Authors: Joseph Hansen
A Country of Old Men
To Dave Brandstetter’s friends around the world: Hail and Farewell!
HE MAN AT THE
door had a white mustache and goatee. His tweed jacket looked new, but it wouldn’t button over his big belly. He wore a red-striped cotton shirt, new blue denims, crepe-soled shoes, and one of those shapeless canvas hats sold in drugstores, cheap, so that if you lost it on a trip you wouldn’t mind too much. Dave didn’t know him.
“Do something for you?” he said.
“It’s Helmers.” The voice was a rumbling bass. He held out a thick, liver-spotted hand. “Been that long, has it?”
Dave shook the hand, amazed. The man had changed beyond recognition. “Jack,” he said. “Come in.” He stepped back, motioning at the long, raftered room. Helmers came in, heavy, slow, an old bear, his breathing audible. “Twenty years, I guess.” Dave let the door stand open. Though it wasn’t yet noon, and the place was shaded by big, untrimmed trees, it had gathered heat. The windows and the skylight over the sleeping loft stood open, but there was a faint smell of horse—the place had once been a stable. “Let me take that jacket.” Helmers let him take it. Dave carried it and the hat down the room to a hatrack and hung them up. He called, “Sit down. I’ll bet you’d like a beer.”
“You’re on,” Helmers said, and dropped with a sigh into a wing chair by the broad fireplace. “Sorry to come unannounced, but your telephone’s always busy.”
“Unplugged.” Dave bent to take brown bottles of Dos Equis from the small refrigerator back of the bar. “I’ve retired, but the world doesn’t want to accept that. And I get fed up with explaining.” He brought back the dewy bottles and a pair of tall glasses, provided Helmers with one of each, and sat on the brick surround of the raised hearth. “How’s Katherine these days?”
“Dead. Cancer. Four years now.”
“My phone wasn’t unplugged back then,” Dave said.
“I didn’t notify anybody. There wasn’t any service. She and I were one person, Dave.” That had been true, and the strongest reason Dave and Helmers saw little of each other once the writer had married. Katherine seemed all the human company he’d needed. Dave had visited them a couple of times. He’d seen why Helmers felt as he did. She was beautiful, intelligent, informed about a world of subjects. “When we parted I wanted it to be between the two of us. Nobody else—” He broke the sentence, left the thought, tilted the bottle and watched the dark beer pile up high foam in the glass. “I haven’t come to bust up your retirement.” Helmers pushed his glasses up on his nose. It was a habit he’d had even as a teenager. He and Dave had gone to high school together. His nose had never offered glasses much support. “Just for expert advice. There’s been an unexplained death. No more real than the ones I think up for my books. But it annoys me. You see—it’s mine.”
“Exaggerated,” Dave said. “Like Mark Twain’s.”
“I can’t trace who started the rumor, but it’s all over. Not just L.A. New York, too. Connecticut—I teach in Connecticut sometimes in the summer. Vermont, Oregon, New Mexico. Anyplace people know me.” He downed some of the beer, wiped his mustache and chin whiskers with a hand. Remembered. Set the glass aside, tilted his broad behind in the chair to dig a crushed envelope out of a hip pocket. He waved it at Dave. It was an airmail envelope with exotic stamps in the corner. “From Japan. This morning. Total stranger.” He pulled a letter from the envelope, rattled it open.
“‘They are saying you are dead. I do not believe it. I love your books, and do not want them to stop, so please write to me to prove it is not true.’” Helmers chuckled, shook his head, slid the letter into the envelope, stuffed it away in his hip pocket again. “Can you beat it? Why?”
Dave got to his feet, peered up at the tall bookshelves that flanked the fireplace and surrounded the windows along the wall. He took a few steps, reached up, came back with a dozen books that he stacked on the bricks at Helmers’s elbow. He sat down again. Helmers blinked at the books, at him, picked up a book, opened it. Dave knew what he saw. His own big, sprawling handwriting.
To Dave Brandstetter, with best wishes from an old friend, Jack Helmers.
And a date. They kept landing up in the mailbox, in Jiffy bags, one a year, sometimes two. He read them and wrote a few words of admiration. That’s how they kept in touch—the only way. Today that seemed a little sad. Helmers closed the book.
“You trying to tell me something?”
“A writer’s autograph in a book is worth more when he’s dead. Some collector couldn’t make up his mind to shuck out a hundred dollars for a signed copy of your first novel, so the bookseller used the clincher—told him you’d died.”
“And the collector told a friend, who told two friends?” Helmers laid the book back on the stack. “Ridiculous.”
“You have a better explanation?” Dave said.
Helmers grunted and quaffed more beer. “Ah, that’s the real thing,” he said. “No—human nature being what it is, you’re probably right.” He emptied the rest of the beer from the bottle into the glass. “But I wish it would stop. I’ve been feeling mortal enough without it. Suddenly the book publishing business has changed—I’ve written that big novel I always wanted to, about turning eighteen in Pasadena, fifty years ago. Nobody will publish it.” A sigh. “Kidney stones, bad back, high blood pressure—I’m falling apart.”
“Welcome to the club.”
“You look fine. Not an extra pound on you.”
Dave grimaced. “Thin isn’t everything.” He watched Helmers light a cigarette. “When I quit those I thought I’d balloon, but I didn’t.”
“Maybe you don’t eat enough,” Helmers said.
“Join me for lunch,” Dave said. “You’ll see.”
Helmers said, “Come to think of it, I read in the paper you’d bought a restaurant. Max Romano’s. We ate there a few times, didn’t we, forties, fifties? Nice place.”
Dave looked at his watch. “We can go there now.”
