I followed, one step at a time, feeling old.
When I got to his room I heard the shower running. A moment later he came out, stripped and glistening with water, the helmet still over his head. He stood in the bathroom door, looking into me as he might into a mirror, and liking what he saw.
“Well,” he said, inside his helmet, “how do you like the most beautiful boy, the young man that I love?”
I blushed furiously.
He laughed and shucked off his helmet.
“My God,” I said, “it really is you!”
“The old man,” said John Wilkes Hopwood. He glanced down at his body and smiled. “Or the young. Which of us do you prefer?”
I swallowed hard. I had to force myself to speak quickly, for I wanted to run back down the stairs before he closed and locked me in the room.
“That all depends,” I said, “on which one of you has been standing on the beach, late nights, outside Constance Rattigan’s home.”
With wondrous timing, the calliope downstairs in the rotunda started up, running the carousel. It sounded like a dragon that had swallowed a corps of bagpipers and was now trying to throw them back up, in no particular order to no particular tune.
Like a cat that wants time to consider its next move, old-young Hopwood turned his tanned backside toward me, a signal that was supposed to fascinate.
I shut my eyes to the golden sight.
That gave Hopwood a moment to decide what he wanted to say.
“What makes you think I would bother with an old horse like Constance Rattigan?” he said, as he reached into the bathroom and dragged out a towel which he now used to swab his shoulders and chest.
“You were the great love of her life, she was yours. That was the summer all America loved the lovers, yes?”
He turned to check on how much irony might show in my face to match my voice.
“Have you come here because she sent you, to warn me off?”
“How many pushups can you do, can you do sixty laps of a pool, or bike forty miles in a day without sweating, what weights can you lift, and how many people,” I noticed he did not say women, “can you bed in one afternoon?” he asked.
“No, no, no, no, and maybe two,” I said, “to answer all those questions.”
“Then,” said Helmut the Hun, turning to show me Antinous’ magnificent facade, something to match the golden hind, “you are in no position to threaten me, ja?”
His mouth was a razor slit from which bursts of bright shark teeth hissed and chewed.
“I will come and go on the beach,” he said.
With the Gestapo ahead and the summer boys soon after, I thought.
“I admit nothing. Perhaps I was there some nights.” He nodded up the coast. “Perhaps not.”
You could have cut your wrists with his smile.
He hurled the towel at me. I caught it.
“Get my back for me, will you?”
I hurled the towel away. It fell and hung over his head, masking his face. The Horrible Hun was, for a moment, gone. Only Sun King Apollo, his rump as bright as the apples of the gods, remained.
From under the towel his voice said quietly:
“The interview is over.”
“Did it ever really begin?” I said.
I went downstairs as the dragon’s sick calliope music was coming up.
There were no words at all on the Venice Cinema marquee. All the letters were gone.
I read the emptiness half a dozen times, feeling something roll over and die in my chest.
I went around trying all the doors, which were locked, and looked into the box office, which was deserted, and glanced at the big poster frames where Barrymore and Chancy and Norma Shearer had smiled just a few nights ago. Now, nothing.
I backed off and read the emptiness a last time to myself, quietly.
“How do you like the double bill?” asked a voice from behind me.
I turned. Mr. Shapeshade was there, beaming. He handed over a big roll of theater posters. I knew what it was. My diplomas from Nosferatu Institute, Graduate School of Quasimodo, Postgraduate in d’Artagnan and Robin Hood.
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