Private Eye

THE MAN BEHIND the Venetian blinds never knew whether it was sunrise or sunset. He would wake up in his leatherette armchair, or on the ratty sofa he kept for naps. He would wake up next to his soft pack of cigarettes, his pint of bourbon. He was waiting.

He had been told a leggy blonde would strut in, distressed. He was to wait here for her. She would be sure to come in.

In his idle moments sitting with his feet up on the desk, he imagined what the leggy blonde would look like. Maybe she'd be wearing a red jacket and matching pencil skirt, a broad-brimmed hat. Maybe a black Chanel dress. Maybe she'd be wearing a perfume named for one of the many flowers of the Los Angeles hills – a night-blooming jasmine, a wisteria, a frangipani. Something musky, maybe, something European, he'd think, the American who'd never set foot in Europe. She'd be having trouble with her man, nervously twirling her cigarette holder. He'd be there to get her out of a jam. He'd come to investigate at her house up in the hills, a dark house with mullioned windows covered in ivy. Whether he'd leave with his dignity intact was another story.

Still, he patiently waited, swigging bourbon from the pint, exhaling smoke into the air barely stirred by the languorous metal ceiling fan as he parted the Venetian blinds. He picked up a trumpet, not to play it. He picked up darts, not to throw them. And he stared through the frosted glass on his door, his name in gilt lettering on the outside, the light from the hall cast through, his name printed in reverse in shadow on the filthy carpeted floor.

The winter rains raged outside, sudden, sending mudslides down the canyons.

When did he last have a client? Was it the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty?

Hell, when had him and Juanita divorced?

When did he last leave his office?

The only person he could remember talking to as of late was Bobby Chin, the lanky kid who delivered Chinese from his family's restaurant. They talked in the hall, he shared his bourbon, they'd flick their cigarettes, leave burn marks on the hardwood. “Got that new Pontiac you've been talking about, kid? Finally got Mabel Wang into the backseat?”

He'd go back in, eat his pepper steak or his fried rice in 10 minutes flat, and then pass out, only to wake up again to a sunrise or a sunset, the takeout box and chopsticks cast to the side, wondering why he'd never cleaned up the spilled beer over by his file cabinet. Smelled like shit.

There had been the times he'd gone to the Rexall, to the A&P, wondering if any of the women passing him were the leggy blonde he was supposed to be looking for. Without fail, none were. The California sunlight glared in his eyes.

He felt the leatherette of his chair, the veneered wood and the threadbare mohair of his sofa. He felt his socks padding across the burned carpet, the ash and grease beneath this fingertips. His fingers had a sense memory. The softness of Juanita's cheek in the morning, their thin curtains fluttering in the sea breeze. The curvature of his waist as he wrapped his arms around her as she rolled out tortillas on Sunday afternoons. And nowadays, the dull feeling of his cock in the mornings.

And in the half-light he wondered if he smelled night-blooming jasmine.

But then he picked up the bottles and takeout containers and emptied the ashtrays and put them in the paper bag from the Rexall or the A&P and took them to the garbage chute, and all he could smell was the scent of rotting vegetables wafting up through the black shaft.

He would return. The sunlight had shifted from orange to purple. If he squinted he felt he could see the ocean, over the new skyscrapers of the new downtown of this new city. Over the old, parched desert hills, where there were lemon groves until just a couple weeks ago, where now there were efficiently planned bungalows, bits of Cape Cod saltbox and Hudson Valley Dutch Colonial replacing the manzanita and the prickly pear. Displaced architecture for displaced people – the janitors and set designers of the new Golden West. And then, finally, he imagined the sand-swept streets of Venice or Santa Monica that ran down to the crashing sea, piers and girls posing in their swimsuits, legs crossed identically, arms draped identically, the one in front blowing a kiss to the cameraman.

But of course he couldn't see it.

He blinked into the distance, where the smog settled. The fuzzy brown partition where the horizon should be.

And he finally threw the bourbon bottle at the wall, watching it shatter and dribble its remaining inch of brown liquor down the painted drywall. He fell to his knees, as if in prayer before an altar, for a minute, before slumping down entirely, his cheek against the carpet.

His face pressed to the floor, he would see the light filter in from the hallway outside, barely illuminating the carpet. He could see a line of stiletto heel marks, as if someone had walked in and out, in and out again, pressed into the carpet, as delicate as a fawn's hoofprints in freshly fallen snow.


Andrew Fowler is a Middle America-born, Bangkok-raised writer and editor. The Seattle writer screams into the void at Subject/Object (