There have been suicides here; folk have most definitely done themselves in. Why, the last people that lived here, the last couple, the woman hung herself right there, on that bow over the porch, I swear it. And her husband, Mister Ellroy, what a handsome man-- much older than she was, though, strange, because she was awfully plain, don't you think it strange that a much older man wouldn't marry someone very pretty, if she were much younger?-- yes, that is odd, but anyway Mr. Ellroy shot himself, shot himself beside the pool. When they found him, so I hear, they said he had fallen out of his chair and was reaching for the pool, as if he had had second thoughts, as though the water would save him! Isn't that sad? Yes, absolutely, truly sad. Like a thirsting man in the dessert, seeking oasis, but too far gone to partake once he's finally glimpsed it. Poor Mister Ellroy.
This from Mrs. Farm- yes, Mrs. Farm, I don't make up last names, tragically for her- the wife of the neighbor's gardener. I have never seen any of the neighbors up close- only from a distance as they roll in and out in their clean, shiny automobiles. Some of them drive themselves, many have chauffeurs. It is a foreign notion, almost laughable to me, the command to "Send around a car". In my world, we don't even have our own cars. In my world, we don't have much of anything. But I am getting past the point- Mrs. Farm is the wife of Mr. Farm, Mr. Farm is Mr. Rich Neighbor's gardener, and has been for many years. Mrs. Farm is a woman of many occupations, mostly consisting of watching the neighbors, listening to the neighbors, discussing the neighbors with other servants of other neighbors. Sometimes she helps her husband with the grounds, but I suppose those moments must have been my catching her on her off days.
Today, Mrs. Farm is talking to me because she knows, she can see quite easily that I am not a Neighbor, but a neighbor. I am new, but I do not have a car to call around, nor do I dress like Mr. Sherman or the late Mr. Ellroy. My skin is on the brown side, for it is summer, but it is not because of the demands of Hollywood or the accumulation of many hours spent poolside with, say, Erroll Flynn, joking by my side and, say, a handful- nah, let's be generous and say a cluster- of gorgeous dames surrounding me. No, my tan if you can call it that ends at my forearm and my neck- the rest of me is suit-colored; I even notice the detail of my forever-rumpled collar has provided a wave of uneven tone against my skin. I am one of the people, Mrs. Farm thinks. Let her think that.
My name is Bentley Jessep. My mother named me after the car, the most expensive and beautiful thing she'd ever seen. At least, that's what I seem to remember her telling me-- Mother was not around for very long. Still, it's kind of an unusual title for a baby boy, isn't it? Other people think so too, they think I've made it up, being a writer and all. Well, doesn't make all that much difference, does it, if I don't end up writing anything worth crackerjacks? No, so far I don't know if I've written anything worth a dime. To call myself a writer, truly, is like buying a suit (pin-striped) that looks good on the hanger but doesn't fit right at all. You can get it on, sure, but it's not going to look smooth, you're not going to feel all that swell wearing it. I've managed to live off of a knack up until now, a knack and a drive, but you can't do that past 25-- or can you? No, I wouldn't do it past 25. That's why I'm here, forever in the backyard (if you can call it a yard, I suppose it's more like a kingdom) of the Mr and Mrs Sherman's.
Mrs. Sherman, originally Irene Jones (originally Franny Ruby) is lovely, a breeze of cool air reserved for when the California sun comes to a standstill and your neck gets warmer than usual and you start to wonder about the so-called temperance of our well-to-do state. She has red hair- I think it comes out of a bottle but I could be wrong- it falls longer than most women's hair does, but then Mrs. Sherman falls longer than most women do. She's got almost a good foot on me, which I'll attribute mostly to her legs which stretch on almost unbelievably. Her features are pretty sharp which is both attractive and distracting from her more feminine wiles. Her voice is what does it, though, thank God for talking pictures because now the world can hear this woman's voice and know what salvation sounds like- soft, sultry, female. Mrs. Sherman's voice, sailing down the corridors or across the patio at night, calling to her dogs, to her Hollywood friends, to me, reminds me that there are things worth searching for in life.
