Mae West’s face stared at me from the wall, her unblinking eyes each both larger than my head. All around the room were attributes to the famous sex-bomb: a replica of the couch that was supposed to resemble her lips, countless photos of her, feathery and sparkly headdresses similar to ones she wore, and of course, each wall baring a large, blown-up, black and white headshot. However, despite these adornments, the largeness of the room and relatively numbered pieces of furniture made the space appear rather minimalist. This was the case with every room.
Vivian then walked in, wearing a short white tunic dress that too displayed an enlarged grey photo of Ms. West. The number of these dresses seemed limitless, for she had a dress for almost every actor and actress of Hollywood’s yesteryears. She would do the same for her house, no doubt, but no building could have so many rooms, short of a hotel, and so she would have to make do with her John Wayne room, Mae room (obviously), Brando room, Marilyn room, and a few others. Today was a Mae day.
“Would you like some tea or coffee?” asked Vivian as she sat down on her white couch (one of the two in the room, besides the lips one). Besides the few pieces of colored memorabilia around, the entire house seemed to be in black and white. Even Vivian, with her skin pale from hardly ever going out except at night and dark hair (which was cut in a bob with perfectly done finger waves), seemed to match this theme. I shook my head at her offer for refreshments.
I asked her if she had heard anything about the Briony case. Ever since everything but the author’s journals and writings had been burned, reputations have been melting faster than candles in her house. And the accusations as to what led her decision to leave nothing but words behind had been coming down just as fast.
“That little ‘girl who cried wolf’ archetype of a story? Why, it’s been the only thing on the news these days.”
Where did you hear about it? The papers or TV? At these questions, my voice betrayed a slip of my urgency, though I tried to keep the rest of myself composed as usual. Vivian was the first person in my string of interviews today, but I knew I could potentially get the most out of her. When her second-cousin’s hippy ex- wife had been found poisoned, no one knew what could have possibly been in the health-freak’s system. An hour of gossiping with Vivian led to the husband’s stamp collection; special editions that came with cyanide laced glue, sent from a disgruntled secretary. It was almost too easy to figure out over tea.
Vivian’s words were like cigarette smoke: they would come out smooth and curl around you, and then the stench would settle into all your pores and fabric. They could also send you to your death, like that secretary. Strange that her actual presence was more like the smoke.
My favorite combination: addictive, deadly and quick to dissipate. Too bad I quit smoking.
However, she had noticed and one eyebrow arched at my involuntary inflection. She continued on. “You know my only television is with Curtis. But yes, the few times I watched anything at all, that is all that comes up when passing the news channels. The papers, however, seem to have less objective views on the subject.”
I nodded. This case, which depended largely on written accounts, was far too lengthy for newscasters and had thrived on with newspapers that were constantly battling to be the first to publish the released archives. These days, it seemed like everyone treated the papers as pulp-fiction zines rather than sources for information. Though maybe that was already the situation long before this trial.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that had been the point of Briony’s final grand spectacle: to get people to care about words again. This had been my mission for 10 years as well, though I’ve been doing it with a tape recorder and pen. It seems the job gets done quicker with a match and bottle of nail-polish.
I asked if she had heard anything on a personal level, since I knew she had a friend or two that must have been in Briony James’ literary circle.
“Oh you know, the usual,” she said. “The typical ‘poor dears’ and ‘how could I have not known’ that are always so common in these situations.”
But nothing else?
Vivian was quiet for a stretch, looking about the room, her slender and pointed figure and movements making her every bit the opposite of the voluptuous figure that the room was dedicated to, in every aspect. In this moment of silence, I wondered, like I usually did, how she could live like this, constantly surrounded by the faces of the beautiful and dead, the colorless of it all only adding to the ghostly affect. It was like being stuck in a dusty film reel, the same transparent images passing by multiple times, a quick run all together being the only movement any of these lost stars had left. It made me wonder if this was how they pictured their legacies, lovely, graying, and ever so still. Then again, I suppose better to be beautiful and dead than ugly and alive.
“I may have heard a thing or two,” Vivian said quietly, averting her eyes in a coy way that should have been unusual for someone her age. “But now is not the best time to discuss it.”
I asked her when would be a good time.
“Any time. But just not now” she said, appearing rather flustered all of a sudden.