A touch of beauty echoed in her walk,
"Yes," I said,
Hostages on Horseback, is memorable for me because
shooting culminated in the death, or disappearance, of a man I'd come to
know very well--and like very much--after he'd told a story about his own
experience with a woman that had seemed aimed directly at me.
|bar, and recreation hall--with pool and poker tables
and two pinball machines. The front of the building was part of our
frontier set--so we were getting our money's worth out of it.
"We knew each other's stories well enough to be doing quirky embellishments one evening when Marvin Crawford joined us. Marv was a character actor--like Ben Johnson, though he never became a star. But he was versatile--could be the hero's buddy or his nemesis--white or black hat--and, since we always needed one or the other, worked pretty regularly. I'd seen him in enough pictures to know his range, so had suggested him for the part in this film--and had written most of the scenes he was in. He was playing the second-string bad guy--the one who sneers a lot in the early scenes and gets gunned down by the hero in the first real shoot-out.
"Jim Bolton had been elaborating on the four months he'd spent as prisoner of war in Korea, with lurid details about things that had happened to other prisoners, when Marv drifted in and sat down. He poured some whiskey in a glass, and started sipping it, without paying much attention until Jim started to tell about the 'faith' that had sustained this major he knew through extended interrogation that combined physical torture with techniques we now know as 'brainwashing.'
"Marv's attention picked up as Jim told how this major had created an imaginary woman, using every detail he'd ever admired in any woman he'd ever known, then making the composite his constant companion. He talked to her, even when they thought he was talking to them. He called her Lou Ann, would get her to hold his hand, promised he'd never betray her. I'd heard much of this before, for Jim had been one of the writers on a John Wayne film set in Red China a few years earlier that had used a similar idea."
"Yeah, I remember that movie . . . with Lauren Bacall," Henry said. "Wayne called the imaginary woman 'Baby.'"
| "Right. And
Marv was taking this all in. He'd already been drinking, but never
became a troublesome drunk, as some on the crew might. I think he
could have drunk us all under the table, then, like Socrates in the Symposium,
gone off looking for new challenges. Still, drinking, or something,
had brought him out of his shell, which provoked me to begin watching him
as he became engrossed in Jim's story.
"When Jim finished, the five of us still scattered around the poker table in the corner of the room fell into what passed for contemplative silence. But Marv kept watching Jim, and finally asked, 'You think your major actually saw that woman, when she was standing there . . . holding his hand?'
"Jim was surprised at first, caught up in his own invention. He gave Marv a long, earnest look, then said, without a hint of irony, sarcasm, or humor, 'Yes, Marv, I do.' But then he added, 'What choice did he have? No girls allowed. It was make one up, or train a mouse, or cultivate a flower . . . ''
"'Well, it's no joke!' Marv said, shaking his head. 'I've been there. But I didn't make Charlene up. She's a real woman. At least she was. She works that way, though. Has come to look after me . . . except I didn't ask her to. She's in control of when she shows up . . . and what she does."
"'You mean a woman you once knew "appears" to you? A woman who's still alive?'
"'That part baffles me. I don't know! But I knew her real well. I should've married her--back in Alabama before I got these ideas about coming to California and being a movie star. I'm not sure she'd've married me, but think she would've. So I didn't have to make up a single detail, like your major did. It's like she was standing right over there . . . by the door.'
"Everybody looked. No woman. But Marv kept staring that way for a moment or two, the way someone who's been drinking does, before going on. 'No, not now. But she could
|be. I read about that poet, William Blake, seeing
angels sitting in the trees. Then that's where I saw Charlene--sitting
in a tree. She couldn't have gotten down, but, when I got there,
she was gone. But I don't just imagine her. I see her all right.
"'A couple of years ago, I went back down home to find Charlene, marry her, and bring her back out here. But nobody knew where she'd gone. Her mother had died . . . and she never knew her father. There was a black woman with five kids living in the house Charlene and her mother had lived in when I left. She remembered Charlene, but hadn't seen her for years. "I heard maybe she went to Birmingham," she said.
