Once outside the theater she turned them east down Hollywood Boulevard. The air Bertie noticed was cool, pleasant, and surprisingly clear for June. He said as much to Noreen who gave a little chuckle.
“Yes,” she agreed. “The air pollution has really been cleared up quite a bit with the recent advent of electric cars and the tax the city slapped on privately-owned vehicles with internal combustion engines. The only exceptions are buses and government and emergency vehicles. They say that the air here now contains less than fifty percent of the pollution that was so common way back in the nineties.” She laughed again. “I can’t vouch for that of course. I wasn’t even born till ’96.”
Bertie meanwhile wasn’t really listening to her as she rattled on. He was too busy trying to absorb the differences in the stretch that he thought he knew so well. It was quiet—most cars were whizzing along silently, only the murmur of rubber tires on pavement denoting their passing presence. Only occasionally did a bus roar by, breaking the street’s otherwise tranquil mood. As they passed Ivar he looked down the street all the way to where the venerable Hollywood Billiards had once stood. Now it was sporting a garish sign which proclaimed it to be something called The Home Depot. Mystified, he looked across the street where, he remembered, three or four small but nondescript businesses had occupied the block they were passing and was puzzled to see a giant warehouse of a building which took up the entire block and with a sign as garish as that of The Home Depot, presented itself as Whole Foods.
Bertie had to mentally scratch at that. Even though he was no expert at food shopping and preparation—for the last fifteen years or so he had had people to do that for him—he was pretty sure that most foods came already whole, unless you sliced, diced, or put them in a blender, food processor or other arcane device of the kind that was always being flogged on the late-night TV infomercials.
Noticing both his silence and his rubbernecking Noreen remarked, “I guess this must all be pretty overwhelming to you, huh? I mean, being from a really small town up in Canada that is.”
“Uh, right,” said Bertie, finally remembering the lie he had told her during intermission. “Yeah, we sure don’t get stuff like this up there.” Damn, he thought, I sound lame even to myself. He tried to put himself into the role properly. What was it that method actors did? He vaguely remembered some of the exercises they went through on various movie sets that had irritated him no end, but he did remember that you were supposed to recall something from your own experience you could bring to your character’s similar role. So he thought of how he had felt—how overwhelmed he had been—when his father had first taken him from the small town of Ben Allyn to the big city of Philadelphia. The only thing that was inhibiting him was his inability to comment to Noreen on the many changes he had noticed along Hollywood Boulevard because he was not supposed to have been here before.
Fortunately Noreen had decided diplomatically to let him take it all in and respond to her only when he was ready. But as she noticed, he was still lost in thought by the time they reached Cahuenga. She lightly tapped him on the shoulder and pointed across the street. “That’s where we’re going,” she remarked. “See that bar called O’Malley’s? I picked it because it’a a q bar.”
Thus prompted, Bertie looked across the street and saw a medium-sized low building with a modest sign that did in fact identify it as O’Malley’s Q-Bar. “What’s a Q-bar?” Bertie asked innocently as the light changed and they began to walk across the street.
“Oh? You must not have them in Canada, huh?”
He shrugged. “No, I guess not,” he said.
“Well, they’ve really been catching on over here.” They were now across the street and at the front entrance. “Q-bars,” she explained as they entered the building, “are bars where electronic noise is prohibited so that people can have normal conversations with each other at a normal volume.”
Bertie looked around. Though it was getting on for 12:30 in the morning the place was packed with people, only a few empty booths remaining out of perhaps more than a dozen. As she hustled him over to one of the empty ones he listened and, as Noreen had said, could hear nothing except a general buzz of conversation.
As they seated themselves across from each other in the spacious booth Noreen said, “Well Bertie, how do you like the place?”
He gave the bar the obligatory glance around and said, “Looks fine to me. It’s great to be in a place where you can actually have a conversation.”
“Yeah,” she agreed. “These Q-bars are really beginning to catch on since the first ones appeared about twenty years ago. But c’mon Bertie, what’re you drinkin’? It’s my treat, you know.”
He thought for a few seconds. He was certainly ready for a drink; the glass of wine at intermission had only whetted his appetite for real booze. But, he reminded himself, he was no high roller here. Better play it humble. “Oh,” he replied, “I’m not particular. Maybe just a scotch and soda, whatever they’ve got.”
“That sounds easy enough,” she said, rising. “Listen, if you don’t mind I’m also gonna go freshen up a bit, and then I’ll get the drinks. I’m a little stale after sitting through that double feature for that long,” she grinned. “Back in five. Don’t you go anywhere now.”
Where would he go in this strange new world? he wondered. But he only said, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be right here.”
She gave him another bright smile then hurried away.
This left him time at last to think and wonder about several things. He tried with some difficulty to recall the events of his immediate past. Let’s see…the last real drink he had had was at that stupid strip club in the small town of Las Claritas where he had gone with his nubile young secretary, ostensibly to work on Natalie’s ridiculously boring script, but had somehow wandered into that weird bar on the non-existent fifth floor of that hick hotel he’d been forced to take a suite in. There the drinks had been allegedly alcoholic but had had no effect on him whatsoever. Then after that strange conversation with the Indian guy, he had seen what he could only describe as the dark portal and, like a fool, had walked through it.
It had been nearly four o’clock on Saturday morning when he had done so, but when he had emerged here in front of the theater it had been only a little after seven on a Friday night. He looked at his Rolex. Strangely it seemed to have converted itself to the local time and was now showing nearly twelve-thirty on Saturday morning.
