Economy of Means
It was the kind of summer I liked: clear, cloudless days, and 90 degree
winds off the desert at night that cleared my sinuses and set the palm
trees rattling high above me in the darkness. I had it easy then. I worked
as long as the daylight lasted; at night I put a six-pack on the floor under
me, cranked the top down and drove. Sometimes out to Malibu or Venice,
sometimes up into the canyons. I'm not sure even now what I was
looking for. A place with a view, maybe, a place with a little room left at
the bar for amateurs.
It's not that I had anything against paying for my pleasures, you
understand. It's just that there were days when I wanted more -- days
when I wanted to go somewhere and start something without always
knowing how it would end, or how much it was going to cost me. Maybe
it was age creeping up on me, or city living -- maybe it was the wind. I
can't remember all the stories I told myself.
What I do remember is heading west on Sunset one Thursday late in
August, doorhandle to doorhandle with the rest of the rolling stock, full
of beer and out of gas as usual. I was just about ready to pack it in for
the night when I saw her.
She was twenty-two or three, maybe, leaning against an old Corvette with
her legs crossed and her hands jammed into the front pockets of her
jeans. I got one long, close look as I passed her, then a white-on-white
Mercedes purred up on my right fender, and she was small again, a flash
piece of Los Angeles jewelry disappearing in my rearview mirror,
moonlight on chrome.
Los Angeles, I thought -- Ciudad de la Reina de Los Angeles. Here you get
the real thing -- waterfall blonde hair, fifty dollar tee shirt.... And she's
not waiting for a trick, either. She's waiting for the cruise director, or the
casting director, or maybe the boy who owns the car is inside somewhere
buying her a snow cone.
I crumpled the last can and tossed it over my shoulder; considered going
around the block. I considered it for three or four more blocks, then
swung the wheel south and kept on going till I hit Beverly. I pulled into a
Seven-Eleven off Flores and threw another six-pack on the counter;
waited while a kid with a blue Hawaiian shirt and fresh comb tracks in
his hair rang it up for me.
By the time I got back to the car again, I was sweating. The wind had
quit, and it was hot -- too hot. I yanked the door open and leaned against
it for a moment while I fumbled with the keys. I kept having this vision,
this blonde-haired, neon-decorated vision....
It was still coming back to me in flashes, along with the beer, when I
turned into my driveway a half hour later and killed the lights. I sat there
in the dark for a minute or two, listening to the wind start up again. I
didn't feel so good.
I didn't feel any better when I woke up the next morning. The summer
had turned cruel on me overnight, and the refrigerator didn't offer much
relief. There was a jar of horseradish in the door, a brown-edged head of
lettuce on the middle shelf -- nothing even remotely resembling hair of
I bent down and waited for the room to steady. When my eyes began to
focus again, I peered into the white depths beyond the telephone and
found what I was looking for: the unmistakable glint of leftovers. I was
reaching for them, inhaling the aroma of mildew and cold aluminum,
when the phone rang.
I didn't jump. I said a few things, but I didn't jump. I hauled the leftovers
out instead, and twisted one out of its plastic harness. The "Jesus Saves"
sign on my liver started flashing at me, but I cracked the tab open
anyway and stood there with my head tilted back as an avalanche of
frigid air rolled over the lettuce and poured down onto the tops of my
bare feet. The phone came up for air just before I did.
I kicked the door shut and walked over to the window. 7:00 a.m., but I
could already hear old man Barrows pushing his beat-up lawn mower up
and down the side yard, the Nuñez kid across the street trying out
his new four-barrel. I pried the blinds apart and looked out just in time
to see the Barrows' raggedy old tomcat leap from one of the fence posts
up to the corner of the roof.
Cats.... I thought. Even the one-eyed fat ones can move like that.
Not me. I still had a few moves left, maybe, but not graceful ones. I let
the blinds drop and carried my beer over to the couch, raked the film
cans out of the way and sat down on the edge, away from the broken
spring. I held the Coors logo to the back of my neck and asked myself if I
really wanted to return Sam's call.
Reason -- and my bank account -- said yes; it was the pain over my left
eye that kept arguing.... Which is why the phone was in the refrigerator. I
hate talking to people on the phone, especially in the morning, and
talking to Sam face to face was better no matter what time it was. I could
use rude gestures, throw things; walk out and come back an hour later.
Not much of an advantage, maybe, but with Sam you took what you
I tried to think what he wanted -- I wasn't expected on the shoot until
eight, and the lab was still on schedule; I'd seen the proofs on my way
out the night before. Whatever it was, I decided to let it wait. I was late
already -- another hour or two wouldn't matter.
