It was raining in Los Angeles that evening, an omen of some magnitude out here. Sort of like Friday the thirteenth, I imagine, in other places. I saw her as soon as I walked into the bar of the Peninsula Hotel, long strands of lustrous auburn hair barely touching her shoulders, looking fashionable as ever in a navy blue suit. That sudden flush feeling rushed to my cheeks and then down to a pang in my stomach. In some ways it was like stumbling across a snake in the woods. Of course, I'd never exactly thought of Delia that way, although she sure had me snakebit once. She was in deep conversation at a table with two guys and another woman and didn't notice me. I made my way to my table to meet Toby Burr, the movie producer, wondering if one of those two guys was Delia's new husband.
I could tell that this was going to be a power night at the Peninsula, which had in many ways replaced the old bar at the Beverly Hills Hotel after it closed two years for renovations. Groups of producers, directors, actors, and even a genuine movie star or two sat leaning over mahogany tables sipping drinks in the dimly lit room, deep in conspiratorial-looking powwows. The bar itself was loaded two-deep with the usual assortment of Zsa Zsa Gabor look-alikes, and other wannabes or wanna-meets occasionally turning around to scope out the table crowd and decide how to position themselves when a good-looking girl or guy got up to go to the restrooms. It was a ratfuck, but at least some of the right rats were here. Burr was at his usual table in the back by the gas-log fireplace, which flickered invitingly even in summer. As usual, he didn't rise, just stuck out his hand.
"Why, old Johnny, you look a little pale. See a ghost?"
"Maybe I did," I said, sitting down. "See that girl over there?" I nodded discreetly as possible to Delia's table.
"Why," Burr said, peering, as usual, very indiscreetly, "that's Delia Jamison, the TV news babe. What about it?"
I don't know why, but Burr reminded me of Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Blvd.
"Old flame," I said. "Haven't seen her in person in maybe fifteen years."
"What, no--still carrying a torch?" Burr asked with great insensitivity, but he was still a good enough friend to get away
"A candle, maybe. She still looks terrific, doesn't she?"
In fact, I hadn't really thought about Delia much during all this time, but some people always affect you no matter what. I'd known Delia in another life almost, but obviously she'd been lurking in the shadows of my "lizard brain," that dark primordial thing at the base of your neck.
"Better even in person," Burr remarked coarsely. "It's refreshing at my time of life to see a truly beautiful woman of, shall we say, 'a certain age.' "
But Burr was right. Delia seemed to get better looking as the years went on. Nearly two decades earlier in New York, when we'd been an item, I remember thinking she was one of those women who would probably "wear well." But then it was over between us and she was gone--until one day, about a year ago when I arrived back out here to start writing another movie, she suddenly resurfaced as lead anchor on a big L.A. network affiliate. Flipping around the dial one night, I was flabbergasted to see her face, looking right at me, as if she were speaking to me, personally, with those deep green eyes twinkling and her wide lush Deborah Norville lips mouthing out some local news story. I didn't catch a word of what she said; just sat there, shocked.
"By the way, Johnny, looks like you could use a drink," Burr offered. He summoned a waitress.
"Thanks," I said. "Just a white wine, please."
"You're not off the scotch, are you?" Burr asked.
"Wonderful. Open a bottle of Sonoma Chardonnay Reserve, ninety-five," Burr told her.
"Must have been quite an affair," Burr observed. "Why didn't I ever hear about it?"
"It was over before your time," I lied. A half lie. By the time I met Burr, the thing had fallen apart, the really passionate part of it, but there had still been some hollerin' left to do.
"You seem a little distracted," Burr said. "Want to go someplace else?"
"No, Toby," I told him. "What's on your mind?"
An hour later Toby Burr still wasn't finished with his spiel. I sort of knew what he wanted before this meeting. I was already doing a doctoring job on one of his scripts, but now, as I suspected, he wanted me to do an adaptation of a book he'd bought about some guy who almost loses his wife over a horse race bet. I'd seen in the trades that Toby had acquired the property, a big best-seller by some million-dollar typist. It was the sort of movie I did with Toby years earlier, when I'd just left the newspaper business to come out to Hollywood and make my mark as a screenwriter. Now I'd done that beyond my wildest expectations and I didn't need anymore to do some script about any goddamn horseplayer and his flaky wife. But Toby had given me my start twenty years ago and while I have a lot of faults, ingratitude isn't one of them. I told him to send me the book. It would have been a hell of a lot easier for me to just go to the bookstore near my hotel and buy one, but producers and directors like the idea of having such things delivered over by liveried limo drivers. To motion picture moguls, I suppose they somehow think such gestures make it all more real.
Still sipping on the first glass of wine, I turned slightly to see if Delia was still there. Not only was she, but she was staring directly at me with the loveliest expression of astonishment and joy on her face. At least that's what I thought I saw. We locked eyes for a moment and I finally gave a little wave. Not much, barely lifted my hand off the table in recognition, but she picked up on it with a big toothy grin that gave me another stomach pang.
