Monday, August 13, 2012

From The Pen Of Joshua Lawrence Breslin -When Miss Cora Swayed

Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for the 1946 film adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

This is the way Peter Paul Markin told me the story one night many years ago when we were, well, let's leave it at feeling no pain. Who he first heard it from I don't remember but here it is as best as I could take it down in my notebook at the time:

Yah, sometimes, and maybe more than sometimes, a frail, a frill, a twist, a dame, oh hell, let’s cut out the goofy stuff and just call her a woman and be done with it, will tie a guy’s insides up in knots so bad he doesn’t know what is what. Tie a guy up so bad he will go to the chair without a murmur, the electric chair for those not in the know or those not wound up in the love game with a big old knot very tightly squeezing him. That is he will not murmur if there is such a merciful chair in his locale, otherwise whatever way they cut the life out of a guy who has been so twisted up he couldn’t think straight enough to tie his own shoes, or hers.

Here’s the funny part and you know as well as I do that I do not mean funny, laughing funny, the guy will go to his great big reward smiling, okay half-smiling, just to have been around that frail, frill, twist. dame, oh hell, you know what I mean. Around her slightly shy, sly, come hither scents, around her, well, just around her. Or maybe just to be done with it, done with the speculation, the knots and all, six-two-and even he would go back for more, plenty more, and still have that smile, ah, half-smile as they lead him away. Yah, guys just like Frank.

Frank Jackman had it bad. [But you might as well fill in future signatures, the Peter Paul Markins, the Joshua Lawrence Breslins, and every corner boy who ever kicked his heels against some drugstore store front wall, name your name, just kids, mere boys, when they started getting twisted up in knots, girl knots, and a million, more or less, other guys too, just as easily as Frank, real easy]. Yah, Frank had it bad as a man could have from the minute Miss Cora walked through that café door from the back of the house, the door that separated the living quarters from the café, a cup of joe in her hand. Just an off-hand plain plank door, cheaply made and amateurishly hinged, that spoke of no returns.

She breezed, Frank thought later when he tried to explain it, explain everything that had happened and how to anyone who would listen, trade winds breezed in although this was the wrong coast for that, in her white summer frilly V-neck buttoned cotton blouse, white short shorts, tennis or beach ready, maybe just ready for whatever came along, with convenience pockets for a woman’s this-and-that, and showing plenty of well-turned, lightly-tanned bare leg, long legs at first glance, and the then de rigueur bandana holding back her hair, also white, the bandana that is. Yah, she came out of that crooked cheapjack door like some ill-favored Pacific wind now that he had the coast right, some Japan Current ready, ready for the next guy out. Jesus.

I might as well tell you, just like he told it to me, incessantly told it to me like I was some father-confessor, and maybe I was, before he moved on, it didn’t have to finish up like the way it did. Or start that way either, for that matter. The way it did play out. Not at all. No way. He could have just turned around anytime he said but I just took that as so much wind talking, or maybe some too late regret. Sure there are always choices, for some people. Unless you had some Catholic/Calvinist/Shiva whirl pre-destination Mandela wheel working your fates, working your fates into damn overdrive like our boy Frank.

Listen up a little and see if Frank was just blowing smoke, or something. He was just a half-hobo, maybe less, bumming around and stumbling up and down the West Coast, too itchy to settle down after four years of hard World War II Pacific battle fights on bloody atolls, on bloody coral reefs, and knee-deep bloody islands with names even he couldn’t remember, or want to remember after Cora came on the horizon. He was just stumbling, like he said, from one half-ass mechanic’s job (a skill he had picked in the Marines) in some flop garage here, another city day laborer’s job shoveling something there, and picking fruits, hot sun fruits, maybe vegetables depending on the crop rotation, like some bracero whenever things got really tough, or the hobo jungle welcome ran out, ran out with the running out of wines and stubbed cigarette butts. He mentioned something about freight yard tramp knives, and cuts and wounds. Tough, no holds barred stuff, once tramp, bum, hobo solidarities broke down, and that easy and often. Frank just kind of flashed that part of the story because he was in a hurry for me to get it straight about him and Cora and the hobo jungle stuff was just stuff, and so much train smoke and maybe a bad dream.

Hell, the way he was going, after some bracero fruit days with some bad hombre bosses standing over his sweat, the “skids” in Los Angeles, down by the tar pits and just off the old Southern Pacific line, were looking good, a good rest up. Real good after fourteen days running in some Imperial Valley fruit fields so he started heading south, south by the sea somewhere near Paseo Robles to catch some ocean sniff, and have himself washed clean by loud ocean sounds so he didn’t have to listen to the sounds coming from his head about getting off the road.

