American Blonde by Jennifer Niven

I sent the plane into a dive. As the plane came out of it, we whooped and hollered, and then I sailed still higher, still faster, climbing again before I sent us into a spin. Together, we ran through every one of my songs from Home of the Brave, as I pushed the little plane as far and as fast as it would go.

  I flew past my marks, out toward the ocean, and Hal sang louder, his face buried in his knees.

  When we were on the ground again, Bud Bowdoin gave us an earful, and afterward Hal took me aside. “I know you’re investigating what happened to her. Have you talked to Ophelia yet? You know she tried to get Barbara fired off the picture for sleeping with Tauby.”

  “But that was long ago. Or was it?”

  “It may have started long ago, but it’s been off and on for years, at least platonically. As you probably knew, she had a way of attaching herself to father figures, like Tauby and Les Edgar. She said her friendship with Tauby—that’s what she called it—ended when she met Nigel, but I wondered. She certainly saw plenty of him when she was married to Redd.”

  I was getting an idea. “Do you mind if we skip dinner tonight? I can blame it on a headache, leave you out of it.”

  “Okay by me. Got a hot date you don’t want to break?”

  “Something like that. One more thing—did Mudge know anyone named Rebecca?”

  “If she did, she never mentioned her to me.”

  We were finished by three o’clock. I didn’t bother changing out of my costume because I needed every minute. I asked to borrow one of the airport phones, and called MGM. When the operator answered, I asked for Sam Weldon in the writers building.

  His voice came on the line, businesslike, as if he led another life in which he was only courteous and professional. “Sam Weldon here.”

  “Pipes here. I wanted to take you up on that dinner.”

  Silence.

  “Hello?”

  “I seem to remember making you another offer a while ago.” His voice had warmed.

  “Let’s start with dinner.”

  Rockhaven Sanitarium hugged the Verdugo Mountains, on the far reaches of the San Gabriel Valley, northeast of Los Angeles. The main house was made of rock, and sat behind an arched iron gate in the midst of tranquil gardens, alive with butterflies and hummingbirds. Statues lined the pathways, which led through twining California oak trees, trunks bent and twisted, and shrubs thick with flowers. The air smelled cleaner here, in the foothills—golden and honeyed—and I felt a twinge of homesickness.

  The main building itself was smaller than I’d expected, large enough for only twelve or fourteen patients at a time, but Agnes Richards, the woman who ran Rockhaven, walked the property with me and said they had room for nearly one hundred residents. As if to prove it, she showed me the dozen or so outer buildings, with names like “the Willows” and “the Pines.” The Rose Cottage, where the wealthiest, most famous residents stayed, was a small, red-roofed bungalow with a wide front porch.

  Ophelia Lloyd was living there now, renting out the entire cottage. Miss Richards tapped on the door, and when no one answered she consulted her watch. As she looked up at me, the lenses of her glasses caught the glare of the sun. She said, “I believe this time of day you’ll find her strolling the gardens.”

  She led me down one garden path after another, now and then passing a nurse in a crisp white uniform or women I assumed were residents, even though they were dressed as if they’d stopped in to tea. We found Miss Lloyd sitting on a bench in the shade, contemplating the azalea bushes. A book lay beside her, unopened.

  “You have a visitor, Miss Lloyd.” Miss Richards smiled a patient, matronly smile.

  Miss Lloyd looked up, frowned when she saw me, then seemed to remember herself. The movie star manners appeared. “Kit, how lovely to see you.” She held out her hand, then withdrew it before I could touch her. “Thank you, Miss Richards.” It was a polite dismissal, as if she were a queen and Agnes Richards was one of the household servants.

  Miss Lloyd looked accusingly at the book, as if it had sneaked up on her, before moving it aside so I could share the bench. “What brings you out to Rockhaven, Kit?”

  “I came to ask how you’re doing and see if there’s anything you need.”

