Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance
“Jehoshaphat, Sam! How long is the studio giving us to doctor the songbook?” By the end of his question Ed was getting a little high in his vocal register but, given the circumstances, I really couldn’t blame him. Still, it was awfully early in the morning for this.
“Three weeks. They wanted us to wrap it up in two, but I talked them into three.” It had taken some real arm-twisting to do it, too. Movie studios tend to think of their creative talent as being so many gum-ball machines: when they put a penny in the slot, they expect something to rattle right out. Try and tell them you need more time, or that your muse just ran off to Topeka with some god-damned composer for the Hot Gospel circuit, and they either shove in more money or kick you and walk away.
The other end of the line was silent, so quiet I could hear the ticking of the antique carriage clock that my second wife had left behind her on my mantelpiece. I started counting, a second per tick: tick, tick, tick, tick—
“Three weeks.” Ed is good at spotting the dark lining to any silver cloud but this was too easy for him. Even I had to admit it would be hell re-writing all the songs for a movie musical in three weeks.
“All right, Sam. We’ll have to hole up somewhere. The
“Too social, Ed. Remember that New Year’s party there in ’33?”
“No, I don’t. Too much scotch. Las Vegas? Palm Springs?”
“Too much dust. My sinuses.”
“You and your deuced sinuses. Listen, boy, if you want this done, we need a refuge with no cards, no girls,” that was for me, “and no booze.” That was for Ed. He’d gone through a rough patch a few years back and now, if there was going to be any pressure on him, he had to go dry.  “But we will need a piano. Any ideas, Einstein?”
“Hey, Ma wanted me to be an attorney-at-law, not a physicist, remember?”
“Samuel—” He did remember. Of course he remembered. Nobody but Ma and Ed had used my entire first name in years, and they only did it when they were mad at me.
“Okay, okay. How about,” my mind was scrambling frantically, “that place you stayed last summer on the coast, what was it called? Casas con Queso?”
“Sam, not even you can possibly think I went on vacation to a place named houses with cheese.” He gave it a beat to let his point sink in. “The name you are trying to remember is La Casa del Conquesto. There’s a tiny problem with our staying at the Casa.”
“It’s a problem with a piano, according to you. Up on the side of a hill, you said, with nothing nearby but a general store, a café, and the
Pacific Coast Highway. Sounds ideal.”
I could hear his snort. He’s good at it, since he has the most exclusive equipment: one of those aquiline noses that they send you when you’re born in certain parts of New England, along with your silver spoon and the glue that sticks your teeth together when you talk. “The piano is a symptom of the Casa’s tiny problem, Sam. Each of its three cabins is tastefully decorated, filled with Greek and Roman objets d’art and charming memorabilia of the artistic life. Every day during the growing season, one finds fresh flowers in a cut crystal vase in the bedroom.”
“You are trying to tell me something, here.”
“Your host and the owner is also the brother-in-law of the county sheriff, the only reason his establishment is left standing. The cuisine is wonderful and the name of the chef—I do not use that word lightly—is Jean-Sebastien. The general store sells amusingly ugly souvenirs made in
Japan, which are displayed along side of watercolors of the Big Sur peninsula and locally grown orchids. The mechanic at the garage is talented, has the intelligence of a sea urchin, and likes to labor with his shirt off.”
So, fine, they were all lavender. I could handle that. “Sounds great. As long as no one likes to climb through the windows at night, there won’t be anything to distract me. No blondes, I take it.”
“Not unless you count the night clerk in the store, no.”
“Well, I don’t. Do you?”
“Actually, I’m thinking of joining a monastic order. I rather fancy the idea of myself wearing a coarse, belted robe and a serene expression.”
“Not in the next three weeks, you’re not, at least not unless they have a piano and take Jews. Listen, call the guy who owns the place, book us the cabin with the piano, and I’ll phone up Betty at the studio and have her deliver a copy of the script, not to mention whatever those morons came up with in the way of a score before they all got their keisters fired.”
“Hans, Sam. The name of our host-to-be is Hans.”
Even I could hear the suspicion in my voice. “A refugee, I assume?”
“No, Swiss-American on his mother’s side.” There was another pause on the other end of the line. “You’ve done it again.”
“It’s for your own good. Whatever it is.”
“How do you talk me into these situations? What was I thinking of this time?”
“You’re thinking you have a studio contract that pays you a lot of money and that is enforced by very savage lawyers, that’s what you’re thinking.”
“You’re probably right.” Another snort. “If you go away now, I can start on my assignment.”
“If I leave now, I can be picking you up in an hour in my stylish, new ’37 Packard sedan, which I will be.”
“My heart thrills. I can hardly wait.”
“Keep working on it, Ed. You’ve almost got that sarcastic tone nailed down.”
He hung up. It was loud.
Now that he wasn’t there to hear it, I kissed the receiver. Going on twenty years, and Ed hasn’t let me down in a crisis yet. Believe you me, there are not a lot of guys you can say that about, let alone a lot of blue-blooded types like Ed that you can rely upon in all weathers. I’ve dumped all my souvenirs, including the accent and the grammar, but I have the Ivy League experience to know.
Just after the Great War, I was one of the perfunctory tributes to the melting pot allowed through the wrought-iron gates of a certain prestigious educational establishment—I got a last minute nod after some poor kid died of the Spanish Influenza—but my acceptance by the admissions committee didn’t make my life on campus any easier. My first freshman roommate took one horrified look and then refused to talk to me the entire time we lived together. He’d leave me notes, instead: “Please make sure you do not leave hair in the sink,”  “It is time to wash the bath towels,” that sort of thing. I think he thought I was catching.
I had saved a couple of particularly choice examples to show the Dean of Students while explaining my side of why my roommate wanted to move out, and I dropped them on the floor when I was gathering up some papers after my introductory American history seminar. Ed happened to be the one who picked them up. He’s a fast reader, Ed, and by the time he handed them back to me, his eyebrows were high enough to signal the ships at sea. Then he gave me a good look and his eyebrows went back down again. “I’m sorry; I seem to have been unintentionally nosy.”
“Yes, you were.” I took the notes back from him and stashed them away. I’m sure the entire situation was clear: as one of my maternal uncles told me, I have the looks of the sweetheart of the shtetel. Big brown eyes, curly black hair, ascetic features, hah. My first wife told me I could appear in Yiddish theater as the ethereal rabbinical student married off to the banker’s daughter.
To my surprise, the son of privilege seemed friendly. “Mary hasn’t changed since Prep, I see.”
I stared at him. It was that good. “Mary?”
“From Marion, you understand. He claims the nickname was an affectionate diminutive but, at least on my part, it wasn’t. He disapproves of my social habits. He’s very—choosy—about the company he keeps and feels I’m overly casual.”
“Choosy. I guess that’s one name for it.” I was beginning to think this new fellow might be worth the time of day, so I sat back down. He parked himself on the edge of the table.
“Mary doesn’t get better with time, you’ll find. Deeper acquaintanceship will only confirm your initial impression. Alvey Corbett Edwards, by the way.” He stuck out a hand.
I looked at it, then took it and shook it, one of the better decisions of my life. “Samuel Arthur Schulman. Call me Sam.”
“I wish folks would call me Ed, but they don’t. I’m usually called Edwards.”
“As in the ‘Sinners in the hands of an Angry God’ Edwards?” We’d just covered the New England colonial minister and essayist in class. This fellow, who was wearing what we called back then a ‘nance’ suit, sure didn’t look a suitable descendent of a hellfire preacher. To me, that was more of a recommendation than a criticism. So, “A pleasure to meet you, Ed,” I said.
He smiled at me. It crept across his face kind of slowly like it was crossing unfamiliar terrain. It warmed his thin features and pale blue eyes right up. “Are you done with your classes for the afternoon, Sam?”
“Yes. Did you have something particular in mind?”
“Perhaps you’d care to join me in some refreshments at McCrea’s, along with a few not so nostalgic tales out of school about my old acquaintance?” In other words, he was inviting me out for a bootleg beer. This was right after the Armistice and prohibition had only just moved from being a war-time measure to being the law of the land. The beer wasn’t as awful as it soon would become, and a few of the old-style saloons were still in operation with only the smallest pretense that they were dry. Freshmen were not supposed to enter such establishments, but I didn’t care. I was fed up with the social stratum that was my paternal inheritance.
“I’d be charmed, Ed.”
It only took two brews and an out-of-tune upright piano for us to discover the common interest that would change our lives. We both loved music, all kinds of music, including the sort of tunes that a guy of Ed’s background wasn’t even supposed to know about, back then. After an hour we were arguing Beethoven versus Bach. Two hours, and we were taking turn knocking out ragtime tunes on the upright. Three hours plus a plate each off the free lunch table, and Ed was very gravely singing the blues. Four hours after we walked in the door, when I really should have been boning for my Latin midterm, Ed confessed that he wrote music himself.
“It’s not serious, you understand. I’m to be a doctor.”
“I’m supposed to be a lexer, myself. I have an uncle on my father’s side of the family, the respectable side, who’s a Professor at Columbia Law, and he says I have what it takes to follow in his footsteps.”
Without another word, Ed shook his head and started playing what the great American public would later know as “Dream Girl.” I listened for about sixteen bars and then whistled. “Listen, bud, that’s pretty swell.” He smiled—he already knew when he’d nailed a tune—and began to sing.
The lyrics were horrible.
“Ed.” He looked at me inquiringly and stopped playing, another sign he was from New England. In my family, even on my father’s side, it would have taken me at least a minute to get him to be quiet. “Those words, on the other hand, are all wet.” He was so crestfallen it should have been funny. It wasn’t.
“I hoped they would serve.”
“They don’t scan and they’re corny, corny bad not corny good. Your tune is wonderful; you just need some better lyrics. How about—” I got out my fountain pen, pulled Mary’s latest note out of my shirt pocket, and scribbled on the back.  ‘Dreaming’, ‘scheming’, I worked in ‘the deep blue light of a moonlit night’, it was easy. “Here, try this.”
He tried it. He liked it.
Neither of us took what had happened that afternoon too seriously. Music was just a shared hobby, one that let us spend some time together. Since we were both outsiders, not really comfortable with where we were at, we were both short on friends and hungry for company. It didn’t take us long to find out that Ed and I had a lot of other low tastes in common.It was Ed who advised me to put a dead mouse in Mary’s sock drawer and it worked like a charm. Two days later Mary had moved off campus to stay with the minister of the local Congregationalist church; I think he ended up as a missionary in
China. He must have taken a lot of baths. It seemed sensible to everyone, even the Dean of Students, that Ed, who was thoroughly loathed by his own roommate for a reason I didn’t get back then, should move in with me.
