Jun 7 2014 3:45pm
Blacklist: A New Excerpt
Blacklist by Jerry Ludwig is a murder mystery set in 1959 Hollywood where the refusal to testify landed you on an industry-wide blacklist (available June 10, 2014).
The last time the United States looked on its own citizens with suspicion, the results were ruined dreams, shattered lives…and murder.
Today, people point fingers and shout, “terrorist!” Not long ago, the accusation was “Communist!” Many who testified before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee said they did so out of desperation and fear. Those who refused to speak were fired or blacklisted. Others fled rather than betray friends…or their belief in American liberty.
David Weber and Jana Vardian were Hollywood’s golden children; their fathers, successful screenwriters, mingled with stars and studio moguls. Then HUAC shattered their idyll, sending David and his parents into exile in Europe; Jana’s father testified and soon became a famous director.
Returning to Los Angeles as an adult to bury his father, David comes to the attention of FBI agent Brian McKenna, who is still eager for a big case. Jana Vardian watched her father torture himself after testifying; David’s return painfully reminds her that she once believed in love and loyalty.
When people with ties to HUAC and to David’s father begin turning up dead, long-buried secrets are dragged into the open. McKenna quickly tags David as the prime suspect, but in a world where special effects can turn a man into a beast, Hollywood’s sheen of glamour cannot long mask its dark past.
So I’m sprawled in a lounge chair next to the swimming pool at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood wondering where Teddy is. Theodore Weaver, my father, best friend, and mentor. A brilliant, witty, extraordinary screenwriter. He died in my arms in Rome four nights ago after he finished editing the movie he’d directed that was to be his comeback achievement. Heart attack at the brutally young age of forty-eight.
Despite the aching loss that permeated me and the feeling of being totally alone in a world where no one gives a damn about me, I somehow made the necessary arrangements to bring him back here for burial. Ending his political exile. But like a lost suitcase, the airlines have misplaced the casket. It went astray when we changed planes in New York. I came on to L.A. and they still don’t know where the hell Teddy went. That was three days ago. I feel like strangling someone.
Instead I lean back in the lounge chair and stare at my surroundings. It’s late afternoon in October, 1959. The pool area is deserted. The sky is smoggy yellow-gray. The Chateau, as everyone calls this place, still looks the same as when I first saw it as a child. A multi-turreted, Mediterranean-style hotel with a carefully cultivated aura of shabby-chic. The lobby features overstuffed sofas and languidly turning ceiling fans. It’s an oasis of what passes for civility in Hollywood, nestled a couple of hundred yards above the touristy Sunset Strip.
Panorama Studio put us up here for the first couple of weeks when they brought our two families—the Weavers and the Vardians—out from New York in 1937. It’s where the studios book the special VIPs until they get acclimated.
Teddy and Leo Vardian were already a red-hot radio writing team—Weaver & Vardian—spoken like a run-on word, two halves that made a dazzling whole. Physically they were a Mutt and Jeff team, bearlike Teddy and foxy little Leo. Two buddies from Brooklyn who had conquered the Big Apple and now were poised for success in Hollywood. All blue skies then.
I get out of the lounge chair and restlessly stroll around the pool, pausing at the deep end to gaze down at my reflection. First time I did this, it was chubby little three-year-old Davey Weaver looking back up at me, innocent happy guy. Now I’m twenty-four, six-two and lean as a long distance runner, strong as the U.S. Army Ranger I used to be, and if it I weren’t for my sunglasses I’d be seeing the angriest eyes in the Greater L.A. area. But the shimmering waters of the Chateau pool look the same.
Nothing’s changed. Everything’s changed. Question is: can things ever change back?
My heels make a hollow clicking sound as I walk across the tiled lobby of the Chateau. Before I reach the desk, the starchy, officious desk clerk I’ve been pestering shakes his head. No message from the airline.
So I’m still stuck in this surreal limbo. But I realize that much of my anxiety is at being back in the town that I grew up in. Weird, isn’t it? So many people dream of coming to Hollywood and I feel like a soldier home from the wars, wary as hell of the reception I’ll get.
I start for my room and a guy sitting alone behind a potted plant folds his newspaper and gets up. Tall, tan, lanky, late forties, dressed in a black sharkskin suit without a wrinkle in it. Carrying a gray snap-brim fedora, he’s looking more weathered than the last time I saw him. I go down the corridor; so does he. I force myself to stroll, but I’m tensed up by the sight of an old enemy.