I took another hit, and thought a little more...about the business we were
in; about wants and needs and the weird little industries that satisfy
Contemporary Glamour Inc., that's what Sam called us. He and his
stockholders, all eight of them, were the Inc. part; they took care of the
finances and dug up the clients. The glamour was up to me. Not that I
would have called it that, exactly, but Sam was happy with it most of the
time, and it paid the bills. There were even a few fringe benefits now and
then, the kind that don't get written into contracts.
If the proper etiquette was observed, that is. Crude as he sometimes was,
Sam had very definite ideas about etiquette -- and he wasn't shy about
sharing them. I'd been with him for a month, maybe, when I got my first
taste. He called me in to that flea-bitten old office he used to keep over on
Hollywood Boulevard -- right away, he said, couldn't wait.
When I finally got there, he was sitting behind an old steelcase desk piled
with manila folders. He didn't look up, and he didn't offer me a seat.
"You got a problem, kid?"
"With the girls," he said.
"Yeah, the girls. The girls in these pictures here." He tapped on the stack
of folders, then raked them out of the way and squinted up at me. "I
think you oughta consider fucking one of them now and then," he said.
"Loosen them up a little, put a little color in their cheeks.... You know
what I mean?"
I knew what he meant, but I hadn't been around long enough to find all
the equipment, let alone make sense of the social arrangements, so I got
a little pissed.
"You're the one paying them," I said. "How come you don't fuck 'em
He pulled a new Havana out of his shirt pocket and bit the end off it.
"Division of labor," he said. "I'm the entrepreneur, you're the stud. That
way, when we accidentally mix sex and business, the girls'll know which
"Come on Sam," I said. "There ain't a hell of a lot of difference, not in this
He dug a kitchen match out of a shotglass on the desk and thumbed it
like the cowboy in an old Marlboro commercial. It began to dawn on me
that he was enjoying himself.
"Yeah?" he said. "What do you know? For you it's simple. They stick out
their tits, you go 'click, click.' You run out of film, somebody makes nice
and brings you another roll. What kind of business you call that?"
He took a deep breath and fired up. When he had the end good and red,
he flipped the remains of the match at the far wall and leaned back. "Let
me tell you something, kid.... Pussy's a commodity -- a low-volume, high-
margin commodity. Also perishable. Also a pain in the ass." He slid a
glossy out of one of the folders and poked ashes at it.
"Now, pictures of pussy," he purred, "that's different. Pictures of pussy'll
make you rich. All you need is a camera and a little insight into human
nature. Nine-to-five stuff, kid -- quick, painless, and everybody gets to go
home afterward and mow the lawn."
He went to work on the stogie again. "You think they're stupid, these girls
I bring in here? You think they can't figure out for themselves what they
want? Take my advice, Mr. Art Director -- be nice to 'em. You got plenty
of time to be an asshole when you get old."
He launched a cloud of blue smoke at the ceiling. "You understand what
I nodded. A nice, humble nod.
"Good. Now pack up your clipboard and your Jap doodads and go make
somebody beautiful. I'll take care of the philosophy."
I did what he told me. I wasn't stupid either, and when everything was
said and done, I had it made. The hours were flexible, the money was
good, and the fringe benefits -- even when I didn't sleep with them --
were a damned sight better than major medical.
Shit. The phone was bleating at me again from the other side of the
room. My kick must have been a little too enthusiastic -- the refrigerator
door had rebounded almost all the way open, and the cold air was
spreading like an alpine glacier along the chipped asbestos tile between
the stove and sink. I sat there and let the noise beat on me while I tried
to remember what I'd have to do to get a modular jack installed. Maybe
I'd dig out the paperwork sometime and see what it actually said. Maybe
I'd just rip the whole fucking business out of the wall and let Sam send
me a carrier pigeon. The Barrows' cat would like that, I thought.
But then cats were easy. People were a little harder -- which was why
Sam was a genius. He had unique ideas about what people liked, and
even more unique ideas about how to sell it to them. Years ago, before
videotapes were invented, they'd have called it calendar art, what Sam
was selling. Nowadays it didn't really have a name, probably because no
one had thought there'd be a market for it after Deep Throat.
No one but Sam, that is. The way he figured it, people would get tired of
hardcore sooner or later, just like they got tired of everything else. The
wise guys, they didn't care what Sam thought -- they were too busy
smashing kneecaps and locking up the distribution channels.
By the early Eighties, though, when he first started using some of my
freelance work, the wind was already beginning to shift. With the
Republicans back in the saddle, and bank accounts and ballroom
dancing fashionable again, come shots and raw-liver closeups were
beginning to look brutal. People were casting around for something a
little more romantic; something with a little more style.
