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This story came about because a man who managed the Mysterious Bookstore many years ago in Los Angeles was robbed of a rare first edition (I believe it was a Raymond Chandler novel), and described the culprit to the police as being a dirty blonde. This robbery has nothing to do with the subject of the short story, but those two words "dirty blonde" were a catalyst for it.
I had rejected Gordon Keith, sexually that is, many times when I was a young and up-and-coming actress. What made it awkward was that Gordon knew he was one of just a few men I had rejected. In Hollywood, where everyone strives for some sort of difference, this made him fairly unique. Now, ten years later, as I sat across from him in his office, I knew it was a distinction he would still rather have done without.
"You look great," he said, leaning intimately across his desk as if we were at a table for two in some dark corner of a restaurant. His fleshy hands came to rest on the television script.
"Thank you," I said.
"So, Diana, you want to get back into acting." His dark eyes drifted over my body, then settled on my face.
"I need the money and it's all I know how to do."
"Colin never did know how to handle his money."
He was right. Colin Hudson, my husband, believed you wrote hard, spent hard, and lived well.
"I'm going to miss the son of a bitch," he said. I smiled. Most writers in Hollywood are constantly referred to that way. But in Colin's case it was spoken with admiration. He was one of the few writers who knew how to wheel-and-deal for himself. It was believed he could have run a studio if he hadn't been so creative. Thinking about him brought back that wrenching pain of emptiness I'd been waking up to every morning since his death eight months before.
Gordon spread open his hands, peered down at the script, then slowly back at me.
"What do you think of the part? You don't mind playing a mother?"
"I'm old enough to play the mother of a twenty-year-old."
"Always so direct, so honest." This wasn't spoken with admiration.
"Who do I read with? You? The director?" I asked.
"You don't have to read for me."
"I haven't acted in ten years."
"It's not that big a role. Besides, the deal's done."
"What do you mean?"
"I called your agent. We'll pay what he asked. This is just a courtesy meeting. Just to see you."
He leaned back in his chair. "You look like you still have great tits."
I said nothing. What was there to say? We stared at one another.
"You know we're going to have to play 'em down. America isn't ready for mothers with great tits."
He smiled. I smiled.
"One thing," he leaned forward spreading his hands flat on the script.
There had to be one. But I didn't think it was going to be sexual. I was now in my forties and Gordon liked them young.
"Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to go to bed with me."
"I wasn't worried, Gordon."
Again we smiled.
"It's the actress Wynn Larkin. She's going to play your daughter. I want you to look after her."
"In what way?"
"It's her first starring role. She's scared as hell. You've been through it. You know what it's all about. Just talk to her. Try to help her."
"And then report back to me."
"Yeah. Tell me how she's doing."
"Won't you see how she's doing in dailies?"
"If she's nervous or afraid and I see it on film it's already too late."
"What about Howard Marsh?"
"He should've been a plumber instead of a director. You know it. I know it. He's going to get his shot. That's all he cares about. I didn't want him but he gets the show done on time. Hey, that's what it's all about in television. Time. That's why I don't want her staying out late. Seeing anybody. You let me know who she's seeing."
"There's a difference between looking out for someone and spying on them."
He stared down at his hands, lifted them from the script, contemplated it, then slowly raised his head and contemplated me. "You know Diana, you look great but you're middle-aged now. This town is filled with middle-aged actresses who have stayed in the business and are looking for work. They'd kill for this role. You left the business. I'm giving you a chance to get back in it. You can take that chance or not."
In Hollywood, like Nazi Germany, there are people in power who think they are better human beings than the rest of us. Gordon was one of them.
"Besides," he continued, "I think it might help you to fill the void a little bit. I think you'll like her. She reminds me of you when you were her age. Blonde, sexy. A great mouth. A dirty mouth. Not in the way she talks, in the way of possibilities. Do you know what I mean?"
"I think so." I stood.
