LANGUISHING IN LALALAND*
By Alejandro Grattan
(*Lalaland: Code for Hollywood, or a state of mind in which reality occasionally visits, but never stays for long.)
I had been in Hollywood for less than a week, staying in a Minus Two-Star motel on Santa Monica Boulevard when an ad in the Classified Section of the Los Angeles Times caught what was left of my capacity to concentrate on any more newsprint.
For rent in Hollywood Hills. Five-room suite on bottom floor of small Mediterranean-style villa. Lavishly furnished, spectacular view. Breakage deposit. Seventy-five dollars a month. Call HO5-7541.
The ad seemed too good to be true, but even if it was a misprint, and the rent actually $750 a month, I could afford it, at least for a while. Worse-case scenario, the figure in the ad was correct, but the place had been rented. A soft, cultivated voice answered the phone. “Good morning, how may I be of service, please?”
I modulated my own voice to match the genteelness of that on the end of the line. “Yes, ma’am, I’m calling to inquire if the rental ad in the Los Angeles Times is correct in . . . uh, every detail?”
“Oh, most assuredly, though such a small advertisement could barely cover all the virtues of the suite. But you sound frightfully young. Are you gainfully employed?”
“I’m twenty-three,” I answered, suddenly rather daunted. How old and how employed did one have to be to afford a $75 rental? “I’ve come to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter—but I do some have independent means of support.”
“Oh, how wonderfully wise of you,” the voice purred. “Then you should come by and see the suite yourself to judge just how inadequate that silly little announcement actually is.”
She gave me the address and only as a hurried afterthought did I ask her name.
“I am Madam Carlotta Montevista. And your name?”
I told her my full name, thinking that might add a few years to my age.
“Oh, your voice goes nicely with that name. How clever of your parents. Hasta la vista, young man.”
The ten-year-old Pontiac I had bought in Texas soon after coming into a small inheritance was transmitting SOS signals by the time it had climbed close to the summit of the hills. Then, suddenly around a bend in the road, there was the “Mediterranean-style villa,” as advertised. The house, which cascaded down the side of a wooded hill, was all of three stories tall.
Greeting me at the front gate, Madam Montevista, a middle-aged, square-shaped woman, grandly led the way to the side of the house, and began to descend a steep set of wooden steps that clung to the jagged contour of the property. As we carefully made our way down the stairs, her large poodle suddenly became obsessed with the lower part of my legs, wrapping its front paws around them as we three made our way to the rear entrance to the suite of five rooms. Madam Montevista did not seem to notice the unseemly activity around the lower part of my left leg, and of course I was a bit embarrassed to call attention to it.
Indeed, she noticed very little. She had not stopped talking, nor looked back, since meeting me at the top of the property. I had noticed, however, a distinct disparity between her appearance and her soft, cultivated voice. With her stout body, blunt features and faded, flowered house-coat which kept flapping open to display legs which might have belonged to a professional football player, she could well have been Bertha Boilermaker from Plainsview, Texas, not Madam Montevista from Hollywood, California.
Upon entering the suite, my doubts—that had been growing at each downward step I took with the poodle in tow—completely vanished. The door opened into a living room that ran the entire width of the house, replete with large half-moon windows on three sides; and beyond, a bath, kitchen and bedroom right out of Architectural Digest, as well as a small, wood-paneled study lined with hardcover books—perfect for an aspiring screenwriter.
Yet, from the back of my mind, a caution signal was blinking. “Oh, about the ‘breakage deposit.’ What amount would be, uh, sufficient?” I flashed on the old line about there no longer being any free lunches in life.
“Oh, let’s say something friendly, shall we?” she answered, tossing her gray curls like a flirtatious young girl.
“Yes, ma’am. But what’s your idea of friendly?”
“Oh, say fifty dollars. What’s yours?”
“That’s fine, ma’am.” The amber light flashed again. Maybe for such an unbelievable deal, a lease would be required whose length stretched well into my next lifetime. “Uh, now what about the lease?”
