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The Angel's Cut
By Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University PressCopyright © 2009 Elizabeth Knox
All rights reserved.
June 27, 1929
In 1929 Xas came to Los Angeles looking for a flying job. He hung around Glendale airport, hoping something would come up, and every time a plane came in to land, or a mechanic or radio-operator punched in, the current custodian of his tale would say, 'See that pilot? Somebody up there likes him.'
He'd been flying to spot schools of tuna for the fleets out of San Pedro, when his plane went down. Its rudder line had broken, sending it into a steep dive. A tuna boat captain who'd watched the spotter's plane plunge into the sea, and who hurried to the wreck to see what came up, at first found only a few floating fragments of varnished canvas and balsawood. Then Xas surfaced still grasping the plane's joystick — which had broken off in his hand as he tried to pull up. He was alive and unhurt, and the boat's crew had regarded him with awe when he came on board, standing back as if afraid to go near him.
Xas sat in the waiting room at Glendale airport, his hand curled around the bowl of his coffee cup, and answered questions about the crack-up. And, as the day wore on, his answers became more considered. He remembered struggling out of the crumpled and disjointed wreck, leaving it sinking, its pale shape slowly growing green as it went down into the gloom, shedding air upward from every gash. He had drifted up with the bubbles, and when he reached the surface he found the stick still in his hand. He remembered looking at it, and wondering at himself. After all — he was always conscious, he had only ever slept when he was sleeping beside someone. So why had he held so hard to that piece of broken machinery?
By late afternoon Xas's musings had begun to bemuse his audience. 'I think I have an instinct to hold onto what has fallen,' he said, 'an instinct that trumps sense.' He flexed his hand, and, looking around the baffled faces, he saw one he recognised.
'Millie Cotton!' Xas was delighted. He jumped up and pulled out a chair for her.
'With a story like that it figures it's you,' Millie said. She told the flyers who'd come in with her, 'This guy is the wildest wing-walker I ever saw.' She sat down beside Xas and unfastened the buttons of her powder-blue leather flying suit to reveal the dewy skin on her collarbones.
Xas took her hand. 'I taught you to jump,' he said. 'And on the strength of that you bought me drinks for a whole week.'
'Was it really only a week?' Millie said.
'Yes. And here we are, together again — only there's Prohibition.'
The flyers who'd come in with Millie all snorted.
'Shame about that,' she said, dry. Then, 'Leastways, I have a job for you.'
It was after midnight when they drove to Santa Monica in Millie's Buick, their bellies full of steak and bootleg beer.
The Buick was new, and Millie was wearing her leather flying suit, and a white silk scarf. By her car, clothes and the way she drove — though she was far from sober — Xas was able to measure how she had shaped up as a pilot. Her driving was efficient and debonair. She watched the dark, dusty roads and handled the wheel, gear stick, clutch and brakes, her brain playing with space.
They had left the houses behind and were driving between a field of beans and a eucalyptus windbreak — big old trees planted for ironwood railway ties. Between the trees Xas saw blank, frizzled fields, still and pale in the starlight.
'We're going early,' Millie said, 'not because you have to be early for me to get you hired on, but because I want to show you something.'
Millie turned in at a gate, and parked by a hangar whose sign read 'Mutual Aircraft'. She shut off the engine and grinned at Xas, her round cheeks and oiled hair outlined by a distant column of light, its brightness grainy with the bodies of flying insects. The searchlight was aimed up at a mast, where a Zeppelin tilted at the end of her tether, nose down and aft up, a weightless silver whale in the cone of radiance.
'Lake Werner,' said Millie, 'isn't she a sight?' She got out of the car and walked away toward the mast. After a moment Xas saw a match lit, the flare, then the orange coal of Millie's cigarette tip coming and going.
He got out of the car and followed her. He saw that the field he walked on wasn't grass, but clumps of battered alfalfa and barley — remnants of old crops between patches of dusty hard-baked earth. He reached Millie, took her hand and pinched out her cigarette's fire. They were too near to the Zeppelin and its volatile gas.
'But I'm gasping,' Millie said, then dropped the butt and wrapped her arms around herself. 'You told me in '22 that you used to crew one of these things.' She peered up at him, waiting for more.
'I heard that my captain had to give up his Zeppelin as part of the reparations,' Xas said. 'He had to deliver it personally to a French fort in Africa, after which he travelled back home by sea and train.'
'It was a raider Zeppelin?' Millie said. 'Were you flying those raids on London?'
'I was the navigator, not the bombadier.'
'Uh-huh,' said Millie. 'So you were.'
The field around the mast was showing signs of a melee of deliveries. It looked like a village square after a market packs up — littered with broken crates, wadded paper, cabbage stalks, and an orange dented by a boot heel. There were rolls of red carpet leaning against the mast's supports, and several other incongruities, like stanchions and silk ropes, and palm trees in brass pots.
