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Woman in White
I used to be a private eye, a regular guy without any mental problems. I had an apartment and a girlfriend and an office in Fort Collins. One day Fritz and Sofia Sonnenheim walked in and hired me to look into the disappearance and possible drowning of their daughter, Marjorie. They hadn’t seen her since 1970.
“Good god! Why didn’t you get in touch with me sooner?”
“We were afraid to have the law involved,” Sofia Sonnenheim said.
“Why, what was she doing?”
“We don’t know.”
“Well, when was it you last heard from her exactly?”
“April 21st 1970 we got a call from Drop City. She told us she was getting a ride back to Texas with her crazy boyfriend.”
“So she was what, 25 years old? Did she ask for money?”
“Why did she call?”
“Just to say hello and tell us she’d found her ride.”
“And that was the last time you heard from her?”
“We got a postcard six months later from Llano, Texas. All it said was ‘I’m fine, I’m at a lake’”
I stood up from my desk, littered with coffee cups and ashtrays, and shored up the stacks of papers and books I was sure would cave in on me during my conversation with the Sonnenheims. My already small office shrunk as I tried to visualize my mission. Marjorie was probably murdered by a drifter on the side of some road and left for carrion. That’s what happened to young girls from good families when they ventured where they didn’t belong.
My office, off a small side street in Fort Collins, suddenly became unbearable. Windowless, all four walls, which were within arm’s reach, were shelved and everything on all the shelves threatened to avalanche like the snow avalanching off the roof .
It was in April 30 years ago that she called from Drop City. I was familiar with Drop City. Years ago I’d been hired to fish out a kid. I knew that commune. It was the one with geodesic domes made of car hoods. Hundreds of people were there in ’68 when I saw it. They had this whole farm going. They were trying to grow things but the garden was kind of skimpy and all they really did was sit around tripping. I found the kid and shipped him back to his parents. That one was easy. He was too stoned to go anywhere else.
But Marjorie, assuming she was alive, would be a woman in her fifties.
“What is the sort of thing your daughter might have done?” I asked Mr. and Mrs. Sonnenheim.
“She could have done anything,” her mother said. An ageless black-haired woman, Sofia was either a Brazilian aristocrat or actress, I didn’t catch which.
“She was fearless,” added her father in a German accent. He handed me a few photographs of Marjorie. The oval white face rimmed in straight black hair seemed to wink at me with recognition. She had one of those faces you always see on the covers of fashion magazines, all alike with fair skin, straight teeth, thin noses, large brown eyes.
“So, let’s see, 1970, she must have fallen into politics, drugs, the whole thing?”
“Absolutely not. She was a college student. She’d come home for spring break and was on her way back to school.”
“And you never heard from her again? This is the first time you’ve thought to look for her?
“We look around a bit every five years or so.”
Armed with the photographs, a $500 retainer and some notes from previous searches, I picked up the trail, thinking I must be really desperate to even get involved in this but I needed the money and looked at is as a vacation from sitting in my cage waiting for the phone to ring.
The very next day I packed up my old Volvo and headed south to Trinidad. I really didn’t think anything remained of Drop City. I expected to find a shopping mall or trailer park on the site, but I was getting paid to go south into full-blown spring.
Drop City came up on my left, I could see it from I-25. It looked like a car junkyard. There was a drive into it. I pulled in. The domes were still there. The triangles cut from car hoods, tops and trunks were still welded together but weather-beaten and rusted. The place looked deserted. A small dog ran out, a baby cried. Two very pale people crawled out from some hole and approached me with hollow eyes.
“Looking for somebody?” asked the scrawny fellow with tattoos all over his arms. His wife, pale as a wraith, held a squalling infant. They looked a sorry sight, like they hadn’t eaten in weeks, and were as dirty as stray dogs.
“I’m looking for someone who blew through here 30 years ago.”
“Nobody here but us now.”
“Yeah, I can see that.”
“We been here three years. Ain’t seen nobody. Xcept that squaw with her dog.”
I looked up to see a bare-footed woman approaching with a large chow. His purple tongue hung from his black mouth and his teeth looked very sharp.
“Looking for something?” she asked. She was brown and looked around 50. She wore a long skirt and a long black braid. “Nobody here but us,” she said before I had a chance to open my mouth. She acted like she owned the place. Like a queen she swept her arm around her domain, as if to say, this is all mine. “What do you want?” she looked me in the eye.
