An Angel in Hollywood
“Two, please. Ah, how charming.” Sidney Beck smiled as he checked his new cards. It did not mean much. He had beamed at everything he had been dealt all evening. His large hands fanned his cards shut before he shoved more chips and markers into the pile in the center of the fancy mahogany table. Across the green baize from him, my Cousin Vincent took a long puff from his stogie and tried to look indifferent. The other poker players seated in the private room in the back of Vincent’s nightclub fell silent, waiting for him to make his move.
A fella who had already folded, a character who owned a couple of Southern California department stores, snapped his fingers for me to get him a refill on his drink. While I poured him the house’s best substitute for rye at the private bar in the corner of the room, he gave me a smirk that I did not like. I came back over to the poker table and stood by his chair, offering him nothing but a cold eye. Not until the smirk slipped off his plate did I hand over his hooch. Just because I was the stake for this hand of cards was no reason for me to take such guff.
I was used for a white chip back in 1925 after my oldest brother Frankie had shipped me out west to live with Cousin Vincent, the owner of three social clubs around Southern California. Back home, our family firm was having a small misunderstanding with the Garibaldi Medical Supply Company and my mother had put her foot down. She was still sore that I had gone to work juggling figures and guarding tank trucks doing delivery runs around Broadway rather than finishing senior seminary, even though I did not have a vocation and was already real tired of the Jesuits.
I knew better than to explain that to Ma. I was the baby of a family of six and had learned the hard way not to tell anybody anything. You can bet I was not going to talk to Frankie about how hot I was to blow town and why. So, even though I had heard that my cousin Vincent was both a sanemagogna and a loffari, I just kept quiet and climbed onto the train.
Now, I am forced to admit that it could have been worse. Cousin Vincent made me his chauffeur and errand boy. I spent a lot of my work hours playing cards and chinning with the sidekicks of a bunch of Hollywood pistols. In my spare time, I explored the City of So-Called Angels. I visited the ostrich farm and rode the Mount Lowe scenic railway. I ate food cooked by Chinese and Mexicans, stuff I had never seen before. But, most of all, I went to the picture palaces along the Boulevard and down off Pico.
That night at El Sombrero, when I went in to check on the private game, I recognized Sidney Beck as an actor from his flicks. Vincent fancied himself a poker player, which was quite a fancy, and he often sat down with his wealthier patrons in the mahogany paneled back room of his favorite social club. He claimed he won more than he lost, not true unless the other players were ossified, and also that the goodwill he earned was worth the dough he paid out, which was true. Vincent put his collar around a lot of necks at those games with no one else the wiser. When it came to Sidney Beck, though, I am still not sure who collared who.
I brought my Cousin Vincent the fresh box of Havanas he had requested, and Mr. Beck beamed at me and said, “Well fetched, old boy.” He had been calling everyone, including the hat check girl, such names since he arrived at the club, seeing as how he came in half-under and had not risen any during the game. He had also referred to us all as “dear heart,” and “beauteous.” Since Mr. Beck was one of the comic geniuses of the silent screen, this was widely held to be hilarious. If anyone had asked me, which they had not, I would have said pour some Joe down the fella and send him home. I had learned the signs of someone who went screwy when he was on a toot, and Mr. Beck had them all.
“Offer Mr. Beck a cigar, Angelo.” Cousin Vincent was being expansive, which meant he was losing. He had one of the cigarette girls leaning over his shoulder, showing some cleavage, which meant he was losing bad.
Mr. Beck said, his voice wistful, “Alas, no, I must consider my throat.” He had something to think about there, all right. His pipes were like a cathedral organ’s, and he played both registers and all the stops. I think his voice was what the fan magazines mean these days when they report some ham actor has “sonorous tones.” Mr. Beck looked up at me and added, “However, this lovely, winged messenger could cause me to change my mind.”
I still do not know why he got away with that kind of bushwa. Maybe it was because, beneath the floppy red hair, his broad, smiling face was as innocent and open as those old cartoons of the man in the full moon. Maybe it was because it was kind of funny the way he squinched up his big brown eyes when he said it. But, I was close enough to see from the little details of his expression that he was not all together fooling.
The expression I put on my own face in response, I had worked up in a mirror when I was a kid. With three older, larger brothers and a tough neighborhood to deal with, I had needed every weapon I could lay hands on, and a hard-boiled face usually helped. I kept my voice flat when I asked, “So, do you want a cigar, Mr. Beck?”
His eyes searched my face, but he still took me by surprise when he said, his tone gentle, “I’m sorry, young man. I didn’t mean to bother you.”
“Angelino,” Cousin Vincent began sharply, but he had the deal, and the swell next to him made a noise indicating that he wanted his cards, so Vincent had to cut the lecture short.
Mr. Beck had done a good apology, and, even back then, I wanted to think of myself as a fair man. “That’s jake, Mr. Beck. Would you like another soda water?”
He smiled at me, maybe a little different than he had before. “Ah, soda water, robust soda water. No, bring me a glass that is chaste and pure.”
Cousin Vincent’s little wink meant the glass should, in fact, be full of hooch, but I ignored him when I went behind the bar. To tell the truth, I was fed up with Vincent’s attitude towards me, and you will soon see why. The glass I brought Mr. Beck was innocent enough to be ready for its first communion. He took a deep draw from it and choked a little, just as if it had been loaded. It was nice to see I could judge a character correctly even if Vincent still thought I was only little Angelo. This Mr. Beck was a tough nut under the funny-funny, song-and-dance routine.
He proceeded to prove this over the next three hours by stripping the other pistols at the table of everything but their combinations. Somehow, with the ha-ha faces and the naughty stories, he made it all look like luck, but it was not chance. He played a darb hand of cards. I kept my face still and fed him bourbon and branch without the bourbon, wanting to see what would happen. What happened was interesting. Even though Vincent tried all his usual tricks, including switching to deuces wild, Sidney Beck kept raking in the pots.
My cousin was not in a position to lose the berries he was losing. You could not see him sweat, but I knew. When I came back in with more sandwiches, I looked at the table top, and it was covered with piles of chips, bills, and notes of hand. There was even a set of keys on it now. Two of the swells had a side bet going with a French chef as the stake. Maybe that is what gave Vincent his bright idea.
He made a big joke out of it. “Hey Sidney, how about I bet you Angelo instead of these markers? You said you needed a driver while yours was on vacation.”
You do not do that in a family like mine, not even in fun.
Mr. Beck was going to say something, but he paused to peer at me where I stood behind Cousin Vincent’s chair and said something different, instead. “Really? Are you sure you want to hazard such a sweet little cherub?” He widened his eyes and gazed at me with awe, as if I were the saint in his favorite devotional painting.
All the other characters at the table gave big guffaws, but Cousin Vincent missed the fact he’d been thrown a rope. “Yeah, sure. Angelo’s a good boy, hard working and really smart. He even went to school with the Jesuits.”
“A paragon, in fact.” Mr. Beck looked at me again, and I gave him the nod, very small, so he would have to pay attention to catch it. “All right, then. Is anyone else in?”
Sidney Beck won me on a pair of queens and the two of clubs. Like I said, Cousin Vincent only thought he could play cards.
Mr. Beck smiled just like he did in Plane Crazy when he got the telegram that he had won the Tiger Moth in the newspaper competition. But, instead of next falling down the stairs, he stood up and said, “Gentlemen, I thank you, and so does the Actor’s Fund. However, it’s past time to go. I have a 5:30 call tomorrow. Come along, Angelo.” I had the top of the table swept clean of the cards and his winnings before anyone else could say a word, and then I followed him to the door. When I got there, I turned around and said, “I will telephone Frankie for you, Cousin Vincent,” before I left. I wish I had had a flash camera to get a photograph of Vincent’s face.
Mr. Beck glad-handed his way across the floor of the club, kidding the sheiks and kissing the shebas. I decided he was used to being the center of attention. It gave me plenty of time to have a word with the doorman and get his car pulled around to the front. What a beauty: she was a 1924 Packard Standard Eight dressed in racing green, and I was in love. I held the passenger door open for Mr. Beck, and he paused and looked at me quizzically. He was maybe two inches taller than my own 5’10” and built like a baby grand, so he loomed over me, but in a friendly kind of way. “You don’t have to carry me home, O winged Mercury.”
“Oh, yes I do. I want a ride and a place to stay tonight, so you are it. Besides,” and it almost killed me to say this, “the Gerello always pay their debts.”
He got in and waited for me to get behind the wheel and find my way around the controls before he said, “Slavery was abolished by the thirteenth amendment, if I remember my sparse grounding in American history correctly.”
“What slavery?” I had started us going, so I had to raise my voice some to be heard over the engine. “You won my services as a driver, maybe as a,” I had to think of a word in American for it, “helper, a private secretary, for a few weeks. Anyhow, where are we headed?”
“Down the Boulevard three miles to Canyon, turn left. I merely took that bet in order to extract myself gracefully from a difficult social situation. Your cousin didn’t have enough cash on hand to cover his notes, did he?”
“If he had thought of that before he wrote them out, he would have been fine. Your taking me instead of his paper saved him a red face tonight, but wait until the rest of the family hears about this.”
“I take it that they will disapprove.” He took a silver hip flask out of his pocket, screwed it open, and downed a big swallow. Since he wasn’t the one driving, he could afford it.
“That is a way to put it, yes. We are big on loyalty. You know how families are.”
“I wouldn’t, actually. I have no close kin.”
“None? Not any?” Even I could not tell you if my tone was more shocked or envious.
“Nary a one. I am a classic orphan babe.” He tilted his flask towards me. It flashed under a passing streetlight. “A toast to hereditary proximity, my Olympian companion, and its mythic complications.” He had another drink, closed the flask, and returned it to his pocket. Then he belched, which my Ma would have had something to say about, probably punctuated by the back of her hand. “So, you maneuver to bring down the wrath from the god’s mountain upon your Cousin’s balding pate. Why do you choose to confide your scheming to me, your humble Silenus?”
One thing about the good Jesuit fathers, they teach you how to think. They even taught me how to think well enough to break free from them. With a little help from my eyes and hands, I let Mr. Beck’s auto drive itself through the sweet night of a Southern Californian March while I cogitated. “I am thinking I know you because of all the moving pictures I have seen with you in them. But, I do not. You could be any sort of character. I mean, you are a finnuchio, I figured that out already.”
His voice was mild, even sweet. “You know me well enough to realize I won’t give you the hiding you deserve for using that word. What a charming boy it is.”
This was the tough nut talking. I smiled. I do not know if he saw it in the dark. “Hey, you called me Dionysus and Hermes. Where I grew up, that is not much better than finnuchio.”
“An intelligent boy. A remarkable boy.”
The way he said it made me smile wider. “Yeah, well, I am not delivering your goose for you, Mr. Scrooge, so you can forget all that bushwa. I am not a boy, either. In two months, I am twenty-one.”
“You amaze me.” Now his tone was amused. “Your appearance, beneath the deadpan expression and scar, is such as to encourage lower estimates of your age.”
“Angelo ‘Gelato’ Gerello.” Even to myself, I did not sound happy.
“Your neighborhood nickname, I assume. I comprehend your difficulty. This is our turn coming up.” I maneuvered us around the corner, he gave me a few more directions, and the black moon-shadows of twin rows of palm trees riffled over us without any more words for a while. Then he heaved a big sigh, and said, “Dear heart, you cramp my style. Given your age, I would be willing to risk your anger with an improper and illegal proposition, but I wouldn’t want you taking it as an insult to your looks rather than a compliment.”
