Balloonland

stuff gets examined.

The Summer House

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This was a dream I had when I had to go out of town for work and the airline lost my luggage, which included my meds. A week of head spins and freaky dreams. After that I started carrying a cache in my carry-on, which is probably illegal now.

It was bizarrely movie-like when first delivered by my brain, a real film noir thing. I wrote it down about a month later, which inevitably included some after-the-fact-enhancements.  One thing I did not change was the battlefield references: Some research told me that the Pacific Theatre in World War II probably didn’t have any scenarios like the one described, but I left it anyhow.


I ran into Willy Smith at the department store where I sell men’s shoes. She works as a receptionist up in the executive office floor of the place. I guess they go for that dime store blonde bombshell act up there. We talked sometimes in passing at the coffee shop, once or twice she bummed a cigarette.

Anyway, one day I was standing by the employee’s door round back having a smoke and a nip for lunch when she breezed out of nowhere and grabbed me by the arm.

“Hiya, Chuck,” she bubbled, “what’s the good word?”

I ground my cigarette out under my shoe and looked at her levelly. She obviously had something on her mind.

“Pretty crazy weather we’re having, doncha think,” she went on. “Never seen anything like this since I came back to Los Angeles.”

I tried to suggest she get to the point by shrugging and continuing with the level look. And I took out another smoke.

She took it gracefully and held it out for a light. “Oh! You know what? I got a good line on a real swell old beach house not too far from here. One of those old movie mogul places. You know the type.”

I took out another cigarette. “Really.”

“Yeah. Trouble is, they want more rent than I can really pay, on what I make. But then I figured: It’s a big place, 6 bedrooms and I don’t know how many other rooms – maybe I could  share the place with someone.”

I light my cigarette, and after a pause, hers. “And you’re wondering if I know anybody who’s looking?”

Willy frowns. “Don’t be a dope.”

But what could I do? I was living in a stinking rooming house on a no good street off Sunset, sharing the bathroom with a drunken vet, a wanna-be lounge singer, and an always arguing-in-Spanish-and-practicing-her-castanets dancer and her drag queen boyfriend (or maybe the other way around, I tried not to find out too much). I packed up my two good suits and my four bad suits, my collection of half-empty whiskey bottles, and hopped a cab down the street.

The cab drops me in what I’d expected – a once-upscale street near the beach that’s been over-run with gas stations, used car lots and diners, most of the old beach houses torn down or converted to apartments. Willy’s place is the only one still doing a passing act of what it was built to do. It’s a picture, built with a good old wrap-around porch and flapping screen-door model of beach houses in mind, but with the blueprint of a bloated look-at-me Hollywood manor house. A peeling pile of boards and hanging shutters behind a rusting fence, surrounded by its own jungle of overgrown garden and palm trees. I get a glimpse of a leaf-filled pool out back, and the flash of something trying to look like gold by the front door: Willy fiddling with some keys.

I pick up my suitcase and walk up to the gate, hanging half-open. It screeches ridiculously as I brush past it. Willy doesn’t flinch, her sunglasses focused on a ring of keys as she tries one after another in the front door.

She stops trying, and turns for the steps, almost knocks me over. “Oh! Don’t see you there. The lousy lock doesn’t work. Gonna try the back.”

I make a twiddling gesture with an open palm and she hands me the keys. I stick the right one in, give the door my shoulder in the right spot, and click, we’re in.

The front hall glows like brandied cherries, the floorboards and runner catching light from the shuttered windows in the living room.  Side-table by the door with a table lamp jigged to look like a lantern, an old style phone and a guest book.

“Jesus,” I say, “Someone still lives here.”

Willy shoulders by me and breezes into the next room, dropping a trail of bags and suitcases. “Nah, it was just bought by a fan of the old owner. He had a maid come in now and then to keep it tidy.”

I follow her hesitantly into the room, and drop onto the big leather sofa. It creaks gently and I hear sand trickling under it. “Yeah? And who would this “fan” be?”

She flops down into an armchair opposite with a huge grin. “You won’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

She looks around slyly, and then leans forward. ‘The President.”

“President who? The department store, eh? Miss-executive-receptionist.”

She gets up quickly, grabs a bag, tosses a paper on the big Mission coffee table. “Dwight D. The President of the U.S.A.”

I look the paper over. Legalese indicating a rental agreement between Wilma Smith and D. Eisenhower.

I pull another cigarette out of my jacket pocket. “Nice. How’d you swing that?”