Whoa, he said to himself. That could have been a fatal error. He reminded himself that he was supposed to be a penniless guy from a small town in northwestern Canada, so what was he doing with a solid gold Rolex? Fortunately Noreen hadn’t seemed to have spotted it—he had been sitting on her left and therefore his watch-wearing arm had been away from her. He figured that if she had noticed it, she certainly would have mentioned it. So far so good, but here in the bar at close proximity to each other he figured he’d better correct his mistake. Unfastening the clasp from his wrist, he quickly dropped it into the pocket of his lucky brown corduroy jacket.
That still left the problem of what he was doing here. He calculated that once he seemed to have gained about—he had never been very good at mental math—nine hours, it was, he reasoned, sort of like super jet-lag. Since it was now nearly five and a half hours after he had arrived, by all rights it should be to his reckoning somewhere around nine-thirty in the morning instead of twelve-thirty at night. And yet he was still on his feet after being awake, he considered, probably better than twenty-four hours. I must still be in some kind of shock, he thought, like a serious accident victim who doesn’t feel his extreme pain until the shock wears off much later. Oh well, he thought, might as well go with it for as long as I can.
Looking up, he noticed Noreen hurrying back with a drink in each hand. As she seated herself she pushed one of the glasses over to him and said demurely, “Scotch and soda sir, just as you requested.”
He decided to ignore her irony and said merely, “Thanks Noreen, I could sure use a drink.”
They sat there for a few moments sipping their drinks—he noticed that she had ordered a glass of white wine—in silence for a few moments, then she said, “I’ll be honest with you, Bertie. I’m fairly well off and I am what’s known in the trade as a lonely divorcee. So I’m quite ready and willing to buy the drinks for good company.” She gave him a wink. “You are going to be good company, aren’t you Bertie?”
He gave a nervous little laugh and said, “I’ll certainly try to be.” But truth to tell, he was feeling a little easier now. After all, he was in his element. He was sitting in a bar sipping scotch and talking to an attractive, somewhat sexy woman who was obviously interested in him.
She broke into this thought by saying, “So tell me about yourself, Bertie. What’s it like way up there in the frozen north?”
He had been afraid of this ever since they had met. C’mon Bertie, he told himself, how are you ever going to be that auteur of your dreams if you can’t even create a believable character for yourself? “Well,” he said, “not much to tell really. It’s actually pretty boring up there.” Gaining confidence he continued, “I, uh, I’m not married at the moment either. I had a wife but,” he added actually truthfully, “that’s all in the past now.”
“Oh,” she said, sounding genuinely sympathetic, “so we’re in the same boat then, huh? But,” she persisted, “what do you do up there? I mean, how to you make a living?” She looked at him. “You’re obviously fairly well-dressed, though I must say you don’t seem to have much of a fashion sense. I mean, those clothes have been out of date for decades.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “I suppose to you—what do you call yourselves—Angelinos? We must seem pretty backwards to you.”
“But,” she repeated, “what is it that you do up there? You must have some kind of job.”
He looked around the bar frantically, suddenly realizing that in his entire life he had never actually had a job, at least not the kind that required you to work certain hours at certain tasks and be paid for your time. His eye fell upon the bartender who was busy serving a series of drinks to demanding customers. “I, uh, I manage a little liquor store up there. Nothing fancy, I don’t make a lot of money but it’s enough to live on.”
Enough of this, he thought. Got to get the focus away from me. All women like to talk about themselves and they like it even more when you seem to be interested. He gave a short but hopefully not too artificial laugh and said, “But enough about me. You seem to be a fascinating woman, Noreen. What about you? What do you do?”
“Well,” she said, obviously pleased, “if you really want to know…”
“Oh I do,” prompted Bertie, “I do.”
She laughed and said, “Well, it all began with my great-great grandfather, who moved us to California during the great Dustbowl era, just about a hundred years ago now. We had a little farm, they tell me, just outside Altus in western Oklahoma. But the land just literally dried up and blew away. So my great-great grandfather took his family to California in an ancient truck. They knocked around for awhile, finally settling in Bakersfield, which is where I was born and raised. After getting out of high school—I’m class of ’14 by the way—I decided that small-town life was not for me, so I came west to the bright lights and big city and I’ve lived here ever since. I got a degree in web psychology and IT from a little college just east of here and I now make my living teaching webvertising and net monetizing at a local community college. I’m fairly well-off, not rich, but comfortable.”
Bertie, to whom it was still 1994, had very little idea of what she was talking about but decided to smile and nod and pretend that he was following. He figured that she was talking about computers in some sense, but the ones he knew were only good for things like writing letters, sorting information, and doing spread sheets and other boring stuff. He figured Georgie would know more about that stuff than he did. Just in time he noticed she was continuing.
“…so after getting here I had probably the usual number of love affairs and three brief failed marriages. In fact, I just kicked out the latest self-absorbed freeloading sonaofabitch, let’s see, it was during the holiday season, ’35… I think so it must be a year and a half ago. No wait. Only six months. Anyway,” she gave him what he interpreted as a rather lascivious wink, “I’m now a free woman.”
“Wow,” he said, “that is so fascinating. I’m really surprised that a beautiful woman such as yourself has had such bad luck with men.”
She gave a little clucking sound and said, “I know. Ain’t it a shame?”
They continued on in this vein for the next hour or so, during which time Noreen helpfully refilled his empty glass at regular intervals. He was just beginning to feel a little woozy when the bartender came to his aid by announcing last call.
“What do you say, one more for the road? Then I’ve got to deliver you to your famous great uncle, or whatever he is to you. To me,” she said honestly, “he’s just about the best filmmaker in the world.”
Bertie decided that he could safely agree with that assessment.