Things with Coraline began with a bullet.
Like thousands of other small-town beauty queens who have been told all of their small-town lives that they’re pretty enough be in pictures, she had come to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune.
As a child, her favorite book had been The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I remember her telling me how she had read it over and over until the pages wilted and fell out like flower petals from a dead bouquet. The only part of the book she didn’t like was the end, where Dorothy returns home. Coraline told me she had ripped that chapter out the first time through. She thought Dorothy was a dumb bitch for giving up Oz for Kansas. A dumb bitch. That was how she put it.
Maybe the book captivated her for the simple reason that she, like Dorothy, was a small-town Kansas girl. Maybe it was something more sinister than that. Like the stumbling drunk of a dad who she never talked to and refused to say much about. Whatever the case, Coraline knew she wanted the hell out of Kansas from an early age. She wanted something more from life. Something bigger. It was this that led her to Hollywood in March of ’43. And to me.
She had only been in town maybe a month or two by then. I met her on a break between sets at a Boyle Heights dive bar where the boys and me had been hired to fill an off week. I saw her across the smoke-filled room seated at a four-top near the bar. She was sitting by her plain Jane friend, smoking a cigarette in a way that made you just know she thought she was doing something bad and was enjoying it all the more because of it. It made me smile and our eyes met and she smiled back like she was in on the joke.
I’ve always been a cynic. I’d never believed in love at first sight until that moment. ’Til then I’d thought it was just some sappy concept thought up by some no-talent screenwriter somewhere. Maybe this was the real thing and maybe it wasn’t, but goddamn it was close. My first sight of Coraline took hold of me like my first veinful of dope. Her hair, pulled up in a trendy forward-curled pompadour, was the blue-black of a crow’s wing at midnight. It struck an uneasy alliance with her powder-pale skin. Dark eyebrows set off a pair of jewel-blue eyes. A pert, slightly upturned nose was balanced on a teeter-totter of kissable red lips. The moment I saw her I was hooked. I knew if given the chance I would keep going back to that well no matter the cost. Even if it poisoned me.
I went over and introduced myself. She told me her name was Coraline. She told me she’d heard about me and the boys and how she had snuck out past curfew from the boarding house where she lived just to come see us. She told me she thought we were swell, just swell. Then the girls’ dates came back from the bar armed with drinks and scowls and things got a little awkward. They got even more awkward when I asked Coraline to accompany me to a private party I knew of after the show.
“Hey, what are you tryin’ to pull, Dad? Can’t you see she’s spoken for?” Coraline’s date, a wisp of a kid, demanded. He had a bang of muddy blond hair and a weak jaw and I didn’t blame him a bit for trying to hold on to her. I knew as soon as I saw her that Coraline was the kind of girl bucks locked horns over.
My eyes never left Coraline’s. “No one’s talkin’ to you, Junior, so why don’t you just do yourself a favor and sit there quietly while the girl makes up her own mind.”
He was too young and dumb to know it, but I was doing him a favor. No way a lightweight like him could handle a gal like that. If I hadn’t stepped in she’d have K-Oed him before the end of round two. A girl like her was best left to a seasoned masochist like myself.
“You hard a hearin’, Dad? I said she’s spoken for.” The kid clapped a skinny mitt down on my shoulder.
Before I turned away, I saw the look of anticipation and excitement that flooded Coraline’s eyes. It was the look of a girl having a fantasy realized. She had been waiting all her life to have something like this to write down in her diary.
No doubt the kid probably had some tough-guy line he’d seen in a movie ready to deliver, but he never got to it on account of my fist connecting with his nose. There was an ugly crunch and he jitterbugged backward a few steps and crashed down hard atop an adjoining table, overturning it with a crash.
I reared around on his big moose of a buddy, who looked ready to try his luck, but I guess the sight of Morris and the other boys hurrying over to get my back changed his mind. Black faces have a way of doing that to white boys. Even big dumb ones. Instead of taking a swing, the moose bent and helped his hurt friend up. Maybe he wasn’t as dumb as he looked.