Soon we had our dormitory room nice and cozy, filled with dime novels, old issues of Argosy, vaudeville posters, race records, and a ukulele. When the time came for us to spike a fraternity, Ed told me about a house that sometimes took ‘exotics’, especially ones with good social connections, and asked if I wanted to visit it with him. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. Then we spent a few days searching and found rooms off-campus where we could keep a piano.
By the time I finally found out what was wrong with Ed, I was dating Sylvia, my soon-to-be first wife, and the idea of not having to account to anyone for my comings and goings still struck me as being a good one. And, I couldn’t figure out how I would explain moving out to him. Not to mention, there was the music. Besides, he was my friend.
Early in our senior year, just for a joke, we submitted a song to a competition in Judge, the college humor magazine, and won. My maternal uncle, the one in vaudeville, heard about it from my mother. One raw night in March, when his partner had suddenly quit on him in New Haven and taken the rights to their songbook with her, he called me up on the telephone and asked if Ed and I had anything he could borrow for a stop-gap. Ed, who liked my family, sent him down some scores by special messenger. One of the songs was “Ragtime Rascal”. It panicked the house. By the time we graduated, we were getting enough royalties to live on, and we decided to take a chance for a couple of years. The rest, as they say in Hollywood, is history.
Ed and I had been working together ever since and, whatever else we messed up in our lives, the words and tunes had always saved us. Musically, we had conquered every mountain life had led us to. So I thought this latest project would be more of the same. Boy, was I wrong.
It was exactly sixty-two minutes after Ed hung up the phone on me, that summer morning in 1938, that I pulled the sedan up into his driveway. He had a little place on the end of a cul-de-sac in Santa Monica, one with a really big yard because the developer had forgotten to grease a palm over at city hall and didn’t get to jam an extra house onto the half a lot left over on his building site. Ed had brought in the gardeners and gone nuts with the greenery. On his front lawn, Betty, an auburn-haired and very sharp studio secretary, was frowning at a tree. I’d had no idea she was interested in gardening. She turned and hiked up her sunglasses onto her forehead—she hadn’t been in southern
Californialong enough to actually see well through them—and spotted me as I got out of the car.
“Oh, hi, Mr. Schulman.” She extended a flat paper bag she’d had clutched close to her nicely developed chest towards me. “I have the files you asked for.” She was looking good in a summer-weight green number that showed an admirable stretch of leg. I stomped on an urge to point out Ed’s dahlias, so she’d turn around to examine them and I could enjoy the other half of the view.
“What, is Ed not opening his front door today?”
“Mr. Edwards read the synopsis of the script, Mr. Schulman. Mr. Edwards is now walking around his living room talking to himself. Since it was such a nice day, I thought I’d go outside.” Like I said, she was smart. She pointed up at the tree she’d been staring at. “Do you know what kind of a tree this is, Mr. Schulman? We have one at my apartment house, and it’s driving me crazy trying to figure out what it is.”
I considered her. I’d never even stopped to wonder if she might have a hobby, let alone an interest in botany. Too bad: I could have tried long-stemmed red roses on her. “It’s a macadamia-nut tree. If we can force our way in past the caged and raging composer, I’ll get a bag of the nuts out of his kitchen for you. You’ll need a jackhammer to get them open, though.”
“Thank you. That won’t be a problem. I’m dating a construction supervisor,” she said, primly. Too late again: I seemed to be dragging my feet a lot, lately, when it came to my social life. I settled for taking the paper bag she was offering and pulling out the file folders. I flipped the top one open and read.
“What? We’re doing a musical about the Battle of Trafalgar?”
I must have yelped it. A neighbor lady walking by with her poodle gave me a suspicious glare. I glared back, but at the dog, which seemed to be getting awfully interested in Ed’s grass. Fido got yanked away to consider the neighbor’s rhododendrons, and I went back to considering the music department’s copies of the production plans.
I leafed a few pages deeper into the folder. Then I looked up at Betty. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”
Ed was stalking around his living room like a lion in a cage at the zoo. He turned around when we came in, spotted me, emitted a disgusted noise, and resumed pacing.
“Okay, Jad-bal-ja, you’ve made your point. Have you packed?” The look he gave me was obviously inherited from one of his witch-burning ancestors. I nodded my head at Betty, who slipped by me into his bedroom to start putting together a suitcase. When she was safely out of range, I asked, “How far did you get into the folders?”
He spoke through his nose, always a bad sign. “Scene seven. Lady Hamilton, turning to Admiral Nelson, sings a jazzy little tune of welcome.”
“You didn’t see the preliminary cast list, then. Charlotte Harvey is playing Lady Hamilton.”
Ed’s eyebrows climbed. “Is that supposed to be reassuring?”
He had a point. One of the great metaphysical questions you could bat around at any intimate Hollywood gathering was this: in exactly which one of her pictures does Charlotte Harvey sing the loudest? She had an amazing voice and treated every role she was cast in with great earnestness. That was the problem. “You know Van Reisler wants her in something classy.” The guy was her long-time patron, an elderly tycoon with financial links to our studio, Everest, which went way, way back. “So, at least they’ll have budgeted us for a decent orchestra.”
“In scene twenty-one, Nelson sings a sea-chantey, backed by a hornpipe-dancing chorus of hearty British sea-dogs.”
“Have fun with it.” He glared. “Come on, Ed, it doesn’t matter if the film succeeds or not, as long as Van Reisler is happy. Everybody in town will know what we’re up against and no one will blame us for the results. Besides, it’ll probably make the studio some money. The skirt-wearing public eats up that Harvey and Andrews, all-singing, all-dancing stuff.”
Ed sat down abruptly on his couch and ran his hands through his nice blond hair, probably wondering if it was falling out yet. It wasn’t. “In the penultimate scene, after he is shot at Trafalgar, Nelson—played by Nick Andrews, of course—lies dying of a chest wound in Captain Hardy’s arms, all the while singing a tribute to his lady-love. She, through some miracle of spiritualism, hears him on her balcony in Naples and sings back. I suppose we should be grateful that they dropped the kiss with Hardy.”
I had to admit, it would probably be an arresting scene. Andrews, known to one and all as Nicky, has Ed’s problem, but on him it shows. However, agreeing with Ed wouldn’t calm him down any. “Hey, they pull it off in opera all the time. What about the cute sewing girl in La Boheme, singing her arias at the top of her dying-of-T.B. lungs?”
“Ergh.” That was the noise he made. “I hate writing operetta.” He was weakening.
“I got Becter to promise that, if we pull this off, we won’t have to work on that biopic of Tchaikovsky.”
Ed looked up.
“I got it in writing. It’s in the top folder.” I waved it at him.
Ed stared mutely at the folder like his discharge papers from the Big House were in it. I guess, in a manner of speaking, they were.
Betty stuck her head through the doorway and cleared her throat. “Mr. Edwards, should I pack any sweaters for you? And do you keep your cuff-links in the top drawer of the wardrobe, the one that’s locked?”
Ed got up as hastily as he’d sat down. “No, they’re in the chest of drawers. Let me come and show you.”
Left alone in Ed’s living room, I allowed myself a handclasp of victory over my head.
Given the distance, it was a fast trip up the coast. We took turns for the first few hours, with one of us behind the wheel and one of us reading the script or humming the score. On the curves below Ventura, I got a little queasy, but that may have been caused by reaching Lord Hamilton’s death scene, when he practically tied a big, red ribbon around his soon-to-be widow before giving her to Nelson.
“How touching,” Ed said, after he’d finished deftly steering us through the cut at Point Magu and I’d finished fluting my way through Lady Hamilton’s postmortem bemoaning, “but then, I’ve always had my suspicions about Hamilton.”
“Ed, the man was a vulcanologist, a diplomat, and a member of the English nobility.”
“The latter two vocations hardly argue against my conjuncture.” He had me there. “Hamilton also assembled a wonderful collection of classical antiquities while he was in Napoli, including a large quantity of red and black figured Greek pottery now in the collection of the
“Oh, no,” I said, “he was married. You do not get this one. Your score’s too high anyhow. I gave you Socrates and DaVinci, but I’m keeping Shakespeare and Einstein.”
“Marriage proves nothing. Don’t forget, I was married.” I shook my head, but Ed didn’t see. Instead he frowned, considering a field of lettuce through the windshield. “We should split the difference on Shakespeare, I suppose.”
“Split the difference? What are you talking—” I shook my head. “No. Do not explain it to me. I want to save some surprises for my old age, to keep my heart stimulated in the old folk’s home.”
Ed snorted. “As long as there are blondes in the world, your ‘heart’ will be stimulated.”
This may have been true, but I didn’t have to admit it. I went back to the script instead, with its requirement for a song of separation suitable for both a balcony and a quarterdeck.
After night fell, we swapped off the driving every hour, both so we could exercise our legs and so we would stay alert on the difficult stretch of highway after we passed Hearst’s castle on a hill. When we’d gone by San Simeon, the road climbed and then clung to the coast range. On our right the slopes rose steeply above us, barely visible in the light of a thin moon, and on our left the cliffs dropped off to the sea, faintly shining far below. We snaked around the wrinkles and folds of the land, into the deeper shadows cast by the trees in the stream courses and out into the sky-lit dark of the open hillsides. Hollywood seemed about a million miles away.
We had the faint black ribbon of the highway mostly to ourselves. I was glad that the night was so clear: when the fog rolls in on that coast it muffles the road in an opaque grey that oncoming headlights don’t punch through. Make one mistake then and you’ll go through the guardrail and dive five fathoms below the surface of the Pacific, with what’s left of your car wrapped around you as your shroud. But on a fine night like that one, the stars help you out, and your only enemy is sleep. Ed and I talked, to keep awake. We didn’t chew over what we’d do about the songs. We both knew we’d get sick of them soon enough. Instead we had one of those late night conversations that most guys give up on after they leave school, where they discuss the universe and try to solve all the problems of mankind. It was a hell of a job. Across the seas below us, people were acting crazy again. We probably weren’t the only ones that particular year who picked up where we left off in philosophy class and didn’t get anywhere with it.
So, by the time we were approaching our journey’s end, we had given up on trying to fix what was determined to be broken and had started working on each other, instead. That chat was more of a success. Even when you see a fellow every day and get along with him, the way I did with Ed, there are still questions you only seem to ask when you can’t quite make out his features in the shadows.
“You seeing anyone?”
Ed was driving. “No.” He sounded fairly calm about it. “Although, since I don’t really want to hire help, I’m looking around. In the meantime, I visit a certain Turkish bath in Venice.”
Hastily, I changed the subject. “How about that shrink of yours?”
“Doctor Felder?” I could hear the smile in his voice even in the dark. “A good call on your part. She started out like Amesbury, hinting that I needed to explore my formative, traumatic relationships with my mother and father in order to resolve a certain issue. I told her that I would if she’d go out to dinner with me and my parents first. She did. Now we’re working on sublimating neurosis into creativity, instead.”
I nodded to myself. Shrinks are supposed to make you better, but Ed’s first choice had made him worse. The guy kept trying to change what I had long ago realized was set in concrete. Ed had ended up trying marriage for two long and bitter years. No one, including Ed, blamed her when she ran off with a studio cost accountant, but it left Ed so tense he could only relax with Mr. Scotch and he started having problems composing. It all climaxed in a long, late night I never want to repeat, with me trying to persuade a drunken Ed to give me the revolver. The bastard hadn’t loaded it, of course, but who knew that at the time? I made him pay me back by promising to ration the booze and change his shrink, and he’d done both.
“How about you?” he asked me. “Are you serious about anyone?” To be fair, Ed wasn’t the only one who’d had difficulties since we arrived in Hollywood. My first, East Coast marriage had ended badly, when my wife left me for an old-blood old-money philanthropist with a deeper commitment to high culture than I’d ever had. My second, West Coast marriage had ended in a disaster that made my first break up look like a playground scuffle. I’d fallen into the classic trap of forgetting that it was ambition that moved beauty to Hollywood, and I’d paid the price. And paid, and paid, since she was still collecting alimony. It was funny, not funny ha-ha, that the final result of my infatuation was me turning so sour towards women that Ed had to talk to me like a Dutch uncle until I came to my senses.
“I’m only serious about you,” I said, “since that’s work.” Even though it wasn’t strictly true, I kind of had to add the qualifier. There’d been a couple of fumbles before Ed and I got things sorted out that made it a bad idea to kid around. “I haven’t met anyone new. It’s tough, competing with all the actors and producers, when you’re not willing to lie about how much influence you have.”
“Yes, I know.” I guess he would, at that. “We need to get out more.”
“After the next three weeks, we do. Maybe I should try tennis.”
“That might be amusing.”
“For you, at least. Don’t you have any more female relatives?”
He slowed down to work the sedan around a hairpin curve. “The good ones are all taken now. I told you that you should have asked Prudence out. Last year she married a commercial banker.”
“Poor her. It was the name, Prudence. It didn’t sound promising.”
“She was named, using the same principle as is applied to naming streets in Los Angeles, after something that is no longer there.
Seaview Boulevard. Oak Way. Desert Quail Road.”
“I get your point.” I let my chin sink down into my collar. “Damn it, Ed, it’s not like I’m yearning for the thundering sound of little feet, but I want someone to come home to at night. Sex is great but, at my age, company’s good, too.”
“Get a dog.” His voice was kind of dry, kind of amused, very Ed.
“Am I whining? Is that a hint?”
“No, to tell the truth, I’m envious. Even if I could find someone to play house with, what would I do then?” That was Ed, too. His kind of people talked a lot about fair play and Ed made the mistake of taking them seriously.
“It’s not entirely impossible. Look at Sid Beck, he’s domestic. Or how about Nigel Cole? I could tell you that you weren’t missing much otherwise, not being able to drag your blonds out to premieres and spend too much on them at the Derby, but you’d use rude language in reply and I’d hate for that to happen.”
“Brunets, Sam, I prefer brunets.”
“I know that.” And, I did, too. Okay, I confess there had been one tiny drunken fumble back in college. That sort of stuff happens all the time at schools. Ed has prep stories that would ignite Will Hayes’ trousers. But, enough:  “I wonder if this is what Nelson’s problem was.”
“I think his difficulties had a bit more to do with halting the impending invasion and destruction of
Britainby Napoleon’s Empire.”
“Yeah, you’re right, I’m getting soppy. Listen to me, a successful guy with excellent health, a nice family, and a good friend, moaning because I have to pay my housekeeper.”
“Until you worry about more than the housekeeping, you’ll just have to keep signing that paycheck. Come on, Sam; think about which gang in the world today wants to keep the little woman shuttling on a track between the kitchen and the bedroom.”
“That’s low, Ed, that’s really low.”
“As I’ve said before, if you did more socially with your girlfriends than collect labels that you can redeem for prizes, you’d have better company in the mornings. Take some of them out to the places you really care about like the clubs over on Central.”
“But, I already have company for that—”
Ed interrupted me. “Sorry, Sam, but those lights just ahead are la Casa. After we get checked in, you can tell me that I’m being rude and intrusive, which I am.”
I eyed him balefully in the dim of the car. He was trying to pull a fast one and change the subject. Worse, I was going to let him. That didn’t mean I had to like it, though.
Ed had described the Casa well. The parking lot was right next to the highway and the other buildings straggled up a steep hill frustrated in its natural urge downwards by a series of retaining walls and flower beds. We got out of the car and stretched. All you could hear was the sound of the ocean and the muffled yakking of a radio from behind the door to the general store. The air smelled faintly of salt and redwood, honeysuckle and automobile driven long and hard. When we went into the store, the screen door opened silently on its hinges, but a little bell sounded and the night clerk looked up from his movie magazine.
“Can I help you gentlemen?” He was a platinum blond. He also smelled faintly of violet hair pomade and had nice manners.
“My name is Ed Edwards. I believe Hans will have left the keys to the Cabin Canta for me?”
“Yes, sir.” He reached under the counter and pulled out a register. “If you’ll sign here, I can take your payment. We aired out the cabin for you this morning, after we knew you were coming. There are eggs, milk, bread, and butter in the refrigerator as you requested.”
I drifted back up to the counter with a bottle of orange pop from the cooler. If Ed wasn’t drinking, I wasn’t drinking. “Any chance of a morning paper?”
“Not until tomorrow evening, I’m afraid, sir. One of the boys will have driven up from San Luis Obispo by then, and he can pick up a copy of the Times, the Herald, or Variety at the train station, if you’d like.” He even managed to sound regretful: impressive.
“Sounds good. Variety, please. Can you give us a call around nine?”
He made a note on a pad with the place’s name and logo printed on it. “Of course, sir.” Ed had finished filling out the register and handed over a wad of bills. It was a thick wad, I noticed. The guy handed Ed two keys. “Thank you very much. I hope you have a restful night.” I looked for a smirk, but the clerk’s face was as serene as the countenance of a Botticelli angel on a studio executive’s Christmas card.
Not only did he know how to pretend he minded his own business, but he was helpful, too. After flipping a sign on the door around to read “Be Right Back” and locking it, he followed us out into the parking lot. It turned out there was a torturous gravel track that went up the hill to our cabin—the highest one on the slope, naturally—but we never would have found it in the dark without his help. Then he lugged the suitcases into the cabin for us, sparing our pianists’ fingers.
Boy, that cabin could have won last year’s tasteful rural decoration competition with ease. Some poor S.O.B. had dragged a baby grand, black as licorice, blacker than night, all the way up the hill, gotten it through the door, into the living room, and parked it on the deep white carpeting. The far wall around the black art-deco mantelpiece was mirrored, so you could watch what kind of funny faces you made while picking out “Hearts and Flowers” on the keyboard. One wall was covered with the sort of floor to ceiling bookcases that are loaded with color-coordinated bindings and have a radio disguised as a liquor cabinet—or maybe a liquor cabinet disguised as a radio—built in. On the opposite wall, where the doors to the bedroom and bathroom were, our host had hung two black and white photographs, framed in silver, of singers. The one I recognized was Edith Piaf. The other chanteuse I didn’t know, but she looked Latin. I went and sat down at the piano, opened the lid, and tried a little Gershwin. It was in tune.
Ed had gone with the clerk into the bedroom. He popped out again like a gopher out of its hole. “Sam, problem.”
“Yeah?” I’d moved on to “Miss Otis Regrets.” Cole Porter is too talented to live and, when someone does something about it, I want his muse.
The store clerk followed Ed back out. That was when Ed made friends by slipping him a fin and sent him on his way. I was seeing how “The Sum of You” sounded on our new toy. Pretty good, actually, although if I were writing the lyrics today I would—
I stopped playing and looked at him. “Double?”
“Queen sized.” He heard his own words and his lips twitched.
I ignored that. “It’s not like it’s a problem, after all. Not really. You’re strong-willed, Ed. You’ll manage fine.” His lips were still twitching. The bastard. “Okay, comedian, where’s the other bed?
“There’s a folding bed stowed in one of the closets. I’ll take it.”
“You’re darn tootin’ you will, after that performance. I’ll be expecting a cooked breakfast, tomorrow, too.”
“When I actually get up, it’s yours.” He yawned. It was catching. “I’d better go wrestle with the iron octopus.”
“What a wonderful idea. Good night, Ed. Get lost, Ed.”
Ed wandered off but I stayed in the living room, intending to work for long enough to let him get settled. I got my briefcase from by the door, put it on top of the piano, and opened it. I’d carried it in myself, since I didn’t want anyone touching the contents but Ed or me. It contained our orphanage.
For a rush job like Trafalgar, you usually end up having to revisit old material that, for some reason or other, hasn’t sold. Sometimes songs are left behind because you like them but no one else does. Sometimes the music for a piece works but the words don’t, or the other way around. A lot of teams have an agreement to farm out anything that’s weak on one side but not on the other. Ed and I don’t work that way. Maybe it’s one reason we’ve stayed together as long as we have; I don’t know. Our arrangement leaves us with more orphans than is usual in the business, though.
There was a tune I suddenly wanted to see again. I pulled it out, racked it up, and played it through once with the soft pedal down, just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. No, it was as good as I’d remembered. I’d even tried to make Ed play it around for some of the other guys at the studio right after he wrote it, but no dice. Now I was glad because the words I hadn’t been able to find at the time were suddenly marching through my head. I grabbed my mechanical pencil, the silver one I use for good luck, and got busy.
I started and almost stabbed myself with my pencil.
“It’s two in the morning. Do you have something?”
I twirled around on the piano stool. Ed was in the open doorway to the bedroom, dressed in striped blue silk pajama bottoms and moccasins. He looked even sleepier than the last time I’d seen him and his blond hair was a mess, but—“Ed, I got the words for the sheep song.” We called it that because Ed put the refrain together while he was stuck in his car waiting for a flock of sheep to cross a canyon road out towards
San Bernardino County.
That made him perk right up. “Really? Let’s hear.”
I let fly. My tenor’s no better than passable, but at least I sing on key. It’s useful, when you’re the wordsmith.
When I was done, he nodded slowly. “You’re right. You have it. The split-scene song for Nelson and Hamilton?”
“Yeah.” I yawned so hard my jaw almost cracked. “I’m calling it “So Far Away,” until I think up something I like better.” All of a sudden, I was tired enough to feel like falling over.
Ed knew it, too. He came over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Sam. You’ve got it. It will still be there tomorrow.”
I grinned up at him. “Yeah, I know.” I stood up and stretched. “I’ll take the cot tomorrow night, okay?”
“Okay. Good night, Sam.”
The next morning I got up well after Ed did and stumbled into the bathroom before I was really awake. The place was all white marble, turquoise tiles, and silver fixtures. I blinked around and wondered how I’d ended up in some actresses’ cottage up in the Hollywood Hills. Fortunately, Ed’s shaving tackle was there to reassure me.
A shower put me back together and Ed’s poached eggs riding horseback with Worcestershire finished the job. By the time I had eaten he was back in the living room working with one of the orphans, one where the tune didn’t quite make the grade. About midway through my breakfast he had gotten an abstracted expression on his face and drifted away towards the piano, so I did the dishes. When I walked out into the living room, he took one hand off the keyboard long enough to wave it at me but didn’t say anything. I decided I needed a walk to blow the last of the cobwebs out of my brain.
Outdoors, it was almost , which I thought was kind of presumptuous of the day. I hiked back down the gravel drive to the buildings below and took a look around. There were a couple of automobiles, obviously belonging to travelers, parked in the lot by the gasoline pump and a different kid behind the counter in the general store, this one a carrot-top. I can only take so much of middle-aged ladies in summer chintz exclaiming over snowball paperweights with whales inside of them, so I exited the store and entered the café.
The waitress looked up from putting down a good-looking plate of meat loaf in front of an elderly male holidaymaker long enough to say, “Good afternoon, sir. This evening’s menu is available now in the guest’s dining room, if you would care to examine it.” I went over and opened the door she’d indicated. The room behind it was small, with only space enough for three tables. On the linen tablecloths, the settings were of porcelain, crystal, and sterling. I picked up the embossed leather folder on the table by the door and opened it. French, set menu, impressive table, no prices: pretty much what I’d expected. I shook my head, put the menu back down, and left, being careful to close the door behind me. The café outside was—a café, maybe a little cleaner and prettier than usual. The calendar hung behind the cash register had a girl on it, making friends with a bottle of milk. The contrast was weird. For some reason, it made me think of Ed.
I went outside and walked south along the highway. Around the first curve, where the road crossed a small ravine cut into the mountainside by a stream, was one of the CCC’s brand-spanking new improvement projects. With their usual efficiency they’d built a small bridge with stone guardrails across the cut, added a water tap on the far side next to the cliff for overheating flivver radiators, and improved the path down to the cove. I worked my way down to the shore and gazed out over enough water for aquariums unnumbered. The beach was small and sandy, turning into well-worn shingle and then into rocks on both ends where the cove ran into cliffs. A few seabirds, disturbed by my presence, took off. A couple of more cocky individuals ran around the sand on long legs looking for lunch, as the waves hissed in and out. Otherwise I had the cove all to myself and my thoughts. There was a decision that I had been putting off, and I was hoping for some help from all the scenery. I got it, too, but not in any way I’d been expecting.
As I paced back and forth along the beach, sand scrunching in the middle and the shingle at each end crunching beneath my feet, I stumbled. It brought me back to myself. Checking to spot what I’d tripped over, I was surprised to see a pair of old, salt-stained shoes and a neatly folded beach towel. I turned and looked out over the cold, green water.
I was amazed to see that something was swimming off shore, in the clear patch of ocean between the rocks. For a moment I thought it was a sea-lion, but the brown hair was too long. As he came back in towards the shore, I realized it was a man. Then he made it past the surf line and started wading out onto the beach, and I got a better view. The guy had the build that the physique types think they’re achieving but aren’t, and a broad, handsome set of features that somehow struck me as being both as clean and as empty as the blue sky above us.
Picking up the shoes and towel, I went down to the water’s edge to meet him. He took them from me and smiled. “Thanks, mister.” He slung the towel across his shoulders and, with an ease I could only marvel at, balanced first on one foot and then on the other, putting his shoes on as the waves washed past him and withdrew.
All at once, it clicked. “You must be the mechanic up at the garage.”
“Yes, sir,” he said, shoving out a hand. “I’m Pete.”
I shook. “Glad to meet you. My name’s Sam.”
“How do you do, sir? Is the Packard yours?”
“Yeah. Do you like it?”
Suddenly his face was focused and someone was at home behind his eyes. “I do indeed. You might want to get your engine checked, though. When you came in last night, it sounded like one of your plugs was a little off.”
“Huh.” I had some vague idea of the kind of ear it would take to spot a detail like that. Either this kid was a shark or an artist of a mechanic, and I had a suspicion it was the latter. “Well, we’re going to be here for a couple of weeks. Would you consider taking a look at her for me?”
He lit right up. “Oh, you bet! I have Mr. Besterman’s truck in right now, but I’ll be free come Monday.”
“Well, how about doing me a maintenance run while you’re at it, then?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll take care of that for you. You’re in the Music Cabin?” Now he was back to being polite.
“That’s right, me and Ed.”
“Okay.” He stopped toweling off his hair and hesitated for a moment. Then he said, “I’m around if you need me, except this coming Sunday. I’ll be taking my girlfriend into Monterey then, to do some shopping at Woolworth’s. We’re saving up for a radio.” He paused expectantly, like an actor on a soundstage feeding a line to a hung-over colleague. “I sure could use another ten bucks.” Something about his posture, the hand on his hip, the cocked head, the interested but not too interested expression on his face, finally cued me.
“That’ll be fun for you both.” I wondered if Ed—well, I shouldn’t make his choices for him. “Maybe you should drop by our cabin and talk to my friend Ed on Saturday? He might have an errand you could do for him.”
He smiled, all amiability. “I’ll do that.” He slung the towel back over his shoulders and headed off towards the path up the cliff. I watched him go, unsettled. I felt like a boomtown minister who’s been living by a bordello for years and finally goes next door to borrow a fuse, only to find that the piano player knows his name and the girls stock his favorite brand of sarsaparilla.
Well, I was in their territory and would just have to cope. For some reason I remembered Ed at my sister’s wedding, watching me as I held one pole of the canopy, already knowing the right responses, very grave and proper in a morning suit and top hat. I wandered up and down the beach a few more times, picking up rocks and shying them at the waves. When I got tired of all the beautiful sun and sea, and all the healthy fresh air, I went back to the cabin to read Melville’s White Jacket for a while, to see if the vocabulary triggered anything. Ed plunked out the same six bars of so-called music on the piano all afternoon, over and over and over.
Dinner was superb.
That was Friday. On Saturday, Ed decided he had to be alone to work on Lord Hamilton, so I wandered out of the cabin again. Not unexpectedly, I shied away from climbing back down to the beach. Instead, after following the highway north a couple of miles in the sun and shade of the early morning, I returned to the Casa and went back into the café. To my surprise, the door to the back was open. Hans, our host, was sitting at the far window-side table, placidly cracking open pecans, pulling out their meats, and dropping them into a small wooden bowl.
I sat down next to him and brooded over the pecans. After a minute or so, he got up and made a drink, a martini, and put it in front of me on a little paper napkin. Then he sat back down. I stared at the glass glumly.
“You should drink it,” he said, his voice mild.
I looked him over. He was yet another blond, this time with hair like gold wire over the kind of full, sensual features that would have warned of trouble ahead, if he had been a producer and I had been a starlet. I looked back down at the martini and then slowly pushed it along the table towards him. “Thanks for the idea, and put the drink on our tab, would you? But when Ed is dry, I am dry.”
“I don’t think Mr. Edwards would mind.”
“I don’t think he would, either, but I would mind. It’s a deal I’ve made with myself and I’m superstitious.”
“It’s a wise man who knows himself,” he said and tapped the side of his nose.
“Thanks, I guess.” For some reason I couldn’t meet his gaze, so I examined the back room, instead. It looked as nice by daylight as it did by candlelight. Fresh, whitewashed walls, framed engravings of classical sculpture, and woodwork painted blue: very tasteful. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“It depends on what it is, really.” He snagged the martini with his off hand and took a thoughtful sip.
“How do you keep this place going, the country being the way it is, and all? I mean, I know your brother-in-law’s the county sheriff but still—” I let it trail off. I knew he’d get the gist.
Hans shrugged. “Most of our neighbors appreciate the little services we can provide for them, the telephones, the gasoline, the supplies; I run a tab on groceries for some of the locals that they can redeem in chores. Also, they are used to the eccentricities of our family. My father was a lumberman, logging out redwoods from the hills to the north of us here. We lived in a mansion when I was a boy and had a great many servants who came and went, especially housemaids.” He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I have chosen to do something different with my life and money, and my neighbors have accepted that fact. Oh,” he said, his face suddenly seeming harder, as if the bones had swum to the surface from underneath the flesh, “we do have trouble every now and then, from fools who resent the prosperity of those they despise. But we can deal with most small difficulties ourselves.” His hand closed abruptly on the nutcracker and the pecan shattered.
I blinked when a shell fragment struck me on the cheek. “Okay. But the finances?”
He smiled. “I charge dear. The patrons come, mostly from Hollywood and Pasadena, to work on their business proposals and their memoirs and their songs: for the moment it suffices me. Some day I will grow tired of my toy kingdom and leave, and this place will be something else. The world is full of such nooks, little oases unknown, unremarked, vanishing like morning mist in the heat of the day when the world finally takes note of them. It is not merely a behavior that belongs to our kind.”