Helmers blinked. “God damn. That will make a change. You know—I haven’t eaten in a restaurant in years. Nobody to go with—all dead. All I do is stay home and write.”
“It’s still a nice place,” Dave said. “Come on.”
For forty years and more it had been Dave’s custom to enter Max Romano’s through the steamy kitchen with its heady smells of garlic and cheese, basil and oregano, to throw a smiling salute to the dour, sunken-cheeked chef Alex Giacometti and to nod to and speak the names of the other kitchen help on his way through. He’d had to buy the restaurant to keep this privilege, when Max died last year and a nephew from New York had threatened to turn the place to tall clear glass walls, pale enamels, cane-seated chairs, sleek floors, and nouvelle cuisine. Dave couldn’t let that happen. Max’s place was more a part of his life history than any house he’d ever lived in. It was filled with memories and ghosts he couldn’t let go. Money was no problem. His father had owned California’s largest insurance company, Medallion Life, and when he died a few years back left Dave one-third of the shares. He didn’t even know how much money he had. He figured it would embarrass him to know. Alex had fretted—he was a chef, he’d never managed a business in his life, didn’t know if he could. But he was doing fine.
Now Dave ushered Helmers through the steel-clad, round-windowed swing doors out of the kitchen heat and clatter into the shadowy cool of the restaurant itself. Most of the white-naperied, candle-lit tables were occupied. A cheerful hum of voices, jingle of ice in glasses, clicking of forks on china greeted them. Dave led Helmers across deep carpeting toward the quiet corner table Max had always reserved for him. Cecil Harris sat there. A tall, lanky young black who worked in television news as a field reporter and producer, Cecil lived with Dave. He looked worried now, and stood up before Dave and Helmers could sit down.
“Call Madge,” he said. “She needs your help. Been trying to reach you all morning. So have I.”
“Jack Helmers,” Dave said. “Cecil Harris.”
They shook hands. Helmers said, “Nice to know you.”
“I enjoy your books,” Cecil said.
“Sit down,” Dave told them both. “I’ll be right back.”
When Dave returned from telephoning, Avram David was handing menus to Helmers and Cecil. Avram, who’d come here an immigrant kid from Israel and been a waiter at Max’s for years, was now the maître d’. He’d never replace fat, jovial Max Romano, with his laughing affection for everybody who came in, but he brought large, luminous, long-lashed brown eyes to the job, and a slow smile that smoldered with sex. Now that Dave thought of it, the new streaks of gray in Avram’s hair made him look startlingly like Omar Sharif.
“Mr. Brandstetter,” he said, and pulled out Dave’s chair for him. “The scallops came fresh this morning.”
Dave sat down. “Then let it be the scallops. Glenlivet first, and a spinach salad, please.” Dave saw that Cecil was drinking Perrier water with a slice of lime. He smelled what Helmers was drinking—sour mash whiskey. He could smell things sharply these days, now that he’d quit smoking. “Gentlemen?”
“Spinach salad sounds good to me.” Helmers peered through his glasses, poked a thick finger at the menu. “Kidneys
à la moutarde.
My wife used to cook those.”
Avram nodded. “We’ll try to do as well.” He raised dark eyebrows at Cecil. “Avocado stuffed with crab meat?”
“You got it. Mustn’t get too full. Need a clear head. Big afternoon’s work ahead of me.”
Dave said, “You can’t come with me to Madge’s? I was hoping you’d drive.”
“Sorry. Lot of cutting and splicing to do before five. Bad location sound. Have to dub narration on all of it. Write the copy.” He read a big black sports watch on his wrist. “I don’t know how I’m going to do it. What’s up with Madge? All she’d tell me was she wanted you.”
“Something about a lost child wandering on the beach. Who saw, or says he saw, a murder.”
Cecil moaned. “Oh, no. Tell her to call the police.”
“I told her, but she insists I talk to the boy first. He’s very small, and it’s a very wild story—when the murderer saw that he’d seen her, she kidnapped him. Madge says he appears to have been beaten.” Dave wistfully watched Helmers light a cigarette, inhale, and blow the smoke away.
“Little kids lie all the time,” Cecil said.
“Madge doesn’t know anything about little kids.” Dave sighed. “I don’t relish driving all the way down there.”
“Is this Madge Dunstan, the designer?” Helmers said. “Malibu—right? Haven’t seen her in years. Matter of fact, it must have been with you. Right here.”
Cecil said, “Dave, don’t take another case. Please?”
The last one had been close to fatal—not just for him but for Cecil, too. Dave was getting too old to chase felons with sane hope of catching them. His reflexes were slowing down. His wits weren’t as sharp as they once were. He’d set a trap last time he’d been sure would work. It hadn’t worked. The wrong man had stepped into it in the dark, and Dave had been taken by surprise. That wouldn’t have happened back when he was on his game. He smiled at Cecil. Not cheerfully, but meaning it. “I won’t.”
His Glenlivet arrived, a double in a wide, squat glass with ice. He tasted it, and started to reach across for the pack of Winstons beside Helmers’s bread plate. But Cecil gave him a stern look, and he drew his hand back. The tang of the cigarette smoke was tormenting. What good was a drink without a cigarette? Health-mad antihedonists were ruining his life. Cecil wasn’t one of those. He just wanted Dave to live a long time. Dave wasn’t so sure that was worthwhile without vices. But he sighed now, rummaged a warm slice of fresh-baked bread from under a napkin in a basket, buttered it, and chewed it while he drank. He’d get used to making do sometime, he supposed, not really believing it.
The spinach salads arrived. Helmers attacked his. “I live in Topanga, you know,” he said, mouth full. “It’s on my way. I’ll drive you, if you can get my car to me later.”