I unlock my door and behind me he says:
“Mr. Weaver, my name is McKenna.” He flips open a small leather case, shows me a gold badge and an F.B.I. identification card. As if I didn’t remember him. The number one figure on my Hollywood Hate Parade. “Can I speak to you for a moment?”
“Let’s go inside.”
“Do you have a warrant?”
“Oh, c’mon, kid. Don’t be like that.”
“I’m not a kid. That was last time.”
“Quite a few years. Surprised you remember.”
“Some things you never forget.”
The last time McKenna appeared on my doorstep was almost a decade ago, in 1951, at our house in upscale Brentwood near the top of Tigertail Drive. Mom and Dad had ordered me to never open the door unless I knew who was knocking, but this one time I’d been playing with the dog and the bell rang and I forgot and I swung the door wide and there were two Slim Jims. McKenna did the talking.
“Your father home?”
“N-no,” I stammered. “Nobody’s home.” But they could hear the typing upstairs. They pushed past me and started for the staircase. Later on they signed a sworn affidavit that I invited them in.
“Teddyyyyyyyyyy!” I yelled. It was the first time I’d used his first name. The typing stopped. The two F.B.I. men raced up the stairs. When they reached the second floor and disappeared down the hallway, I saw my father drop off the thick maple tree branch outside the window of his study down onto the lawn. He crouched, like a hunted beast, and looked over at me through the open front door.
I’ve never forgotten that look.
Then he ran off and they didn’t get him that day to serve the pink subpoena for the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The shame that coursed through me that day still remains. It is a frozen instant no son should ever have to experience—the sight of my father stripped of dignity and rendered powerless and all because of my careless blunder. Teddy never blamed me for opening that door, but I never stopped blaming myself.
And now here’s McKenna at the Chateau. I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Gone from Hollywood nearly ten years. Senator Joe McCarthy, who cowed even President Eisenhower, has died in disgrace. But the Cold War that McCarthy exploited still lives on. Apparently so does the Blacklist.
“What do you say, Mr. Weaver?” McKenna asks. “Can I come in?” So polite, this time. But why the hell should I let him? Then he adds, “I’ve got some news you’ll be interested in. About your father.”
“Tell me out here, Slim Jim. I don’t want to have to fumigate my room after you’re gone.”
“My name’s not Jim, it’s—”
“Brian. Brian McKenna. Says so on your ID, but to us you were all Slim Jim. Dark suits, dark glasses, snap-brim hats, skinny as bird dogs, good manners, bad news.”
I lean against the mustard-colored wall outside my closed door. Fold my arms, making myself elaborately comfortable. Bet I could take this asshole out now if I had to. McKenna pretends he’s not annoyed.
“Okay, we can do it out here.” Takes practice to make agreeing sound so threatening.
“Guess I should be flattered by your visit,” I gibe. “After all those years of being on my father’s case, now you’re keeping tabs on me.”
He probably knows about the screaming match verging on a fistfight that I got into at LAX when the airline people told me they’d lost Teddy.
“You’re not a subject of interest to us, Mr. Weaver.”
“So why are you here?”
“First of all, I wanted to give you an update. Your dad’s casket arrived. You can notify your mortuary to pick it up at the Air America cargo terminal.”
“You bastard!” My rage index skyrocketing. “You’re still haunting Teddy even after he’s dead. Fuckin’ bodysnatchers. Shanghaied his casket, moving him from city to city while you go through his pockets and the lining of his coffin, looking for what? An atom bomb? Haven’t you turds got any sense of decency?”
Someone clears his throat. “Everything all right, Mr. Weaver?” It’s the fussy desk clerk from the lobby. Standing at the end of the hallway.
“Everything’s fine,” McKenna says, without taking his eyes off me.
“Mr. Weaver?” the clerk repeats.
“Fine,” I mutter as I keep the staring contest going with McKenna.
“Just call if you need anything.” With a frown, he disappears. McKenna waits until he’s gone, then says in that infuriatingly unruffled voice they use, “The airline lost the casket, we helped find it. As a courtesy.”
“Yeah, you betcha.”
“Hey, I’m sorry for your loss. I understand he was a very nice man.”
“You mean, for a diabolical Commie menace to the republic, plotting to overthrow the government by force.”
“Look, Mr. Weaver—I just gather information. Follow orders. Other people decide how it fits together.”