It made me kind of sad to think about it, a world full of small, fragile paradises that most people would never know about and would despise if they did. It was—hmm. I patted my pockets and found my lucky pencil.
They had to move me when it came time to set the table for lunch.
The next day, the back room was closed while Hans and Jean-Sebastien, the chef, went to church and then joined Hans’ sister for Sunday supper. Ed and I had toasted cheese. On Monday, we spent two hours yelling at each other about the disappearance of Nelson’s wife from the script. Tuesday, we went down to the little beach together, made a tiny fire of driftwood, and burnt all the drafts of “I Could Not Love You”. Wednesday we had our old pal Sid Beck, who had been staying with a friend at Hearst’s place, in to dinner and sent some songs with him back to Hollywood. Friday, the iron octopus disguised as a cot tried to fold up with me inside of it. Up until Saturday, the days passed by like someone was tearing sheets off of a desk calendar.
Saturday, Nicky Andrews showed up from Hollywood, in the company of Tom Thomas the choreographer, and moved into the Cabin Poetica. We didn’t know a thing about it until they came in while we were eating. I looked up and almost choked on my Lobster Bisque. It’s a hell of a shock, when you have just spent half an hour complaining about a guy’s upper register, to see him walk through the door.
Nicky was talking to Tom. “—you object, but I don’t want Charlotte knowing.” When he spotted us he seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He stopped so abruptly that anyone less graceful than Tom would have plowed into him. Tom twisted like a Siamese cat spotting a lawn sprinkler and managed to get around Nicky and to their table. He was the one who spoke first. “Hi,” he said, examining Ed and I with curiosity.
“Hi, Tom,” I said, getting up and shaking hands. We’d met before. Ed and I were brought in to doctor the songbook for The Frolics of 1935 and Tom spent some time explaining to us what had happened when the hoofers tried to sing “Wing, Buck and Frolic” while frantically tapping. A spoonerism, my English professor would have called it. “Come up north for a little vacation?”
Tom’s eyes moved to Nicky and away again. Okay, I’d thought so. “Yes, we’re making a short getaway while the pre-production posse for Trafalgar saddles up.” He looked at Ed, who was having some sort of staring competition with Nicky, and said, “I’d heard you two were trying to salvage the songs for the project.”
I waved an airy hand around. “You got it, kid. We’re doing it, too. Let me tell you, this’ll be the most melodious navy to ever fight the French.” I had no idea what the heck I was talking about. Nicky was now standing gazing out the windows at the view and both Ed and he were pretending the room was otherwise empty. I gave up on insouciance and swapped looks with Tom. Do you know what their problem is? No, do you?
Hans, who served the three tables in the private dining room himself, came in and surveyed the scene. With the instinct that makes a great maitre d’, he promptly seated Nicky with his back to Ed. As usual, the food was great but I hardly noticed. This was the evening Ed decided we would discuss our alma mater, rah-rah, with vigor and volume, and I had to scramble to keep up with him. He was all over the map, conversationally, sparkling like a glass of cheap champagne, cracking epigrams with the panache of a concussed Dorothy Parker. I put up with it all the way though dinner and dessert, then waited until we were back in the cabin to let fly. “Okay, Oscar Wilde, what the hell was that all about?”
He sat down in the room’s one armchair, so I had to take the piano stool. “I’m sorry, Sam. I had no idea Nicky was coming.”
“Who cares, as long as he doesn’t want to kibitz?” There wasn’t a carriage clock in this room, but something in my brain counted it off. Tick, tick, tick—“Oh, crap. That’s how you found out about this place.”
“Nicky brought you here.”
“The two of you were doing it.”
“Yes, yes, yes! I was an idiot! I slept with Nicky Andrews, alias Admiral Nelson, the Sweetheart of the Fleet!”
I contemplated this. “It could be worse. At least he doesn’t have an elderly, jealous, and influential boyfriend keeping him like Charlotte does.”
Ed’s voice was bitter. “No, instead he keeps a rating system on his boyfriends, all written down in a little black book so as to add insult to injury. He awards stars, just like Michelin.”
“That’s some hobby.” I tried not to sound impressed, envious, or anything like that. I tried to stifle my curiosity, too, but there I failed. “So, I assume you found his book and read your entry?”
He tried to glare me down in outrage but we’ve known each other way too long for that. He had to settle for a terse, teeth-clenched, “yes.”
I waited. He didn’t add any details, so I did. “Bad, huh?”
“I don’t believe it.” Open mouth, insert foot. I wasn’t supposed to have an opinion on this matter since I’d been halfway under the table both the times we had a tiny whoopsy. As far as I could remember, though, Ed shouldn’t have any problems getting second dates.
“He wrote,” it seems Ed was feeling a little too bitter to be diverted by me as a target, “that I would be amusing if I wasn’t constantly distracted by collegiate humor and sickly sentimentality. Also, as for my endow—” He broke off, and I didn’t blame him. That notice would close a bed faster than just about anything else I could think of. Still, Ed hadn’t taken it lying down, as it were. “I told him ‘sickly sentimentality’ was an interesting choice of words, coming from a man who sang, ‘Love in a canoe’.”
Okay, Ed’s comment must have tied Nicky’s review for show stopping content. “It will be we two/and love in a canoe/alone with only moonlight betweeeen us/and the stars above/witnessing our love/as we paddle closer”—oh, never mind, contract or no contract, some artistic choices are hard to justify. However, I don’t know how it is where you live, but in my town tenors are even more sensitive about their artistry than their—endowments. I bet I knew what Nicky’s response had been. “He called you a snoop, didn’t he? And, maybe, an opportunistic, money-grubbing hack or words to that effect?”
Ed must have been tired of saying yes because he nodded, instead. I closed my eyes and considered the matter. “What’s the chance of the two of you occupying the same casa without swordplay at ?” I winced, but the unintentional pun slipped by Ed. Was I ever glad my therapist wasn’t a Freudian, or I’d be discussing this conversation for months.
“We should both be all right, as long as there is no social interaction between us whatsoever.”
“No wonder you were so upset about this picture. And here I was thinking you were going all high culture on me. Sorry, Ed.” This might not make much sense to an outsider, but the natives of Tin Pan Alley pride themselves on not being prima donnas. Unlike lyric tenors. “We’ll just have to hope he’s more interested in nailing Tom than he is in baiting you.”
“To be fair, that’s probably the case.” It’s true, Nicky was pretty restrained about bringing his feuds to the studio, for a musical star.
“Okay. Maybe this is when we do a ten-inning stretch working on Charlotte’s big love song.”
Ed nodded his head mutely, and gestured for me to get up off the piano stool and out of his way.
So, that Sunday it was fried egg sandwiches and poignant love songs that could survive being sung with the volume turned all the way up. Monday, the food was better but the songs were the same. Ed and I finally got sick of it and went back to the beach to bellow our finalists at the surf. It was supposed to be a joke, but we ended up deciding to pitch the one during which a sea lion had surfaced and bellowed back at us.
That brought us to Nelson’s sea-chantey.
On Tuesday morning it was so warm that we opened all the windows in the cabin. Then we took turns on the piano thundering out the score for the dance of
England’s jolly tars. Now I understood why the composer for Trafalgar had been sacked along with the songwriting team: most of the score had this haunting resemblance to Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Every amateur music historian in the Midwest would have written about it to a local paper, more in sorrow than in anger. Studio publicity departments hate hick letters written more in sorrow than in anger. Such missives amuse urban editors and tend to get reprinted in periodicals that publicity departments can’t lean on, like the New Yorker. All of this, though, left us trying to write a song that segued from a score that was going to be replaced. Finally I slammed my hands down onto the keys in a triple forte chord—e minor—and said, “Ed, we’re going to have to write this dance music ourselves.”
He nodded agreement. “If we come up with something that works, we can call Music at the studio and get it approved. It will mean letting them know that we have access to a telephone, but that’s better than continuing to drive ourselves mad.”
Here’s a secret that may be another reason for why we’ve stayed together as long as we have. Ed writes far better music than I do, but there’s one solitary exception to this rule. I write better instrumentals than he does. Oh, they aren’t much good but, unlike the guy they got to do the first score for Trafalgar, when I write a piece you can’t see the seams where I sewed together my sources.
Ed and I settled down to work and, by late afternoon, when we had opened the door as well as the windows in order to get some air moving, I thought I had what we needed. We had gotten another stool out of the cabin’s tiny kitchen and the two of us were sitting close beside each other at the keyboard, me playing my dance tune slowly in the lower octaves over and over as Ed vamped an introduction to Nelson’s song in the upper octaves. After a while he got a version that seemed to work, so we brought it all up to tempo. Our hands flew across the keys, running up and down, crossing and returning. I could feel Ed playing next to me like my second self. I could tell he also felt that intoxicating triumph you experience when you compose and it works. We finished and turned to each other, both grinning like maniacs.
“Hey, that’s really good.”
I don’t know about Ed, but I started at the sound of Tom’s voice from the doorway like I was a kid caught on the sofa with his best girl when his parents get back early from the pictures. No, I do know about Ed, because the first words out of his mouth were, “Give us a heart attack, do, Tom.”
Tom ignored him and came into the cabin, snapping his fingers, in tempo. Then he stopped in the middle of the carpeting and said, as sure of himself and as unconsciously demanding as a
New Yorkmoney man, “Play it again.”
So, we played it again. It didn’t sound as smooth this time since we were both watching Tom, but he didn’t notice. He stood with his eyes closed, swaying slightly in time with the music, occasionally moving an arm or his head, or ghosting a step or two of dance. When we were done he said, “Again.” I let Ed take it this time. We both knew we’d need to save our fingers.
We did. We played that scrap of score maybe fifteen or twenty times as something emerged using Tom’s body as the instrument. He didn’t bother to ask us what we thought. How the hell would we know? We were only musicians. That was all right: we’d both known, when he said our music was really good, that he meant it could be danced to. Still, it was strange seeing someone other than Ed and I composing, like the first time you see your back in a mirror. By the last time we played the hornpipe through, you could see a shadow of the dance routine to be. It reminded me of the old vaudeville shtick where a few stagehands march silhouetted behind a scrim while the chanteuse sings, and it somehow implies an entire army.
When he was done, we gave him the tribute of the appreciative silence that is louder than applause. Tom smiled at us both and said, “My dears, this is why we continue to sleep with that rattled bitch, Hollywood.”
Ed and I looked at each other. What could we say? He was right.
