The Labyrinth

By Steven Arnett All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Thriller

Chapter 8

The first Scotch and water hit me fast—I hadn’t eaten since a trip to Burger King around noon—but I drank a couple more, and pretty soon I was talking to people like I’d known them for years. Later on I couldn’t remember a lot of what happened at the party, but I’ll never forget the moment I first looked into Laurel Whittington’s eyes. I was at the hors d’oeuvres table putting crab meat on a Ritz cracker—I remember that distinctly—when she tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” she said with a smile that made me think she was thinking of something very funny and very naughty but wasn’t going to tell me. “Just thought I’d ask you what you’re really doing out here. You see, I don’t believe those ridiculous things you told everybody before.”

Her green eyes were glassy, but had a dark laughter and sensuality in them that intrigued me.

“Actually, there was a good reason. There was a woman in Oregon I came to see. But it didn’t work out like I thought it would. Now I don’t have any reason at all for being here.”

“Oh, I understand. You don’t even have to tell me the rest.”

“I’m sorry but I can’t remember your name. I heard so many they all just went in one ear and out the other. I don’t think I know anyone’s name in the room besides Dave.”

“Laurel. Laurel Whittington. Actually, now that we’re making confessions, I lied when I told you I came over here to ask you why you came out West. What I really wanted to do was get a close look at your eyes. You have the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. I’m trying to think of the damn word that would describe them, but I can’t come up with it.”

“Maybe greedy or lustful is the word you’re looking for.”

“Oh, no. That’s not it at all. I was going to say vulnerable or sad, but that won’t quite do, either. There’s a hardness in them I didn’t notice at first.”

“I had an eye transplant from a gorilla. That’s where the hardness comes from.”

She laughed. “You’re not much help. You’re not much help at all.”

“Sure I am. I used to work as a teller at the First National Gorilla Eye Bank, so they gave me a discount.”

She laughed again, free and uninhibited. I took a sip of my drink, but our eyes never left each other.

“Is this party boring you as much as it is me,” Laurel said.

“Yes.

“I know a place we can go to get away from it for a while. There’s a quiet little room—”

“I’d like that.”

After freshening up our drinks we went down a hall to the room. Inside, Laurel turned on a Tiffany lamp and we sat down on a green velvet sofa that was super comfortable. One wall of the room was taken up by bookshelves. We could hear laughter and music from the party, but it seemed far away.

“There, now isn’t this better?” Laurel said.

“Much,” looking into the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen. Big, with long lashes and showing supreme self-confidence, I thought they showed she was wild and careless, but the dark laughter in them never quite seemed to go away. I imagined she was jaded and would go off on a wild adventure at the drop of a hat, and when she smiled I thought she was hiding secrets that she thought it was just hilarious that no one else knew. Her golden brown hair was in ringlets and she was wearing a red dress with birds and flowers sewn into it in gold in such quantities that it seemed more gold than red. She was like a vision from a psychedelic dream. She seemed half flower child and half Hollywood starlet, and I didn’t quite know what to make of her.

“I’m trying to guess what you do for a living, but I can’t come up with the faintest idea,” I said. “Somehow I can’t imagine you doing anything ordinary.”

“Actually, I don’t do anything at all. My father’s rich, he’s the Whittington in the Oakley, Whittington & Putnam brokerage house, and I inherited money from my grandmother, so I don’t have to work. I went to Wellesley for a while because I guess my mother didn’t think there were any schools on the West Coast that were snooty enough, and majored in drama, but I got bored with it and dropped out. I still do some acting, but I don’t really care about it all that much. I’m going down to L.A. to try out for a part in a movie in a couple of days, but the only reason they’re letting me is that the producer knows who my family is, and probably thinks he’ll be able to borrow some money from us some day. Mostly I just try to enjoy myself. And I stay high as much as possible.”

She took a joint out of her pocket and a thin gold lighter. “I’m becoming dangerously straight.” She lit the joint and took a long toke, then handed the joint to me.

