It was noisy and steamy and smelling of cinnamon rolls and the wet wool clothes of a hundred Christmas shoppers. I commanded my stool in Blum's soda joint, wolfing down their aces coffee cake to get taste of the whole Axis clown affair off my tongue and to butter over the symphony of honking noses that scored my nightmares. My shoulder ached badly from a direct hit with a pencil-moustached human cannonball named Dietrich, and the scab was just forming over the scar on my left cheek from a sharpened Kraut pie tin, which was also poisoned with an actual poison dart frog glued to it. If Lily hadn't sprayed it instantly with Army-grade Frog Off, Crumples would be crumpling up my bar tab by now and dunning my only living relative, as least the one on the paper where I wrote down my references, Archduke Ferdinand.
Aside from Lily, the attack hadn't been pretty at all, parachuting with the commandos right into the big Tent in the Vienna Jocularitosche Zircus
, Sten guns blazing, tossing incediaries in all directions, chasing down the escaped American fascist clown troop and executing them one by one by following the sound of squeaky shoes in the confusion; all in a desperate move to stop the plans not only for the deadly "Silly" string, but something called the Death Cooking Ray, a micro-small radiation-wave transmitter able to cook the inside of a human skull -or in tests, a frozen enchilada - at 20 yards, plans which had been given to them by the German- Japanese underground diplomatic contact in San Francisco, Kreistenheimer, member of the Luxemborgian Redecoration Society, the Weimar kunstkrieg
poet buddy of the late Viscount Phillerph Von Pforfer Van Der Forffen the Fourth, who I'd beaten into alliterative euphony a couple months ago.
The circus volks
shot at our squad with the Death Cooking Ray gun, but just like the lab boys' predictions we foiled them literally by protecting ourselves with large sheets of Reynolds Wrap, which reflected tiny radiation bolts right back at the clowns and dropped them like a bag of lead noses, the superheated grease paint giving them a kind of crispyness that would have been a whole lot better on a Thanksgiving turkey. It was a screwball device, the acme of clown technology. When we went to collect the pieces of the Death Ray through the oily smoke and twisted balloon animals of war, it's advanced timing mechanism just kept blinking "12:00."
The world had dangled on the point of the tip of the edge of a extra-pointy knife suspended above the Apocolypty Merry-go-Round of Doom upon which Hunny Von Strudel-Muncher bought the world a ride for a couple wooden Nazi nickels, and for all my buddies' busy, bloody work ridding the circus of it's comic relief, the greasy group of gritty grunts got a handed a soft lump of cold Spam and a three day pass to East Nothing-ham and drank deep the peculiar satisfaction of making the world slightly less funny. I knew the feeling well.
We said our goodbyes between mouthfuls of filched pastries and strong beer as we left Austria individually, guided by pro-Allies locals, clear in their thinking because they'd known Hitler in junior high school. The escape through Switzerland: not easy, stuffed in the Vatican's touring polka troupe's St. Benedict's Tuba case. But I was alive and a lot of joes weren't, and the world got a fresh crop of dead clowns.
It was a bad war.
For me, it was 14 Trans-Atlantic hops home in a unheated C-46, routing madly through Lisbon, the Canaries, the Azores, The Pokey Shards, Iceland, La Isla Guano, Greenland, The Lesser Antipodes, Black Labrador, the southern northeast West Virginia, and Broken Supercharger Wyoming with a critical shipment of Swiss carbon paper and military giraffes bound for Pearl, and the next week found me right back in San Francisco, tired and broke with a 10 day beard and a 9mm- ventilated slouch hat, and it wasn't long before I was runk, dangry, wracked by guilt, sleeping on the office couch and seasoning leftover giraffe stew with paprika and brandy on the hotplate, wishing Lily or Dardenella or Jenny was here to darn my socks, massage my kidneys and practice mattress Pilates.
But the cake seemed just like the Allies these days, warm and buttery and sweet and falling into crumbs the second they got poked. I stared at the walnut paneling hung with the Victory Posters: Abbot and Costello for War Bonds, Marlene Dietrich's Zip Your Lips campaign, Eddie Cantor's step-by-step Gas Masks for Children and Pets, and Rita Hayworth War Bonds Something Something holy cross splinters look at those gams. There was a muttering noise, a waft of pipe smoke. John Dos Passos was at his regular stool next to me, yammering on about the color of old beer, fuming over Stalin's pact with Hitler and nursing a cup of cold coffee, his progressive principles deflating like a Navy Blimp left by its wife for a richer, better-looking blimp. I wasn't in the mood.
