Tags

, , ,

HAPPY THANKSGIVING — TO EVERYONE.

“Hello, Robert”

a Pat Maginess private-eye story

by

Edward Piercy

(Proof of 11/19/2006)

[Cover photograph by Edward Piercy]

Los Angeles, 1952


There had been a miraculous change in human nature over that past month.
Husbands were no longer cheating on their wives and wives were remaining
faithful to their husbands. Men who before might might have succumbed to
greed and scammed an insurance company, or cheated a relative out of
their inheritance, were now perfectly content with their lot in life and
had no desire for more. Unhappy folks trapped in an impossible life now
found the courage to go on without packing a bag and disappearing into the
fog on the next midnight train. No person’s past ever came back to haunt
them. And there was never any more the type of bad feeling in the world
that would cause a man to pull a knife or fire a gun, let alone having
the blame for it fall upon some innocent soul. The world was now a
perfect one. Every man and woman whistled a happy tune. And every child
knew nothing but warm meals and laughter.

Or so it seemed, anyway. The door to my office hadn’t opened once in
the past month except to let in myself or Carmen, my secretary. Carmen
sat by the phone that itself just sat there, as if it had forgotten how
to ring. There were always ups and downs to the private-eye business, of
course, and periods of inactivity. I used to look forward to them
because in the main those periods were the only real vacations I got.

But the past month had been the driest since I had first opened my
fog-glassed door in 1946. The vacation had now become an exercise in
boredom. I was bored, Carmen was bored, the phone was bored. Carmen and
I took to getting in some practice over at the firing range, Carmen with
her short-barreled .38 and me with my older, long-barreled version, with
us alternating time at the range while the other stayed by the door that
failed to open or the phone that didn’t ring.

For the first few weeks it really had been like a vacation, and we
took advantage of it. Carmen was learning to surf and would take her
new board over to the beach. I had even gone with her one morning just
to watch. But I was out of my element, and as usual when I went out on
the beach I came home with about a half-pound of sand in my pants.

I took to painting the interior of the little house that I had bought
a few months earlier. I had practically nothing in the way of furniture
for the house yet, so I figured it was a good opportunity to paint. I
decided to start with the living room. I chose a bright orange paint
that I thought would give the room a kind of Art Deco look.

After I had finished off the last wall I sat down on the carpet and
sipped a beer. Unfortunately, I had failed to take into consideration
the effect of light on the orange paint, and as the sun sank lower the
room took on the look of an ancient Egyptian tomb awaiting the
sarcophagus of the Pharaoh. It was just a big square space waiting to
be filled. With something or other. Furniture, I guessed. Cigarette
smoke. Laughter, or the memory of laughter.

“The abyss calls forth the abyss” I said to myself, picking up the
paint brush again. I went over to a spot on the wall that didn’t look
quite right and applied more paint.

It had been raining off and on over the past days, just a light rain,
enough to freshen things up a bit across the city, just the kind of rain
you like to get. It had been raining when I had come into the office,
but it had stopped and I decided to go out and get a sandwich.

“Hell, Carmen, I can’t do nothing for one second longer.” I got up
from my desk and tossed the empty beer bottle into the trash can. It hit
with a loud clunk at the bottom of the metal basket. I had been so bored
recently that I was even emptying my trash on a regular basis. “I think
I’ll go down to the deli and get lunch. You want anything?”

“No, that’s okay, Mr. Maginess. I brought mine.” Carmen was into the
new health and fitness movement and had lately been avoiding most of
what I would consider food in favor of stuff that I didn’t even
recognize when she put it into her mouth. Except for the nuts and
berries. I did recognize those at least.

“I think I’m gaining weight, Carmen” I said, patting at my gut. “And I
never gain weight.”

“It’s the inactivity, Mr. Maginess. Your body isn’t used to it. You
should go out on more walks.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Well, right now I’m going for a walk
down to the deli for a nice hot Pastrami Reuben.”

“That should do your big gut some good” Carmen said. Carmen was getting
to be a bit of a smart-ass recently. And I was enjoying it immensely. Of
course, she had a pretty good teacher working with me all the time.

I headed out of the Paulsen Building and down Wilshire. The little
deli I frequented was three blocks down and around the corner. I was
about halfway there when I noticed a girl walking towards me. She was
about five-foot-seven and was wearing dark blue slacks and a red plaid
blouse and her curly black hair came down to her shoulders. As she
approached she looked up at me, slowed down slightly.

“Are you Robert?” she said.

I shook my head no, and she continued on past. I had run into the
girl several times over the past months. It was always the same thing.
She would slow down, then ask me if I was Robert, then continue on. I
turned around. The black-haired girl continued down the street. Coming
on another male passer-by she slowed again, turned to him and said
something. I couldn’t hear what she was saying from that far away, but
then I didn’t need to. She was asking him the same thing she had asked
me. Once again she got a negative reply and kept walking. A few yards
further on she stopped and went into a cheap hash house.

The deli was really busy but after about twenty-five minutes I got my
pastrami Reuben anyway and walked back to the office. Carmen was working
on her own lunch from home. I put my hat on the coat rack and went over
to her desk.

“Guess who I saw again on lunch?”

Carmen looked up at the ceiling as if thinking about it, then looked
back at me.

“Attila the Hun?”

I laughed. “Very funny. Keep it up, Carmen. Just keep it up and I’ll
put you to work doing real secretary stuff. I might even buy you a
typewriter.”

“Oh, lord” she said. “I don’t think you can do that, Mr. Maginess.
There are laws about cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Not here in the office there aren’t. Here we’re in the Republic of Bullshit.
The normal laws don’t apply.”

I went to my desk and took the pastrami sandwich out of the sack. Then
I got a Coca-Cola from the refrigerator and sat down and put my feet up
and started work on the sandwich, a paperback novel in my left hand.

Every once in a while I would look over at Carmen and she would look
over at me. I knew it was only a matter of time before she got curious
as to who I had really seen on lunch, and she knew that I knew. It was
like a mule-staring contest, with neither of us wanting to give in first.
After about twenty minutes her curiosity finally won out.

“Okay, Mr. Maginess” she moaned. “Who did you see on lunch?”

“The Hello Robert girl” I said, smiling at my victory.

Carmen seemed disappointed. “You mean that girl that goes around
asking everybody if they’re Robert?” she said. “I thought it was going
to be someone interesting.”

“You don’t find her interesting?” I asked, in all seriousness.

“I think she’s just crazy is all, Mr. Maginess” she said, as if it were
sad to say but she thought that I ought to know.

“Well, maybe. But don’t you kind of wonder who Robert is?”

“Maybe he’s nobody” Carmen said, thinking about it. She put an
unidentifiable piece of food substance to her mouth and took a nibble of
it. “Maybe he’s a figment of her imagination.”

That was certainly worth considering. “Yeah, that’s possible. But what
if he isn’t a figment of her imagination? Who is this Robert? Why does
she keep looking for him? Why doesn’t she know what he looks like that
she has to ask everybody if they’re Robert? And if there is a Robert,
who is he? What relationship does he have to the girl?”

I went back to my sandwich and my novel. When I finished eating I
washed my hands in the bathroom and gargled with some mouthwash. I
started thinking about the Hello Robert girl again. I dried my hands and
went back out to the desks and paced the length of the office.

“You know why I got into this line of work, Carmen?” I said, still
pacing. “I found out working at C.I.D. that I liked finding things out.
There are other things about the P.I. business, too, of course. I get to
help people sometimes. But there were a lot of ways I could have helped
people. What I liked doing was finding things out. And in any case you
can’t help people very much in this line of work if you can’t find
things out.”

I went over to the coat rack and grabbed my hat.

“Where are you going, Mr. Maginess?” Carmen asked.

I grabbed the doorknob and turned back to her. “I’m going to go
find things out.”

Evidently the lunch crowd had already cleared out of the hash place
down the street, or the place just didn’t get much of a business anyway.
I didn’t normally patronize the place myself as I had a real aversion
to severe indigestion. Except for a guy sitting on a stool at the
counter, the place was empty.

There was no sign of the Hello Robert girl. I went up to the waitress,
who was pouring a cup of coffee for the guy sitting at the counter.

“Excuse me, Miss. There was a girl that came in here a short while back.
About so tall, black curly hair, red plaid shirt.”

“What about her?” she said, putting the coffee pot back on the warmer.

“I was wondering if you could tell me anything about her.”

“I can tell you she’s nuts” the waitress said.

“Aw, Jeannie, she’s not so bad” the guy on the stool said. He rotated
on the stool toward me. He was about forty or so, stout, balding,
wearing clean work clothes and a pair of thick work boots. “She’s okay”
he told me. “Just a little mixed up is all. I bought her a piece of
apple pie and coffee.”

“So did you talk with her, then?”

“No. Not really. She comes in every once in a while. And I see her
around town. I try to help her out sometimes, give her a buck or
something. I’m a junk dealer, so I get around town a bit. Like I said,
I see her every once in a while.”

“What’s her name, do you know? You know where she lives?”

“Don’t know her name” he said, pulling his coffee cup to his lips.
“I never could get her to tell me. I think she might live down by the
railroad tracks. Just past the underpass. People leave all sorts of
stuff down by the tracks, so I go over that way sometimes. There’s an
old factory building over that way that I’ve seen her come out of a
couple of times. I think she might live there, but I’m not sure.”

“She lives in a factory?” I asked, rather incredulous.

“Well, I think so. I’m not sure. Like I said, she’s down that way a
lot, I think.”

“Well, she better not go making any trouble in here, or she’ll be
living in the county jail” the waitress said.

“Lord, Jeannie. That’s not nice” the junk dealer said. “That’s just
not nice at all.”

“Who knows what she might do” she said to him, putting a hand on her
hip. “What if she goes looney in here? Tries to stab somebody or
something? You gonna take care of that, Marty?”

“Have you ever known her to get violent?” I asked. “She ever threaten
anybody?”

“Well, no.” Jeannie said. “But that doesn’t mean there’s not a first
time. The girl is nuts.”

I decided to let the waitress’ comments slide. “Can you draw me a map
to this underpass and factory?” I asked Marty, taking out my notebook.

“Sure” he said. He slid his coffee cup out of the way and put the
notebook down on the counter and started in with the pencil making a
little map. A few minutes later he picked the notebook up, looked the
map over, decided it was good enough and handed it back to me.

“That ought to get you there” he said.

“Thanks, Marty. I appreciate it. And by the way, you’re a nice guy,
anybody ever tell you that?”

Marty laughed. “Not lately.”

Los Angeles had been going through a boom since the war. Property
values throughout the city were climbing, new streets and highways were
being paved, new businesses were opening. But the area that Marty’s map
took me to was more in the way of the Land that Time Forgot, an area
close to the railroad tracks on the near south-east side chiefly
composed of desolate gravel lots landscaped with brush and weeds. There
were a couple of old buildings that dated to the early part of the
century set back off past all the empty landscape.

It would have been a long walk for the Hello Robert girl from my area
of Wilshire. If she did live in the area she wouldn’t be back yet. I had
some time to kill, so I parked the car off the edge of the road and
walked through one of the vacant lots that ran up against the side of
the tracks. Marty had been right. There was junk all over the place. I
found an old rusted transmission, the door to a refrigerator, a wooden
stool with two legs broken off, several car batteries, a bicycle tire
with a rip in it, a pair of dirty pants, part of a picture frame, a slab
of corrugated aluminum, an old Brownie camera, a dozen or so broken
cinder blocks and about a thousand shards of broken glass.

Ahead of me a ways I spotted a small pool of water formed by a slight
depression in the ground, filled by the rains of the past few days. Two
dozen or so tiny, finch type birds were bathing and hopping and
frolicking in the water. I stopped and watched them a minute, letting my
breath catch up with the exertion of the walk. From off to the left a
pigeon approached the pool. The small birds took flight quickly as it
neared them. They flew off to my right and made a tight arc until they
came around and passed directly over my head. I watched them until they
became specs of dust above the horizon.

A little further I came to the railroad underpass. Taking a left
beneath it I came upon a red-brick building no larger than a storage
shed set just past the trestle. From the look of it, it must have served
some function for the railroad at one time. Now it was abandoned.
Curious, I walked around the front of it. The door that at one point had
been on the building had been removed or had fallen off. I stepped up
and stuck my head into the space and immediately pulled back. The
interior smelled like an outhouse, which was what it evidently had
become over the years. It was hard to imagine that there were people
that would be in such ways that they would have to relieve themselves
inside of it.

Once through the underpass there was another vacant lot. I consulted
Marty’s map and headed across the brush and the weeds in the direction
of a three story factory building a thousand yards or so ahead. It was
an old brown-brick structure with a big smokestack out the top of it.
There was a sign on the side that said Miller Steel Parts, and there
were about fifteen cars or so parked in the lot out front of it.

I went around to the parking lot side and went in the entrance. The
interior of the factory stretched up the full three stories and was
filled with people in bib overalls and caps working at various machines.
Steam came out of various ducts or pipes at intervals, and the overall
interior had a thick, heavy, smoky smell to it half-way between
lubricating oil and cigarette smoke. Looking the huge space over, I
decided there was no possible way that anyone could live in the factory
itself without being noticed.

Before I wrote Marty’s idea off entirely, I decided to take a walk
around the perimeter of the building. On the opposite side I found a
couple of concrete steps that led down to a steel door. The door was
unlocked, and led to a flight of steps that led down to another metal door
and then into a basement. The passage through the basement was only
about two feet wide, with an old brick wall on the right side and big
pipes running the passage on the left.

About halfway down a couple of the lower pipes angled up suddenly to
the ceiling, creating a small opening above the concrete floor. Through
the opening I spotted a laid-out bed-roll, a large white cardboard box,
and some other things sitting up against the wall. It was extremely warm
in the space due to the pipes, which must have carried hot water or
steam through the plant. I looked at the bed, wondering if it was
possible that the Hello Robert girl really slept there. One thing that
was clear was that somebody was living there, there in the basement of
an old parts factory.

It was still too early to catch the Hello Robert girl. I considered
waiting, but the thought of waiting an hour or so in the hot space next
to the pipes wasn’t all that appealing. There wasn’t much of an
alternative but to go back to the car and come back later. I left the
factory and crossed the vacant lots again and walked under the train
trestle.

Once back to the car I smoked a cigarette and considered my options. I
started the Plymouth and backed it up carefully, now worried about all
the shards of glass in the area, and headed back west. Once back to
something you might call civilization I cruised around until I found a
bar that looked like it might serve food. Henry’s Barbecue seemed just
the spot. I found a parking spot and went in.

“Rye and ginger” I said, sitting myself down on the stool.

“You betcha” the bartender said. He brought me my drink.

“So, you guys got take-out stuff here?”

“Sure do. If you’ve never been here before, I recommend the barbecue
chicken. Comes with all the fixin’s.”

“I don’t know. I was thinking about a sandwich or something. The
person I’m taking it to doesn’t exactly have silverware sitting around.”

“No problem” the bartender said. He went down to the other end of the
bar, picked up a small item and came back down and set it in front of
me. I picked it up and looked at it. It was a spoon, but it wasn’t made
out of metal like most spoons.

“What’s this made out of?” I asked him.

“Plastic. Nice, huh? Lightweight and cheap. We have knives and forks,
too. We can fix your friend right up.”

“Well I’ll be damned” I said, looking the blue-colored spoon over some
more. “This is really amazing. What’ll they think of next, huh?” I said,
returning the spoon to him.

“Yeah, what’ll they think of next. And the nice thing is that when you’re
done with them you simply throw them away. No washing needed. So, is
that a yes for the barbecue chicken, then?”

“Sure.”

A couple hours later I carried the chicken in its cardboard container
along with the colored plastic silverware back to the car and drove
back to the railroad underpass. Then I walked the distance again to the
factory and down into the basement. As I reached the gap in the pipes I
saw a torso and a leg sticking out from the edge of the bedroll. I bent
my head down and looked in.

The girl saw me and jerked back, startled. Almost at the same time I
heard the old familiar phrase.

“Are you Robert?” she said.

I crept in under the pipes. There was no place to sit except the
girl’s bedroll and the floor, and what with the amount of dirt and
grease on the floor I squatted down on my haunches, Indian-style. I put
the cardboard box down in front of the bedroll. When I opened it she got
curious and leaned forward to look.

“Barbecue chicken” I said. “And look at these. Plastic forks and spoons.”
The girl took the fork from me and looked at it.

“It’s blue!” she said, laughing.

“Yeah, pretty amazing. In any case, it should help you with the beans
and the corn.”

She slid over in front of the dinner and dipped the fork down into the
corn and put some into her mouth.

“Ummm, this is really good.”

“My name is Pat Maginess. What’s your name?”

She took another bite of the corn, then looked at me. Then she pushed
the cardboard take-out box to the side. She reached back over to what
looked like some sort of small altar against the wall and pulled up a
small gold purse. She dumped the contents out on the floor between us.
Then she chose a ring out and handed it to me. It would have been a
pretty nice ring if it hadn’t been missing a couple of stones. I handed
it back to her. Another item on the floor caught my eye. When I picked
it up and turned it over it turned out to be an old library card. It was
faded a bit and had a thick crease in it, but you could still make out
the typewriting. It was made out to an Alice Douglas.

“Is this you?” I said, holding the card in front of her. She reached
out to take it back but I held it firmly between my fingertips. “Is this
you? Are you Alice?”

She looked at me and smiled. “Alice” she said. “I’m Alice.” I gave her
back the library card. She gathered up the stuff into her purse and
returned it to the altar, then pulled the dinner back over in front of
her.

“These are really good beans” she said.

I watched her eat for a while. At that point I couldn’t remain in the
squatting position one minute longer.

“You mind if I sit down here, Alice?” I said, pointing at the bedroll
next to her. Alice patted her hand down on it as if to say it was okay.

“So, you live here all the time?” I asked, joining her on the bedroll.

Alice looked around at the pipes and the walls and the concrete floor.
“I live here” she said. “It’s quiet. But it’s hot.” Alice reached over
to the big white box and pulled out a rolled-up poster. It was a poster
like you might see in the window of a beauty salon, showing a nice-
looking woman with a fancy hair-do and bold make up.

“Gee, that’s nice, Alice” I told her.

“I have lot’s of posters. I can’t put them up here, though. It’s too
hot. The tape doesn’t stick.”

“That’s too bad. Alice, who is Robert? Is he your boyfriend? Your
husband? Your brother?”

She shook her head.

“I can’t find Robert” she said, setting down her plastic fork. “I look
all over, but I can’t find him.”

“Is he a relation to you? If you help me out a bit, maybe we can find
him, Alice. But I need to know some information about Robert. Was he your
boyfriend? Your brother? Your father?”

Alice pushed the cardboard container to the side again, shook her head
and pulled her hand across her face. Then she looked back at me.

“Are you Robert?” she said.

It was obvious that the inquiry was going nowhere. If I was going to
find Robert, I was going to have to do it with the information that I
had so far. Which was practically nothing.

I stood up. “Well, Alice, I have to go. Do you mind if I stop in to
see you again? Just to make sure you’re all right?”

She looked up at me and smiled. “Good-bye.” Then she pulled the box
with the chicken over and went back to eating.

I felt like crap leaving Alice in that terrible hot space. But I
didn’t know what else to do. Putting her up in a hotel for a few days
might be a short-term help, but in order to really make things right I
needed to see if I could find Robert — whoever the hell he was. If he
was some relation to her, he might be able to help take care of her
long-term. On the other hand, Carmen could be right that Robert didn’t
exist. But I did at least have a name to go on now, Alice Douglas. And I
had started some investigations with less.

********

The next morning I walked in to the office with some relief that there
would actually be something to do. “Well, Carmen, I found the Hello
Robert girl. Seems her real name is Alice Douglas.”

“So we’re going to work the case, then?”

“Yeah, we’re going to work the case.”

“Are we going to get paid for it?” she added.

“Only in the immense satisfaction to be derived from getting off our
butts. But I’ve been pretty lucky with bonuses over the past year. A pro
bono case is just fine with me.”

“Okay” she said agreeably.

I went over to the file cabinets and pulled the telephone book off the
top. Then I looked up listings for Robert or R. Douglas. There were
seven of them.

“Crap. Sometimes I wish I lived in a little town. It’d be a helluva
lot easier finding people.”

I traded desks with Carmen so I could use the phone and started
dialing. After forty-five minutes or so I had contacted one old woman
named Rosie Douglas, one young man who worked at the Seaside Hotel, one
guy who worked the night shift at Lockheed and who wasn’t too pleased
with my “midnight” call, and one guy who was a disabled war Vet. There
was no answer at the other three numbers. None of the people I talked
to knew anything about an Alice Douglas.

“I guess I’ll have to call the other numbers back” I told Carmen, who
had been listening in. “But since that’ll have to be later, I think I’ll
give Clark a call. You remember Officer Clark?”

“Was he the dorky cop in the records department in the basement? The
guy who stepped on the D.A.s foot?”

“That’s the guy. I ran in to him a couple months ago at the station
house. Seems after Luce left as D.A. he finally got out of the dungeon.
Has a nice comfy administrative desk upstairs now.”

I called the station house and after what seemed like forever they
finally put me through to Clark.

“Hey, Mr. Maginess” he said pleasantly. “How are things going?”

“Pretty good, kid. Hey, I have a favor to ask. I need to check on a
license. For a Robert Douglas. Can you help me out?”

“Was that in the way of a driver’s license? Or a license plate number?”

“Either. Or both.”

“I’ll call you back” he said, and rang off.

I pulled out my new paperback novel and picked up where I had left off.
Carmen got a rag and dampened it in the rest room and took to wiping my
desk down.

“Your desk’s a mess, Mr. Maginess” she said, shaking her head sadly.

“Uh huh” I said. I was right in the middle of an exciting bit in the
story. “This book here, Carmen, this detective is interviewing this
woman. He thinks she murdered her brother, who was involved in a
blackmail scam.”

“And did she?” Carmen asked, refolding the rag to get to a fresh wet
portion.

“Don’t know yet. The woman is a real pin-up type. She makes the
detective nervous.”

“So he’s in love with her?” she said with a bit of a smile. Ah, to be
young again, I thought to myself.

“Well, I wouldn’t say love. Something like that, maybe. He thinks
she’s sneaky, too. Right about now, I expect a guy to come through the
door with a gun.”

“Why do you think that?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just a hunch.”

A little while later the phone rang.

“I’ve got the information you wanted” Clark said. “There were guys
named Robert Douglas who had driver’s licenses and matching addresses on
their plates. Then there was one guy who seemed to have a plate but no
license. My guess he’s from out of state and didn’t get his operator’s
license transferred. Then there’s one guy who had a license, but there’s
no license plate recorded. That guy’s permit expired back in ’47.”

“Expired? You mean it wasn’t renewed?”

“That’s generally what expired means, Mr. Maginess. He could have moved
to a different state. Maybe that’s it.”

“Yeah, maybe that’s it. Wouldn’t there have been a lot of people with
expired permits?”

“Sure, Mr. Maginess. You got that right. But that was the only person
named Robert Douglas. If there were any others, the records were thrown
out a long time ago.”

“Okay, kid. Give me the address for the expired permit first. Then
read off the other ones.”

A few minutes later I had the information copied down.

“Clark, you know I think the best thing that ever happened is you
stepping on Luce’s foot. You’ve got a real talent for paperwork. I owe
you one.”

I hung up and compared the addresses on the list Clark had given me
with the entries in the phone book. The Robert Douglas with the expired
license wasn’t listed in the phone book. I closed up the directory and
put the book mark in the paperback and went over to my desk.

“Thanks, Carmen. The desk looks real nice.”

“Most of it was cigarette ash” she said. “And Coca-Cola spots. And I
think some sort of sauce from Chinese food or something. And some
really, really weird spots that looked like…”

“I’ll just assume it was a real mess, Carmen, thanks. Anyway, Clark
gave me one listing for a guy whose license expired. I think I’ll go
over and check it out. If this guy is Alice’s Robert, and if he
disappeared for some reason, somebody at his old address may know
something about him.”

The address on the expired permit was for South Pines Avenue in an
area on the south side on the way to Long Beach. Back when I was a kid
it had been a rather comfortable, middle-class neighborhood. Since then
it had undergone a slow, downward slide on the economic scale. It was
still a pretty quiet neighborhood as things went in L.A. But most of the
residents these days were the lower class working people, the elderly,
and the inevitable students from the local university that could only
afford cheap rent.

Douglas’ apartment was in an old four-story stucco building with no
elevators. With my bum ticker it took me about half an hour to get up
to the fourth floor, resting between floors. I felt about a hundred
years old by the time I reached the top. I found the apartment. There
being no doorbell, I knocked. The door was answered by tallish, lean
woman in her thirties wearing a white print dress and flats. She had a
baby in her arms and was giving it its bottle.

“Hate to bother you, ma’am. I’m looking for Robert Douglas. A Robert
Douglas that is related to Alice Douglas. He wouldn’t happen to be home,
would he?”

“Is this some sort of a joke?” she said, shifting the baby a bit. “My
husband has been dead for eight years, mister.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t realize.”

Mrs. Douglas turned to a couple of young kids that had come up behind
her in the doorway.

“You two get yourselves back to the bedroom right now” she yelled at
them. “This is adult business.” She pushed them and the kids ran off.

“I don’t suppose I could talk with you a few minutes, could I?”

“Talk about what? Look, that’s an old part of my life, Mister. I’ve had
four kids since then. And about ten boyfriends. I’m not exactly Widow of the
Year.”

“I’m just looking to find out some information about Robert Douglas, ma’am.
Mainly because of his sister.” I got my wallet out and pulled a twenty. “Twenty
dollars. Twenty minutes of your time. That’s all I ask.”

She looked at the twenty like she hadn’t seen one in a long while.

“Okay. Come in.” She waved me in with a tilt of her head.

I took my hat off and went over to a couch by the front window. The
apartment was tiny and filled with children’s toys and old beat-up
furniture. Over in the corner a toddler in a diaper sat playing with
some wood blocks. He looked up at me a second, decided that I wasn’t all
that interesting, went back to playing with his blocks. The two
children that had been at the door ran out of what looked to be the
only bedroom in the place. Mrs. Douglas yelled at them again and they
ran back to their room.

“I’d just like to get some information on your husband” I said, putting
the twenty down on the end table. “And his sister.”

“What do you want to know?” she said, sticking the baby bottle up to
the infant again.

“Well, first of all, he did have a sister named Alice, is that right?
I just want to make sure I’ve got the right Robert Douglas.”

“Yeah, he had a sister. Alice. Why? Is she in trouble or something?”

“No, not in trouble. I’m just trying to find out information about
her.”

“Are you a cop?”

“No, not a cop. Just a friend, you might say. A friend of Alice.”

“Oh” she said flatly.

“You say your husband is dead? How did he die, if you don’t mind me
asking?”

“In a car wreck. He was driving up to Sacramento. He was speeding, as
usual. Went off the edge of a cliff.”

“That’s too bad. I’m sorry, Ma’am.”

“Yeah, well, he just never did learn. But he was a good husband. A good
provider. I guess that’s why I still live here. This place is about the
only memories of him I got left. Besides, the rent is cheap.”

“And what about Alice? Do you know anything about her?”

“Not really” she said. The kids from the bedroom came out again and
she yelled at them. They looked at me for a second, giggled, then ran
out. “She had mental problems. When Robert was alive, he took care of
her. He made pretty good money as a mechanic. He kept a little apartment
for Alice, took her groceries. He was a good brother to her.”

“What about her parents?” I asked.

“Both dead. Robert’s dad died in the 30s, I think. Before I met
him, at least. And his mom died back in ’42. We had just gotten
married. It was the first time I met her, at the wedding. And the last.”

“And what about Alice? You didn’t take care of her after your husband
died?”

Mrs. Douglas pulled the baby bottle from the infant’s lips, stuck the
nipple out like a pointer and waved it across the room. “Does it look
like I can afford to take care of her, mister?” she said. The baby
started to cry and she stuck the nipple back in it’s mouth. One of the boys
came into the room at a full run. She grabbed him by the collar and
turned him around and shoved him back to the bedroom.

“I apologize, Mrs. Douglas. I’m sure you’ve got all you can handle.”

“I’ve got a waitress job. But it’s just never enough. Not with the
kids. Crap, I haven’t bought a new dress in two years. Isn’t that
pathetic? I just don’t know about things, sometimes. I really don’t.”

I stood and put on my hat, then pulled two tens out of my wallet and
put them down on top of the twenty.