  “How thoughtful of you.” She looked and sounded bored. I’d expected agitation, a good, old-fashioned case of nerves. Wringing hands and tearstained cheeks, a handkerchief close by. “Thoughtful girl.”

  “It’s a pretty place. I can see why you like it here.”

  “Who says I like it?”

  “I assumed. They said you checked yourself in.”

  “Did ‘they’? How nice for them.”

  “It seems very—relaxing.”

  She stared right at me with large, dark eyes. “I value directness, Kit. In fact, I appreciate it. Why don’t you make your point?”

  “I know about Barbara’s affair with your husband.”

  “Which one?” She smiled coldly. “A studio wife learns to look the other way. That’s what they call us—‘studio wives.’ I get to be a movie star too, so I’m lucky. Being a studio wife is a job no woman in her right mind would ever sign up for if she knew what it really entailed. Unlike most of them, I actually love my husband. Which only makes it harder.”

  “He must love you.”

  “He does. But he’s a boy, and boys will play. It never means much. I’m not stupid enough to think otherwise. But he and Barbara Fanning—or should I say Eloise Mudge? Good old Eloise.” She winked. “Now that was something else. At first I thought he might leave me, but she wasn’t that serious about him. I don’t think she wanted him for every day, just now and then, whenever something was going wrong in her life and she needed a daddy figure. She’d snap her fingers, he’d go running, and I might not see him for a week or more. One time it was three. But he always came back.” She sighed as if this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “Let’s face it, girls like that only want what they can’t have.” As an afterthought she added, “May she rest in peace.”

  “Is that why you tried to have her fired?”

  “Among other reasons. I mainly tried to have her fired because she tried to have Felix Roland fired. She thought she ran the show. They gave her too much power, if you ask me. When I was at Metro, we did what we were told, went where we were supposed to go, and didn’t ask questions. All these actresses now with their demands.” Her nostrils flared.

  “She tried to have Mr. Roland fired?”

  “You must have known that.” She snorted. “This business with Les Edgar. Dear as he is, he was in over his head on Home of the Brave. That picture never would have gotten done if they hadn’t let him go.” Her voice had turned bitter. “No, I didn’t want her working on Home of the Brave. I thought it was better for everyone if she didn’t. So I went over Billy’s head to Mayer, who told me to be a good girl, play nice, and he’d make sure to remember it during awards season. ‘Best actress’ sounds so much better than ‘best supporting actress.’”

  “Did you hate her?”

  “I felt sorry for her.” The bitterness was gone. She was matter-of-fact now. She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her pocket and lit one elegantly, languidly. “I take it her death wasn’t actually an accident.”

  “No.”

  “How surprising.” She inhaled, exhaled, dropped the cigarette, grinding it into the soil with one delicate shoe. Then she stood and walked away, leaving the book behind on the bench. She paused, turned, arched an eyebrow at me. It was then I noticed that she was wearing less makeup than usual. In the sunlight, she looked years younger, much closer to thirty than forty. “Are you coming?”

  I jumped up and followed her. We twisted down one path and another until we were at Rose Cottage. She opened the front door without a key, and inside everything was decorated like spring—flowing curtains in pastel colors, framed pictures on the wall, everything coordin
ated, simple yet tasteful. An enormous bouquet of lilies took up most of the living room coffee table. Miss Lloyd asked if I wanted anything to drink, and I glanced at the bar against one wall, fully stocked with liquor. I wondered if Rockhaven made a practice of supplying their famously sober movie star guests with alcohol, or if Ophelia had supplied it herself. I asked for water and sat on the sofa while she disappeared into the kitchen.

  Then Miss Lloyd was back, handing me a glass, perching on the edge of the settee, one perfectly manicured hand propped in the air, cigarette dangling into space.

  “The lilies are beautiful. Are they from an admirer?”

  “Yes. They’re from me. My favorite flower. The Chinese say, ‘When you have only two pennies in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.’” She swirled her drink. “I’m afraid I didn’t kill her.”