To my own surprise, I cracked a laugh. Yeah, he was kind of funny, I had to admit. “No soap, Mr. Beck, but it is okay. The way I see it, if I can not deal with what every doll on the planet has to handle, I am no sort of tough guy.” I paused, then added, “If you had grabbed at me, of course—”
“Please, I had a pleasant evening and wish to savor my mood. Don’t spoil it with crude and sanguinary details.”
I thought that was that, but little did I know. Sidney Beck turned out to be harder to get loose from than the doll fella covered in tar in the old folk tale. Although I must admit it was not all his fault. I might not have ended up stuck on Mr. Beck if I had not been so determined to take it on the lam from Vincent that I camped out at his place.
He had a nice, roomy house. It was all done up in bright, rich fabrics and decent, heavy furniture, like some of the stuff the men from the old country buy when they make it big. When I asked, he said the style was Hollywood Moorish and a friend of his had done it for fun. He was showing me the hookah when Miss Betty La Monte came in to the living room.
“Hiya Sid,” she said, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. I enjoyed her negligee very much, but tried to pay good attention to her face, which was cute, kind of like a kitten’s.
“Beauteous,” Mr. Beck said. He went over and picked her up off her feet, whirled her around, and gave her a big, smacking kiss, which I will admit surprised me. She giggled, but it had some style, so that was okay. Mr. Beck set her back down and draped a big arm over her shoulders. “Miss LaMonte, Mr. Gerello. Angelo, this is Betty.”
Given the new company, I was willing to be informal. “How do you do, Betty?”
“Charmed,” she said, and gave me a hand. She also gave me a good smile that showed off some pearly teeth, which I thought was nice of her because I was too young to be anyone important. Then she cooked some very early eggs and bacon for us, which was even nicer. It was a pity that her husband Bill showed up just in time to steal the crispiest bacon. Bill was a writer and director, a wally beanpole with straw hair. The two of them liked each other and liked making with the bright chatter. Looking back, it was easy to see where Bill got his ideas for the snappy dialogue in his films when the talkies came in.
Mr. Beck’s house had three other people living in it just then, not counting the servants. Later, I figured out that Sid liked having folks around, but was not soft enough in the head to let bommas move in on him. So, the other residents came and went as they fixed up their apartments, or their projects went into production, or their divorces went through. I think half of working Hollywood ended up calling him Uncle Sid over the next decade, both because of the temporary flophouse he ran and because of the well-judged emergency fins and deuces he handed out here and there. Everyone thought he was a swell fella and so did I, but I also had the background to know he was something else. Growing up in my neighborhood, I could recognize a ward boss when I saw one.
As it turned out, I myself stayed with Sid a month. In that time I made him a decent driver and balanced his checkbook to the penny. I also learned that his agent was a crook, which was kind of sad for Sid and annoying to me. The agent and I had a little talk, and the fella decided to retire, which irritated Sid when he found out, but I thought saved trouble all around.
Frankie called me a second time after I had been there a week or two. Some of the conversation was in Italian, so I will translate and neaten it up. Anyhow, I took the receiver from Betty, who gave me a grin and said my brother sounded swell. I raised my eyes to the heavens before I said, “Hello, Frankie.”
“Who the heck was that?”
“She is married. How are Ma and the girls?”
“Good, good. Say, kid, are you staying out there in Hollywood now that you have moved out on Vincent?”
“Yeah, I like it out here. You should see all the skirts, and the weather is like what Nonna talks about in the old country. Also, there is a lot of money floating around loose, and I want to find out if I can grab some.”
“Okay. Listen, I have to go away for a while, so you better be good. Telephone ‘Fonso if you have any difficulties. Ma wants to know if you’re going to church.”
“Believe me, I spend a lot of time praying around this place.”
Frankie laughed. “That’s pretty good. It is nice to hear you are learning to make jokes again. The fella you are staying with, I hear he is a real funny man?”
“It was hilarious the way he cleaned out Vincent, yeah. Let me guess, Frankie, Vincent telephoned you about Mr. Beck, right?”
Frankie sounded all relaxed and jolly, a sure sign of problems for someone. “I wondered if this Beck was trouble or if Vincent was just licking my feet.”
I had a fast choice to make. I made it. “It was hooey. To level with you, Mr. Beck has a mouth on him, but that is how he makes his living. These studio types love a ha-ha nance routine, and it gives him a chance to lift their wallets while they are laughing. To me, though, he has been like a compare, more so than Vincent. He even got me an interview at his studio next week to try for a job where I can learn the system.”
“Why?” It was mild, which meant watch out.
“He collects favors, Frankie. You know.”
“Ah.” Frankie was quiet for a moment. I could almost hear him make the mental note. Poor Sid. “A businessman.”
I snorted. “For an actor, he is a businessman. Or a politico, more like. He is mostly soft, but he has busted the chops of a couple of bums who crossed him. Sometimes he asks for small favors in return. Nothing unreasonable.”
Frankie was happy again. Now I was talking in a language he understood. “That is all right, then. But, I want to know if there is any trouble. Otherwise, stay clear of our sort, just in case. Do not forget that you are now the fire blanket for Ma and the girls.”
“I got that one, okay? If you want me all shiny-faced and dressed in a white suit, let me get on with making a living. Otherwise, I can take care of myself. I punched my ticket with you and the boys, remember?”
“I am trying to forget. If Ma ever found out about that after-hours job you did for me, I’d be underneath a concrete angel at Holy Family.” He paused again and then decided to do his own version of being funny, to let me know I was being issued my nine feet of rope to hang myself with. “You sure she is married?”
“You slay me, Frankie. Goodbye, Frankie.”
Looking back I realize that Sid probably got me my place at the studio because of his well-honed sense of irony. At the time, I assumed he was doing me a favor for a favor, my end having been dealing with his first agent. Not, mind you, that Sid wasn’t capable of asking for yet another favor in return, and it seemed each favor tangled me up with him some more. To give the best example, late one afternoon in December of 1927 Sid called me up at Everest and asked me for a meeting. Knowing enough by then to take him seriously, I excused myself from a studio conference about the Hickman dismemberment case, which was none of our business anyhow, before I grabbed my car and went off the lot for the get-together.
Now, being Sid, he couldn’t tell me to meet him at the Derby or one of the Washington Boulevard gin joints to spill whatever was on his mind, oh no. Instead, we met at a Gypsy Tea Room about a half a mile from the studio. I hung my hat and coat on the artsy-craftsy rack and was escorted through more velveteen draping than you can imagine to a little wooden table in the corner with high-backed benches on both sides of it. Sid was parked there, all together comfortable in a room full of Janes raving over big Christmas assortments of silk stockings or complaining about the busy hands of their bosses. He was eating something called tomato surprise. The surprise was how much mayonnaise and chicken you can stuff into a tomato without using a single grain of spice.
When I sat down, he beamed at me. “Angelo, old boy.”
“Sid.” I gave him the tolerant eye. “I am in charity with you because I have been freed from one more meeting wherein executives look at gruesome photographs, and not of would-be stars, either. How can I help you?”
“I am not the one in need of your Machiavellian services. I am recruiting you to ride rough-shod to the rescue of another of Everest’s myrmidons.”
The waitress, cute under all the Russian swaddling, came to take our order. I had the cherry bread with cream cheese, along with the caravan tea. “Okay, give me such details as you can part with in this nice company.” Sid waved his fork around to beg for a pause, having just loaded up his face with surprised tomato. I took the chance to dose the tea our waitress brought to me. The sugar cubes were wrapped up in little papers with fortunes printed on them, which I folded up neatly and stowed in my watch pocket. Then I took a sip, being careful because the cup was from some nonna’s old tea set. For an unknown reason, this made Sid’s brown eyes crinkle up at me, so I gave him a stare. “What?”
“Most men don’t know what to do with wrapped sugar, nor do they handle bone china well. Nor are they comfortable in such distaff surroundings.”
I looked around the room. It was not a convent of Discalced Carmelites, for Christ’s sake. I looked back at Sid and shrugged.
“Dear Heart, I need someone formidable who can go into - exotic climes - without causing a stir. You were the first person who sprang to mind, of course, but it is good to be certain that Eros is not blindfolding Athena.” He blew me a kiss, which would have been very funny or very annoying two years ago but now was just Sid. You pal around with a fella enough, you get to know his little ways.
To me, it sounded like a retrieval job was on the books. Sid made the rounds, so we could be heading anyplace from Central to Chinatown. “Who are we fetching and why?”
“Bill Killingsworth. I got a telephone call from Phil Burg at the Examiner. It seems that Bill and Betty have had a disagreement about her social life, and Bill has gone to console himself among an alien people.”
Probably Central, then, in one of the jazz clubs with the Negros. The waitress brought my bread, and I gave her a smile. When she had gone off to handle an old dame who wanted to pay her entire check in pennies, I said, “That is a shame. I thought Betty was out in New York, doing stage work?” The question nagged at me for some reason, but I could not figure out why.
“Yes. I believe that if they had been within crockery-flinging distance this expedition would not be needed.”
I sighed. “Actors.” Bill was a director and even a writer, but he had started out as an actor, so he fell under the curse.
Sid put one hand on his heart and raised both his eyebrows very high.
“Yes, you too. Okay, if we are driving down to Central, we need to get started.”
His voice was gentle, which was bad. “Not to Central, light of my eyes. We go east, young man, towards Silver Lake.”
We started out at a gin palace called the Black Cat. Bill had been there. They sent us on to a restaurant called Gino’s. Bill had been there, too. The barman moved us along to a club called The Picador. Hard though it may be to believe, it took me until The Picador to figure out what was going on. The restaurant had seemed normal enough, all red leather booths and bad Tuscan food, and there had been some good-looking dolls at the Cat. It would have taken a blind man to miss what was going on at the Picador, though.
I had insisted that we get a table in a corner, where we could take in the crowd and the floor show without making a big issue out of our presence. Sid’s pictures had been doing well the past couple of years and I knew the studio would not be pleased if he fell into whatever ditch he was trying to pull Bill out of. Sid sprawled out in his chair, smiling at the chanteuse singing “The Sum of You.”
“Sid?” I said. To me, my tone was pensive.
“That singer is not a Jane, is he?”
“While performing, it is considered courteous to refer to her as ‘her’.”
I spent a minute juggling pronouns in my head before I gave it up. “Okay, that is what I thought.” I checked the crowd. There were lots of regular fellas, but there were lots of Ethels present, too. It was a pansy club, all right. “So, I am slow this evening. Explain to me again why Bill is over on this side of town?”
“As I said, he and Betty have had a battle over her nice, new rattle. This is his way of demonstrating his annoyance with what he assumes her after hours activities to be without his involving another woman. That would be viewed by both of them as a serious and irrevocable step.”
Knowing both the people involved, it almost made sense to me, which I found to be annoying. “Hooey. Stepping out is stepping out, no matter what the plumbing is.”
Sid let out a deep sigh and looked a little sad. “I would agree with you, but many would not. What is illegitimate and illegal is widely believed not to be subject to the same standards as the normal and expected.”
I gave Sid the face. “Do not ever tell Frankie that. He expects our family accountants to be four-square and on the level always. Unless they are showing the books to the government, that is.” I thought some more. “You can not tell me that you treat your candy any different than you would treat dolls.”
He laughed. It started real deep and moved up to his face, before it shook his whole huge body. It was a noise that made you want to look, like the sound of a good jazz band opening up. People at the neighboring tables turned to see. “It pleases me, as ever, not to be mistaken about you, my Angelo.”
He always made my name sound a little funny, the rare times he used it. “Sid, be happy with your brain, but please look for our boy while you are doing it, will you? If we are here when the bulls show up, my studio job is history, and I am desirous of buying a new automobile this year.”
