Half Past the Dead of Night

Half Past the Dead of Night

by Cleo Baldon

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491710425
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/28/2014
Pages: 374
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.77(d)

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Half Past the Dead of Night


By Cleo Baldon

iUniverse LLC

Copyright © 2014 Cleo Baldon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-1042-5


CHAPTER 1

It was half past the dead of night, and the ever-present purr of the city had not yet begun to dial up to the roar it would become. No individual sound had yet detached itself: no dog barked; no rescue vehicle screamed down the boulevard. Even the night birds were still during this time between.

The sequin net of lights thrown over the city from Malibu to LAX did little to dilute the black of the moonless night.

The first sound of impending day would be the crash of bottles against a wire rack, and the image of a milkman delivering to Chateau Marmont would pop up in J.'s mind. It could not be a milkman, of course, couldn't have been for seventy years or so. The milkman's shoes would have been whitened every night, his pants newly washed behind the porthole door in the Bendix and dried all day in the sun on a line out by the incinerator. The pants would have had a button fly, and he would have worn a shirt to match—no T-shirt yet, and the cap would not have been a baseball cap, either backward or forward, but a pork pie thing with a covered button on the top, also not long from the Bendix.

When the milk went to cardboard carton at the store, the man would have gone to work for Lockheed or maybe joined the Navy. Maybe he came back and bought a bungalow with his severance pay, and he could be slowly walking the neighborhood every morning now, on VA and Medicare.


J. never knew what the bottle sound was. It must have been some kind of equipment, set to go off automatically on a timer, but nothing but the milkman fit.

The second harbinger of a new day was just as reliable. It was the three-syllable bird who, like a windshield wiper, said what you wanted him to say. This one was screeching, "Up to bat, up to bat!" The two-syllable harbinger of day soon flew in with a "nit-nit." As J. waited for the single-sound forager to join in, he chose this wakeful time to contemplate the final decision that must be made later today. He was all but sure whom the opposition would choose for their candidate, and he set that image behind one of two podiums on the back of his eyelids and tested each of his party's possibilities in turn. The person needed to be smooth, smart, unflustered, and of a ready wit; have good hair and clothes that fit properly (especially around the neck); and be able to look presidential enough for a TV series and possibly say something of moral value. He rejected each of them in turn and had to start over.

Predawn sounds began now, a little thicker texture added to the basic sounds. A car started up, the bottle delivery rattled, an early flight from the far-off airport added an almost imperceptible purr and blinking lights, a pool filter started, and a familiar barking began, a little dog bark, sounding ankle-high. There was a faint white hiss of a sprinkler going on. Someone hummed, taking early room service to one of the cottages, and two lights—three floors apart and on opposites ends of Chateau Marmont—flashed on in turn as though triggered, one by the other: New York actors staying at the Marmont, rising for early makeup call. Dial up the sound and cue the day.

Light began to seep into his room, and J. could make out his white robe and a door trim, and then the furniture began to materialize. Daylight was coming, and this was his time to push dark thinking back into the dark and go back to sleep. He hit the remote to close both sets of curtains, plumped the pillow with his fist, and turned onto his side.

When he awoke, it was to the smell of coffee. Angela, whom his mother had called her house angel, must have let herself in some time ago and progressed to the kitchen. It was later than he'd planned to wake. He reversed the curtains, letting in a brilliant February Tuesday.

The season was recognizable for there were still only those white fluffy trees in bloom as far as he could see, which was clear to the ocean, though today there was no Catalina. They must have sailed it away, he thought with amusement—this is what he had believed when he was a little boy.

He retrieved another remote and turned the television on to the morning news, which was covering little besides voting and a high-rise fire that was pretty much under control.

Moving to the bathroom, he showered great quantities of water upon himself in celebration that the retiled shower was no longer in danger of leaking into a downstairs hall. Soon he was dressed in black briefs, a black tank, black socks, newish Levi's, and a knobby crew neck in a color he had heard called "oyster." Looking about for shoes, he took off the socks and shoved his bare feet into the Bruno Maglis that he spotted partially under the bed.

As a matter of principle, he chose to take the stairs two at a time rather than the elevator, though from childhood, he had liked its sound and the way it raised its floor to be exactly flush with the tile floor of the entry hall above. He yelled a "good morning" into the quiet house.

He drank half the cup of coffee Angela had just left him on the breakfast room table and scooped up the sample ballot and script along with the Times in its plastic cover, which indicated the possibility of rain or the sale of an ad on it. He yelled his goodbye in the direction of a vacuum cleaner sound. In the garage he put down the top and hit the door opener and then rolled his BMW out into the narrow, hillside street. Usually, he would have walked to the voting precinct, but in the family-room polling place of many years three blocks up the hill, the floor was getting redone, probably stone this time. His precinct had been combined with another one and set up for the day in an unused ballroom on the third floor of a hotel on Sunset. This was good; the parking was easy.