  “I wasn’t accusing you.”

  “I know. But you were snooping just the same. If I were going to kill her, I certainly wouldn’t have done it in my own home. It’s going to be enormously difficult to get anyone to come to the house again, and I’m fond of parties. I’m also fond of not looking like the world’s worst hostess in front of the entire world. ‘Don’t go to Ophelia’s. Unless you want to leave in a hearse.’ No thank you.” She swirled her glass again and took a drink.

  On my way to the car, the arched gate to Rockhaven swung open and another automobile rolled up the drive, gravel snapping under the tires. Behind the wheel was Felix Roland, window down, dashingly handsome, silver hair slicked into place. I watched as he parked, swung out, and practically loped toward Rose Cottage. He wore gray slacks and a crisp white shirt, but no jacket, no tie. I turned and followed him, creeping around the trees, careful to stay a good distance behind.

  She met him at the door. Immediately, their mouths were locked in one of the hungriest kisses I’d ever seen, as if they were two animals trying to swallow each other whole. He backed her inside, the door slamming closed behind them.

  At home, I sorted through my messages. Butch Dawkins called, Flora had written, along with the number for the Dunbar Hotel. I checked my watch, picked up the paper, stared at the Dunbar Hotel number until I had it memorized, and dialed the exchange.

  “Dunbar Hotel.”

  “Butch Dawkins, please.”

  “One minute, and I’ll connect you.”

  The phone clicked and then rang and rang. On the sixth ring, he answered.

  “It’s Velva Jean. I got your message.”

  “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about the record. If you’re free and willing, I’d love to have you be a part of it.”

  “Just tell me what you need me to do.”

  “If you got time, I want you to give me a song. I’m picturing a record about loss and about hope and the dark places in between. I know you got things to say about that, and I want to hear them. Other folks will too.”

  I don’t know how to write that, I thought. I’d never been one to write what I was in, especially when what I was in was a dark place. I usually had to be on the other side of things to describe them.

  Butch said, “You just give me what you got. I ain’t asking for more than that. And if you can’t, it’s okay. There’ll be other times down the road.”

  “I’d like to. I’ll try.”

  We talked about his ideas, about the schedule, when we would meet and go over the music, when he might need me to come to the studio. Then we said good-bye, just like a couple of old friends.

  I was running late. Sam would be there soon. Still, I sat another minute or two, trying to push away the feeling that somewhere, a door had closed when I wasn’t paying attention.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  The Villa Nova, on Sunset, was a hole-in-the-wall Italian place with a high, slanted roof and plenty of dark corners. The booths were red and curved and the air smelled warm and heavy. Sam sat looking at me, one arm hugging the back of the booth. The waiter appeared and when he asked us what we wanted to drink, I said to Sam, “You order for me.”

  He asked for two whiskeys, and then we ordered our food, and when the whiskey came, we clinked glasses and drank, the liquid burning all the way down. Sam nursed his along, but I threw mine back, as I’d seen my brother do, because the taste was so awful, and then I asked for another. Sam’s eyebrows shot up and he said, “Easy, tiger. I’d like this evening to last longer than the next ten minutes.”

  We talked about my new film, about his new picture, about the Black Dahlia case, which Sam was following closely. We talked about where I came from and where he came from—pleasant, easy, interesting conversation. I thought of telling him about Rockhaven and the Dell Rapids Orphanage, and the things Dr. Murdoch had said, but instead I asked him about his parents, his brother, his childhood, and his life before MGM.

  The food arrived—two bowls of spaghetti, the steam rising off them. With the first bite, I realized how hungry I was. I concentrated on eating, and then at some point I set my fork down. “There’s something I need to ask you.”

  “Uh-oh.” He pushed his plate away, tipped his glass to see how much was left. “Should I order another drink first?”

  “Maybe you should get one for both of us.” I decided I liked drinking. It made me feel lighter and freer, almost like being a little girl again, back before anything sad had happened.