“I’m looking for someone who came through here in 1970.”
She burst out laughing. “Do you know how many people have come through here?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Well, were you here in 1970?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I’ve been hired to find someone, a Marjorie Sonnenheim.” I pulled out a picture. “Ever see her?”
The woman squinted at the photograph. “White girl, huh?”
The desolate landscape around the domes was too depressing for me to consider this any kind of vacation. The passage of time had brought no progress to Drop City and I wondered why I was standing there looking at this pitiful scene. The pale scarecrow family stood to one side, glad I hadn’t come to evict them, and the Indian, well, I knew her type. If she knew anything, she’d never tell. And if she told, it’d be all lies. I was the dumbest of the lot, looking for someone lost in time.
“Can I look around?” I asked.
La Madonna with her vicious dog said, “Stay as long as you like.”
I went to the nearest dome to look around, to see what might still be there after a third of a century. In that one and in a dozen others were clothing, artifacts, magazines and books, entire libraries, it was a dumping ground. The civilization the travelers had brought with them they left in Drop City. Here, they had dropped everything, all vestiges of former lives. I guess it got its name from all the acid that was dropped here, but everything else had been dropped here too, names, identities, possessions, treasures, aspirations and lots of books. The books were too heavy to carry further. Trunks of clothing stood untouched. Whoever left Drop City took nothing with them. In the dirt outside one of the domes I found a tiny silver cross. The things that people lost here, it would be an archeologist’s paradise, or a psychiatrist’s nightmare.
I was getting into my car, glad it had wheels, when the Indian sauntered up, her dog nipping at her heels, baring his teeth at me.
“You know,” she said, “I recognize the woman. I remember her. She was with a tall skinny fellow.”
“What do you remember about her?”
“She wore white.”
“What about the guy, who was he?”
“I knew him well. We called him Whitey. He been here the summer before. Took a lot of acid. Every day for three months. But Jesus it was long ago, he’d be a grandfather by now. What’d he do, kill her?”
“Her folks want to find out?”
“They’re paying me to find out.”
“Why don’t you stick around for awhile? We could use somebody with some money. Fix this place up.”
She might have been beautiful once. Now she was very plain with a flat round face and little black eyes that glittered like stars. Her limbs were round as columns, her neck too, was thick as a trunk. Her feet were large and filthy. The hem of her skirt was ragged and torn. Her dog looked hungry, jumping on me, barking his head off.
“They went from here to Morning Star,” she said.
“Another commune. Behind Taos. Up a mesa. But it’s gone. Everything’s gone. You stay here with us.”
I had a vision of myself becoming like the scarecrow family, drained of will and blood. She had my sleeve in her grip but I pulled away and got into the car.
“We could have some fun,” she shouted, her fist pounding on the windshield. “Don’t leave,” she began to cry as I pulled away.
Christ, I thought, there sure are a lot of crazies in this world. I wasn’t sure what to do. There seemed no point in looking for Morning Star, it had probably long ago disappeared. Still, I could postpone returning to my dingy office and get expenses covered. Browse around Taos a little and pretend to be doing something. I drove south.
The connection of Marjorie with Morning Star continually brought to mind Natalie Wood who played Marjorie Morningstar in a film of the same name.
The next day at noon I was asking at every gas station in Taos, one finger finally pointed to a mesa to the north. The streets were deserted at mid-day. The bright light that illuminates O’Keeffe’s paintings was here, thrown on everything. All objects stood out unique, with no shadows to bind them together. Each object stood out like an icon. The flesh-colored adobes with corners round as shoulders, were backed by a blinding turquoise sky. The trees stood out in 3-D, every shadow a razor’s edge. The landscape I drove through was barren, it was the sky that looked alive, with sheaves of clouds moving through it quickly, as on a river.
When I got to the mesa it seemed high as Masada, and the road going up it was even worse. The old Volvo rattled its guts out. All I needed was to completely destroy my car to be put out of business altogether. It wasn’t a road but a rocky zigzag up to a plateau, and I proceeded in a thick cloud of yellow dust and the banging of rocks under my car. I caused such a stir it must have been visible for miles.
I arrived at the top with only one question in my mind: Why would Natalie Wood come up here? For in my mind Marjorie Sonnenheim had merged with Marjorie Morningstar. Her white oval face with even features, nice nose, dark eyes, with even the same smile! I was looking for the young Natalie Wood, the way she looked in Rebel Without a Cause, those immense fear-filled eyes, the strained laugh, the nervous hands and again the immense black pools of her eyes. She died of drowning, didn’t she, now that I think of it. Marjorie Sonnenheim was also thought to have drowned. What the hell am I doing at the top of a mesa if she drowned? I should be down in Texas at the lake.