Burr said something and I turned back to listen, but my heart really wasn't in it. For me, seeing Delia again brought to mind old Rick, in Casablanca, encountering Ilsa in his establishment for the first time since, well . . .
"Why don't you come up to Santa Barbara with Sarah and me this weekend?" Burr asked. "We could sail up the coast for a bit and talk about the screenplay--that is, after you've read the book."
"I don't think so this weekend, Toby. I've got some cleaning up to do on another project and I have to get back to New York by the end of the month. My doorman's getting tired of walking my dog." I glanced slightly again toward Delia's table and was wrenched to find she suddenly wasn't there, though the others still were.
"You don't want to be in L.A. this weekend, you idiot! It's Labor Day. Nobody stays in town on Labor Day."
"Only us laborers," I said. I had an urge to turn again to see if Delia might have returned. Maybe she had just gone to the ladies' room. . . ."
"I've got a great girl up there I'd like you to meet," Burr was saying. "She's a producer at Warner's. Smart, young, pretty. She just moved in a couple of doors down. Graduated from Smith too," he added gratuitously.
"Does she talk like thihihiss?" I said sarcastically.
I was expecting some equally innocuous retort from Burr; instead his eyes were riveted above and behind me and his mouth was sort of dropped open. At the same time I felt a touch on my shoulder.
I turned a final time and there she was. The great Delia Jamison, in all her five-foot-ten-inch glory. I felt my heart race a little but tried not to show it. Despite what should have been my better judgment, I was genuinely glad to see her.
"Johnny, Johnny," she said in a firm, studied, mid-Atlantic accent I didn't remember as being natural to her. "I can't believe it's really you!"
"You were expecting Al Pacino?" I said stupidly.
"Well," she breathed happily, "I can see you haven't changed a bit." But she smiled broadly and bent down to give me a hug as I tried to rise up politely, and this time I thought she meant it. I honestly did.
"Listen," Delia whispered in my ear, "I have to get back to my table now, but they'll be leaving in a bit. I just can't get over it that you're really here! Can we have a drink when you're finished?"
"Absolutely," I said. "Let's just keep an eye out on one another."
When she had gone, I said to Toby, "Pal, I'm going to need a little privacy in a few minutes. That okay with you?"
"Of course," he said, "although my feelings are quite hurt," and then he leaned across the table and said in a hush, "Look, Johnny, it's probably none of my business, but I can sort of feel this gal is eating at you a little. Trust me like a father. I don't need my screenwriters distracted. Keep your guard up, huh?"
"Sure, Toby," I said, "but it wasn't necessary for you to tell me that." In fact, it was, and afterward I wished he'd put it more strongly.
So," she said, "tell me all about you."
Delia had settled into Toby's leather-seated banc opposite me and was leaning across with her breasts resting on the tabletop. Even in her conservative suit she was as inviting as I ever remembered. For a moment I thought she was going to reach out and take my hand, but she didn't. Instead she ordered a scotch on the rocks.
"Well, it's been a long time. I wouldn't even know where to start." And that was true. What was it, fourteen, fifteen years now?
"Oh, I know a lot about you already," she said. "I followed you in the papers and television and everywhere. I watched the Academy Awards last year. I was so proud of you, Johnny. I cried when you won."
Another pang. Here was somebody who had once hurt me as bad as I've ever been hurt, and now she's crying when I win some tinhorn statue? But Delia could be that way. There were times, when she wanted to, that she could make you feel like the only man in the world. I reminded myself of that, and also that she was a married woman.
"That was an aberration," I told her disingenuously. Actually, winning that silly little prize was the highlight of my career--at least as a movie writer.
"No, it wasn't," she said. "It was wonderful. Don't say that."
Well, she had my number there again. It seemed like Delia always had my number. She hated bullshit, and she knew it when she saw it. In fact, she had one of the best built-in shit detectors I've ever known, although sometimes it needed to be retuned.
"Well, it didn't hurt my career," I told her, trying to wriggle off the bullshit hook, "or my pocketbook." In fact, on that movie I'd managed against all odds--or at least my talent agency had--to wangle a contract for gross points in the show. Few as they were, I wound up with nearly eight million dollars in royalties. Of course, the IRS stepped in and took their half, but it still left me pretty comfortable.
"Otherwise," I said, "I've been doing okay. Lots of work thrown my way nowadays, but I can pretty much pick and choose now. I'd still like to get into another novel, though. No matter how great it appears on screen, script writing is still hackwork. It's the actors who make it real."
"But what else?" she asked. "It's been how long now--ten years?"
"Fifteen, I think." I wished I hadn't said that the moment it rolled off my tongue.
"So what have you been doing besides working?" Delia asked.