“The President was in town for an event. One that I happened to be in attendance at, keeping Mr. Hambly company.”

Hambly. Figures. Million-year-old founding-family figurehead of the department store. Totally useless with age and easy living.  Total lecher, but his uselessness went there, too – all appearance, no action.

“After introductions were made, the President thought it only fitting that I should be allowed to use this old house.”

“I bet,” I say in my head; I get up, wander over to a tall cabinet by the door. Glasses behind dusty cut glass doors. The door squeaks open, the glasses are as dusty as the doors. I clean one out with my jacket hem, look in a lower door for something to put in it. Empty bottles, the maid must’ve beat me to it.

Willy is wandering around, trailing her hand over the bric-a-brac and mementos cluttered on the low shelf under the rear windows.  Animal skulls, exotic knives, seashells, pictures of the former owner with friends, family members, posing on movie sets.

I pull a mostly empty bottle out of my suitcase, slop some into the mostly clean glass, and after a thought, offer it to Willy. She takes it daintily and I coat-tail out another glass, find another bottle and join her.

“So, what for?” I ask, walking over to the shelf and looking at the pictures. “Sure, it’s nice and all, but it’s a bit of an elephant.”

I pick up a picture, a photo taken on some hunting trip in the 1930’s. Big elk dead on the ground and the former owner astride it with a broke shotgun like some kind of god of war. Flanked by a bored looking local-guide type, and an equally bored looking teenager, the war god’s one and only son.

“’Elephant’ indeed. It has a certain – what can I say – elegance that you just don’t find anymore. The kind of place that brings out the best in people.”

I hold the picture up for closer inspection, blow some dust off the bored teenager: Same flop-forward hair (I keep it Brilled back now), too much cockiness in the manner, no lines on the face, and no know-how in the eyes. The old man had problems with the cockiness, told the kid the other two were needed first. Good advice, wasted. I put the picture back, face-down.

There’s a sudden loud knocking at the front door.

“What the – “I begin, but Willy has taken off eagerly to the front hall. It doesn’t sit right with me, being in an abandoned house twenty minutes and getting a visitor, so I slip after her into the front hall and peek through the shuttered front windows.

Tall guy in a good suit, looking around with some kind of lord-of-the-manor attitude. Oh, great.

I skulk back into the living room as Willy starts to open the door, pick up my drink and lean awkwardly against the fireplace mantle.

There’s the twitter of Willy’s flirty pinup-girl greeting, then a lower mumble that must be the visitor. This goes on for a while before they start into the living room.

“-He should be in here. “ Willy is saying. “Now, I know what most think when a man and woman share a house. But don’t think like that.”

She comes in, talking over her shoulder to the visitor. Our eyes lock and we both freeze solid. He breaks out of it first.

“Why, pleased to meet you, Chuck” he says with a growing grin, putting the emphasis on the “Uck”.

Willy raises an eyebrow, but continues. “Mr. Cambson is an assistant to the President. Chuck works with me at the department store.”

“Sure, sure!” Mr. Cambson says. he sticks out his hand and I’m forced to shake it, but not to keep contact with the laughing eyes and big, sarcastic grin.

There’s a silence as we all stand around the fireplace. Willy looks pointedly at my drink and hers on the window shelf, but I don’t move.  Mr. Cambson rocks on his heels and looks around, grinning.

‘So, what brings you here, Mr. Cambson?” Willy says, finally. “The paperwork was all mailed to me earlier, I can’t imagine there’s anything else that needs attention.”

“Well, Miss Smith, I’m afraid there are a couple of . . . complications that came to my attention that I thought deserved looking into.”  He glances slyly in my direction. ‘And now that I’ve arrived, it seems that the situation is more . . . complicated than I first thought.”

Willy is riled by the Cambson’s treatment of “Miss”, but leaves it be. ‘And what would those complications be?” she asks.

Cambson reaches into his coat pocket, pulls out a notebook.

‘I’m sure they can be figured out, whatever they are,’ Willy adds.

He starts flipping through the book, glancing at us, one after another. “To be honest, I came here thinking we could . . . “figure something out.” But the situation has changed. I did a little research on my own, Miss Smith, and it occurred to me that your living in a property belonging to the President could be very damaging to his public image. Very damaging, indeed.”

Willy’s left foot starts tapping harshly on the floorboards. “I don’t know what that could mean. The President is fully aware of me and my . . . history. In fact, it’s the big reason he decided to let me have the house after letting it sit and rot for so long.”

