“Grand Delusion”

Fiction by Richard Lawless

    The hotel in Westwood was set back off the street and the entrance was up a dozen cement steps, cracked and precarious, like the residents’ collective state of mind. This was old Hollywood, and the hotel’s claim to fame was the night in 1947 when a famous actor hanged himself from the fire escape. As he dangled naked by his neck, the residents came out to have a peek, far more interested in what made him really famous than for his hundred or so movies. The old character actors who retired in the hotel glanced on with envy, some with a memory or two, but most to see if the rumors were true or not. The actor didn’t disappoint even in death.
    Now, years later, under the shade of filifera and late night-blooming jasmine blown through the open windows by the Santa Ana winds, nothing much happened inside the Hotel Earle. Most of the guests only stayed a night or two; others used it for relatives who were visiting their sick down the street in U.C.L.A. Medical. The regulars fought over the TV rights; one hoping to get a glimpse of a bit part she once played, while a couple of others were hooked on soaps. The main lobby held some sofas, armchairs, a fireplace with a marble mantle that supported two metal statues of Great Danes. The console TV was shaded under a wilted palm in the corner, where the dried potted soil was used for cigarette butts by one of the also-ran Golden Girls of a bygone era. 
     In her day, which is to say in Cecil B. DeMille’s day, this former chorus blonde dined nightly in the Brown Derby, but now Silvia Blake (née Elaine Rabinowitz, then Rabin, then Robinson) ate meals heated in a microwave in her room at the end of the first floor hall. Sylvia had lived in the hotel since 1950, when her star lit for a brief moment, playing a bit part in “Samson and Delilah.” After a one-night stand with the director, she tried to turn it into the romance of the century, and found herself permanently out of work.
    This led to the inevitable “poor me, poor me, pour me another drink” scenario, which in turn led to late-night bus trips down Venice way. There she was deposited across from Ali Baba’s Nest; a dimly lit joint inhabited by male queens and female impersonators. But there she was remembered, and it was there that she could be surrounded by the only kind of love she would ever know again; anonymous love that comes with no price, but what a wicked price to pay.
    The baby Elaine wasn’t born in a trunk in the Palace Theatre, but in a men’s room of a gas station two towns from L.A. where her mother was to launch her into stardom. One asset was all you needed in Hollywood back then, and Sylvia milked those long legs for everything they were worth. Gone were those two perfect, tanned tickets, now replaced by tired flesh, wobbly and varicose-patterned and as white as the screenplay of “Samson and Delilah,” which she kept wrapped in a scarf in the bottom drawer of her bureau.
    Sylvia’s small room was filled with photos of herself that she alone likened to Hedy Lamarr, magazines from “the day,” and records by Vaughn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and a few other dusty crooners she at one time or another had a crush on. She had a floor-length mirror next to the bed with a pink feather boa hanging off a corner, where she would recline and muse about the time Samson had bent down and kissed her, but in the film, Samson actually picked her up and threw her out of the tent. Unrequited lust in the dust eventually turned into a case of bad breaks and misunderstandings. But fantasy goes a long way in Tinseltown and the hotel staff let her have her memories, as long as she didn’t bother the guests.
    But that was precisely what Sylvia did. And there was one guest she couldn’t help annoying daily: Anibal Alejandro Sanchez Reulet, an elderly Argentine gentleman who, like Sylvia, had moved into the hotel when living in a hotel had some panache.
    One particularly hot morning, Sanchez wandered around the lobby, looking more lonely than a deserted freight car. Here was a man who once acted out “Don Quixote” in his class, mesmerizing the female students, who all wanted to have lunch with him. The great orator, the flamboyant professor who treated words more preciously than rare jewels. Now, alone and confused, he stopped and yelled, “A thousand Sufis cannot find my sombrero!” Then, as he surrendered to old age, he saw his hat on top of the TV, smiled and covered his bald head with his prize possession.
    Senor Sanchez was a retired professor of Spanish studies, a writer of essays, a contributor to an Argentine quarterly, and had an intense allergy to Sylvia. Sanchez spent his mornings in sartorial splendor at the round alcove table under a chandelier reading The L.A. Times, which he hated about as much as his stalker. He would slap the pages when he read something that upset him, and throughout the lobby you could hear the crisp whacking of the pages as many as 10 times each morning, always accompanied by “Dios mio!”
    Sanchez’s barometer for earthquakes in this prone part of the world was when the chandelier would sway. This unnerved the old man, and soon he would be feeling his pulse. One morning after the Academy Awards kept Sylvia up late, she raced to the alcove to inform her fantasy man that she would never, ever, have voted him, or her, best actor. Now her entire month was ruined and she told Sanchez so. He never went to movies, couldn’t tell you what was playing; his entertainment was “Wheel of Fortune,” which he watched every night at 7:30, settling into an old red-leather armchair with a cup of tea resting on his little pot belly.
    Sanchez would have his moods, and in these bleak remembrances he always went back to the same thought: that love was a trickster with an unrelenting memory. This particular trick was played out on him when he was at his most vulnerable: New Year’s Eve. Without any rational protection against nostalgia, he would succumb to love’s wicked deceit. Sanchez would dress in his tuxedo, shine his patent leather pumps, carefully insert a handkerchief into his breast pocket, and choose a rose from the hotel flower garden. He would smell the aroma, then needle it through his buttonhole, and go back to his room and order a bottle of champagne from the liquor store down the street.