“That’s what the war criminals said at Nuremberg.”
He ignores that. Just rolls on. “But after all the years of reviewing your father’s file, seems to me all he was guilty of was signing some checks and petitions for the wrong causes.”
“Are you saying that in an official capacity, Agent McKenna?”
“I’m not here in an official capacity.”
“So I asked you before—why are you here?”
“To deliver this.”
McKenna hands me a dark blue booklet. There’s one like it in my pocket. Been there since the bad times began; Teddy taught me that. Always have it with you so if you have to you can go straight to the airport.
It’s a U.S. passport.
I flip it open. Brand new. A photo of Teddy on the first page, taken years ago. Valid from 1959 through 1965.
“This is a joke, right?”
“Your dad applied to the embassy in Paris for a renewal.”
“Seven years ago. When they confiscated his old passport.”
“Well, it cleared a couple weeks ago,” McKenna says.
“Better late than never.” He ignores that one, too. So I step up the sarcasm. “Here I thought I was sneaking him in under the radar. But turns out it’s all legit. He’s got a passport. He’s officially welcome again in his own country. With the F.B.I.’s thoughtful assistance.”
“You’ve got a bad attitude, Mr. Weaver.”
“Gee, I wonder why.”
“Probably a problem with authority figures.”
“That’s what they told me in the Army.”
“I was thinking more recently—about your hassle at the L.A. airport.”
“No hassle. Only an energetic conversation with some incompetent idiots. Nobody got hurt.”
“But your temper scared a few people.”
“It’s a scary world, haven’t you noticed?”
He raises an eyebrow, maybe he’s wondering if he can still take me out. Then he gives a small fuck-you shrug and leaves. I enter my room to check for wounds: not only am I okay, I feel exhilarated. Got a little of our own back that time, Teddy. Then I begin to consider why McKenna came. He could have left a phone message about the casket and dropped the passport in the mail. Or even thrown it away. Despite his professed lack of interest in me, Slim Jim is still watching.
After McKenna leaves, I phone the mortuary and give them instructions. Then I sit alone in my room, the smallest and cheapest one in the hotel, until it’s almost dark. I pull the rented Chevy out of the hotel garage and drive west on the Sunset Strip. Still a brassy collage of tackiness and glitz. When our family used to drive along here, my mom would roll down the car window, take a deep breath, and joke: “M-m-m, know what that smell is? Naked ambition.” Dad would always laugh. Most of the dinner clubs my parents used to go to with their friends remain. Here and there a new music record shop has replaced an old bookstore, and Dean Martin’s neon caricature flashes over a nightclub with a waiting line out front. Since I left, there’s been a hot war in Korea to augment the cold one with the Russians, but no sign of any of that here.
I continue on Sunset into Beverly Hills, past the ten-foot hedges protecting the millionaire mansions. Then through elegant Holmby Hills into Westwood just north of UCLA. I’m driving on automatic pilot, as if I’m going home. Guess in a way I am.
When I reach Stone Canyon Road, I turn right and cruise past the classy, secluded Hotel Bel-Air. Deep in the canyon I park in the darkness on the side of the road with a view of the Vardian house. No lights on yet, so I’ve arrived in time.
The ranch house, designed by trendy local architect Cliff May, still has a friendly look. Simple, deceptively casual lines, soft colors, a place that blends comfortably into the wooded canyon around it. As a child there were two places I thought of as home. “Jana’s house” and “Davey’s house.” We spent so much of our time at one or the other. Wonder if that marvelous tree house out back where we used to play is still there?
Jana and me. Me and Jana. We grew up together. No, that doesn’t begin to describe it. Because of the closeness of our families we were inextricably joined. Born only two weeks apart, we learned to walk and talk together. I’m told that, like twins, we had our own private language when we were infants. Our fathers had a pal who was a metal sculptor, and they got him to construct a special double stroller so they could wheel us around Greenwich Village while they worked out story ideas. As kids we played with each other’s toys, shared most meals and games, picked each other up when we fell down, laughed and cried together. All to our parents’ delight.
Leo Vardian and my dad both came from a Brooklyn neighborhood called East New York-Brownsville, where the New Lots IRT subway ended. It was an area of cheap duplexes, mom-and-pop stores, still some half-paved streets, a scattering of weed-choked empty lots and old Dutch cemeteries. Peopled by families of first- and second-generation Jews and Italians.