When J. arrived, the cheerful lady whose floor was being redone was at a round table, looking desolate and lost in the dimness of the partially lit vastness. The voting booths were spotlighted. Behind the short curtain of the other party's booth he saw the shortest of skirts and the greatest legs of the century, bare, with feet enclosed in the crisscrossed straps of high-heeled sandals. The shoes were red with tiny brass buckles. He wished for a moment that he had not gone five days without trimming his beard but then was glad that he had not after all pulled on the black watch cap that suited his mood.

His precinct lady was running an arthritic finger down the page, looking for his name. She'd had no need to ask for it because they had been together for many elections—though maybe not really together, for he suspected she was very liberal, judging by some serious tie-dye and various book titles in her family room.

He needed to know who belonged to those legs and was thinking about how to negotiate for the information when the other precinct worker sitting at the table ran her pink-polished nail down a list in another book. Trained in detail, he was able to see, upside down, a name before the book was hastily closed to protect the voter's privacy. Too late—he had seen the name.

Just then the curtain of the booth was pushed aside by a huge red handbag, followed by a pretty blond, supported on those legs, those legs.

Wearing a broad smile, as though she had elected a presidential candidate for her party all by herself, she handed over her sheathed ballot and stalked toward the elevator.

"I shall return," J. said, dropping his unused ballot on the table.

"Be sure you do, Douglas," said the woman who was of an age to remember Douglas McArthur leaving the Philippines.

He took long strides, calling "Mary Ellen, Mary Ellen!" as he pursued the woman. "Mary Ellen?" he said one final time as he stepped up beside her, just as she reached for the elevator button with her left hand.

She wore no wedding ring on her finger, nor was there any tan line to indicate one had been there. She had the kind of skin that cosmetic companies try to tell women comes from their bottles, and the only artistry was eyeliner and lashes.

She replied in chimes, "I'm sorry, I don't go by that name enough to recognize that it is I someone is calling."

All that and proper grammar! "Well then, Ms. Higgens ..."

"No, I didn't mean that, just that I go by my initials, M. E. Did I forget something?"

"Yes, you did. It was I."

Of course it was a line, but it was good enough that she smiled. They stepped into the elevator together, which felt to J. like a symbol of commitment. The two floors were interval enough for him to suggest to her that she had done a noble day's work and must be hungry.

"Do you have a favorite place in our neighborhood for brunch?" he pursued, implying a certain safety because they were neighbors. "I can bring you back to your car."

"I walked," she admitted.

"Well then, I can take you home, wherever that is. I, like some other people I know, go by my initial. It's J. for Jared—Jared Dunkin at your command, ma'am. We could go to Clafoutis, or to Cravings if the stairs are a bit much for those heels."

Her laugh sounded like chimes. "I have acquired a certain skill," she replied.

Good, she was a little defensive, he thought, and so would show him the stair trick.

He prayed she would not evaporate while he brought his car to the front door. He might have left it with the valet had he known how seamlessly he would like it back.

As he pulled up, he hid his sample ballot and pulled the half- marked-up script and newspaper over to clear the seat. She was still there, waiting.

She laughed as she smoothly opened the door, and he felt a little defensive—was she laughing at his car?

"Same as mine," she said. "Different color."

He coasted the Beamer down the driveway apron, craned around to judge the fast flow of late-morning traffic on the Sunset Strip, and joined it adroitly after a Hummer limo. He had several blocks to get into the left lane at Sunset Plaza. When the wind began to whip her hair around her face, she set her bag on the floor and held her hair with both hands.

"I hope you can take a long lunch hour," he said.

"Yes, I'm the boss—how about you?" she asked and then looked at the script lying beside her. "You a director? Writer? Actor?"

"No."

"Want to be?"

"No."

"Then what do you do or want to do?"

"I want to criticize."

They had come to the break in the median strip of cute plantings and set-in pots of seasonal flowers. J. made a sharp left and rolled down the steep driveway to the parking lot a floor below the street. It wasn't lunchtime yet, so they had their choice of spaces. He chose one with an empty to the right. She established their relationship by waiting for him to come around and open her door. So she was looking at it as a date, he decided—good.

As he stood at her door, he had the opportunity to look down at the part in her hair; it was natural or a very good and recent job of honey with California girl streaks. It was that thick handful kind of hair.

She swung her legs around and ignored his proffered hand, but he was still close enough to catch the scent of her.

"Mm, Ingénue," he said.

"Yes, how do you know that?"

"Family predecessors in the studio makeup business." They walked toward the stairs leading up to the street, and she stopped at the bottom. "By the way, how did you know my name?"

"I distracted the precinct commander and read upside down."

Her laugh sounded like chimes again.

She navigated the stairs very well. Three risers and a landing, followed by another three risers and a landing, and she never touched the handrail. When they emerged on Sunset and turned left, he noted the sound of her heels clicking.

They threaded through the table-choked sidewalk in front of Chen's, only about half-full as yet, and came to a halt where the chairs were of a different manufacture and the awnings a different color.

A tiny, dark woman all in black greeted them with an open smile. Clutching menus to her, she said, "Oh, Mr. Dunkin and Ms. Higgen, his regular table or yours?"

"Let's have a neutral one, inside, up in the back," he requested. J. was chagrined to realize he'd mispronounced her name at the elevator. "I thought it was 'Higgens' in the usual Irish way."

"It's Higgen in the unusual Irish way. And the M. E. is pronounced Emmy."

Once inside, they followed the hostess up the two steps, where she swiveled the table so that Emmy could sit on the banquette. They both commented on the new chairs, substantial enough that J. did not fear collapsing one, as he had with the skinny iron ones before them.

They were hardly seated when the black-clad waiter appeared with a drink in either hand. "I didn't know you knew each other."

J. solemnly said, "Not in the carnal sense, but I'm working on it." He noticed Emmy's slight discomfort and felt encouraged by it.

He watched her sip from her glass and said, "I would have to guess the server knows you never drink anything else. What is it?"

"Lillet."

"May I taste it?" He was more interested in the intimate gesture of putting his mouth where hers had been than curious about the drink.

She took it back from his hand, touching his fingers slightly.

"So, of what are you boss?" he asked.

"I have a showroom called Stuff, and my website is named M. E. Stuff. I do a lot of studio rentals and collectables and interior designer's accessories."

"Like what?"

"Well, right now I have a uniform from the Winkie Guards."

"Blue, isn't it?"

"Wow! How'd you know that?"

"Addicted to Gone with the Wizard and others."

"You are? How I love films!"

"Favorite?"

"I think it would be an obscure picture called The War Lord with Charlton Heston and a stone tower strewn with fur rugs."

"You stumped me right out of the gate," he said. "Speaking of collectables—do you know whether anyone collects old milk bottles? Do you remember what the covers looked like?" He told her about that early morning milk delivery.

"We will find out. I think you owe me some personal information now ... what do you do with that marked-up script?"

"Jared Damon Dunkin, script supervisor, ma'am. I'm the guy who prevents the heroine from pulling her left earlobe in the close-up and the right in the long shot. I save motion pictures from themselves. They also pay me for historical research for accuracy that they can choose to ignore."

"What, do you have one of those useless degrees in history, like mine in art history? Where did you go to school, and what is your favorite movie, if you are allowed to have one?"

"Gardner Street, LeConte, Hollywood High."

"Where did you go when you got out of our hood?" she pursued.

"From no tuition to high tuition: USC for history and then two more years to try to decide what to do with it."

"Your master's—that's great!"

"Yeah, I could teach."

"Not bad."

"I could barely hold still in class. Couldn't see a lifetime of it. How about you?"

"My father was pretty thrilled that I went from Buckley tuition to the state university system: UCLA. But he couldn't understand what I would ever do with four years of art history. Now he knows."

The waiter appeared, and J. suggested another Lillet, but the waiter, with the aloofness of knowing her better than he did, said that she never had a second but that he would bring him his usual second scotch. And what did he want to order today? the waiter asked after noting that he knew J.'s companion would have her usual quiche, though it was earlier than Ms. Higgen had ever appeared for lunch.

"So are you any relation to the Damon Higgen that I was named after?"

"Not that, but whom you were named after—or more accurately, after whom you were named. What lady in your family was in love with Old Rascal Damon? I know for sure that somebody was." She hit "for sure" with a Valley girl accent, poking some fun at Damon's fans.

There was a slight tired edge to her voice, as though this had come up far more than once. "Kin?" he guessed.

"Yeah, father's father."

Thinking of celebrity bios he had read, he asked, "Did you know him?"

"Tall man, white coat, cigar. My father was from an early wife. Number three, I think it was. And you didn't answer favorite movie. I'll bet it wasn't one of his."

"I'm sitting here trying to think of an endearing, funny, perceptive choice with historically accurate and attractive accessories, some Turner classic with a beautiful mistake not immediately discernable to all. Have you heard that Lord of the Rings has a New Zealand fence post that didn't get edited out?"

"You mean you didn't see it? You must have blinked into a handful of popcorn."

What a nice opportunity this was to lay out some bait. "The Directors Guild screenings don't have popcorn, cell phones, hissing, booing, or even—except very seldomly—applause."

He studied her as he spoke. What a nice face she had, and she was not a self-absorbed beauty. He considered that she might even care what others think. He was trying to figure out whom she looked like—a little like Rossellini, but that one was a great beauty. Emmy had that flattened nose bridge that he thought of as Irish, but without the freckles he would expect. The eyelids above her blue eyes retreated into her eye sockets like all descendents of cold climates. He liked the slight irregularity of teeth. Her hands were good, with strong thumbs and nails she had left natural. He was guessing she did this to prove that she really could grow her own that long. Under the leather jacket and turtleneck sweater, he couldn't tell if she had the breasts to tape up to her chin in a bare dress when he took her to some award ceremony or other (to which he had never yet been invited). It should be a shimmery dress, slit to the hip to show at least one of those legs, those legs.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Half Past the Dead of Night by Cleo Baldon. Copyright © 2014 Cleo Baldon. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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