And Sam had it. His foresight and his years in the rag trade had put him
light years ahead of anyone else in the sleaze business. You wanted Russ
Meyer, he knew every 44D from Ensenada to Ojai; you wanted David
Hamilton, he'd have half a dozen 15 year-old ballerinas in the studio with
their pants off by eight the next morning.
There was something else, too...he did quality. From a 35mm slide to
poster-sized color separations, nothing ever left Glamour that wasn't the
best. You had to hand it to him. He was a man of taste, Sam was; a
master of delayed gratification.
Even so, we didn't run what you'd call a big operation. We kept two crews
on most of the time, and we had a couple more we could call when
business was good. Sam told us what to shoot and when, and he set up
the locations. Product was up to me -- I did the storyboarding, picked the
shots and made sure the lab understood what we meant by color
balance. I even picked up at the caterers on occasion.
The hell of it was, I liked it. I didn't know why, really, I just did. Even
sitting there in my drawers that morning, hung over and already more
than an hour behind schedule, I liked it.
Maybe I'm as crazy as he is, I thought. I crumpled the empty and banked
it off the far wall into the wastebasket next to the TV. And maybe, just
maybe, it's because he lets me shoot the special jobs myself.
I have to admit it. Sometimes I'm not as smart as I ought to be. It came
to me an hour later, after I'd downed the second can of rat piss and
nearly drowned myself in the shower, that I knew exactly what the phone
call was about.
The job we had on for that Friday was one of the special ones -- a
location shoot out in Malibu somewhere. The address wasn't one I
recognized, but I knew the neighborhood. Fancy beach houses, fancy
landscaping, fancy fucking everything -- and not a one ever occupied for
more than a month at a time. The owners didn't live in them -- they
partied in them or hid out or dried out in them, but they didn't live in
them. Which meant that sometimes, if they planned on being elsewhere
for a while and you knew the right people, or did the right kind of favors,
they'd send someone around with the keys.
How Sam had come up with these particular keys I didn't ask. He got
around, and his stockholders were experts at doing favors. In any event,
the arrangements had already been made. The house was ours for the
A hell of a house it was, too, even for Malibu. Low and cantilevered, with
glass up to the eaves, it was set into a hillside grove of eucalyptus and
cypresses a mile or so west of the canyon. There were a pair of
overlapping flagstone terraces in back, and beyond them an Oriental
garden with a narrow gravel pathway that meandered delicately down
through the greenery to a private beach some thirty feet below.
The crew had probably been out there all morning setting up, doing their
best to stay on schedule while Sam stalked around in the background,
dropping ashes on the carpet and backing into light-stands. Just about
the time they'd gotten it all nailed down, and the hairdressers were
finishing up on the girls in one of the back bedrooms, he'd suddenly
smelled his money burning. In a place like that, with a telephone in every
room, what was he going to do?
I took my time driving out anyway. The winds had swept the entire basin
almost clear of smog, and the Hollywood Hills looked the way they must
have looked in the Thirties -- comfortable, well-worn, more or less green
-- a place where you could look down on it all without getting too far out
It was cooler in Santa Monica, cooler still when I turned down the cliffs to
the beach and headed west, even though I could still smell the desert in
the air. Twenty minutes later I parked under a cluster of tall cypresses in
the circular driveway behind the house and went around to open the
trunk. Hungover the way I was, the crunch of gravel behind me as I bent
over sounded like cannon fire. I backed my head out and turned around
just in time to see Sam headed toward me across the driveway, trailing a
cloud of blue smoke and looking decidedly less than happy.
He didn't sound happy either. "Where the hell have you been, schmuck?
I've got a houseful of high-priced talent in there and a six-day deadline,
not to mention Edna's got some charity picnic bullshit on this afternoon
that I should've been dressed for an hour ago."
I tucked my notes and an old Pentax spot meter under one arm and
slammed the trunk lid behind me. "You didn't have to be here, Sam," I
said, "we can handle it."
"You can handle it." He bit down on his cigar and rolled his eyes over
some private irony I was obviously too crude to appreciate. "Look," he
said, "this guy's an Arab, right? Not a patient person. He wants a little
blondie stuff to put him in the mood for his wives, or whatever, and he
wants it yesterday-- I told you this already a week ago. So this morning
you show up two hours late, and what do you tell me? You tell me you
can handle it.... You want to know how much money this cocksucker is
paying me? More than you make in a year, that's how much. You fucking
better handle it...."
"Go home, Sam," I said, "have a drink, relax. Give Edna something to be
happy about for once." I took a deep breath and started for the house.
"I'll be finished here tomorrow afternoon," I told him. "I'll have the prints
for you first thing Monday morning."
"Promises, promises.... You think I can show the bank these promises,
There was a lot more, but I kept walking, and by the time I reached the
back of the house Sam's El Dorado was already churning its way out
through the trees behind me.
