The Stupid 365 Project, Day 29: “Spirit House,” Part 2

October 29th, 2010

“You may find this difficult to believe, Mr. White,” Artie said, “but you’re a rich man.”

Bozo nodded agreement on the dash as the car hit a bump in a road that seemed to be all bumps. The road, Freedom Trail, was crowded on both sides by forest, and the moon had vanished three bumps back. “That’s why I’m, here, Mr. White,” Artie said, having given the imaginary Mr. White time to make some appropriately servile response. “I’m here to help you get what’s rightfully yours.”

The imaginary Mr. White gabbled something, possibly cynical. That old clown Buck Cherry had been all cynicism, but in the end, it hadn’t mattered: Artie was still driving the car Buck paid for, with millions more of Buck’s bucks buried fathomlessly deep in a Swiss bank. “I know you’ve been cheated, Mr. White, believe me, I know.” Artie was using his business voice, deeper and more polished than his natural voice, the New York sidewalk-irritation voice he’d used on the cop. Artie had practiced this voice, his money voice, in a tape recorder, fine-tuning it until he could finally say, without misrepresenting the truth, that it made him sound almost honest.

“Certainly, Mr. White. I have the figures right here.” Artie reached back and tapped the immaculately slim black eelskin briefcase, made for him by the dozen in Korea and always used brand new. “One million, nine hundred seventy-three thousand in the accounts of Big Chart Records; three million, six hundred and – oh, say, forty thousand at Artemis Music Publishing; and the big one: nearly seven million, minus a few pennies, at Diamond Entertainment Aggregate, Inc. That’s the music holding company that bought Plonk Records, your label for eleven years.”

Them fuckers,” said the imaginary Mr. White.

“So that’s a total of twelve million, six hundred thirteen thousand dollars. And I’m the man who can get it for you.”

“In 200 yards,” Doris said, “turn right onto –”

Artie snapped off the GPS. “Goddamn it, Doris shut up.” Doris could break his concentration like nobody else. The first Doris, Doris Koppel, had been his secretary for 24 years, ten months, and 28 days. She’d been there every day, rain or shine, from the day Artie opened the office until the day his accountant told him that Doris was coming dangerously close to vesting in the firm’s retirement fund: 25 years, and a pension for life.  Artie had put the plan into place to attract competence, secure in the knowledge that no one would ever be able to put up with him for 25 years. And then he learned that Doris was just a little more than a month away. So he’d fired her.

Six weeks later, Doris Koppel had been diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Alone, unemployed, without medical insurance, she’d hung herself.  Artie had skipped the funeral out of sensitivity to her family’s feelings. If she had a family, which he wasn’t certain about.

So four more years had passed without a thought of Doris, and the first time his new GPS had talked to him, Artie’s spasm of terror had almost driven the top of his head through the roof of the car. The unit had a second voice option – an Englishman whom Artie called Clive – but Clive measured things in meters and called traffic circles “roundabouts,” and Artie always had the feeling that Clive was mentally correcting for the fact that they weren’t driving on the left, and that one day Clive would have a lapse and kill them both. So he’d gone back to Doris, and gradually he’d grown fond of her voice, or as fond as he got of anything.

He pulled the car over and turned it off, listening to the engine tick as he put himself back in the chat with Mr. White. This was the Golden Stretch. If he got through this part of the conversation, he could grab White’s money, bury it offshore, divorce Linda, give her almost half of almost half of everything she knew about, and still hold a permanent seat at the end of the rainbow. The right end. The end where the gold was.

“As a lawyer, I know how to get that money back for you,” Artie said. He was talking to the imaginary Lamar White but looking at the Bozo bobblehead on the dash. “As the chief executive office of Spirit House Records, where the spirit of rock ‘n roll – real rock ‘n roll, Mr. White – never dies, I can put you back on the radio. Get you all the money you’re owed. All the respect you’re due. All I need is a signature on a few pieces of paper. What do you say, Mr. White? Do we have a deal?”

Artie thwacked Bozo on the head with his index finger, and the clown nodded. “That’s right, isn’t it Larry?” Artie asked the clown. “That’s what you taught me, isn’t it? The perfect business plan. Steal the art, stiff the artists. Like you did with Laurel and Hardy, buying the movies for nickels, promising the boys you’d make them rich again if they’d sign off on the deal, and then making millions selling them to TV stations all over America. Poor Stan, living in that little apartment in Santa Monica. Poor Ollie, dying young. Rich Larry, aka Bozo.”

“So, your publishing, Mr. White,” Artie said, just to hear it out loud. “So, your royalties, Mr. White. So, the title to your songs, Mr. White.  Mine, Mr. White.”

The sky fractured and cracked open to reveal a jagged line of brilliant white light, visible for an instant and then gone, followed a few seconds later by a BOOOOOM so deep the SUV vibrated on its springs. A random handful of fat raindrops splattered the windshield, and a second later, Artie was inside a waterfall, looking out.

“Just what I need,” he said. He turned on the ignition and put the wipers to work, whackwhack, whackwhack, carving transparent crescents in the windshield. On either side of him, the forest glinted hard and wet in the headlights. “You couldn’t wait, huh?” Artie demanded in the general direction of God. “Had to get the New Yorker wet, didn’t you?’

“. . . on Lynch Drive,” Doris said, brought back to life.

“Right or left?” Artie asked, pulling slowly back onto the rutted road. Even with the wipers on high, he had moments of visibility interrupted by a world of shining ripples.

A couple of bounces later, Doris said, “Turn right on Lynch Drive.”

Lynch Drive had the bridge the cop had talked about. It was just a bunch of planks as far as Artie could see, barely wide enough for one vehicle, with no guardrails on either side. He slowed to a stop and glared at it, trying to get a sense of its integrity in the glimpses allowed by the windshield wipers. Rain pocked the top of the car like a giant drumming its fingers.

“In one hundred feet,” Doris said, “arrive at address 100 Lynch Drive, on right.”

“You say one more word,” Artie said, “and you’ll be in that fucking creek.” He pulled the SUV slowly forward, feeling his front wheels hit the first plank, and at that precise moment the rain stopped as though it had been turned off. He took the bridge carefully, his fingers wrapped so tightly around the wheel that the muscles in his hands cramped up.

As he crested the top of the bridge, Artie saw something glitter off to the right: his own headlights, bouncing off glass. A window, maybe. He eased the big vehicle down the other side of the bridge and left the raging creek behind. Couldn’t see anything where the glitter had been.

“In fifty feet,” Doris said, “arrive at 100 Lynch Drive, on right.”

The SUV was creeping now, brights on, and suddenly the brush on the right side of the road retreated, and there it was. Maybe 200 feet from the road, at the far end of a U-shaped, unpaved drive, it stood.

Sort of.

Artie said, “Are you kidding me?”

The moon threaded itself between the clouds, and there it was: one of the biggest houses Artie had ever seen in his life. Its perfect symmetry – two long wings bisected by a grand porch with four Conrinthian columns holding up the cornice – had been spoiled by the almost total collapse of the right wing. The farthest-right porch column had fallen with the wing and now leaned outward at a forty-five degree angle, its top resting inside a shattered second-story window that had been stopped on its way down by some interior masonry, still miraculously intact.

Scattered over the muddy ground in front of the house were ten or twelve low, leaning structures, kennels or chicken coops or outhouses or – Artie raised his eyebrows as the penny dropped – slave cabins. All dark, just angular shadows against the paler eminence of the house, which had probably been white a hundred years ago.

Artie sat there, staring at the ruin, unwilling even to take the car up the drive. The left side of the place was still standing, although darker patches on the roof announced cave-ins here and there. He pulled in a few tentative feet. His headlights were bouncing off the windows that still had glass in them, so he turned them off and saw, in the first window to the left of the porch, a faint yellow glow. And then someone was standing there, tall, high-shouldered, and thin.

The figure at the window lifted an arm in greeting.

Doris said, “You have arrived at your destination.”

14 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 29: “Spirit House,” Part 2”

  1. EverettK Says:

    “…give her almost half of almost half of everything she knew about…”

    Is that supposed to be half of half, or is that one “almost half” too many?

    Loving the story so far! Can’t wait for the big finale…

  2. Gary Says:

    That’s scary. Like really scary!

