December 16, 2011

Reading time min

Hildy had long, thick hair of a rich red color, keen blue eyes, and skin that was pale and flawless. These were her best features, the ones people noted first to avoid mentioning that she was a woman of some size. Not enough to cause comment in most places, but Hildy lived in Los Angeles, a city that she secretly suspected of having body-fat monitors at the airport and bus stations and highway mountain passes, used to help weed out the zaftig before they entered the city limits.

Hildy had a broad, pleasant face. She rarely smiled with her teeth showing; people assumed she had braces. Her name was short for Hildegard, and was the same as a fast-talking, glamorous character from an old movie Hildy liked. Hildy herself was not, generally speaking, good with words, nor glamorous. She looked about 30.

She was not an actor. She was a lighting technician, in film and theater. Every day she wore a clean black T-shirt with black jeans and black sneakers, the better to move around in the wings without being seen. Her glorious hair usually was twisted up in a bun with a pencil. Around her waist she wore a belt that held a flashlight, wrench, utility knife, tape and cell phone in individual holsters. In this respect she looked no different from the other technicians, but thanks to the belt and the color of her hair, which was similar to that of an actress in an old superhero TV show, Hildy had acquired the occasional nickname Bat Girl.

Despite her size, in the dark Hildy moved like a cat, never misstepping among the tangles of cable and rigging, able to climb nimbly up ladders and vanish into the shadows high above the stage floor.

She was very good at her job. Lighting designers and cinematographers never failed to be impressed at her evanescent creations of light and shadow. Homely actors, their plainness usually hidden from the public by phalanxes of stylists, bloomed under the lights she focused on them. Hildy herself was particularly proud of how she was able to duplicate the warm, buttery sunlight of a summer morning, about 10 a.m. in the mountains.

Because of her skill, Hildy had her pick of jobs, and chose ones that shot at night or only on interior sets. She felt awkward and bulky unless indoors, in the dark, her pale skin going wan under the unrelenting Southern California sun. If anyone cared to look, she almost appeared ill in the daylight, as if it hurt her.

The women who called themselves Hildy’s friends saw her as a project. “Sweetie, this is not helping,” they scolded through mouthfuls of corn chips that they would find in Hildy’s cupboards.

“Bat Girl, you have to remove temptation,” they counseled while licking chocolate frosting from the cupcakes she kept in an airtight plastic box on the countertop.

They didn’t seem to notice that Hildy herself never seemed to eat anything, although her kitchen was always full of the things they routinely denied themselves and secretly craved. Glossy photographs of classic movie stars covered all the mirrors in Hildy’s home. For motivation, her friends reasoned. After all, didn’t Marlene Dietrich have her back teeth removed to make her face thinner?

Hildy lived in an apartment in a lovely old Mission style apartment building dating from the 1920s. There were high ceilings and hardwood floors, and the building was home to at least two famous scandals of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The neighborhood could charitably be described as colorful, but Hildy’s block was peaceful and safe. Drug dealers had once moved into a shabby old house across the street to set up a methamphetamine lab. A string of break-ins started on the streets around Hildy’s, and two drive-bys sprayed the neighborhood with freely careening bullets. Terrified of the lean, angry men who lived in the house, no one reported anything.

Abruptly the trouble stopped one day. Some time later the police showed up to the house in response to a smell reported by the mailman. Inside, the dealers were all quite dead, pale where rot had not yet set in. They apparently had turned on each other, the floor glittering with fragments of shattered mirror. Their throats had been torn out. There was very little blood.

The coroner’s assistants had seen worse. A bad batch of meth, they reasoned, plus possibly animal predation. Coyotes, maybe.

“How horrible!” Hildy’s friends chirped over sugary sodas from Hildy’s fridge. “I bet that happens a lot around here,” they said, and nodded hopefully. Hildy assured them that it did not. They seemed disappointed when further grisly acts failed to materialize outside Hildy’s charming mullioned windows.

Hildy’s friends believed such an apartment was wasted on Hildy and her ever-changing collection of tropical fish. She had no boyfriend that anyone could recall, nor a girlfriend for that matter.