“Pax vobiscum. The owner of this club has what I believe you term connections. True, other pressures do occasionally cause the police to break such deals, but the odds are good that this will not be the evening in question. I recognize some of the slumming members of this crowd.”
So did I, but they were all the problems of other studios. I took another cautious sip of my coffee. This speak needed a better supplier, but the singer was good enough to make it worth putting up with paint remover masquerading as alcohol masquerading as coffee. The chorus line, all female impersonators with rouged knees who were wearing Santa hats, gave me the pip, but you can not have everything.
Sid suddenly perked up and waved. The character he was signaling to spotted us and worked past several groups of happy coffee drinkers to our table. He and Sid clasped hands - I could not, in truth, call it a hand shake - and he sat down.
“Stanislaus, this is Angelo. Angelo, Stanislaus Sokal.”
It was my turn to take the fella’s mitt, which, although limp, was at least dry. “Are you not the costume designer Stanislaus? I saw the dress you did for Miss Constanza de Beranga’s last premiere. It was quite a piece of work.”
“It was a piece of something, yes.” The eyes under the platinum blond hair were sharp, not too much of a surprise given how high the fella had climbed in his profession. He was tall and skinny, but moved well, with confidence. I decided to reserve judgment. Stanislaus turned to Sid. “You missed Nigel Cole and Bill Killingsworth. They were both here and joined forces before they went on to the Christmas party at ______.”
No, I am not going to fill in the blank. I still work in this town, and some names are felt to matter more than others.
Sid looked impressed all over his face. Acting in the silents made the players expressive, back then. “Now, how did you deduce who I was looking for, my sweet?”
Stanislaus hiked up some eloquent eyebrows of his own. “Why else would you be swimming around with a studio shark, even one as charming as young Angelo, here? Nigel and Bill were the only fish in from Everest tonight, not counting fry too small to attract official attention.”
Like I said, he was a sharp piece of work. He was not at all surprised when we excused ourselves a few minutes later to go crash the big party.
In certain magazines, if you read such tripe, you are always being told tales about Hollywood the New Babylon. For the most part, such stories are strictly trash, all brewed up in the minds of cheap journalists to titillate the inflamed pink eyes of their Reuben readers. But it is true that, now and then, the local boys and girls get off their leashes after their fourteen-hour, six-day shooting schedules and want to chase some fun. There are times when that urge, together with a lot of clams, makes them run kind of wild. I will admit the party we went to next was one of those times.
I pulled Sid’s new Packard up next to the college boy doing the parking and got a good look at him. Although he was standing by a big torch stuck in the lawn, the fella still seemed cold. I could not blame him because he was dressed in nothing but a sheet lifted off of Junior’s camp cot and a wreath of holly. There was a lot of pale and hairy leg hanging out of the sheet, too. I handed over Sid’s keys to the boy, and he sprang into the auto. He was probably grateful to be out of the night breeze, which was cool from coming off of the winter Pacific. Sid and I were left alone together on the lawn, looking up at a big house that was bright with lights in every room, and loud with shouting, screaming, and the noise from three or four jazz bands all playing different music at once. The lamps in the upstairs rooms kept turning off and on. Somebody on a second floor balcony was setting off fireworks.
“Not so good,” I said.
“True, the winter rains have yet to take hold, and these hillsides are quite flammable.”
“That is not what I mean, and you know it, Sid. If they keep this up, the neighbors will be upset.”
Sid did not say anything. He drew my arm through his own and marched me up the path marked out by rows of tall torches staked into the lawn toward the front door. The English import that opened it had a shell-shocked look on his mug like he had recently returned from the trenches in France. One of his suspenders was dangling loose from beneath his morning coat. What was going on behind him, inside of the house, was even louder with the front door open. He did not try to ask us for invitations. He just opened the door and bowed us through.
Well, at least most of the guests were still wearing all their clothing, and some of them even appeared to be sober although I would bet that was an illusion. We interrupted a petting party in the room where we were supposed to drop off our hats and coats but nothing serious. A lot of guests were in the big front room dancing to one of the jazz bands with a bunch of girls from the Grove and the Hideaway and boys from I do not know where, although not from this swanky neighborhood. Bill was not in sight.
Sid was greeted with lots of appreciation and kisses, all of which he accepted, and offers of drinks, most of which he declined. Of late I had noticed he had given up on getting blotto in favor of stopping once he had an edge on, which was wise considering what was happening to the hooch supply as the Noble Experiment dragged on. In any case, I was not sure I trusted everything in the cut-crystal glasses at this place, especially the punch. A few of the party-goers were pretty hopped up.
In the library, some cake-eater decided Sid was his friend, but I peeled him off. When we were out by the pool, a jazz hound dancing to the second band thought Sid wanted to cut in and decided to take offense, but I gave him a sock to the vest, and he folded right up and got quiet. Meanwhile, with the help of a fin or two, Sid found out from one of the tenor saxophone players which way Bill had gone, so we went that way, too.
We found Bill’s friend Nigel Cole sitting in an armchair by the billiard table, snoozing next to an over-dressed Christmas tree. Everest had just picked up Mr. Cole’s contract and it was the first time I had met him in person. He was little, not real impressive, and did not look like he would be much trouble. Sid shook him awake. “Come on, old fruit, wakey, wakey.”
He woke up with a snort. “Mmm? Oh, Sid, hello.” His gaze traveled around and discovered me. “Is this the famous Angelo?”
“Yes.” For Sid, it was curt. “Where’s Bill?”
The fella’s face went real still. “I don’t know. In any case, he is no longer with me.”
I shared my opinion of that with the ceiling. Sid snorted. “My righteous Mephistopheles, your statement is diverting but not enough so as to make me lose my scent. Where is he?”
The blue eyes in front of us got dark. For some reason, it made me long to reach for the shoulder holster I no longer carried. I am not sure what Nigel was thinking, but his gaze went back and forth some more between us before he spilled. “You could try the gentleman’s retiring room behind that door with the hideous fake wainscoting.”
So, we did. Or, at least, I did, and Sid was not fast enough to stop me since he was starting to say something to his pal at some length. There are times when all that fancy language gets in his way. I was across the room, had opened the door, and found Bill, before either of them protested. I had also found one of the parking attendants.
One time, I got a load of a Roach studio shooting script wherein the writer had run out of ideas and had resorted to typing “wackiness ensues.” It could have been the description of what happened next if you were not one of the saps involved. I went back into the billiard room like a Methodist sexton who had just seen his first pink elephant. Sid abandoned his purple prose and made a leap for me like he thought I was on my way to throw myself in front of a Red Car. Bill lurched out of the gent’s and tripped over his underpants and trousers before he did as neat a job of measuring the carpet with his chin as Sid ever had on a screen. He slid into the tree, so that tinsel and candy canes went every which way. The big blond kid that Bill was having nookie with wandered out to watch it all with goo-goo-googley eyes, decked only in holly, not having bothered to put his little sheet back on. Nigel put both hands over his face and groaned.
I was fending off Sid. “Sid, stop it. I am okay, here. If you want to be helpful, check if Bill is down for the count. Or tip the Trojan and get rid of him.” Deciding I needed the help, I reached over, grabbed a glass of eggnog from the edge of the billiard table, and took a drink. Whatever else was in it, it was awful. Sid made a noise like a scalded cat and took a swipe at the glass. I turned to him and—that is the last clear memory I have.
When I woke up the next morning, every inch of my body hurt. Also, I was fighting the urge to upchuck. Also, I was not in my own bed. The one I was in had a mattress that was very soft and very wide, which was good because I was not inclined to move. Even blinking was painful. You would not think that eyelashes could be so heavy. All that I could say for the day was at least I did not have a headache, just a hole in my memory. By the evidence, I must have gone on a toot the night before, but I could not remember where, or when, or with whom. I tried my brain. It did not want to start.
“Good morning.” The voice was familiar but the intonation was not. I risked rolling my eyeballs to the left. As I thought, it was Sid. He had a little silver tray with a shot glass, a full water glass, and two white pills on it.
“Ghhmee,” I said to him. I started to repeat, but it was not needed. Somehow, probably from experience, he got what I meant to say and moved the shot glass to where my head was propped up on a lot of pillows. He held it to my lips and I swallowed, fast.
Like I expected, a small volcano erupted in my stomach, my nose ran, and tears came to my eyes. I blinked a few times and Sid did a number on my face with a napkin. Then he stood back and inspected me, waiting for results. After a minute when it hung in the balance, I decided my stomach was going to stay put and nodded. So, he fed me the aspirin and water and then put the tray down on the bedside table.
I rolled my eyes around a little more. “Okay.” I only sounded about a hundred years old, a definite improvement.
Sid still had not said a word. I already knew what was eating him, and saw no reason to keep him waiting. “Sid, since this is your bed, and I am ready for a photograph posed bottoms up on a bear skin rug, something may have happened. You are in no way one to bother a passed-out friend, so I must have said okay if it did. Therefore, no chops are needed. I only ask what the hell?”
He sat down on the foot of the bed looking as if someone had unfolded and shook him out like a newspaper. I was feeling better. The shift of the mattress only hurt a little. “Dear—” He cut it short.
I rolled my eyes one last time, both because it was easy and because it fit. “Do not stop now that you may have grounds.”
He laughed. It made the bed bounce too much, but it was a friendly noise. “Dear heart, do you really want to know?” I gave him the face. “Apologies, apologies. It is unusual circumstances, you must admit, young Patroclus.”
“Enough with the Greek, Sid. I remember tracking Bill through those Ethel joints. I remember that party—” I blinked a few times. “Somebody better have greased the harness bulls that I bet showed up to carry greetings from the neighbors.”
“You did. We found Bill and then you called for help in cleaning up the mess from three different studios. You also took personal charge of disposing of several of the more belligerent party crashers, with some minimal assistance from yours, truly.” I had thought I had spotted a mouse over one of his eyes. What a popular boy Sid would be with make-up come Monday morning. “It was a magnificent performance, especially given that you had consumed a potion more poisonous than coffin varnish and more potent than Absinthe, quickly followed by several rancid glasses of punch, as self-treatment for shock. You are sans clothing because a well-known actress pushed you into the swimming pool after you had been forced to severely chastise her dinner companion, a laborer from the oil fields of Signal Hill.”
I winced. I had liked that suit. It had formerly possessed a very nice, thin chalk stripe on the fabric and it had fit well across my back and shoulders.
“After all your exertions, you lost a great deal of your vim, and became somewhat limp. We brought you back to the house and put you to bed. It was Bill’s idea to situate you in my bedroom and, I will admit, I did not demur. With his taking the remaining guest bedroom, there was no room left at the inn.”
“There are such items as sofas.”
He ignored me. In Sidney Beck’s house, people do not sleep on sofas. They may spend the night doubled and tripled up like a face hand in poker, but all the Holy Saints and Angels avert that anyone should ever wake up with a crick in his neck. “Thus, your present state of deshabille.” He made a grand gesture, to indicate the story was finished, but I had known him too long to be distracted.
“So, drop the other shoe, Sid.” His expression was so innocent you could have tied a baby bonnet around it. “If nothing else had happened, you would have said.”
“Nothing happened that I would have had to explain to your mother.” We both paused to consider that. Three months ago, Ma had come west to visit me, and Sid had volunteered to squire her around the Everest lot, proof, if I needed it, that he had some heavy equipment in his trousers. He had looked wan for days after that. But Sid was still not getting off the hook by distracting me.
“Okay, what was it, then?”
He could tell he was not going over the wall. After a moment, he gently touched his eye. “A minor, mistaken incident. You swum all the way to the surface, at one point during your bedding down, and swung.”
“Madonna mia! Sid, I am sorry.” I was, too. There is no faster way to make an enemy out of a friend than taking a poke for something that did not happen.