“Don’t you think this is going to smell a little suspicious out there?”

“Oh, hell, Dave won’t mind. He gets high himself.”

So we smoked the joint and finished our drinks, then got up and went over to the bookshelves. I talked about some of the books I’d read, but I really just joked about the plots, trying to make Laurel laugh. We were standing close together. Smiling dreamily, we put our arms around each other and kissed. While we were kissing a woman walked into the room, said something meaningless, and then went out. We laughed.

“Would you like to come home with me?” Laurel said.

“I’d love to.”

“We can have a lot more fun there, I’m sure, and I’m tired of the party.”

We went back to the party room—where the talking and laughter seemed louder than before and couples were dancing now—and said good-by. In my car I followed Laurel through dark, mysterious streets that seemed like a labyrinth floating on a cloud, and finally we got to her house. We sat in her living room and smoked marijuana that had been dipped in opium while we listened to a Cream album. She’d lit some thick red candles that smelled like strawberries, and I could just barely make out the paintings on the wall and the Persian rug that covered most of the floor. On the fireplace mantle there were icons that looked like the gods on Easter Island. They looked gruesome and mysterious as the candlelight flickered over them, so I thought it would be easy to imagine I was taking part in a tribal ritual. On one wall hung a gold plate with intricate engraving that I thought looked like an Aztec motif. The sofa we sat on was of purple satin with a pattern of silver whorls printed on it, which seemed in my marijuana and opium haze to spin like pinwheels. When we finished smoking the dope, Laurel got out a bottle of white Chablis and poured it into long-stemmed wine glasses.

“I feel much better now,” Laurel said. “Much more normal. In other words, really high.” She seemed to study me for a moment. “How come you’re so quiet all of a sudden.”

“I’m that way a lot. I get in moods where I don’t talk much.”

“That should never happen when you’re high.”

“The cat must have my tongue.”

“I think I get the picture.”

Moving close together, we kissed. We started undressing each other, and in a little while got into Laurel’s bed, which was big and round and had satin sheets which were hard to keep from slipping and sliding on. But I couldn’t really get into making it with her. I more or less just went through the motions. From the dope and booze I was too messed up to really appreciate it anyway, even though Laurel was passionate. I was slipping into a blue funk, almost a musical kind of sadness, like a violin sonata in a minor key that plays on endlessly.

“What’s wrong, Love?” Laurel said. “Wasn’t I any good?” but not like she was worried whether she was or not.

“It’s nothing like that. I’ve just got a lot on my mind. It doesn’t have anything to do with how I feel about you.”

“You’re still thinking about that woman in Oregon, aren’t you?”

“Maybe. Hand me a glass of wine.”

A bottle of wine and glasses were on a little table beside Laurel’s side of the bed. She poured a glass for each of us and handed one to me.

“Cheer up, will you? This is getting to be a drag.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take two aspirin and feel better in the morning.”

“No, you won’t. You’ll feel worse. You’ll have a hangover.”

“I’ll start drinking again and get high and it’ll go away, just like it does with you.”

“I don’t understand you. You’re not like I thought you’d be. I feel like kicking you out right now.”

“What can I say?”

Sneering, she turned away from me and fell asleep, or at least acted like she was. I tried to sleep, but kept remembering things that I hadn’t thought about in years, like my aunt’s wedding in New York City. I was the ring boy walking down the aisle in a little tuxedo with a white jacket, my little sister behind me in a pink dress dropping rose petals out of a little straw basket. And I remembered a time I went frog hunting with my friend George at this swamp that wasn’t too far from where we lived, how we talked about girls and what they looked like naked and what screwing would be like. I remembered slipping into Mary Anne’s bed with her after her parents went to work, and the gabbling of sparrows outside the window. I thought vividly about the night of the murder. I remembered all that junk interwoven with thoughts about Jan and Charlotte. It was like my mind had decided to hold a rummage sale and was dragging out worthless memories in hope of getting rid of them for good.