“Oh, just month to month will be satisfactory,” she chirped, waltzing over to an exquisite painting to dust off a speck of something which I would have needed a microscope to detect.
“I’ll take the place,” I declared with the enthusiasm of a young bridegroom saying “I do”—at his first wedding, anyway.
The honeymoon was soon over. Within the next week, Madam Montevista began to appear in my suite of rooms without so much as knocking on the door at the top of the inside flight of steps which led down from the upper part of the villa. She would often materialize no farther away than fifteen feet before I was aware of her presence, much like the malevolent character “Mrs. Danvers” in the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Rebecca.
Invariably, the reason for her visit was to advise me about the more proper placement of my meager personal affects, or to suggest a slight change in the arrangement of the furniture. Almost always, I was at my typewriter in the wood-paneled study, which meant that she had covered several yards of my territory without making the slightest sound.
During these interruptions, I would explain that I simply had to finish the screenplay I had been working on for several months, and then sell it; otherwise, I would exhaust my inheritance and have to find less-than-dignified employment in order to continue paying the rent. She would smile understandingly, and proceed right on with her baby-talk.
Maybe it was partially my fault. I had come by my inheritance after the death of my mother, and though she and I had continually quarreled—always about what she perceived as my insensitivity to the problems of other people—we had formed an uneasy armistice over the last few years of her life.
At the end, my emotional resources had gone south. I began to talk to myself, and often wept over the slightest semblance of any sad news on the seven o’clock telecast—perhaps a delayed reaction to my mother’s death. So, had my patience, never plentiful to begin with, finally withered away to nothing?
Making matters vastly worse, Madam Montevista’s repulsive poodle, apparently feeling spurned by my lack of interest in his overtures, had taken to snapping at my ankles every time I negotiated the steep steps leading down to the base of the house.
This went on for several days. Then, one evening, having despaired of ever getting any optimistic news on TV, I ventured down to a bar at the famous intersection of Hollywood & Vine.
Three Piña Coladas later, I found myself engaged in what I hoped was a scintillating conversation with a gorgeous Mexican who seemed all flashing teeth, bare, bronzed shoulders, and lots of innuendoes in her voice. She had matched me drink for drink, and I was growing fearful that I might be the first one to fall off the barstool when she confided that she hoped to someday break into the movies.
When I told her that I was an aspiring screenwriter, she asked, “And exactly where do you live?” When I told her, she said that I didn’t sound so “aspiring” to her. If I was living on Mulholland Drive, I had already made it big.
Having reaped this unexpected bonus, I pressed my luck and asked sweetly if she’d like to see my place. “Que padre,” she chirped. I frowned, failing to understand what her father might have to do with either my place, or the upcoming program.
Walking out of the restaurant, the cool night air sobered me up just enough to say a little prayer. Oh, not about whether I’d get lucky with my comely companion. I knew such matters are best left in the hands of the fickle gods, who true to their perverse nature, usually pass out their favors to those who pray least for them. I was just hoping my old car wouldn’t go into cardiac arrest on the way up the hill.
The Pontiac passed the test. Everything else failed, beginning with running the gauntlet down the steps to my suite. The Hound from Hell wasted no time in diverting its attention to my consort, who wearing a tight dress, took a few less-than-grazing nips to her exposed ankles. By the time we made it into the suite, she was bleeding slightly, and cursing the world at large—and in particular, someone she kept calling “ese pinche perro.”
Luckily, the moment she saw my digs, they had the same effect on her that they’d had on me. Her groans and curses gave way to sighs of satisfaction, and with an enticing smile, she generously allowed that she was not permanently injured, after all. Moments later, I was daubing at her shapely ankles with iodine, after which I placed a band-aid over each scratch.
“You are very young to be so successful,” she observed, as I helped her to the nearest suitable piece of furniture. Familiarizing herself with the couch, she began to itemize the many attributes she planned to someday bring to the silver screen.
Her inventory of personal assets was sizable and her voice began to take on a droning sound. I suppose the Piña Coladas had finally come home to roost. I remember thinking I had to lie down, but still it struck me as rather mysterious how both the señorita and I were suddenly in my bedroom, stretched out on a bed, which incidentally was wide enough to accommodate six full-grown midgets. Moments afterward, she took my hand, whispering something about how grateful she was for all that I had done for her . . . or was it all that I might soon be able to do for her?
The dreary dialogue soon gave way to soothing caresses, verbal and otherwise. Then, just when it seemed that the gods who controlled such capers were about to look with favor upon my clumsy endeavors, a voice crackled across the darkness.
“Now, dear boy, you should not be lying on that gorgeous bed spread. Turn down the cover if you plan on getting into bed with that— person!”
I must have risen off the bed by a full foot. My companion, packing less weight, might have ascended even higher. The señorita softly shrieked (an oxymoron, but the only way to characterize that eerie sound), as I bolted to a sitting position, trying to recover what remained of my wits.
From exactly where had the voice emanated? The bedroom was quite expansive, with several overstuffed chairs, one of which I had moved to face a window, from where I sometimes enjoyed a view of the sunsets.
“Madam Montevista?” I croaked. How long had the old bat been in the bedroom? She would have had to pass through the living room to get there, and though she often materialized like an apparition, I had not noticed even a wisp of smoke float by while the Mexican lady and I had been on the sofa.
My throat unclogged long enough for me to repeat the question. “Is that you, Madam?”
The silhouette of a large person abruptly rose from the chair near the window, and pivoted slowly toward the bed.
“Yes . . . it . . . is . . . I,” a thick voice murmured, creeping across the dim distance in what seemed four separate installments. Hearing that, the señorita by my side abruptly jumped up once more. Bouncing off the bed, snarling curses in Spanish, she groped her way out of the room. Faced with limited options, I joined the exodus. She would need a ride home, not to speak of a human ankle-guard just to get up to the street all in one piece.
The hound was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs, but this time he failed to reckon with a Latin lady whose tolerance for unpleasant surprises had all but evaporated. In an instant, she whipped off one of her shoes, and adroitly employing its heavy plastic heel, she struck the poodle squarely atop its head. Yelping with pain, the dog went whining into the bushes. Apparently no one had ever communicated with him in such a direct fashion.
If the earlier trek up the hill had been aglow with anticipation, the return trip was funereal by comparison. I figured the lady had assumed that I was living in the fancy villa as the old woman’s sex slave, and worse, that I wasn’t really a screenwriter, fledgling or otherwise.
But whatever malignant thoughts were percolating inside that pretty little head of hers, they had to be downright benign compared with mine. I had decided that come morning, Madam Montevista and her poodle would become a rapidly receding memory in what was left of my mind.
In the meantime, Hollywood Boulevard had been shuttered for the night, but there were still a few die-hard derelicts lounging around outside the bar when we got there.
“Want me to walk you to your car?” I asked. The señorita grunted something less than an affirmative and charged out of the convertible. I suppose she figured that if she could survive an attack by a carnivorous animal, and then experience something out of a Halloween fright film, stomping safely past a few decrepit old winos would be little more than a stroll though Disneyland.
Pulling away, I flashed-forward. The last person I wanted to see that night was Madam Montevista still squatting in my digs; the next to the last was her hound waiting for me at the top of the steps. I decided to spend the night in a motel.
Five hours later, “came the dawn” as the old silent movie titles used to read. It was pretty quiet around the villa, as well. I slipped down the stairs, did a hurried inspection of the suite for any unwelcome surprises, then packed my suitcase, grabbed my portable typewriter and walked up and around to the front of the villa.
I was tempted to flee the scene of the crime, but my mother had always been big on “common courtesy,” and at this most inconvenient moment, my upbringing plastered itself to my conscience. I would bid the lady of the house a formal farewell.