"Just a minute." He pushed one of many buttons on his telephone. The door opened. Rose, his secretary, came in. She had been with Gordon for as long as I could remember. Her momentary youth had turned to a brittle officiousness.
"Yes, Mr. Keith?"
"Get Mrs. Hudson a script."
She hurried out of the office.
"You can use my professional name, Gordon."
"I think of you as Colin's wife."
It was a put-down. But I had the role. I had to keep telling myself that. I had the role.
"Now you can think of me as Diana Poole."
"The Diana Poole I knew was a dirty blonde. That's a compliment. You know how I like dirty blondes, and you were the best."
"The best at what, Gordon?"
He didn't answer. He just grinned, knowingly. I wanted out of his office before I told him to take his role and shove it up his ass. The one thing success does for you in Hollywood is allow you to lie to yourself. Success makes you think you have principles. Right now I couldn't afford the luxury of self-deception.
Rose came back in with a script and handed it to me.
"Your appointment in wardrobe is in fifteen minutes, Mrs. Hudson," she announced.
"I made it for you," Gordon explained. "Save you the extra trip from driving into town from the beach."
"Say hello to Vivian for me."
He stared at me as if he'd forgotten his wife's name. "Oh, yeah, sure."
I walked out of the Executive Building. It was a hot August day and the sun pierced through the brown air with the sharpness and accuracy of a laser. I put on my sunglasses and walked across the street past the commissary, where my picture had once hung on the wall, and turned down a narrow tree-lined street. Being back on the studio lot was like coming back to the small town where you grew up. There is the illusion of sameness and yet everything has changed. The people look familiar but you really don't remember them and they don't remember you.
A black Mercedes with darkened windows pulled up beside me and stopped. The window on the passenger side slipped down and I heard a woman's voice.
It was Vivian, Gordon Keith's wife.
"How are you Vivian?" I asked peering into the car.
"May I talk to you for a moment?"
"I have to be in wardrobe."
"Just for a minute." She leaned over and opened the door. I got in.
"Close the door. I have the air conditioning on," she said.
I did. She pushed a button and my window slipped quietly up. I was surrounded by cool black leather and the smell of Chanel No. 5, a perfume I've always detested. Vivian turned toward me resting her arm on the steering wheel. She had on a short black leather skirt. Her legs were still great looking. The shape of an ex-dancer's legs always endure. But the years had not been kind to the rest of her. The hair was too blonde. In fact, I didn't remember her ever being blonde. Lines dug deep around her coral-painted lips giving her face a pinched look. The color of her once beautiful sharp green eyes had faded, but the diamonds on her ring finger, around her neck, and clasping her lobes shone brilliantly. The Mercedes purred.
"It's been a long time, Vivian," I said.
"Yes. I was very surprised last night when Gordon told me you were coming into read for his movie. I take it if you're on your way to wardrobe you got the part."
"I think Gordon gave it to me for old times sake."
"Gordon doesn't give without a reason. You should've heard how he went on about you last night."
"Gordon always talks up the actors in his movies."
"He was only talking about you to me. His wife. My God, it was like nothing had changed. I felt like I did fifteen years ago when I was watching you two at a party. Watching him rest his hand on your waist. Watching you throw back your head and laugh. Watching you turn and walk away. Your blonde hair swaying in perfect unison with your hips. I watched him follow you. And all the time I'm the wife sitting on the sofa talking about some fucking cooking class to some other dumb wife. And forty-five minutes later Gordon is casually standing in front of me, smiling down at me. And then you saunter in, look in the mirror, and smooth your hair."
"Vivian, I don't remember what you're talking about. Look, we're two middle-aged women who gave up our careers when we got married. I've lost my husband, a man I loved. And now I'm trying to put my life back together again by working at the only thing I know how to do. That's all."
I started to open the car door. She grabbed my wrist. Her grip was strong. She still had the strength of a dancer.
"Exactly. You've lost your husband and that makes you needy. That makes you vulnerable, right where Gordon wants you. He can offer you his strong shoulder to cry on. He can kiss your tears away."