“Sure, Sure,’ Cambson says, looking right at me. ‘But here and now, we have a totally different situation, don’t we, Chuck?”

I shrug, resignedly. What more can he do to me now? But then I see Willy behind him, hefting a fireplace poker over her head. Cambson sees something in my eyes and starts to turn, but he catches on the side of the head. But not good enough – it rebounds off making him grunt and bleed and stagger some, but he’s back right away, wrestling the poker from Willy and pushing her against the mantle with the shaft across her neck.

“Jesus, Willy, “ I start.

“Figure it OUT?!” Cambson snarls, ‘We’ll figure it out, all right!”

But what can I do? I clobber him awkwardly on the bleeding side of his head, and when he turns with an angry shout, I grab his collar with both hands and propel him into the mantle’s edge. His tumbles and drops to hands and knees, the poker clanging onto the floor.

Willy runs from the fireplace, holding her neck and making gasping sounds. I chase after her – she runs down the long hall for the bedrooms, into the main bathroom and into the large bedroom adjoining it. She slams the door and I run over to the bed, reach under, pull open an old remembered hatch in the floor. My hand finds the small revolver.

Outside, I can hear Cambson in the hall, shouting and smashing doors open.

I flip open the chamber, note that five of the chambers are occupied by spent casings. One shot left.  Flip it back, run to the door, arrive just as Cambson throws it open with the poker raised in the air, and come to a stop with the muzzle of the pistol hard against his vest watch-pocket.

He goes very still, but doesn’t lower the poker. His eyes meet mine with a nasty glitter. “So. You think you have the guts?”

Mr. Clark Cambson, once Sergeant Cambson, USMC.

We’re in a bar outside some nowhere Hawaiian town, a night out before we go into action for the first time.

“Yeah, I got the guts, Sergeant,” I answer him. ‘Do you?” I throw back the rest of my drink. The guys around me snicker – Cambson, the failed college boy turned failed sergeant, versus Bill, the Hollywood Kid, in our usual contest. Personally and privately, I’m surprised and relieved he never pulls the sergeant stripes out, at least off the drill field. I guess he’s more of a gentleman than I would’ve been.

“He’s a sergeant, Bill, he don’t need to have guts,” Dougie says. Dougie, a farm kid from Iowa, thinks something glamorous will rub off on him hanging around with me. Like the rest of them.

Sergeant Cambson carefully puts his beer on the bar, shrugs. “Well, privates, I guess we’ll all know the truth of it in a couple of days.” He turns, and with a backward glance, heads for the door.

“In a couple of days we’ll on be down on the beach, and I’m sure there’ll be enough Japs to go around,” I say loudly, realizing I’m giving Cambson some guts on credit. The guys all have a good laugh at this and the drinks and back-slapping go round again and again into the night.

In a couple of days . . .

In a couple of days, they get us up early and hung-over, and load us into trucks. In a couple more days, they load us on a ship.

In a couple more days and we’re hunched wet on a predawn deck with damp cigarettes hanging from our mouths as the ship crashes through waves towards a nowhere speck of island. Me and mine in one group, sergeant Cambson surrounded at a respectful distance by some new kids as he points at maps with a captain and some other officers.

The officer huddle breaks up. The captain struts forward, flanked by Cambson and others. The Captain stops, tries to light a huge cigar in the morning drizzle, then gives up and raises his hands for some sort of big speech.

“ZEROES!” Someone shouts. Sailors dash for the deck guns.

Three airplanes with big red circles on their wings dive towards the ship, followed by a couple of ours. The pull up at the last minute, one of them popping and smoking, but not before nailing the deck good. The kid next to Cambson with the radio goes flying, the captain keels over, clutching his leg.

“Jesus God,” I hear Dougie mutter in the quiet after they fly off.

I elbow him and say, “You just swore, Doug.”

He looks startled, then worried, and then he laughs shakily. “I guess it’s OK here.”

The fighter attack seems to have been a signal. Our ships further out to sea open up, and the distant beach starts flying into the air in huge explosions. The island gives it back, and bursts of water jump up between us and the other ships full of guys.

“Don’t worry about it,’ I shout over the din. “The battleships’ll take the fight outta them. When we get there, we’ll be cleaning up what’s left and taking prisoners!” something pings off my helmet, and I crunch down some more.

Two guys with a stretcher are helping the captain up. He grabs one by the shirt and hauls himself to standing. “Forget about it for now!” he snaps, and turns to us, waving the unlit cigar. “This is it, men! Give ‘em hell!”