Then Ed looked back at Tom, and I could tell he was seeing him, if you know what I mean. So, I looked myself. The body was a dancer’s and just about perfect. It’s almost unfair, the way those boys and girls can move, with everything either well thought out or made to look graceful. The hair was red-brown and a little curly. The eyes were brown-green and lively. The features weren’t too memorable when still but caught your attention when mobile with emotion. He looked like a cougar cast as an Eagle Scout. I wondered if I’d be getting the bed to myself, at nights. Then I remembered the current social arrangements and wondered if disaster loomed on the horizon. I was wasting my time wondering, though.
Ed said, slowly, “Was I doing Nicky an injustice?” That damned black book. He was only thinking about it out loud, but Tom answered him.
“Perhaps you did do an injustice but, knowing Nicky, it was probably to yourself. Nicky’s good at misunderstanding motives, including his own. After all, heaven forefend that anyone, including you, be allowed to get between Nick Andrews and Charlotte Harvey, those great screen lovers.” He rolled his eyes. Then, it was like a door closed. Maybe he’d felt he owed us a little something for the musical inspiration, but enough was enough. “Well, darlings, Little Tommy must move along before his tucker’s missed.” He waved a regal arm. “It’s been grand.”
“Yeah,” I said, “see you at supper.”
Ed smiled, rather absently, and Tom sauntered back out of the cabin like the feline he was.
“That one’s cute,” I said. “You should get his number, for when Nicky screws it up, which he will.”
“We’ve already dated,” Ed said, his mind still elsewhere. I had to blink. Ed had been busy, and I hadn’t been keeping track. It wasn’t fair. He’d seen and had an opinion about every starlet I’d ever managed to talk into going out with me, and all the time he’d been getting away with murder. I was going to have to pay much closer attention, in the future.
At dinner that night, though, it was business as usual. Ed and I had a lot to talk about, since his parents’ golden wedding anniversary was only a month away and I’d been invited to the big bash. Both of us wanted to take in some shows while we were back in Manhattan, but we also had another job waiting at the studio. Ed and I were busy discussing over steak whether or not we should try flying back east or stick to taking the Californian. So, it took us a while to notice that the atmosphere was explosive at the next table. Once we figured it out, though, we finished up and left in a hurry. Ed’s presence wouldn’t help if the situation blew.
The day’s heat didn’t break after sunset and the onshore breeze was weak and stopped way too soon to cool down the land. Somewhere back in the mountains they must have been having some major storms. It was my night in the cot and I tossed and turned, trying to get some sleep. At least, I tossed and turned until the damn thing ate me up again.
My muffled cries of rage woke up Ed, and he helped me to disentangle myself. Then we turned on the lights and took a look.
“There seems to be a bolt missing,” Ed said. “It must have been working loose for a while. That’s why the octopus keeps on collapsing.” He had a smear of grease across his bicep, very fashionable.
“I found it,” I said. It had rolled halfway under the bureau. I stood back up and Ed and I tried to put the bolt where it belonged. No good: we needed a wrench, something that tasteful cabins don’t usually come equipped with.
I stared at the cot in frustration, and then turned to look at the bed. It was large, but still, it would be better if—inspiration struck. “Hey, Ed!”
He called back from the kitchen where he’d been going through drawers, “Yes?”
“We could telephone down to the store.”
There was a pause. “I really don’t see the night clerk as someone who’s good with tools, Sam, no matter what his other virtues may be.”
“Okay, how about the garage? The mechanic stays up late, doesn’t he?”
“If he has a fascinating carburetor to work on, he does.”
I was already pulling on my pants.
Ed insisted on going with me, so we could both break our legs on the gravel track if something went wrong. It was dark outside, much darker than it’d been the night we arrived. The storm clouds must be moving out to sea overhead. We crunched our way down towards the faint illumination of the general store past el Cabin Poetica—the lights were out, I noticed as we passed—and kept going.
We got to the front of the garage and the big bay door was shut. The sign on the office door next to it was flipped to ‘Closed’ but I said, “I think he’s in there. A light’s on.” Ed made a dubious noise. Even so, I tried the door to the office and it opened. We went inside.
Ed says we should have hung around the cash register and yelled for assistance, but I say it wouldn’t have made any difference because the door to the garage was open and going in was the natural thing to do. I marched in first but Ed was on my heels, so we both had a perfect view because he’s taller than I am. Clearly visible under the light of the single bulb, the mechanic, Pete, had Tom Thomas bent over a stack of tires and was giving it to him up the ass.
I stopped. Ed stopped. We both stared for a minute, making sure that we were really seeing what we thought we were seeing. Tom, facing away from us, growled like he was enjoying himself, one hand obviously busy down below. Pete, his hands on Tom’s hips, pumped cheerfully and methodically away like he was blowing up an inner tube or something. The sound effects were—interesting.
Ed and I backed out of there faster than if we’d gone into the studio offices and spotted Ed’s ex-wife’s sables hanging on a coat rack. We hiked all the way back up the hill without a word between us and, still silent, went into the kitchen of the cabin. Two ginger ales on the rocks later, I found my voice and said to Ed, “I bet that costs extra.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Ed said primly, and topped up his glass. Then, “Thunderation, we forgot the wrench.”
“The wrench, he says.” I rolled my eyes. “On the deck of the Titanic, ‘oh dear, I forgot my bath towel.’”
“It wasn’t quite the shock for me that it was for you.”
“Yeah, like you play peek-a-boo all the time.”
“No, I meant what they were doing,” Ed snapped.
I pursed my lips and said nothing. The silence stretched. Then, the silence stretched a lot.
“Sam,” Ed said, ominously.
“Is there something you haven’t told me?” I didn’t say anything. I’m a member of the A.C.L.U. and I know my Fifth Amendment rights. Ed gave me about a minute and then said, this time seriously, “Come on, Sam, talk to me.”
“Look, you know I don’t lie to you so well.”
Ed stared at me for a while. “Keep going,” he said, finally. “I want to know who I have to kill.”
“You can’t. You promised me you wouldn’t.”
“I promised—oh, no.” His voice was dazed. “I couldn’t have.”
I stared up at the ceiling. “Sure you could have. You were drinking a lot around that time, remember?”
“But, Sam.” Now he’d moved on to pitiable. “That’s just it. I don’t remember.”
“I don’t remember some of the details so good myself, but the evidence was pretty clear afterwards. It was that night with the revolver. You remember the revolver?”
“You’d better. And I know you remember what you promised me the next morning, when we were both so hung-over I almost got the revolver back out of the trash can. I know it because you dried out and changed shrinks like you said you would. But, do you remember what I promised you during that night, to get the revolver away from you?”
“Sam, that’s not fair.”
“Neither,” I said, pretty hot, “is a revolver. You scared the shit out of me.” I sat back and folded my arms. I was tight as a moneyman’s wallet; I was shut like a county bank in ‘33. Nothing could make me talk.
“Sam, please?” He really sounded worried.
“All right, all right.” I took a slug of ginger ale, trying to think of what to say.  “I blame that moron of a psychoanalyst for giving you ideas. You kept pouring me drinks and going on about how no one you cared for could ever—forget all that. You were drunk. Anyhow, I promised that if you gave me the revolver, I’d—you know, like Pete. You seemed to think it would prove something, one way or the other.”
Ed opened his mouth, shut it, opened it and said, “But, Sam, the gun wasn’t loaded.”
“I know that! Every agent and producer on Broadway and in Hollywood takes a try to grift me, and who finally manages it? You do, my so-called best friend! Ed, I felt like an idiot when I checked the drum before I dumped the revolver afterwards, and found out that it was empty.”
Ed watched me while I raved, his expression going from stunned through thoughtful to amused, the bastard. When he finally spoke, his voice was grave. “But, you kept your promise anyway. I don’t want to say anything corny, Sam. I know you hate mush. I merely hope the experience wasn’t too much of a shock for you.”
Now it was my turn to manage my voice. “Well, from what I remember it went, uh, okay. You know, like before. Rah, rah.”
“Oh yes, before.” Suddenly, he laughed. “Is this going to be a once a decade festivity?”
“How the hell would I know? Why don’t you ask me again three years from now?”
He grinned, but his eyes were speculative. “I might do that, by Jove.”
I waved a hand in the air. “Don’t. Don’t start talking New England. Just don’t. It makes me think of Admiral Nelson.”
“Which, in turn, makes me think of Nicky and Tom.” Ed shook his head very slowly. “This is not good, Sam.”
“You’re telling me? Nicky’s okay when he’s had time to think, but who takes time to think when he’s dragged his boyfriend off to an expensive hotel and then finds out the guy is doing it with the local hotsy-totsy?”
“He’d better not find out, then.”
“Yeah. Good idea. I wish we had anything to do with that.”
It wasn’t the most restful night I’ve ever had. It wasn’t even in the top one thousand. In fact, I spent most of the remaining hours of darkness lying on my side of the bed listening to Ed breathe on his side of the bed. I had a suspicion that he was listening to me breathe, too, but I didn’t have the guts to ask. He was up five minutes after I got out of the bathroom, though, and looked pretty sleepy over breakfast.
We only had one song left to go before we could return to Hollywood and normality or, at least, the life we were used to. Of course, that last song would have to be the tune we dried on, bad. Maybe it was the pressure or maybe it was because we’d run out of good tunes in the orphanage but, whatever the cause, the hours went by and the staff paper stayed blank. Finally, about mid-afternoon, I said to Ed, “Come on, boy. We’re not getting anywhere but stale. Let’s go out and get some fresh air.”
Ed gave the piano a sad look, as if it was a paramutual ticket for a nag that came in fourth, and said, “Okay, Sam, off we go.”
The gravel track to our cabin kept going up the face of the cliff as a dirt trail. I hadn’t explored it yet, having a natural objection to steep slopes. That afternoon, without a word between us, we turned and went trudging up, probably both wanting to nix any chance of meeting either of the residents of Cabin Poetica. It was a hard climb and we switched back and forth across the hillside several times before we worked out onto the nose of a ridge. There the trail widened out into a flat stretch of dirt, atop which some generous character had left an old wooden bench so that outdoorsy types could sit and appreciate the view. As we passed the bench, I said, “Ed, it’s me or this trail,” and sat down.