Mr. Sherman is the movie star. Well, they're both movie stars, you see 'em in the fan mags all the time, but he's been bigger longer. Right now she's not as popular as he is, but she'll get there. She has an edge to her that reminds people of Stanwyck, but not so harsh, not so… butch, if you'll pardon the expression. But Mr. Sherman, Sam Sherman, has been cranking them out for ten years now. He hasn't made anything bad that I've heard of- he started out as the gangster type but once he got to be big he couldn't be playing bad guys anymore, so now he's all-romantic lead, war hero, handsome foil to the dark guys he used to play, and he's good at it. He's tall too, with an intimidating forehead and broad shoulders. His voice is strangely commanding, which makes me think he'd make good in a PI story but Warner is saving those for Bogart and Douglas, which brings me to the reason why Mr. Sherman the movie star and Mrs. Sherman the starlet, the glittering Hollywood spectacle of a couple, have taken a poor screenwriter in: need.
Yeah, stars like the Shermans need things too, and in this case it's a vehicle- a star vehicle for the two of them to use in order to demonstrate their talents, their attractiveness as a couple, their chemistry that every has responded so well to. Their first picture together, The Good Night, was huge. She was a revelation, folks said, and so good with him, the star. Now that they were married, they needed another one. Another nice little hit to give the people what they wanted, but the studio is preoccupied with war pictures, war pictures everywhere. They have to get all the war pictures that are in the pipeline OUT of the pipeline, because apparently the damn war is almost done with- everything else can wait. The Shermans don't mind, they did their part- they traveled to see "The Boys", Mrs. Sherman was in a war picture herself, although she played a sister and not a wife, which is not what she wanted to do. But never mind, never mind, they said, and they pulled me out of the woodwork. Hungry, writer, hungry, and perfect to write any kind of star vehicle you want. Warner didn't know what to make of me but in the end they said okay, give the kid a shot, let him live with you, even, if that's what you want. And I guess that's what they did want, though as time is ticking on I fail to see why. Oh, the script is going just swell, but… well, there are other concerns...
The funny thing about Mr. and Mrs. Sherman is they don't seem all that happy, but they are not unhappy either. They come and go, they dress well, they have parties and they look swell together, like movie stars seem to, and la di da, but I've never seen them talk to each other, not once. Well, at events and things, but I've been here a month, the whole month of July and I have not heard them speak; not the lovey twittering as they watch the sunset from their porch, not a question about oneanother's day at the dinner table, when I do pass by or join them for a meal, Mrs. Sherman never invites Mr. Sherman for a game of tennis nor does Mr. Sherman ever mention that he's going into the pool. When I have gone on car rides with them in what they call their "cramped" rolls Royce, they speak only to me- howdya like that scenery, ole Bentley ole pal? Howdya like that great big ole Hollywood sign? They're not cold to each other, they just… don't talk. I never hear Mrs. Sherman call Mr. Sherman "darling", I have never once heard Mr. Sherman tell the missus that she looks beautiful, and she seems to get dressed up every night. I once mentioned my observation to the Chauffer, Old Harry, but all he did was look at me with sad stuffed-olive eyes and nod. Old Harry doesn't say much.
Now, a funny thing happened a little while ago. One night Mr. Sherman, Sam, as he tells me to call him, came to see me as I sprawled out on the patio, retreating to the fundamental writer within, jotting by hand in my flip-book, the kind reporters use. It's comforting for me to write by hand- back to basics, I say. The typewriter can be dealt with for the final draft. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace by hand, after all. The Bible was written by hand. If it's good enough for God I guess it's good enough for Bentley Jessep, Humble Screenwriter. Anyway, so I was brainstorming away, as we call it, with a few shots under my belt and now some brandy beside me (I have never had brandy, really, before coming here, and I am not sure if I like it, but the Sherman's don't offer me Scotch, and as the wise man says, beggars can't be choosers). Sam showed up, sporting a glass of something himself- (interesting, how when you're rich you have specific glasses for every drink rather than just mixing it up into one nondescript cup- ) and looking tired. Much more tired than I ever care to see a movie star look. He asked me how the script was going, I said just fine, he asked me if he could read it, if I would read it to him, but I said no, not until the first draft was done and then we could make all of the changes. I made some joke about Hollywood agents, the kind I know Sam always cracked up at. He laughed, predictably, then settled down next to me on the front step.
