Dag Gilliam wakes in a mildewed hammock on the tarpaper roof of his Culver City vitamin shop, Body Temple. The dawn air has an October bite he feels deep in the lungs. Even in the butter box mirage of California, nature tries to slap you once in awhile to take notice of her.
Dag pushes his lean six-three through a couple half-assed sun salutations, but cramps quickly from the night of awkward sleep and a two bottle hangover. He is an angular, reasonably handsome fellow, but often taken for older — a receding tide of thin grey hair adding years to anyone’s guess.
It’s the end of the month, the day for inventories, invoices and hopefully an in-the-black bottom line for once. Dag’s lover/business partner Bette shows late, beat and bedraggled, still in PJ’s from the low ebb of her latest blue funk. In the ten years they’ve lived together, Bette would always have ‘put her face on’ before he could catch her in the light. Done up in the same round, doll-like countenance, framed by a Theda Bara doo — eyebrows drawn, lips defined. But she doesn’t even bother this morning.
“This time it’s me wanting to go back to couples counseling,” says Dag.
“Where’s the receipt for the essential oils shipment?” Bette asks.
“I’m not just making nice. I’ve thought this through. I really want to.”
“We don’t pay tax on the herbs from Sally, or the Bee Pollen.”
It goes on like this for a quiet hour; building toward their de rigueur late morning spat, but aborted right at the boiling point when three serious looking men enter the shop. They do not identify themselves as any sort of law enforcement or anything else for that matter, assuming an air of quiet authority one does not easily question, stating that it would be well worth Dag’s while to accompany them across town to answer a few questions. A threat or a promise, Dag is not sure, but he doesn’t need to see Bette’s face, only to hear the exasperation of her sigh, to gauge her inkling.
“Bear with me Bette, we’ll work through this. We always do.”
The men take a surface route all the way to Glendale. Dag attempts conversation but can’t raise much of a peep from any one of them. They park just off Chevy Chase and lead him up the weed-choked stairs of a sprawling Spanish house that clings to a hillside, overgrown with creeping fig.
Looking at the crumbling ochre roof, Dag flashes on the scene in Ben Hur, where a tile slips, killing a Roman Centurion and altering the lives of everyone. How fragile the pinball of fate can be — one little glitch gone wrong sends you down the doom chute.
“Anything around here ring a bell with you?” asks Marvin, the largest of the men, as the door chimes the melody of an old, half-familiar song. Marvin has the widow’s peak of some Slavic dictator, and towers above Dag. His comic book hero’s jawline and dead black eyes make a formidable combo. Patches of psoriasis or something like it peek up from below his shirt collar.
“Sorry, not a thing. Any reason it should?” Dag asks, looking around the premises, settling his gaze on an ancient green Packard parked outside the garage. Marvin takes notice of that as he leads Dag into the cavernous foyer of what looks like a former carriage house now attached to the property. A huge room barren of all furnishings save for an old roll top desk and an elaborate floral arrangement at the far window, dead for days now.
“Mind if I hold that cell of yours?” Marvin says, holding out a meaty palm. Dag hands it over. “Stay here with your thoughts awhile Mr. Gilliam, maybe one’ll jog loose.” Marvin locks the door behind him.
What the hell do these men want? Dag tries to think what possibly could have led to any trouble lately. Eric, what about Eric? Bette hated his brother, made him sleep out in the Prius whenever he was in town. Dag let him drive the vehicle once last August, and it came back with two large dents. Is this about that? Did Eric hit-and-run something? A Beagle off the leash following its sniffer, or some addled grandma thinking cars always stop for lights. He can’t fathom a single other thing it could be.
Dag steps towards the massive flower display then quickly retreats, eyes welling with tears as a sinus storm surges in the canals behind his face. Pollen has never been his friend. He looks through the small latched window in the door Marvin left by, and sees stacked furniture in the great room of the home. From this vantage he can glimpse the atlas shoulders of high adobe arches and redwood support beams. Extensive Batchelder tiling. What looks to be a fine collection of WPA era art on the walls.
Dag paces around, tries the roll top desk. Locked. A dim noise rattles behind him on the far side of the room. A rat or squirrel in the wall, perhaps. The place just aches of decay. With the last inches of his bottled water, he downs a bundle of supplement pills, wishing he had extra valerian today.
The view out the northern window perfectly frames the giant white cross on the mount of Forest Lawn Cemetery. Bette has always loved its ersatz cultural mélange, the talking Statue of David and rolling acres of endless graves. Both of them thought The Loved One, book as well as film, captured the charming kitsch of the place. Dag tries to connect the dots, the synapses, something, anything. The germ of a diffuse memory slowly begins to bubble up — Forest Lawn — that Packard.