Jimmy the gofer met me just inside the kitchen door. A slight pursing of
the lips, a delicately raised eyebrow let me know I was late again.
"Don't start with me," I told him. "I'm not in the mood."
He took my notes and handed me a clipboard; the eyebrow stayed where
it was. "The crew's ready, boss." he said. "The girls are out back waiting
He made a deft pirouette and fluttered ahead of me down the darkened
hallway that led to the back of the house. By the time I'd made my way
out into the light again, he had the whole morning laid out for me.
I was impressed. Thirty feet of waxed parquet floor backed by an ocean
view that ran the entire width of the house. A black-tile fireplace slightly
narrower than a two-car garage. Last, but not least, the California piece
de résistance -- a pair of glass-handled sliding doors with a
redwood deck beyond them big enough to play doubles on.
For color there were a couple of Diebenkorns, big ones, and a half-dozen
Persian rugs scattered over the hardwood like the map of some mythical
archipelago. The furniture was modular -- easy-living tuck-and-roll stuff,
most of it -- but here and there the decorator had insisted on some
tasteful little compensations of his own -- a couple of black Pueblo urns,
a freestanding chunk of acrylic rock candy; next to the doors two ancient
bonsais on lacquered stands.
The girls, all seven of them, were draped over a pillowed sectional in the
center of the room, waiting while Jimmy worked himself up to the
introductions. I waved him away.
"Forget the Bert Parks routine," I told him. "They'll do. What's with the
skinny kid down at the end -- the one with the lost look?"
"You got me, boss. She's not one of the regulars. All I know is, Sam
brought her in with him this morning and said use her if you can."
"Use her for what? The client doesn't like thin -- if I heard that once last
week I heard it a hundred times."
"Yeah, but he likes young. Maybe we need a little sister or something;
you know, background stuff."
"Yeah, maybe.... Tell her to go put some clothes on, the stuff she was
wearing when she came in. Maybe if I see who she thinks she is I might
get some ideas. I've got the names here, right?" I tapped the clipboard
he'd given me.
"Names, vitals, waiver forms -- the works."
"Good. Except that I need these windows, which makes the light in here
shit until 2 or 3, even with fill. You set up down below?"
"More or less."
"Okay, we'll do the boudoir stuff first. Start with the one on the end
there"-- I flipped over the top page -- "Joy, is it?"
"Right. I'll work off her. Take the one to her left, too, and the brunette.
Joy in the grey silk, the brunette in the teddy, I think. I don't care what
for the other one, pick something. Find Hot Lips and tell him five minutes
-- I want some coffee first."
I went back to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of the muck that
Jimmy called coffee. Like most of us, Jimmy wasn't what you'd call
perfect. He always handed me the right lens before I asked for it, and he
could light a back alley in hell, but his coffee was strictly embalming
fluid. I gagged on the first mouthful, as usual, then drank about half of it
straight down without taking a breath. That was all I could manage. I
poured the rest down the sink, then leaned back and waited for the
caffeine to come kick me in the back of the head.
So far, so good, I thought. For all his bitching, Sam had come through
again. I was pretty sure I hadn't seen any of the girls before, not
anywhere important anyway, and every one of them had at least one
usable feature -- an angle here; a texture, a color there.... The client
would get his money's worth, even at Sam's prices.
The rest was technical -- a little bounce, a little gel; spray for the orchids,
makeup for the imperfections, keep everybody loose for two or three
hours while we do the same thing over and over.
It was one o'clock before I looked up again. I let the shutter release drop,
and gave Jimmy the high sign. "All right, everybody," he announced,
"that's it for now." I flipped the last magazine to him, and watched while
he shooed the girls out of the room. "Go get some lunch, kids, rest the
parts," he warbled. "We'll meet back upstairs in an hour."
I picked my way across a tangle of wiring to the bed and sat down heavily
on the edge of it. Jimmy threw me a towel.
"Sam called," he said.
"Yeah? What else is new?" I stopped working at my scalp and pulled the
now-damp towel down over my eyes. "He having as good a time as we
are, you think?"
"He didn't say. He wants to know do we need anything."
"I told him I couldn't think of a thing."
"He buy it?"
"I don't know. Edna grabbed him and made him hang up."
"God bless Edna." I tossed the towel in the general direction of the far
wall and got to my feet. "What's for lunch, anyway?" I asked.
"Salmon mousse and Chateau Grenouille '72."
"Coors and cold pizza. I think there's a couple of those styrofoam dog
dishes from MacDonald's left, too, if you hurry."
"All right," I said. "Lead on. And bring the Polaroids with you. I want
another look at them before we do the apres tennis stuff."