"Let go of my wrist, Vivian."
Slowly she released my arm.
"Listen to me, I never went to bed with Gordon. I never wanted to. I never trusted him. This may come as a shock to you, but I never found your husband attractive."
"Did you trust all the men you went to bed with? Did you find them all attractive?"
I didn't answer her. I couldn't. When I was a young actress sex was my only power over the constant fear of rejection by those suited men, sitting behind their desks, picking one young actress over another for some bikini-clad role. Vivian and I should be two older, wiser women sitting in a Mercedes laughing at ourselves. But Vivian never could laugh.
"I'm late." I opened the car door.
"Diana, I swear to God, you come back into my husband's life and I'll kill you."
"For once in your life, Vivian, do something constructive for yourself. Divorce the bastard."
I got out of the car and walked up the sidewalk to wardrobe. She gunned the Mercedes. I could hear her backing down the narrow street at high speed.
As I entered the building I wondered if the imagined loss of someone you love was as deeply wounding as the actual loss of a loved one. Could the rage of jealousy be as strong and as everlasting as the reality of death?
I gave my name to a young woman who was sitting at a desk. She smoked a cigarette with a defiant theatrical jadedness. Only her youth kept her from being embarrassing. She located my name on a list, checked it, and told me to follow her.
"In here," she said without opening the dressing room door for me. She walked busily away. I went in.
She was blonde. She stood in front of a three-way mirror in her white lace bra and panties staring intently at her beautiful long-legged, high-breasted body.
"God, I'm so fat." She spoke to her reflection.
"Excuse me, I was told to come in here," I said backing out of the room.
"Aren't you Diana Poole?"
"It's the right room. I'm Wynn Larkin. I'm going to play your daughter."
"How do you do?" I put out my hand. She took it and gave it a limp shake. I sat down on a small gray sofa.
"God, I've put on so much weight." She twisted around and looked over her shoulder into the mirror so she could get a good view of her round, firm ass. "They say the camera puts ten pounds on you."
"Twelve," I corrected.
"God, I'm going to look like a house."
She turned and stood in front of me as if I were the mirror. She ran her hand across her flat belly. I could see her dark pubic hair through her gauzy white bikini. So she wasn't a natural blonde. I didn't think it would hold her back.
"Do you think I'm too fat?" she demanded.
"You know you're not fat. You know you look great standing there."
"So you don't like to bullshit." She sat down in a chair opposite me and crossed her long legs. "I do. It helps me when I'm nervous."
She didn't look fat. She didn't look nervous. I watched her dangle her black high-heeled shoe from the toes of her right foot.
"Gordon said you might help me with my lines."
"Be glad to."
"He said you live at the beach. So do I. He drove me in this morning. So I don't have a car. I wondered if you'd mind taking me home."
"Not at all."
"He just picked me up. My car isn't running."
"You don't have to explain."
"Okay, I'm having an affair with him. Everybody knows, even his wife." She smiled.
Gordon was right. She had the type of smile that suggested all kinds of sexual possibilities. But I would never have thought of it as dirty. But then I didn't think of sex as dirty. Gordon did. That's why I'm sure he loved to cheat on his wife. Sex with a wife wasn't naughty enough for him. Maybe that's why I never went to bed with Gordon. We didn't share the same view of sex. Wynn got up and stretched, then languidly reached for a white mini skirt the size of a tea cozy. She wiggled into it and pulled on a tight white T-shirt.
"I have to go to makeup. They want to change the color of my hair. Make it more golden or something. I kinda like my color. Gordon calls it dirty blonde." She giggled. It was a strange, spasmodic laugh connected to nothing funny.
"Can I meet you at your car?" she asked.
"Sure. I'm in the underground parking lot in the Executive Building."
"What kind is it?"
"Green Jag. It's unlocked. My air conditioner's not working so I left the windows down."
