American Blonde by Jennifer Niven


  At seven thirty, I called Butch at the Dunbar Hotel and played him what I had so far. He picked up his own guitar and, with the receiver crooked between my ear and shoulder, we went back and forth like that for an hour, figuring out the melody, working on the words. He finally said, “If it’s not too late, why don’t I come over? This’ll be a whole lot easier in person.”

  Helen was gone for the evening by the time he got there, telling me only that she was seeing a friend. Butch leaned against the wall of the den, stripped down to his jeans and white undershirt, Bluesman tattoo flexing with the muscles of his arms as his fingers worked the strings of my new guitar. I sat on the floor opposite him, my back pressed to the sofa, and listened. I hadn’t been this alone with him in years, and in the tight, close space I breathed in his woodsiness and watched the way his hair changed color under the light.

  I wanted him to play forever so I could live in the music and not think or move. But when he was finished, he handed the guitar back to me and said, “That’s a good instrument, Velva Jean. You made a good choice. I know you’ll treat it with respect.”

  Like that, the spell was broken, and I could feel my temper stir again. “Mudge was the one who chose it. It’s beautiful, but I can’t play it,” I said as if it were his fault.

  “I doubt that. You just got to break it in, figure out how it wants to be played. Every guitar’s different. They’re like people. Want to play me your song?”

  “I’m still working on it.” I waved the pages so he would know I’d been writing. “Even in the middle of everything I’m doing right now, I’m working on it. Maybe you could play me one of yours and then I could get the feel of it to know where I should go.” As usual, Butch didn’t have a stack of pages because he never wrote his music down.

  He picked up his own guitar, pulled out the bottle neck, and slid it up and down the strings. “This record’s important. Probably the most important thing I’ve ever done. I’m giving it everything.”

  “I’m doing my best. In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve got a few other things going on.”

  “It ain’t about you, girl. All I’m doing is letting you know I know what you’re going through. I know what it’s like giving everything. I want you on this record, but not if it’s just one more thing for you to deal with.”

  “I want to do it.” As cross as I was, I meant it.

  “Then you should let the song tell you what it needs to be and let it take you where it wants to go.”

  “Like the guitar telling me how it wants to be played?” It came out testy, as if I was looking for a fight.

  “Something like that. The song’s in there, just waiting. It’s in you, it’s in that guitar. You just need to pull it out.”

  For some reason, that did it. “You know, I’m sick and tired of everyone telling me where to be and how to feel and what to say. Maybe I want to be the one who decides things. As far as I’m concerned, the song can be what I damn well tell it to be and the guitar can play how I damn well tell it to play.” For extra emphasis, I added a few more “damns” as I went on and on about how sick and tired I was of being sick and tired, and how I was so sick and tired that I felt as if all my life I’d been trying to figure out who killed Mudge. “And don’t tell me ‘You’ll figure out the song, you always do,’ because what if I don’t this time? I’m not sure I will. I’m so sick and tired of having to figure things out; maybe there’s nothing left over for some stupid song.”

  I was still talking when he stood up, took the guitar from me like he was afraid I’d break it, set it back on its stand, and held out his hand.

  I frowned up at him. “What?”

  “Get up.”

  “I thought we needed to work on the record.”

  “Fuck the record.”

  Outside, it was deep, dark night, the stars lit overhead. He swung one leg over the motorcycle and said, “Get on.” When I’d swung up behind him, he said, “Now wrap your arms around my waist and hold on.” Underneath us, the machine thundered to life. I leaned forward, slid my arms around him, rested my cheek on his back, took a breath, took another, and then we were off. I lifted my face, felt the wind in my hair and against my cheeks, gentle at first. We crossed Sunset and started up the canyon, where the roads were narrower and the air was cool.

  We picked up speed as we climbed. I wondered what would happen if the motorcycle couldn’t make it up the hill and we fell backward. The tune Butch had been playing on my guitar started up in my head, as if it was pushing us forward and upward, helping to carry us. “Faster,” I said, but I didn’t know if he’d heard me.

  I could feel his body tense and then, suddenly, off we went, like a rocket, as if we were heading straight for the moon. We were going so fast I had to close my eyes so the wind wouldn’t blind me. I didn’t open them again till we reached the top of the mountain, where we turned onto Mulholland Drive, which was a road like the Scenic, built across the Santa Monica Mountains that divided Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. The road was dark and winding, curving like a snake. Around this bend, suddenly a million lights reached into the horizon. Around that bend, the lights rose up on the other side.

  Faster, I thought. “Faster,” I said.

  He pushed the motorcycle harder, hugging each curve so tightly I thought we’d go sliding across the road and over the side, or fly straight off into the sky. But I wasn’t afraid. I just held on and breathed him in. With every mile I could feel myself letting go of the anger and the worry I’d been carrying for weeks. By the time he slowed the bike and skidded into a turnout overlooking the Valley, dust flying, I felt alive.

  The lights spread as far as I could see. We sat on the bike, my arms around his waist, and I said, “It’s beautiful.” Back home, the Scenic climbed higher and stretched farther than this, but at night the mountains grew pitch-dark. From up on Mulholland Drive, it looked as if the earth was covered in stars. Stars in the sky. Stars on the ground.