The Polaroids seemed okay, so we broke down the heavy flash gear and
spent the rest of afternoon immersed in a flood of light from the back
windows. We bounced it off the ceiling with mirrors, cut it into ribbons
with venetian blinds, filtered it through tall, pale drinks with fruit slices
and glass-like chunks of ice suspended in them. We put the girls in white
and tossed them a couple of towels; encouraged them to show a little
muscle, a little sweat. Gatsby and Daisy time, a good part of which I
spent on my knees in the fireplace, trying to catch a line of backlighting
off the edges of the furniture.
It went well, I thought. Nothing broke, nobody got pissed off or bored,
and the girls stayed with me right to the end.
We finished up about six, with an hour or so of daylight to spare.
Somebody, Jimmy probably, handed me a beer and steered me
respectfully out of harm's way while the crew cleaned up. I went out onto
the deck and watched the sun start down over the horizon to Hawaii,
absent-mindedly rehearsing the shots for the following day as I leaned
out over the railing.
"Pleased with ourselves, are we?"
"Moderately." I turned around and raised the bottle in salute. "How about
yourself, sport? Had enough young nipple for the day?"
"Mmm.... Not my thing, boss. Near as I could tell, we did okay."
"Better than okay, Jimmy, much better. Our Arab friend'll get it up,
Sam'll get his kilobucks, and we'll all live happily ever after.... Provided,
of course, that tomorrow goes as well as today. You locking up now?"
"Yeah. The crew's out and the girls've all gone home." He handed me my
notes. "I thought you might want these. I told everyone 6:30, by the way."
I drained the last of the beer and balanced the bottle carefully on the
railing. "Don't worry," I said, "I'll make it. I want to get the beach shots in
early, before we have sunburn to contend with. Go ahead and take off if
you want to. I'm gonna prowl around a bit before I call it a day."
He went back into the house, closing and locking the doors behind him. I
tucked my notes under my arm and headed for the stairway down to the
The layout was better than I'd expected. Beginning at the bottom edge of
the terraces, a screen of ancient eucalyptus marched down both edges of
the garden and ran out onto a low bluff of weathered rocks above the
water. The beach below was almost perfect -- two hundred yards of kelp-
free white sand cut off completely from the neighboring properties. It was
pure travel brochure stuff, right down to the sheltered niches in the
rocks where two or three people could sun themselves comfortably out of
the wind. I clambered up onto the highest point I could find and stood
there, with the Santa Ana gusting around me, wondering if maybe the
rich didn't know something after all....
"Beautiful, isn't it?"
I watched a sun-gilded wave crest run up the sand below me; dissolve
into a sheet of glistening foam.
"Yes," I said. "Very beautiful." I turned around then, and saw her sitting
partly in shadow on a ledge about four feet below me. The same corded
blonde hair, the same jeans, the same tee shirt -- it wasn't possible.
"Where's the 'vette?"
"Last night on Sunset, about eleven o'clock. You were leaning on an old
Corvette, a sixty-one or sixty-two, maybe."
She looked a little puzzled.
"Yeah," she said, "I was. I didn't see you, though."
"I was there. At least for a few seconds I was. Westbound."
I nodded. She started to say something else, then thought better of it.
She went back to doing what she had been doing -- staring into the
sunset above my right shoulder.
I slid down onto the ledge beside her and sat on my notes. "You come
here often?" I said.
She smiled. "Sam called me. He said you were shooting here today; said
maybe you needed me."
"Needed you...?" And then it dawned on me -- the thin one, the one
Jimmy'd sent back to get dressed -- I'd forgotten about her completely.
"Ahh...." I said, "You're a model, then."
She looked up at me, one hand shielding her eyes from the glare. "A
dancer. Or I was, until some drunk blindsided me on La Cienega. Now
I'm whatever pays the rent."
"About what? I work where I can, and I've got friends -- Sam, for
instance." She shrugged. "I get by."
"That's not what I meant. I meant I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to use
you today. Come back tomorrow -- we'll work you in."
"Don't do me any favors."
My turn to shrug. "For what it's worth," I said, "I really didn't mean it like
She looked at me again. A careful, deliberate look.
"No," she said. "You didn't, did you... ? I apologize."
"Forget it.... It's been a pretty good day, all things considered. I've had
"And I'd like to keep it going a little, if I can. I know this little hole-in-the-
wall place over in Venice, off Speedway. Greek food, mostly, and it's
quiet. Care to join me?"
She thought about it for a minute. "Maybe.... Sam tells me you're a pain
in the ass, but he likes you, I think. There must be a reason why."
"Sam has all kinds of reasons -- some of them reasonable, some not." I
grabbed hold of my notes and stood up. "Come on," I said, "Let's find our
way out of here while we still have the light."