Marvin returns, opening the window near the floral arrangement, and Dag nods thanks.
“Ok, that old car downstairs, something, probably nothing, but there was this one weird thing a couple years ago,” says Dag. “The day my Aunt Laurel died.”
“Full name please,” Marvin says, taking out a little leather notebook all beat to hell.
“Laurel Scheindeist. Her funeral was right over there at Forest Lawn, but that’s not the point. We’d been waiting for a long while — they were really backed up, delayed over an hour. Very bad form I thought, and I was going to the office to complain when I saw this old woman stumble on some steps. I just went over to check on her, you know, my good deed for the day.” Marvin stares coldly at Dag, daring him to confess some awful truth.
“She was old. I mean really, really old — all done up in her Sunday best which had to be a few decades out of fashion. Her name was Ivy, I remember — because it’s my grandmother’s too. No one names anyone Ivy anymore. It’s a good name, Ivy.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, I just gave her my arm you know, and walked her slowly over to her car. Took me fifteen minutes. I mean, I coulda jogged the distance in seconds, it wasn’t very far at all. Endless, tiny steps. We finally got to her car and it was this old ‘53 Packard. Primo shape too, like it didn’t get driven much. Kinda Sunset Blvd-ish you know — the car, the old woman.”
“Like the one outside?”
“No, not like — pretty sure it was that same exact Packard. A green like that — no one does those colors anymore. Bet my house on it.”
“You just might be doing that, son. You own a house?”
“I don’t own the rent this month, man. What’s this all about?”
“We’ll work our way round to that,” Marvin says, taking out his weathered book again and scribbling something in its pages.
“Was your live-in gal, Bette Kimball— was she there that day?”
“No, not that it has anything to do with anything. Can’t drag her to a funeral.”
“And what was Ivy Kipplinger doing at Forest Lawn that day?”
“Saddest thing, so sad, she’d just been in to check on her own burial plot, next to her two sisters who’d died very young in the great influenza pandemic. She said she did this time to time. Not that much else to do. Poor thing outlived everybody she ever knew. Turning a hundred I think, she said she was. A loneliness like that — I mean it was a palpable thing. Her eyes — the desperation in them. By the end of our walk I was her closest friend left on the planet.”
“So tell me now, Dag — this friendship with Ms. Kipplinger, how’d it all turn out?” Marvin says, focusing his dagger gaze back on him.
“How did it end? Did it get a little Norma Desmond with Ivy, perhaps? You maybe work a scam on this vulnerable ole gal?”
“Look I just walked her to her car. Good deed for the day, that’s all.”
“You’ll swear to this? Under oath?”
“Absolutely. If there’s any reason I’d ever need to. Which there isn’t.”
One of the other men enters and whispers in Marvin’s ear. They both shoot Dag another of their accusing glances and the man exits. Marvin scratches at his reddened skin, a bead of blood appearing.
“Nothing else about the incident you can tell me? Marvin asks.
“You’re calling it an incident?”
“Call it what you want.”
“Let me ask you something, Marvin. Do you get enough C and D? That irritated skin might ease a bit if you took it. Dab some aloe on it too.”
“Just tell me the rest, Mr. Gilliam.” Marvin says, trying hard not to scratch at it again.
“Well, at the car, this truly weird thing happened — she just couldn’t let go of me. She apologized profusely, then she fainted. It was over ninety that day. She collapsed on the running board, still gripping my arm. She couldn’t let go. They were ready to bury Laurel now and I was holding up our whole funeral. My cousin ran over with his wife, who’s a doctor. I wasn’t sure this Ivy was even conscious. I thought she Super Glued her hand to my arm.”
“For what earthly purpose?” Marvin asked.
“Loneliness, I guess,” says Dag, and Marvin nods, acknowledging the sentiment. “My cousin and his wife pulled Ivy’s fingers up and there was this weird milky residue that looked like our skin had begun to graft together somehow. Medically of course it’s just not possible and really freaked them out. I still think it was some sort of glue. Maybe Elmers.”
“We just eased her into the driver’s seat and I took the keys back up to the office. Told them to have someone come down and drive her home you know. I got her address from them, I remember. Thought I’d be a Good Samaritan and send flowers and such to her for the holidays.”
“You certainly did. You certainly did.” Marvin says unlocking the desk and pulling up the roll top. As the hinged wood creaks open another sweet stench fills the room. Marvin shows Dag the half dozen albums lying there with pressed flowers between letters on formal, perfumed paper.
