“What are you doing?” demanded one voice.
“I was just-“ said the other.
“Give me that!” cried the first voice.
That other voice, thought Bella, I know that, too. And I know what’s going to be said next!
“Now,” said the echo far down the hill in the night, “just don’t stand there, help me!”
“Yes!” Bella closed her eyes and swallowed hard and half fell to sit on the steps, getting her breath back as black-and-White pictures flashed in her head. Suddenly it was 1929 and she Was very small, in a theater with dark and light pictures looming above the first row where she sat, transfixed, and then laughing, and then transfixed and laughing again.
She opened her eyes. The two voices were still down there, a faint wrestle and echo in the night, despairing and thumping each other with their hard derby hats.
Zelda, thought Bella Winters. I’ll call Zelda. She knows everything. She’ll tell me what this is. Zelda, yes!
Inside, she dialed Z and E and L and D and A before she saw what she had done and started over. The phone rang a long while until Zelda’s voice, angry with sleep, spoke half way across L.A.
“Zelda, this is Bella!”
“Sam just died?”
“No, no, I’m sorry-
“ You’re sorry?”
“Zelda, I know you’re going to think I’m crazy, but …”
“Go ahead, be crazy.”
“Zelda, in the old days when they made films around L.A., they used lots of places, right? Like Venice, Ocean Park … “
“Chaplin did, Langdon did, Harold Lloyd, sure.”
“Laurel and Hardy?”
“Laurel and Hardy, did they use lots of locations?”
“Palms, they used Palms lots, Culver City Main Street,’ Effie Street.”
“Don’t yell, Bella.”
“Did you say Effie Street?”
“Sure, and God, it’s three in the morning!”
“Right at the top of Effie Street!?”
“Hey, yeah, the stairs. Everyone knows them. That’s where the music box chased Hardy downhill and ran over Him.”
“Sure, Zelda, sure! Oh, God, Zelda, if you could see, hear, what I hear! “
Zelda was suddenly wide awake on the line. “What’s going on? You serious?”
“Oh, God, yes. On the steps just now, and last night and the night before maybe, I heard, I hear—two men hauling a—a piano up the hill.”
“Someone’s pulling your leg!”
“No, no, they’re there. I go out and there’s nothing. But the steps are haunted, Zelda! One voice says: ‘Here’s another fine mess you’ve got us in.’ You got to hear that man’s voice!”
“You’re drunk and doing this because you know I’m a nut for them.”
“No, no. Come, Zelda. Listen. Tell!”
Maybe half an hour later, Bella heard the old tin lizzie rattle up the alley behind the apartments. It was a car Zelda, in her joy at visiting silent-movie theaters, had bought to lug herself around in while she wrote about the past, always the past, and steaming into Cecil B. DeMille’s old place or circling Harold Lloyd’s nation-state, or cranking and banging around the Universal backlot, paying her respects to the Phantom’s opera stage, or sitting on Ma and Pa Kettle’s porch chewing a sandwich lunch. That was Zelda, who once wrote in a silent country in a silent time for Silver Screen.
Zelda lumbered across the front porch, a huge body with legs as big as the Bernini columns in front of St. Peter’s in Rome, and a face like a harvest moon.
On that round face now was suspicion, cynicism, skepticisms, in equal pie-parts. But when she saw Bella’s pale stare she cried:
“You see I’m not lying!” said Bella.
“Keep your voice down, Zelda. Oh, it’s scary and strange, terrible and nice. So come on.”
And the two women edged along the walk to the rim of the old hill near the old steps in old Hollywood, and suddenly as they moved they felt time take a half turn around them and it was another year, because nothing had changed all the buildings were the way they were in 1928 and the hills beyond like they were in 1926 and the steps, just the, way they were when the cement was poured in 1921.