We walked back up to the house, and I waited for her while she unlocked
the Corvette. Neither of us said much. When the engine was running
smoothly, I leaned in the open window and told her to follow me.
The sky to the west still showed traces of orange as we turned out onto
the highway, but nightfall and the cold fire of the Milky Way had replaced
the last remnants of daylight long before we reached the Palisades. I
dodged in and out of traffic, checking the rear-view mirror now and then
for the cocked left headlight on the 'vette.
Stars, I thought. Who cares about stars any more? How many people in
Los Angeles still lie on their backs at night and stare off into the center of
the galaxy? A silly question. With so much to occupy them between their
ankles and their shoulder blades they didn't need to look up. I checked
the mirror again. The 'vette was still there, ten feet off my rear bumper.
An LA girl, born with a steering wheel in her hand.
We parked on the beach and walked upwind through the narrow alley
that led to the Greek's place. The lights in the second floor rooms above
us were already on, the windows open. We could hear people talking and
laughing over the clink of glassware, the mingled music of half a dozen
TV's and stereos. An orange cat dodged into a doorway as several sheets
of old newspaper lifted from the gutter and cartwheeled down the
sidewalk past us.
"I'm curious...." she said. "That guy who was working on us today -- the
one they call 'Hot Lips'?"
"Your makeup man. The tall, skinny one with the sponge. Why do they
call him that?"
"Ah.... He gets a lot of mileage out of that, the prick. It's not his charm, I
can tell you that much. He's got a thing for dayglo lipstick, that's all.
That, and his name."
"Oh, yeah? What's his name?"
"Weird.... It fits him, though. What about you? They got a name for you?"
"Ever call you J.B.?"
"John -- when they're in a good mood...."
"And when they're not...? I'm Sarah, Sarah Markham."
"Pleased to meet you, Sarah," I said, "and just for the record, I'm the one
with the moods."
We were a little late to catch any local color. The Greek's clientele didn't
eat at trendy hours. They were working class, mostly, or what passes for
working class in Southern California. Most of them had already finished
and left, except for an older couple at the counter, and a half-dozen
muscle-beach types pouring Budweiser over each other in one of the
I waited while Sarah found us a seat across from the cash register, then
slid in opposite her with my back to the door. It's an old habit, one I
picked up when I was on the road. Most people like to look out the
windows when they're eating -- you know, count the trucks going by,
keep an eye on the stuff in the car in case somebody tries to rip them off.
I like to keep my eye on the kitchen. You can learn a lot about a place
from watching what comes and goes through the swinging doors --
what's good and what's not, who's been coming over the border lately --
all sorts of useful information.
When we looked ready, a young, dark-haired kid in an apron, one of the
grandsons, came around the counter with a couple of glasses of water
and a pair of dog-eared menus.
"Evening, Mr. Bannion," he said, grabbing a quick look at Sarah as he set
the glasses down.
"Evening, Nick. Your grandfather in the kitchen tonight?"
"No, not tonight. He and uncle Stavros went down to Ensenada for a
week. Pop's doing the cooking till they get back."
"About time the old man did a little fishing. Tell him I said so, will you?
Say hello to your father, too."
"Yeah. You want something to drink while you're deciding?"
"Wine, I think...." Sarah nodded. "You still have that Mantineia you had
"I'll have to look."
"Okay, bring us a bottle if you've got it...and some of your grandfather's
olives. I hate to admit it, but I'm addicted to the damned things."
Sarah watched him over the top of her menu as he walked away.
"Family?" she asked.
"More or less. It's a long story." I pointed at the menu. "See anything you
"I don't know," she said. "What do you recommend?"
"It depends. Not the hamburgers, I'd say -- they're not his thing.
Otherwise take your pick. The souvlaki's good -- damned good, in fact."
She laid aside the menu and picked up a napkin. "The souvlaki then,"
she said. "And I hope you know what you're talking about. I haven't
eaten all day."
I believed her, the way she went at it. No picking at the salad, no
inquiries about the wine, although she did pause long enough to look at
it -- holding the glass up to the light and turning it slowly in her hand.
When she realized I was watching her, she saluted me with it. "Not bad,"
she said,"reminds me of dried flowers."
Dried flowers.... I'd thought of dusty roads myself, of desert landscapes
with the smell of ocean in the distance -- Attica, Reggio Calabria, Cabo
San Lucas.... I put my fork down and looked more carefully at her.
Somehow she wasn't quite the Southern California icon I remembered
from the night before. She was older, for one thing, and there was a
quality about her -- something quiet under the flash. Unless I was
crazy.... Either way, I couldn't complain.
She put out a hand and waved it in an arc in front of me -- slowly, like a
windshield wiper or a metronome. "You want to let me in on it?" she said.