He stumbles backwards and is mostly caught on the stretcher, then carried away behind sergeant Cambson as he moves forward with a new kid carrying the radio.

People start shouting and pushing. We crowd to the nets over the sides of ship, clamber down to the landing boats lined up alongside. Water flies up and metal pings off the ship, a guy near me lets go of the net suddenly and falls on top of the helmeted heads below us.

The boat starts moving while I’m still hanging over it, and I have to let go and fall in. Guys curse and help me up, nobody I know.

We crash through the waves away from the ship, and I’m thrown off my feet again with everyone else. I lean against the side and feel the water and things pounding off through the metal. Guys around me are shouting and cursing and checking their rifles and praying.

“Here we go!” someone shouts. I take a quick look over the side and see a heaving, smoking beach ahead. Then there’s a crash and the boat bounces out of the water with a huge bang, bodies, debris and smoke flying all around me. I get slammed down under someone as the boat lands hard in the water, spinning sideways to the beach and almost capsizing.

It seems to go very quiet, though everything’s still happening. The boat drifts up onto the beach, scraping on the stones and sand. People are groaning and crying. Someone is saying over and over again “I’m not dead.”

The guy on top of me gets up and apologizes. Most of us are OK, we start getting to our feet and looking at each other.

Someone grabs me by the leg, a guy curled up on the deck, his shirt soaked in blood. “I’m not dead,” he says insistently.

“No,” I say, and step away.

“All right LADIES, let’s go!” shouts somebody – a sergeant I don’t know, real career hard nose, pushes through the crowd. His helmet is missing and blood trickles out of his crew cut. There’s a cranking sound and the boat’s ramp falls open, looking down the beach at craters and waves and other boats landing, or trying to against a rain of bullets and explosions.

“MOVE IT!” shouts the sergeant, and he and pushes at us with his rifle.

We head for the ramp at a stumbling run. I see a couple guys ahead of me go down as soon as they step clear of the boat, a trail of bullet-strikes though the water past them. I duck behind my rifle and throw myself out, stumble on one of the first guys and fall into the water. Someone kicks me in the helmet and steps on my hand and I let go of my rifle. My eyes are burning and my mouth is full of water and sand.

Things start banging off the boat, jarring it backwards into the surf. I inch up through the surf, trying to stay in the pits and behind the piles of sand and rocks. I find a bigger pit and roll into it, find a guy with a medic armband already hunched in the water at the bottom. His eyes are wide and show a lot of white and his face very tight. I wonder if I look like him.

Guys run by the rim. A couple jump in, catch their breath, then lunge out again. Shells and bullets fall around us, spraying water and dirt into the hole. The ground is vibrating and pounding like we’re on a train running out of control.

“I don’t think we can stay here,” someone says. I look at the medic but it looks like he hasn’t moved or changed position, so I wonder if it was me.

But in almost in parade-ground unison we get into ready-to-run positions, and throw ourselves over the top as it seems like a shell lands right in the hole. We run madly forward, the medic slightly ahead. I look for some place to fall down again, but all I see is clouds of smoke and dust, running guys, dead guys, holes, and a ragged line of palm trees far ahead.

But then I spot a low edge, something that high waves probably cut into the beach like back home. A line of guys is huddled under it, and the medic drops and rolls in amongst them. I do the same and realize he’s dead when I land on top of him. I kick past him and huddle up snug under the ledge.

More guys throw themselves under the ledge. I see sergeant hard-nose amongst them, curl up and close my eyes.

“OK guys, get it together!” he shouts. “Bayonets, grenades! Make sure your guns are ready! That’s a pillbox over there, that’s a machine gun in it; they’re probably spotting artillery on us! LET’S GO!”

There’s running shouting, and shooting.  A heavy machine-gun opens up, bullets pound the sand above me. I open my eyes and start to pull myself up to look, and more guys land around me.

“Jesus, Bill!” Someone says, grabbing me by the arm. It’s Dougie. “You OK?!”

Another sergeant voice booms out “MOVE IT, YOU JERKS!”

Dougie starts forward still hanging on to my arm, looks back in surprise when he realizes I’m not moving. “C’mon, Bill, we gotta go!”

I close my eyes again; he pulls harder, but then there’s a hard tug and a flash of heat. I still feel his hand on my arm, but no pull behind it. I open my eyes and it’s just his arm, from the shoulder, still on me. Dougie is lying on the ground nearby, clutching at where it used to be attached.