“The damage is minimal and can be charged to Lady Luck’s expense account. But - Angelo - ” I knew. My stomach did some more somersaults, hangover cure or no hangover cure. “I assume that the father who was to get his mitts off you was not your late sire?” I was silent. He was silent back for a while before he said, with his voice musing, “I must say, in light of that history, your tolerance last evening and this morning upon waking confuses me.”
I tried staring coldly and then gave in. A truth for a truth was fair trade. “The first time I was beat up bad for no reason, it was not by some Mick or Bohunk but by a cousin from my own neighborhood. It was no Ethel that grabbed me, either. In fact, Fath - a fella who had been a hoofer long enough that it showed - was the one who spotted what was going on and made the other fella lay off. That other fella looked to be a very tough character, a real pistol, in spite of his profession. No one would have thought he was what he was. So, I am not stupid. I have learned that not all the ones who look like you are your friends nor are all the strangers your enemies.”
Sid blinked, resembling an elephant meditating on a bad peanut. “I comprehend why you no longer go to Mass.”
“It was not like that, Sid. He started me thinking, but that was not all of it.” I shook my head. It hurt. “Listen, you are a pal, but you are also an actor. Actors like stories. Let me tell you a fast one.”
He made a noise.
“Once upon a time there was a tough kid who got it into his head that all his family was going straight to hell. To get them sprung, he thought he would go work for the characters with influence, which is how things were done in his neighborhood. After a few years, he decided the characters he was working for had less influence than he did because there was no hell. He went home. When he got there, he found out that there was a hell, but it was more about what people, including his family, did to other people than what they had taught him. In fact, he turned out to be damned good with a pitchfork himself. So, he went away again and found a place where most people deserved to be prodded from time to time. End of story.”
He laced his fingers across his stomach, leaned back against the footboard, and smiled at me, real slow. “And so, the angel came to Hollywood.”
“Sid, you have not been paying attention to me.”
“Believe me, old chap, I have been paying very close attention to you, indeed.”
“Enough with the nance routine, Sid, please. I am dealing with bruises on my bruises. Just tell Bill to spend the money on a coast-to-coast telephone call next time instead of going visiting.”
“You already did that, using a colorful terminology I could not hope to equal. For your sake, I did try, though. He claims to be duly chastised and is waiting for the long distance operator to ring him back, even as we speak.”
“Good.” I pulled the covers up. “I think I will die, now.”
“Rest in peace,” he said and tiptoed out, which was sure a sight to behold. I punched up the pillow and went back to sleep. I slept well, which I always did at Sid’s.
That, I thought, was that, but oh, no. Do not make my mistake and forget we are talking about Sidney Beck, here. Four days after the big party, just when I was starting to relax, I was suddenly called into the office of Mr. D.J. Stone, who was then the Chief Assistant to the Head of Publicity at Everest Studio. Since I was known to be one of Sidney Beck’s grateful friends and to have more of a grip on him than most of the folks he had helped, studio publicity often sent me over to have little talks with him when they were felt to be needed. So, as I went into D.J.’s office, a nice corner affair with a rosewood desk that you could land Lindy’s plane on, I was certain enough to lay a bet that I was not shut of Sid’s problem yet.
“Angelo, sweetheart!” D.J. beamed at me. “That was real nice work at the party on Friday. The other studios involved now owe us a big one, which is a pleasant place to be in, for a change.” D.J. snapped his fingers, and his own assistant opened a humidor and offered me a cigar, to prove that D.J. was being earnest in his praise rather than only offering polite greetings. After I accepted, rolled, chopped, lit, and took my first two puffs, I did not sit back in my chair since I did not have the seniority for that. Instead I sat bolt upright, holding the cigar near an ashtray and doing my best to seem alert and attentive.
D.J. accepted a light from his stooge, lolled back in his own chair, and crossed his legs. “You handle yourself well when the talent has company, which is useful around this place.”
Back then, you see, every studio had its special cross to bear. One outfit had been too enthusiastic in helping its actors cope with their busy schedules, with the result that they had to herd a flock of snowbirds. Another had executives who were, even for Hollywood, rough about harvesting the starlets, and the behavior had run downhill. The boys and girls on our lot were gentle but could not seem to read the “No Trespassing” signs that the Bible Belt had put up to help out the rest of our great nation. They were always wandering off on little vacations in odd combinations or having parties with the wrong kind of guest lists.
I shrugged, modestly. “I have been taught to keep my eyes on my goal.”
The noise D.J. made was approving. “There’s nothing like a good education. But we’re not here to talk about dear old P.S. 22. I have a little job for you.”
I nodded, flicked the ash off the end of the cigar with my pinkie, and paid attention.
“It’s Sidney Beck, although I may not have to tell you that?” His dark eyes narrowed and he smiled. “I thought not. For once, it’s not the actor’s fault. Some clown from Manhattan may be after him.”
That was irritating.
“Easy, easy. Get that look off your mug. You are a businessman, not a ganef, in case you feel like forgetting.” He leaned back and took a leisurely puff of his own stogie, waiting for me to get the right face on before he gave me the rest of the story. I donned an expression like an altar boy picking up his tip after a wedding mass, and D.J. got going again.
“I know you heard about Betty La Monte taking a vacation back east and making a friend. Well, she decided to dump her new Lothario and hightail it back to Bill and the vine-covered cottage, but the boyfriend didn’t take it real well. It seems she told him she was feeling bad about Bill, but the mamzer wouldn’t believe her, given what had already happened.” It was D.J.’s turn to knock ash off his cigar. “So, she said she had to come back and help out an anonymous friend with his next picture. It must have been quite the sob story she gave the fella, all about having to rescue the man who gave her the big push into the pictures, the sweet Daddy who was now having trouble with his own career. Cue the sobbing violins.” He grimaced, half-annoyed and half-impressed. “Anyone in Hollywood would know she was describing Sid.”
“Too bad she did not think to warn Sid that he was being cast as her sugar daddy.”
I was talking out of turn, but D.J. did not seem to mind. He shrugged. “What are you going to do? Actresses: they’re all insane. Anyhow, Betty pried herself loose and got onto the train, but it seems that all the ta-rah-rah wasn’t good enough for the boyfriend. According to an old pal of mine from Lindy’s, Romeo followed her the very next day.”
D.J. leaned forward over the acres of shiny desk top to fix me with a steely eye. “Angelo, I want you to keep an eye on Sid until a few of us can get down to the station and reason with the big-six boyfriend. I don’t really think Sid’s a target, but I didn’t get into this chair by taking chances.”
Now, you may be wondering why my brain did not make the obvious connections, but remember I was a busy boy in those years and had a lot more to think about than what I have written down for you here. In any case, I just nodded. The whole matter was not even as silly as half of my assignments. Sid, I thought, would be easier to chase around the studio than Rufus the Wonder Dog. It was not one of my better days.
I caught up with Sid over in the Barn, our oldest shooting stage, where he was working on a sequence for Lord of the Manor. After Sid got involved with a dinner gong two or three times, the director called for a break. I strolled over to where Sid was getting a drink of water. He had a towel around his neck and kept dabbing at his face.
He looked at me sideways and then decided to smile. “As the Devil’s two-tone shoes. It has been a long day, with stairs. Many, many stairs. Dear Heart, what brings you out from the plantation house into the fields? Given the timing, I know you play the winged herald from our masters on high.”
I took the towel away from him and flapped it a little to move some air, the way you do with a boxer after a bad sixth round. He closed his eyes and sighed. “For a wonder, Sidney Beck, no one is mad at you, at least no one from the studio. However, it seems some fella from back east wants to bust on you over Betty, so I have been assigned to play nursemaid.”
He did not open his eyes. “I would rather you didn’t, thank you.”
“Have I left you with the mistaken notion of thinking you get to choose?”
Muscles moved on his face, but all he said was, “From your gritty tones, I take it that you agree with the studio’s proclamation.”
“There is no percentage in taking stupid chances, Sid.”
“My warrior angel.”
I snorted and slung the towel back around his neck. He sort of shook himself, and then smiled. “Ah, well. We’re breaking early today. There’s a sneak preview of Apple Sauce in Montebello, and I have been told off to attend incognito so that I may observe the audience’s subtle reactions to my japery and hilarity.”
“You should let me drive, then.”
“Good.” He sighed. “I daren’t tip a flask when I’m doing falls, but I may need some fortification after so long a day, in order to face seeing myself many times life size, with orchestral accompaniment. Please don’t let me slide out of the theater seat.”
“I would not do that.”
“I know you wouldn’t.”
So, I was committed to going with Sid to a movie theater out in a hick burg to the east of Los Angeles. The drive took us an hour, and I spent another ten minutes finding a place I would trust to watch Sid’s automobile. I was not so much worried about thieves as about the word galloping around the brick buildings of Main Street that someone interesting had come to town. Life was hard enough without the Lady Auxiliaries of the Elks and Lions crowding around to get a goggle at a real, live stranger.
My evening was not improved by Sid’s idea of a disguise. He had on little gold-rimmed pince-nez and a mustache that made him look like the lead bull fiddle player in the pit of a second-class picture palace. I made the mistake of telling him that, and he immediately added an accent that would have gotten him hooked off the vaudeville stage of Arm Bend, Oklahoma, it was so bad. I put up with it as long as I could, but, after four blocks, I stopped dead in front of the Woolworth’s. Since Sid had his arm looped through mine, it stopped him dead, too.
“Okay, Professor, turn your genius mind to where we are having dinner before the show.”
Sid appeared to cogitate. “The pie, yez, it iz most good at the Bluebell Diner, or zo my rezerch has inform-ed me.”
That did it. Using Sid’s bulk for a shield, I had recourse to my hip flask, which I usually saved to dose suicidal writers who had just been told to fix the Battle of Waterloo so that the English took a dive. At least, since my job did not include poisoning studio employees, the contents were drinkable. It still made me shudder. Given that he had emptied his own flask on the trip, Sid eyed mine yearningly, but I said, “I do not think a high-forehead gent like you should be indulging in something so hard on the cranial contents,” and put it away.
“You are not well educat-ed,” Sid said, darkly.
He had already yanked the steering wheel from my hands, and cutting off his gasoline, which you might think would help, instead revved his motor. In short order, Sid convinced our waitress that he was conducting a study of how motion-picture attendance related to the belief in godless evolution. She had a lot to say about the matter, being a faithful pilgrim to Aimee Semple McPherson’s temple over in Echo Park each Sunday. My blue plate special meatloaf was cold when I finally got it. Then, several of the patrons from the neighboring tables had to share their opinions with the ‘Perfessor’, and he somehow got them believing that I had been hired to defend him from the torpedoes employed by Mencken’s American Mercury. They all wanted to see my gun. I was in a lather by the time we left the diner.
The local movie palace was probably the peak of cultural sophistication in that town, so it was a good place to check out the effect that Everest’s latest production would have on the rural audiences along our Southwest and Pacific Coast distribution circuits. From the noise the crowd was making, Sid and the rest of the crew had nothing to worry about. They started howling with glee about thirty seconds after the title cards went up, and did not stop for eighty minutes. It left Sid with plenty of free time to devil me.
We were sitting in the back, off to one end of a row that had been saved for anyone who showed up from the studios. Given how far out this hick town was into the boonies, there were only three studio accountants, a production assistant, and the two of us spread out along the whole row, so we had no close neighbors for Sid to exercise his high spirits on. That was good because he was not kidding when he said he hated watching himself on film. It made him act like a sap. He grimaced. He whistled. He committed ventriloquism. If there had been enough light, he would have done card tricks. We could have been in big trouble if anyone but me had heard him. When I got a feel for the mood he was in, I took his popcorn away from him.