Here is where luck is kind of funny though, and maybe this is a place where it is laughing funny, because, for once, he had a few bucks, a few bracero fruit bucks, stuck in his socks. He was hungry, maybe not really food hungry, but that would do at the time for a reason, and once he hit the coast highway this Bayview Diner was staring him right in the face after the last truck ride had let him off a few hundred yards up the road. Some fugitive barbecued beef smell, or maybe strong onions getting a workout over some griddled stove top, reached him and turned him away from the gas station fill-up counter where he had planned, carefully planning to husband his dough to make the city of angels, to just fill up with a Coke and moon pie. But that smell got the better of him. So he walked into that Bayview Diner, walked in with his eyes wide open. And then she walked through the damn door.

She may have been just another blonde, a very blonde frail, just serving them off the arm in some seaside hash joint as he found out later, but from second one when his eyes eyed her she was nothing but, well nothing but, a femme fatale. Frank femme fatale, fatal. Of course between eyeing, pillow-talk dreaming, and scheming up some “come on” line once she had her hooks into him, which was about thirty seconds after he laid eyes on her, he forgot, foolishly forgot, rule number one of the road, or even of being a man in go-go post-war America.

What he should have asked, and had in the past when he wasn’t this dame-addled, was a dish like this doing serving them off the arm in some rundown roadside café out in pacific coast Podunk when she could be sunning herself in some be-bop daddy paid-up hillside bungalow or scratching some other dame’s eyes out to get a plum role in a B Hollywood film courtesy of some lonely rich producer. Never for a minute, not even during those thirty seconds that he wasn’t hooked did he figure, like some cagey guy would figure, that she had a story hanging behind that bandana hair.

And she did. Story number one was the “serve them off the platter” hubby short-ordering behind the grill in that tramp cafe. The guy who, to save dough, bought some wood down at the lumber yard and put up that crooked door that she had come through on first sight and who spent half his waking hours trying to figure how to short-change somebody, including his Cora. Story number two, and go figure, said hubby didn’t care one way or the other about what she did, or didn’t do, as long as he had her around as a trophy to show the boys on card-playing in the back of the diner living rooms and Kiwanis drunk as a skunk nights. Story number three was that she had many round-heeled down-at- the-heels stories too long to tell Frank before hubby came along to pick her out of some Los Angles arroyo gutter. Story number four, the one that would in the end sent our boy Frankie smiling, sorry half-smiling, to his fate was she hated hubby, hell-broth murder hated her husband, and would be “grateful” in the right way to some guy who had the chutzpah to take her out of this misery. But those stories all came later, later when she didn’t need to use those hooks she had in him, didn’t need to use them at all.

Peter Paul Markin Interlude One: “I swear, I swear on seven sealed bibles that I yelled, yelled from some womblike place, at the screen once I saw her coming through that door for him, for Frank, to get the hell out of there at that moment. This dame was poison, no question. Frank stop looking at those long paid for legs and languid rented eyes for a minute and get the hell out of there to some safe hobo jungle. Hell, just walk out the diner, café or whatever it is door, run if you have too, get your hitchhike great blue-pink American West thumb out and head for it. There’s a hobo jungle just down the road near Santa Monica, get going, and tonight grab some stolid, fetid stews, and peace.”

But here is where fate works against some guys, hell, most guys. She turned around to do some dish rack thing or other with her lipstick-smeared coffee cup and then, slowly, turned back to look at Frank with those languid eyes, what color who knows, it was the look not the color that doomed Frank and asked in a soft, kittenish voice “Got a cigarette for a fresh out girl?” And wouldn’t you know, wouldn’t you just know, that Frank, “flush” with bracero dough had bought a fresh deck of Luckies at the cigarette machine out at that filling station just adjacent to the diner and they were sitting right in his left shirt pocket for the entire world to see. For her to see. And wouldn’t you know too that Frank could see plain as day, plain as a man could see if he wanted to see, that bulging out of one of the convenience pockets of those long-legged white short shorts was the sharply-etched outline of a package of cigarettes. Yah, still he plucked a cigarette into her waiting lips, kind of gently, gently for rough-edged Frank, lit her up, and dated her up with his eyes. Gone, long-gone daddy gone, except for dreams, and that final half-smile.

Peter Paul Markin Interlude Two: “I screamed again, some vapid man-child scream, some kicking at the womb thump too, but do you think Frank would listen, no not our boy. You don’t need to know all the details if you are over twenty-one, hell over twelve and can keep a secret. She used her sex every way she could, and a few ways that Frank, not unfamiliar with the world’s whorehouses in lonely ports-of-call, was kind of shocked at, but only shocked. He was hooked, hook, line and sinker. Frank knew, knew what she was, knew what she wanted, and knew what he wanted so there was no crying there.”

Here is what is strange, and while I am writing this even I think it is strange. She told Frank her whole life’s story, the too familiar father crawling up into her barely teenage bed, the run-aways, returns, girls’ JD homes, some more streets, a few whorehouse tricks, some street tricks, a little luck with a Hollywood producer until his wife, who controlled the dough, put a stop to it, some drugs, some L.A. gutters, and then a couple of years back some refuge from those mean streets via husband Manny’s Bayview Diner.