'There's a big send-off this evening,' Millie said. 'A jazz band, searchlights, well-wishers, and the Movietone news.' She nudged him. 'Do you like jazz?'
'I don't know.'
'I'll take you to some clubs.' She peered at him. 'You'll stay for a bit, won't you? There's lots of work for flyers in this town.'
Above them the airship creaked and groaned as its gas envelopes expanded — the gas slower to cool than the surrounding air. The condensation that had formed on the ship's warm sides fell in pattering drops on and around them. The airship was beginning to come level again as her crew moved ballast about. In the beam of the searchlight the whirlwind of insects rattled against her silver skin.
'She's going around the world,' said Millie. 'You must have read about it.'
'I have. But I didn't know she was here.'
Millie said that Lake Werner had already flown from Berlin to New York, New York to Rio, Rio to Los Angeles. She would depart Los Angeles that evening for Tokyo, then continue on to Berlin again. She took his arm. 'Let's go back to my car. We can smoke, and I can tell you about the job.'
Millie had her smoke. She slid down in her seat, her flying suit creaking against the Buick's upholstery.
'The name of the film is Spirit. It's about aces — a guy called Marshall and his buddies. It's set mostly in France. I'm doing Marshall's battle stunts, in a Spad. And the director wants me to crash for him.'
'Yeah,' said Millie. She tossed her half-finished cigarette over the door beside her and took an inhaler out of her jacket. She closed her lips over it, huffed, coughed, and handed it to Xas. 'Benzedrine,' she said. 'It's the ticket, as they say in England.'
Xas, curious, put the inhaler's damp nozzle to his lips, pressed and sucked. To his surprise he felt the drug. His clear head opened up even more, like a summer's day dilating.
'Oh yes,' crooned Millie, looking at him. She slumped, leather squawking, along the seat and rested her head on his shoulder. She said, 'I don't want to crash the plane today.'
Her voice was quiet and confiding — but it worried Xas. He asked, 'What's up?'
She shrugged. 'Crow has till tomorrow to get all the stunts in the can. Crow's the director — Conrad Crow?'
Xas shook his head.
'The film's in trouble,' Millie said. 'The studio shifted some of the budget and asked Crow to shoot sound scenes. He has all these battles planned, and now he's having to write dialogue with Ray Paige. Paige is the writer. He's a lush. Crow's really pressed for time and money getting all the battle footage he needs.' Millie sat up straight, shook herself and opened the glove compartment. She had a flask in there. She took a swig and gave it to Xas. Tequila.
She continued. 'But the real problem is Conrad Cole. And in case I'm confusing you — yes — Connie Crow and Con Cole are two different Conrads. Anyway,' she said, 'Cole has bought up most of the planes Crow might like to use. And he claims that Paige had already sold him a version of Spirit's story. But Cole's only playing at making a film — he's been shooting his Flights of Angels for two years. And, because he might want them at any time, he's hired the Red Eagles — the so-called aerial stuntmen's union. They call themselves a union, but I think any union that signs an exclusive contract has got to be more a company, hasn't it? Or just another club that won't let me join.'
'So, you think Crow will hire me because he's short of time and stunt flyers?'
'Crow would hire you on my recommendation alone. He likes me. And he's a friendly guy who likes men of action. I'm telling you that so you'll know how to treat him. Crow's friendly and sharp and straight but he's a cold-hearted bastard and don't you ever forget it.' Millie nodded at Xas, emphatic. She had the flask up to her lips and Xas could see the reflected lips lifting to kiss her real ones. Xas, watching the two sets of lips, said, 'Do you want me to crash the Spad for you?'
Millie tilted her head back and looked up at him. 'I need the money, sweetie. I just don't want to do it today.'
'How much is he offering?'
'Nine hundred. For an emergency landing on one wheel only, because the left wheel is missing. The left wing to touch enough to slam the plane around. He doesn't need me to flip it, Xas. But Marshall, the hero, ends up upside down. They've filmed his death scene already. But I guess they're doing it again, with sound.'
'Do you have any idea what this Crow will want me to do?'
'You can fly a Fokker. I recall you had one in France. Crow will want neat, nasty moves for back projection of the Fokker on Marshall's tail. We get the battle plan today. One of the other stunt flyers is bringing another Fokker, so we'll have four — which still isn't quite enough.'
They turned to stare at the airship, and the whirlwind of insects in the beam of the searchlight. A light sea breeze was blowing across the field. In the east night was separating from the black mountains, the light a pale pith between them. Millie lit up again. She told Xas about her plans. She was saving money to set up a flying school for Coloured people in Texas — her home state. She had three instructors already. Two had trained in France, like her, the other was Brazilian.
