A smell of opened graves, abattoirs, raw meat left too long in the sun.
Eyes slammed tight, I began to retch.
“Kid! Christ, wake up, God, kid, kid!” yelled Crumley, shaking me, slapping my face, massaging my neck, now down on his knees, yanking at my head and cheeks and arms, not knowing where to grab or shake me. “Now, kid, now, for Christ’s sake, now!”
“Gah!” I shrieked and flailed a final time, and floundered straight up, staring about, falling into the grave with the terrible meat, as the train ran over me and the rain showered into the tomb, with Crumley slapping me and a great gout of sour food jetting from my mouth.
Crumley stood me outside in the garden air, made sure I was breathing right, cleaned me up, then went inside to mop up and came back.
“Jesus,” he said, “it worked. We got more than we wanted, yes?”
“Yes,” I said, weakly. “I heard his voice. And he said just what I thought he would say. The title I put on your book. But I heard his voice clearly, and I almost know him now. Next time I meet him, wherever it is, I’ll know. We’re close, Crum, we’re close. He won’t escape now. But now I’ll know him an even better way.”
“He smells like a corpse. I didn’t notice that night, or if I did I was so nervous I forgot. But now it’s back. He’s dead, or next to dead. Dogs killed in the street smell like him. His shirt, his pants, his coat, are moldy and old. His flesh is worse. So…”
I wandered into the house and found myself at Crumley’s desk.
“At last, I have a new title for my own book,” I said.
I typed. Crumley watched. The words came out on the paper. We both read them.
“Downwind from Death.”
“That’s some title,” he said.
And went to shut off the sound of the dark rain.
There was a graveside service for Fannie Florianna the next afternoon. Crumley took an hour off and drove me over to the nice old-fashioned graveyard on a hill with a view of the Santa Monica mountains. I was astonished to see the line of cars outside the place, and more astonished to see the queue of flowers being carried in to be placed by the open grave. There must have been two hundred people there, and a few thousand flowers.
“Criminently,” said Crumley. “Look at the mob. See who that is over there. And just beyond. King Vidor?”
“Vidor, sure. And that’s Salka Viertel. She wrote films for Garbo a long time back. And that other chap is Mr. Fox, Louis B. Mayer’s lawyer. And that one there is Ben Goetz, who headed up MGM’s unit in London. And…”
“Why didn’t you tell me your friend Fannie knew so many big people?”
“Why didn’t Fannie tell me?” I said.
Fannie, dear Fan, I thought, how like you, never to tell, never to brag that so many of these came up and down the tenement stairs over the years, for a chat and a remembrance and a song. Lord, Fannie, why didn’t you let me in on it, I would have liked to have known. I wouldn’t have told anyone.
I looked at all the faces gathered near the flowers. Crumley did likewise.
“Think he’s here, kid?” he said, quietly.
“The one you claim did this to Fannie.”
“I’ll know him when I see him. No, I’ll know him when I hear him.”
“And then what?” said Crumley. “Have him arrested for being drunk on a train a couple of nights ago?”
I must have shown a terrible frustration in my face.
“Just trying to ruin your day,” said Crumley.
“Friends,” someone said.
And the crowd grew very quiet.
It was the best kind of graveside service, if there is such a thing. Nobody asked me to speak, why would they do that?
But a dozen others took a minute or three minutes and said things about Chicago in 1920 or Culver City in the mid-Twenties when there were meadows and fields and the false civilization of MGM was a-building and ten or twelve nights a year the big red car pulled up on a siding behind the studio and Louis B. Mayer and Ben Goetz and all the others piled on and played poker training out to San Bernardino where they went to the movie house to see the latest Gilbert or Garbo or Novarro and come home with fistfuls of preview cards: “Lousy!” “Great!” “Terrible!” “Fine!” and sort out the cards along with the kings and queens and jacks and spades to figure out just what in hell kind of hand they had. And pull in behind the studio at midnight, still playing cards, and get off smelling of Prohibition whiskey with happy smiles or grim smiles of determination on their faces, to watch Louis B. toddle to his limousine and go first home.
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