"Bentley, Bentley," He said, then as he did he reached out to pat my shoulder. Funny, though, because he lingered there, hand on my shoulder, an awful long time. To be honest I hadn't the faintest of what to make of it until I looked up at him. I looked up with that kind of silly expression people can use sometimes when they're trying to ask a question with their face- but it vanished as soon as I saw Sam. He was looking at me, or maybe just my shoulder, with the saddest, most ghostly expression. I've never seen him look like that in any of his movies- not just the wear on his considerably young mug, the harshness of the patio lights on his skin, but his eyes betrayed something more than age and exhaustion at one's own popularity. The sadness and desperation in his eyes was all new, and as it passed I was grateful for a moment until I saw it turn into yet something else that I was not comfortable bearing witness to. Sam Sherman, the movie star, the great romantic lead, began to look at me the way he looks at his leading ladies, the way he looked at Mrs. Sherman in that picture before she was Mrs. Sherman, the- dare I say it- lovestruck way he gazes at Ida Lupino in the poster for their onscreen romance. Before he did anything with it I had awkwardly lept up to the opposite side of the porch and began to look out over the lawn. My next words came out very fast. "I should finish sometime tomorrow--" I was saying, "And then you can read it all. It'll be a quick read, I promise. Good stuff. Drama, but also kinda Billy Wilder funny, you know?" I dared a quick glance at Sam, but he had gone. I could see his faint shadow retreating into the house. So much for that. Whatever that was.
I did not finish the next day. The next night I was inexplicably preoccupied with avoiding Mr. Sherman, and as fate would have it, the best way to avoid Mr. Sherman is to seek out Mrs. Sherman. Which, as anyone can tell by looking at her, is pure torture. At her invite, I joined her for a walk around the grounds, which turned into drinks by the pool, which, after the separation of night and Sam's return for the evening, led to another walk, and another and another. Before I knew it a week had gone by, all thoughts of Sam's dazed appearance were behind me and in their place was the innocence of Mrs. Sherman. Mrs. Sherman in the garden, Mrs. Sherman in her cocktail dress, Mrs. Sherman singing to herself when she thought I wasn't listening, Mrs. Sherman by the pool, in the sunset, at certain angles her hair seeming to blend, to fade back into its maker- the grand, brilliant sky at dusk. Mrs. Sherman, tossing me careless looks of hope, of longing? I could not be sure.
One day, on one of our walks, we found ourselves strolling along in the garden that's long past the pool and tennis courts, the part where the yard has sprouted trees and the depth of the Sherman estate is fully visible. The path is small back there, so the two of us had to walk closely, and as we did I began to realize that the faint scent of jasmine in the air was not from the garden- there was no jasmine in the garden. As I was taking note of this, and wondering if Mrs Sherman had to order that perfume special or if she just happened to smell like that, and if, just maybe, I might be going a little nutty for this lady, Mrs Sherman began to ask me about the script.
"How is it? The script I mean?"
"Oh, it's coming along. It's almost done- should have it finished by tomorrow morning." Liar, liar.
"So soon? That's almost too bad- oh, don't get me wrong, I can't wait to read it, I'm sure it's just the MOST--" she said this earnestly, which surprised me-- "But, ah, I'll sure miss having you around. You've been fun, you…" she stopped to admire and straighten out a lilly pad that happened to be floating across one of their tiny goldfish ponds. The gigantic shiny fish went crazy with excitement and spun frantically about at her touch. I couldn't blame them.
"You bring humanity to this place," she finished her thought, crouching over the lilly pads, looking up at me, looking up at ME for once, and not the other way round. As I approached her, creeping slowly, hill-toe like the suaves are supposed to do (except they have much nicer shoes to creep in), I found myself hoping that I was giving her the kind of look that Sam had given me the night before. As I neared her, Samding over her like some romantic slob, I became aware that, just as I was starting to think, she hadn't much seen that look from her husband.
Cue the blackout, cue the full orchestra music, cue a very sheepish next frame in which our protagonist, sitting glumly at his typewriter, tucked into his well-furnished room in the guesthouse, promises himself that the goldfish pond accident must never, will never happen again. That the script, on the subject of a Flyboy and his lady, a glamorous but humbly beautiful girl named Betty, will indeed be finished by tomorrow morning, despite the party they are having tonight. It's been a week and a half since Hollywood's Golden Couple had another infamous bash, and the ribbons are going up as I type, and the grocery boys- only the best dressed deliverers, mind you, are arriving with boxes of bottles and crackers and all those other things you need to make aperitifs. When I came in I found a box on my dresser- no doubt placed there by Ronald, the weird butler with a glass eye- I can never tell which one is the glass one because I never look close enough- or Mandy the non-English speaking maid. There's a note attached to it, but the scrawl is illegible- I can make out the name at the bottom of it, though- the three letters are difficult to misread, even though I try. Inside the box is a very dashing suit, which I assume will fit me perfectly, but I don't try it on. I just sit at my typewriter and let Betty and Flyboy do what Mr and Mrs Sherman are supposed to do best. However….