"'So I didn't know whether she was still alive or not. I assumed she was, just off somewhere else in the world, like most of the young people from that town. I've had a detective agency check out things like birth certificates and high school records more recently, but didn't even think of it then. I just thought, "Well, I missed her. Damn! The story of my life."
"'The first time she "appeared" to me was the first night on the way back. I'd pulled off the road to get a little sleep in the back of the station wagon. I was just dozing off, thinking about Charlene, when I heard a rap at the back window--disconcerting when you're out there all alone. I reached under my jacket for the pistol I always carry before I turned to look. But then saw that it was Charlene. It was a clear night, plenty of moon, and I saw her. She just stared at me, until I said her name, "Charlene?" Then she turned and walked off--slow--into the night, like she'd seen me and that's all she had in mind.
"'I got out of the wagon and called after her. I grabbed the flashlight and walked down the road in the direction she'd gone--then drove down it a few miles, to see if there was a town, or farmhouse, she might've come from. Nothing. I got to thinking I might've imagined it, that she was on my mind, I was brooding about her disappearance, was out on a lonely
|road, and my imagination just got the best of me.
By the end of the three days it took to drive back to California I'd convinced
myself that that was what had happened.
"'But then she started to show up out here . . . and to come to see me. Only it's not like with your major's woman, who came when he needed someone to hold his hand. Charlene usually comes at the most awkward times for me. Twice while I've been working on this film--the last time just last night. I feel like asking one of you fellows to walk back to my cabin with me, because I'm not sure what she's got in mind.'
"He laughed--and we did, too--but a little nervously.
"'That first experience--her looking through the window of that station wagon--had shook me a little, but I could've been dreaming, because I used to dream about Charlene . . . every once in a while.' Marv paused reflectively, and smiled.
"I tuned to what Marv was saying, for I, too, had a strange woman I dreamed about . . . my wife. There had been several recent dreams involving Betty. Or I might find myself remembering things she'd done as Lizzie, or Eliza, or Mrs. Smith, or Martha--odd, inconsequential things--like some little nervous piece of stage business. But most often, when the lights were out, I'd think of her as Hester Prynne, the scarlet letter on her bosom, or in my arms at the base of the scaffold--as now I might imagine her putting on that Japanese scarf. I sometimes fantasized in these terms when I was in bed with Laura, in fact, not because I'd had better sexual experience with Betty--often it had been very frustrating, even miserably disappointing--but, well, just because I did.
"Marv went on. 'The first time I saw Charlene here in California was very different, though. There was plenty of light, I wasn't asleep, and there wasn't any doubt about seeing her. I've got a picture of her in a little frame I carry with me--it's over on the bedroom dresser now. That picture was taken
|when she was a senior in high school, but the woman I
keep seeing looks older, in her twenties, not eighteen. She should
have been twenty-three that second time, about two months after I came
back from Alabama. I was working on the TV pilot for that newspaperman-detective
series I was in for a while, playing the hero's sidekick, and had been
doing a lot of rough stuff that day. I was dating Myrtle, the girl
playing the secretary on the show, was even getting serious about her,
I thought . . . maybe. I had called and asked her if she minded meeting
me at my apartment, since I was running a little late.
"'I was taking a shower when I heard the front door open. I called out, telling her to fix us both a drink, and find a book with some pictures in it. I got no answer, just heard something bumping against the bathroom door. I stuck my head out of the shower, to see the doorknob moving--but I guess I'd pushed the little button on the inside. Hadn't she heard me yell? Did she need to use the bathroom? Surely she heard the shower running. Maybe she was thinking about walking in on me. Our relationship would accommodate such nonsense well enough, but I didn't think that would be Myrtle's style.
"'Maybe it wasn't Myrtle. It was really too soon for her--and I had been going with a girl who was into that kind of nonsense. Or, since I never locked the door to the apartment when I was there, somebody could have gotten in by mistake. I called out again, "Myrtle, is that you?" Again I heard something, but couldn't tell what, because the water was running. I finished rinsing off as quickly as I could, turned off the water, and climbed out to dry off, calling out again, "Myrtle?"
