss the Friday night parade of aging actors, rarely anyone big now or recognizable, as they made their way up the grand staircase, always about a half hour after the movie started.
Inez called to the two ushers huddling in conversation by the glass doors. The ushers in this late phase of the Palatine, five years after the death of Arthur Aubrey, were now temporary one-nighters, teenagers with after-school jobs, brought in for the odd premier. They would need a description.
“My brother is sixteen,” said Miriam. “Sort of a surfer boy, with a mop of dirty- blond hair. Some people think he looks like the drummer from The Beach Boys.”
“Dennis Wilson?” the boy in the bellboy cap asked. He stroked his chin with his white-gloved hand, frowning. “Doesn’t everyone look like Dennis Wilson now?”
Miriam smiled. She had to agree. Trevor, outwardly, looked like any other sunburnt California teen, with a shaggy mass of sun-bleached hair and eyes a slight bleary pink from too many hours in the ocean.
“Oh, Miss Thorncraft.”
“Didn’t your brother like to play backstage when he was a child? Maybe he went there.”
“Ah yes. He was fascinated by the old props. Thanks, Inez. Nice meeting you, fellas.”
When Miriam entered the dark auditorium, the bland ingenue was being crowned queen, or winner, or whatever they were calling it this go-round. Into the spotlight rushed an older woman, who hugged the girl and couldn’t resist fluffing her hair. That must be the stage mother, thought Miriam, who had been brought up on a Hollywood bestiary of stock types. While the audience's attention was focused on the spotlit winner, Miriam slipped through the dark, up the stairs, and into the wings, gathering up her midnight-blue gown.
The wings were unusually cluttered. She put aside the folding chair as she passed, causing the knitting needles that were poked into a ball of yarn to clack against the metal. A large man in a pinstriped suit was blathering at another of similar mien, genus Agent-Manager, and Miriam, taking it all in, was about to hunt about when she saw Old Jimmy sitting outside a dressing room, his trim form and wrinkled face bent over a battered racing form.
“Miss Thorncraft! Is that really you!” He stood up snappily in his bellboy outfit. As diminutive as a jockey and, for all his age, somewhat doll-like in his red uniform, Jimmy was always one to observe the old traditions when speaking to movie people. “I haven’t seen you since… What a smart young lady you’ve become!”
The remark reminded Miriam that she had left her cat-eye glasses on. She generally removed them out of vanity, when she didn’t need to see distance. They always made her look too studious and magnified her eyes so they looked hurt and pleading.
“No, Miss, he’s not back here,” replied Jimmy when she put the question to him. “I haven’t seen Trevor, or yourself, Miss, since Mr. Aubrey’s Memorial.”
Miriam’s shoulders slumped.
Jimmy screwed up his face, determined to solve any problem that might afflict the sons and daughters of the famous. “Might he have wandered onto the stage?”
That seemed hardly likely. Seeing her perplexity, Jimmy added, “He has done that before, as we both remember.”
“Never during a live performance,” Miriam murmured.
With urgency, she strode to the wings, plucking up her rustling satin, the usher hurrying behind her. She leaned out into the stage, looking into the darkness that surrounded the spotlight. No, he couldn’t be there. Trevor was shy, especially around pretty women. “Trevor,” she whispered just in case, a stage whisper that carried to a few of the contestants over the hoopla, causing them to turn to each other with questioning, blonde looks.
Realizing it was an emergency, the old usher thought he might risk an impropriety. “Might your brother be….” He paused judiciously, hoping she would guess the rest.
“What, Jimmy! Might my brother be what!”
Pressing his lips together, forbidding the words to pass, he looked down. His index finger hesitantly curled up, pointing to the ceiling.
In the temple? But that was five years ago!
Then again, where else would her brother be! Whom else would he be looking for? Second after Mother, Trevor adored — in his distant, insular way — Arthur Aubrey.
She would go through the secret doors. She would enter the temple again!
Preview: A prince in his realm.