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|She’s Gotta Ticket to Ride and he accepted it.”|
“Where did they go from here?”
“On down south. I loaned him 20 bucks. Nothing happened to her here, I promise you sir,” he placed his hand on his heart. “But what, she don’t show up for 30 years and you lookin for her now?”
“We’ve been looking all along.”
“And you ain’t found her yet? I feel sorry for you, man. Give it up. She don wanna be found. She coulda called. Collect, right? An if she’s dead then her soul’s long gone. You gotta let it go. You gotta wife?”
“Well, get one! You’re on a cold trail. Ice cold.”
It felt November cold when I stepped out of Joe’s place in the middle of the night. A faint sense of the absurd washed over me. There was no Marjorie Sonnenheim. She was a white moth flitting out of reach. The enormous gulf of time separated us. Her parents were just going through an empty ritual.
I decided to drive south. I felt the drive would do me good. My few minutes with Joe seemed eternities long and I couldn’t wait to hit the open road. The bits he added solidified the case around me and I knew I was losing that detachment and getting sucked in by curiosity. I was becoming too curious about Marjorie Sonnenheim. She had hooked me with her Natalie Wood smile. Not that Natalie ever smiled. She was much too serious and reserved, but you know that kind of face, the kind which you know that if it smiled would be beautiful. I drove south with this face moving across the landscape.
I consulted the notes they’d given me and pulled into Big Spring, Texas the next day, late afternoon. The heat of the day still lay on everything like a quilt. The place was suffocating, dry land all around, no spring that I could see. To get a drop of water they would have had to wrench it out of a cloud. But the clouds all dried up before they got here. One gas station sagged into the ground of not much of a town. I felt like I’d stepped back in time. There were a dozen carcasses of cars all around the establishment. Inside, a tall rangy fellow up in years leaned back in a chair with his boots on the counter.
He eyeballed my Volvo through the filthy glass and said, “Gotta problem?”
“Yeah. Nothing but problems. You the only garage around?”
“For how many miles?”
“Few hundred. Whatsa matter with your car?”
“Them old cars’ll do that. Hope that’s all it is cause there ain’t no Volvo parts around here.”
“Listen,” I said. “How long have you been here?”
“All my life.”
“At this station?”
“Got it from my dad. What’s it to you?”
“I’m a private eye. I’m looking for someone.”
“Oh yeah? Who?”
I showed him the picture.
“What, her again? When you guys gonna stop looking?”
“Well, can you tell me anything?”
“I can tell you all the same stuff I said before.” He lit a cigarette. He was going nowhere and seemed glad for the company. His arms were twisted ropes of muscles and his hands were greased black to the wrists. “Ok, here’s the story. I come to work one morning and find a white Austin Healy parked on the lot. It was early, man. My dad’d sent me over to see about what he’d heard from a cop, someone sleepin in this bus we had sittin here an I came real early, bout five in the morning and caught em sleeping on the bus. It was jest an old broken down thing with no seats in it that crapped out on some hippies, they’d left it with me. Anyway the bus was of no account and there was nothing in it to steal but my old man told me the night before to go and I found em. She and this fella were sound asleep, in their clothes. They had this finicky piece of junk that we didn’t have any parts for, and they left it here and hitch-hiked out. He was tall and skinny, typical Texas boy. She looked, I dunno, kinda Italian. They jest left the car and walked off down the road.”
“That’s been it til now but I like you, I’ll let you in on a little bit more.”
“I never told this part while pa was alive, he woulda killed me, but he’s dead now. Anyway, I felt sorry for them, biggest mistake of my life. I took em to my house to get washed up. My wife and kids was gone to see her folks for a week and I figured it was no harm done. They splashed their faces, didn’t shower or nothing, didn’t go that far, but used the bathroom, washed up and combed their hair. She had long black hair and asked if she could use the wife’s brush. I said fine. Then we walked back to the station. I gave him fifty bucks for the car and they walked off. It was all over an done with by 7:00 A.M. That was the last I saw of em. My house is just round the corner, wanna see it? I’m lockin up now.”
The town looked deserted. I followed him two blocks to a small crumpled frame house with broken steps and screens. He kicked the door open and let me in. There were three very tiny rooms wallpapered with hideous flowers but so dingy and dark you could hardly see them, they looked more like stains.
“Come on, I’ll show you something I never shown nobody.”
I followed him into a little hallway, tight as a coffin, and into the bedroom completely dominated by heavy dark furniture. On a large bed, which filled the whole room, lay a wine-colored fake velvet bedspread. From a tall narrow window fell a little white light. He directed my attention to the mirrored dresser, the entire top of which was covered with perfume bottles, pictures in frames, miniature vases with dried flowers, brushes and combs and countless knick-knacks. The beveled mirror reflected the room a bit brighter than it really was. He picked up a picture in an ornate frame and handed it to me.
