Chapter 18. Why Our Young People Are Being Kidnapped
The subway part of the ride was endless and depressing. I kept shuddering and saying to myself, Well now that was one dismal little visit. Was Kem seriously inviting me to go see her in L.A., or was that merely an empty pleasantry, one she knew I was unlikely to follow up on. I kept circling back to Hornblower. Did she really want to go over to Gay Street and say hello? The more I thought about it, the more I thought she did. It was just so unlikely and repellent an idea. For me, Hornblower was mainly scary and repellent. He carried a cloud of loserness around with him, like a virus. He’d drag you down into loserdom if you didn’t get away in time. Kem got away in time. She thought of Hornblower as harmless and amusing. Even lucky, like a hunchback. I decided I’d phone her late tonight, after she got home. Or maybe tomorrow, Saturday. But what would I say? You can’t just call someone up and say hello and you want to come visit. No, you need some news to pass along. I would have to go look up Hornblower first.
This didn’t take long. I happened to be on the dock the next day, and ran into some of Hornblower’s boys. Now, these boys were not actual Keen Teens, but rather the lower orders—the dockboys, the streetkids—the hangers-on who sat around Hornblower’s bed smoking dope while we Quality Folk sat at the table and grandly traded new concepts in educational kiddie shows (or more likely pretended to listen to Hornblower’s grand concepts). When the dock boys spotted me they ran up excitedly and asked if I’d seen “the head.” Not far from the end of the dock, a police boat had supposedly just pulled a severed head out of the water. I missed this, but offered the bored opinion that it was just a wax dummy-head, like the one Alfred Hitchcock made of himself for Frenzy. The dock boys said, No no no, it’s some mob guy who ratted to the Knapp Commission. Somebody we know knows him—he used to run Dancing Danny’s!
The dockboys were scum, but I was flattered that they remembered me as one of the would-be stars in the Keen Teens fabulosity. I cozied up and accompanied them to Hornblower’s ground-floor shoebox on Gay Street. As usual, there were at least a dozen people there. Hornblower hadn’t seen me in five months, but didn’t register any surprise at having me suddenly turn up. Of course he was very intoxicated.
The dockboys started to regale everyone with their tale of the floating head, while I pooh-poohed on them from great heights. “Knapp Commission!” I laughed. “How could you possibly know something like that?”
“Oh she’s just pissed off because she wasn’t there,” snickered one of the dockboys, a curlyheaded chatterbox now leaning against the wall by the entrance and getting very high on Hornblower’s grass. “It was just this far away—you could touch it almost. If we woulda went and gotten a long stick, a broomhandle like, y’know, for instance. We coulda fished it out before the police woulda got there.”
“Fine words, fine words,” said Hornblower, flicking the lever on his Smith-Corona electric portable. “And what would you do with it?”
“What would we do with it? Oh I know, Carl,” said the other dockboy I’d walked back with. He was from Minneapolis or thereabouts and accordingly wore his hair in a blond shag-do. “We could stick it the top of a pole. Yeah. Worship it like Lord of the Flies!” Carl had a lungful of smoke when he heard this, and coughed it out, redfaced, in laughter.
“Lord of the Fliiies!” Carl laugh-coughed, grabbing the wall and nearly falling over.
“Lord of the Flies?” said Hornblower. “Good title. That was movie?” He was making notes on a scratch pad, the tip of his tongue thrust out the corner of his mouth.
“Book first,” I said. “By William Golding. Then a black-and-white movie.”
Lord of the Flies. Hornblower moved his lips, mouthing the title. “Ooh! Movie with little naked English booys running around on desert island? Oooh, yes, I remember. Really dug that booy who was head savage. Could really get into him.”
Carl opened his mouth with a smart answer, but the blond shag spoke first. “We actually saw a seagull come and pluck out an eyeball!”
“You did not,” I said.
“Sour grapes,” said Carl. “Admit it. You missed the head.”
“Do we have to discuss this?” I said.