….It's five hours later and I have broken my vow. The sun has set, the champagne has popped, and all many of babe are swimming in the vastness that is the Sherman's pool. Mrs Sherman sits gracefully beside it, as she always does, holding a champagne glass slightly tipped to one side, like Bogart's hat in that noir picture. She's half talking to the big-chested starlet in the water and half-conversing Sam is surrounded by a group, he is telling jokes, kinda drunk, making them all laugh. Haha, haha. I stand over by the little-knowns and pretend to be more buzzed than I am. Once they figure out that despite my amusing witticisms, I am NOT on the A-list just yet, they find something else to amuse themselves with. This is fine by me, I don't care too much. I am soaking in the last of it- my last night as a Neighbor.
The script is only about 5 pages shy from completion, I think, and I know how to end it. Betty is going to come back to her Flyboy at the end, tell him that she isn't married to the other guy, that she always loved him. Then Sam will take Mrs. Sherman in his arms and give her a good shake, like Jimmy Stewart does to Donna Reed in that depressing Capra picture, and then they'll have some amazing kiss, and that'll be the end of that. The neighbors, the parties, that ridiculous gardeners wife, the Shermans, and that script, that damned stack of perfectly thin papers that ties us all together.
Another toast, and then another, and amidst the songs and the exictement and the comings and goings I drink many glasses, I am finally drunk, but my attempt to scrape out from my insides that stare, that sad stare from Sam is rivaling my desire to purge myself of that nagging scent of jasmine, and I keep thinking maybe one more drink will help. I do not speak to either of the Sherman's, I do not notice either of their lingering glances my way- I make like I'm busy. "He's my husband," I can still hear her saying in my head. And she was right, only the mistake had already been made and I had to finish, had to turn in my badge. Sad state of affairs, but isn't that just how it goes?
I'm thinking about this-- probably ranting about this out loud as I stagger up the stairs to my room, grab the typewriter which I, inexplicably, decide in this moment to name Fritzy, and begin to stumble back out. I can hear the solitary sound of my not-so-nice shoes moving, even in my present state, in that great heel-to-toe way across the marble floor, on the polished patio, on the concrete beside the pool. By now, everyone's gone, even Mandy, and Old Joe, and Ronald. I'm sure now that my old smug, self-satisfied smile is creeping over my face and I settle in. Last five pages, last four pages, last three, last two. Even in my sloshed state I know this is gold, I begin to marvel at the beauty of my own words- verbose, maybe, but beautiful- Betty is beautiful, she says beautiful things, things I didn't even know I had in my mind, and the echo of my typewriter- excuse me- the echo of Fritzy--
I look up for a moment at the sound of glasses breaking. Voices do not usually carry from the house to the pool, but tonight is different- tonight, this morning, is quiet except for the voices, the loud silloutes stretch their arms out to grab me. I pause at their noise. It's Them. I can only vaguely hear words, their sounds are more like roars. "Do something! Why don't you do something!" I can hear that. Also a little bit of "husband" and cursing, and all the rest was lost. I must not be distracted, this is only the perfect finale to a perfect, strange departure from reality, so I keep typing. It will all be over soon, I keep thinking, Betty is saying, the sillouetes are speaking to me as they spread their shadows over my words and the noise grows nearer and I begin to rise, through the slats of my eyes I peer up- I am so tired.
I can hear Mrs. Sherman. I know it's her now, and she's saying "Sam, what are you doing Sam? What are you doing?" I am wondering this myself as I look up from the pavement, from the pool- oh but I'm not in the pool, am I? This blood here, how uncharacteristic of a Saturday evening at The Sherman's. No bleeding, no bleeding poolside. Musn't do that, Mrs. Sherman wouldn't like it-- but there she is, Mrs. Sherman, she's run to Sam's side. Sam's side, not mine, as though there were sides to this, as though there were anything but misunderstandings. Mrs. Sherman looks beautiful tonight, I think as I see her dangling diamond earrings, so long they almost touch her shoulders, so bright they stand out against her red locks.
Hmm, must get in the pool, I think, one last swim, one last round for the faux-writer, whaddya say? Mr. Sherman does not say. I can't see him anymore, but I know it must be he who has stopped me doing what I want, from slipping into the pool on my stomach, like a sea slug or a seal. Hm, a metaphor. As I reach with all of my energy, my stupid dying breath for the water, so dark blue against the carefully chosen tile, as I do this I being to think that it's funny. Funny that even now I am so full of metaphors- it doesn't matter if they're good or not-- a writer loves his metaphors.