    As he twisted the champagne in the bucket of ice, he remembered Pascal’s observation that love has its reasons that reason cannot understand — but this only made him more sentimental.
    There in his lounge, the memories of Senorita Renasco would fill the room — great echoes from 50 years earlier on the beach in La Plata. As a young medical student, Anibal would watch his inamorata emerge from the waters, shake the droplets from her flaming red hair, then wrap a towel around her thin body and plop down next to her 10-years-younger affaire de coeur.
    What could become of this passion without a future, the young man asked himself over and over again, but these thoughts dimmed after the first touch of her hand on his, then completely fled the scene after a burning kiss.
    The nightly strolls through the quiet streets; the cafe brandies outside, while the moon shone over the soon-to- be doomed lovers. In this moment of time, Anibal wouldhave left medical school; he would have followed her to the ends of the earth; he would have, without a thought, let both of them sink into the warm waters of the Rio Negro while they held each other tightly, to a lover’s tomb. Had he only known that his youth was his worst enemy; had he only known that his fire was only a spark to her, and soon her fire would ignite again in the arms of someone else; someone older, wiser, wealthier; someone who wasn’t so romantic.
    It would take an ocean away for Anibal to have some sense of peace, but there weren’t oceans big enough to drown out love’s first memory. Now, all these years later, out of 30 years of teaching, 40 years of distractions, 60 years of misery, he surrendered to his reality; that for him, there would never be anyone to fill his heart quite like the inconstante Senorita Renasco.
    Poetry was written for her; sultry, torrid, suggestive, romantic verses Anibal wrote throughout the years. Emotions scribbled on restaurant napkins, later to be filled out in his solitude, late at night by a small shaded lamp lit low, that illuminated a nicotine-stained Maxfield Parrish print above his bed. Titles jotted down as he sat in the Hammer Museum in front of statues that were never quite as exotic as his true love. He would have sculpted a mane of bronze flowing hair, falling down over one eye, covering one perfect breast; this replica would be a goddess, the Barefoot Contessa on the sandy beaches of Argentina.
    Crumpled pieces of paper torn out of his notebook in a fury that this was not the right word, this was not good enough to describe her touch, her glance, the tip of her small finger as it gently moved to touch his wrist. Another tulip glass of white wine, another blank page, another evening’s sun sinking behind the California mountains. Another dream-filled sleep with fragmented memories of witches, ghouls, madmen, lurid street walkers; hideous voices screaming in his ear with half-realized realities. Then the worst dream of all: the square boxes each with four lines with a dot in the center, then each line dissolving, until there were no more lines, just the small dot, and then even that disappeared, leaving only a zero with the rim knocked off. Then love’s distant voice laughing in the distance, trailing away like some sinister magician’s prestidigitation, but played by none other than the Universe itself!
    Anibal carried the champagne and two glasses to his alcove table and sat alone, but not alone; sat waiting for her to come through the door, see him and rush into his opened arms. Oh, what a cruel trick love has played, a sinister, wicked amusement for itself, not for him.
    Sylvia, in her dusty feather boa, sat next to the dreaming old man, leaning back in absurd sensuality, while waiting for the glass to be filled and pushed toward her, by Mister DeMille himself. Sylvia, one of the last character actors from the Silver Screen of fantasy, with her own memories of misplaced realities — delusions to a normal person, but to her just one good part from her immortal acceptance speech.
    Sylvia, worn like the shredded lime-green carpet, tired like the mirrors on the walls that had seen the profile of John Barrymore and had blurred the romances of many a true star as they made their way up the stairs into Hollywood legend.
    Sylvia, who destroyed the hotel TV the night Vivian Leigh won. Sylvia, given the opportunity, would have put Sanchez into the pool, instead of Bill Holden.
    Sylvia, the shy little Elaine Rabinowitz from Chagrin Falls with a dream bigger than the Hollywood sign. She looked at the old man, following his eyes to the front door, then looked back at her last chance at love. A pursing of the cracked red lips, then with all the courage of an ingenue yearning for her first part, she bent down to pick up her room key (which she had practiced dropping in her room). Then the final intoxication, exposing her tired breasts, out of a cleavage deeper than the Grand Canyon, that would never again have company, but nevertheless invited the old man for one last look at almost immortality.
    But the champagne was never uncorked and the front door never opened. There would be no “Out of the Past” tonight, crossing the floor inside a black cocktail dress; hearts on fire, yearning to reach each other, burning into one delirious passion.  Instead, only the nerve-shattering words from his unwanted guest: “Happy New Year, Anibal. How handsome you look this evening.”
    And once again, after another visit from Love’s Labor’s Lost, the tired old Argentine gentleman looked across the table and sadly said, “Yes, there will be another year, and another year after this.” Then in Spanish he added, to Sylvia’s great frustration, “Love is a trickster with an unrelenting memory.”

    Ricard Lawless is a freelance writer and paiter who lives in East Hampton. His Web site is richarlawlessart.com.