Brussels

by dm gillis

The crows flew in that morning from the wrecking yards, a black mass low over the estuary, blocking the sun, landing inky on the rooftops and perching like judges in the trees. It wasn’t until later that I realised just how wrong it was, the cocking of a thousand eyes to see what shined.

The man in the seersucker suit and pencil mustache arrived in the back lane in a black chauffeur driven Continental shortly after I opened the garage sale, at 8:00 a.m. He wore thick-framed horn rimmed glasses with dark lenses, and smoked cigarettes with gold foil filters. My neighbour, the ageing Mrs Faulkner, had arrived a moment before him, and was rummaging through crates of old first editions.

“I’ll take that box,” he said to me, pointing to an old Miller Beer crate behind him. He had an English accent and a hazy charm. His chauffeur stepped forward to fetch and carry the dusty old box away.

“But you don’t even know what’s in it,” I said.

“How much?” he asked.

“$10.”

He handed me a fifty, and told me to keep it.

The box disappear into the trunk of the car, as the man began to browse. He smiled fondly as he picked up pieces to view them, occasionally holding one at arm’s length and grinning warmly, then replacing it reverently on a table. As he browsed further, he approached the place where I’d set up a table and a stool for myself. On the table, there was a locked display case containing jewellery.

He stopped there, and asked, “May I?”

“Yes, certainly.” I rummaged in my pocket for the key.

When opened, the man reached into the case and took out a man’s ring in a ring box with yellowing satin. He seemed to stand straighter with it in his hand, holding it up for the sun to glint off of the green stone in its setting. There was some momentary memory of contentment in his expression, and something else. He removed the ring from its box, and placed it on his left ring finger, then held his hand out again.

“There you are,” he said. “I’ve finally found you.”

“You’re not from around here, are you?” I said. The words had slipped out before I could contain them.

“No,” he said, turning round to look at me. “I’m originally from Bristol, England, but now I live in Los Angeles. Does it show?”

“No. I’m sorry. It’s none of my business.”

“Nonsense,” he said. “Isn’t that what a garage sale is for, besides the redistribution of wealth, I mean. Aren’t they for breaking the ice, getting know one another?”

I noticed a longish pink scar on his right cheek. He touched it with his finger and turned away.

“It’s a very long way to come for a garage sale,” I said.

“Yes,” he agreed. “But there was some word of it in my little circle. The last chance at some very nice old pieces from a more splendid past.”

“But this is Vancouver,” I said. “How could there be word of it in Los Angeles?”

Without answering, he placed a hand on one of two wooden chairs. “You know these are Chippendale, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, sheepishly.

“Rather a low price for such precious items.” He pointed to a card attached with masking tape. $20, written in black felt pen. “Fire sale prices, I’d say.”

I shrugged.

“It’s how he wanted it, isn’t it,” said the man, sitting down on the chair. “Malcolm was a grand old eccentric.” He pulled a flask out of his jacket pocket. “Have a nip?” he said, offering it to me first.

“No. Look, who are you?”

“Oh, just a shameless Hollywood hanger-on.”

“But it’s obvious that you knew my Uncle Malcolm, somehow.”

He suppressed a laugh, and took a belt from the flask.

“Forgive me,” he said, holding up a hand. “But to hear him referred to as Uncle Malcolm….” He shook his head, and took off his dark glasses.

His eyes were a pale blue. Now I noticed his age, his carefully disguised frailty.

“You knew him well enough to care about what’s left, to come all the way here to look?”

“Much of this we shared, my boy. At least for a time. I haven’t seen these pieces in decades, but it’s like yesterday.”

“I don’t understand?”

Malcolm Pierce had died three months before, at ninety-five years of age. In his will, he’d asked that many of his material possessions, the ones not inherited by friends and family, be disposed of in this way, out of my garage. He’d specified it be …an informal event, without hoopla. And that it be held out of my nondescript home, where the unknowing neighbours could shop the oddities and buy them for cheap, before any of the Hollywood death-savvy eBay types could get their meat hooks into them.

Everything was sent up UPS from California, with an inventory and his absurdly low set prices. Sending it must have cost a fortune, but he’d been a moneyed man.

