To say goodbye is to die a little. (Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye)

 

California: 1947

THE FIRST time I laid eyes on Ed Malory, he was being rolled by three drunks in the chapel of the seaman’s mission on Fromsett Street. The first and tallest of the three held him against the wall while the other two, their hands surprisingly deft—considering—delved into his pockets and relieved him of his valuables. When they were done with him, they let go, and I watched as he slid gently down the wall. He didn’t make a sound.

“Are you drunk?” Since I’d noticed all of this, the least I could do was speak to the poor bastard. “Mind you, I’m not judging if you are. I just thought you might need some help.” He seemed young—I saw that immediately—almost ridiculously young and tender-looking, until you saw his eyes. Those eyes had seen plenty. I reached out a hand to help him up, and he accepted. “In a pretty bad way, aren’t you?”

He sneered. “Really? What gave it away?” He was dressed in the most astonishing assortment of cast-offs—baggy tweed trousers and a pinstriped coat, a ragged shirt that had been white once, and a pair of scuffed brown wingtips. “I don’t need your help.” He reminded me, even then, of a medieval knight errant: bereft of luck and a long way from home, his armor much dented by the vagaries of life.

“Oh, I beg your pardon.” I made a show of dusting my hands. “Happy landings, old chap. See you around.” And I turned on my heel.

“Wait.”

I turned back. “Yes?”

“This is a mission for drunks.” He nodded at the sign over the makeshift altar at the front of the room. “What are you doing here?”

I smiled. I couldn’t help it. “Surely a clever chap like you can put it all together.”

He squinted at me, the sort of look I knew he’d been practicing in the mirror. “You?”

“Two very nice policemen brought me in after I’d fallen off a streetcar. Landed quite literally in the gutter.” It was my standard line, the one I used on everybody, mostly because it worked. “But stick around. They serve a cracking good Sunday dinner here.” I stuck my hand out, but he didn’t take it. “Tony Leonard. Some people call me Tony Lionheart,” I said, and hastened to add, “It’s a joke.”

He’d been sleeping rough and he smelled like it, so as soon as possible, I got us both away from there and home to my apartment. The fact that I lived in a posh flat over in Westwood amused him. He roamed about the place in his fumbling, drunken way, commenting on things and touching them, lingering jealously (I thought) in front of my books. “I thought you were a drunk.”

“You thought correctly.” I gave him one of my thick bathrobes and sent him to the shower. While he was gone, I kindled a fire in the fireplace and burned the clothes he’d been wearing. We weren’t exactly the same size, but something of mine would do until other arrangements might be made. I found a suit of clothes, a shirt, and socks and underwear I’d bought but never worn. I laid all these out in the spare bedroom, and while I waited, I mixed a couple of martinis: three shots each of Tanqueray, a dash of bitters, the obligatory (well, from my end) sprig of rosemary because I’m so bloody superstitious and no Englishman would dream of leaving the rosemary out of a martini. I’m not exactly an Englishman, but still. I shook the whole thing over ice and was just distilling it into glasses when my knight appeared, wrapped in my white bathrobe and a becoming cloud of steam. I handed him the drink and steered him to the sofa. “Just a snifter, old thing, to keep you from falling to pieces.” I raised my glass and winked at him over the rim. “Cheers.”

He quaffed most of it at one go, clearly experienced in the bibulous arts, and held his glass out for another, which I readily supplied. I had no real idea why I was doing this—any of it—except he seemed to need me, or need somebody. My thoughts must have showed on my face, because he asked, “Why am I here?”

By now I’d moved back into the kitchenette and was busy shaking Tanqueray and bitters into a second drink. “Don’t you remember?”

“Yes.” His voice was suddenly behind me, and I turned, startled. He took the drink I handed to him. “Not what I meant, though.” He sipped the martini and made some small noises of satisfaction. “I’m nothing to you. You don’t even know me.” He took a deeper swallow, the tightness in his face loosening its hold. “You do this sort of thing all the time?”

“Not usually,” I lied. I tried to keep my voice level, my tone pleasant, but I could feel my control slipping. They aren’t supposed to ask why. They’re never supposed to ask why. The fact that I do it ought to be enough. Be their savior, Tony. Be the one who drags them out of the same gutter you’ve been rolling in. See if that stink will wash off. “You impressed me as a special case.” I suddenly wanted him out of my apartment. This had been a mistake. Wonderful technique you’ve got there, Tony, I chided myself. Brilliant way to go about a seduction. Is this what you’ve been doing all these long months, rescuing drunks until you find one good enough to fuck?

“Why me?” He laid the empty glass down on the counter. His eyes were very, very blue—big eyes, wide and long-lashed, the kind of eyes that Innocence would have in some allegorical French painting. He wasn’t as young as I’d initially suspected. He’d have to be at least thirty-five, perhaps even forty—closer to my age. “I mean, a guy your age—” He must have seen my expression, for he stopped abruptly. “That’s not what I meant.”

“My hair, you mean.” I started to touch it but let my hand drop halfway there. “Because…. Of course. It’s a natural assumption.” I was losing him. I was going to lose him because I hadn’t explained myself appropriately. “I… had an accident.”

“Car crash?”

“Something like that.” Not exactly true, not even close to it, but he didn’t need to know. “Immediately afterwards it started to grow out like that.” I laughed, albeit not very convincingly. “The doctors couldn’t quite explain it.”

I mixed another round, and we talked in a desultory fashion about everything and nothing. By that time the drinks were done. The sun was coming up over the hills, and the big, angry city stirred itself to life again. I walked him to the curb to wait.

“Have you got a name?”

He blinked. The dawn was rose and gold, tinted a darker pink at the horizon. The hills appeared purple against it, like a row of empty houses left standing in a vacant street after some catastrophe had passed. “Ed Malory.” He did shake my hand then.

He left in a taxi. I imagined I would never see him again.