"I've always wanted a Jag," she said moving toward the door. "Oh," she stopped and looked at me. "I saw you talking to Mrs. Keith."
"I recognized her car. What did she have to say?"
"It was just a conversation between two old friends," I lied.
I thought she might have said something about me."
"Gordon tells her everything. Everything that he and I do with each other."
"Do you like that?"
For a moment her mouth looked soft, almost sweet. But it was only a moment. "She has a great car. I wouldn't mind having a Mercedes. See, ya."
Wynn left me feeling I was being drawn into something. Something Gordon wanted.
The wardrobe mistress shuffled in wearing bedroom slippers and hung three dresses on the clothes rack.
"I'll be right back with your shoes," she said in a tired voice, and scuffed out of the room.
I got up and looked at the dresses; they were perfect if I were doing Tobacco Road.
An hour later I walked down the ramp into the underground garage. I removed my sunglasses, letting my eyes adjust from the bright sunlight to the cool darkness. My heels echoed the sound of a lone female as I made my way toward the car. And again I felt the sharp pain of loss.
I didn't see Wynn. I didn't see anybody until I approached the driver's side of the Jag. Gordon was sitting in the passenger seat.
"You always lurk in underground garages, Gordon?" I asked, sliding into the car. My skirt hiked up and I felt something warm on my thigh. Gordon didn't answer. I looked at him. His head flopped back against the head rest. His mouth sagged. One eye was open, the other closed as if he'd died in the middle of a leering wink. Blood trickled down from a hole in the side of his head. Slowly I became aware of bits and pieces of his hair and flesh on the burl wood dashboard. His hand rested casually on a gun. I looked down at my thigh. Blood was smeared across it.
"Oh, my God, oh, my God." Wynn stood next to the car quivering, repeating over and over. "Oh, my God, my God." Then she screamed and ran toward the ramp.
I stared straight ahead at the cement wall in front of me. Soon I heard footsteps and voices coming toward the car. But I was afraid they wouldn't be able to find me. It was getting dark in the garage. So dark.
"Colin," I murmured, opening my eyes. My mouth was dry. I was lying down trying to bring recessed lighting into focus.
"I bet your pardon?"
The man's voice came from somewhere across a room.
"Who's Colin?" the voice asked.
I slowly sat up and swung my legs around. I was on the red leather sofa in Gordon's office. I stared at the smeared dry blood on my thigh and it all came back to me. I pulled my skirt down.
"Who is Colin?" he asked again.
Sitting behind Gordon's desk was a lean, unassumingly handsome man in a cheap suit. He was about my age. His intelligent blue eyes studied me.
"Colin is my husband."
"He was in the garage?"
"No, no. Colin's dead. Died of a heart attack. Who are you?"
David Lang, L.A.P.D., Detective. Homicide."
"Yes, of course, the police. Homicide?"
"There's a dead body."
"How long have I been out?"
"About an hour. We had the studio doc check you."
He peered at Gordon's telephone with all the buttons and began pushing each one. Finally the door opened and Rose came in; Her skin was as gray as her hair.
"Did he keep any booze in here?" he asked.
"In there." She pointed to a lacquered cabinet.
"That'll be all," he said.
"Mr. Howard March, the director, is outside. He wants to know if you're ... well, if you're ..."
"Going to arrest Mrs. Hudson."
"Diana Poole," I said automatically. "Arrest?" That word didn't come out so easily.
She turned to me. "I'm sorry, but Mr. Marsh doesn't know whether he should recast or not. Your scenes shoot tomorrow. He's in a terrible snit."
Now we both looked at Detective Lang who was taking a glass and a bottle of brandy from the cabinet.
"Tell him to wait," he ordered.
Rose sighed and left the room.
He poured the glass full of brandy, handed it to me, then sat back down in Gordon's chair.
Excerpted from Shooting Hollywood by Melodie Johnson Howe. Copyright © 2011 Melodie Johnson Howe. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 26, 2014
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