“Oh, you, I suppose,” Ed said, and went to the edge to enjoy the vista, which I admit was something to see. From this high, you could see the coastline sprawled out for miles to either side and the ocean stretching about half way to Nippon. The fog had held off today, although the on-shore breeze might bring it to join us for dinner, and the air was clear and fresh. Ed stood looking out at the scenery, his eyes narrowed with enjoyment, the wind toying with his hair. He refused to use pomade on that corn silk of his and it was always getting messed up. It made me want to comb it back into place with my fingers. Not only was that a stupid impulse but I’d been taking severe exercise, so I just sat and wheezed, instead.
Ed turned and half-smiled at me. I could tell he was about to say something about my heavy breathing so I pointed a finger at him. “No reviews.” It was breathy but at least I got it out.
He laughed, and turned back to admire the coastline some more. Then he stiffened. “Sam.”
“That automobile, coming around the point to the south of the Casa? It’s hard to tell at this distance, but it appears to be large and long, and it certainly is powder blue.”
I bolted up onto my feet and we went back down that trail a heck of a lot faster than we’d come up it. There’s only one person I’ve ever heard of who has a powder blue Rolls Royce limousine, and it was custom built for her as a gift from her devoted patron. For some unknown reason, probably spawned in the hellish sock drawer of Satan, Charlotte Harvey was being driven up the
Pacific Coast Highwaytowards La Casa del Conquesto.
We went downhill as fast as we could, fast enough that we had to steady each other a couple of times on the switchbacks, but it wasn’t fast enough. By the time we reached the parking lot, the chauffeur and maid were already pulling the powder blue, dyed-kidskin luggage out of the trunk of the limousine and stacking it up next to the general store, while a few of the locals and some travelers stood around and gaped at the show. Pete the mechanic, looking unaffected by his overtime, had come out of the garage and was walking around the Rolls, shaking his head now and then in admiration. Sam and I ignored them all and went into the general store.
It was our turn to be ignored. The bell rang sweetly as we went in, but neither the day clerk nor Hans even glanced at us. I couldn’t blame them. Charlotte herself is hard enough to disregard, what with that va-va-voom figure of hers topped by the features of a dim warrior archangel, but she was being escorted by her beau, Mr. Van Reisler, as well. I don’t think he’s been ignored since he went into long pants.
Van Reisler started as a stick and then dried out. He’s two inches taller than Ed, has silver hair, and could win the Mr. Wrinkle contest any time he cares to enter it. He also manages to wrinkle his hand tailored suits, which you’d think would make him look funny. There’s nothing amusing about his eyes, though. They’re a brown so deep they might as well be black, and they’re deadly sharp, which is not false advertising. The man’s taken on half of the studio executives in Hollywood single handed, and left them groaning in heaps in the corners of their luxurious offices. Right now, however, he didn’t seem to want a battle, he seemed to want a bed.
Hans was saying smoothly, “—not the surroundings to which you are accustomed, madam, but if you are determined?”
“Yes,” Charlotte said, determined. I’ll mention the ‘determined’ this one last time and then assume it from now on; happy and determined, wistful and determined, determined and determined, it was her natural state. “Nicky was right. I think this place is charming, don’t you, Bobo? It’s rustic.”
Van Reisler winced, but probably not at the Bobo. I think he’d grown immune to that, over the years. I’d imagine it was the mention of Nicky that smarted. Nicky and Charlotte were as thick as thieves and, in his only lapse of intelligence I’d ever heard of, Van Reisler had never figured out just how harmless their friendship was, and why.
Charlotte drew herself erect and her bosom swelled magnificently. “After what that Mr. Hearst said to my Bobo, well, a rustic change of scenery—”
“Thank you, my dear.” Van Reisler interrupted her, but his voice was gentle.  “I’m sure these good people don’t want to be bothered with our personal affairs.”
I could feel Ed twitch a little next to me. Van Reisler and Hearst hate each other: it’s a legendary Hollywood feud. It’s also well known that Charlotte has long wanted to see San Simeon. Van Reisler must have tried for reconciliation for her sake and something must have gone wrong. Great: he should be in a mood to chew nails.
He didn’t look like he wanted nails, though, just a chair. Hans, ever the perfect host, noticed and clicked his fingers. The red headed clerk got an armchair moved to where Van Reisler could sit in it, which he did, giving Hans a sharp, if grateful, once-over. Maybe ‘sharp’ when referring to Van Reisler had better be assumed from now on, too.
Hans shrugged, eloquently. “It is my pleasure, of course, to serve you. My largest cabin is at your disposal. Andrew, here, will direct your servants and cots will be set up for them in the dressing rooms. Dinner will be at seven; since this is the country, we are not formal. Is there any other way that I can be of assistance to you?”
Charlotte glanced around the general store, probably to see if there was anything to be smited in place of Hearst. Instead, her gaze lit on us and she smiled. “Why, Mr. Edwards! Mr. Schulman! How nice to see you!” She held out both hands.
“Miss Harvey. It is always a pleasure to see you, as well. And, as always, you look ravishing.” Ed took her hands and kissed them decorously. Van Reisler gave him a sha—a gaze, and then seemed to decide there was sufficient decorum for the gesture not to be offensive.
“Are you staying at La Casa? No, of course you are!” Her brown eyes got big. “Why, I’d heard you were brought in to work on the song book for Trafalgar. I hope we won’t be intruding on your creative processes.”
“Of course not. We’re almost done, in any case.”
Charlotte’s eyes grew wider. “Oh, you are? I’d love to hear—but, of course I don’t want to intrude.”
Andrew had brought Van Reisler a drink in a highball glass on a silver tray. Van Reisler rattled his ice cubes, somehow making it sound ironic. Ed’s gaze flicked to him and back away. I decided to examine the light fixture: Bauhaus, very nice. Ed said, smooth as butter, “Sam and I would both be delighted to hear an informed assessment of our work, Miss Harvey. Would you both care to join us in our cabin, perhaps an hour after dinner, for an informal recital?”
“You go ahead, dear,” Van Reisler said. “I’m a bit tired. I think I’ll make it an early night.”
She turned a stricken expression on him. “Bobo, are you sure?” To give her credit, she did care for the guy. I guess all her determination let her skate past how scary he was.
Now he smiled. “Yes, yes, go ahead. These matters are vital to your art, as they should be.”
Her art? I blinked, as she hustled over to kiss Bobo—I mean, Van Reisler—on his forehead and fuss over him. Even I, Sam Schulman, fan of popular culture, would have a hard time classifying what Charlotte Harvey does as art. I guess it’s really like they say: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
Ed and I had been dismissed. We retreated in good order back out the door and up the hill. As we passed Cabin Poetica, Nicky was coming out. He spotted Ed and his brow darkened, but before he could get out whatever dagger was up his sleeve, I said, “Charlotte Harvey just arrived with Van Reisler. Been talking up your vacation hide-away, by any chance?”
His expression went blank. He stood a moment, then turned and trotted down the hill. Ed watched him go and then said, “Not smart, Sam.”
“He gets up my nose. I like how he has a fight with his boyfriend and then turns on you, as if you’re the problem.”
Ed tilted his head and slowly smiled. “Never mind. Let’s get back up the hill and prepare for the royal presence.”
It didn’t take much. Charlotte’s pretty focused when she’s on the job, so we didn’t bother to worry about refreshments. We moved some chairs, instead, and got the staff paper sorted out, which we’d needed to do for a few days, anyhow. Then, it was time for dinner.
To my surprise—which just shows you I wasn’t thinking so well by dinner time—the seating arrangements had changed. At the farthest table, Charlotte and Nicky had their heads together and were chattering away. The other two tables were pushed together and Tom was already seated in the chair by the window, wearing an expression appropriate for a studio publicity man at Forest Lawn Mortuary. Ed and I sat down on either side of him.
“Hello, men,” Tom said.
Charlotte interrupted her love fest long enough to wave one diamond-cuffed hand at us. “Now, don’t you boys let Nicky and I interrupt your creative juices.”
“We won’t, Miss Harvey,” I said, smiled, and waved back. “Don’t worry about it. Dinners here are good for the juices.” I felt a sharp blow on my right shin. Ed had kicked me under the table. I turned back to glare at him.
“Do you mind if I sit in on your recital this evening? It will help me with my choreography.” Tom still sounded placid but I didn’t trust him for a red-hot second. I opened my mouth to say no and Ed kicked me again.
I said, sweetly, “Ed—”
“Sure, come join us, Tom,” Ed said. He tilted his chin up and added through his teeth, “Yes, Sam?”
“Nothing,” I replied, still sweet, and tried to kick him back. I missed and ended up sliding my foot along the inside of his leg underneath the tablecloth. Ed sat bolt upright with a peculiar expression on his face and then scowled at me.
Tom looked back and forth between us before he shook his head. “Boys, boys. Not at the table.”
I subsided and picked up my soup spoon. Conversation lagged at first, until Ed had the bright idea of asking Tom what he had in mind for the choreography of Lord Hamilton’s ball. Then the extra forks and knives got cast in amateur theatricals all across the tablecloth. We got pretty lively, but when I looked up and caught Nicky’s gaze on us for a moment, I felt uneasy. He smiled, but you could tell it was replacing something else on his features.
After dinner, a hurried conference between Ed and I, and more rearranging of furniture, our guests arrived. Tom and Charlotte were chatting pleasantly as they walked up the hill to our cabin, exchanging the sort of light studio gossip you can use to fill up any amount of time in Hollywood. It was probably all about work and money, two things that matter much more to most of us than the wild living that inflames the imaginations of the fans.
Charlotte shook hands with us again at the cabin door, and Tom gave each of us a firm grip along with a manly flash of white teeth. They both sat down, Charlotte, of course, in the room’s one arm chair. Ed opened the lid to the keyboard. I sat on the kitchen stool, facing our guests, my notes in my hand. Since we only had one copy of the working score, it would be my job to sing the lyrics, so they could get some idea of how it would all sound when we were done.
We took it from the top. We were two songs in when Nicky arrived. Charlotte hushed him in a way that was a lot more annoying than his late entrance, but it was nothing to deal with compared to a room full of impatient production staff. Ed kept playing, I kept singing, and Nicky tried to be bored. It lasted only through Nelson’s first solo. He perked up and paid attention after that.