“Thanks, Mrs. Douglas.” I said. One of the two oldest came running
into the living room again, this time screaming like a wild monkey. “I
really appreciate the information” I said, raising my voice above the
noise, “and the time out of your…” At that point the monkey-boy looked
at me and howled and ran up and kicked me hard in the left leg and
headed off for the bedroom. “Uh…busy schedule. And by the way, my
secretary tells me there’s a really good sale this weekend at
Woolworth’s. Just in case you didn’t hear about it.”

Back in my own neighborhood I stopped at the Alley Cat Lounge and got a
drink and called the office. “I don’t know if it was skill or just luck,
Carmen. But I found Robert Douglas” I told her. Then I filled her in on
the details of my interview at the Douglas place. I left out the part
about being kicked in the leg.

“So, what are you going to do about Alice, then?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m going to have to think about it.”

I spent a good number of drinks thinking about it, too. But by the end
of the fifth or sixth drink I still hadn’t come to any decision about
what to do about Alice. There was always the motel option. I could drive
back and get her and put her up for a while. The difficulty with that
was that even with some money in the bank I couldn’t afford to keep her
up long term. And if I pulled her out of her space at the factory and
then couldn’t arrange any type of place for her to stay at permanently,
then it might actually worse for her in the long run. I didn’t want her
to have to go back out on the street again. What I needed was a
permanent solution to the problem.

By mid-evening, half drunk and with my stomach filled with some of the
Alley Cat’s excellent Chinese dumplings, I had narrowed it down to two
possibilities. The first possibility was to just go get Alice, probably
the following day at that point, and get her things and take her back
to my place. I couldn’t afford to put her in her own apartment, but my
house was already paid for. It was a tiny house, really, a one bedroom.
But it did have a type of small room, the realtor had called it a sewing
room, that would fit a twin bed and a small dresser. On the negative
side of that, my house was in a residential area of Glendale that was
pretty much miles from anything. Without a car it would have been like
being out on some deserted island. And then there was the problem of her
being a woman. It was as if my mind wouldn’t even get close to thinking
about all the complications that arrangement could produce.

The second possibility was to find a hospital for her. Alice seemed to
do a pretty good job of taking care of herself. She seemed to be eating
and had found an out-of-the-way place to sleep. Her health seemed good,
from what could be observed. She wasn’t bearing any marks or bruises and
she was still alive after who knew how many years, both of which were
not necessarily givens for a young woman living on the street. But as
far as her safety went, that could change in a heartbeat. Then there was
the fact that she was mentally ill, and I couldn’t help but feel that
she might be better off in a hospital where she could get professional
help for that kind of thing. Working against the idea were some of the
horror stories I had heard about the treatment people like Alice
sometimes got in mental institutions.

At ten o’clock I left the Alley Cat and headed for home. Sitting on a
practically empty tank I stopped at a late-night filling station. While
the attendant filled the tank and wiped my windshield I used the pay
phone inside and called Carmen at home.

“I have no idea what to do about Alice, Carmen. I just don’t know. Maybe
I’m good at finding things out. But I guess I’m not so good at figuring
things out.”

“Go home, Mr. Maginess” she said through a big yawn. “Tomorrow’s
another day. A new yellow sun and a new blue sky. Go home and sleep on
it.”

I went home and slept on it.

********

I took my time getting in to work the next morning. I shaved and
showered and put on my skivvies and socks and shoes. Then I went into
the kitchen and grabbed some coffee and lit a smoke. I carried my cup
into the living room and stood there for a while looking at the blank
orange walls. Then I wandered down the hall and into the sewing room for
a bit. Finally I went into the bedroom for a few minutes until my cup
was empty and then headed back to the kitchen for a refill.

Eventually I wandered out through the double French doors at the rear
of the house and onto the deck. Beyond the deck was the short expanse of
yard, more rocks and dirt than grass. Beyond that was the garbage can
and in back of that, as if the earth had just decided to give up at one
point, the steep plunge deep down into the canyon.

I sat on the deck and sipped my coffee and smoked a cigarette. The
far canyon wall was just beginning to pick up the morning sun. It was
partially dressed in swatches of brown and pale green and ochre, the
colors seeming to move and shift as the sun rose higher and passed in
and out momentarily from behind high cirrus clouds.

A new sun and a new sky, as Carmen had said. When I had broken up with
my fiance I had picked up the house almost without thinking about it. It
was available, it seemed nice and had a nice view, I wrote the check.
That was about as much thought as had gone into the matter. But the
house had really grown on me, furnished or not. If my office was the
center of my life, the house was the place I went to on the periphery to
get away from the concrete and steel and casework.

It was a suck-ass world, sometimes. And Alice didn’t seem to have any
luck whatsoever. She had lost her parents. She had lost Robert. Her brain
took her to strange places that shifted like colors on a canyon wall.
The abyss had consumed enough, and I was damn sick of it.

Alice needed a place to live. A decent place. And at that moment
I really didn’t give a damn where it was, as long as it was decent. I would
try the hospital route first. But if that didn’t work out, I decided that
she could come and live in the sewing room with me.

Back in the bedroom I put on a fresh white shirt, right out of the
package. Four dollars. I put on my new light gray tailored suit that was
one of four I had bought after getting a nice fat bonus. Fifty dollars.
I wrapped on one of my newer, thinner-style striped ties and tied it.
Five dollars. Then I slid my .38 into the holster. Not worth much really,
but I could probably get twenty bucks for it at a pawn shop if I really
had to, if I was really desperate. I got in my car and turned the
ignition and listened to the pleasing sound of the well-tuned old
engine. My car I could probably get $800 for, what with the new paint
job and tires.

Hell, I was rich. I was ready for the cigars, I was ready for the
boat, I was ready for the late-night friggin’ country club.

Imperfect as the world might be at times, I was blessed and lucky.

********

In spite of my rather late start I managed to get to the office by
eight-thirty. Carmen was busy cleaning again, this time in the restroom.
Since the local public offices didn’t open until nine, I parked myself
at the desk and went back to my paperback novel. Carmen finished in the
bathroom, then seemed to look around as if for something else to do.