Teddy’s father was Russian and he came to New York as a fifteen-year-old along with his older sister. They both found work in the sweat shops of the garment industry; he eventually became a union organizer. Teddy’s mother worked as a custom seamstress. They never made much money, but they were devoted to each other. Rest in peace.
Leo’s dad was from Poland and became a plumber; Leo’s mom was the Flatbush High night-school instructor who taught his dad English. Teddy and Leo grew up only a few blocks apart and they were best friends.
I never knew Leo’s first wife, Shirley; she died giving birth to Jana. She and Ellie Birnbaum, my pretty mom, also were best friends. The four of them met in Junior High School 149. The two couples were married together in a double wedding and lived across the street from each other in the bohemian, politically progressive Village, while the guys were struggling to establish themselves as writers. They still hadn’t made it when Shirley passed away.
In the intense sorrow that followed her death, Leo reportedly fell apart for a while, but my mom filled the void: she became Jana’s surrogate mother. She took care of us as if we were both her children. I know how much she enjoyed dressing up Jana. Laughing, Mom used to say it was like playing dolls. Later, when we were almost teenagers and living in L.A., Leo married Vivian Hollenbeck, a snooty New York socialite, who didn’t like kids. So Jana still brought all her girl problems to my mom. Teddy, of course, was a second father to Jana. And Leo was that for me, notably during those years when Teddy was away in the war.
So that’s how it was. Jana and I always together. Trophy children doted on when we weren’t being totally ignored by our parents. Not out of meanness, but they were interested in—and once we reached Hollywood, they were constantly surrounded by—interesting people. And let’s face it, they used to say, kids aren’t that interesting. So we had to be precocious to get attention, but the rest of the time we could spend amusing ourselves. We invented make-believe worlds, confided every secret, and shared every new discovery.
When we were nine she proposed a scientific experiment. She had heard that methane gas from farts were inflammable, so she borrowed the Ronson lighter on her father’s desk and we climbed up into the tree house in the backyard. I dropped my pants and let a big one go—Jana flicked the lighter, both of us braced for an explosive whoosh. And the fart did light up—but only enough to blow out the flame. We both laughed so hard we almost fell out of the tree house.
From the time we were ten we had wheels—bicycles, not cars—and there was no stopping us. We’d pedal to the library or the park where we would stretch out on the grass and gaze up at the clouds, wondering how high is up and whether there are people on other planets. “Not like us,” Jana said happily. We bumped shoulders and laughed.
I loved her laugh, it came out almost like a snort. And I adored her gift for sarcasm, except when it was directed at me. In school it often got her into trouble. But she was bold and irrepressible. I remember when we were maybe eleven and had the meanest teacher at Kenter School. Always picking on Jana. We were priming for a district-wide spelling bee. The teacher called on Jana to spell the word assume and use it in a sentence.
“Assume,” Jana chanted, “ay-ess-ess-you-em-ee. Assume. Never assume your teacher is smarter than you are.” That got her a classroom guffaw and a trip to the principal’s office. Her dad didn’t punish her, because he and my parents thought it was funny.
Things between Jana and me changed around the time we were thirteen. We became a little shy around each other. I started getting a buzzing feeling when we were together, and she seemed to feel something similar. It was too strange for us to talk about, but Jana found an outlet. She confided in my mom. I would walk into a room where they were having these deep conversations and they’d stop talking. And both smile at me. I really felt left out. When I mentioned it to my dad, he assured me that women just were like that sometimes.
What it was, of course, was hormones kicking in. Mom had explained all the ramifications to Jana, and she explained them to me. Suitably cautioned; nevertheless, Jana and I began to spend a lot of time up in the tree house where earlier we used to swing on ropes and play Tarzan and Jane. Now we were tentatively embarked on an even more exciting game. We were too young and too scared to do much more than hug and brush lips and dare exploratory gropes. But it was our newest secret and it was thrilling. We were boyfriend and girlfriend. Then our brief interlude of puppy love was interrupted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
After my dad bailed out the window to avoid the federal process servers, he got to the nearest phone to warn his partner they would probably be knocking on his door next. Teddy and Leo made a beeline for their high-powered lawyer—that’s how they always referred to Harry Rains.
Harry calmed them down. Of course, they had reason to be worried, he acknowledged. The Hollywood Ten, comprised of writers, producers, and directors, had recently had their lengthy court appeal rejected and gone off to prison for Contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the sixty-four-dollar question: “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party” and name anyone and everyone they knew who was. Now HUAC was reconvening new hearings. A subpoena was a ticket to the Blacklist.