"Another jolt of Java, Mack?" said Cleo, the cheery plump waitress, who I probably knew better than my own mother, which wasn't hard because two hours after giving birth to me during the 1 am run of a horse-drawn street car she'd left me wrapped in a copy of the Chicago Tribune, (Headline: Horseless Carriage Helps Whoreless Marriage
) in an box of empty laudanum bottles on the lobby counter of the Continental Hotel after pretending to check in as "Miss Eramus Thaddeus, " a fictional character from a series of Evangelical pamphlets about the daughter of a gold magnate who briefly doubts the divinity of Jesus and ends up two weeks later in a brick flop in the Five Points selling her virtue at 3 cents a go, cursing Susan B. Anthony for ever suggesting women should vote and therin bringing her to profligate deportment, moral dissipation and gonorrhea.
I looked at Cleo and her sunny dark face and bright brown eyes. She was always cheerful, and in the middle of us busy losing World War II. What the hell would spoil her day?
"Yeah, more coffee, doll." Wartime coffee, which seemed about 2/3 burned toast. Still good with cake.
"Say Mr. Mack," she whispered, like it was a secret, "that sweet Charles couple and their dog Asta was by here and left me a message for you to meet them at Forbidden City tonight."
"Around cocktail hour."
"With them that's sometime between 3 pm and 2 am." Hmm. The Charles'. Detectives. Writers. The Bon vivantiest anti-Fascist Manhattan Drainers in the Bay Area. Nora was a fine, poised slice of girl that cut through life on wit and gin and a body that could get a steamship to stand up in the water and dance a samba. Always a little awkward - we'd had a fling back in '33, when drinking made me look good, at least when she did it. These days they took all the Hollywood cases, like Katherine Hepburn's secret love child by Walter Brennan, or Mickey Rooney's White-Slavery ring, while people like me and Sam Spade usually mopped the gutter for scraps from pimps with IOUs on them. Which reminded me, Spade still owed me money for fencing that huge ruby he supposedly melted out of the middle of some lead bird sculpture a while back.
I knocked Dos Passo's hat off friendly-like to let him know I was leaving, and hoofed it down to Sutter to discuss things with Sam. A couple hours later, as I nursed the bruises on my knuckles, we parted bitter friends but I had 300 bucks from the fence job to warm my heart.
It was a short walk to Chinatown and Charlie Low's Forbidden City, a grand night club wrapped in a restaraunt folded inside a clip joint. It was classy but abrupt. The fortune cookies that came with the check said "You will pay now."
It was big and swanky inside, sort of the Cotton Club by way of Hong Kong. Photos with celebrities cluttered the wall. I sat at the bar. Charlie was there himself. I chatted up the skirt on the next stool for a moment before some Hollywood joker named Reagan tapped me on the shoulder and started explaining to me why I should keep my eyes off his girl Jane, and how he was such big shot in the war shooting propaganda films in LA, and how I by Jeepers I'd better watch myself. I curled my bleeding fingers around the blackjack I carried for just this sort of situation, and when the balloon-head wouldn't shut up, I inquired what on earth was that behind him and flattened him like an onion-skin laundry bill run over by a cement mixer.
Charlie took my side - chatting up skirts was a significant part of his business - and with the help of a couple of stocky prep-cooks Reagan took a free bus ride to Palookaville. Jane followed him outside after I completed my recitation of The Rubyaht of Omar Khayyam
and she'd polished off her third Manhattan. I found out later he was working with chimps.
But where were Nick and Nora? I looked like a fool sitting here alone, nursing a black eye from my erudite discussion with Spade and a Mai Tai with a little red umbrella with what I was pretty sure was the Chinese for "Sucker" printed on it.
Just then a dog loped in with what can only be described as a suave, roguish terrier demeanor. It was Asta, of course, running to me, wagging his tail and barking a bit to tell me he had a message tied on his collar.My Darling Dr. Mack,
Pookie's all gummed up with the ague that's going around and we simply had to retire to the St. Francis for the night. But do be patient and don't pout like you do after your recreational fisticuffs. How perfectly beastly you were to Sam! If you needed money, why not fix a horse race like decent people? But I forgive you.
You'll crack open that shell of yours when you see the delicious present I've sent you from Rio.
Your Nora Always,
Mrs. Nick Charles.