She had a way of always being able to smile when she spoke and it made her quite beautiful and appealing. The smile was sort of downturned, but it was one of the loveliest smiles I can remember. She had a rather long, angular face with high cheekbones and peaches-and-cream skin through which, in sunlight, you could barely see tiny blue veins. A patrician face, even though she came from good, and I'd always assumed, rich, Midwestern stock.
"Not much," I answered.
"What about women?" she said. "Are you . . . ?"
"I was for a while. It lasted about three years. She was a decorator in New York, but, well, I guess I could blame it on business, but that's probably not it. I guess it was my fault. Too much social life, I suppose."
"Well, as I remember, you were always pretty social," Delia said.
She was, or at least she had been, paradoxical about all that herself. Even though she had grown up in Kansas City, I'd understood she came from a pretty social background, private schools and so on; from that old-line stock whose principal activities always seemed to revolve around money, horses, and an expertise in ballroom dancing--even if it was Midwest style. But Delia wasn't always into that. She was a product of an era when, even among those hometown girls I knew, shunning a formal debut became the "in" thing to do. Sure, she could dress up and go to cocktail parties and dances with the best of them, and half the guys at the New York Racquet Club, or the Brooke or the Century, slathered over her. But she often blew all that off. It was my impression in those days that with the kind of dough her family had, she could have ridden in limousines, but, in New York, when I knew her, she'd usually take the bus or subway, and not even cabs except at night. Good old Midwestern practicality maybe. And intriguing.
"I don't do much social stuff anymore," I told her. And at least that was true. I'd sort of had my fill of it. I kept a place in New York--sometimes I wondered why--but I preferred my other home up in the mountains of Virginia, a private and beautiful spot where the trout fishing and grouse shooting were superb. As a southerner, I certainly felt more at home there than in L.A. or New York and would parole myself as much as possible to go south again.
"Do you still have your place in New York?" Delia asked, as if she was reading my mind.
"Not the one you'd remember."
"So where do you live there now?"
"At the Carlyle," I told her.
"Oh no," she laughed. "You've become so fashionable!" I couldn't tell if she was kidding or not.
"And so what kind of car are you driving now?" she asked.
I knew she'd asked that because when we'd been seeing each other in the old days I drove a gigantic red Cadillac sedan that my friends referred to as the Pimpmobile--this while everyone else our age had the politically correct small cars that became popular after the gas crisis of the late 1970s.
"A Mercedes," I told her.
"Oh, Johnny," she said, laughing again. "I'm disappointed in you. I thought you'd always be kind of different."
"Well," I said, "if it's any consolation, this Mercedes is special and, for what it's worth, it's bigger than the Cadillac."
Delia kept laughing about how I was a Mercedes man now and it was still the great laugh I remembered. Somehow I was getting more comfortable with the conversation. She had put me at ease, and I had already forgotten what Toby had told me, as if we had simply picked up where we left off all those years ago.
"So now, tell me about yourself. I'm tired of talking about me," I said.
"Why don't we save 'me' for another time," Delia said. "I've got to get back to the studio for the eleven o'clock news."
Just then one of the white-jacketed bellmen passed by our table carrying a brass pole with a white cardboard sign on which was written, delia jamison.
"Oops," she said, "I guess I'd better find out what this is." She got up and headed for the phone at the end of the bar.
Whoever it was, the conversation was quick, but when Delia returned she was ashen and glanced around nervously as she sat down, as though she expected something or someone she didn't want to see.
"I have to go," she said.
"Is something wrong?"
"Are you sure? You look a little upset."
"No, no . . . well, yes, in a way, but I can't talk about it."
"Hey, Delia, are you--"
"I just have to go, Johnny. Maybe we can talk about it later. Maybe dinner or something--give me a call at the station, okay?"
"Sure," I replied, "but uh, what about your husband? I mean, I read that little story on you last year in Los Angeles magazine. It said you'd been recently married." The notion of that gave me another pang--the wrong kind.
"Brad? Oh, he's in San Francisco. He--I mean we--live there. That's where we met, when I was working for WQSF. He owns a company that builds computer software. But then this TV anchor job opened here and I just couldn't turn it down. We commute one place or the other on weekends, but my weeknights are usually free." She smiled, and yet I thought there was a wistful tone in her voice. But she still seemed overwrought, and kept glancing uneasily around the room.
"Delia, are you sure nothing's wrong?"
She took a breath and said to me in a steely way, "It's something a little scary, but I honestly can't talk about it right now. Give me a call," she said, rising majestically. "If you want to."
I got up also. "Can I see you to your car?"
"No, they'll bring it around to the front. Thanks, Johnny. I'll talk to you later." She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a little society hug and then made her way across the lounge. A few heads turned, but Delia was oblivious.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Such a Pretty, Pretty Girl by Winston Groom. . Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.