“So what do we do?” our dads asked.
“Leave it to me,” they quoted Harry Rains, who told them to go home and relax. He would handle it. Everything would work out for the best.
We all wanted to believe that. My normally sunny mom,—dad always called her “Ellie with the laughing eyes”—had the most difficulty. She was trembling and had to take a sedative that night. But during the next few weeks there were no more knocks on either family’s doors.
Then mom had a scary encounter in upscale Vicente Food Market in Brentwood. She was filling her shopping cart and reached for a ripe cantaloupe and someone tried to grab it away from her. It was Lela Rogers, Ginger Rogers’ mother. Teddy and Leo had written a hit movie for her daughter. Lela Rogers was one of the Hollywood right-wing activists who used her political contacts in Washington to bring HUAC to town.
“Excuse me,” Mom said, “but this melon’s mine.”
“Whatever happened to share and share alike, you Commie bitch!” Lela Rogers snarled. “You should all go to the electric chair.”
She meant like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed recently for stealing A-bomb secrets for Russia. Mom came home in tears.
Again, Harry Rains assured our dads he was working on the matter. But on the afternoon of the Fourth of July, 1950, both our families were at the UCLA baseball diamond for the softball game and picnic sponsored by the Screen Writers Guild. The annual event also celebrated the recognition of the Guild by the major movie studios only a decade before. That had been accomplished after years of stonewalling by the studios. Finally, the writers filed suit with the National Labor Relations Board and the studios were forced by federal court order to negotiate a contract. The directors and actors organized and rode in on the NLRB ruling.
Jana and I were in the bleachers with her stepmom and my mom, cheering for our guys. Bottom of the ninth and their team was ahead by one run, but before the first opposing batter could step up to the plate, the same two Slim Jims—McKenna in the lead again—strolled up to Teddy and Leo in the outfield and served them with HUAC subpoenas. Everyone was silent. Doing it in front of a hundred writers and their families was chilling. A man behind us whispered, “It’s like the first roundup of the Jews by the Nazis.” The writers in the stands began to hiss and boo the F.B.I. agents. I was scared. Were they going to put handcuffs on Uncle Leo and my dad and drag them off? Then I noticed my mom was shaking, real bad, so I put my arm around her the way I thought Dad would if he were up here.
The F.B.I. agents smiled and doffed their fedoras at the hostile crowd and walked off. Leaving the taint of fear in the air. But after a moment of confusion and murmurs, the home plate umpire shouted “Play ball!” So the game played out. Our team won.
But our family didn’t stick around for the picnic. We raced home. Dad showered while Mom packed a suitcase for him. I was crouched in a fetal position on the floor of the landing outside their bedroom listening to them check off the details. Underwear, pajamas, travelers checks, don’t forget the reading glasses. As if this were an ordinary business trip, except for the panic in their voices.
My father was making use of the escape plan they had concocted long before. Passport in his back pocket as always. Down the stairs, through the kitchen, into the attached garage. Garage door down, blocking the view from the street, we loaded the suitcase. I climbed into the front seat, my mom got behind the wheel, and my dad, covered by an old blanket, hid on the floorboard of the backseat. We pulled out and drove to the airport, Mom brushing tears from her eyes in order to see the road, me looking behind us through the rear window to see if we were being followed, hoping that when we reached the airport there wouldn’t be police waiting or Dad’s name on a Stop This Man list. I was scared all the way that a squad car would pull us over.
Sweating, we got to LAX and held our breaths. Dad bought a ticket, and no one stopped him. Plane leaving almost immediately. We raced to the departure gate where Dad hugged me and said, “You’re the man around here now. Take care of your mother.” I was too upset to ask him what he meant. Exactly how was I supposed to take care of her?
Then he embraced Mom and kissed her, said “I love you, Ellie, see you soon.” It was worse than when he went off to the war. She clutched at him, tear-stricken, didn’t want to let go, but she had to because the gate was closing. I held Mom’s hand, and she gripped my fingers so hard it hurt, but I held on until Dad disappeared from sight. Then we went to the floor-to-ceiling terminal window and watched the plane take off for Mexico City.
I was confused and horrified that after all the overheard conversations during these last years this was actually happening. My father was fleeing the country where he was born, the country he fought for in France, Belgium, and Germany. I was old enough to understand he was leaving rather than appear before HUAC and name names. Betray old friends. But I wasn’t old enough to understand how our country had become this way. And why did it have to happen to my family?