“These letters, did Ivy make some new friends?
“She made you, Dag,” Marvin tells him, and begins to flip through the stilted purple prose on the pages, each ending with the elaborate signature — Dag Gilliam. All of them dated within the last two years.
Ivy, Ivy, oh my sweet sweet Ivy, my heart quivers in my bosom to think we shall finally rendezvous — to slake our longing with each other’s tears — tears of sheer joy.
A sound scuttles inside the eastern wall, and both men cock their ears and think vermin. Marvin, still hearing movement within, steps closer, waiting for another sound.
“I didn’t write these,” Dag tells him.
“You’ll swear to that in a court of law?”
“Sure. The handwriting will prove me innocent.”
“Innocent of what?”
“Look, I can’t write a single fucking thing in cursive man, not even my own name. I got lost on the way home, distracted by the funeral, the sad ole gal. I stopped by some flower store. I felt guilty about leaving her there like that so I put a bundle on my credit card. Told ‘em to send flowers and a note from me for Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Did it on the spur and forgot.”
“You abandoned a sweet old lady without a soul in the world looking out for her?”
“I had to bury my Aunt, man, and I couldn’t sign up for it. I did all that with my neighbor lady, Alice, and the hell she went through with her ALS. I was over there everyday for five years. Call it compassion fatigue, call me an asshole, I don’t care. It’s not a crime.”
“Not sure if that’ll even matter much or not but wait here,” Marvin says and heads out, whistling the doorbell refrain, leaving his little notebook behind on the roll top.
“I get along without you very well—?” Dag wonders aloud, recognizing the melody finally, then has the strangest feeling someone is listening.
He remembers he’d used Body Temple’s business MasterCard, thinking flowers could be written off as an expense, but a year later that item was baffling them at tax time. Bette thought the flowers were for some mystery woman, and Dag didn’t mind letting her think so, but he couldn’t place it to save his life. Till now.
Dag spies Marvin’s little book, and just can’t help himself. Leafing through it he finds a page with a neatly scrawled list:
1) New hair style 2) Hipper Clothes 3) Ad on Match.com 4) Lower your standards, you are no gift to women.
Dag flips to another page that says: Until three months ago, all came from Verdugo Florists. Verdugo Florists! That was it. His bearings had gotten turned around as he tried to find the 101 and found a Mom & Pop flower store just about to close. He remembers a smell — gardenias. There was a small Latina woman working all alone in the back. Because of pollen, Dag had hung by the door, and she’d kept herself hidden most of the time behind a translucent plastic curtain. He’d caught a glimpse her once, and noticed her slicked-back hair and the long scar across her cheek and the flesh of one ear. A necklace of flowers around her throat. Dag remembers it was all very Frida Kahlo. She’d told him what he was doing was a beautiful thing. Ecuador! She was from Ecuador. They’d talked about the upcoming World Cup. She’d picked Spain and he’d picked Holland.
Dag carefully puts the notepad back where it had been. The aroma of gardenias seems fresh in the room now — a residue of sense memory or a real smell amplifying his lost thoughts he’s not sure. He picks up the receiver on an old rotary phone in the roll top desk, surprised it actually has a tone and pulls a digit against the gunmetal black dial in a semi-circle motion. Three times for information, then ten more times for what he needs to know.
“Rita Catania. She was a wonderful long time employee,” says the voice of someone who seems in charge. “Such a green thumb. Our beloved Incan Princess.”
“She disappeared last month. With our old truck. We fear the worst. Poor Rita has been sick for many years with several ailments. We worry she may have finally slunk off to die. Like an old cat.”
Marvin comes bursting through the doors again.
“That phone doesn’t work,” he says.
Dag clicks the receiver down.
“So you say you didn’t write the letters. Even though they all have your name and flamboyant signature. You never sent chocolates — or anything?”
“Like I said, I paid for a basket to be sent, two or three times, you can check my credit card statements, but not all this. Pretty overboard don’t you think?”
“Some people have passion, some got none,” Marvin says, examining the notebook, sensing something awry with it. “And I imagine you’re going to tell me you never researched how to create this either?” Marvin asks as he approaches the huge floral display.
“I’m allergic, man. That thing’d put me six feet under.” Dag walks a wide circle around the display, holding his breath. Glancing out the southern window, he squints at a new discovery, this time making sure to hide it from Marvin. Through a gap in the hedges he can see a truck parked down a crooked alley — the faded words Verdugo Florists stenciled on the side.