“Aw, Jesus, Bill,” he sobs, “Jesus God.” His feet kick a few times, but then stop.

So that’s it: months of training and pretending with a bunch of guys, then the real thing. A big guy in make-believe, a coward in practice. A coward who gets the guys that looked up to him killed. A short and stupid story.

I sit up and look over the edge – nothing but bodies and smoke. I can see sergeant hard-noses’ pillbox off to the right, flashes from the machine gun. I get up and step over the edge, and realize I’m waving Dougie’s arm. The flashes stop – They’re turning to aim at me, I think, but then something lands on the pillbox and it disappears in a flash, knocking me back over the edge. Stunned but determined, I pick myself up and crawl back up the edge. A couple of guys are running down from the tree-line, in dust-colored uniforms. I shout and wave Dougie’s arm at them. One slows and turns towards me, but falls dead as a plane flies over. The other disappears in a cloud of smoke.

“For God’s Sake!” I shout.

Things die down; the firing and shelling from both sides drop off. I lie down in a shallow hole. The sky starts to darken. I hear distant talking and movement, and feel disappointment when I see it’s our guys coming up the beach. Moving cautiously spread out and hunched over with guns ready.

They almost walk past me thinking I’m dead, I guess, when I notice old sergeant Cambson and a couple of the other guys with them. I can’t help myself: I start laughing.

The line stops. A medic and a corporal run over and ask me if I’m all right. I keep laughing.

A sergeant I don’t know comes over and starts shouting at me. I keep laughing. There’s a hand on the sergeant’s shoulder and Cambson steps past him.

“Private! He says. “Bill!” Private Dashell! Snap out of it!”

He holds his hand out to me liking he’s going to help me up. I grab it and try to pull him to the ground, and then when that fails I go for his neck.

The sergeant and the corporal and the medic pull me off.

The rest is military record keeping and small print on the society page.

There’s talk of charges, but some influence of dad’s turns it into a dishonorable discharge. So I’m free to go and be an extra, useless body hanging around dad’s houses. I try for the ones he isn’t at, but sooner or later we all end up in the same place, and I get to smile painfully through parties where people go between politely and conversationally accusing me of being a traitor, and trying to make up unlikely strings of reasoning that make me blameless. But the laughter behind my back gets too much, so I cut out and try and ditch my name. But I guess things will always catch up with you, sooner or later.

I smell sweat from Cambson; his hair is wild and blood trickles out of it from two places. I try to blink, but can’t. Then, I catch Willy moving in the corner of my eye, and see Cambson’s arm starts to move. The pistol goes off with a muffled pop and he crashes backwards into the doorframe and then into a heap on the floor.

I throw the pistol to the ground and it bounces and slides back under the bed where it belongs. Willy creeps over cautiously and crouches next to Cambson. “Is he dead?”

I grab her by the shoulder and stand her up. “In a lifetime of stupid things, that’s gotta have been the stupidest!” I shout.

She shrugs out of my hand. ‘I didn’t shoot him.”

Cambson lets out a low moan. His foot shifts.

“I don’t think he’s dead,’ she adds with concern.

I sigh with resign, and step over him though the door. “You get the ankles, I’ll get the wrists. We’ll put him in the cold cellar until we figure out what to do.”

The cold cellar is beneath the basement, two staircases and a couple of heavy locked doors away. We roll Cambson in, breathlessly, then collapse on the piles of stuff the fill the basement to near-capacity.

‘So, now what?” I ask.

Willy’s head whips around. “I said, I didn’t shoot him. Why ask me?”

I stand up, finger jabbing at her. And I didn’t open this can of worms by going places I shouldn’t go. You got the house! You hit the man with a poker! And that’s why I ask you, ‘Now what’!”

She gives me a sneering look, stands up and starts for the stairs. After a minute, I start after her. I find her in the living room, rummaging through her purse. She pulls out a creased scrap of paper, heads for the telephone.

“Now, we see what we can get out of this.”

Squinting at the paper, she gives the operator a number. After a pause, she puts on a very business-like voice.

“Hello, is Mr. Dashell available at the moment? I think it’s very important he speak with me.’ She pauses, and listens. “ I have this number because what I have to tell him is very important, and could effect all sorts of things he has an interest in. He must come meet me, or things may go very badly.”  Another pause, then she gives the address, then again. Then she hangs up.

We don’t have to take the fall for this,” she says.

The phone rings. She answers, says “Yes,” twice, and hangs up again.

“And now, we wait.”