Upstairs lived Anthony, a costume designer, who was sick. He had over 50 pills that he had to take every day, and occasionally was too weak to work, but Anthony was one of the lucky ones. Many of the men and boys he knew had already died, from the same disease poisoning his blood.

Anthony pulled no punches, having decided that life was too short to be polite. “Those bitches will suck you dry,” he said with a sigh to Hildy, passing her friends on the front steps as they were leaving, their hands still sticky with cinnamon crumbs.

But Hildy had long ago learned to take friendship where she could. Sometimes she’d sit on her patio (“Look at the size of this patio! Think of the parties you could throw here!” her friends would lament to each other) and sing songs to herself, quietly, but not quietly enough to not be heard by Anthony upstairs, sketching with his colored pencils at a drafting table by his open French doors.

The songs were sweet, and sad, in a language he didn’t recognize, but his mind called up images of mountains far away, sharp, craggy, hard mountains, with jewel-like valleys of villages between, lights sparkling against the night. Anthony would shiver, but not be able to stop listening.

He could always tell the sketches he drew while Hildy sang. Those were the designs the directors raved about; that the costumers did their best work on, that actors did their best work in. “They’re just so right,” Anthony’s thrilled clients would say, smiling. “So true to the story. To the vision. So true.” One design, a delicate wedding dress sketched as Hildy hummed a rare cheerful melody (one fish had just given birth), had helped win Anthony an award.

Hildy’s current job was on a new TV show, one that aspired to be hip and funny and which featured a young, beautiful cast. In this respect it was no different from a dozen or so other shows on the air, but this was the newest entry and so had an air of freshness reflected in the reviews and ratings. The producers were giddy with praise, and a lavish Halloween party up in the Hollywood Hills was scheduled.

Three of Hildy’s friends were in the cast. The girls were thin and tan and enjoyed gossiping to Hildy. They lived in constant hope that she would reciprocate, knowing that she, as most crew members did, had access to some of the best dirt there was. But Hildy would just smile, lips closed, and shake her head.

The day before the party arrived, and Hildy revealed to the trio that she had no plans to go.

“But you have to! We have a great idea for a group costume!” The blondest one said. The three girls always spoke as a unit.

“It’s kind of a superhero thing. It’s a theme!” the strawberry-blonde said.

“We think it’ll be cool, Bat Girl. Comic books are retro-hip right now,” said the brown-blonde one, who due to her hair color felt pressure to be more serious and intellectual than her companions.

“We’ll send it over tomorrow. You’ll look fabulous,” the blondest one said.

They were not particularly talented actresses, and Hildy did not miss the smirky little smile they exchanged. Hildy was not stupid.

Halloween made Anthony sad. Most holidays did; he missed his lover. Lonely in the gathering dark, he pounded on Hildy’s door, a jack-o-lantern in hand. He nearly dropped it when Hildy opened the door.

“Those bitches,” Anthony whispered.

Hildy stood before him, squeezed miserably into a caped outfit of purple spandex, the shoddy material, unforgiving, cinching her ample body into rolls and bumps. A belt strained around Hildy’s waist, a bat embossed on the cheap plastic buckle. A mask with tiny bat ears covered her face and gorgeous hair. “Those. Skunk-mean. Cunts.” No longer a whisper.

It didn’t matter, Hildy told him. She wasn’t going.

“Not in that, you’re not,” Anthony fumed, and seized her by the hand.

Hildy had never been inside Anthony’s apartment before. She didn’t like going to other people’s homes and seeing the small, mundane objects of their lives. Their shoes, spoons, framed pictures of the dead. How precious and ordinary and fragile, she would think, sorrowful. People never remember that in time they will be a dead face in someone else’s frame.

But Anthony knew this about himself, and didn’t care that his home was full of pills and too many such framed pictures. It was also full of Mardi Gras beads, African drums, fresh fragrant roses, movie posters and overstuffed brocade furniture that looked like it too had been in movies. Hildy liked Anthony’s apartment.