"'I heard voices--one speaking in low, rapid, angry tones, the other a frightened, shaken voice I recognized as Myrtle's. I tried to open the door, but something had been wedged against it. I called out again, "Myrtle! Open this door!" I heard movement, saw the handle jiggle, and was finally able to
|push the door open. There stood Myrtle, with the
chair that had been propped against the knob still in her hands.
There I stood, in nothing but a towel. And there, just inside the
open front door, stood Charlene . . . my Alabama sweetheart.
"'She just stood there, but it'd been her voice--like when she was really mad about something back home when we were dating. She was there long enough for me to be sure it was her. Then she left. I froze for a second, then rushed after her, out the door and down the street--in nothing but my towel--for about half a block, or about as long as it took to realize she'd vanished. When I came back in, carefully tucking the towel around me as I slipped by to get my clothes, Myrtle was still standing by the bathroom door, and actually shaking.
"'"Marv, who is she?" she asked.
"'Well, what could I tell her? "A woman I used to know back in Alabama. But I haven't seen her for a long time. Now she seems to have disappeared again. What'd she say to you?"
"'Myrtle wouldn't tell me. We ordered in Chinese food, as I was hoping Charlene would come back--but could see Myrtle hoped she wouldn't. She kept looking at the door, or glancing out the window, as if expecting a reappearance of the wicked witch from the south. After dinner, she insisted on going right home--and never went out with me again.
"'I thought about it a lot. If Charlene had come to California, why not just look me up? Had she gone crazy? Maybe something had happened to her there in Alabama after she'd dropped out of sight. Maybe something involving some other fellow. She was a passionate girl. But then why haunt me? I remember thinking I'd seen her a time or two before that night, looking at me from a bus window, or from across the street, but thought, "No, couldn't be."' Marv paused.
"I had imagined that kind of thing with Betty, too. About once a month I'd feel sure a woman I saw in the hallway at the
|studio, in line at the market, in a car in the next lane,
was Betty, and would find myself picking up speed, maneuvering, just to
make sure I was wrong. Laura had caught me at this recently, and
gotten a little upset. 'Haven't you got her out of your mind yet?
How long will it take? I'll never understand it!' Neither did
I. So Marv had my attention as he went on.
"'It's natural for a man to imagine he sees a woman he'd like to see, to read her features in other women. But I began to see Charlene in every redhead I passed on the street, until I knew it was just a trick of my imagination. But she'd been there in that apartment . . . stood by the door long enough to make sure I knew. What I remembered best about the woman standing there, the image that began to haunt me, was her eyes . . . staring at me. Were they the eyes of a crazy woman? No, just Charlene's eyes. If I knew her moods, the dominant expression seemed to be compassion. For me? Anyway, she sure had scared the devil out of Myrtle, without her thinking she was seeing any kind of a ghost--just an old girl friend, I guess. I thought maybe that was all Charlene had intended, to chase Myrtle away. If so, she had managed that nicely.
"'Well, I still loved Charlene, and now the idea of her had an even greater fascination. If I could just talk to her. Find out what she wanted. Give it to her! Get married and live happily ever after. Why not? I looked for her name in every phone book in Southern California, took her picture around to ask everyone within blocks of my apartment if they might have noticed her--clothing stores, beauty salons, specialty shops. I thought, "She's still alive, has enough interest in me to step back into my life that way--and I want her." I put ads in newspapers addressed to her. I hired a detective agency to check on anybody who might be checking on me, and on her in Alabama. Nothing came of any of it, except that there was no report of her death in Alabama. She'd just disappeared.
| "'All that was months
ago. More recently I saw her face reflected in a shop window I was
looking in, her eyes looking into mine like one of those hypnotists--but
when I turned to grab her nobody was there. Then I saw her sitting
in that tree . . . which seemed strange, all right . . . but I was sure
it was her. Then, last night, there she was again . . . in my room.