I got to the top, parked the car and got out. It was way past noon but up here it was green as dawn. The light was pearly and planted fields reached away from me in rows green as creation. In the distance several horses, one white, began to run. That white horse running through the green fields at the top of that mesa was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. All around, floating in thin air, were the tops of surrounding mesas, like a barely-there Japanese watercolor. There were shadows, all shades of mauve and blue. The horses kept running, in slow motion. I approached a stone structure, made from the same stones as on the road. It looked, in the pearly light, made of pearls. A series of add-ons from other materials, unmatched roofs, a couple of old pick-ups rusting out front and a brand new Land Rover.
“Hello, hello?” The door stood open.
A young woman in black shorts and white Nikes appeared.
“Hi. I’m Jack Froyd. I’m writing an article. Do you know if this is where the Morning Star commune used to be?”
“An article? On communes? Oh Larry, come out,” she called. “There’s a reporter here. He wants to know about Morning Star.”
Larry emerged from the inner room, wearing Polo shorts, and shook my hand. He looked around 30.
“Do you know if there was a commune called Morning Star up here in 1970?”
“Yes, this was it. I bought it last year. Come in, I’ll show you around the original section. But you haven’t got a camera with you.”
“Oh, they send out a professional photographer for that.”
“Which magazine did you say you’re from?” asked the lady, her straight chestnut hair cut shoulder length with razor sharp bangs. Her nails, I noticed, were polished pink and silver.
“Mother Earth Times,” I improvised. There was probably nothing they could tell me. They’d have been barely born in 1970. And from the magazine way they looked, their parents hadn’t been part of it either. No thread of light from 1970 fell here.
They took me inside, showed me around. The central building was made of stone, inside and out, large stones made up a round center room, pretty big, about 30 feet across, with stone seating all around a central hearth. On the slate benches and flagstone surfaces lay fans of slick magazines. They probably welcomed the publicity, so they could sell all the surrounding land to a developer to build million-dollar homes. I looked out a window and thought the mesa big enough to hold quite a few. I tried to visualize this building boom and could see the mesa covered with homes, surrounded by the floating empty mesas punctuating the distance as far as the eye could see. It was beautiful. It looked vaguely Greek, mostly white, columns and domes, geometries of glass for it was a New Age City I envisioned. Canals of water, waterfalls, lotus pools, fountains. These were rich people after all. Probably David Bowie would buy a house up here, but he’d want the whole mesa to himself, except, of course, for a few Indians and white horses.
The Greek city sitting in the mesa looked like Utopia. A monastic city in the Himalayas, a Greek monastery, one of those Macchu Picchu kind of places that attract pilgrims from all over the world. Seekers of truth. Come drink the water.
There was water up here, strangely enough. I could see Natalie Wood looking at the silver water running through trenches. The New Age City with its tinkling music dissolved as my vision focused on the lush green fields and their canals filled with water, and beyond them the horses, a few brown and black and one white. The floating pink mesas were vanishing in the mid-day sky.
I turned to my hosts. “Is there anyone around here who might have been here in 1970?”
They turned to each other and consulted.
“The fellow we bought the land from has been here forever. He’s probably immortal. He lives in the Taos Pueblo, his name is Joe. Joe Joseph.”
Did people really live in the Taos Pueblo? I’d seen it several times as a tourist, annoyed that they make you pay to bring in your camera. I thought it was more of a tourist site, like the old cores of European cities, where businesses in the historical sections are owned by merchants who live in suburbs. This was how the Taos Pueblo had appeared to me, not that anyone was getting rich selling fried bread and silver. The merchants probably lived in square brick houses with air conditioning and plumbing.
“Does he have an address?” I asked.
“Just ask anyone in the Pueblo for Joe Joseph.”
I drove down the tortuous road, relieved to hit the pavement and drove back to Taos. Taos never seemed to change. It was a designated tourist trap. It did have a lot of charm. In the late afternoon light the adobes glowed pink. The green, what little there was, was the bright green of mosses. The trees dripped with new leaves and at the entrance to my motel a few scrawny lilac bushes were in bloom. The dirt in the courtyard was rose tinted. The motel had been recently painted turquoise and looked terrible. I should have told the Sonnenheims that because of my dependency on computer technology I only stay in Hyatts. But I was too exhausted to care and after a glimpse at the empty pool, crashed into bed like a mummy.
