The streetcar slowed to a halt at Hollywood and La Brea and its only passenger stepped out into the dry heat of an August evening. It was too hot to be wearing dress whites, but then, it was too hot to be wearing practically anything. He delayed the hat until the last possible moment, wiping his brow for a few moments on the curb of the street before pressing the hard oval frame over his hair.
Half a block west and down an alley he found the number he was looking for; it was shabby enough, a rude motor court called The Pines, though there were no pines in sight and no vegetation of any sort but a lonely palm whose trunk searched for a cool breeze fifty feet overhead. He had hoped for a better place but he expected no better. At least it wasn't the Floral on Gaffey.
The Floral was a hangout for sailors gone on sprees; sailors who had found rental partners; sailors who were simply tired of berthing three-high in compartments over boiler rooms—sailors who needed a break from the fleet. The Floral's accommodations were no better than they had to be, and they didn't have to be much: its rooms were just big enough for a bed and a hangover, as the men used to say. There were other rooming houses near the San Pedro Navy Base, but they had all been declared off limits by the base commander, leaving only the Floral within stumbling distance of the piers.
That afternoon he passed through the front doors of the Floral, strode up to the shabby brown desk and rang the bell. A man dressed in a tank shirt emerged from behind a curtain, gaped for a moment and disappeared. There was a bit of conversation out of range and then an unattractive man showed himself, put on an artificial smile and said to the visitor, "Checkin' in, lieutenant?"
The lieutenant replied "Navy business. I'm looking for someone. May I see the register?"
The other man said "No," and returned to his place behind the curtain.
With that the officer reached into his pocket, fetched a nickel and dropped it in the slot of the pay phone next to the desk. He dialed a number; there was a pause and he said to someone "Police—this is Lieutenant Mike Berman. I'd like to report some deserters hanging out at a hotel on Gaffey Street."
The lieutenant watched in the glass of the front window as the ugly man slapped the register down hard on the desk; he hung up the call he hadn't made, fetched the book and sat in an armchair to scan its entries. The book held many names. The lieutenant knew most of them would be fakes. The man who he was looking for would not use a false name, and he would not have stayed at the Floral very long.
Behind his shoulder the ugly man said "Who you lookin' for? I remember most of 'em."
The officer paused before saying "Name's Richard Dane. First Class Gunner out of the base here."
"I know the one. Tall guy, reddish hair?"
"Passed through here week or so ago. Never signed in. Most of 'em don't."
"Where'd he go?"
"Got a seabag?"
"And a suitcase."
The officer departed, got himself a soda at a café back of Main Street and waited for the Red Car. A half hour later he was rattling down the tracks toward Los Angeles.
He was halfway to the downtown terminal when a woman and a little boy sat in the seat just behind him. It was a hot day and the boy acted as though he didn't wish to be sweating on the hard seat of a trolley car. He fussed and shifted about, finally deciding to take a stroll up the long aisle of the car. He went to the back as far as he could, and then to the front. On his way past, the lieutenant pulled him aside and said "I'll give you a nickel if you ask the driver which line transfers to Hollywood."
The boy scampered up the aisle to where the operator stood at the helm. There was a brief conversation and the boy scampered back, announcing, "This is the 1522. Long Beach, Wilmington and San Pedro. Change at Sixth and Main and take the Two line. Where's my nickel?"
The lieutenant produced the coin and the boy turned it over in his palm before asking "Are we gonna be in the war?"
The officer gave a look to the mother, whose face said that she very much hoped that they weren't going to be in any war. She said "My husband is a navigator on the West Virginia. I see you're a mustang. So is he. How long were you enlisted?"
"Eight years. Five since then."
"I just pray to God—" but with that the boy came trotting back and the conversation shifted.
"What's your station?"
"Between ships. Waiting for one to come along in a few weeks. Used to be on an oiler."
"It will be a battleship, won't it? One of the new ones?"
He said "I hope so," and left it at that.
At the downtown station he transferred, heading west to the end of the line at Hollywood and La Brea.
He retrieved a motel key tag from his wallet, read the address and counted numbers on the buildings. There was no manager at The Pines. There was only an asphalt lane dividing two sets of three tiny bungalows and some tourists on folding chairs in the shade of a canvas awning.
One of them, a man with a stubble of gray beard said "You looking for a navy guy? He's in 'A' down the end. Not there now—you can see through the window."
"You know where he might be?"
"Sure. He's down at the Janus, just past Formosa."
A few steps past Formosa Street he came to a break in the storefronts, a sort of cove set into a long line of retail shops. Within the small embayment was a dark wooden booth that looked like an outhouse with a cracked window in front. Behind the glass a small, thin girl waited.
Surrounding the booth was an arrangement of tile which at one time might have suggested the floor of the Alhambra but which had been excavated in so many places that it looked like an indian necklace trod into the ground. Around the cove, poster cases displayed nothing but peeling paint, except for one which held a faded picture of two lovers embracing in the foreground of a sunset that had a long tear through its clouds.