"'We'd spent most of the afternoon on my big scene, where Brad guns me down in the street, and I was so tired that Charlene was the furthest thing from my mind. I ate, went back to the room, mixed a drink, and settled back to watch television. I was dozing off before the movie really got started--though it was a Jimmy Stewart movie I wanted to see. The room was dark, except for the light from the television.
"'She woke me putting her hand on my shoulder. It was a shock to wake up looking into those great big eyes--there in that dark room--like a guy in a foxhole in Korea might have been shocked to wake up and find the girl he left back home with her hand on his shoulder, looking deep into his eyes--might have found himself shaking, maybe wondering if she knew about what he'd been doing on those weekends in Seoul.
"'I didn't reach out, just said her name, "Charlene?"--and she smiled. Then she talked to me--with that Jimmy Stewart movie playing in the background. It never occurred to me to turn it off, or turn the lights on. "I've come for you, Marvin," she said. "You've had enough of this movie life. It's not real. I'll have to teach you about reality." Or words to that effect. I always have trouble remembering the female dialogue.
"'I asked where she planned to take me, and she just smiled . . . then disappeared again. Her hand was on my shoulder, I was looking into her eyes, and she was smiling--so I was feeling pretty comfortable with her. I can close my eyes right now and see that smile.' Marv closed his eyes. 'Then she disappeared. I jumped up and turned on the lights. I went
|outside and looked around the cabin. When I came
back in the movie was over, so I just sat there, but didn't turn the lights
back off--or go to sleep--all night. I'd get up and look out the
window, or open the door, but she didn't come back.
"'I haven't been able to think about anything else all day. The final shots of my big scene being postponed because of rain didn't help. And I didn't want to stay in my room tonight, so came over here. Then here you were, talking about that woman your major made up in Korea. I've got a woman possessing my mind, too, but she's a real woman--who comes fully equipped. She's got a strange little mole on her neck, just under her left ear, here. I could have put my fingertips on it last night. If anything, she seems to be making me up.
"'I know Charlene isn't the most beautiful woman who ever lived, but I've been around movies long enough to know what it takes to make the "beauties" come out that way--and I'll take Charlene, moles and all. If I had been thinking I might be hallucinating--well, not after last night. She was there! Spoke to me! Do you believe that?' He was looking at me.
"I stared back at him. Sometimes, in the dark at night, I see, not Betty, but my mother, looking as she did that year she died, when I was nine. She might speak to me. I said, 'Yes, Marv, I do.'
"He brightened. 'When she came to my apartment when I was in the shower, I was thinking about Myrtle, wondering if I'd really need to take her out. We could have something sent in, watch television, and . . . who knows? Some such carnal thoughts. Now I can hardly picture Myrtle at all, but still see Charlene standing by the door--looking at me standing there in the towel. Myrtle saw her, too! Myrtle talked to her!
"'Then last night capped it off. I felt her hand on my shoulder. You say your major's Lou Ann might hold his hand. What if I'd just wrapped my arms around Charlene's hips as she stood there . . . as I'd done plenty of times before? I say
|those hips were there. Then where'd they go?
And what does she plan now? Says she wants to save me. So I
should be in the room waiting for her. But I think she wants me to
finish the picture first . . . which I'll do tomorrow, if it doesn't rain.
I think she knows that's important to me. To complete my work.
Then she'll come for me. Does that make sense?'
"Marv closed his eyes and leaned back, bumping the table and spilling his drink a little. 'I'd have had to ask her to move to see Jimmy Stewart. Then she was gone. Did any of you see a good-looking redhead around the lot late last night?' Nobody said anything. 'I didn't think so. And I don't know what's going on any more than you do. It's her idea, not mine.'
"We all thought the story was great, and, after Marv left, talked about how he must've been drinking too much, trying to top Jim that way. Nobody believed any of it, but Jim said, 'He really had me going. When he leaned back, closed his eyes, and said he could still see her, I thought I could, too--the TV set, the Jimmy Stewart movie, and Charlene standing right in the way--and I've never even been in Marv's room.'