Even with all of that Frank still believed, believed somewhere from deep in his recessed mind, somewhere in his Oklahoma kid mud shack mind, that Cora was virginal. Some Madonna of the streets. Toward the end it was her scent, some slightly lilac scent, some lilac scent that combined with steamed vegetable sweat combined with sexual animal sweat combined with ancient Lydia MacAdams' bath soap fresh junior high school crush sweat drove him over the edge. Drove him to that smiling chair.

He had to play with fire, and play with it to the end. Christ, just like his whole young stupid gummed up life he had to play with fire. And from that minute, the lit cigarette minute, although really from the minute that Frank saw those long legs protruding from those white shorts Manny was done for.
And once Frank had sealed his fate (and hers too) on that midnight roaring rock sandy beach night when the ocean depths smashing against the shore drowned out the sound of their passion everybody from Monterrey to Santa Monica knew he was done for, or said they knew the score after the fact. Everybody who came within a mile of the Bayview Diner anyway. Everybody except Manny and maybe somewhere in his cheap jack little heart he too knew he was done for when Cora, in her own sensible Cora way, persuaded him that he needed an A-One grease monkey to run the filling station.

The way Frank told it even I knew, knew that everybody had to have figured things out. Any itinerant trucker who went out of his way to take the Coast highway with his goods on board in order to get a full glance at Cora and try his “line” on her (Manny encouraged it, he said it was good for business and harmless, and maybe it was with them) knew it. Knew it the minute he sat at his favorite corner stool and saw a monkey wrench-toting Frank come in for something and watch the Frank-Cora- and cigar-chomping Manny in his whites behind the grille dance play out. He kept his eyes and his line to himself on that run.

Damn, any dated –up teen-age joy-riding kids up from Malibu looking for the perfect wave at Roaring Rock (and maybe some midnight passion drowned out by the ocean roar too) knew the minute they came in and smelled that lilac something coming like something out of the eden garden from Cora. The girls knowing instinctively that Cora lilac scent was meant for more than some half-drunk old short order cook. One girl, with a friendly look Frank’s way, and maybe with her own Frank Roaring Rock thoughts, asked Cora, while ordering a Coke and hamburger, whether she was married to him. And her date, blushing, not for what his date had just said but because he, fully under the lilac scent karma, wished that he was alone just then so she could take a shot at Cora himself.

Hell even the California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop who cruised the coast near the diner (and had his own not so secret eyes and desires for Cora) knew once Frank was installed in one of the rooms over the garage that things didn’t add up, add up to Manny’s benefit. And, more importantly, that if anything happened, anything at all, anything requiring more than a Band-Aid, to one Manny DeVito for the next fifty years the cops knew the first door to knock at.

Look I am strictly a money guy, going after loot wherever I could and so I never got messed up with some screwy dame on a caper. That was later, spending time later. And maybe if I had gotten a whiff of that perfume things might have been different in my mind too but I told Frank right out why didn’t he and Cora take out a big old .44 in the middle of the diner and just shoot Manny straight out, and maybe while the cop was present too. Then he /they could have at least put up an insanity or crime of passion defense. Not our boy though, no he had to play the angles, play Cora’s evil game.

These two amateurs gummed up the job every which way, gummed it so that even a detective novel writer would turn blush red with shame. Murder is, from guys that I know who specialize in such things, make a business out of taking guys out for dough, an art form and nothing for amateurs to mess around with. They tried one thing, something with poison taken over a long time that couldn’t be traced but Manny was such a lush it didn’t take. Then they tried to get him drunk and drown him off of Roaring Rock but that night around two in the morning about sixty kids from down around Malibu decided to have a cook-out after their prom night. In the end they just did the old gag that the cops have been wish to since about 1906 and conked him, threw him in the car, drove to the Roaring Rock and pushed him and the car over the cliff. Jesus, double jesus.

Peter Paul Interlude Three: “Frank, one last time, get out, get on the road, this ain’t gonna work. That poison thing was crazy. That drunk at the ocean thing was worst. The cops wouldn’t even have had to bother to knock at your door. Frank on this latest caper she’s setting you up. Who drove the car, who got the whiskey, who knew how to trip the brake lines, and who was big enough to carry Manny? Why don’t you just paint a big target on your chest and be done with it. She just wants the diner for her own small dreams. You don’t count. Hell, I ain’t no squealer but she is probably talking to that skirt –crazy (her skirt) cop right now. Get out I say, get out.”

If you want the details, want to see how she framed him but good and walked away with half the California legal system holding the door open for her, just look them up in the 1946 fall editions of the Los Angeles Gazette. They covered the story big time, and the trial too. That’s just the details though. I can give you the finish now and save your eyes, maybe. Frank, yah, Frank was just kind of smiling that smile, what did I call it, half-smile, all the way to the end. Do you need to know more?

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