'I have a good sum set by,' she said. 'From stunt jobs, and now and then I invest a couple of hundred with a friend of mine. My friend Flora raises — say — five hundred, and I put in two, then I fly across to Cocopah or Pasqualitos and buy tequila. Flora's from Brawley, down near the border. Her uncle cuts his fence wire so these bootlegging boys we know can drive off the highway, and through his pastureland, to the edge of the desert. Flora and the boys put down kerosene in broken bottles to mark out an airstrip, then they listen for my engines and light the kerosene so I can see where to bring her in. The boys pay for my cargo. Flora and I split the money. Flora's uncle lets the boys out again onto the highway, and mends his fence. Flora pays him his cut, and we fly home.'
Millie finished, then said, 'I suppose that sounds more dangerous than flying stunts.'
'Do the bootleggers carry guns?'
'Yes. But we try not to take it personally. Besides, if we waited for help we'd be waiting forever — me and Flora. We have to play the hands we've been dealt.' Millie yawned, and stretched, and her elbows popped. She passed him the flask again. 'Are you warm enough?'
He nodded. 'So that's why your friends at Glendale sniggered when I mentioned Prohibition.'
'Yes. Because I never have to do without booze. We keep what we need, me a little, Flora a lot.'
'She's a drinker?'
Millie nodded. 'She has her reasons.'CHAPTER 2
June 27, 1929
On the same day that Millie ran into Xas at Glendale airport, Millie's friend, Flora McLeod, had a visit from an old flame.
When Gil Crow arrived at Flora's bungalow she was in her robe. Her clothes were lying, muddied, just inside the front door.
Gil kissed her, said, 'Ah, Flora — your slatternly ways,' and handed her a bottle of whisky. He went in ahead of her and began moving magazines and clothes to make room for himself on the couch. 'Though I hear your cutting room is a picture of order,' he said.
Editing film was Flora McLeod's second career. She'd first come to Hollywood in 1920, at nineteen years of age, after winning a beauty contest in Brawley, her home town. She did get to act in movies, though for her biggest role she only got to play the girl who almost gets the guy, a peppy girl standing at the door of a dance hall, checking her hair and waving hello. Flora photographed well, worked hard, and was fun to have on a set. She might have gone on to better roles, and the talkies could have used her sharp, clear voice. But in 1925, when she was at a costume party at the Ship Café, her boyfriend touched a cigarette to the grass skirt she was wearing. It was meant to be only a bit of mischief, but the skirt caught with a whoosh, and the flames seemed to lift Flora off the ground. Later people saw that the paint on the café ceiling was blistered and blackened in a long trail, for Flora had bolted across the room before a quick-thinking twenty-one-year-old millionaire called Conrad Cole tackled her and wrapped her in a thick velvet curtain.
When she finally got out of hospital Flora was down to four and a half stone. She went to live with an aunt in Brawley, and learned to walk again, at first with her legs apart as if to hold her in a straight course on a moving deck. She put on a little weight, but nothing would induce her to round out again, for the scarring on her hips had hardened into a kind of cutaneous belt above and below which any extra flesh would billow, and pull at every movement.
Flora might have remained with her aunt. There was some talk about turning the porch in which she was sleeping into a proper bedroom. But she saw the life she'd have, as a poor relation, a scarecrow figure who helps a little around the house, hanging out the family wash, wincing every time she has to lift her arms. She could help, and not just live on sufferance because, although they weren't close, she did get on with her aunt and uncle and young cousins. But, Flora discovered, the larger world was eager to take her back. There had been a lot of people at that party, people who remembered what had happened with horror and pity, and were keen to do what they could for her.
The man who had caught her in the curtain was the lover of her film star friend, Avril Maye. Conrad Cole had paid for Flora's hospital room and, although he cooled on Avril — after her husband refused to give her a divorce — they parted on friendly terms, as, Flora would later discover, Cole did from many of his lovers. And, before they parted, Avril persuaded Cole to help Flora.
Cole asked the editor of his first feature film to let Flora sit in with her. Flora never knew whether to credit Cole with having recognised a talent in her. It didn't seem likely. Cole's considerable achievements seemed due entirely to his own inhuman drive, not to any ability he had to surround himself with good people. It was a fluke that he had his very good editor.
Cole's editor had been at the party, and was easily persuaded to lend 'the poor burned girl' a hand. She was willing to pass on her knowledge, and did, patiently, then passionately when she discovered that cutting film was Flora McLeod's true talent.
Flora had a feeling for editing, for handling time. She loved the editing suite. She loved the process, loved to stop and start time. She sat in with Cole's editor for the rough cut of Desert Nights then, when the editor argued with Cole — as people did, without knowing that they had until he failed to answer their calls — Flora sat with Cole himself, re-cutting the finished product. (Or, at least, Cole declared it finished because he was tired of it, whereas Flora saw how much more there was to do, how much better they all could have done.)
Excerpted from The Angel's Cut by Elizabeth Knox. Copyright © 2009 Elizabeth Knox. Excerpted by permission of Victoria University Press.
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