I had to lean over so he could hear me. “Give me that.”
“No. It iz mine.”
“Sid, I am not fooling here. You are in a screwy mood, and you are not expressing it with foodstuffs, at least not away from a set. Give me the popcorn, now.”
“You are alwayz zo mean to me.” Sid sounded mournful enough that I almost returned to him the box. However, the last couple of years in Hollywood had toughened me. I moved it out of his reach, into the empty seat on my other side.
He seemed to settle down, then, but it was an illusion. When the love scenes came along, Sid made kissing noises at himself and the Girl each time they appeared together on the screen. The third time it happened, I stepped on his foot.
Once more, he seemed to calm down. But when she showed up again, he threw an arm around my shoulders. I ignored him. That was a mistake. During the next close up of the Girl, Sid wiped an imaginary tear from the corner of his eye with his free hand and leaned over to murmur in my ear, “It iz zo romantic.” Meanwhile, his hand wandered down to where it would have been exciting if I was a skirt.
In the days before sound, a lot of the funny men did their own stunts, and Sid was strong as a gorilla. I decided, instead of trying to remove his mitt, to raise the ante high enough that he would know I got the joke, ha-ha, and would fold. I dropped a hand onto his thigh.
I should have started with his knee. I missed.
I think it was surprise that held him still the first second, and the caution of the hunted that kept him that way. As for me - did you know that in the junior and senior seminaries they make you tuck in your shirt-tails using a wooden paddle, so you will not touch yourself by mistake? There are no doors on the stalls in the johns, either, and they check to make sure you sleep with your hands folded together on top of the blankets. Combined with the other little thing that had happened, it had all created an attitude in me. I had made up some time in the past four years, but problems remained. When I realized what I was touching, I froze like an old lady pedestrian in headlights. Inside my head, tommy guns were going off, horns were blaring, and trucks were crashing into each other. As for Sid, to mangle a phrase that would become well known a few years later, he was getting happy to see me.
He got something else working, too: his voice. “Oops.”
I picked up my hand and put it back where it belonged, on the armrest. We sat for a couple of minutes, watching Sid on the screen have fun with a vat of apple butter at the villain’s canning plant. Real Sid did not move his own arm, but that was okay because I was shaking and needed something to keep me still. The arm was tense for a while until, all of a sudden, he squeezed my shoulder. Sid is not a goof, and he had figured I was in trouble.
“Angelo?” I could feel his breath warm on my ear.
“Sid, I am an idiot.”
“I’ll take half the credit.”
“You are welcome to it.” He started to move his arm and I said, “No.” He left it where it was. A while later I said, “Okay,” and he moved it. I added, “Thanks.”
“Shut up.” I moved to knuckle his shoulders. “I do not say thanks unless I mean it.” I put my arm back on the armrest where it belonged again. We watched the rest of the movie in silence.
When the show was over, I made Sid wait for the audience to empty out, then wait again in the lobby while I checked the sidewalks outside. He spent the time teasing one of the studio bean-counters who had lingered to congratulate Sid and kiss his hand for being successful. Sid being Sid, he left the fella beaming and chuckling behind his horn-rims when we went out the door.
“That was smart,” I said, as we walked back towards the lot where we had left the automobile. “Barry Bearach is well thought of in Booking, and his opinions are worth hearing.”
“He finds me amusing.”
“So? You are funny.” Sid stopped. I turned to look at him. “What?”
“Do you, in fact, think so? You are not usually one to laugh at my japeries.” He shook his head, very slowly. “In fact, you rarely laugh at anything, which is peculiar because you have no problems recognizing a jest when you hear it.”
This was exasperating. Good old Sid. I had just felt him up in a motion picture palace, and he wanted to talk about why I did not whoop at his jokes. “I have never denied that you are one heck of a kidder. The ha-ha routine does a lot of work for you, but you are still a very amusing fella. In fact, you are so funny that most people do not mind when you are telling them hard truths or making them do stuff they hate.” In the light from the streetlamp, I could see Sid’s face was real still. I kept talking. “I am not saying that it is all fake. You like a big laugh yourself too much for that.” I paused, and then something, I do not know what, made me add, “I, too, like to hear you laugh.”
He tilted his head a little to one side, and then turned and started moving again. “Angelo, how many evenings have we spent together?”
I wondered where his mouth was going now. “In the last couple of years, maybe a hundred.”
“Do you think, excluding the influence of our mutual employer, that we are friends?”
I thought about it for a while. When I looked at him, to see if the pause had annoyed him, he was smiling. It was not the big, happy one but the small, sad one. “Yes, if you are asking me, which you are, we are good friends. What is it with the Catechism, here?”
We had reached the parking lot. “If you will be kind enough to ready our Chariot, I will endeavor to explain.”
There was a small pause while I checked the car and got us going, but, to give him credit, he did not keep me waiting long. We had barely turned onto Main Street, heading back towards Hollywood, when he said, his voice raised to carry over the noise of the motor, “All right, Angelo. Please believe me when I say I am not kidding you now. Your friend Sid thinks that Mr. Sidney Beck is not the best company for you to be keeping if you wish to continue undisturbed along your straight and narrow road.”
Instead of flapping my jaw at him, I turned over what he said inside my head for a minute, thinking. Then I said, “I get it. What else happened the night I passed out at your place? You can begin by telling me the stuff you left out there before you go on to report the rest of your news.”
He snorted. “Entirely too smart for your own good. All right, I will be curt. First, you yourself instigated the kiss that led you to demand the removal of my mitts. Second, I have never lied to you, except by omission. Third—” He ran down and reached for his flask before he remembered it was empty and stopped. I got one hand free from the wheel for long enough to pass him mine. He tilted it for a good, long time before he wiped his mouth and added, “I will not insult your intelligence by asking if you understand what I have told you thus far.”
I kept my eyes on the road. “Okay.” We had left town and were now passing a lot of orange trees. At last I said, “You are telling me you are hot for me, no fooling. So, now you either want me to take pity on you, or you want me to tell you to beat it.”
“I don’t know.” He ran one hand through his hair, which was coming unstuck from its pomade, trying to get it back into place. “Possibly both? I don’t know. I have moved from casual flirtation, through discomfort, past resignation to friendship, but my interest has remained painfully acute at every step along my path. Thus, I am probably the worst person in the world to make my final and most important point, no matter how calmly you are prepared to hear what else I have to say. But, I do think you should speak with someone. Perhaps—a doctor? Of psychiatry?” I dismissed that notion, using some language from back home. Sid winced and then chuckled. “I admit it, I agree with you. However, there are also some very trustworthy sorts I know—”
I have my limits. “Sid, just say it. Third, you think maybe I am a finnuchio like you.” I pulled his automobile off the side of the road, over next to a strawberry stand boarded up for the winter, and set the hand brake. “I can not believe we are having this little chat. My brothers would all say I should be breaking your face”
Sid shrugged. “You are used to the confessional. I very much doubt they are.”
“True. You know, one reason I like to do the rounds with you is that your skull is used for more than hanging your hats on.”
“Thank you for the profound compliment, but your observation makes it even more clear that I am the one fate has cast to play Socrates. Are you a virgin, Angelo?”
“What, with my brothers? I have told you, the Gerello take care of their own.”
He choked back some wisecrack, then said, his tone mild, “Ah, silly me. Prostitutes, after you left the seminary, or did they rise to the refinement of providing you with a mistress?”
“We did a lot of business around Broadway. Showgirls.”
“And, here in Hollywood? Starlets?”
“You know I date, Sid.” He snorted. “Okay, I admit it. No. But I have not been chasing the dancing boys or the musical types, either. My confessor said I had the gift of chastity, and that could be your answer.” I was looking out through the windshield, but not seeing much.
“From what I have observed, I would disagree. I believe you do have strong libidinous urges. Could they be—unusually perverse? No, a lifetime spent in Vaudeville and Pictures has taught me what to look for, there.” He was talking to himself. Then he cleared his throat. “Angelo—” When he had caught my attention, he made a gesture with his fist, down around his hips. Even in the dark, I could see it was crude.
“Yeah, I do, a lot. Oh.” Not knowing what else to say, I looked away and out into the dark again. Not even headlights interrupted the gloom. A bunch of bugs and birds outside of the car made the usual noises that keep you from getting any sleep when you try to relax in the so-called quiet of the countryside.
Sid cleared his throat. “As you may already understand, matters have most likely been confused by your education, your former profession, and your lamentable personal history.” He sighed. “I’m afraid it is a can of worms with a jagged lid. And, alas, I dreamed of going fishing. What a fool I am.”
I tried to imagine making whoopee with him. It was hard. In those days, I did not think of people that way. You may not believe me, but I almost never thought of the folks I knew that way, and it took a real effort. It took an effort, but—“Okay.” Next to me in the dim, I saw him start, but I kept going, so I could say it all before I ran out of nerve. “You have persuaded me that I am balled up. Fine. Sidney Beck, since you are the nookie expert, let us roll this out together.”
He stared at me for a while, but he had been on the boards long enough that he knew a cue when he heard it and could not resist. “Your place or mine?”
It was a good question, even if he asked it for effect. “Mine.”
There was a long pause. “All right.” He craned his neck around some. “However. Since, for a number of reasons, this is a very dangerous idea, we might as well start out as I mean to go on. We have time for one quick test that is, I assure you, more telling than a great many more blatant acts.”
Almost gravely, he slung his arm back around my shoulders and pulled me to him. He may have been surprised that I did not resist, but he wasn’t Italian, either. I had felt other fellas’ arms around me and lips on mine since I had worn lace. His lips were firm and warm. He smelled of apple pie, hair pomade, and decent hooch. There was nothing new in it until his lips got insistent, and even that I had experienced with a fella once before. That particular occasion of mortal sin and the dolls had taught me how to do what he wanted, so I used my education until I forgot to pay attention.
When we pulled apart, he was breathing rough and so was I. He asked, “Well?” He was playing that voice of his down in the lower register.
I made an impressed face. “That was just about cheating, Sid. No wonder you have company all the time. You are good enough to shake me. I am not sure where I am, here.”
He crossed his arms. “Notice my restraint, dear heart. Fear not. It is only I, your amiable clown. Laugh, clown, laugh.” He mimed struggling with a strait jacket.
“Sure.” I snorted. “You’d make a lousy Canio. Cut it out.” I started the Packard and got us back on the road, such as it was.
Sid put one hand on my shoulder but with respect. Since I could tell he would let me shrug it off if I wanted to, I let it stay. After all, he was my pal, and I was going to try rumpling some sheets up with him. I thought about that for a while. It was still hard. Not bad, but hard.
“Nervous, Angelo?” He had known me long enough to tell, so that was okay, too.
“Yes. Do you wish to stop at a drugstore or your place for a toothbrush and a razor?”
“It is true, a change of clothing would be nice. Let’s stop by the house.” He sighed. “My call tomorrow is for six a.m.; it’s a little late, but we’re well ahead on the shooting schedule. Since the studio has assigned you to play faithful companion, I’m assuming that you will be accompanying me. At least the blocking of this all makes sense.”
I frowned. “Sid, if we stay up too long you will be flat busted, which is not a good idea if you are falling down more stairs.”
He moved his hand over to the back of my neck and then up and down some, which was still okay. “So, dear heart, we’ll keep it simple. It will be easier on both your nerves and my schedule.”
“That does not seem fair to you.”
“Nay, nay. If all goes poorly, it will put the least strain on us both. If all goes well, there is no reason not to repeat the exercise some other time with ruffles and flourishes.” He tugged on my earlobe. “Perhaps you should pretend I am introducing you to some other type of exotic athletic endeavor. Golf. Deep-sea fishing. Fox hunting. Polo.”