“Sour grapes, sour grapes,” the dockboys both chanted. They were merry, not vicious. If they’d had enough room, they would have danced in a circle. Instead they beat their feet on the floor.
Hornblower raised his hand. “Miss Parker is simply being Proper Young Lady,” he drawled. “What you booys don’t understand. Ladies don’t care for that sort gruesome tale. They too mature. Truth be known, Young Ladies grow up twice as fast as Young Men. So our Sallie’s tastes—much more advanced.”
He gave us a grin, big and unctuous so everyone would have the option of taking the remark as ironical. Then he fixed himself a nice big vodka-and-cranberry-juice drink from the bottles he kept by his feet.
Truth be known, Hornblower couldn’t understand why females were put into the world in the first place, other than filling the obvious need for primary school teachers, domestic servants or (very occasionally) wealthy patrons. Mystified by the existence of Ladies (as he called all females), Hornblower believed it important to be extra polite and deferential to them. Ladies had secret powers at their disposal. They had instincts and intuitions that arose out of the unplumbed arcana of the womb and all that stuff. This is why witches were always Ladies. It was bad luck to cross a Lady. This was all ancient folk wisdom. It bubbled up through the mud-smeared, superstitious masses of the Dark Ages, and became codified into such traditions as Etiquette and Chivalry. Hornblower had learned all this history from his parents; they were public-school teachers.
But back to the conversation…
“You say girls get older faster?” This was Carl, the curlyheaded dockboy. “Yeh, I noticed 40-year-old women always look twice as old as their husbands. But I heard that was all because women didn’t shave.”
“Ooh. That is true. That could be true,” said Hornblower. “Shaving beard every day keep skin fresh. That how Hornblower keep dewy complexion.” He ran a hand gently over his own bony, pockmarked jaw.
“I read an article about that in GQ,” said Carl.
“Ehhww—GQ!” Hornblower made a face as he lit a True blue.
“What’s wrong with GQ?”
“GQ just advertising medium for closet faggots. Why you read that junk?” said Hornblower. “Gentleman’s Quarterly! What gentlemen? Little ribbon clerks working the cologne counter at Saks? Right, that’s who reads GQ.”
“That’s a pretty fascistic value judgment, Hornblower,” said a small-boned young man who half-sat, half-leaned on the windowsill. He was older than the others, with short hair and a soup-strainer moustache.
“Oooh nooo,” said the Shag, mimicking Hornblower’s voice, a singsong twang that somehow mixed Duluth with the Ozarks. “Don’t read magazines, don’t read books! Nooo, be like Horny and dress like Sears catalog.”
“Not true, not true,” said Hornblower, taking the mimicry like a good sport.
“Did you ever read a book, Horny?” asked one of the youths sitting on the bed. Hornblower read very slowly and tended to move his lips. Even dockboys abused him for this.
“Truth be known,” said Hornblower, “Hornblower read lots of books in college. L’Etranger by Albert Camus. In Frrrench.”
“What, Classics Illustrated?” said the blond. Hornblower reached out to stroke the blond shag’s chin. “And you, Andrew, do you shave yet? I like it when a boooy has just a hint of peachfuzz.”
The shag pulled back with a blush. “You pervert,” he said.
I had estimated a dozen people when I came in, and now I silently counted them. Counting Hornblower, me, and the two dockboys I came with, we had fifteen. It really was remarkable how many bodies you could squeeze into that little Cinzano ashtray of a flat. It was a tiny, wedge-shaped “studio” apartment that had been carved out of this 1820s townhouse fifty or a hundred years ago. The flat had exactly one window, facing a courtyard; it also had a genuine wood-burning fireplace. Together the window and fireplace took up most of one wall. The double bed took up half the floor space.
I was still near the entrance, leaning against a sort of bulkhead that divided the kitchenette from the doorway. The boys were either sitting on the bed or were jammed up close around an L-shaped plywood table that Hornblower had built himself and which now took up most of the space between the kitchenette and the bed.
“How goes the kiddie business?” I asked.
“Better than ever. New name, new cast. I will show you.”