"After I'd gone back to my room, lying there in the dark, I fell to imagining, not Charlene, but Betty--my redhead--in the role of Charlene, doing some of the things Marv had talked about. That wasn't unusual, for I now saw Betty in some role in half the plays I read, but I really felt she was in my bedroom that night--climbing into my bed--provoked by Marv's ghost story. Maybe to protect me from Charlene. Do you think ghosts do that . . . protect their own territory?"
"Maybe, Jack," Shoko said. "If any do, Betty's would."
"The next day was Saturday, and it was still raining. They told those of us involved in the out-door scenes to go on home for the weekend, and we'd finish up the first three or four days of the following week, when the weather should be good. I called Laura, then drove back to town in time to take
|her and Christine to an afternoon movie and dinner.
We saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and I realized how
lucky I was, with my little family. I even felt guilty for thinking
so much about Betty lately. It amused me to recognize the urge to
apologize to my girl friend for thinking about my wife. Still, something
in Laura's manner, even on the telephone, had begun to bother me.
She hadn't said, 'Don't come home,' but had seemed a little put out about
having to revise her plans. That wasn't like her, and I wondered
what her plans had been.
"Trying to re-interpret that attitude the following week--after chaos had come again--I was reminded of a clue I should have paid more attention to a month earlier, when Laura and Christine had a secret Christine wasn't supposed to tell. They did that for birthdays, or to 'surprise Daddy,' long before Christine could have told me anything--before she could talk. Laura always enjoyed a secret, and Christine enjoyed the excitement, so it became part of their female conspiracy against 'that man.' But this time was different.
"It was Sunday afternoon, and Laura had gone out shopping. I asked Christine if she'd like to watch 'Uncle Tom' play football on television--I think the Rams were playing the Bears back in Chicago--and she said, 'Oh, yes! I promised him I would!' I asked her when she'd seen him, to promise him that, and she said, 'Oh! I wasn't supposed to tell.'
"'Uncle Tom was here?'
"'Yes--but I wasn't supposed to tell you.'
"As we watched the game, I tried to get more out of her, but now she was on her guard. I thought, 'You little devil! And how about Laura? Well, she can't be out with Tom while I see him throwing passes back in Chicago, can she? Why would I think that anyway? She isn't even civil to him.' When Laura came home, I asked her about it almost before she got in the door. 'Christine says Tom was here while I was gone.'
| "Laura looked at
Christine, saying, 'She wasn't supposed to tell. He came by to invite
us up to see the property he bought at Lake Arrowhead. But I wasn't
very pleasant to him, I'm afraid. I told Christine not to tell you
he'd been here until I decided what to tell you about his great plans,
and finally decided to let him tell you himself. He wants us to invest
up there, too, to buy a lot next to his. But I don't think I could
handle much of the "weekends at the lake" kind of thing.'
"I could tell I still wasn't hearing what was bothering her most, but said, 'I knew Tom was thinking about lake property, but I'm surprised he's already bought it.' I did know most of what she was telling me. Christine and I had been to three home games that fall--one with Laura, one with another fellow from the studio, but the first one just the two of us--after which we'd gone out for a sandwich with Tom.
"He'd told us he was looking at property up here. He already had a boat, packed with camping gear, so could hook up and drive to the lake any time he wanted, but got tired of hauling things back and forth, he said. 'I'd like my own place, with my own dock. I think I'll buy a lot, maybe two, this fall, build in the spring, and be set to move in by early summer. Then I might commute from the lake, but keep an apartment in the city. Not that I plan to settle out here. You know how it is for a professional athlete, Jack. I could be traded to Buffalo next week. And how many more good years do I have? But there aren't many prime lake lots within an easy drive of LA. When I'm done with it, one of these movie stars should be dying to buy it.' I told him it sounded good to me.
"'Then why don't you buy a lot next to mine, Jack! We could work on them together, and look after each other's stuff. Those lots are expensive, but if you don't have the price, I'll loan it to you. I know you're good for it. The place is good for it! I ought to buy two lots anyway. That's one of the
|advantages of the position I'm in now--plenty of money--and
plenty of credit if I need it. I have to be careful not to spend
it all on cars and girls, and wind up, like so many professional athletes,
having made half a dozen lawyers rich, but broke myself . . . when I get
old . . . like, I mean, thirty-five.'