“They were together,” said Mrs Faulkner, who had come over to listen in. “He and Malcolm. At least that’s what the gossip magazines hinted at, back then.” She was beaming. “This is Timothy Colt,” she said, then held out her hand. Timothy Colt took it gently for a moment.

“A pleasure, my Lady,” he smiled.

In Mrs Faulkner’s other hand was a book, entitled Brussels, which had come from the boxes of first editions. She opened it, and on the back flap of the dust jacket was a picture of a much younger version of the man now sitting in the Chippendale chair.

He looked up at me, his face, for the moment, hard and grim.

“Yes,” he said, “That’s what they hinted at. And even the godawful gossip magazines got it right sometimes. Of course, it never occurred to me that I’d finally and absolutely be outed by a darling old lady at a garage sale.” He grinned.

“Oh dear!” said Mrs Faulkner. “I’m sorry. We, I mean everyone, always assumed it was true, and that you’d already been outed.”

“Yes and no,” he said, “as things go. Nothing was ever confirmed; why should it have been? I’m a writer, which made me suspect. Gossip and hints were all we had back then, all anyone needed. They were enough to inform the sympathetic and the cruel. There was much ambivalence in between, of course.”

“Would you?” said Mrs Faulkner, holding Brussels forth. She produced a pen and offered the novel to Timothy Colt.

“With pleasure, ma’am. What is your name?”

“Beatrix,” she said. Like him, she seemed to be holding back tears.

Timothy turned to the title page, and began. “To Beatrix, with my greatest regard,” he said as he wrote. Then with a flourish of the pen, he said, “Timothy Colt.” Then handed back the book.

“Oh, thank you.” She held it to her bosom. “I read it in 1955,” Beatrix Faulkner said. “When it first came onto the shelves. It’s so beautifully written, so tragic. I read it three times, the first time in two nights. Naturally, I did it secretly. It was scandalous, even dangerous. And I was just a girl working in an office.”

“Scandalous?” I said. “Why scandalous?”

“It was a romance novel, my boy,” Timothy said. “But with a twist.” He gave me a wink, his grim look now gone. “How it ever got published in 1955 remains a mystery. And the screen adaptation…! That remains the greatest mystery of all.”

“I think I know the answer,” I said. “But tell me all the same. What was the twist?”

“Two lovers,” he said. “Or, perhaps not lovers at all. I left that to the reader to decide. Although in retrospect, I think I may have made it impossible for the reader to come to any other conclusion. It takes place in postwar Belgium, hence the title. The protagonists, are both men. The critics were torn. Unwritten reviews praised it. The written ones did not. Literary critics know upon which plate their dinner is served. I blame no one.”

“They treated it like smut,” Beatrix said.

“Yes, they did,” said Timothy. “And of course I was immediately labelled a communist, and blacklisted. But I had a very enduring ally.”

“Uncle Malcolm,” I said.

“Indeed. He was one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters, at the time. And I was young, and talented, if I do say so myself. Also rather handsome, some said. Malcolm took me under his wing for more than purely literary reasons, and I acquiesced without much thought. I was lonely in Hollywood, and predisposed. He arranged for us to meet for lunch one day, and the rest is rowdy history.”

“So he wrote the screen adaptation of your scandalous novel?”

“We did it together, partially in an MGM bungalow on the studio lot, but mostly in his house just outside of San Diego. We began in the autumn of 1955. By spring of ’56, we had Otto Preminger interested in directing and producing, and there were whispers that United Artists might distribute. The film would never receive the Hollywood Production Code seal of approval nor MPAA certification, we knew that much. But I was convinced, in a childish way, that its being made in Hollywood was incidental, that its meaning and intent was far greater than the studio Machine.”

He paused, sighed and brushed something invisible off of his knee.

“We even had Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift,” he said, sadly. “All hush hush, obviously. Poor Monty. Poor Roy. The moments when their characters would have touched were never to appear in the script. That’s how adaptations are, and it was my duty as author of the novel to protest. But my protests were only token ones. I smelled success. Maybe I should have said more.”

“And you and Malcolm were in love,” Beatrix said, a statement that might have been a question. She was in love with the idea, for her own reasons.

Timothy twisted the ring on his finger. “Perhaps I was,” he said. “I wasn’t a boy, but I was an innocent. How could I know what I felt? He was much older. Which was more grease for the gossip wheels.