He pulled out a black ring binder with a carefully lettered card on the spine: Romulus’s Rebus.
“I like the name,” I said. “I like ‘Romulus’s Rebus.’ Much better than Ampersand or YouthQuake and those other weird titles. Getting back to your game-show roots.”
“Game show! God-damn. Why everyone think it’s a game show? Not game show. Panel show.”
“Like Quiz Kids,” I said.
“Like Quiz Kids.”
I guessed what was in the binder, and I was right. Two sheets of typewritten description (“A lively, intelligent, discussion-and-panel program for the curious and demanding 11-to-15-year-old market”), followed by five or six headshots of adolescent boys.
“And here is my star,” said Hornblower, stroking the first headshot. “This is Eustace. Isn’t he darling. Only fifteen. Even money says he’s the next David Cassidy.”
“Eustace! But I know Eustace,” I said. “He’s got a rock band. We met him and his mother in Rhode Island.”
“No no. Not Rhode Island. That was Pawtucket Eustace. This here is Princeton Eustace.”
“But he looks exactly the same.”
“Probably the hair. Long hair makes boys all look alike. Like girls. All young ladies look alike because of the hair. Why I prefer boys with shorter hair. Hair shouldn’t cover ears.” Hornblower stroked the hair in the headshot, as though to push it behind the ears.
“Oh Miss Sallie! Need female opinion on Patty Hearst. You been following this Patty Hearst story?”
“Mostly I’ve been following Kohoutek.”
“That’s gone! You missed it, bitch. Too late!” yelled a very stoned boy on the bed, to appreciative laughter.
“What a fucking loser name, Kohoutek,” said Hornblower. Give us a name people can remember. Why not Kissinger? The Henry Kissinger Comet. Oooh! That hot idea.”
He scribbled on the scratch pad. Inspiration filled his face. “See, they have trouble in foreign countries, about to start war. Then Henry Kissinger Comet comes overhead and they make peace. Would be cartoon drawing, face of Henry Kissinger on comet. Very topical.”
“You’d have to hire an animator to make the cartoon,” I said. “That can be expensive.”
“No, no animation. Just picture of Kissinger face on comet. A still picture.”
“I don’t get it. Where is the story?”
“No story. It recurring conceit, like on Andy’s Gang. ‘Pluck your magic twanger, Froggy!’ You remember that?”
“Probably before my time,” I said.
“Older people will get it,” said Hornblower. “The kids’ mothers.”
“You’re making the show for kids’ mothers?”
“Mothers are important,” Hornblower insisted. “Mothers often choose children’s viewing fare.”
“In what alternative universe is that?” said Carl.
“Maybe you should aim the program at an older audience,” I suggested. “Say: Romulus’s Rebus—toothy intellectual fare for that hard-to-reach 30-to-55 year-old market segment.”
“Nooo, no thirty-to-fifty-five. My specialty strictly young people’s television.”
“So where does Patty Hearst come in?”
“Hunh? Why you now onto Patty Hearst?”
“You were asking me if paid attention to the Patty Hearst story.”
“Oh. Yes. Patty Hearst very topical. Just inspired me with a new concept. Sit down. Hearken to this.” I squeezed into a space at the end of the bed, hard up against the edge of the table. Hornblower took the paper out of his typewriter roller and read aloud:
WHY OUR YOUNG PEOPLE ARE STILL BEING KIDNAPPED. Americans have short memories. Every new abduction of celebrity offspring is sensationalized as heinous once-in-lifetime event. We examine forgotten kidnappings and strange disappearances, including Ambrose Bierce, Aimee Semple MacPherson, and Judge Crater.
“Our young people?” I laughed. “How did Judge Crater get in there? Ambrose Bierce? Aimee Semple MacPherson? What made you think of them?”
“My vast body of knowledge.” He put a bony finger to his temple. “Wrote questions about them. Remember, Hornblower formerly head writer for The What’s It All About Game.”
“And a prestigious position it was,” I said. “My point is, they’re not young people.”