“We Googled it,” says Marvin. “Helluva marvel really. A cat named Linnaeus tried to build one back in the ancient days, but never quite got the kinks out, I guess.” Marvin pulls it towards them to show dead flowers of many varieties positioned all around a large circle. “It’s a floral clock. As I understand it, you can breed flowers to open at different times and some do naturally. And hours get marked by the buds closing too.”
Marvin hands Dag a stack of Polaroids. In each, the living clock is seen with one of its hour flowers blooming. In every background, a normal wall clock can be seen backwards in a mirror. Reflected there as well—the corpse-like smile of ancient Ivy Kipplinger sitting in the half-light, her eyes red as the devil.
“Quite a project. There’s Lapland Sowthistle, Chondrilla Hawkweed, Fig-Marigold, Cranesbill. Some really rare fauna. You know your herbs and such pretty well don’t you, Dag?”
Dag takes a deep breath and erupts in a fit of sneezing.
“All seemed to work OK except for 11 and 3 o’clock. Those barely un-budded. We believe that when the last one opened at midnight, Miss Ivy passed on — as if she’d been waiting just to behold it.”
Dag collapses in a chair, head in hands. Marvin smiles, pulls up a chair across from him and gives him another long stare. Dag looks up, at the end of his exasperation rope.
“I did not kill Ivy Kipplinger. With this flower clock thing or any other way. I could never kill anybody for any reason. It’s not in me, you have to believe this.”
“It’s in everybody, Dag. But I believe you. Nobody ever said this was about a murder.”
Marvin once again leaves Dag to stew in thought. When the lock clicks again, a soft voice begins to hum the doorbell melody. He thinks at first it must be coming from the great room, where the other two men quietly catalog things, but he tracks it to the wall on the opposite side of the room. The voice begins to sing with the slightest of accents.
“I’ve forgotten you just like I should — of course I have. Except to hear your name, or someone’s laugh that is the same.”
Dag puts his ear to the wall, following it as the voice moves back and forth within the crawlspace.
“I get along without you very well, of course I do, except perhaps in spring, but I should never think of spring—“
“You’re her, aren’t you? You’re Rita Catania,” Dag whispers.
The motion behind the wall stops. “I am Dag Gilliam.”
“I’m talking to a wall and the wall is saying it’s me.”
“Strange times we live in don’t you know?” The voice replies.
“An Incan Princes, huh? Like Yma Sumac.”
“Yma was a fraud, I think. Really Amy Camus from Queens. Same letters backwards.” The voice returns to the refrain. “—for that would surely break my heart in two.”
“An old Sinatra song, isn’t it?”
“Frank only sang it,” Rita tells him. “Hoagy Carmichael wrote it with a mystery woman. Sad, sad story. He received a beautiful poem in the mail and was so moved by the words, he set it to music and played it that night on his radio show. He implored the woman to contact him. They had written a new hit song together—only to find that after she plopped it in the mailbox, she’d walked right off the roof of the Bradbury Building.”
“I’ve heard that story and I think it was pills,” Dag counters. “In fact—she died years before. Walter Winchell found her didn’t he?”
“Maybe so? I often embellish,” says Rita. “You must do something for me, Dag.”
“Talk to the man in charge then. I got no say in this.”
“No! We keep Marvin in the dark. For both our sakes.”
“I’ve been as totally honest with him as I can, not gonna start lying now. I’ll go get him, just deal with it,” Dag says, heading towards the door.
A muffled phht is heard simultaneously with the sound of splintering wood from the roll top desk, and Dag turns to see fresh damage and adobe powder floating in the stale air near a small hole in the wall.
“I’m as serious about this as one can be!” she says but hardly needs to. “Let me ask you something — is Dag short for Dagwood, like in the cartoons?”
“Just a family name. Dagen. Short for that. Look, I didn’t do anything to Ivy and I didn’t write those letters.”
“Of course not. I did.”
Dag keeps moving, wondering if another bullet will come flying through the wall at any second.
“This is about Ivy’s Will. She left all of this to you. Everything. But to the ‘you’ that I was to her,” Rita tells him.
“Well in that case, I think you should get half. At least half.”
“You don’t understand,” Rita sighs. “I maintained correspondence with her ever since that day you met. I built this whole Douglas Sirk fantasy of Dag Gilliam being a burnout mercenary soldier turned brave relief worker and poet wanted by Interpol, unable to ever return to the states. A telenovella of my own device. I think she forgot that the man she met at Forest Lawn was in his mid 40’s.”
“Just FYI, I’m thirty-eight.”
“Her eyesight was not so good, you know. Mine neither. Poor Ivy let things slip her mind. In later years, you keep only what you wish to, Dagen.”