Anthony fussed at a dressmaker’s dummy, then stood back. “It’s for a new opera. It’s for the Vampire Queen.”

The gown was deepest blue silk, almost black, the sleeves scalloped like wings and intricately embroidered in silver, alight with jewels that Hildy knew were plastic but which caught the light like the diamonds they were supposed to be. It was the most beautiful thing Hildy had seen in a very long time.

“It’ll look fantastic with your hair. Try it on.”

Hildy had seen enough movies to know what Vampire Queens were supposed to look like. They were slender and dark-haired. Poised. Delicate.

“Bullshit,” growled Anthony. “Vampires are from Central fucking Europe. Have you ever seen women from Central Europe?”

Hildy had.

The dress fit. (“Of course it fits! How many size-2 sopranos do you know?”) Hildy stroked the fabric of the skirt as Anthony brushed her hair until it gleamed.

“You’re a vision,” Anthony said, simply. “See?” He flung open the closet door, behind which was a full-length mirror. Startled and alarmed, Hildy said something then, sharply, but he didn’t understand the words.

That was the last thing Anthony remembered before awaking on his couch, the doorbell ringing. A goblin in search of candy. Hildy was gone.

Hildy’s friends from the TV show were at the deejay-loud, mobbed party already. One girl was dressed as a cat in tight leather, another in a star-spangled corset, the third in a blue teddy with red boots and little red cape. They were annoyed, drunk with male attention and pink vodka. Hildy was late. “We’re supposed to come as a group, that’s the whole point of a group costume,” they whined to the disinterested bulk of the hired security guard.

Hildy found them inside the mansion’s vaulted main room, or rather they found her, turning in confusion at the awed murmurs and parting crowd.

Hildy strode in, regal, head high, wearing the exquisite gown as if clothed in the night sky itself. Her hair cascaded down her back like flame. She was magnificent, suddenly the only woman in the room.

“Hildy?” one of her friends ventured.

Hildy raised her arms, the winged sleeves unfolding, and began to sing. And as she sang, she smiled.

Hildy, her friends learned, did not wear braces.

Later, the police had no idea what to make of the reports. People talked of seeing monsters. Actresses who knew they were lovely appeared pocked and diseased to their companions. Men who lived extravagant lifestyles, denying themselves nothing, saw themselves in the mansion’s leaded mirrors as grasping, clawed beasts, dressed in tattered and rotted finery. Darker animals were uncloaked: the addicts and criminals and child pornographers, suddenly appearing as their true selves.

In the panic and madness, fights erupted, windows were broken. No one was quite sure just when the house caught fire.

It seemed insane to the police that someone could be singing in the midst of all this, but that was the one thing all the reports had in common, although no one could recall who it was. The police chalked the whole mess up to bad acid and set about calling lawyers, rehab centers and, with not a little pleasure, the press.

“So bombed they couldn’t even remember if it was a woman or a man singing,” one police officer chuckled to another as she dialed.

Hildy walked down the front steps of the mansion, leaving it burning behind her in the night, crazed party guests fleeing the fire or their onetime friends or themselves. She flicked some ash off her skirt that had settled there from a smoking upper floor.

She realized she wasn’t singing alone. Another voice had joined hers, a man’s. He knew the words, the old words. He was tall, and broad, some would say heavy-set. His face was pleasant but unremarkable. He was the security guard. He looked like he was from Central Europe.

They regarded each other with surprise and recognition.

His name was Walt, short for Walter, a character from an old movie Walt liked, a man who was suave and handsome although Walt knew he was neither. Like Hildy, Walt wasn’t an actor. He was a bouncer. He worked at night.

Hildy’s friends don’t come around much anymore. Hildy doesn’t mind; she has a new roommate and a new double-size fish tank.

While the apartment building’s management company initially frowned at these changes, a note from the landlord quieted them. If anyone cared to look, the handwriting of the note is the same as the signature on the original lease from 80 years ago, and both curiously similar to Hildy’s own.

Sometimes she and Walt sit in the shade of their patio, the windows open, and sing quietly together, songs she had forgotten she knew.

Anthony’s mantel groans with awards.

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