"I hadn't encouraged Tom, had just listened to him bubble over with an enthusiasm I thought might be replaced the next week with, say, motorcycle racing--but, once he'd bought the property, he might well want to know if we wanted in--so what Laura said made sense. 'I think we might enjoy going to the lake with Tom once in a while,' I told her, 'even if we can't afford to buy a lot. But not if you're against it . . . though I still can't see what it is about Tom that gets you so upset.'
"'Does it show that much? I know he's your friend, but he does have that football player, big man on campus, aura--getting so much attention, making so much money, able to do anything he wants--for what? Throwing a football! I guess I don't want to become a satellite to all that.' She stopped and caught her breath, then laughed. 'I get too wound up, but feel--who needs it? We've got our life; let him have his.'
"'Did you tell him all that when he was here?'
"'He wasn't here that long. I told him you'd be in touch, so I guess that's where it stands. I'll do whatever you want to do. Who knows? I'd probably enjoy a day up at the lake.'"
"And isn't that how you got this cabin?" Shoko asked.
"Well, this was Tom's property--until it became Laura's."
Henry said, "It's an easy place to fall in love with, Jack."
"Yes, it is. But I accepted what Laura was saying at the time, so don't know why that line kept echoing, 'the lady doth protest too much methinks.' And Tom really hadn't been a nuisance lately--I was surprised he'd been by at all. But I called him the next day. A woman answered, told me he wasn't back from Chicago yet, and took a message. He called
|back a little later, with details and enthusiasm on the
lake property. I told him, 'I appreciate it, Tom, but Laura feels
we don't have the time to spend at the lake right now.'
"'Now I see why she thinks I'm such a bad influence on you," he said. "I didn't think it was because I lured you into drinking too much . . . or chasing girls. It's fishing."
"I hadn't talked to Tom after that, and didn't expect to be seeing much of him, except on TV. I promised myself not to talk about him, or football, or cabins at the lake with Laura--for something was still bugging her. It carried over to our relationship in bed as well, so I knew there was still a problem long before the final flare up, which then made me think back to something else that had happened, back in September.
"Laura had said she had to be out of town to shoot sequences for a TV play they hoped to develop into a new series. But, after she left that Saturday morning, I was looking in her top dresser drawer for keys to the storeroom, and there was the script. She couldn't already know her lines, so would need that script. That wasn't what she was doing then. Nor was this the first time, I suddenly realized. 'There's somebody else. Has to be! But who? Guess I'll have to ask.'
"But I didn't. Just worried about it. 'There are a lot of aggressive fellows around those shows she's in,' I thought, 'and Laura is a good looking woman.' I found myself looking at her as the guy who played the young ne'er-do-well on the soap opera might, or the agent who'd gotten her three commercials. This made her nervous, as if I were silently accusing her of something, and sharpened my awareness of a disturbing remoteness. It seemed obvious a confrontation was coming.
"Well, it came that weekend Hostages on Horseback got rained out, when I was trying so hard to set things right. The weather even seemed to be on our side on Sunday, giving us a beautiful day, so we drove over to Santa Monica for an
|afternoon on the beach--the lull before the storm--which
came that Sunday night, out of my inadvertently calling Laura 'Betty' as
we were lying in bed talking about miscellaneous things.
"Suddenly I had a wild woman on my hands. It had been unconscious, but Laura was accusing me of imagining I was in bed with Betty whenever I was making love with her. 'You think I don't know?' Since such ideas had been echoing in my head from the time I started reminiscing with Tom, and then in reaction to Marv's story, I did feel guilty, and wasn't quick enough to deny it. I'd never known Laura to be more angry. She turned her back to me, saying, 'Get out! Out of my bed! Go sleep in your study with the cat!' And that's what I did.