He cringed, with drama. “I should certainly hope not!”
I let him know what I thought of that funny-funny at some length and with additions, and he rolled out the laughter. Like always, I felt myself relax a little when he laughed. For the rest of the trip we talked Hollywood gossip, and opera, and baseball, all the sorts of stuff we liked to jaw over on a normal evening together. I kept prodding at the ideas of Sid and nookie, and after a while it got easier to push the two items together inside of my head. Of course, since I was now getting interested, something had to happen to ruin my plans.
When I pulled Sid’s car under the portico across the drive, there was an automobile already parked there. It was a Ford of a kind not favored either by the front office boys or the creative types at the studios. I frowned. “Do you know this vehicle?”
“No.” Sid’s tone was considering. “I do have guests at the moment, and my staff is in residence, but none of them prefer cars of such somber aspect.” The auto was painted Model T black, he meant, with all its metal work dulled down. Driven at night, it would disappear into the shadows. I knew what kind of characters drove such cars.
“Okay, then.” I was easing off the clutch when a man stepped in front of us, onto the half-circle drive, from behind some bougavilla. He was tall, swarthy, and I did not like his suit even though it looked to be quite expensive. I sighed, set the hand brake again, and turned off the engine. “Sid, please. Do not be funny. I am betting he will have no sense of humor.”
When I climbed out of Sid’s car I kept my hands well away from my sides. I was glad to see Sid’s visitor did the same. Even so, I gave him a cold eye while Sid hauled himself out of the passenger seat. The crasher ended up opening his mouth first to fill the silence. That is when I jerked my chin towards Sid and said, low and flat, “Talk to him. This is his joint.” It may be an old trick, but it is still a good one.
Catching his cue, Sid asked, with all the stops on that pipe organ voice of his open wide, “Is there some way I may assist you, young man?” He could maybe give the fella three or four years.
This crasher was no simple torpedo, though. He said back, very polite, “Mr. Beck, my employer would like to speak with you.”
“By all means!” Sid beamed his broadest. “My house is your house!” He turned to examine the two big paneled wooden doors at the top of the stoop. “Dear, dear. It seems you had already assumed that to be the case.” George Nanashi, Sid’s houseboy, was coming outside with an inscrutable look on his plate and another large fella by his side. George was usually about as inscrutable as Miss Fanny Brice, so I knew I was seeing more trouble.
The hood ignored us and said to our new and dapper acquaintance, “Hey. The nip, here, tried to telephone someone.” He grabbed the shoulder of George’s white jacket, wrinkling it up some.
I did not know I had swayed forward onto my toes until Sid stepped forward himself and said, “Let him go.”
It was as plain and simple as anything Sid has ever said, but it worked. I do not know why. Maybe it was Sid’s expression, which was hot, or mine, which was cold, or Dapper Dan’s, which was annoyed. In any case, the hood let George go, and even brushed at his shoulder a little.
“Mr. Beck.” George cut the lug like he was a Fuller Brush Man. “You have three phone carrs, one from your agent, one from studio, one from a rady.” He straightened his tie, and then said, as if he had just now remembered, “Arshore visitors to see you.” George does not have an accent, so I am thinking all the Nanki-Poo bushwa was for the sake of getting off that last sentence.
Sid kept his big face grave. “Thank you, George. Dear man, would you be so kind as to pull the Packard around to the garage? Angelo will be staying.”
“Mr. Angero.” George was also smart enough not to cut the baloney just because he had landed his blow. He bowed to me. “I wirr make you brack coffee, very strong.” I did not move my face, either, although it was a struggle.
George went over to the Packard and got behind the wheel. The lug wanted to follow, but a gesture from Dapper Dan nixed him. It took us a moment to sort ourselves out before Sid and Dan ended up going into the house first, followed by the brush man and me. Both of our visitors were heeled, I could tell, and I was not. Swell.
In the living room, Sid’s visitor was seated in the deepest of the leather armchairs with a glass of Sid’s best hooch, the Canadian bonded, in his hand. As I came in, I took one good look and forgot myself. “Ah, fa cryin’ out—” American failed me and I was forced to continue in Italian. He just sat there, trying to look swanky and tough and looking, to my glims at least, more and more sheepish as I went on.
Sid turned to me, turned back to the tough guy in the fifty dollar suit parked in his chair, and said, “The rosy sunlight of comprehension dawns. Mr. Frank “Crusher” Gerello, I presume?”
I ran down, threw up both hands, and went over to raid the liquor supply stored inside the big world globe in the corner. When I was done, I handed Sid his brandy and perched on the couch arm next to him, to remind Frankie of just whose pal I was in this town. Frankie waited until I was finished before he said anything. Ma, like I said before, had her ways of making sure we minded our manners.
“Mr. Beck. I must tell you, I did not learn back home that you were the patron of Miss La Monte, or I would not have come to deal with this matter in person, let alone in the company of my local acquaintances, here. Angelo has not met them, of course.”
“You can bet the bank on that,” I said, with frost. Some refuge for my female relatives I would be if all the muscle on the west coast knew which Gerello I was. It would be generally assumed I was Frankie’s finger man, and my Hollywood career would be over. Both the locals gestured that they would keep silence. The Fuller Brush Man tried to add a smirk until Dapper Dan trod on his toes. I hope the fella had corns.
Frankie reached into his breast pocket, and Sid asked, “Would you care to try one of my cigars, Mr. Gerello?”
“Yeah, sure,” Frankie said, sweet as pie. “And call me Frankie, Mr. Beck. I know you have been taking real good care of Angelo, here.”
He had better never find out what kind of good care Sid had been taking, or Sid was going for a ride. It was one of those many moments when I wondered why I could not have a normal family, a family that fixed plumbing, or ran a greengrocers, or did anything other than distribute medicinal supplies. Of course I did not let any of this show as I fetched the cigars, a lighter, and ash trays.
I offered the humidor to Frankie as Sid said, “You must call me Sid, then, Frankie. Thank you, Angelo.” That was me offering the humidor to Sid. While they did the cigar routine, I sat back down and took the chance to have a sip of my own drink. I was not at home, after all, still playing the baby of the family.
Having done the social dance, Frankie said, “Sid, I admit it is unusual for me to be lugging any dame. Miss LaMonte, however, is special.”
Sid nodded, painting his plate with sympathy. As Frankie gabbed on, explaining why he thought Betty was the cat’s whiskers, Sid kept nodding. The story was nothing new to him. Whatever Betty had in front of a camera also worked for her off the lot. A fella would start by thinking she was a cute girl who knew her oil and soon find himself offering her first his wallet and then a big diamond ring. I had wondered why the same had not happened to me. Now I knew. Come to think of it, maybe that was why she liked Bill so much. He always stayed a challenge.
“Anyhow,” Frankie paused to sigh like a locomotive, “I have reconciled myself to the idea that Miss LaMonte is married. I would like to hear from her own lips that she is happy, is all, and see this husband of hers for myself.”
“Of course,” Sid said, smooth as butter. “An eminently reasonable desire. Please, permit me to make a few phone calls on your behalf.”
Frankie waved his cigar benevolently and Sid went over to the phone he kept on a side table. It only took him five phone calls to find out where Betty and Bill were. I got the gist from Sid’s end of the conversation, but I let him be the one to break the bad news. Frankie had been following the action with attention, and I wanted him to remember Sid had influence, lots of folks who would be upset if they ever had to order flower arrangements with Sid’s name on the sympathy cards.
Sid paused to look thoughtful, and Frankie made an encouraging gesture. Sid ignored the fact his line had just been stepped on and said, “I have not actually spoken to Miss LaMonte and Mr. Killingsworth, but I now know where they are. A certain influential financier with connections to our studio is hosting a Christmas party at one of the local moonlight inns. Alas, said speak has a supplier and patron who I believe may be a business rival of yours.” He turned to me. “The One-eyed Jack?”
“Cripes, that is right.” I turned to Frankie. “Icy O’Grady. He came out here maybe a year back. The Jack is one of his favorite joints and he may have an invite to the big brawl.”
It was good to see that Betty’s It had not completely melted Frankie’s brain. He pondered and then sighed. “Okay. Will you bring them back to talk with me here, Sid?”
“I was about to suggest that, Frankie.” It was all so straight-forward and manly you could barely tell Sid had just been given marching orders. “I’ll go fetch my car, then. It’s best not to waste time in these matters.” Sid gave me a look that I knew was asking me if I was okay. I returned him a little nod, and he shoved off.
“Icy has been playing rough out here,” I told Frankie when Sid had left. “There may be a need for some heat, so I should go with Sid. Since I work for studio publicity, no one else will be surprised if I show up at the party, and it will give me an out if Icy glims me.” Frankie only nodded. I was family, and he did not need to waste cranking and grease on getting me started. He snapped his fingers and Dapper Dan offered me the iron I had wished for a few minutes ago, all wrapped up in a nice leather shoulder holster. I took it and put it on. We were about to visit my old-time surroundings, and I saw no reason for Sid to get mussed up because I was a good boy these days.
My new life was floating away right before my eyes, but I would worry about that later. In the meantime, George showed up with black coffee, which I drank before I followed Sid outside. Let me tell you, I have learned in Hollywood that you do not want the houseboy irritated. In any case, the Joe cleared my head a little. I was going to ask George about eats as well when he offered me sandwiches all wrapped up in wax paper. I stuffed four of them into my overcoat pockets before I left. Sid had brought the car around front but he looked pretty tired, so I gestured for him to get out and switch sides. He had drunk some drinks. He did not protest.
I got the car going again, and let a couple of Hollywood hovels roll by before I said, “I am not sure how long Frankie will stay nailed down.”
“We’d best hurry, then. It’s quite the haul to the Jacobean Hotel.”
“All the way to Santa Monica. And at this time of night.” It was very late, now, although the cold wind felt good against my face. “Hell.” I made a right turn and put us onto the boulevard heading west.
“Good heavens, strong language, twice in one evening. Whatever has dared to evoke it, old thing?”
“I was about to make whoopee with you, and I find I am annoyed to miss out on it.”
Sid chuckled. “We can delay the shooting schedule, if need be. After all, the necessary props remain in place. Firmly so, in my case.”
“Ahhh—” I took one hand off the wheel long enough to make a gesture.
“Well, if you insist. It seems a bit advanced for a novice, though.” He spread both hands in surrender before I could respond to that crack. “No, my sweet, I do understand. You have an unnerving question to answer and have found a safe way to do so. Further delay must seem interminable, intolerable.”
“It is not the delay. We are both busy, I know that. Otherwise I do not think we would be talking in automobiles quite so much these days. But, Sid, do not get me wrong here.”
“Young Archimedes, I comprehend that I may be only your one-time assistant in this great exper—”
“Shut up.” I do not know what he heard in my voice, but, for a wonder, he did. “Stop talking stupid. Why do you think I would not want more if I can get it?” I snorted. “Even now, you had to persuade yourself that I needed your help to finally make a real play for me. Sidney Beck, you are a big old phony. You are nothing but a nice fella trying to cheat his way through a lean and mean world.” I shook my head. “Also, you are a good looking character with a lot of charisma. Of course I am going to want serial rights if this works.”
Sid went silent for a block or two and then said, “Ah, well, we have been crawling around Hollywood together a great deal these past two years. I suppose it was inevitable you would eventually succumb to my twisted and sinister charm.”
It was real funny, the way he said it. I know, I know, you had to be there, but it was. I laughed and knew without looking he was beaming one of his big smiles. So, for a while we then talked about some schmaltzy stuff, promising to stay friends and that sort of thing. Such talk, along with the sandwiches, filled up the trip to the beach very nicely.