So I patted Asta on the head and he scampered out, and when I looked up, a goddess had risen, and stumbled a bit, and parted the beaded curtains backwards like Athena springing from the brow of Zeus in a New Orleans whorehouse, and she had more dark waves than the Black Sea, tall and tan and young and lovely, and she passed Zhi, the angriest waiter in town, and when she passed him he went "AAh!" as he burned himself on a bowl of steaming ginger pepper crab. Brazillian, she seemed, from the way she samba-ed across the room, the slow fire in her black eyes, the half empty bottle of Cachaca sticking out of her purse, and the discreet fresh fruit and tiny Brazillian flag in her hat. She came right for me, her ivory silk dress fluttering about her like a flight of doves around a clutch of Zeigfeld girls.
"Mr. Dr. Brain?"
"Yes, I am indeed so."
"I am Renata Chlumska", of Rio."
"Charmed. Say, isn't that a Swedish name?"
Yes. I'm orginally from Dublin." She sat down at the bar, close enough that the Chanel #5 dissolved the part of my brain that exercises good judgment. "I am told you are the man to whom I must speak. A good man. A strong man. Yes." She ran her fingers down my sleeve. "A man-y man. Brain, you must listen to me. You are a man! Are you listening, Man?"
If listening meant technically hearing her voice while staring her decolletage which rose and fell like a soft beige throw pillows futures market on which my life savings was invested, then the answer was yes.
"So what I am going to tell you now, Mr. Man, right now, you must listen to with the upmost attention, not forgetting a word, Mr. Dr. Man! You are listening?"
"Because I must tell you this, and it is...of upmost.. importance. Listen now, Listen." She leaned in close, so close, her hair falling on my shoulder, her perfect cherry lips brushing my earlobe, the Chacaca on her breath getting me
"Mr. Brain...Erroll, Erroll Flynn, Errol Flynn and...Phillip... Phillip Johnson.." And then she passed out like someone hadn't paid the Brazil bill. I caught her in my arms, and lacking clear options, threw her over my shoulder and started walking out, little grapes from her hat bouncing off the floor.
Zhi, built like a barrel of jerky and holding an enormous cleaver, gave me a look like I was tomorrow's crispy duck.
"Nerves," I explained. "Her nerves must be broken." I tossed him a buck for the drinks, stepped outside, and facing a twenty block girl-schlep, pulled the .45 and stole a cab from a cabbie I didn't like.
Back in the Sutter building office, Renata sleeping off something on the couch, I kept the lights off, except a desk light for the news clippings I plowed through. Errol Flynn: well, we all knew he was musical. And Phillip Johnson*
was a big shot architect, fond of straight lines and bent boys, and perhaps as the Chicago papers slyly insinuated, a German sympathizer, running headlines in 1935 like "Hitler-Lover Builds Cube House." He put the anti-semitic charm in Father Coughlin's broadcasts and tried to start an American fascist party but with tailored shirts, and made a sightseeing tour of the bombing of Warsaw, taking time to note the classy German uniforms. When he wasn't busy tracing straight lines, Johnson was putting stone masons and hod-carriers out of work with the new glass and steel rage. He didn't like curves in buildings, or human beings.
It was shaping up to some sort of serendipity of sordid. I stretched and gargled a mug of WPA Old Saddle Horse Rum, brewed on an Oakie Relocation Co-Op in Bermuda, lit a Lucky and kept reading. More Johnson stories: fussy lines, boxy buildings, snappy clothes, the annexation of Czechoslovakia....... there was a pattern here. There was a Johnson house spec for Charles Lindbergh, whose palling around with Goering and suggesting the surrender of Britain had gotten embarassing, and who was now trying to make up for it by shooting down Japanese planes on his own time. Another lead to an office concept for Henry Ford, you know, the one with the picture of Hitler on his desk and vice versa. So far the only connection with Flynn was pressed shorts.
I didn't like where this was going: Detroit was a real possibility. And Hollywood. I'd disliked both, for different dames, one for sending me up, one for selling me out.
I gazed at Renata, piled up like a pile of adorable floral print laundry with long silky gams. I listened to her soft Brazillian breathing. Nothing but tight curves, Renata, like a fine sleek yacht with big tits, one you could sail to Tahiti and not notice the Pacific. But the mysterious mystery mystified me, and we might miss Tahiti.The Complete, Incomplete Rebar for Tootsie is at Ironcandy.blogspot.com