  “L.A.’s better from up here.” His voice was low, almost as if he were offering up a prayer. “When you’re down on the ground it’s too easy to focus on the shit around you, like Central Avenue on a weekend morning. When you’re down in it, you only see the skag and cigarette butts. Sometimes you gotta get a better view.”

  “In flying we call it being above the overcast.”

  We sat a long time, and I remembered something Daddy Hoyt once said about how a person couldn’t share silence with just anyone.

  Suddenly, Butch climbed off the bike, took my hand, helped me off, and led me over to the edge. The stars spread out before us like a carpet. He said, “The Hopis express sorrow by wailing on the day of death. All day. They just let it out. A year later, they do it again, in case anything built up.”

  “I’ve already cried. I don’t want to cry anymore. I need to keep busy and useful because it’s when I sit around that the sadness catches up, and then I feel trapped. I need to be moving. There’s too much to do.”

  “And most of it rests on you.”

  “Yes.”

  “I’m not asking you to cry. Crying’s not the same as wailing. You’re carrying a lot right now, and sometimes you got to make room so you can carry more.” He threw back his head and howled like a dog. His voice echoed off the canyons. “You try it. You ain’t going to find a better place.”

  “I don’t think—”

  “Just try it. It’ll make you feel better.” He cupped his hands to his mouth and howled again.

  I tipped my head back and let out a small, pitiful sound that didn’t carry two feet.

  “From here.” He moved behind me, one arm wrapping around me as he placed a hand on my diaphragm. “Like you were singing a song.” I could feel the heat of his body pressed against mine and the spread of his fingers through the thin material of my dress. His voice went soft in my ear. “Let it out. You got to let it out to let it in.”
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  I closed my eyes and wailed, like I was taken over by the spirit. I didn’t think of how ridiculous I looked or sounded, like a wild dog, howling into the night. I just let it out. Butch joined in and the two of us carried on like we were at a revival.

  I wailed till my voice gave out, and it occurred to me that maybe I wasn’t wailing just about Mudge but about a lot of other things I’d been carrying around inside me. When I was done, I opened my eyes and Butch said, “Better?”

  “Better.”

  Just like that, he let me go. The air between us sparked, and as I was wondering if he felt it too, he said, “You know Bessie Smith came from nothing, and record producers said she was bad to work with. But that voice. In all that sorrow, there’s something else.”

  “Hope,” we said at the exact same instant.

  His face lit into a smile and I smiled back, and I thought, This is the nicest moment I’ve had in a long, long time. Then, because the smile and the wailing had made me feel brave and strong, as if I could figure out who had done this and how and why and nail the son of a gun once and for all, unlike all the other sons of guns who’d walked free after sabotaging planes or capturing spies, I said, “You didn’t come to Santa Monica that weekend. Were you ever going to, or did you just say it because it’s what you thought I wanted to hear?”

  “I was going to.”

  “What stopped you?”

  “It ain’t the time.” He said it simply, as if there was no other answer but that one.

  “What does that mean?”

  “You’re in the thick of it right now. You got things to do still; so do I. Last thing you need is some guy hanging around. Anyway, from what I hear, there’s already a guy hanging around.”

  He climbed back onto the motorcycle and sat watching me. I got very, very quiet. He said, “Let’s get you home.”

  I swung up behind him, holding on to the bike instead of holding on to him. He reached back and took one of my hands and then the other, hooking them around his waist. His hand resting on mine, he turned so that I could see his profile, looking back at me out of the corner of his eye. “Tell me what you need from me right now.”

  I need you to love me, I thought. Or I need you to let me go. Then I heard myself saying, as if it was what I needed most of all, “I need to feel part of something that isn’t MGM and what happened to Mudge. I need to work on this song.”

  He smiled as if he’d known this all along. “Then you tell that song and that guitar what you want and let them figure it out. Everything’s going to fall into place. Just you wait. You got enough on your mind right now, girl. It’s time to let something else take over.”

  Back at Mudge’s house, he walked me to the door. “Listen, it’s bad on Central Avenue right now, and I don’t want you coming down there. Police are rounding up anyone and everyone who might have killed those girls. I’m trying to find a studio up here. If I can’t find one, I think we should wait. See what happens. Ride it out till things settle down.”

  “No,” I said. “I don’t want to wait. I’ll be there.”

  TWENTY-NINE

  The Independent Order of Odd Fellows had begun in England in 1819. Members practiced the principles of friendship, love, and truth in everyday life, and gave aid to those in need while doing what was possible to help mankind.

  The man I talked to was new to the Carmen Home in Carmen, Oklahoma, and said at the start of our call that he might not be able to tell me much because a number of the records had been destroyed in a fire a few years ago. But he referred me to a woman who had worked there during the time Mudge was a resident. He said she remembered everything.

  The woman’s name was Dorothea Green. I telephoned her from the pay phone at Nate ’n Al Delicatessen in Beverly Hills, but there was no answer. I tried her again from a pay phone near the studio, but once again, the line just rang and rang.