“Are you going to be around for a while, Mr. Maginess?”

I looked up from my reading and looked at the clock. “Yeah, a while.
There’s something I need to do later. But that’s not for an hour or so.
Why?”

Carmen got up from her desk and came over and patted the little case
containing her lock-picking tools in her palm. I had gotten her the
tools for her twenty-first birthday.

“I thought I’d go around to some of the vacant offices in the building
and keep in practice.”

“Okay” I said, getting back to the novel.

She went for the door.

“And try not to get arrested” I called out after her.

She turned around and straightened herself up to every inch of her
frame, which with heels was about six-foot-three, put her hand on her
hip and smiled sweetly.

“Cute little me, arrested? I don’t think so.” Then she walked out.

She was getting better and better, that one. All my training and bad
influences were beginning to pay off.

Right after nine o’clock I put the bookmark in my novel and went over
to Carmen’s desk to use the phone. The first thing that occurred to me
was that now would be the perfect time to get the extension phone for my
desk put in, so I called the phone company and had the installation set
up for Friday morning. Then I got out the phone book and called up the
number for the L.A. County Social Services department. After being put
through about five different people I finally was able to talk with
somebody who could answer my questions.

“So you say the girl is out on the street?” a Mrs. Gauss said.

“Yeah. And she’s, well, mentally ill I think.”

“Has she exhibited any violent behavior?”

“No. Not at all.”

“Has she threatened to take her own life?”

“No. Not that one either.”

“How do you know she’s mentally ill?”

That was going to be a tough one.

“Well, she doesn’t seem to be really cognizant of all facets of
reality” I said. “But who the hell is,” I wanted to add, but didn’t.

“I’m really not sure what you mean, sir.”

“Ma’am, I really don’t know. I’m no psychologist. But she obviously
isn’t quite right.”

“Are you a relative?”

“No. Just a friend. Her only relatives are deceased, I think.”

“Hmmm. Well, she could be involuntarily committed. If she is
exhibiting violent behavior.”

“Ma’am, I said she wasn’t exhibiting violent behavior.”

“Well, sir, then I have to tell you there isn’t much that can be
done.”

“You mean she’s just shit out of luck? Sick with no place to go?”

“I’m afraid that’s the case, sir. Now, there is one place you might
take her to. It’s the Saint Luke Hospital in Glendale. They’re privately
run, and I think they take indigent cases occasionally.”

I looked up the number in the book and called. I was put through to a
Sister Bridget Ann, who supposedly ran the place. I told her about
Alice. She asked about a half dozen questions, then asked me if her
relatives could afford to pay the charges. I told her that Alice’s
relatives were dead. She paused a second at that, asked how old Alice
was. I told her maybe about 27 or so. I added that she was living in
a pipe room in the basement of a factory and that I was worried about
her safety. She put me on hold for few minutes, then came back on the
line.

“We would accept her” she said. “If you can bring her out and get her
to sign the necessary papers. She has to sign. It’s what we call a voluntary
commitment.”

“And what about the charges?” I said.

“The church will take care of it as a charity case. Just bring her
out. We’ll take care of the rest.”

After giving her my heartfelt thanks I went back to my desk. “Voluntary
commitment, my ass” I said to myself and to no one in particular. “Seems to
me there’s nothing voluntary about any of it.”

There being some time to kill until Alice got back to the factory, I had
the remainder of the morning and the afternoon. I went back to my novel.
A short time later Carmen came back in. She came up to my desk, put her
lockpick kit down and folded her arms.

“How’d you do?”

“Not bad. I think I’m getting the hang of it. But I had the devil of
a time with office 507. If it had been a real investigation, somebody
would have caught me at it for sure.”

“Let’s see, 507. Oh, yeah. That one. That’s a Schlage lock. It’s tough.
Did you try the hook pick?”

“I think I tried all of them. I forget.”

“Try using the hook. Put the tip in slowly with the handle of the pick
down at about a forty-five degree angle. Angle the handle up and slide
it in slowly, kinda working it as you go. That usually does it.”

“Okay” she said, bouncing back. “I’ll go up in a few days and try it
again. By the way, Mr. Maginess. I have a question. What are you going
to do for Thanksgiving?”

“Thanksgiving?” I said, a little bit confused.

“Yeah, you know. Thanksgiving. The holiday. It’s this Thursday.”

“It is?”

“Don’t you follow the calendar, Mr. Maginess?”

“I guess in all of the inactivity, I just kinda stopped looking at the
calendar, Carmen.”

Carmen sat down on the top of my desk. “Well if you don’t have any
plans, why don’t you come over and have it with me and my mom? It will
give you two a chance to get to know each other. We always have more
food than we know what to do with. My dad, he always insisted on both
turkey and ham for Thanksgiving. My mom still cooks both. In his
memory.”

“Thanksgiving. Gee, I hadn’t even considered it. Okay, Carmen. I’d be
honored to have Thanksgiving with you and your mom. Want me to bring
anything?”

“Just yourself. And whatever you want to drink. Beer or whatever.” She
smiled and slid herself off the desk and bent down and kissed me on the
cheek. “Good. It’s set, then. One o’clock. Don’t be late.”

Later that afternoon, just before dusk, I headed back to Alice’s
neighborhood. I didn’t know whether Alice would be willing go to a new
place. If she didn’t, I certainly didn’t what to cause any problems with
the one place she had found to live. And the bright green ’34 Plymouth
wasn’t exactly the most inconspicuous vehicle in the world. Rather than
park in the factory lot, where I might attraction some attention, I
parked the same place I had on my last trip to the area. Using the lot
and brush route I could cut up and go in at the back of the factory
building without being seen.