We got rid of our house at a loss five weeks later in a distress sale and followed Dad to Mexico. The Vardians saw us off at the airport. Uncle Leo was working around the clock to finish postproduction work on the movie he had just directed. His first A production. While Dad was away in the war, Leo, who had been deferred because of a heart murmur, had climbed the Hollywood ladder and become a hyphenate: writer-director. As soon as he finished editing, they would follow us south of the border—unless Harry Rains was successful in his efforts to quash the subpoenas. Leo was still hopeful, Jana and I vowed to write to each other every day.
Dad had found us a hacienda in Oaxaca. The town reminded me of Olvera Street in downtown L.A. with all the Mexican craft and clothing stalls and cantinas featuring mariachi musicians and spicy foods. The Mexicans working on Olvera Street all spoke English, and they wore colorful costumes with lots of spangles, as if they were extras in an MGM musical. The citizens of Oaxaca wore simpler clothing and the food was even tastier, but most of them spoke only Spanish. Mom was nervous, as if she had been banished to Mars. Dad promised that when Uncle Leo and his family got here, that would make things better. But the Vardians were delayed. We didn’t know why. Dad didn’t think the phones were safe enough for us to call Leo. Then he received a call from Harry Rains.
When he hung up the phone, all the color had drained from Dad’s face. “What’s wrong?” Mom asked, a tremor in her voice. “Leo,” he finally managed. “Leo and his family won’t be coming.”
Leo had decided to go to Washington and testify. It was on the TV news the following night. My mom and dad and I sat there and saw it. Even in Spanish we could decipher the brief report. Leo squirming at a table in front of a microphone facing the Committee. “Hollywood Writer-Director Confesses To Being A Former Communist.” Names a half dozen others. The only surefire way to avoid the Blacklist. My parents recognized all the names. I knew several of them from Sunday barbecues. My father’s name was not mentioned. He was stoic; mom looked shell-shocked.
“Oh my god,” she whispered in a stricken voice, “how could Leo have done that?” But instantly she came up with an explanation. The footage was not real, it was doctored, distorted, the way the Hollywood special-effects people can do it. “I’m sure that’s what happened!” She turned to my dad for confirmation. He said nothing. It was the closest I’d ever seen him come to crying.
I was on the verge of crying, too. I kept thinking—will I ever see Jana again?
I did, but not until eight years later. And then it was totally unexpected.
Teddy and I were celebrating in the bar of the Ritz hotel in Paris with a sleazy Italian producer. He was buying the drinks, a rare gesture of largesse. We were delivering the final draft of a black-market script we had written for him—I was working with Teddy, by then in the shadowy world of Blacklisted writers, serving as a sounding board, helping Teddy work out stories, taking a first pass at some of the scenes. Teddy said I was getting good. We had just been paid the balance of our fee. As usual, Blacklist rules prevailed: very short money and no screen credit. The Italian producer left and we were finishing our drinks before returning to our dinky Left Bank hotel, when out of the low-lit barroom gloom Jana walked up to us.
My Jana. My heart jumped up into my throat. I had imagined what she might look like now. But my imagination had failed me. We were both twenty-three and the teenage promise had been fulfilled: she had matured into an absolute beauty. Tall, slender, lovely figure, dressed in a Givenchy pantsuit. Hardly any makeup, but her face, that face I dreamed about, was perfection. I was so thunderstruck I couldn’t speak. But she wasn’t talking to me or even looking at me.
She said to Teddy, “My father is in the booth over there. Will you talk to him?” Before Teddy could answer, she added: “He’s dying.”
Teddy got up and lumbered across to the booth. Leo was always a small man, now he was gaunt and shriveled, almost tiny. Jana and I stayed behind at the bar. I offered her a drink. She asked for a Coke. And we sat there on stools, side by side, watching the two ex-partners and ex-best friends deep in conversation. Leo was doing most of the talking.
I snuck a peek at Jana. “Well, look at you—all grown up.”
“You, too.” End of subject. She was still staring intently off at the booth. Hadn’t really looked at me yet. The flood of things I’d always planned to say to her had dried up. The silence between us extended. Gotta say something.
“What’s he dying of?”
I mumbled something I hoped passed for sympathy. She twisted her soda glass on the dark bar and gazed down at it. Still not looking at me.