    (Thanks, Everett….)

  3. Bonnie Says:

    Boy, when you make a bad guy, you make him really bad!

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Everett — Yes, half of half. I like the rhythm of the line — especially capped with “everything she knows about.” And glad you’re liking it. At the risk of spoiling the big finale, this is my favorite installment.

    Gary, even Malcolm Gladwell would have to acknowledge now that mastery is yours. It’s not really a skill set with global implications, but you’ve mastered it.

    Hi, Bonnie — No point in messing around with half-bad bad guys. But yes, Artie is pretty appalling, as were the three or four guys he’s based on. What Artie’s doing here was a growth industry in the 50s and 60s. And my guess is that old Bozo inspired some of it by robbing Laurel and Hardy blind in plain sight. (I should do a Stan Laurel post at some point.)

  5. Bonnie Says:

    If we ever get a chance to chat over a beer, I’ve got some fun stories in the family law arena that approach that kind of scuzziness.

  6. Suzanna Says:

    The scary guy in the window and the state of the house have me guessing that Artie just may get the pooh scared out of him before you’re done with him. At least I hope so.

    Now, please clarify for my fuzzy morning brain. Regarding your reply to Bonnie, do you mean Bozo, as in THE Bozo the clown, ripped off Laurel and Hardy?

    Checking back here later tonight to see what happens next.

  7. Maria Yolanda Aguayo Says:

    Really enjoying Artie’s wrenching travel down the road to meet his very needed karma. Can’t wait to see what happens manana. Thanks Tim.

  8. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I feel like I’ve entered the world of “Waiting for Godot.” Between Bozo and Doris,collapsing mansions and slave quarters, money that may or may not exist(?), reality seems to be bending. Very odd indeed. (Glad you’re better by the way). You are a very funny man. Looking forward to tomorrow’s installment.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Always on the lookout for material, Bonnie, so that could happen some day, depending in part on where you live. I’m in Santa Monica when I’m not in Asia. And you?

    Hi, Suzanna — First, your prediction is aces. Secondly, yes, Larry Harmon, who was the last and most famous Bozo, grabbed the rights to the Laurel and Hardy films and made a fortune selling them to TV stations while San Laurel lived in declining circumstances in a small apartment in Santa Monica. (Harmon also claimed to have created Bozo but had to relinquish that claim after the original copyright holders sued him.) He just appeared on the dash as I was writing and he seemed like the perfect role model for Artie.

    Maria, thank you for the vote of confidence and if anyone has karma building, it’s old Artie. Thanks also for coming along for the ride.

    Hi, Lil — Bozo may be a distraction — he just fit so well when I thought of him that I went ahead and wrote him in. I began this story with only the idea that the guy who was going to get it (a) stole from black musicians, who have been being stolen from for at least 70 years, and (b) talked back to his GPS, which is based on my relationship with my own, which is also called Doris and who led me down some very peculiar roads in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi. Everything else just happened as I was writing.

  10. Bonnie Says:

    I live in Castro Valley, which like Sacramento, was founded by a European who later went bankrupt. It’s the town that time forgot, which can be nice but limits the dining out options. I work in downtown Oakland. Next year I probably have to go down for a meeting in June, and to Long Beach in September for the State Bar convention.

    On a completely different topic, I will never hear the words “body temperature” in the same way. Nice of you to follow immediately with some comic relief from Mr. Smif. Still shuddering.

  11. Laren Bright Says:

    Not Bozo the clown!!! Noooooooo!

  12. Sylvia Says:

    I’m glad I’ve fallen behind on my blogreading for once, because I get to go straight to the grand finale!

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Sorry, Laren, but look at it this way: Learning our childhood idols had feet of concentrated, sun-dried dog shit is an important part of growing up. And I’m proud to tell you that as of today, you’re a man, my son.

    Sylvia — welcome whenever you pick it up. I have my own doubts about the Grand Guignol elements in part three, but they were the best I could do. This is just emphatically not my genre.

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Bonnie, thanks for the “body temperature” praise. I actually remember writing that, which is very unusual for me.

    We’ll meet up when you come down here or when I go up there.

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