  Sam waved down the waiter, ordering another round. People crowded into the restaurant. I loved each one of them because they brought bustle and color and life, and it was good to think about life right now.

  “I wish I knew something we could do to pass the time.” He leaned in as if he were going to kiss me. I studied his mouth, curled up at one corner, and remembered what his lips felt like against mine. The memory was so vivid, so warm, that I could almost feel them. Suddenly, I wanted him to kiss me. Suddenly, I was thinking about a lot more than kissing.

  The waiter set the drinks down between us, and just like that, Sam pulled away. He toasted me, drank, rested his chin on his hand. “All right, Pipes.”

  “Tell me about you and Mudge.”

  He lit a cigarette, and then a second, and then a third, making a show of smoking three at once. Then he stubbed one out and then another. He raised the remaining one to his lips, inhaled deeply, exhaled, and said, “She paid me to adapt a book she optioned. The idea was if Mayer didn’t agree to produce it, she’d produce it outside of MGM. She said once a girl hit thirty, she had to start looking out for herself.”

  “A Woman of Means.”

  “She told you?”

  “I read the script.”

  “And?”

  “It’s very good.”

  “Ah, flattery. My favorite aphrodisiac.” He winked. “She was giving me notes, not something I usually appreciate from actors, but she was smart. Not necessarily well read, as I’m sure you know, but she knew what worked on camera, and she was honest. It was important to her that the work read honestly too. She said there was enough fakery in Hollywood without printing lies on the page.”

  “And when you weren’t working together?”

  He shrugged, helpless. “She was gorgeous, and I had a reputation to uphold.”

  “Mmm,” was all I managed to say. My insides had gone prickly, even though I knew they had no right to.

  “That was when they first brought me out here, a couple of months before I met a certain girl singer.” He smiled. I smiled back, waiting. “It was one night, during a lapse with Nigel.”

  “And that was it?”

  “And that was it.”

  “Thanks. For telling me.”

  “You’re welcome.” He stubbed the last cigarette out. “You make a man want to say things he wouldn’t normally say.”

  “Sam . . .”

  “I’m not asking for anything in return. Not right now.”

  I took a breath. “I haven’t been
part of a couple—a real couple—in a very long time. I’ve never dated in the traditional way. I got married when I was sixteen, and divorced when I was nineteen, and I’ve lost my heart one or two times since then, but I don’t know anything about going to dinners and what it’s like to do normal things in a normal world where the world isn’t at war.”

  “Los Angeles isn’t exactly a normal world, and you’re not exactly a normal girl.”

  “No, I guess not.”

  “Before you work up to telling me whatever you’re going to tell me, I have to ask about the Indian.”

  “He’s not ‘the Indian.’ He’s part Indian. His name is Butch Dawkins.”

  “I have to ask about Mr. Dawkins, then. Where is he in all this?”

  “This is about us. He’s nowhere.”

  “I’m not sure about that.”

  “Butch has always been there, but not there. He’s like a haint—a ghost—that just appears now and then.”

  “So is he in a now phase or a then phase?”

  Now, then, now, then. Then, then, then.

  “Then.”

  “Do you love him?”

  “I don’t know.” He’d been honest with me, and I wanted to be honest with him.

  “Do you love me?”

  “I don’t know.” I took a drink and felt the recklessness of my daddy’s people and their people before them surging up from somewhere. “The only thing I know is that this isn’t the time for love. Not right now. Not with all that’s happened.” What would Mudge have done? She would have kissed him anyway and thought things through later. “Does it matter that I don’t know?”

  “To me, no. To you, probably.”

  We were interrupted by a cough, and the waiter was there to take the plates. He asked if we wanted dessert. Sam looked at me and I said, “Maybe we could take it to go.”

  He raised an eyebrow and turned to the waiter. “There’s a five in it for you if you hurry.”

  Several minutes later, we were still waiting for the bill. Sam said, “I’m going to embark on a search.”

 
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