I finally fell asleep, but when I woke up I didn’t feel like I’d slept long, even though the sun was up. I felt the way you do when you’ve drunk enough the night before so that when you wake up in the morning there’s still enough alcohol in you so that you don’t feel much of a hangover yet. But I wasn’t as bummed out as I’d been. Sleeping, Laurel looked innocent and gentle, like all the things that had made her jaded and bitter flew out of her at night like the ghost of another self, and didn’t come back until she woke up. I felt a rush of affection for her. I decided I’d stay with her awhile if she’d let me, though I thought she’d want to give me the heave-ho after the sour note things had ended on between us the night before. After a while she opened her eyes, looking confused and then angry.

“You’re aren’t waking up,” I said. “You’re just dreaming. You’re in Pepperland, where it’s always summer and the animals are friendly. We’re lying beside a stream on the grass, and we can see fish playing in the water. A lion is coming up to say good morning to us.” I tried to make a face like a lion and growled a “good morning,” but Laurel just looked at me sourly. “If you’ll look behind you, you’ll see a castle made out of pink candy and an elephant doing a hat dance. And now here comes a friendly tarantula.” With my fingers I walked my hand up Laurel’s stomach and then moved two of my fingers like they were waving.

“Cut the crap, will you.”

“I was hoping you’d forget you were mad.”

“Was I? I don’t remember. I just think you’re crazy. I’m always bitchy when I wake up in the morning. I’m always too straight in the morning for my own good.”

“Why don’t we get high then?”

“That’s the best idea you’ve had all day, even though it sounds like you already are, making up this shit about Pepperland.”

“It was just to cheer you up.”

“Thanks,” like she meant no thanks. “I still like your idea about getting high.”

Getting up, Laurel took some pills that were lying on her dresser and then took out a joint from a little enameled jewel box. She was naked and beautiful in the faint light that came through the curtains. She brought matches and a big ash tray to the bed and a red velvet cushion to sit back on. Looking at her, I thought of Peggy Lee singing “Is That All There Is?”

After a few tokes of the joint—it was from the same batch of opium-dipped grass we’d smoked the night before—I was already high.

“I feel much better,” Laurel said when we finished the joint. “Now I don’t really give a damn about anything.”

I put my fingertips on Laurel’s stomach and she laughed.

“What do you think you’re doing?” dreamily.

“I saw the word laugh lying on your stomach. I nudged it and it crawled up to your mouth.”

I didn’t see it.”

“I don’t know how you could have missed it. It was purple, and crawled up to your mouth just like this.” I put my hand on her stomach and crawled up it with my fingers to her mouth. She put my fingers into her mouth one at a time and licked them, then kissed my hand.

When Laurel let go of my hand, I ran it along her side down to her leg. We put our arms around each other and pulled close, and when we made love, it was like in a dream that floated on laughter and was much better than the night before.

Afterward, we cuddled up to each other and kissed for a while, and looked into each other’s eyes without speaking.

Finally, Laurel said, “I have to go down to L.A. this afternoon. I’m going to try out for that part in a movie tomorrow. Why don’t you come with me?”

“Sure, I’d like that. I’ve never been down there before.”

“I’m going to get up and get some champagne and strawberries for breakfast,” sitting up and smiling dreamily. “That’ll just hit the spot.”

Until the middle of the afternoon we stayed in bed. We smoked dope, drank champagne, and talked and talked. We got into kidding arguments about what albums to play. If she tried to get up to play something I didn’t want to hear, sometimes I’d pull her back down and we’d wrestle until we were both laughing so hard I’d let her get up. Or she’d say she’d given up and that she’d play the album that I wanted to hear, then get up and play the album she wanted to hear instead. When Laurel’s phone rang, she didn’t bother to answer it. When I asked her about it, she laughed and said she couldn’t think of anyone she wanted to talk to. Somehow, don’t ask me how, we managed to get up and get ready to go to L.A. I was in no kind of shape to drive, but I wasn’t worried about it. Laurel brought along a good supply of dope and fired up a joint about ten minutes after we started out.

