The Picture Ranch 4
‘I’m so glad you have your pants on, Mr Fisher. Careful!’
I had banged my head against the wall behind me,
It was Miss Grafenberg, who was gracious enough to back out of the wash room so I could stand up. That meant I lost the view of her curves, but they looked too dangerous for me in my condition. Most drunk drivers lose it on the curves, they say.
‘Well, I think you must have made some progress, judging by the state of your office. Unless, of course, it was you yourself who was looking for something.’
‘No, that’s how I found it, when I got back from Carlsbad.’
She gave a slow nod. ‘Carlsbad.’
‘I stopped off in San D, saw an old comrade.’
‘Ah yes, were you a good soldier, Mr Fisher?´
‘I was a marine, Miss Grafenberg.’
She executed a turn and I felt seasick as I watched her walk out into the office, though I didn’t look away.
The floor had only been hidden after all. There wasn’t a sheet of paper on it. Even the smashed bottle of scotch had been tidied away to somewhere.
‘Just how long have you been here?’
‘You are good at filing, Miss Grafenberg. The LA Times must’ve been sorry to see you go.’
‘No, Mr Fisher, they were not.’
Miss G stood next to the client’s chair, I pulled it back to let her sit. Then I sat in my chair and thought about putting my feet on the desk. Instead I pulled out a pack of Luckies and offered her a cigarette.
‘Thank you, Mr Fisher, but no.’
‘Wasn’t expectin’ ya, Miss G,’
I caught her look. Her blind-mole eyes narrowed slightly and there were two tiny spots of colour about where her cheekbones broke the air.
‘Admit it, it’s a mouthful, ain’t it? Why d’ya think all those Movie Stars invent their own?’
‘There is little that isn’t fake about the movies, Mr Fisher, as I’m sure you know. If you find Grafenberg such a mouthful then you may call me Eleanor.’
‘Swell, Eleanor, call me Mike.’
‘Did you read every file?’
‘Only the interesting ones.’
Eleanor looked at me. She’d have been good in a police interview, on either side of the table, where keeping shtum is often the best policy. She had me on the back foot so I let out a sigh,
‘Look, it was a long drive back from San D, I was tired and I had a drink...’
‘Micawber, I expect - and will get - a daily report on your progress.’
‘Make it Fisher, that’s what I go by.’
She had her knees together and her purse on her lap with her gloves in her right hand.
‘A report? Nothing to report. How’s that?’
Eleanor Grafenberg lifted her chin and waited.
‘I saw the school. Your orphanage was probably better. I met the boss, the chaplain and a kid they say was your brother’s only friend. That’s it.’
‘Really? That’s quite a lot. My brother wasn’ t happy, that’s something to know.’
‘Did I say that?’
‘I had exactly one friend in the orphanage. I wasn’t happy either.’
‘Anyway, I’m meeting the friend off campus on Friday. I’ll talk to him for maybe ten minutes.’
‘I think that will be enough.’
It was my turn to say, ‘Really?’
I didn’t think Miss G could sit up any straighter. Then I cottoned on she was waiting for the chair business so she could stand up. She held out her hand.
‘Of course, you’ll put your overnight stay on your expense sheet, M – Fisher. With the check.’
‘Ah… I stayed with a friend.’
I watched her leave and thought how much more than five dollars she might cost me.
Miss G hadn’t offered me a sight of the mysterious letter and I figured it could wait until I had something to offer in exchange. Besides, she’d think of it herself pretty soon, for sure. I turned on the Zenith in the corner. The radio had come with the office. The announcer told me it was 12.15 and that I could expect a word from their sponsor before Fibber McGee told me whoppers, but none bigger than the lie about Marian Jordan’s whereabouts. I cut the power to the tales of Wistful Vista and called a locksmith. Then I put on my hat and coat to look for lunch, since the locksmith wouldn’t be arriving ‘til around five.
I didn’t want to go to Ventura Boulevard. Too many people with stars in their eyes and nothing but change in their pockets. Boys and girls from the Midwest who’d given up on MGM and Columbia and taken to hanging around Burbank or RKO, killing time before they went home or started waiting tables and checking coats. Heading south, I would eventually hit Mulholland Drive, but there was nothing much in the way of housing between there and Ventura. So Ventura it was. Du Par’s had good pancakes for a quarter, but I was heading towards the Encino Store. You could get coffee and a piece of apple pie á-la-mode at the soda fountain inside. You could check your mailbox if you had one and I did. I must have been on a strange mailing list. Various medical professionals were offering me anything from monkey gland treatments to the Acme Mouthguard: “guaranteed to prevent nocturnal dental erosion and concomitant disturbed slumber.” The US Mail provided a trash can at the entrance to the post box room. The only thing I didn’t throw in it was a hand-written post card with a picture of San Diego Zoo on the front. The message on the card was succinct,
‘Don’t come looking!’
I put it in my pocket and went over to order my coffee and pie.
Henry was about thirty-five years too old to be jerking sodas. He’d wrangled horses out at Providencia Flats on the Lasky Ranch. Broke his leg in 1930 falling off a mustang whilst pretending to kill “injuns” with a Winchester. He’d been filming Cimarron for RKO, so there was no insurance, since he was under contract to Lasky. Some people said Irene Dunne put the word in to get him the job on the Encino Store’s fountain, but movie people will believe anything. I did know that any movie folks might get a little extra in their soda, if they weren’t polite.
‘Hey, Fisher! Coffee and Pie á-la-mode comin’ at ya!’
He smiled at me and I tried not to wince. It was hard to believe the owners let him chew tobacco whilst he jerked those sodas.
‘Nice day!’ It was sunny, too sunny for a hangover.
‘Naw, I’ll keep makin’. The other customers kin’ make do with the hot-plate jug.’
I took the postcard out of my pocket. It was creased and worn as though it had been carried round as a keepsake long before it had been sent to me. I turned it over. The postmark could have been San Diego or Sao Paolo. The writing was a shaky copperplate: the hand of a bad student at a good school or the other way about. I hoped it hadn't been written by the Mulvaney kid's friend, otherwise Friday's drive down to Carlsbad would be a wasted journey.
Henry nodded down at the postcard, now picture up on the counter,
'Where? San Diego or the zoo?'
'The zoo, any zoo,' he said.
'Not since I was a kid.'
Henry turned away from the counter and the rest of the store, then spat juice into a cup,
'Met Lugosi once. He said bein' famous was like bein' in a zoo.'
' 'zat a fact?'
'Tole me not bein' famous any more wuz like bein' a zoo animal turned out into the wild.'
'So! Just shows actors ain't never happy,' and he laughed until he coughed.