We retire to the living room, and I rustle up more drinks from my suitcase. She sits elegantly on the edge of the creaking leather couch; I stand gazing out the back windows at the sea.

Waves crash endlessly on the shore. It seems that all the bad moments of my life have the sound of waves behind them.

“So, what’s this really all about, Willy?’ I say finally, without turning around.

I hear the couch creak, and a sigh.

“I don’t think you can really understand what it’s like to have things unfairly taken away. Things you deserve. Sure, you got slapped around, but nothing was taken away. You decided to walk away, and good for you. But me . . .”

I turn to face her. She’s hunched on the edge of the couch, hands at her mouth, eyes glittering.

“I just wanted to be all that again. To relive what was so cruelly taken away. Do you remember?”

Summer 1944, me back from my shame overseas. The family and the “entourage” – distant relatives, hangers-on, party guests that never seemed to leave, and staff privileged and otherwise – were suddenly whisked by dad’s order to the Summer House to “relax”.

I was perpetually relaxed at the time, thanks to the endless parties and the endless liquor. Not so relaxed that I didn’t catch the tension in the air – Mother in drunken rages, throwing things at dad, screaming at the staff. Me stumbling in on her seated imperiously in her dressing-room and her longtime maid Inga sobbing on the floor before her, just before Inga left us for good.

. . . Perhaps over the fact that dad had been “dallying” with Inga for almost as long as Inga had worked for mother?  It would be awful unfair of her to break some sort of unspoken agreement, but what did I know?

So dad threw a party. Supposedly it was to celebrate his grand entry into the world of producing movies, instead of just making them great. But probably he secretly hoped a night or two of drunken revelry followed by a few days of recovery would quiet things down a bit.

So there were, the great crowd of well-wishers on the beach. Myself, slouched in a deck chair, not as drunk as I was used to in those days . . . almost like I knew I’d need more of my wits than usual.

Dad was loaded and lording it up. Everyone there played up to him big-time. But his thunder got stolen when “Big Bobby,’ the Studio’s man and dad’s partner in the producer deal, came in with his baby daughter. Everything about Bobby was big – his big hair, the cigar, the big, loud striped suit, and his big, big voice, the way he showed off his Hollywood wife and Hollywood baby.  Maybe even his personality was big. Everyone split off to adore Bobby and the kid, but the Lord took it well and managed to steer Bobby off to a corner to “talk business.”

“Hey, now,” he said in his normal conversational tone which drowned out everything else,  “Where’s my lovely lady and soon-to-be-star of our big flick?”

I knew where his lovely lady was. Being almost invisible had its perks.

I heaved myself out of the deck chair and slunk away from the fun. I invisibly made my way back up to the house and soon found Dorothy, my dad’s personal secretary, doing some slinking of her own. Dorothy, who I personally and privately had renamed “Trouble Disguised as a Pinup Girl,” apparently had everything dad wanted in a personal secretary.

I invisibly slunk after the slinking Dorothy. Following a devious route, she made her way to the Trophy Room, and knocked softly on the door. There was a murmur from within. Dorothy opened it shyly, and appeared to be summoned further in by a purring voice. The door closed to a crack, and I watched the dim light shift as bodies passed before it.

Who was I to judge? Everyone comes up with his or her own way to make it through. I was about to walk away with a feeling of amused satisfaction, when Mother came around the corner and passed the almost-closed door.

She stopped – wherever Mother was, she supervised events even if she never controlled them, and everything happened under her glowering eye – and looked disapprovingly at the light spilling from the crack. The party was outside, not in the house! She put on her best Matron look and thrust the door open and strode in a flutter of frilly housedress, ready to do battle with whatever drunken hangers-on lay beyond.

There was a pause, then a shrill accusing voice. Mother flew from the room and down the hall, hands to her mouth in shock, but with a face full of vindictive delight.

She didn’t seem to notice me in the shadows. As soon as she passed, I rushed down the hall and into the Trophy Room. Dorothy, buttoning her blouse, almost collided with me as I entered.

“Jesus, don’t know anything about keeping secrets?’ I yelled.

Willy was still sitting up on the couch, a champagne glass in one hand and her dress askew. She batted her messed hair out of her eyes.

“Secrets, secrets,” she slurred. “Don’t want anymore secrets.”

There was a commotion in the hall. Dad and Bobby bolted into the room, followed shortly by mother, who cruised in like a flagship.

“What the hell,” Bobby said, louder than usual.