A vacant lot in the middle of nowhere isn’t exactly the kind of place
where you would expect to find trouble. Or at least that was the screwy
idea in my brain as I walked through the lot. I walked under the railroad
trestle, and as I got to the far side of the brick outhouse an arm swung
out toward me suddenly. It was too late to dodge it, and a blackjack hit
me on the side of the head.

It was a couple of toughs. They must have spotted me walking along and
guessed that I would come under the trestle and were waiting for me. If
they had hit me in a different spot or a little bit harder or if I hadn’t
been blessed with such a tough skull I would have been unconscious. As it
was I was merely stunned by the blow.

I found myself face down on the ground with my hands underneath and my
palms pushing into some tiny sharp pieces of gravel. I blinked a few
times and my vision came around. At the same time I heard the sound of
feet moving on each side of me. Two pairs of hands came down and tried
to grab me by the upper arms. I rolled over quickly into the legs of the
guy on my right, pulling the .38 from the holster. He had been bending
down to grab my arms and he now found the barrel of the gun about two
inches from his nose. He froze. The guy on the other side pulled himself
upright in surprise.

“Just both of you take a couple steps back” I said to them.

They moved back a ways, the guy to my right moving off a little
further than the other. The guy on my left was the one I was worried
about. He was the obvious leader of the pair. I turned the gun and
leveled it at his midsection. That pretty much settled the matter for
him. He backed off a few more feet, then turned to his partner and gave
him an angry look, like it had somehow been his partner’s fault that the
plan hadn’t worked.

“Get the hell out of here” I told them.

They left at a slow trot, looking back over their shoulders. I shot a
few rounds over their heads, just to give them something to think about
the next time they decided to mug somebody. They took off at full speed.

I pulled myself slowly into a sitting position and felt the side of my
head. There was going to be a nice bump there in about fifteen minutes
or so and I was soon going to be the proud owner of a really bad little
headache. I looked around. I was sitting in an empty gravel lot near a
railroad track with only the tops of distant buildings rising in the
distance to remind me that I was anywhere inside a city. It was like a
different world. It was a dream.

Maybe I was Robert, I thought to myself. Maybe my entire life as I
remembered it was just an extremely long and detailed dream I had after
getting hit over the head by a couple of punks. Maybe I was Robert, simply
Robert with a bad bump on his head and a case of amnesia and the
memory of a long dream.

After a bit I got up and brushed myself off and continued on toward
the factory.

“Are you Robert?” Alice said first thing as I poked my head under the
water pipes.

“Hello, Alice. How are you?”

She smiled. “I had lunch at the cafeteria today” she said. “Somebody
gave me two dollars.”

“That’s really great” I said. “You mind if I sit down?”

She pulled one of the old blankets from the edge of her bed roll, placed
it down in front of her and patted it. “Come sit here. Next to me.”

I went over and sat on the blanket. The headache I had feared was in full
force and it was good to get off my feet.

“So what did you have for lunch, Alice?”

“I had a hamburger. And some mushroom soup. I didn’t like the soup. It
tasted pasty. Must be that canned stuff.”

She reached over and took her purse from her altar and opened it. She
pulled a gold-colored earing out.

“Here” she said, extending it to me. “You can keep it.”

I reached out to take the earring. But before I could take it Alice
noticed my hands.

“Oh, you’re hurt” she said, reaching for my hands.

“No, I’m okay. I just fell down is all.”

She looked at my hands and with the tip of her index finger touched
each of the various scrape marks. Then she placed her palms on top of my
own and slid them gently, forward and back, then forward and back again.
She looked up at me, still sliding her palms, and brought her head into
my shoulder. I felt her dark curls at my neck. Her hair had the smell of
motor oil, and the skin of her cheek was like warm satin.

After a while I pulled up my hands and held her by the shoulders and
looked into her eyes.

“How would you like to go live in a brand new place?”

“What place?” she said.

“A better place. It’s called St. Luke’s.”

She looked around, looked at the pipes and the pile of old blankets
and her box of posters and her little altar.

“Can I take my stuff?” she said.

“Of course you can. Although I think it would be better if we leave
the blankets here. You’ll get brand new blankets when we get to your new
home.”

I stood and pulled her up, and then we gathered her effects and I
walked her to the car. This time I made damn sure to keep a lookout for
the punks, though I didn’t think it likely they would be back to try
anything.

“We’re going to go in my car” I said as we walked along.

She brightened at that. “Okay. Don’t drive fast, though.”

I promised her I wouldn’t.

Saint Luke hospital was in the valley, only a few miles from my own
house. I made chit-chat with Alice on the way and told her what I could
about the hospital. She seemed to be okay with the idea of staying
there, which was a weight off my mind.

It was dark by the time we reached the hospital. We drove through a
set of tall double gates and up a curving drive to the front of the
hospital. The hospital building was three stories tall and made of
chocolate brown brick with thick white Corinthian columns in the front.
From the Neo-Federal style architecture I dated the building from about
1930 or so. The building and grounds looked well-maintained, which I
took as a good sign.

I stopped the car at the entrance. Alice looked out the window at the
place, up the long incline of steps to the large double doors, her hand
almost unconsciously seeking and finding my own.

Alice had lost enough in life. But she wouldn’t lose her place in the
world. It was my hope that at least at St. Luke’s that Alice would have
the right people to take care of her. And she would have a wall for her
posters and a table for her altar and a good bed to dream in. And maybe
she’d be okay.

“So this is where I’m going to live now?” Alice said, turning to me.

“Yeah. You’ll have your own bed. No more sleeping by those hot pipes.
And you’ll be a lot safer. You might make some friends, too. And this
Thursday is Thanksgiving. I’d bet that they’ll have lots of really good food
on Thanksgiving.”

She looked back at the building, appraising it, then back at me.

“Are you going to go in with me, Robert?”

There were times when finding things out could break your heart.

“You bet I am, Alice.”

We got Alice’s things and walked up the long stretch of steps. When we got
to the big double doors I opened one for her. She went through the door,
and I followed after her.

 

Advertisements