When we were done, Charlotte and Nicky started chattering to each other at a rate of about three hundred words a minute. Then Ed and I were pressed into replaying numbers. Then Nicky and Charlotte had to try singing some of the numbers. It took three hours for Charlotte to leave and it would have taken longer, if she hadn't had been worried about Van Reisler. Nicky saw her to the door and she drew his arm through her own and walked him out and down the drive. Tom looked after them, his expression shuttered until his chin suddenly firmed up. Then he stalked out the door, leaving Ed and I alone.
Ed closed the door. I was too busy to take care of it myself. Instead I was working a finger in my left ear, trying to discover if there would be any permanent hearing loss from having Charlotte and Nicky open up at point-blank range. “Next time, for those two, I get ear plugs.”
He stretched. “Let’s hope we’ll be in a bigger room for our next recital.”
“Still, it went pretty good, I thought.”
“Yes. I think they’ll back us when it comes to pitching the songs.” Ed was trying not to sound pleased but he wasn’t succeeding. “Do you want some more ginger ale?”
“Yeah, pour me one on the rocks, would you?” I closed the lid on the piano and put the music away, then plopped down in the armchair Charlotte had vacated. For some reason, I was exhausted.
Ed came back in and handed me my drink. “I wonder if they’ve fixed that cot yet.” Oh yeah, that’s why I was exhausted. He went into the bedroom.
It was a repeat of our first night at the Cabin. He came popping out of the bedroom like a gopher out of its hole. “Sam.”
“Yeah?” Somehow I knew what he was going to say before he said it.
“The cot’s gone.”
We stared at each other, then both pivoted and looked towards the front door. I was the one to speak first. “The clerks. They took the cot for Charlotte and Van Reisler’s servants.”
“They probably took Nicky and Tom’s cot, too.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better? I bet those two are in no mood to sleep together, and I bet we’ll get to hear all about it. Somehow.”
Ed sat down in the kitchen chair next to me all of a sudden, like someone let the air out of his legs.  “Yes, we probably will. Oh, Sam.” He shook his head. “I’m telling myself this is funny, but it isn’t quite working.”
“It’s not funny, it’s exhausting.” I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All right. Fine. Ed, we’re going to talk.”
Ed closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger.
“We’re big boys. We’ve known each other for years. We are strong willed, even; we can handle this.”
Ed’s shoulders were shaking. It took me an alarming few seconds to realize he was laughing.
“What!” It pissed me off, I admit it. I got to my feet and stood over him, my hands on my hips. “What’s so goddamned funny?”
Ed spread his arms wide. “We are, Sam. Look at the two of us. Almost twenty years of intimate friendship and—”
“How touching.” The voice came from the doorway. I pivoted. It was Nicky. He’d come back in without asking for permission. We should have remembered to lock the damn door. “Twenty years. That’s about three centuries, in Hollywood time. Too bad you have to do your fucking elsewhere, Ed.”
I made a noise. Ed was up on his feet, holding my shoulder. His grip was tight with warning.
From behind Nicky, through the open doorway, Tom came marching in. Great, a party. I wish I hadn't been invited. “Damn it, Nick, I told you Ed has nothing to do with this. I’ve just had it with you hoping the Good Fairy will turn you into a ‘real man’, so you can screw Charlotte and take her away from Van Reisler, is all!”
Nicky whirled around, and his mask slipped for a minute. He was in a white-hot rage, the sort that results in photographers being punched in the kidneys and cigarette girls being thrown off balconies and into swimming pools. “Shut up, you bitch! I don’t want to hear a word out of you!”
Tom’s nostrils flared—something inside me noted that it looked different in real life than in the pictures—but he said nothing. Nicky turned back to Ed. “You couldn’t resist your little revenge, could you? Well?”
I felt Ed draw himself up to every inch of his New England height. Then he said, each word clear and measured, “Nicky, why do you think I would bother sleeping with Tom, when Sam’s sharing my bed?”
Nicky stared for a moment. Then, “Horseshit!”
Ed’s voice was cold. “Don’t ask me, ask Sam. You’re the one who told me not to deceive myself, that no normal man would ever lie about his sexual tastes.”
When Nicky stepped forwards, his head down, I was reminded of a bull. I felt my own jaw jut out in response. Nicky said, his voice thick, “Fine. Swear it on your mother.”
I had to clear my throat to keep the anger tamped down. “Yeah, I swear on my mother I’m sleeping with Ed.”
Nicky’s head jerked back like I’d hit him, and I suddenly began to understand what was really at stake here. But, to hell with him. If he was stupid enough to lie to himself about how he truly felt about Ed, especially in his own black book, he deserved what he got.
He wasn’t giving up without a fight, though. “Okay, you slept with him. Big deal. Everyone knows that you only do it with girls.”
Blood pounded in my ears. In some tiny corner of my brain, I was amazed to hear my voice sounded steady as I said, “We’ve fucked. Don’t ask me to add my mother to that sentence if you want to walk out of here instead of being carried.”
“You greasy—” I knew what he wanted to say, but my lyrics had made Al Jolson and Eddy Cantor happy, and he knew what would happen if word got around Hollywood that he’d said it. Instead, he turned to look at Tom, who stared back at him steadily, expression opaque. “Well?” Tom said nothing. He only shook his head no. Nicky turned from side to side, like the bull was now in the arena in Tijuana, facing the picadors. There were three of us, he had lost, and he saw it. Without another word, he turned away and went out into the dark. We all waited for the sounds of him crunching down the gravel drive to fade away, before anyone spoke.
Tom blew out a breath. “Well. What drama.” He looked at the two of us, standing there together, and suddenly his eyes were amused. “I think—yes, I think I will go and see if Pete can loan me his couch for the night. You don’t need Tommy Third-wheel just now, I can tell.”
Ed’s hand was still on my shoulder. I didn’t shake it off because I could feel, even through my shirt, that it was trembling a little.
Tom nodded his head at I don’t know what, and left. Along the way, I found my voice. It sounded harsh. “Close the door.” Tom didn’t say anything. He only waved a hand in acknowledgement and closed the door, with himself on the other side of it.
The hand came off my shoulder like my collar was on fire. I turned. “Ed.” He looked pale, maybe a little sick. “Eddy-boy, hey.”
He was still holding himself bolt upright. “Nicky will spread that tidbit all over town. He knows it’s the only revenge he’ll get.”
“Eddy, come on, sit down.” When I got my hands on him, he folded up into the armchair like he was that damn octopus cot. “So, what? I’m going to find it hard to get dates? It’s already tough.”
His hands were laced together in his lap, as if we were in the headmaster’s office. “I can not bring myself to believe I said that.”
“Why? It worked. He left. How much more can you ask for, from one sentence?”
“I can ask not to get you in trouble again!” At least he was finally raising his voice.
“Ed, you are forgetting something here.”
“What!” Now it was his turn to say it too loudly.
“It was true. We have fucked.”
He grimaced and looked away. “Do you have to call it that?”
I looked at him. His corn-silk hair was flopping around again. “No. No, I don’t have to call it that.” His eyes came up to meet mine. Time seemed to slow, even though there was no carriage clock in my head to tick it off. I swallowed. “I don’t know what you call it, but not that, no.”
His lips parted slightly. Then he caught himself and they firmed back up. “Now, Sam.” Nine generations of Yankee rectitude in two words. So, Mr. Noblesse Oblige had decided not to drag me down into the gutter with him. It was time to get his brain working again.
I turned the kitchen chair next to him around and straddled it. “No, listen, Ed. I bet you made yourself not think about this because you’re a good guy, and because you don’t want to be playing producer and bothering me. Me, though, I’ve kind of had to chew it over.” Ed wanted to be the one talking, I could tell, but he was trying to be patient. It made the next bit easier. “I don’t know about the sex stuff, and I don’t know if it matters, but you’re my best friend. My very best friend.”
“It always matters.” His voice was rueful and maybe a little amused.
The tone told me where he was going, or, anyhow, where he wasn’t going: out the door. I felt the relief hit me so hard I had to close my eyes for a second. “Yeah, okay, it does, but not enough to break up the team, right?”
“Right.” He sounded pretty relieved himself.
“It’s not like anything new has happened, right?”
“So, there’s plenty of time to work out the sex stuff, right?”
“Right. It’s—” Ed stopped dead. He shook his head. “Oh, no. You’ve done it again.”
I sat up straight in the chair. “What?”
“Yet again. I can’t believe it.” He threw up his hands. “Both of us should be fleeing into the night. Instead, I have now agreed to work on debauching you, or being debauched by you, whichever terminology you prefer.” He shook his head. “It’s no good. You’re right; we might as well sort it out. We’re acting exactly like our parents, and none of them has ever escaped.”
“Well, yeah Ed, I thought that was obvious. A sharp guy like you, and you hadn't figured that out? I’ve known for a couple of years that it was no good planning on getting married again.”
Ed was outraged. “That is not what you said!”
“Yeah, it was. I was kind of trying to work up to it by stages, is all—”
“—going on about thundering feet and housekeepers, by Jove!”
“—maybe we could try moving in together, I thought, and date other people, or—”
“You are supposed to be the words man! I do the music! Music—”
“—can’t say, okay you don’t remember but we did it together and it was pretty good, so how about—”
“Samuel Arthur Schulman!” His voice was truly awful. I shut up. He extended one long arm, forefinger pointed at the bedroom door.
I got up. I went.
All those years, all those songs together. All those dances at the Grove, and the Biltmore, and in my bedroom: all those wasted blondes. All those nights in the clubs watching my favorite blond watch the band, moving his fingers along the tablecloth in time with their rhythm, riffing along the invisible keyboard of his dreams. Now he moved his fingers along me and I sang for him, and I took him into my arms and he danced with me. Gotta sing, gotta dance: there’s nothing else quite as fine for two tin-pan alley boys.
When we lay there together, afterwards, the view seemed so clear, so thrilling, even though I knew the road would be twisty and dangerous ahead. But, we still had the words and the music, and they had always saved us. Salvation. Savior. Savior of his nation. I sat bolt upright in bed.
“Yes, Sam?” His voice was languorous, warm.
“I got it! I got the idea for the last song!”
He sat up himself, skin and hair both glowing gold in the lamplight. His eyes, blue as New England skies in spring, narrowed in interest. “Really? How are you going to handle that skunk?”
Okay, so maybe sitting on wooden stools, naked, at a piano, scribbling on staff paper isn’t everyone’s idea of a romantic, arousing way to spend your first night together. But Ed and I aren’t everyone. We write songs, and we’ll make time for the other. After all these years, we both know what we want and how to get it.
Gotta sing. Gotta dance.
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