  I concentrated on following Nigel like a ghost from the Kismet staircase to Lot 2’s Wimpole Street and Copperfield Court. Whenever I was able to get close to him, something or someone got in my way. He was always surrounded.

  When I was summoned to Mr. Mayer’s office Thursday morning, I was sure he knew I was shadowing Nigel, or else he knew about Broad Water. His face was sober, but he took my hand and greeted me warmly. It had been too long, he hoped I was holding up well, my goodness wasn’t Home of the Brave exceeding all expectations?

  After making the necessary chitchat, he said, “We think it’s time you and Hal MacGinnis get married.” The light from the window behind his desk was so bright I had to blink to see him clearly. Sitting like that, surrounded by all that white, a shroud of sun engulfing him, he could have been God.

  “Sir?” I’d been expecting a reprimand, and I thought maybe I’d misheard him.

  “You only have to watch yourselves on screen to see the magic there, the very magic that inspires the public. The fans love you together. We’ve received thousands of letters.” As if to prove it, he held up a thick stack in one hand, a thick stack in the other. “There are many more where these came from.” He set the letters down, neatly tapping them on all sides into a tower of paper that came up to his chin. “The two of you are inspiring.” Above the letters, his eyes danced. “What do you say, Kit?”

  “I’m not in love with Hal, and he’s not in love with me.”

  “But you like him and he likes you. You have more of a basis for marriage than most people I know.” He chuckled. “Besides, the fans want this.” He tapped the stack of letters again. “This is what the studio needs right now after so much sadness. A wedding between two of our most popular stars. It’ll be like a vitamin shot to the movie-buying public. They don’t want to read sad stories. They want something to celebrate.” Behind the fatherly smile, I could see the shrewd and driven businessman who had climbed his way to the top from nothing, willing to step over or on anyone in the process.

  “But I don’t want it.”

  His smile dropped and I could feel him measuring his thoughts. Finally, he said, “I’m going to be honest with you, Kit. I feel that I can be. I don’t like the crowd of people Hal runs around with or the places he goes. He needs a stabilizing influence—a wife—to keep him grounded, to rein in the drinking, and to make sure I don’t hear any more rumors, if you understand my meaning.”

  “It sounds like what he needs is a babysitter.”

  “What he needs is a wife.”

  “Maybe Hal doesn’t want to be married.”

  “Hal doesn’t have a choice. I’ve thrown Phoebe Phillips and Arlene Dahl and Babe King at him, but he will only marry you.”

  “But Hal doesn’t love me, not like that.”

  “No, but he trusts you. And he likes you. And you are both very valuable to this studio. I’d hate to see anything change that.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  He sighed, tapped his desk, frowned. “I do understand.” He seemed to think something over, his eyes going cloudy. “I’m afraid that Metro’s in a difficult position. You’re clearly overwrought by your friend’s death. I wonder if you’re really able to think clearly or capably, given all you’re dealing with emotionally.” He paused to let this sink in.

  I could almost see the headline: “Metro Star Kit Rogers Suffers Breakdown.” Which would, of course, discredit any future statement I might feel the need to make about Mudge’s death.

  He said, “We know about the Indian, though we haven’t said a word. I’d hate to step in and make an executive decision, even if I do have the contractual right.”

  “According to my contract, Metro can tell me who to date but not who to marry. I’m happy to keep ‘dating’ Hal, going out on the town with him when our schedules allow for it, but I can’t marry him, sir. I’ve been married before, and when that ended, I promised myself that I wouldn’t marry again unless I was certain.”

  I knew from studio gossi
p that Mr. Mayer’s own marriage was ending. He had moved out of his Santa Monica home and into a more modest house in Bel Air. He smiled now, sadly and faraway, as if he was thinking about it. “I understand,” he said again, before pushing the button on his desk and letting me go.

  I met Hal for dinner at the Hollywood and Vine Brown Derby. The booths were filled with living, breathing movie stars, and the walls were filled with their caricatures. The white-jacketed, black-tied waiters moved up and down the aisles with trays of prime rib, curries, sweetbreads, and lobster. When a photographer asked to take our picture, Hal and I smiled widely, cheek to cheek.

  The moment the photographer was gone, I said, “Did you know about this?”

  “I didn’t know Mayer was going to talk to you.” Hal sliced into his steak with the neat, clean lines of a surgeon. “So what did you tell him?”

  “I told him no.” I picked at my trout.

  “Is the idea so horrible?”

  I ate a french fry and pushed my plate away. “You don’t love me, Hal. And I don’t love you. This is just more studio lies. These kinds of lies are the reason Collie Fedderson switched from contract star to costume designer, because he wouldn’t play their game. What does he think about all this?”

  “I’m not Collie. And I’m not you. You all can fight it, but I don’t want to. Can you understand that?”

  “No, I can’t.” All I knew was fighting. It was practically all I did. It was practically all I’d ever done.

  “You think I wouldn’t change me if I could? Do you know how much easier it would be if only I just liked women?”

  “So you might as well marry one?”

  “If it means keeping my career, yes. I’ve worked too hard to get here.”

 
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