He said to the girl, "That what's playing?"
She said "No. 'China Seas.' You want one?"
He gave her a quarter and went through a thick curtain into the darkness.
Whoever built the place had not intended it for a movie palace. The screen flickered too close to the entry and the few seats barely sloped toward the front. He took an aisle seat near the back and waited for his eyes to adjust.
Not far off, Jean Harlow bounced up and down on an upholstered chair as a drunken Wallace Beery nodded off in sleep. The lieutenant's eyes, accustomed to finding objects in dim light, took in the room. There was a pair of teenage girls down front, chewing popcorn; an old lady to one side wearing a hat too large for the movies; and there was a head, close-cropped, standing just above the back of a seat three rows forward and a bit to port—a youngish man slumped down to watch a second-run movie reel away the afternoon.
The lieutenant rose, gained the row behind the man and said "What you got in that flask, shipmate?"
The other man said nothing but handed a small bottle backward without looking. The lieutenant took a short drink and said "Kind of lush for you, Dane. I never knew you to drink scotch."
The other man slumped even lower and muttered "What are you, the shore patrol? G'out of here and leamme alone."
There was a silence broken only by the voices on the screen. Eventually the lieutenant said "Look out, here comes Clark Gable. How many times you seen this one?"
The slumping man would have replied but from behind them came the voice of an usher.
"Okay you two. Knock off the chatter or leave."
The younger man tensed, sprang to his feet and growled "You couldn't make me."
With that the lieutenant said to the usher "We were just going." And so they left, just as Gable swept Jean Harlow into the night.
Out in the sunshine the lieutenant said "Come on, let's get some chow to cover up that liquor."
Dane pointed across the street to a café whose windows threw squares of gold onto the hot concrete sidewalk.
Inside at their table the lieutenant said "I hardly recognized you in civvies."
"Well, get used to 'em. That's what they wear in the merchants."
"That what you after—a berth on some steamer?"
The younger man shrugged. "Hey, they're payin' good money these days and I got the rating. Agent says I could ship in a week."
"So that's what you want—spend the war running bananas to Seattle? That what you did twelve years and three stripes to get? Shit, you could do that when you retire."
Dane drank a bit of coffee before saying "It beats running pop guns on an oil tanker."
Most of the meal was gone when Dane said "Look, I know you done everything you can for me but they aren't gonna give me a place on one of the battlewagons. I got two bad marks for fighting and I'll never get the nod if I live a hundred years, war or no."
The officer shifted helm. "You hear anything from Sandy?"
Dane stared into his plate and said "Her mother wrote me. She moved back with them after all."
Just then the sun slipped behind the cornice of a building and the light fell as if a switch had been turned.
They finished up with pie and coffee, just as if they had been on the mess decks of a ship. The lieutenant wiped his mouth and said softly, "So what would it take?"
Dane laughed. "Nothing you could give. I mean, what could you do that you haven't done?"
"Listen: I'm going to be assigned gunnery training officer for the fleet."
"That's a job for a lieutenant commander."
"Right. I'll gain that in two weeks. I can put you on my staff."
"I never worked anything larger than the twin fives. You know that."
"The new ones have ten Mark 12's, in pairs."
"They training in Great Lakes?"
"Can't tell you. I do know that they'll be shooting a lot of balloons off San Clemente."
The two of them laughed at the memory of many shots at balloons: in weather fine and poor, with gun crews of skinny teenaged runaways from places like their own home towns.
Suddenly the sunlight broke the edge of the cornice and splashed the table with color. The lieutenant said "I've got to go. Good luck with the bananas."
The officer threw down a couple of dollars for the bill, picked up his hat and headed for the trolley stop. Dane nursed his coffee as the daylight slipped away from the boulevard. From where he sat he could see the marquee of the Janus as its neon warmed to the work ahead.
He was going to stop for a drink but remembered that he had scotch in the flask. He took a quick drink out on the sidewalk and then another; absorbed the impact and then drained the bottle with a last hard flourish. Within a few blocks the liquor melted thought to pictures: he saw the old oiler, and he saw Sandy, and he also saw a line of merchant ships strung along the piers. If he saw too much it was not the fault of the liquor, which worked as hard as it could to soften the scenes, but it was only liquor and its magic had weakened with use.
He turned at a place where an alley cut between two buildings and found the courtyard of the Pines. In the darkness beneath the awning a rough line of cigarettes glowed like the running lights of distant vessels. A voice said "Welcome back sailor," and then for some reason everybody laughed.
Dane twisted his key in the door lock and stepped into the room, treading on a roll of cloth wound with a rubber band. Unwound, it was a bright emblem sewn upon a dark background: a Chief's rating badge, its rocker resting like a Roman arch on the uppermost wing of the stripes. He stared at the badge for a while, then lay back upon the bed to find sleep.