The Jacobean Hotel was a handsome joint on Ocean Boulevard in Santa Monica, all done up in that new art-deco stuff, maybe three blocks along the sea cliffs from the pier. Before I had found out about Icy, Sid and I had been there a few times. It was a nice place to visit after a little trip to enjoy the sea air on one of the off-shore ships where - or so I am told - gambling can take place, or after hearing the bands at the La Monica Ballroom. We already knew how to reassure the doorman of the private rooms downstairs that we were suave enough to be allowed into such a fine establishment where interesting refreshments could be found. However, that knowledge turned out not to be needed.
I had been worried about Icy spotting me, but one good look around the front porch and hotel lobby made me feel better. Sid and I would not stick out in this brawl. Our host, Mr. van Reisler, was a butter-and-egg man who knew a lot of fellas both at Everest Studios and at certain banks back east. That made the function almost official. Studio support was out in force. I waved to a couple of fellas I knew from work who were herding a pack of young cuties through the crush in the lobby towards the muffled sounds of dance music coming from below. Then I collared a passing bellboy, a sharp-looking carrot-top about college age. We did not have time to waste, so I handed him two bits, and his eyes lit up under the little red pillbox hat. “What do you need, Mister?” I could tell he was thinking booze.
“Find Betty LaMonte for me and it doubles. Find her fast with her husband Bill, and get me and my friend in to see them without a fuss, and this will hatch a fin.”
“Uh, Mister—” he started, and then the eyes moved over to Sid and got big and round. Sid gravely put one finger over his pursed lips and then made a shooing gesture with both hands. The kid got going, fast. I noticed Sid’s eyes tracked him, but I could not blame him what with the skin-tight pants, the little buttoned jacket, and all.
“Don’t watch so obviously, dear heart.”
“What?” I asked him.
“Let your eyes do the following, not your neck. You’ll provoke fewer bouts of fisticuffs that way, and I know you are not fond of drawing blood.” He took my elbow and towed me out of all the traffic over into a corner of the tiny main lobby, over to some armchairs. There we parked, Sid with his back to the crowd, to keep from attracting autograph hounds and hungry bit players. “I can see we’ll have to discuss how best to paint the town pink.” He pitched his voice quiet but not low, which keeps people from deciding they want to eavesdrop.
“Gee, thanks. I sure need more ways to get into trouble with the bulls.”
He chuckled, and I had to resist the urge to reach over and knuckle him a good one on the arm. Obviously, this nance stuff was going to take some work.
Right around then, the bellboy came shooting back through the crowd with the air of one who smells green. He came up to us with a little silver tray with a piece of paper on it still hiked up over his head, and said, “The Mayor’s suite, eighth floor. I brought you a key, Mr. Beck.” It was amazing how being a picture star cut through the bushwa even faster than cash.
“Thank you, dear boy,” Sid said, and signed his autograph to the blank message form on the tray. I took the key, made money appear, and Junior tossed us the scout salute and scampered off, probably to fetch someone his hooch. Then I headed Sid for the stairs. He gave me a look, but the last thing we needed was the elevator boy adding Sidney Beck to his list of big shots that he had seen going up but not down that evening. About floor four-and-a-half we had to stop for a moment in the stairwell to breathe, and I checked the key.
“Sid, this is a pass key. That hop must be some comedy fan.”
“We must remember to return it to him on the way out.” Sid looked up the next flight, sighed deeply, and started climbing again. What with long work weeks on a lot of acreage, we were both in pretty good shape, so we made the rest of the haul without problems.
Like is often the case, all the good rooms were on the top floor. We came out half-way down the corridor, which was empty. Later on, if this was a typical Everest - excuse me, the rare Everest party that got out of control, folks would be running back and forth slamming doors to all the suites, but right now everyone was down in the basement drinking coffee and ragging the floor to the jazz band. We went to the nearest and fanciest door. I was going to knock, but Sid used the key and eased the door open.
The sitting room was empty except for the expensive coats that rich fellas in glitzy hotels do not hang up for themselves draped over the furniture, half-full ashtrays, and various bottles and glasses. Sid kept an eye on the door and I tossed a couple of pockets.
“Van Reisler.” I kept it low.
“Oh, dear. No, no, no. Although it may mean that we are getting warmer. As is so often the case, he was quite impressed with Betty.
I checked a camel hair overcoat. “Not Bill. Julian Weinstein.”
Sid just grimaced. Weinstein, from the front office, could have made it big back in my old neighborhood.
“Cripes.” This coat I dropped fast. “Bill Thorpe, head of financials.” I backed off shaking my head, but could not resist adding, “He is getting soft, if he is leaving his coat around for me to handle.”
“It sounds sloppy, somehow.”
“It will get very sloppy somehow if anyone from account—” There was the sound of a key in the door. You would have thought Sid and I had been taking lessons, because we were through the nearest door before anyone got into the sitting room with us. It let us into a bedroom with a locked door on the far wall. I went over to deal with that lock while Sid eased the open door to the sitting room shut. You could still hear noise, though.
“And just what do you do, my dear?” I knew that voice. Swell.
“I’m a secretary in the music department at Everest, Mr. Van Reisler.” That came from a cheerful female with a very strong set of pipes.
“Not an actress?” It was a little weary. I wondered how many times he had asked flappers and Shebas that question before and been answered with more than he wanted to hear about female ambitions. Since Van Reisler got to pick his company, I did not feel too busted for him.
“Oh, no.” The voice got determined, real determined. “That’s very sweet of you, but I’m not here tonight for your influence. The moving pictures don’t need singers and that’s what I am. So my career will be built on talent, not influence.”
I looked over at Sid with an incredulous face and he pulled back from eavesdropping to wiggle his big hands down over his body in a way that indicated pretty and lively but young. Not a surprise, what with that last comment she had made.
Van Reisler’s reply was mild and maybe even amused. “Then I’m not sure why you’re keeping me company this evening, Miss Charlotte.”
She was surprised. “My voice teacher said I needed to live more, to know passion. And you’re a nice man.” She paused, and then added, decisively, “Your hands are quite dry and you have very handsome eyes.”
Uh-oh. Either the biscuit was more of an actress than she claimed or she was not fooling. In either case, I did not think this bedroom would be safe for much longer. Sid seemed to think so, too, because he abandoned his post and joined me at the far door, which I was easing open. The sitting room on the other side was also empty, but not for long. I shut the door behind us and threw the bolt on our side.
I looked at Sid, confused. “Now I do not know where we are.”
“I think it’s the next suite over.” He sounded no more certain than I was. “Hmm. Mayor, Governor—I imagine that was the Presidential suite. But which suite is this?”
We searched around. Cocktail shakers, some magazines, and an overnight bag that I did not open - even I have limits - but no personal papers. Sid checked the leather desk set but it was too nice for something low-class like the name of the suite to be embossed on it. I went to open the walk in closet. It was a miracle. Some folks in this joint hung up their own coats.
I frowned at what I was seeing. “Sid, is Bill making with the raccoon coat number now? Also, there are furs here.”
He came to peer over my shoulder. One meaty arm reached past me to move a mink and the door opened. We were in that closet with the door closed behind us too fast to think about how dim we were being. I poked Sid and was about to open the closet door, when I heard another voice I recognized.
“Do you see my cigarette case?” Icy. I shut my eyes and told someone I no longer believed in, let him not have left it in his coat pocket, please.
“I think it’s in the dame’s bedroom, boss.” Not someone I had met, but an accent and tones I knew real well. I unbuttoned my coat. Sid, sensing the movement in the dark, reached out his hand and hit the holster. His mitt paused for a moment, and then grabbed me and pulled me close. I do not know what he was thinking I was going to do, but he tried to stop whatever it was by crowding me and the coats against the wall. I grabbed him back to keep him still. I did not want Icy checking on what was making a riot in the coat closet. We both froze.
Okay, I admit it, maybe it was the association of ideas. Maybe the coat closet reminded me of another small, dark space where I had gotten into trouble in the past. Or maybe it was the danger. I do not know, but, all of the sudden, Sid’s body against me was hot as a blow torch, and his breath on my ear made the goose-flesh stand up on my arms.
“I got it, boss.” That was the goon again.
“Swell. Let’s blow. I want to dance with a few more of those—” It was not a term for hoofers I would have chosen, but what do I know? I am a former seminarian, bookkeeper, and hood, not a current mobster, speakeasy supplier, and bug-house case.
The outside door to the suite opened and shut, and Sid sighed out a lot of air. I told myself to push him off of me, although it was harder than you would think. We were just disentangling when the door opened again. It was two voices this time, one male and one female, both keeping it down. This hotel floor was the next Grand Central Station. Sid had gone still and so had I. One part of me, though, had its own opinion. That did it. I was exiting this closet before I no longer could be seen in public due to the state of my trousers. I tried to move, and Sid put one hand over my mouth. When I opened my mouth to protest, he ran his fingers back and forth between my half-parted lips.
I yanked my head back. “Sid,” I said, keeping it real low and urgent, “that is cheat—” It was all I got out because Sidney Beck was kissing me again. His lips worked mine apart and his breath mingled with my own. I wrapped both arms around him and gave as good as I got, complete with tongues. After a time that I did not measure, his hands, which had been kneading the seat of my trousers in an urgent fashion, started against me and his lips yanked away from my own. I think he realized that he had lost track of what he meant to do. Not that his inattention did me any good. I was still blinking dazedly in the dark when his right mitt swept around my hip and cradled me through the fall in my trousers. Even with the cloth between us I could feel the heat of his big palm. As he considered what he had found, I locked my jaw against a moan. I let my glims close. He started to move his hand away. Giving in to temptation, I wrapped my fists into the wool of his suit coat and rode against him. When he undid my fly, though, I knew I should say something.
“Sid.” No, that was not right, not with that note in my voice. Sid slid fingers expertly into my boxers and hooked what he was fishing for. Breath hissed out of me before I could try words again. “Sidney Beck.” That was not it either. His hand around me felt so good. I wished he would work me a little harder. He worked me a little harder.
I guess all that seminary discipline was good for something because I did at last manage to do more than hold on to Sid while my brain melted. The something in question was getting my hands off his shoulders and sliding them down to his own trousers, but it was still something. He was as big as I had guessed, hard as a studio accountant’s heart, and he twitched in an interesting way while I undid his buttons. He also made a tasty noise very deep in his throat.
He tried to pull away from my hands while keeping his grip on me. This is a very difficult maneuver to execute while stowed in a walk-in closet even if that closet belongs to a fancy hotel. It was annoying, but stopping him fell within my area of expertise. I muscled him back against the side wall of the closet, accidentally sliding a couple of raccoon coats along the bar with us, and got both my hands onto his groin. It was easy enough to use my weight to pin him even if some fur got mixed up in the affair.
“Angelo.” Now it was his turn to say my name very low, with his voice shaking with alarm, amusement, and lust all mixed up together.
“Do not start with me,” I said. He had never turned me loose, the bastard. However, I had not forgotten what I had already learned and was fast to pick up more. Sid was a captive in my hand and I was letting him have it but good. “Pipe down unless you have something crucial to say.”
“I don’t want to, mmm,” he was now using his free hand to yank at my trousers, which were sliding down my legs in a helpful way, “arouse any painful emotions in your breast by inviting unfortunate comparisons—” he let loose just long enough to tug at my boxers which also cooperated by falling. I should have stuck to suspenders. “What was I saying? Oh, yes.” I do not think he remembered. I think that was me scraping two fingernails along him down low.
“Too much noise. Shut up, Sid.” I moved my thumb around the tip of him and he grunted, which I liked. “Okay, do not shut up.”
