LOS ANGELES, 1935
The Chateau Marmont
The splinter of reflected sunlight in the drop of water that clung trembling in the breeze to the thin blue nylon of a swimming costume just at the spot where it stretched tautest over the apex of the mound of Venus of a redhead in tortoiseshell sunglasses who lay smoking a cigarette on a reclining chair beside the oval swimming pool of the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard: that was Loeser as he stood in his under- pants at the window of his hotel room on the morning after his arrival in Los Angeles. He, too, hung in that drop of water, every parameter of his lust encoded in the coefficients of its surface tension, quite ready, if it dried up in the sun-doubled skin-heat, to dry up with it. Then the redhead noticed him and he dived out of sight so fast he nearly twisted his ankle.
Had Loeser ever had sex? He supposed he probably had, but the memory was by now so dim that he almost wondered if in fact someone else had just described sex to him once and he'd gradually come to miscategorise it as an experience of his own, as one sometimes does with incidents that took place in childhood. At this point he couldn't quantify his sexual frustration any more than he could weigh his own brain. Perhaps it directed everything he said and did. There was no way to be sure. It was too much a part of him. Unlike his penis, which he now regarded as a sort of ungrateful hitchhiker, a fatuous vestigium.
He sat down on his bed. Since he couldn't go back to the window for a while, he decided he might as well set the clock to Midnight at the Nursing Academy. Although he hadn't intended to stay more than a short time in Paris, he didn't like to be separated from the photo album even for a day, so he'd taken it with him when he left Berlin and now it had unexpectedly come with him all the way to America. Last night he'd checked into the hotel so late that he hadn't bothered to unpack, so it would still be in the suitcase, which lay unfastened on the floor beside the bed like a drunk passed out with an open mouth, hidden there between his second-favourite white shirt and his third-favourite white shirt.
Except he soon found that it wasn't.
In a state of overflowing panic not unlike the one that had accompanied his loss of Adele Hitler at the corset factory all that time ago, he flung item after item out of the suitcase until there was nothing left to fling, and then he started clawing idiotically at the suitcase's inner corners. It was gone. But he was sure he'd packed the book that last afternoon in his steamship cabin. And he was sure he hadn't taken it out of the suitcase since then. The only time he'd lost sight of his travel- ling companion was when he was going through customs at New York Harbour, just before asserting in a questionnaire that he was not insane, leprous or syphilitic, that he did not live by prostitution, and that he had no intention of assassinating the President of the United States.
They'd stolen it. The custom officers had rooted through his luggage like organ harvesters through a torso, just as they were entitled to do, and found the book, and then instead of reporting it as contraband, they'd stashed it in a locker, to take home or sell on. He should have bribed someone. And now it was too late.
Loeser had owned Midnight at the Nursing Academy for nearly seven years. He'd had a far longer relationship with the delightful women in that book than he'd ever had with any human female. He knew, by heart, like a poem, every beckoning expression, every obliging pose. He often felt he owed it his sanity. The loss of it was unthinkable, somewhere on the scale between a wedding ring and a first-born child. He would definitely be willing to assassinate the President of the United States over this. Or at least forcibly infect him with syphilis.
Trying to stay calm, he smoked a cigarette, got dressed, and left the hotel. Outside, on Sunset Boulevard, a bungalow sat in the middle of the road. At first, Loeser couldn't work out what he was seeing, and then he realised that the house had been jacked up on to a steel frame and attached to a flatbed lorry. As the lorry turned a corner, one corner of the house's beige tiled roof had snagged on a telephone pole, and now two men in overalls stood beside it, arguing about what to do, as a queue of cars built up behind the surreal blockage. What were the penalties, Loeser wondered, for being drunk in charge of a family home?
Even in this part of Hollywood, where exhaust fumes hung thickly around the palm trees, Los Angeles smelled unnaturally good. Loeser didn't understand it. The whole city felt like an apartment for sale, which the estate agent had sprayed with perfume just prior to a viewing. The sun here was strange, too. You found yourself locked in a staring contest with the daylight, waiting for it to blink, but it never did. Meanwhile, there was both a remarkable clamour of signs and advertisements on every building and a remark- able proportion of pedestrians mumbling to themselves as they went past, as if nothing in this nation was capable of holding its peace.
From The Teleportation Accident, by Ned Beauman. Copyright 2012 by Ned Beauman. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing.