Watching Marilyn, p.3Jack Chapman
My nephew, Tommy Junior. Rising 12. Hands sticky and leaving marks around the office from his brylcreamed hair. TJ could be restless if left bored and unoccupied.
"Uncle Frank? Tune to a different station," he demanded.
"I thought you’d want some music."
We kept the radio in the corner for news of national importance or sports broadcasts. I'd spun the dial until something came up I hoped he'd appreciate.
"Yeah. I like music. Real music. Not that boring old stuff."
"It’s an old radio. That’s the most up-to-date station it can tune to."
Myself I couldn’t see what was wrong with a swing band.
"Do you actually like this stuff?"
"Yeah, I like this stuff," I told him. "It fills up the space. Otherwise the air'd be empty and the radio'd be nothing but static. This is good music."
TJ sat behind his father’s desk and twisted on the swivel chair and didn't feel a need to justify his boredom. So I went on and explained "It's earthquake precautions. You got to take the stations you find. Extra steel girders they put in these buildings. This is shake city. San Andreas Fault runs right under this building. You need the best earthquake protection you can get. But the price is all the metalwork makes for lousy reception."
"Well that's okay. Steel girders mean we won’t feel the earthquake. And we won’t hear about it on the radio either. Who's worried."
"Smart kid. I was just making excuses for the reception. This building will fall down if a loud parade marches past."
"We got a nuclear shelter at school," said Tommy. "Down in the basement where the steam boiler is."
My sister Sherri and her estranged husband Tommy Guppy shed blood every time they met. So now they had started exchanging their beloved son on the neutral ground of my office.
Tommy had dropped TJ off after a day at the beach and gone straight out to a bar so he didn’t have to be here when Sherri arrived to collect. That left me to hand over. I’d been hoping the radio would keep the kid amused while I typed up the report for Scalligan.
It was a nuisance having him there. But maybe not as bad as a nuclear war.
"You use it much?" I asked.
"The bomb shelter."
"Every few weeks we do a surprise drill," said TJ. "The siren goes and they march us down the basement. It's okay. Only it's obvious the teachers know about the surprise before because the siren only ever goes in Art or some lesson no one hates. Before they started using the basement we just had to duck under our desks when they wanted a nuclear warning."
I heard the clatter of heels as Sherri came up the stairs.
"When's your birthday, TJ?"
He shrugged, already getting up to leave.
"Guess so." He wasn't sounding too enthusiastic about growing any older.
Sherri opened the office door without knocking and looked around suspiciously. She was neat and buttoned up, wearing a fitted pastel blue suit with deeper blue leather belt. The belt matched her blue court shoes with medium heels that would have sounded easier if the office had a carpet.
"How’s it going?" I asked.
"Fine," she said, not letting her attention settle on me. Make-up so carefully applied you didn’t know it was there.
She nodded agreement then jerked her head for the kid to follow her out. Her head, like the rest of her, set in a determined manner. I judged it better trying to talk to her on neutral territory. If anyone ever found it.
"Something was wrong with that house. It gave me the shivers. Like an empty place with no heart," Tommy observed. "Sure she's busy with her career. But someone who earns that much can hire decorators, interior designers. She could have a dozen maids tidy the place. Try at least. Even if no house without children is ever gonna be a home."
I shrugged not committing myself.
I’d joined Tommy a block away in the bar soon as Sherri had left with TJ. I wanted to steer the conversation away from what we'd found at Monroe's hacienda. No place looks its best during a break-in. I started reminiscing about her second best movie, Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The year it came out, '53, was the year Tommy came back from Korea just before they signed the armistice at Panmunjom and things weren't so bad with Sherri, although privately she was already saying he was a changed man.
We were in the Palomino, one of several bars Tommy frequented these days. There was a framed picture of Roy Rogers' horse Trigger on the back wall, but not autographed which put the establishment low on the scale of North Los Angeles celebrity endorsements.
This time of day it took a moment for your eyes to adjust coming off the street. Bottles on the shelves just starting to glitter but you could still see the dust and worn surfaces. I was planning on being out of the place while the evening was early and the bar not drowned in lost causes, but Tommy undoubtedly had other ambitions.
We picked up our beers and moved to a booth.
"Jane Russell," Tommy continued his prejudice, "just as..." he waved his hands in front of his chest. "Longer legs."
Marilyn had been billed underneath Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Not that this was exceptional given Jane's history in the town, and the two were reported to be good friends, although that's the story they always put out.
"Jane Russell might as well been her maiden aunt," I told him.
"Think Monroe's a real blonde?"
This was the film launched her as a major sex symbol. She was the blonde the gentlemen in the title preferred, even if the studio billboards favoured Jane.
"What you got to watch, close up, her eyes and mouth," I said.
"Ain't what anyone else watches."
"Watch up close. Marilyn has more life in her lips alone than most women in their entire bodies. You watch next time."
"She's not blonde," said Tommy. "Dyes her hair."
"How do you know that?" Even though I'd read it in Spy magazine.
Tommy seemed embarrassed. "Sherri told me. Long time ago."
"I wouldn't trust my little sister telling me who won World War Two. How does Sherri know?" Soon as I asked it hit me I should have stopped.
"Wish I'd thought to ask that question," Tommy snarled. "Guess it was the faggot."
It was 12 months give or take since Sherri had run off to live with the Fox hairdresser taking Junior with her.
Fact is, my friend Tommy Guppy didn't contain an ounce of blind bigotry in him. Everyone he hated it was for a reason. Faggots, women, spics, spades, the government, life in general - one time or another they'd all stuck a knife in him.
He'd been unlucky. Young and impressionable, a career in Uncle Sam's Marines with free rations and all the trenches he could dig. In successive wars Tommy encountered waves of Jap, Korean and Red Chinese infantry often in overwhelming numbers. Later in life the LA detective squad introduced him to Italian mobsters, Negro pimps and Mexican contraband gangs. All these people had separately and persistently tried to kill him. Bullets, bombs, flame-throwers, kitchen knives, chair legs, grenades, broken bottles, bare hands and broken pledges: familiar tools of Tommy's enemies.
In a strange way Tommy respected their dedication. He didn't like in any sense them doing it, held no truck with their excuse of self defence, had formed a definite antipathy for their behaviour and usually their simple existence. He took a suspicious attitude to life. But except for the US Artillery that came close to wiping out his patrol during the Marines retreat from the Changjun Reservoir, he accepted these people were only doing their job best they could.
So the one person Tommy saved all his genuine malice for was Sherri. Just what my sister had done to him I
Sherri and Tommy had started out like honey, so cloying sweet they attracted bears. Early in the relationship, on leave with fresh stripes on a clean-laundered uniform, he went down on one knee. Before he recovered balance she married him.
When Nagasaki put a sudden end to his South Pacific vacation Tommy came home to his bride just long enough to produce Tommy Junior, and for the world to start another war in Korea. Invalided out in '53 he took six months recuperation, drank just enough to relieve the tedium, then switched uniforms and joined the LAPD. They moved to a nice house in a nice neighbourhood, did everything they should.
Trouble was, for Tommy the wars never stopped, they just changed name and location to keep him from getting complacent.
"I was planning dropping in on Sherri tomorrow," I said.
Tommy grew still over his drink.
"Talk to her when Junior isn’t around. See what he wants for his birthday."
"It's his birthday coming up, right?"
"You want me to do anything?"
"I took him out today."
"I know. Okay."
What went wrong, where the poison came from, I might suspect, but it was between the two of them. My opinion was there may have been fault on both sides but I was going to stay out of it.
Tommy drained his glass and I matched him. It was darker now. The glitter of the Palomino's bottles looked more authentic which was never good.
Someone put a dime in the jukebox. Elvis started crooning Are You Lonesome Tonight?
Watching Marilyn by Jack Chapman / Mystery & Detective have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on16 votes