"When I left, early the next morning, I hesitated to wake Laura up, but saw the light go on in the bedroom, and the curtain move, as I was backing out. 'Well,' I thought, 'there's a problem we'll have to fuss through when I get back. I'll need to figure out some way to make it up to her. It's ridiculous. I might just as well have said "Charlene" . . .which would have been easier to explain my way out of . . . maybe. Why did I have to say "Betty"? Who knows?' I shook my head.
"When we were back at work on his showdown scene, I asked Marv if he'd seen Charlene over the weekend. He gave me a long look, then said, 'You shouldn't pay too much attention to me when I've been drinking.' But there was still something in his eyes that inclined me to take it all the more seriously. He just seemed sorry to have revealed so much.
"Marv was always good, a real professional, and he was great that day--mean as hell--as they worked up to the shoot-out. I was caught up in the character he created--or that I'd created and he projected--just as I'd been caught up in the character of Charlene he had created that earlier evening.
"Then there she was. I'd been watching Marv, so at first wasn't conscious of a woman stepping into my line of sight
|behind Brad Murphy, the hero, as he was about to draw
on Marv and shoot him down. Then, from behind Brad's back, she pointed
a beckoning finger at Marv--just as Brad drew and fired. I thought,
'She'll be in this shot . . . and ruin it.' I could only see her
back, but she was close. I was sure I knew her.
"There was a strange shocked look in Marv's eyes, which comes through very clearly in the movie . . . you know, Hostages on Horseback . . . a nice effect. But the woman isn't there. Maybe I was wrong about the camera angle. Then Marv fell, and the woman did just seem to vanish.
"But Marv didn't get up. After a certain amount of joking about how realistically he'd fallen, Brad knelt down beside him--then looked up at us and said, 'He's dead.' And he was.
"At first we thought he'd really been shot, but there was no gunshot wound. We carried him into the back room and laid him on the pool table, but nobody there was medically competent, so I volunteered to drive into Palm Springs for a doctor, trying to think where I'd seen that woman before. As we turned onto the road approaching the back of the building, coming back, I saw her again, from a distance. 'It's Betty,' I said. I'd have sworn I'd just seen Betty going in that back door, and that--still dressed the same--she was the woman who'd beckoned to Marv. It couldn't be, but I was sure it was.
"I asked the doctor if he'd seen her, and he said, 'Yes, a woman, a redhead in jeans, just went in that door.' But she wasn't there when we got there--nor was anybody else--or Marv's body. Nobody had been watching the body, or had any idea what had happened to it. When I told them about the woman we'd seen, they thought I was joking--in poor taste. If Marv hadn't been dead, had just got up and left with Charlene, he'd sure fooled us. And where did they go? In what? His car was still there, nobody remembered seeing a strange car on the lot, and I'd just come back on the main road
|out of there. I went to Marv's room to look for
the picture of Charlene he'd said was there, but there was no picture.
"That same night I was driving back to L.A., alone, and pulled over to pour another cup of coffee from my thermos, to keep awake. Though coffee was all I'd been drinking, I felt as if I'd been drugged, after the bizarre events of those last two days, and got out to stretch my legs. As I got back in the car, I heard a noise. I looked around at the rear window--and saw her. Just as clearly as I see my own face shaving, I saw a woman's face in that rear window. I threw the car into gear and drove off fast enough to spill coffee in my lap.
"Leaving poor Betty alone on that desert road," Henry put in, as Shoko tried to quiet him.
"No. It wasn't Betty's face. 'It must have been Charlene,' I thought. Deeply disturbing eyes. Even now, sometimes when I'm taking a shower, I keep looking out, sure I see the doorknob moving. And I never even knew a girl named Charlene. Some nights, if I lie awake staring at the ceiling in the dark, that face will begin to appear. I may try to conjure up the major's Lou Ann, to protect me. When that doesn't work, I still rely on Betty. Betty always comes . . . even now.
"So it was late when I got home, but two days earlier than I'd expected. And I saw Tom's motorcycle in the drive. So I parked a couple of doors down and let myself in the front door with my own key, feeling a little ashamed of my motives as I did. I could hear Tom and Laura in the bedroom. I didn't go in, but made noise enough that they'd know I was there.