I dreamed of the white horse running across the mesa.
When I awoke it was night but not much cooler. I walked into town for dinner and gazed into the windows of a few shops and galleries. A few Indians in blankets wandered the fringe of town, and beyond that, a flat blackness filled with stars.
I drove north to the Pueblo, still wondering if anyone really lived there. Through molded windows like square openings in flesh, shone a few electric bulbs. No one bothered with a shade, but the bulbs must have been only 15 watt, so dark did everything remain. The Pueblo loomed up into the night sky, now an electric blue with the moon’s arrival. A structure of 3 and 4 stories with perhaps a hundred dwellings, stood out in black silhouette.
I entered a stone maze which looked like a stage set. The moonlight ascending ever higher blotted out all the stars and with its bright rays cast boxy shadows. I felt like the golem sneaking through the midnight streets of Prague.
“Hello?” I called into a window opening.
An enormous woman waddled out in a muumuu. Her flat face was covered with nicks and scars like an unearthed Mayan head. She looked at me and waited.
“I’m looking for Joe Joseph.”
“Joe? Joe!” she called. “Somebody here looking for you!”
“Tell him I’ve gone to the moon!” Joe hollered back. I couldn’t believe my good luck in finding him at the first place I tried, unless everyone here had the same name.
An old guy in a t-shirt ducks into the room. I’m still standing at the doorway. Next thing I know I find myself at a formica table in his kitchen. His kitchen looks like an ordinary kitchen, except for all its light coming from one 15 watt bulb.
I whipped out the picture of Marjorie Morningstar, I mean Sonnenheim, and asked, “Have you ever seen this girl?”
“You the cops?” he appraised me from the corners of his eyes.
“So what is it? That hit and run I heard about?”
“No. I’m looking for a woman who disappeared 30 years ago.”
He peered at the picture again.
“I dunno, where was she at, here?”
“Maybe here, maybe in town. She spent some time on that mesa, I understand it was your property that the Morning Star commune was on.”
“Are you saying she was murdered on my land and I’m responsible?” He leaned towards me and reached for a sharp kitchen knife with his free hand. His large face was red and white hair hung to his shoulders. His features were craggier than Mount Rushmore up close.
“Not at all. It’s got nothing to do with it being your land and she’s probably not even dead. But it’s been a long time since she passed through here, so I wanted to talk to you because you were here then, in 1970, or am I wrong? Do you recognize her?”
“Who wants to know?”
I paused to think of an answer. “I’m her brother.”
“Oh, that’s different,” he said. “Wait. Let’s have a drink.” He poured out some whiskey and drank his own neat. Then he concentrated on the picture.
“What happened?” he asked.
“She jest dropped out, huh?”
“That’s about right.”
“What’s her name?”
Musta changed her name, that’s why you can’t find her. Got married or something. Probably has ten kids. That’s what that fella she was with wanted to do, stay here forever. He called her Maggie. I knew him from once before when I nearly killed him in a fight. He came back a coupla years later with Maggie. He brought her here. Thought she could become an Indian. Trouble was, he was no Indian himself. No Indian, no Chicano, nothing man, he was a ghost. White as a ghost, not one hair on his chest, smooth as a woman, made of ice.”
“What was his name?”
“I dunno! You want me to know that? Nobody used their real names back then anyway. We called him Whitey. He was one of them hippie trippers who always stepped on the wrong feet. Seemed to be his gift.”
“What about Maggie?”
“Ah, she was like the moon. She had on a white dress. She was pretty thin, they both were. They didn’t say much. She didn’t say a word. I thought maybe they had a fight. After she went to bed I had a coupla beers with Whitey and he told me they’d broke up. I could tell from the scared look on her face, she was looking for a way out. I sent them up to Morning Star where a hundred other kids just like them was looking for ways in or out. They stayed up there a few days. I wonder where he’s at now? Probly living under a bridge. Your sister didn’t seem the sort at all to be with him.
“Was he angry that she wanted to shake him?”
“Nah—he got his news from the songs on the radio. He turned on this one right here and they was playing
От издателя: Book Description In the first in a new series of brief biographies, bestselling author Peter Ackroyd brilliantly evokes...