"Or are you just going to sit there and let me guess why your eyes don't
"Sorry. I was thinking, that's all."
"About you...what I know, what I don't know."
She smiled. "What do you want to know?"
"It'll come to me."
"I'll bet. You prefer mysteries, don't you?"
"What makes you think so?"
"I don't know...a guess, call it. Something Sam said yesterday when he
"Sam again. I can't seem to get rid of the bastard today."
"Tell me about him. You work for him long?"
"Four years, give or take."
She slid her glass across the table. "How well do you know him?"
I reached for the bottle. "Well enough to take his money. Well enough to
wonder who the hell he is, really."
"You don't know?"
"I thought I did, but.... Are sure you want to hear this?"
"Well, then...." I poured her glass half full, then emptied the last couple of
fingers into my own. "To start with, Sarah, you can't exactly call it a
business, what we've got here. Put anybody but Sam in charge, there's
no way we'd ever make a dime.
Don't get me wrong.... We're good -- as good as there is anywhere -- and
believe me, I know what I'm talking about. The trouble is, we don't have
any clients. Moustaches -- that's what we've got -- moustaches and pinky
rings and blackout limos with satellite uplinks. It doesn't make any
sense, Sarah. The family doesn't bother with pictures. They feel the need,
they acquire the thing itself -- rights in perpetuity, you understand?"
"So...? Maybe they're wholesalers." She took a long sip, studied me over
the rim of her glass.
"Yeah, maybe. But what does that make Sam?"
"You think I know?"
She put her glass down on the table and slid a hand inside her jacket.
"No," she said, "I don't." She came up with a single Indonesian cigarette,
thin and clove-scented, and a Thai silver lighter to go with it.
"Those'll kill you," I told her.
"Not soon enough," she said. She snapped a flame from the lighter and
drew the first fragrant cloud deep into her lungs. "You're not one of those
fools who want to live forever, are you?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"I didn't think so." She gave me one of her more mysterious smiles.
Rueful? Ironic? I couldn't tell, except to say that it found a target
somewhere on the near side of my defenses. "I won't come tomorrow," she
said. "I appreciate the offer, John, but I'm not what you need -- not for
that, anyway. Here...."
She slid a card across the table, something about carpet-cleaning. "Turn
it over," she said.
I turned it over. On the back there was a scribbled address near Silver
Lake, and a phone number to go with it.
"Yours?" I asked.
"Mine." She was already moving, collecting herself. I didn't have time to
"How come it's already written down?"
"I had a feeling."
"You have them often, these feelings?"
"Not often. When I do, I trust them."
I thought about that later, after I'd paid the bill and walked her out to the
parking lot. I stood there while she backed the 'vette out and swung its
long nose around, watched the four bullseye tail lights turn left out of the
lot and sail slowly upwind toward Venice Boulevard. When they were
finally out of sight, I looked down at her phone number again. What I
was thinking didn't really make much sense. There were kinks in it,
missing parts -- it just didn't figure at all. I walked down a couple of
blocks and turned onto the pier, made my way out to the dark water at
I liked her, you understand. Not for the reasons you'd expect, maybe, but
I liked her. I stood there, listening to the waves, trying to guess what I
was going to do next.
It didn't really surprise me when I drew a blank. Too many glasses of
wine, too long a day -- call it what you will.... I stood there for ten
minutes or so like a sleepwalker, running my thumb along the raised
"ZZZ" on the card she'd given me, waiting for some kind of revelation.
Jerking off -- that's what Sam would have called it, I suppose. Under the
circumstances, it would have been hard to argue with him. I gave up on
the speculations and the ocean view and went home to bed.
The next morning didn't go very well. I got the shots, but the whole
session felt eerie, inconclusive. I couldn't find any handles on it,
somehow -- the girls, the framing, the light -- I might as well have been
doing my laundry.
Jimmy did his best to nurse me along. He tried wit, he tried making faces
-- all I could do was stare at him. Finally he pulled me aside and spelled
it out for me.
"Look, I know you don't want to hear this right now, but...."
"But you're acting like your dog just died, that's what. They look fine,
these girls, and they know how it's done. So do you. So please...stop
being so ugly, will you? Trust yourself a little.
Yeah, I thought, trust myself. That's how it starts, isn't it? You wake up
one day, and there's something missing. You forget your whys and hows,
lose your center.... What do you do then?
You do whatever -- that's what Sam would have said, and he'd have been
right. If the customer paid for it, it didn't matter whether it was any good
or not. Ten miles from the heart of Hollywood, shooting softcore porn, no
less, and I was worried about my muse. It lacked dignity.
Which is why when it came time to pack up that evening, I made a point
of finding Jimmy. He was in the kitchen, wrestling with power cords and
wheeled things and Halliburtons covered with old airline tags. He didn't
want to talk.