Dad said nothing. He looked from Willy to Dorothy with a look of shock and betrayal. Dorothy smirked and shrugged, a trifle defiantly, to my eye. And to Mother’s as well, judging her reaction.

“What the hell,” Bobby said again.

Willy got unsteadily to her feet, and clutching her dress around her, advanced on Bobby. ‘’What the Hell, What the Hell’, you big blowhard,” she said, jabbing the champagne glass at him on each ‘Hell”.  ‘I gotta turn a blind eye to your ‘auditioning’ and play good movie star wife to your big shot producer act all nice’n neat. But no sir, not this girl.”

Bobby gaped.

Dad was still staring at Dorothy. He made a gesture and said, “Go, Dorothy, I’ll talk to you later.”

As Dorothy passed, I heard Mother hiss, ‘Out of my house, you little whore!”

Dorothy, still smiling defiantly, disappeared.

“You’re not quite a movie star yet,” dad said after a heavy pause. “I’d watch what you say, and especially what you do.”

Willy was still unsteadily in Bobby’s face. Any husband-and-wife connection they may have had seemed totally gone. “Hey, Will, talk to your kid,’ he said, looking helplessly at dad.

Mother grabbed dad’s arm. “Tell her,” she half-whispered, shooting a sharp glance at Willy.

“Wilma, you have to try and play along with people,’ dad began weakly.

Mother seemed to puff up. She pushed dad away and stomped forward. ‘You’re not my daughter!” she screamed. “There! After all the years of enduring the lie! Just the cheap lying result of a maid and a cheating bastard! Get out of my house!”

“Enid –“ dad began meekly.

Willy looked shocked – she dropped the glass an almost dropped her dress – but got through it. “S’fine with me,” she slurred. “I’m tired of livin’ in this fake world of pretend happiness and sooo pretend glamour. An’ given like some kinda trophy wife to Mr. Blowhard to seal a deal –“ she started towards the door. “I’m taking Annette and getting as far away from this . . . place as I can.”

Bobby seemed to suddenly develop resolve. ‘Oh, no, you’re not taking my daughter,” he said, coldly. “And don’t think otherwise – I have the studio’s best lawyers to back me up against anything you may even try to come up with.” He jabbed his cigar at dad. ‘And I’ll be talking to you, yessir.” And with that, he left.

Willy’s faced collapsed. She fled the room with a lingering sob. Dad stood looking helpless and lost. Mother practically glowed.

I started for the door.

“Bill,’ dad said.

“Billy, she’s not your sister,” Mother almost screamed.

“I knew that,” I said, without stopping.

I found Willy in the front hall, crying and drunkenly trying to button her dress and put on her coat at the same time. By unspoken agreement, we took one of dad’s newer cars and left. The usual emergency cash we found in the glove compartment paid for a drinking spree that left me, alone, with little recollection of any of it, in New York a month later.

Flipping through the society pages let me know that Dorothy washed up on the beach, dead from a bullet-wound to the head, but not before a lengthy record of dad’s business practices had found its way into the hands of the district attorney. And a month after that, Mother’s new maid entered her dressing room one morning to find her like an absurd collapsed muumuu tent in the middle of the floor, dead of a sleeping pill overdose.

All of this confirmed what I had been playing with. I stopped calling myself William Dashell Junior and made up some new name. And I never went back.

There’s a knock on the door; Willy leaps from the couch and heads for the door. I sit on the edge of the window shelf and wait.

Harsh and questioning voices from the front hall: the old man’s, aged past I last heard it in person, and someone else. Willy being coy and threatening.

They walk into the living room – dad, looking bad and worn out, gray in face and hair and a suit fashionable a few years ago, along with a thin, ridiculous figure with a pencil moustache and slicked-back balding hair in a badly cut but very fashionable sharkskin suit: Gunter, his new “personal manager”, or so the gossip pages would have it.

Dad clearly hasn’t recognized Willy, but he makes me immediately. ‘Bill. Do you know how long it’s been? Where have you been?”

Willy walks in and stands next to me by the shelf.

‘Who is this woman, Bill?” Dad continues. “Are you in with her, on whatever she’s up to?”

‘You don’t remember me, father?” Willy asks.

Dad squints at her for a moment, then goes very pale and almost falls over. Gunter holds his arm and murmurs something into his ear.

‘You . . . You both . . . why do you call me, after so long?”

Willy laughs. “You may have cut me out, but you still got old and worn out. I’m still alive, and still happy. What I want is what I deserve, what you owe me. I don’t know what Bill wants.”