“You really did all this?”
“Yes, and the sweet charade was kept up at great personal expense these last months, making her life as emotionally rich as I was able. Ivy wished to feel something again. And to confess, so did I. Neither of us ever really had another to truly love in this life. But — in the end — we found each other.”
“I could sell you the house Rita, at a very reduced price. I won’t cut you out, even if I could.”
“That is a considerate offer, but it is not what I wish.”
“What do you then?”
“Two things Dag. First—you tell this Marvin when he comes back that you, in fact, were the Magus of all this. I will give you details to make things certain in his mind. Tell him you were embarrassed at first. He will believe you in the end, the whole age difference, your troubles with Bette.”
“How the hell do you know about any of that?”
“I’ve watched you both as well from time to time. And my two cents, that Bette is a sourpuss. You can do better.”
“Can’t tell you how creepy that is to hear.”
“Marvin, he will understand. He only wants this over soon. There’s no crime. It’s his job to disperse the inheritance. Ivy had no one else, only us, Dag.”
“Just not that good of a liar.”
“Sure you are, we’re all born liars, every one of us. Don’t try to talk me out of this. Promise me now.”
“Why should I?”
“The house alone is worth close to three million. Even in the down market. She has a bundle as well in the bank. It’s all yours Dag. I want none of it, but only if—”
“You do the second thing.”
Dag Gilliam heeded Rita Catania’s wishes. He recanted his previous denials, providing bona fides that all the romantic gestures were indeed of his design. The men wheeled a huge, hand-carved oak casket into the room. Marvin had him sign several sheaths of blue-backed legal papers, all in triplicate as Dag babbled about the whole thing being a bit embarrassing, and apologized for not being honest from the get go.
“A bit Sunset Boulevard after all, eh.” Marvin smiled, leaving Dag a passbook, the deed to the house and the funeral arrangements for him to take care of, which needed to be performed post-haste. Dag gave each of the men an antique that had intrigued them, and Marvin took the floral clock as well, which he would take a stab at perfecting. Dag walked them to the car, giving the strange one inside the wall time to do what she required.
If Forest Lawn had been too busy that day, the Ivy Kipplinger-Gilliam funeral would have not been able to occur. Three workers lowered the casket down into the oblong hole, then left. Dag stood there alone, looking at the marble headstone. He poured a bucket of gardenias atop the casket, then shoveled a thud of dirt onto it from a small mountain at his feet.
“I can’t do this,” he shouted down into the hole.
“My hep C is back and more virulent that ever,” Rita Catania’s muted voice rose from within the casket. “Diabetes and lupus should have killed me last year. Breast cancer grows again as well. I think only for this crazy romance was I somehow kept alive. I would have soon died a very painful death, this is certain. So let me choose the ‘when’ and the ‘how’ of my end. For Ivy, for your partner Bette and your future—you must do this.”
“What if it doesn’t work, the elixir. I mean how do you know you mixed it right? You could wake up and be trapped.”
“Still have the gun, darling.”
Dag began to weep, dropping to his knees, sobbing like he he’d not done in years. “All so sad, so strange.”
“Whatever is beyond— free of age, free of gender, Ivy and I will be as one. I am drinking the beverage now and going to peaceful sleep forever. Goodbye, Dagwood.”
Fires burned in Griffith Park. Dag tossed a shovelful, then another. He wondered what Bette would say about his coming home so late and in an old Packard. When two feet of earth obscured the coffin and he could no longer hear Hoagy bleeding up from Rita’s headphones, he collapsed. The sun was setting. The Forest Lawn workers had returned, ready to sod over the plot when he was done.
Dag would bring Bette here tomorrow after stopping by Verdugo Florist on the way to buy a bouquet, then show her the grave that shared his name. Marvin and the men who’d come by Body Temple would be explained and he would tell her most of the Ivy story. The truth of those charges from the florist would help salve any old seeds of doubt. Rita Catania though, would remain a secret, buried.
Dag imagined walking Bette up the crumbling steps of their new home and into a better life, that crooked little smile of hers breaking wide again—the providence from a good deed done for its own sake washing away every little wedge that had driven them apart.
But when the Packard pulled up at their dingbat in the Culver City Arts District— Bette’s pajamas lay in the driveway. The Prius gone, the front door left ajar. Blue light flickering from the empty living room told Dag—she at least left the plasma for him. As he wandered through the half empty abode, he recalled the denouement of an old Bogart film. If good news had come sooner—a troubled romance could have been saved. But it had been just a bit too late and—all went down the doom chute.
“In A Lonely Place,” Dag whispered.