“Your dad’s lost weight, too,” she said, “but he looks good.”
“Oh yeah,” I said, “Teddy’s good.” Then, trying to keep something going: “Teddy and I are working together now. I’m kind of the sous chef on the scripts we do, Teddy’s the master chef.”
“When did you start calling him Teddy?”
“A while ago. After I came back from Korea. When we started going to script meetings together, it sounded funny calling him Daddy.”
I waited for a response. A comment. None came. Another jumbo silence grew. Teddy and Leo still huddling, Teddy talking now. I shot a glance at Jana; she was holding her breath, obviously concerned about what Teddy might be saying. But the conversation in the booth remained low key. While our conversation here at the bar was nonexistent.
“Remember in the old days,” I finally said slowly, sadly, “we’d be able to finish each other’s sentences.…”
“And now we don’t even know how to start one.” She didn’t say it mean, or sad—just a fact.
Suddenly the meeting was over at the booth. Teddy was rising; Leo got up, too. He looked terrible. Fragile, rickety. They started to shake hands but it became an embrace. Leo desperately clinging, Teddy leaning over and patting his back.
Then Teddy came back toward the bar. Jana rose abruptly, reached over and squeezed my hand. “Nice seeing you.” Kissed Teddy gratefully on the cheek and hurried away. My long hoped-for opportunity to restore contact had evaporated while I dawdled tongue-tied. And she couldn’t even bear to look at me even once. Now she was back with Leo, who was swaying, one hand on the side of the booth for balance, waving to me with the other.
Out on the street, while the doorman hailed a taxi for us, I asked Teddy how it went. Teddy stared off. I waited, wanting to know but not wanting to pry. Then Teddy cleared his throat.
“He said, ‘I gave them names, Theo—but I didn’t give them yours.’”
“You believe him?”
“Would that make what he did to the others okay?” Teddy gave a terrible shrug. “But why berate a dying man?”
Then I got to see my father cry. There were tears slipping down Teddy’s cheeks and he pawed them away with his jacket sleeve. I didn’t know if he was crying for the fate that had befallen Leo or for what Leo had done. Probably all that and so much more. I put my arm around my father’s shoulder and guided him into the taxi.
The headlights turn into the circular driveway of the Vardian house. It’s a hunter-green Jaguar, the four-door sedan model. Of course Jana would be driving a roomy car, she’s had this claustrophobic thing about narrow spaces since she was a kid. The Jag is probably a birthday or a graduation present to her from Leo. She parks near the front door and the outdoor security lights are triggered. When she comes out of the car I can see her clearly. Casual but expensive sports clothes, suitable for the studio. Running shoes and a Panorama Studio windbreaker. She looks marvelous. Just as she did last night and the night before. This is the person who means more to me than anyone else. I can call to her from my car and she’ll turn and I can get out and come across the street and—what will I say?
Suppose I get there and it’s the way it was in Paris? Silence. Where there once was a never-ending flow of thoughts and feelings. Suppose that’s gone forever. The Blacklist looms like Mount Everest between us. Is it possible to get to the other side? I’m frozen in my car. I’ve charged up hills under machine-gun fire in Korea and I can’t get across this street in Westwood.
So I just watch her in silence again. Until Jana unlocks the front door of the house and disappears inside.
I’m about to turn my engine on when red and blue lights flash and glare in my rearview mirror. Cop car. No, not an LAPD cruiser. Residential security service, the words ARMED RESPONSE visible on the driver’s door as it opens. A hefty figure climbs out. Tan uniform and black gunbelt. As he swaggers toward my vehicle, he unsnaps his holster. I keep my hands in plain view on the upper half of the steering wheel. Last thing I need is to be shot by a trigger-happy rent-a-cop.
He taps on my window. Gestures for me to roll it down. He’s barrel-chested, with a lifetime of arrogance etched on his florid face. “Can I help you, sir,” he challenges.
“Just about to leave.”
“Yeah, been watching you from back there. Got business in this neighborhood?”
“A trip down memory lane, officer. Used to know a girl who lived in that house. Wanted to take a look at it again.”
“Can I see your driver’s license and registration, sir.”
“Car’s a rental,” I say. As I reach slowly into my jacket pocket, he shifts his hand onto the butt of his .38. So I’m very careful as I bring out a gray folder. He takes it, scans it, then says, “What the hell is this?”
“International driver’s license.”