“Money,” Dad almost spits. “It’s always about money.’ He gets out his wallet. ‘So how much do you . . . disappointments want from me now?”

‘I don’t think your wallet will cover it, for me, at least,” Willy says.

I notice Gunter’s eyes have been traveling around the room, taking it all in. They’ve made it to the fireplace mantle, and go round and white on the blood that Cambson left behind.

‘Oh, and there’s a little problem we’d like you to take care of for us, like you did before, dad,’ I say airily.

Gunter lets out a girlish scream, and points at the blood with a quavering hand. Dad squints then leans back on Gunter’s arm.

‘Oh my God, what have you done now?” he whispers.

I think I’ve had enough. I feel my hand close around one of the antique daggers on the window shelf.

“I think of it more as what you’ve done, with my help,” I say, causally bring the dagger forth and tossing it between my hands.

Gunter screams again and drags dad half-running to the front hall. I hear them collide with, then fumble with the front door – Willy’s smile tells me she locked it.

‘What now, rough ‘em up, or just finish ‘em off?” she says, taking a knife herself.

Dad and Gunter have staggered off down a hall from the front hall. By the time we catch up, they’ve got the French doors in the Library open and are making across the dark, overgrown garden to the beachside fence. We catch up as Gunter manages to shake the gate open; he turns it fright as we approach, accidentally letting go of dad so he tumbles helplessly down the sand slope to the overgrown beach below.

In guess Gunter’s been getting on Willy’s nerves as much as mine, since we both go after him as he half-leaps, half falls down the slope. I manage to swipe the back of his leg with my dagger, producing a scream and a slit pant leg before I, too, tumble down the sand into the bushes on the beach. I hear their feet in the sand and gravel, Gunter’s screaming and Willy’s cursing as I struggle out of the bushes.

So, no Gunter for me. I get to my feet and look around for the old man. But he’s nowhere to be found, impressing me with his ongoing and enduring self-preservation capabilities that carried him through a career in Hollywood, a textbook bad Hollywood marriage, and a string of bad business deals made gloriously public. I search the beach, slashing at the bushes and throwing rocks in the water and calling for him, but he’s not to be found.

After a lengthy search I find the old stairs and climb back up to the patio behind the house, sit on the edge of the pool. After a few moments, Willy joins me, knifeless.

‘You stuck it in him?’ I ask, waggling my knife.

She shakes her head. ‘No, he got away.”

“Ah. Me, too.”

She nods, and sits next to me on the pool edge.

We hear a car out front revving its engine. We get up, run back through the library doors, down the hall, fumble open the front door, to see dad’s car disappearing down the road.

“Son of a bitch,’ Willy says.

It seems we’re both out of cigarettes. It occurs to me there may be another source in the house.

‘So, we now have a dead presidential aide in the basement, and a old has-been actor and his flunky fleeing us in fear,’ I say as we start down the basement stairs.

Willy nods silently.

“I can’t say that things are going any better than they ever did when I last knew you.”

She nods again.

We make it to the main, cluttered basement, and weave across to the cold cellar door. I note without surprise that it’s wide open when we get there.

“Well,’ Willy says.

The upper basement door slams shut. I scramble over the piles of stuff for it, but hear the bolt sliding home. I crash into it, then press my face into the little grilled window in the middle of it.

Cambson is hunched on the steps above, clutching his stomach and staring at me with glittering eyes. With grim determination, he starts hauling himself up the stairs.

I’ve seen enough. I start deliberately through the cluttered basement to a tottering shelf loaded with boxes. I look them over until my eyes recognize the one I want. A collection of things from a western dad did way back, pictures of him in cowboy getup, a hat, a holster and pistol, and a bundle of dynamite. I pull it out, a bunch of flaking red paper tied together with string.

Willy recognizes it with a raised eyebrow, but shrugs and produces her lighter. I place it carefully on a small box by the door, and we sit on either side.

I hear Cambson groaning and clunking up the stairs.

‘Better hurry,” Willy says, ‘He might get away.”

“With our luck.”

I pull a piece of string off the bundle and stick it into what looks like the end of a stick, then with some effort get it to start burning. But it falls out and rolls onto the floor.

“Just light the red paper, ‘ Willy says impatiently, flicking it with her finger

I wave the lighter over the flaking paper until it catches in a couple of places.

“I don’t know how long it’ll take, lighting it this way,’ I say, sitting back down and watching.

“Goodbye again, Bill, “ she replies.

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Written by balloonhed

March 27, 2010 at 11:24 pm

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