"I said, 'I'm sorry.'"
"Sorry for what?"
"For the prima donna shit, okay? I don't know...suddenly I feel old.
Maybe I need a tune-up or something."
He unhooked the cable he'd been coiling around his left arm and dropped
it into one of the open cases in front of him. "You know you take this
stuff too seriously, don't you...?"
"Yeah, I know...you think it's getting to me?"
"If I didn't know you better, I'd say you were in love."
"In love? What gave you that idea?"
"Yesterday, that's what. They were very pretty, yesterday, yes? And you
were all eye -- very focused, very sure how you wanted everything -- I
could have stuck a pin in you and you wouldn't have noticed....
"And today what happens? Today you drop full magazines in the surf,
you forget where the light's coming from, and you look at the girls like
you were buying furniture, for Chrissake. So I ask myself: what is on this
poor boy's mind? I can't imagine anything made you crazy since
yesterday, and I know you don't do drugs, so there's really only one
answer I can come up with."
"That logical, is it?"
"Yeah.... It is."
"Well," I said, "what do you suggest?"
"Take time to smell the flowers. Not that I believe for a moment you'll do
"Smell the flowers... what the hell does that mean?"
"You know what it means. Take a few days, sort yourself out -- the girl
too, if there really is one."
"There is, and there isn't."
"That's cryptic enough."
"What can I tell you? I'm attracted, but I don't know why. I don't really
know what I want from her."
"Are you kidding me...? God, if you could hear yourself. Hand me that
barndoor, will you? The one behind you...next to the sink...."
He took the awkward tin contraption from me, dropped it, picked it
up...dropped it again. He shrugged, bent down and clamped it between
his thumb and index finger like a dead mouse, then took two steps and
flipped it into a large cardboard box in front of the dishwasher.
"Christ, would you just look at me.... And I'm wasting my time on your
problems.... Please go home, Boss. Sam's clients and their fantasies
aren't all there is to life, you know."
"Yeah, that's what they tell me.... Is this stuff going back tonight?"
"No, It's too late. I'll park it at home and drive it over in the morning.
Except for the film.... I figured you'd want that souped right away, so I
called Da Silva. He's over at the lab now, waiting for it."
"You figured right. It's gonna be pricey, though -- I hope our client
understands cost overruns."
"I just work here. I don't do public relations."
"Me neither. See you tomorrow afternoon."
"Ciao, John. Take care of yourself."
I took care of myself -- I went home and got some sleep. A lot of sleep, as
it turned out. It was almost 11:30 when I finally opened my eyes.
I stumbled out to the kitchen and set a cup of instant coffee down in the
microwave. When the timer went off, I ran a spoon around in it twice,
then went and dug the Times out of the hibiscus bush next to the front
door. I was half-way through the National League standings when I
Sarah.... I threw the rest of the coffee into the sink and went looking for
the pants I'd draped over my bedroom chair the night before. The card
was still there; the number and the address still pencilled on the back of
Standing in the kitchen, waiting for the phone to warm up, I looked at
the address again. Silver Lake -- the northwest side -- no apartment
number. She had a little money maybe, or someone to watch over her.
Something told me Iwas going to have regrets with Sarah, real regrets --
the kind that ex-wives snicker over and friends use as an excuse to knit
their eyebrows and pour themselves another glass of your best scotch.
And there'd be nothing I could do about it. Absolutely nothing.
I grabbed the phone, lifted the receiver and punched the button next to
Jimmy's name. He picked up on the first ring; listened patiently while I
tried to explain what I wanted.
No problem, he told me -- I should put my mind at rest. Since he was
already on his way to the lab, and not particularly eager to see me in my
present state anyway, he'd handle the test prints himself. He'd also run
them by Sam on Monday morning. Out of the goodness of his heart....
I hung up, took a couple of deep breaths and tried Sarah's number. No
answer. I waited a few seconds and tried again. No answer again.
Standing there with the receiver in my hand and the light from the
kitchen window painting a band of overexposure across my eyes, I
couldn't find any other answer for a moment except the sun -- softening
the asphalt, crisping the palm fronds -- the high ozone conjurer at work.
Two of us without answering machines. What were the odds on that in
LA? Anyway, it didn't leave me much choice. Either I hung around,
redialing her number every five minutes, or I went out and killed the rest
of the day. It came down -- as everything does, sooner or later -- to the
choice of weapons.
The car, I decided. The booze could wait till after dark -- LA's finest can
live with a little drinking and driving, but waving the shit around in
broad daylight is a challenge to their authority, and it pisses them off.
The car was in the driveway where I left it. The top was still down. I
brushed the leaves off the seat and got in.