“Ambrose Bierce and the others!”
“Aren’t we nit-picky! Miss Sallie just not getting it. Idea is, we take Patty Hearst thing as jumping-off point, just a conceit. Why we–” He lit a new True blue, staring into the middle distance for a long time before going on. “Why we having so many kidnappings all of a sudden. That is the question. Last year, the Getty boy. This year, Patty Hearst. Before that, people only know Lindbergh. Most people, when they think of kidnapped, think only of Lindbergh baby. That is what kidnapped means to them.”
“Or Robert Louis Stevenson,” I said.
“Why Robert Louis Stevenson?”
“Kidnaped. You know.”
“It was a book. Like Treasure Island,” volunteered the small fellow on the windowsill.
“Oooh,” said Hornblower. “Little joke. Hmmm. Maybe we can do comedy sketch where Patty Hearst abducted by pirates.”
“Yo—ho, yo—ho!” the boys in the back sang. “A pirate’s life for me!”
“But what I want to know is, are they going to cut Patty Hearst’s ear off?” said Carl the dockboy.
“Yeah, how did they cut off the Getty boy’s ear?” said someone on the bed. “The news never explained it. Did they use a scalpel? Did they drug him out or hold him down?”
“You are grossing out Miss Sallie,” said Hornblower.
“Kitchen knife,” I said.
“That sounds pretty bush-league,” said one of the boys in back.
“That’s how kidnappers are,” I said. “He was probably just watching TV in the living room. The evening news. It was in Italian, but he knew enough Italian to follow it. And the kidnappers are in the kitchen. They say, ‘Hey John! Yo, Giovanni,’ whatever. ‘Come in here, we want to show you something.’ And that’s when they did it.”
A good five seconds of silence followed.
“How you know?” said Hornblower.
“You talk like you were there,” said Carl.
“It’s just an idea,” I said.
“Were you there?” Carl sounded serious.
“Let’s not talk about kidnapping anymore,” said the dockboy with the shag-do.
“Okay, let’s not,” said Hornblower, cleaning the screen in his brier pipe. “What about the Weyerhaueser boy? Lumber fortune out west. You’ve heard of Weyerhaueser?”
“When was all this?”
“Oh, back in the Thirties, I think. Weyerhaueser boy is sort of thing young people need to know about. Sort of valuable information I want in the new show.”
Hornblower opened a flat green Lucky Strike cigarette tin, one of his many stash boxes. The Lucky Strike tin was where he kept the high-quality after-dinner stuff, too good for mere joints. He began to load a few pinches of marijuana into the pipe. “Who’s up for a little dope?”
Two joints had gone around in the previous fifteen minutes, but now Hornblower lit up and passed the pipe to the dock boys, then slumped languidly at his table, one arm stretched out before him to bring his heavy white Ricard ashtray a little nearer, fingertips of the other hand caressing the old-fashioned glass full of cranberry-and-vodka, a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. Hornblower’s classic pose for this time of day. Dazed, lopsided, looking not quite sure where he was. I suddenly thought of Oscar Levant.
“What Miss Sallie thinking about?” he said, catching my eye.
“Oh, just this old game-show panelist guy from when I was little.”
“Was he kidnapped?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then he no good to me. Anybody here know Oscar Levant?” No answer, but someone handed him back the pipe. “See, Miss Sallie. Hornblower not only one here with knowledge too rarefied for average mortal. Rarefied. I just read that word yesterday and looked it up.”
“How soon does Romulus’s Rebus tape its pilot?”
“Oooh, any day now. Video studio begging me, offering me free time! They miss the Keen Teens. All Romulus needs now is proper cast.”
“But you have all those nice headshots.”
“All well and good. But we still need Ladies.”
“Oh of course.”
“You got some?”
“Oh, I’m . . . sure . . .” I said, and made my exit.
Now, wasn’t that a nice visit? I had plenty to report to Kem. Or maybe I didn’t. Hornblower hadn’t changed a bit. This was almost a rerun of my very first encounter with Hornblower, one year before.