I had rung the bell for the fourth time when the front door opened a crack. Though unable to see little more than Madam Montevista’s left eye, I tried to explain that I was leaving the villa for obvious reasons, but wished her the best of luck. As for my fifty dollar breakage deposit, she could use it to buy her dog a cast-iron muzzle with a lifetime guarantee.
“I’m truly sorry you’re leaving, young man,” she murmured from the other side of the door. “Please mail me your address when you finally get settled, and I’ll send you a check for the deposit. I’ve enjoyed having a writer in the house. I was once in the arts myself, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” I said, aware of no such thing. She had never mentioned her professional background. “Well, goodbye, ma’am.”
“Adios, young man. I wish you no small measure of success.”
A tear had formed in her left eye. What the right one was doing I had no idea, as the door was still almost completely closed. Then it shut tightly.
Up on the street, I was getting my stuff into the Pontiac when I noticed the garrulous old biddy on the other side of the road who had tried to engage me in conversation a few times before. I had escaped on those occasions by muttering little more than, “Well, I’d stop and talk, but I have to get to work now.”
Brandishing a pair of rose-pruning shears, she beckoned me closer with a smile that was downright conspiratorial. Cripes, now what?
“Congratulations, young man. Or should it be condolences. You were there longer than any other tenant ever has been.”
“Condolences, ma’am, would be the word.”
“You know the story, don’t you?” she asked, ambling down to the edge of her property.
“What, about Madam Montevista?”
“About the toxic cosmetics that caused the trouble and all the rest of it, the scandal that—”
“Toxic cosmetics?” I inanely repeated. That sounded as laughable as killer tomatoes.
“Yes, some new kind of stuff from the studio. There was a terrible reaction to it, and when you die, you’re dead.”
“Oh, I can’t believe that some makeup would do—”
“Wasn’t so unusual. The divine Jean Harlow died of the very same thing, way back in the Thirties, you know.”
I knew no such thing, but had read that Harlow had died of some rare form of poison that can penetrate the skin.
“Anyway, what followed was total devastation. Never left the house for months on end, and spent all the time decorating it like some kind of a shrine, in the style of the old art-deco Paramount movies that had once been so popular.”
I didn’t know whether to be stunned or saddened, and all I could think to say was, “Madam Montevista did all that decorating herself?”
“Oh, it’s not ‘madam,’ it’s ‘mister,’” she said with undiluted glee. “His wife was the one who died so many years ago—from a new makeup that he brought home from the studio.”
“Well, she . . . he certainly did a great job on the house,” was all I could think to say.
“Why not, he was the studio’s top designer for years. Created the sets for some of the most famous directors in the business. But he quit soon after his wife died. Riddled with guilt, I expect. Never saw any of his old friends and associates. I think he rents out the lower suite just to ease his loneliness.”
One question remained. I needed an ending to the story. “What about the masquerading around as a woman . . .?”
“Well, I’m not his head doctor,” she declared indignantly. “What do you think?” The old lady was blinking with anticipation.
“No idea. Okay, so long, ma’am, and thanks.” I didn’t know why I thanked her, but sensed that in some strange way I was in her debt.
The old woman pursed her lips, as if annoyed that I had amputated whatever might be left of our conversation. But I had heard enough, and quickly crossed the street to get into my car.
Adjusting the rear-view mirror, I caught a glimpse of myself. Yeah, it figured: given the night I’d just survived, I looked like Dracula after he’d gone too long without a midnight snack.
What did surprise me were the tears in my eyes. But hey, no big deal. As I’ve mentioned, I was always falling apart over nothing more than a little sad news on television.
Then I smiled. It had dawned on me why I had thanked the old woman. She had filled me in on a story that I could perhaps someday use as the basis for a screenplay—though that would be, of course, shameful exploitation of a personal tragedy.
But I’d heard that to be a good screen-writer, you had to be an unprincipled . . . uh, what’s the word? Well, perhaps if I think of a general area of the male anatomy, the specific word might eventually come to mind.
—T h e E n d—