“We got the script as far as the read-through room, where everyone sits round the table and simply reads their parts aloud, without acting. Rock and Monty were there, and Preminger, and some of the money people, along with a very stern looking man and woman who sat at the back of the room. When Otto saw them walk in late, as a hired actor read the opening narrative, he sighed deeply and looked over at Malcolm.

“The man and woman listened chastely to the read-through, and took notes. At the end, they stood and left without a word.”

“Who were they?” Beatrix said.

“The censors, of course. Censors were everywhere, back then. There were more censors in Hollywood than aspiring actors. Otto told us to take heart. That he’d pull strings. So we waited a week, and then the whole production was shut down.

“Your Uncle Malcolm went into a rage when he found out. We were living together by then, in his house in San Diego. It was a lovely, very brief, very romantic time before the censors banned the script.

“When we got the news, he drank and raved for a week. I had no idea he was capable of such behaviour. He’d considered the Brussels screenplay to be a masterpiece, and it was banned by petty bureaucrats, he said. He became violent with the servants. One day when I tried to console him, he beat the hell out of me! Can you imagine? And in my naivety, I went back to try to comfort him.”

“And he beat you again,” I said.

“And a little more.” He put his hand to his scarred cheek. “I know that this all must be very difficult for you to hear,” he said.

I had no opinion. I’d only met my uncle once, at Christmas in my parents’ home. I was seven years old. He seemed very grand to me, a king in a throne, even though it was just my father’s L-Z-Boy. The family talk was that he was a great but troubled man, prone to outbursts and melancholy. I recalled that he smelled like cologne and Canadian Club. After dinner, when he’d had too much to drink, he gave me an American $5 bill, and sent me on my way. I never saw him again, except in the papers, and then in his obituary. It was a 1960s stock studio photo of an unsmiling man, from the waste up, sitting in a chair, wearing jacket and tie, holding a pipe in his hand. The photo told me nothing about him.

“All copies of the script were held onto by MGM,” Timothy said, “before and after the read-through. They were studio property, after all. Malcolm managed to rescue them from the incinerator, though. He knew people: a receptionist, who knew a secretary, who knew the sister of an associate to the assistant producer, who knew a studio page, who knew the custodian who had wheeled them away toward destruction.

“Once secured, he brought them home, and put them in an old beer crate labelled Miller. Then after his breakdown, he forgot about them.” Timothy Colt stopped there, looking round him. Then he closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

“I moved away,” he said, looking again at the gem on his finger. “Not wanting to live through a similar heartbreak. In a last effort to hold on, he gave me this ring at a special dinner at the Dal Rae. “Eighteen karat gold,” he said, holding out his hand. “And an emerald of exquisite clarity. A gem of finest water they would have once said. Not too big, not too garish. But I know it cost him a small fortune. It’s just right, isn’t it?”

“It’s a very fine thing,” Beatrix said.

“I didn’t accept it, naturally. It would have meant going back.”

“Yes, I imagine it would have.”

“How much for it now?” Timothy said to me. “And don’t say you’ll give it to me for free, under the circumstances.”

“He priced it at $25.”

Timothy thought a moment, sighed, and then said, “I guess that is its true worth. Like any abusive lover, he had always maintained that I abandoned him. Maybe I did. It all depends on how one measures such things.” He placed some bills in my hand.

“I used the money I earned from book sales to return to Berkley,” said Timothy, “to get my master’s degree. I’ve taught there and written novels ever since—but that’s common knowledge, quite boring.”

“Ten beautiful novels,” Beatrix said. “One of each is in the boxes on the tables. Each one well read, judging by their condition. He must not have given up on you, completely.”

“You’re a love,” Timothy said, and gently squeezed her arthritic hand.

“So, in a way,” I said, “this entire inventory is yours.”

“No no. I have what I came for, the scripts in the trunk of the car, and this lovely ring. Who could have known that two small purchases could resolve so much. I have a wonderful home to return to. And at the end of the day, a few small memories are more comfortable than many grand ones.”

He gave me back the box the ring came in.

“Dispose of that, will you? I won’t be needing it.”

The crows in the trees and on the roofs flew away in a great dark cloud shortly after Timothy Colt was driven away in his Continental, and I made a gift of the two Chippendale chairs to the misty-eyed Beatrix Faulkner.

 

 

 

 

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