I hadn’t met anyone since Jack who used so much dope. I saw her take or heard her talk about taking acid, Quaaludes, cocaine, mescaline, speed, hash and THC, not to mention large quantities of white wine and the marijuana heavily dipped in opium that we were now smoking, and that, for the moment at least, seemed to be her drug of choice.

At first the drive seemed really weird to me. I got paranoid, I thought everyone on the sidewalks was staring at us malevolently and that someone was going to call the police. My paranoia got worse the farther we went, like with each person we passed the danger increased. When we went down a hill, it felt to me like we were on a roller coaster, and I felt queasy. Even the buildings didn’t seem right. Sometimes the pastel houses seemed like they were bending or melting like soft clay in the sun. I was sweating, and I guess Laurel could tell I was nervous, because she moved close to me and tried to get my mind off things.

“Just pretend we’re two Middle Americans, two members of the Silent Majority—me a housewife and you a feed salesman-taking a second honeymoon down to the Big Sur. We’ve left the kids behind and we’re looking forward to some very passionate sex. We’re driving in our Buick with the air conditioning on high and some nice Mantovani on the radio.” We were actually listening to Janis Joplin. “We both voted for Nixon in the last election and like the job he’s doing. You’re bragging about some big feed sales you finagled lately, and I’m talking about a divine recipe for soufflé I got from Aunt Matilda the other day. You’re fat and bald and wearing a gaudy pair of Bermudas and a Hawaiian shirt. I’m getting fat in the ass and I dyed my hair bright red because you said redheads really turn you on. I’m wearing a frumpy pair of slacks and the tacky floral shirt you gave me for our anniversary. We keep thinking about tonight and finally I get carried away and unbutton your shirt so I can rub your pot belly like this,” as she unbuttoned my shirt and rubbed my stomach.

“We’re more like a dope peddler and a call girl trying to beat town before the cops catch up with us.”

“I just can’t wait, so I go ahead and unzip your pants.”

“Take it easy, will you?” laughing but a little uneasy. “Remember, I’ve still gotta drive this thing.”

“I just couldn’t hold back,” exaggeratedly, and she zipped me back up.

As we drove through the crowded suburbs south of San Francisco, the dope wore off some and I started to feel better. Not good, but better, good enough so that I felt I could handle the road without driving off a cliff or running head on into another car. By the time we got south of the Monterey peninsula away from heavy traffic, I felt fine. We got on Highway 1 and drove down the coast. Sometimes the ocean was close to the road and sometimes it was far below us, down a cliff. We kept the windows down, and when the water was close we could hear the waves break against the rocks and smell the salt air. Laurel even got pretty quiet for a while, speaking only once in a while or humming along with the music (we’d changed to a classical music station by then). For a while, she put her head on my shoulder and appeared to sleep. Then she sat up and asked me to stop somewhere along the ocean. We were driving along a stretch where the water was a long way down from the road, but I stopped at a place where Laurel thought we could walk down. I had my doubts, though, when we got out and took a look.

“How in the hell do you expect us to get down to the beach from here?” I said. “Do you expect us to fly or what? If you do, I think we’d better smoke some more dope first, so that we’ll be sure we can fly.”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Laurel said. “I think I see a place where we can get down OK.”

It was tough, but we were able to climb down the rocks to the beach, even though I was carrying a blanket. It was really nice when we got there. We were in a small inlet on a beach scattered with huge, jagged rocks. On the side opposite the ocean, all we could see was the cliff we’d come down and the sky. Sunlight sometimes shined through the mist and reflected on the beads of water that shot up where the waves crashed against the rocks, which in one corner made a little rainbow.

“Well, this is a fine mess you’ve got us into, love,” Laurel said, glancing up at the top of the cliff, imitating the pose and voice of Oliver Hardy. “We may be trapped down here forever. Now I’ll never be a star,” sighing. She stuck her bottom lip out and made a big frown.

“You’ll be a star, all right. You can star in all the shows you want for me. Maybe I’ll even start a fan club.”

“There isn’t any food down here. We’ll just have to eat each other three times a day.”

“I’d love it.”

“All right. How’s this for openers? I’ll do some impressions and you try to guess who I’m doing.” With a sexy walk and gestures she started out, and said, “Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” then went on to do Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis and Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara. The impressions were really good and it was easy to recognize all of them.

When Laurel finished her show, she pulled a joint out of her pocket and we smoked it and another joint. Before long I was sky high again. Then it really seemed like we were in a strange place. The cliff behind us seemed much bigger, like it would be impossible to scale, yet I didn’t care. Laying down on the blanket, the sand felt like water to me, like I was moving up and down. The breaking of the waves became almost hauntingly slow and clear, and I watched carefully the bubbles and froth of the waves as they crawled up the sand. The droplets of water coming down on me felt wonderful. I looked through the mist at the clouds, which looked like cotton candy stirring uneasily. For a while Laurel and I didn’t talk, until I put my hand on her stomach and moved it slowly in circles.

“How daring do you feel?” she said, turning over on her side toward me.

“What do you have in mind?”

“I was just thinking how great it would be to fuck down here.”

I sat up a little and leaned back against my elbows. I looked up to the top of the cliff.

“Are you crazy or something?” dreamily amused. “Just as we got started some family of bureaucrats would probably pull up and decide they want to come down here to look for seashells. Then think of the pickle we’d be in.”

“We wouldn’t get caught. We’re ten thousand light years from anywhere. Maybe if I do a strip tease you’ll get in the mood.”

Getting up, she walked a little way and turned her back toward me. She unzipped her frock and slowly took it off down to her waist, then turned to face me. With a look of overwhelmed desire, she held out her arms and kissed the air, then stepped out of her frock and panties and threw them on the sand. She did a sexy dance, and now I was definitely in the mood. On the blanket she lay back down. We kissed and I undressed, and listening to the waves roll in, we made love. Later, we got up and joined hands and ran down to the surf. We laughed as we fell into the icy chill of the water, and we could see our shadows on the sand as we came out of the water and walked up the shore, stopping to kiss as the sun set in orange and crimson at the edge of the sea.

I don’t know how we ever got back up the cliff. I can hardly imagine it. Even though we did, though, we didn’t make it to L.A. that day. It was too late and we were just too out of it. Laurel called up the producer who’d scheduled her screen test and told him she wouldn’t be able to make it by morning. She told him her car had broken down on Highway 1 on the drive down from San Francisco, then put on a tearful acting job that could have won her an Oscar to talk the guy into rescheduling it—though I couldn’t imagine her acting job fooling anyone who actually knew her. After talking to the producer like her world would cave in if she couldn’t get the screen test, she laughed the moment she’d hung up the phone, saying, “I don’t even want the part that much. I just wanted to show you how good an actress I am.”

After picking up about a case of rosé and some junk food at a party store, we got a motel room at a rundown resort, and then I don’t think we came out of the room for a couple of days. We got drunk and smoked dope and finally passed out on the bed. When we woke up—I didn’t have any idea what time—we started drinking and smoking dope again, and took some uppers. We danced around the room to this 40’s music we found on the radio and took a long, hilarious shower together. Though we munched on cheese and crackers and summer sausage, and Laurel downed a couple of bags of licorice, we drank enough so that we didn’t get hungry much. Sometimes we turned the music up loud and probably would have been kicked out if there had been anybody else in the rooms around us.

Everything became a blur after a while, and then I just remember waking up, hungover bad, my mouth like bitter, dry sand. I got up and got a drink of water, then went to the window to try to figure out what time of day it was, and seeing it was dark but having no idea whether it was eight o’clock at night or five in the morning. From the side of the motel a spotlight shined onto the parking lot, which was nearly empty, but everything was quiet and the shades were drawn tightly on all the other rooms that I could see. My head was pounding, and I was still a little high. I went back to the bed and lay down. That woke Laurel up. She frowned a little when our eyes met. She really looked beat.

“You don’t look too good,” she said, smiling crookedly.

“I probably look better than I feel.”

“I guess you Midwestern boys can’t handle the wild way we live in California.”

“Hardly.”

“What’s wrong, John?”

“I can’t explain it.” Laurel frowned. “Don’t you ever get sick of being high or drunk all the time? Of living this life?”

“Oh, no. Where have I heard this before?”

“I don’t know. Why in the hell don’t you tell me?”

“The world’s only going to last about fifty more years, if that. Everything’s so fucked up. So who in the hell can care about anything? I live for now, and I celebrate the world’s being so fucked up by staying fucked up myself.”

“That’s just an excuse. If you knew the world was going to last a million more years, you’d just think of another reason to be fucked up all the time.”

She looked at me curiously and then started to laugh.

“You know who you remind me of?” I didn’t reply. “Billy Graham.” She laughed hard—though she was faking at least some of it—and I couldn’t help but smile a little, then she rolled over onto her other side facing away from me and stopped laughing. I took a cigarette from the pack I’d left on the end table beside the bed and lit it. I smoked thoughtfully. There was complete silence.

“Forget what I just said. I don’t know what in the hell got into me.”

The Righteous Brothers’ “Ebb Tide” started playing in my mind, with its bittersweet melody, and I remembered dancing to it with Mary Anne. Her head was on my shoulder, and she was dressed in a long pink dress with an orchid corsage, and she looked up at me lovingly. “Ebb Tide” still played in my mind as I remembered being at a Detroit Tiger baseball game with my father and my brother. Al Kaline hit a homer, and the crowd looked like thousands of balloons with faces painted on them. Then I remembered building a sand castle on a beach, humming contentedly, and it made me laugh contemptuously. Laurel turned around.

“Is there something wrong with you?”

“Yeah, I’m crazy.”

She looked at me disgustedly and turned back away. I eventually went back to sleep, and when I woke up again, the sun was up and Laurel was up getting ready to leave. We finished the drive down to L.A. that afternoon, got ourselves a room at the Wilshire Hotel, and the next morning Laurel went to the studio for her screen test. She didn’t get back until almost nine o’clock that night, and by then I was really fed up with hanging around the hotel. She said the screen test took longer than she’d expected—she didn’t know yet whether she’d got the part or not—but she acted somewhat drunk, so it didn’t seem likely that was the only place she’d been. A couple of minutes after she got back she got on the phone and made a bunch of phone calls. From the way she laughed, you’d have thought she was talking to the Marx Brothers. Once I thought she was going to fall off the bed from laughing. The calls went on for a long time, and the longer they lasted, the more pissed off I got. I suppose I knew our fling was going to end before long, but I was too uncertain about what my next move would be to walk away before she made a fool out of me. She finally finished making her phone calls and turned to me.

“I’m going to a party. You want to come along?”

“What in the hell else do you think I’m going to do?”

“Well, I don’t know. You don’t have to get pissed off about it. I thought I should at least ask before I dragged you along.”

“I’d like to go.”

“All right. Remember that I won’t be able to spend all my time at the party with you, though. I have lots of friends here.”

“So it seems,” rather sarcastically.

“Let’s get dressed and go.”

“I’m already dressed.” I had on blue jeans and a T-shirt.

“Not for this party, you’re not,” laughing. “They wouldn’t even let you in the door dressed like that.”

“I’ll get on the phone and order a tux then.”

“Come off it. The way you were dressed at Dave’s party is good enough,” looking me over and twisting her mouth, as if she were thinking it would be impossible to make me look really chic, but what would have to do would have to do. She dressed in a tight lavender mini-skirt and a silk shirt with big flowers on it that she left unbuttoned about half way down.

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