"Things got quiet. Then, after just about long enough for him to get dressed, Tom came out of the bedroom. He said, 'Sorry about this, Jack, but I can't think of anything to say, so maybe it's best just to let the two of you figure it out. You know where to find me . . . if you decide on a duel or something.' Then he gathered up his stuff and, a minute later,
|I heard the motorcycle revving up, then fading off into
the night, thinking, 'Not the best way to be clandestine.'
"About that time Laura came out of the bedroom, in a robe. Her first comment was, 'Well, you can just imagine that I was imagining that he was you imagining that I was Betty.'
"We didn't have a fight about it. I remember feeling incredibly sad, but thinking it was her choice. My bag was still in the car, already packed. I'd just go get a motel room. But first, even though it was late, I called Grace to tell her that I'd be picking Christine up in the morning, so Laura would know.
"Laura was just sitting there on the sofa by then, staring at me. I turned to her and said, 'I'll come back and pick up the rest of my things as soon as I find a place.'
"She didn't respond to that, just said, 'After these five years, I feel Christine's as much my child as she is yours, Jack. More than she is Betty's. And she could just as well be Tom's child as yours, anyway, couldn't she? I think he thinks so.'
"I didn't trust myself to answer . . . just left.
"I went to get Christine the next morning. Grace indicated that she'd talked to Laura on the telephone, and knew that something wasn't right. But Laura had evidently decided not to dispute custody--which was good. I would have fought the whole Rams' football team for Christine at that point. I dropped by the house then, thinking Laura would already be off to work, but also wondering what temper she would be in now, or just what I would find at the house. I found Laura all packed and ready to leave.
"'I thought I'd be gone before you two got here, Jack, and left you a note in the kitchen. Listen. There's no point you getting another place. I'm moving in with Tom . . . for a while at least. I'm leaving the cat . . . Midnight . . . for you, Christine. Be sure to feed her, honey. I'd be happy to take her . . . the cat, I mean . . . but don't know about Tom and
|cats. I could give him a choice, I suppose.'
She tried to laugh, but didn't make it. As she looked at the sad,
puzzled expression on Christine's face I thought she might start to cry,
but she didn't do that, either.
"'Laura . . . I'm sorry . . . about . . .'
"'I know, Jack . . . me, too . . . but it's been coming. And I'm the one who should be sorry . . . for what I said about Christine. I was just mad. You know that. Just trying to think of something to say that would hurt you. Take care of each other. I love you both.' Then she did start to cry.
"'I had no idea about you and Tom. I thought you . . .'
"'I've been seeing him ever since I stopped going to the football games, I guess. I'm not sure why. But this was the first time that we . . . I was so upset.' This provoked me to laugh . . . at the irony. When I'd least expected it, the girl was leaving me for the football player. Jordan would have enjoyed that joke on me. My laughter must have gotten a little crazy, as I looked at those question marks in Laura's tear-filled eyes.
"We heard a car pull up, and Laura began to laugh too, even crazier. Then she grabbed me around the neck and hugged me with a violence I hardly knew in her, and said, 'It really is ridiculous, Jack. More than you know. But I've got to go now.' And she turned, picked up her things, and left.
"I stood looking out the window as she put her bags into the back of the jeep that I supposed was Tom's 'lake car.' She seemed to argue with him briefly, as he looked up at the window, even pointed to where he could no doubt see me. Then they finally got into the jeep, and drove away.
"I stood watching long after they were gone, until I heard Christine ask, 'Where did Laura go?'
"I turned to see her petting Midnight, that she hadn't seen for two days. Then I picked her up and hugged her. At least she hadn't said, 'Well, you've still got me.' But I did.
|Assignments for 2001:
For January, read William Butler Yeats' poem, Sailing to Byzantium, which not only applies to Bridge 13, "Sailing to Byzantium," but also, as metaphor, to the whole second half of the novel. Why not memorize that 32 line poem, in fact? Then you'll have it for the rest of your life, and it should become increasingly valuable the older you get.
|Copyright © December 2000||Robert N. Lawsonfirstname.lastname@example.org|
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