He started to laugh his big laugh, and then muffled it against my shoulder. I turned him loose for just a second so he could hush himself and he took advantage, which I should have expected. The great arms wrapped around me and he hauled me in close, shifting so we were tight against each other. Fabric slid along my naked thighs, already damp with my sweat. Then we paused to listen again as our hips worked against each other. Outside it was quiet. Still, we were begging to get caught. I tried hard to make myself care and could not. It was much easier to think about the four-alarm fire in my groin, the feel of Sid, the smells of sex, sweat, and his aftershave, and the faint, happy rumbling noise he was making without knowing it.
We had been at this maybe a couple of minutes and I already wanted to finish, which was very rude and sloppy. Only the notion that Sid would come up with something else even better was stopping me. So, this was what all the fuss was about. It had always confused me before. I should tell him that. Somehow I knew he would like it when I leaned my noggin forward and whispered in his ear, “Bene, caro. It’s good, Sid.”
He enjoyed it, all right. He shouldered me around and it is a sign of how far I was gone that I was sure he was going to bang me and only wondered how much I would like it when he did. Instead he got himself cradled between my thighs from behind, wrapped his arms around my hips, and put his hands back on me up front. He started thrusting and I tightened my legs down and worked with him.
Okay, I was for real a finnuchio. It was way better than with any of the girls. It was better even than what had happened during that one summer vacation at the Staten Island parish, both because Sid was an artist and because he was not a selfish bastard. If Frankie found out, I hoped it would be after Sid and I were finished. If I had to wear concrete overshoes, I did not want my trousers down around my ankles at the time. Although even that might be worth it. As I thought those thoughts, Sid stropped me hard, all the heat poured down and spilled out into his hands, and I knew it would be worth it. When Sid did what I never would have dreamed of taking pleasure from between my thighs, I knew that would be worth it, too.
When it was over, I waited to feel guilty, but I did not. Intimidating people sometimes made me feel guilty. Shooting a Windy City dropper, even though he shot at me first, had made me feel real guilty. Doing it with Sid in a coat closet made me feel—happy, not a familiar emotion for me until I was shipped out to this crazy town. I was panting, but I had to say it. “Sid, I think we are trying this again.”
“Yes. Oh, yes we will, my own, my angel. And with abundant ruffles and flourishes, I promise you.” He kissed me on the neck and nape before I could tell him how sappy the verbiage was, but what the heck. It was our first time and all of that. Then there was some business with handkerchiefs and me trying to find the contents of my trouser pockets on a closet floor in the dark, which was very cute, I assure you.
When we emerged, we snuck across the room to the outside door. One listen was enough to hear Icy’s voice as he flirted with some poor flapper in the corridor. It was like hearing a rhinoceros trying to pitch woo to a rose bush. So, we went and tried the door to this suite’s bedroom. Sid eased it open, looked, listened, blinked, and then shut it again.
What? I mouthed.
He opened it a crack and let me peek. Bill and Betty. They must have been the couple who went through the sitting room. Okay, now we knew where they were but that escape route was good and blocked.
Sid and I snuck in the opposite direction and checked the bathroom. I paused to admire all the gold fixtures and fancy glass but Sid tugged on me and we kept going. We went across the sitting room to the door we had entered by. Sid opened the door, I started to take a step in, lurched back, and gestured for Sid to shut it again. The little flapper, Charlotte what’s-her-name, was now making very good friends with Mr. Van Reisler in that bedroom. Fortunately he had his eyes closed to consider this event while she cozied up to him at some length. I yanked Sid through the sitting room and back into the bathroom before I explained the difficulty to him at a low volume.
“What is this, a burlesque routine?” I finished up, making sure to keep my voice down. Sid shrugged. A broad, happy beam glued to his fizz was his only contribution to our conversation. I frowned at him and then, feeling suddenly suspicious, yanked the shower curtain aside to check the bathtub. It was empty but Sid started laughing, so I shoved him out the bathroom door and into the sitting room without surveying the terrain first. Of course then we had to run head on into Mr. D.J. Stone and what seemed to be about fifty Publicity flacks although there were, in fact, only three of them.
That got my brain working at last. I stuck a finger up to my lips and gestured one flack away from the bedroom door. D.J. has good instincts so he did not make a fuss. Instead he parked his boys on the couch while he went into a huddle with Sid and me.
“Did you know that the character after Sid is my oldest brother Frankie?” I asked D.J, keeping it low. I would rather have lied, since I could see my job going bye-bye when it was found out that I was a former hood, but that would not have been in Sid’s best interests.
D.J.’s eyebrows went up a little, not a sight seen every day. “No,” he said, his voice considering. “Although someone should have informed me that you were once one of those fellas.”
I waved a hand. “Not any more, I am not. But, I am drifting. Frankie is at Sid’s house. He wants to talk to Betty, so Sid and I came to let her know. We were worried that Frankie would get impatient and follow us.” I let my temper slip a little then. “Ma is going to kill Frankie, let me tell you.” D.J.’s eyebrows twitched. “He is married.”
“Is this a surprise?” D.J. asked me, chewing on his cigar a little. I scowled. D.J. turned to Sid. “He’s surprised.”
Sid shrugged. “Angelo spent several years in Roman Catholic seminaries and his education there still sometimes wars with his experiences here.”
I ignored Sid and kept going. “To add to my joy, Icy O’Grady is out in the corridor. He knows me.” D.J. looked at me. “He will not cross me, but he knows me, and I do not want to meet him again.” D.J. raised his eyebrows some more, and I added, “He respects me since the accident that happened to the imported talent from Chicago after which I retired from the family business.” Now both Sid and D.J. were looking at me. D.J.’s plate was wary but also impressed. What I saw in Sid’s eyes—he was sad for me, not impressed, not disgusted, not scared, just sad. I could have kissed him, but this was Hollywood, so I talked some more, instead. “Betty and Bill are busy in the bedroom right now, but Frankie will not leave until he talks to Betty and no fooling.”
“If we could bottle whatever it is Betty has, we’d never have to worry about another flop.” D.J. was philosophical. “All right, all right. Your brother gave us the slip at the station and I was searching for Betty to let her know. So, instead we’ll wait for everyone to get finished and O’Grady to leave, scoop the kids up, and conduct the interview with your brother complete with chaperonage.” He shot the cuff off his wristwatch. “How long will this take, anyhow? Some of us have to work tomorrow.” That some of us he was referring to were Betty, Bill and Sid, of course. I frowned. Someone should talk with the right people about overworking the talent. If they were not always so tired, they might not act so crazy all the time - I checked Sid, who was wilted but still beaming - excepting present company, of course.
As it turned out, all the maneuvering took a while. Sid’s grandfather clock had chimed four in the morning before we shoveled the last guest out of his front door. For once, Sid had not insisted that everyone bunk down with him. I had been so busy trying to broker the deal between Frankie and Bill that I had not stopped to consider just what that meant.
Frankie kissed me and hugged me when he left, still with a sheepish air that no one but me could see. I did not think my sister-in-law had anything left to worry about after Betty’s tear-stained monologue, but I made a note in my brain to talk to Ma on the telephone for a while, to make sure. Betty kissed me some too, which was more fun than Frankie. Bill shook my hand, gave me the assessing eye, and then winked instead of adding more lips in front of assorted studio sharks and west coast mugs.
When they were gone, Sid yawned hugely, stretched, and said, “No sleep for me. I’d never be able to tear myself from the arms of Hypnos to thrust myself into the embrace of Wardrobe.”
I scowled at him from the couch where I was sitting. “You are going to break something, Sid, I swear.”
He beamed. “No, I am going to take gross advantage of the fact that darling D.J. forgot to reassign you, and have you wake me for my shots tomorrow. Between times, I shall snore. I shall snore loudly and long.”
“Why do you not nap now? I can still wake you.”
“What? Here? Now?” He picked up the bottle of Canadian and came over to me. I held out my glass for one last refill. “No, I can think of a much better way to fill an hour than that.” He did not stop like I thought he would.
“Sid, do not start cheating again—”
It was no good. What was left of the best bonded ended up on the tile floor and the rug. I was worried enough about stains that I had no time to tense up over old memories, so I ended up finding out what a fella can do on a leather couch to kill time for an hour. You learn the craziest things in this town.
I was right when I thought my studio position would be history, but wrong when I thought losing the job would end my career in Hollywood. In his office, two days later, D.J. said to me, “Angelo, sweetheart, just because I can’t afford to keep you in my chorus line now that I know about your family doesn’t mean I want you out in the front row with your mitts full of tomatoes, either.” He considered me, and then added, “You like the talent too much anyhow. I think you’ll be better off clipping their wooly little pelts, listening to them bleat, and scaring the other wolves away from them. So, let me make a phone call, here.” I had impressed him enough that he put a real good word in for me at Sam Rickman’s outfit.
I ended up working as an agent. It was a good job. At the end of another five years, I had added a small stable of my own to our list of clients. When Sam Rickman, who was also Sid’s second agent, had a heart attack I took over the agency. Sid causes me as much work as all my other clients put together, of course. There was a reason poor Sammy had a heart attack, let me tell you.
As it turned out, this is one profession where being known to be a finnuchio is no real problem. All it does is make my enemies drop their guard, which has happened a few times to their sorrow. I still date starlets, too, although everyone in Hollywood seems to know how much that means. Girls like my company. I am a nice evening out for a tired Jane. My family may suspect, but I have never had any problems, which is good enough for me. Maybe Frankie thinks it is one more wall between me and the business, all the more protection if he ever has to ship his daughters, of whom there are now four, out west to me. I do not know, and I do not care. At least I now make my living working with characters, even including Sid, that I enjoy. Nobody bothers me. I do not have to hurt innocent people. That is all I want.
As for the other stuff, Sid and I saw each other a great deal off the lot for the next few months. Like we had promised, we stayed friends when the novelty wore off, so we always compared notes after our brief sight-seeing tours around town. Those comparisons were more fun than most of the Hollywood scenery turned out to be because Sid was my pal, not just candy. After a while, it got through to us that we were leg-shackled even though we were both stags, and we settled down to act like it.
Back in 1933, he took me out for our anniversary dinner to The Golden Dragon, a chop-suey joint not far from the wrought-iron gates of Everest Studios. We spent the first two courses talking politics while I watched Sid play with his chopsticks. He made them walk back and forth across the tablecloth like a long-legged soldier
“You’re paying this year, my sweet. I did not withdraw as much cash as I might have before the banks closed.”
The bank holiday explained why we were the only ones in the place, which was usually pretty popular. The owner had looked delighted to see us. I would bet our cash would not stay in the register past closing. It was nice to have the space, so we could talk like a normal couple can.
“Sid, you are still okay with this deal?”
He looked up at me and beamed all over his big face. Under the long tablecloth, his leg moved over to mine, which was kid stuff but nice none the less. “Yes, dear heart. I could ask the world, if not you, for more, but I am ecstatic not to have to settle for less.”
“It’s the same here.” It hurt, not to be able to do what any guy would do with his best girl just then, but it was a pain I was getting used to. So, instead of sulking, I reached into my breast pocket, pulled out my package, complete with bow and ribbon, and handed it over to him.
He opened it and looked at what was inside: a deck of cards.
“Happy anniversary, Sidney Beck. I thought you might like something to replace the cards you substituted for that marked deck belonging to Vincent, all those years ago.”
He threw back his head and laughed, good and large. Even the owner and waiters, huddled and worrying over in the corner, smiled at the sound of it.
Yeah, I knew from the start that he cheated. He always cheats. And, let me tell you, I give thanks for it, too. After all, how else does an angel survive in Hollywood?
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