Halfway through the second feature (of three) at the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Bertie sat enthralled by the cinematic magic he was experiencing, and with the seemingly ever-present Noreen by his side, he was also contemplating with the other part of his mind the strange events that had brought him here.
Noreen had picked him up a little after five as promised, and on the way to the theater they exchanged amusing but irrelevant small talk. He had picked up his ticket from the rather punkish-looking teenage ticket vendor without incident other than her questioning eyes and expression that obviously said, Who the hell are you, buddy? But he ignored this and entered the theater with Noreen on his arm, just as naturally as if she had always been there, though he had met her less than twenty-four hours previously.
Now sitting in his seat after having had a couple of glasses of wine at the first intermission break, he mused about his situation. Noreen, he reflected, had very certainly and very quickly become a kind of sugar mommy to him, plying him with wine and scotch at every opportunity. He had no complaints in this department, for a slightly soused Bertie was a happy camper. But through his alcoholic haze he wondered from time to time about her motives. He had, he realized, never been in this position before. Certainly he had been broke and hungry during his first years in LA during the early seventies when he was a struggling young film director, relying on occasional paychecks from nature film assignments in which he had nothing to direct but the animals. Even when he had met Natalie, he had been able to pay his own way and hers as well, thanks to the generous paycheck from the eccentric Oscar DeVille, for whom he made an artistically regrettable but surprisingly successful documentary about the East Los Angeles Hispanic ghetto. He was now back to square one—broke, in a strange land, and literally depending on the kindness of strangers. Add to this the apparent fact that he was somehow forty-two years in the future and had just had several hours of what amounted to a Socratic dialogue with his future self, and it was no wonder that he had frequent fears that all this was somehow a result of a major crackup, the events of the last few days being confined solely to an unhinged mind.
The film he was watching, the second of three, was of all things a light romantic comedy-adventure, a period piece set in the early sixties, titled I’m Sorry, Have We Met? The rather confusing but amusing plot centered on a mild-mannered government clerk who had somehow been dispatched to a fictitious country in Central Europe known as Pretzelvania. In its capital city of Schmekeldecker, after a series of confusing incidents in which our hero was obviously mistaken for someone else, he finally learns that he is an exact double for the CIA agent in charge of attempting to prop up the local government to keep it from going Communist. At this point in the movie, our hero had just discovered this fact and had been forced to join forces with his CIA agent lookalike while fending off the advances of an extremely voluptuous Soviet spy.
As he watched, he had a sudden epiphany. It all came together in his mind like a flash. These were movies that Natalie would have made, wanted to make, were she a better screenwriter and more imaginative cinematically. He knew now, he thought (as much as he knew anything in his condition), that the films he had been watching could, with the right touch of blarney on his part, satisfy Natalie’s quest and thirst for sociological education through the movies.
The film used throughout period filming styles and techniques, such as brilliant color and the obligatory sixties-style day-for-night photography. When it came to a satisfying conclusion and the audience had obligingly cheered and clapped, Noreen punched him in the arm meaningfully and said, “C’mon Bertie, bet you could use some more wine.” He didn’t say no.
Following the third feature of the evening, an already slightly wobbly Bertie strolled arm in arm with Noreen out of the theater. It was about eleven-thirty, and as they retraced their steps of the previous evening down Hollywood Boulevard toward O’Malley’s, Bertie again noticed the beauty of the Hollywood night, strangely complemented by the almost noiseless cars whizzing up and down the street. He was beginning to feel again strangely almost at home here. Noreen appeared to have taken him under her wing, so to speak, and he found that that was all right with him.
Upon reaching O’Malley’s she once again settled them into a spacious booth and bought the first of several rounds of drinks—scotch and soda for Bertie, white wine for Noreen. The rest of the evening passed quickly with Bertie, now more sure of himself and his ability to divert Noreen from asking embarrassing questions about his alleged Canadian small-town upbringing. He did this by keeping her busy with actually legitimate questions about Los Angeles and about her life. She appeared all too happy to oblige and the time went quickly and smoothly until last call.
Then she was hustling him out the door and back up Hollywood Boulevard to where her trusty Tesla was waiting for her in the parking lot.
On the way, a now even more wobbly Bertie felt once again that happy warm alcoholic glow that increasingly frequently enveloped him like an old friend’s welcoming arms. He marveled at his luck. In the bar, Noreen had asked him point blank if he were going to stay at his Uncle Gil’s again tonight and he had replied that Uncle Gil had given him his freedom. At this Noreen had replied, “Well, I guess you’re just going to have spend the night at my place,” she said, looking at him meaningfully.
He had replied that he would be grateful to do so, and mumbled something about hoping not to be a bother and being happy to sleep on the couch. At which Noreen had given a hearty, sustained, and almost masculine guffaw and said, “Of course, I understand completely.” Then she remarked with a leer, “Is my place okay? Or is a motel more your style?” For this, Bertie had no reply.
Now, walking up the street towards the parking lot, he thought about what a formidable woman he had gotten involved with so quickly. He reflected that ever since he had been taught the manly arts of love by Natalie, his experiences outside the marriage bed had been limited to young starry-eyed creatures who would do anything to please an important man such as Gil Hall, and were eager to show their gratitude. Having more willingness than experience, he was pretty much able to pleasure himself in his own way with scant help from the wannabe starlet, whether on the casting couch or, more rarely, in the occasional motel bed. But Noreen, he thought, was certainly well out of that category. She was not only physically imposing but, by her own admission, forty years old and the survivor of three failed marriages. Bertie had been tempted to ask her how the marriages had ended but felt it would be indelicate of him to do so.
They reached her car without incident and, driving out of the lot, she this time turned left and headed east on Hollywood Boulevard. Bertie noticed that, even though she had matched him drink for drink, her gait was unwavering and her driving impeccable. As she concentrated on her driving, seemingly letting Bertie think his own thoughts, he did so.
The five movies he had seen (potentially his movies, he corrected himself) had opened his eyes and made him feel something that he thought he might have lost forever—the burning desire and confidence to make meaningful films, if only given the opportunity. During the eighties, the flame of his creative enthusiasm had been reduced to a mere spark by the succession of more or less mediocre scripts which Natalie had, in so many words, forced him to direct and affix his name to. Then, when Running Against the Wind garnered them Oscar nominations for Original Screenplay and Original Director, he was hopeful that they were finally getting somewhere. But their last few films had dispelled that notion, being even more mediocre and less successful than the eighties entrees and, he thought ruefully, Raising Ezekiel was unlikely to break that string. Moreover, he and Natalie had had escalating marital disputes in the five years since the nominations, and had both begun to drink entirely too much, too often—especially Natalie, who made the daily succession of margaritas an unbroken ritual. He had begun to envision their long slide into mediocrity and alcoholism as being inevitable, and was very much afraid that Hollywood would take them less and less seriously as the years rolled past, granting them a sort of amused tolerance but increasingly less respect. After all, he was already in his mid forties, and Natalie was now well over fifty.
He was jolted out of his reverie by Natalie’s left turn off Hollywood onto Vermont. She proceeding north on Vermont for a few more blocks, and then to Bertie’s amazement turned into what he could swear was the site where Natalie’s old apartment building had once stood. But now, instead of the modest little three-story building built somewhere back in the twenties or thirties there stood an ultra-modern high-rise condo apartment building, extending upward for at least twelve stories and possessing its own underground parking garage. This latter, as Noreen pulled into the drive, Bertie could see was accessed by a ramp that led down to a forbidding-looking steel door behind which was the parking area. This spacious garage, he soon learned as Noreen opened the automatic door and drove in, was built right below a spacious high-ceilinged lobby which effectively separated the noise of the vehicles in the parking garage from the occupied apartments in the floors above.
Parking her Tesla in the designated space, she led Bertie several yards to an elevator and they rode it quickly and silently up to the eighth floor. She led him down the hall to the door of an apartment which was labeled simply 8B. She then pressed the palm of her right hand again on what appeared to be a glass panel beside the door, and as she did so the door swung open. She beckoned Bertie in, closing the door behind her. Then she swept her hand over the interior of the apartment and said matter-of-factly, “Well, what do you think?”
Bertie looked around. It seemed to him to be a typical apartment living room, though it was lit with a soft mellow glow which seemed to come from no particular source that he could discover. The furniture was the usual couch, chairs, table, that sort of thing, tastefully but unobtrusively expensive. But as he looked around the room Bertie had the odd feeling (having had experience with these things on many movie sets) that it was somehow a sort of showroom or set piece that had been either furnished or redecorated only a short time ago, and it had that rather sterile quality of not really having been lived in. Realizing that he had been silent for far too long he stammered, “It’s great! Looks comfy, huh?”
She gave a slight chuckle as if to say, You’ll find out, but then simply said, “Care for a nightcap?”
Bertie, who to his knowledge had never refused an offered drink in his life, and especially now that couldn’t buy one for himself, replied in spite of his already half-drunken condition, “Sure, that would be great.”
Without a word she turned and went through a door to the rear right of the living room, the entrance to which Bertie supposed was the kitchen. Within a few minutes she came back with a crystal highball glass that contained tiny ice cubes and a pale amber liquid. In her other hand she carried a tulip glass filled halfway with a clear liquid Bertie supposed was her usual white wine. Handing the highball to Bertie she said, “Hope you like it.”
He took a sip and realized at once that this was not the cheap scotch he had been drinking at O’Malley’s. “Wow,” he said, smacking his lips. “This is really great. What is it?”
She gave him a sly smile, patted him on the shoulder and said, “Knowing that you are a big-time liquor store owner up in Canada, I thought that you would prefer the good stuff. So I went out earlier this afternoon and purchased a couple bottles of Glenfiddich twelve-year-old single malt.” She looked at him coyly, batting her eyes meaningfully. “Hope you approve,” she said again.
Bertie stammered his thanks, took another large swallow, and followed her as she motioned him to come and sit on a very expensive but comfortable-looking leather upholstered couch. As he did so, he realized that, since they had entered her apartment, her voice had changed somehow. It was now softer and more girlish, even higher pitched than what he had come to think of as her usual self-assured hearty contralto. The effect was that she sounded more like a woman of twenty-five than of forty.
It didn’t take long for both of them to finish their drinks. Bertie’s head was beginning to buzz pleasurably but he realized he was heading toward incoherence if he drank any more. As if sensing this Noreen stood up, took his empty glass from him, then again silently walked out to the kitchen, disposed of the glasses, and returned.
Noticing that he was still sitting on the couch with his mouth slightly open as if in wonderment or stupor, she took hold of his arms and pulled him to his feet. Then, murmuring, “So much for the preliminaries,” she put her left arm around his shoulders, kissed him full on the lips, and with her right hand massaged his crotch in an entirely enticing and arousing manner. Before he could respond to this in any way, she pulled him across the room to a door on the other side of the living room, opened it, and led him into a rather sumptuously appointed bedroom, the main feature of which was a large richly-draped bed which took up easily half the room. She stationed him in apposition facing the bed, then went over to it and mater-of-factly began peeling off her clothing.
As Bertie watched in openmouthed stupefaction, he seemed to see something which he attributed to his already more than half-inebriated state of mind. This must be it, he thought, because as she began to divest herself of various articles of attire, her body began to shimmer and vibrate slightly, as if seized by some unnoticed electrical current in the air. Her features softened, her body seemed to grow slimmer as her breasts also seemed to enlarge slightly, and he could now swear that she had lost about twenty pounds, a couple inches in height, and at least ten years.
As she relieved herself of her last article of clothing—frilly pink silk underpants—she lay down on the bed, struck a provocative pose and murmured, “don’t just stand there gawking, Bertie dear, get out of those ridiculous clothes, hop on, and we’ll go for a test drive.”
Bertie, whose desire and imagination had already been fueled by her living-room caresses and her extremely provocative striptease, did not have to be invited twice. He realized that he hadn’t felt this way for nearly twenty years, since Natalie had so deliciously relieved him of his virginity at the age of twenty-five, and there had followed that deliciously sexually satisfying of a year and a half before they had been legally wed.
Throwing his clothes every which way, only remembering at the last moment not to tear them off (for he realized, fortunately in time, that they were the only clothes that he now possessed), he was soon as naked as she was and wasted no time in doing her bidding.
Their first coupling was brief but extremely intense, and as they both lay side-by-side atop the rich silk duvet they panted heavily for a time, then, as if by some mutual magnetism, grasped each other again and the second bout commenced. This one was slower, more languid, and in its own way even more satisfying, their fierce cries of ecstasy having changed to languid murmurs of satisfaction. Finally exhausted, they held each other in a tight but warm embrace, nether of them having needed to say a word since Noreen’s invitation.
Bertie, for his part, half-drunk as he was, felt as he had felt long ago when he and Natalie had taken that vacation to San Francisco and had stood on a windy ocean beach with the misty fog swirling about them in the strong and multi-directional wind. It seemed to him now that that same fierce conviction inhabited what was left of the coherent part of his scotch-soaked brain. He had a sudden brief intense desire just to say, Fuck you, Gil Hall, I’m staying here. It’s everything I’ve always wanted. Then, as the thought formed, as did the ambiguity that it created in his mind, the fierce misty fog turned into a soft enveloping cottony cocoon, and he drifted off into a dreamless sleep.