“The wife,” he said.
I saw the head and shoulders of an attractive woman with curly blond hair and a winning smile.
He handed me a silver-backed brush with soft bristles, part of a set, the whole set was still there on a silver tray. I looked at it but saw nothing.
“See that there?”
“Long black hair.”
I carried the brush to the window. There was one long black strand of hair wound through the bristles. I pulled it out and wrapped it round my finger. I looked him in the face, confused. His plain hardened features folded down the center and he managed to choke out a few words.
“The wife come back. She sees the brush. Figures I had some other woman in here, thinks she even knows who it is, that goddam Martha phone operator who’s got black hair and who I wouldn’t give two cents for, with her mouth, though I did fool around with her a little, but never here. The wife takes one look at this brush and she jes turns around and goes back to her folks. I coulda killed myself, I was so mad. And I coulda killed her for not believing a word I said. You wanna beer?”
“No thanks. My car’s probably cooled down enough to start now.”
“Wait a sec, I want you to hear something.”
He took me to the kitchen, big as a shoebox, and put on a record, Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman.
“You know this song?” he said laconically, having recovered himself now. “I played bass guitar on it, you know, that acoustic rhythm in the back. That was me. Went down to Nashville to cut it. Played it for them after she’d brushed her hair.”
I put the circle of hair in my wallet with the thin silver cross. We walked back. He stood watching, chewing on a weed. I started the engine and backed out. The sun was going down but that didn’t help Big Spring much. It was just a parched, faded place. If it had a spring, it was deep underground.
I arrived in Austin at night. It was hot and sultry, humid as a sauna. A pungent smell of moss and black earth. A few frail Victorian houses were still standing among new condos, with white paint peeling like tissue and wooden fretwork pale as rotted lace. In neighborhoods long occupied by students the sidewalks lurched and cracked, unable to contain the giant roots of trees hurling off the cement.
I would have liked to stay a few days and could have justified it to the Sonnenheims who’d given me a short list of people to interview, but I knew they would just repeat their stories and besides I was dying to get to the lake. The next day, over bitter coffee in my room, cold, the way I like it, except for the white moth floating in it from the night before, I browsed idly through the notes. I noticed it just before taking a sip, floating on top of the murky liquid, its wings like two blossom petals, smooth as silk. I fished it out, patted it dry with a napkin and put it in my wallet.
I saw from the notes of those who’d gone before me that his name was Whitman Smiley. He wasn’t hard to find. The phone book was full of Smileys and I talked to enough of them over the phone to know half the family, who directed me first to Lampasas and then to Llano, to the lake house.
I drove a hundred miles to get there but it looked like a thousand, nothing but rolling hills like a petrified ocean, not a dwelling in sight. I couldn’t imagine why she’d come out here.
I finally found the lake. Heavy rains had evidently swollen it because the banks of green grass led right down into it and there were a few trees in the water. He was waiting for me on the porch. He was tall and thin, lanky in boots and jeans, an inscrutable face with high cheekbones and a pointed nose; except for his round steel rimmed glasses, he looked just like James Dean.
I was exhausted and had long ago given up. This was the end of my trail. I was going to drink three beers and drive away. Just for billing purposes to show something to the Sonnenheims, I would interview Mr. Smiley, who looked a lot like Jett Rink without the money. He looked at me with cold grey eyes and a frozen smile.
“I understand you’re looking for Maggie Sonnenheim,” he spoke first.
“Yep,” I climbed the porch stairs, defeated, collapsed into a wooden rocker and looked out at the lake. It lay like a silver plate between the hills. It was near sunset and the sky was Technicolor. It was hot as hell and the lake floated before me like a mirage.
“I know I’m not the first to ask you questions.”
“Not the last either,” he drawled.
A fan of cirrus clouds turned orange and purple. The lake looked filled with paint. I wanted to ask him pointblank: “Did you drown her?” knew he’d say “Nope.” We drank a couple beers each without talking. I was hoping he’d say something himself. He had the long fingers of a pianist and a silver skull ring on one hand.
When the lake turned black and vanished into black hills I got up and turned to leave. In the light of an interior room sat a woman in white, reading at a table. I opened my mouth to speak but closed it again. The inner room seemed sacred, a private realm beyond my reach. I stumbled down the stairs and drove away. I never sent the Sonnenheims a bill either. Just a note to say I couldn’t take the case.
From the line of her face, it could have been her. In fact, I’m sure that it was.
Only trouble is, I see her everywhere.
a note about the writer
Ita Willen was born in Poland in 1945, has a BA in philosophy from University of Texas in Austin and currently resides in Colorado. She was named for her paternal grandmother who died in a concentration camp, exact time and place unknown. In 1972 Random House published The Grubbag, a collection of weekly columns she wrote (under the name Ita Jones) for the Liberation News Service from 1968-70.
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