Squinting at it—“Issued where?”
“Well, well, never seen one of these. You a long way from home, Frenchy.”
“I’m not French, I’m an American.” He’s starting to piss me off.
“But you been livin’ in Gay Paree, huh? You a draft dodger?”
“Look, is there a problem, officer?”
“You tell me—we been havin’ a rash of burglaries in this area the last couple months.” The way he says it, I know it’s bullshit.
“Sorry to hear that, but I just arrived in town a couple of days ago.”
“Can you prove it?”
“Matter of fact, I can.”
Still moving slowly, I produce my passport and point out the arrival date stamped by the custom’s officer in New York. He finds the passport even more interesting than the international driver’s license.
“Born in New York City. Religion: Jewish.” He hands the passport back to me. “Got a local address?”
“Chateau Marmont. In Hollywood.”
“Oo-la-la, a shat-tow! I shoulda guessed. Step out of the car, sir.”
“What?” He’s definitely pissing me off.
“You heard me.” Drawing his gun. Moving a pace away.
I climb out. He kicks the door shut. “Face the vehicle, hands on the roof.” I do it. “Spread your legs.” Then he roughly kicks them back so I’m off-balance, leaning against the car. Powerless. At least that’s what he thinks.
He frisks me with ham-handed abrasiveness. The black rage is boiling in me. At the bored inefficient assholes at the airport, at pushy smug Agent McKenna, at myself for not calling out to Jana, at the world generally—and it’s all focusing on this clown.
The frisk is over, he found nothing, and that frustrates him. He jabs me viciously in the back with his gun. The demon within me is rattling the bars of its cage. I struggle to keep it under control. “Here’s my advice to you,” he says. “Turn your cute little rented car around and scoot on back to your shat-tow and tell all the other fancy New York clipped-dick Jew boys to stay out of my neighborhood, or—”
I push off from the car and half-whirl around, smash an elbow in his abdomen knocking the wind out of him, while simultaneously slamming a lock onto his gun arm, twisting hard. Ranger-taught technique. I could easily snap his arm in this position. But I don’t. His gun goes flying and he falls back onto his butt, like Humpy Dumpty tumbling off the wall. He’s gasping for air and I automatically move into position to finish him off with a kick in the head. But at the final instant I catch myself. Restore control. Kositchek, the shrink I’ve been going to in Rome, taught me that. Anger control, he calls it. More difficult for me to master than any Ranger technique. I pick up the revolver and his eyes bug. I let him taste terror for an instant.
“You dropped this, officer.”
Then I flip the chamber open and let the cartridges spill on the pavement. I toss the gun in his lap.
“Don’t bother writing this up. It’ll only make you sound like a schmuck—that’s a Jewish word for idiot. Then I’d have to write up my version of what happened—and anyone who knows you more than five minutes will believe me. Have a nice night.”
I get in my car and make a U-turn and drive off. As I get back on Sunset, the adrenaline rush is diminishing. I’ve got the cage door shut again. Been fighting this compulsion to lash out at assholes since the bad days in Mexico.
When I reach the Chateau I’m not hungry or sleepy, so I stretch out on a lounge chair in the near darkness surrounding the pool. Music is wafting from an open window on a rear bungalow, and I can hear Bobby Darin singing “Beyond The Sea.” I wonder if Jana likes that as much as I do. We used to have the same taste in music. The underwater lights in the Chateau pool are on and the aquamarine water glows.
In the summer of 1937, when we first came out here, we were only three years old, and Jana and I learned how to swim in this pool. So is that what I’m harkening back to—long ago memories that Jana may have stopped recalling? Has she been married? Nah, I would have heard. Yeah, how? Once we were as close as twins, but that was then. Does she ever think of me? Even if she does, what do I have to offer her? She stayed, I left. Everything that once was ended then.
Yet here I am.
So I ask myself for the zillionth time, why am I really here? I force myself to put it into words:
I want Jana. And I want everything they took away from Teddy. Plus—if, as the adage goes, revenge is a dish best served cold, then I’d like to order a big serving of that icy item on the menu. Is that too much to ask?
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Jerry Ludwig is a multiple-Emmy Award–nominated writer for television. He has been nominated for the Golden Globe and the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for TV writing; he has also won the Writers Guild of America Award. Ludwig has written for Murder, She Wrote; MacGyver; Mission: Impossible; and Hawaii Five-O. Jerry Ludwig lives in Carmel, California.