By then the bar’s bouncers were there and began hustling the younger guys toward the exit. Under normal circumstances I’d probably have been tossed out on my ear too—I’d been the one to throw the first punch after all—but then I was with the band and we still had a set to play.
Amid all the hubbub, I turned back to Coraline. I wanted to make sure the sudden violence hadn’t put the brakes on things. It hadn’t. I found her looking at me, eyes glowing brighter than a welder’s torch, a crooked halo smile perched on her lips. I’d never been looked at by a woman that way before. I’d been looked at all kinds of ways—lots of them bad—but not like that. Coraline was staring at me like she saw in me the potential for some darker life she’d always secretly desired, but had been too timid to seek. Like I was the answer to some pagan prayer. Like I was her cigarette all come to life.
I stared right back. I guess maybe I saw all the same things in her. I guess maybe that’s why I’d come over in the first place. And I guess maybe that’s why I never saw the kid pull the gun from the waistband of his loose-fitting chinos and shoot me in the back.
The bullet, a .22, pierced my right lung and lodged in a rib. The sawbones who patched me up told me if it had been just a hair to the left it would’ve paralyzed me. A touch lower and it would’ve killed me. I guess it was supposed to make me feel lucky. It didn’t.
I spent an angry month in the hospital. Coraline came to visit me every day. By the end of my stay there, I was completely in love. I had thought I had been in love before her, but I was wrong. Dead wrong. The passion I had felt for other dames was a ghost emotion compared to how I felt about Coraline; insubstantial, barely there. This was something else. Something fearsome in its depth and complexity. I was weak for her in a way I’d never been with any other woman, in a way I didn’t even know I could be. If she had asked, I would have killed, died, even sold my soul for her.
In the end I guess I did all three.
Once I was released, Coraline and I decided it might be fun to play house together. It was. We rented a cheap little bungalow in Venice just a few blocks off the beach. Caught up in the excitement of it all, we even went and hunted up a Justice of the Peace and made it official. It was my idea. Call me old-fashioned, but I couldn’t stand the idea of people looking down their noses at my girl. I wanted to make an honest woman of her. If only it had been that easy.
For a while, things were good—real good, if you want to know the truth. I played music with the boys, and Coraline went on auditions during the day and came to watch our shows at night. She liked the late-night lifestyle and the fast crowd I ran with. She liked the parties and the drinking. She liked it all.
Problem was, my love for Coraline wasn’t the only thing I took with me when I left the hospital. The bullet had hurt like hell, hurt like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and after a month of treatment, the morphine the docs gave me for the pain had begun to seem more a necessity than a luxury. Once I hit the street, I starting buying heroin because it was cheaper and easier to get, but it all came to the same thing in the end. I was an addict.
I tried to hide it from her, and I had done a pretty swell job of it until she walked in on me in the bathroom one night after we had gotten back from a show at Club Alabam, a needle still dangling from my arm. Your typical dame would have yelled, thrown things, demanded I go and seek treatment, but Coraline was anything but typical. Looking back on it, it seems she had been waiting her whole life for the right twister to come along and sweep her off to Oz. Thanks to me, she found it in heroin.
“I want to try it,” she said, as I attempted to hide my kit along with my humiliation.
“No, that’s a bad idea, baby.”
“Why? It’s okay for you, but not for me?”
“It’s not okay for anyone, but I can stop. I’ll quit. I swear it.”
“I didn’t ask you to quit, Mick. I just asked you to share.”
“I’m not doing that.”
“Fine. Then I’ll just go out and find someone who will. Is that what you want? Me to go out and look for it on my own? Is it?”
Coraline could be stubborn sometimes. Real stubborn, if you want to know the truth. I knew her well enough by then to know that when she sounded like that there was no point in arguing. She wasn’t bluffing. She would do what she said. So I gave in. I wish to God I hadn’t, but I did. She clapped her hands together like a little girl who has been told she’s getting a pony on her birthday.
I had to shoot her up that first time because of her aversion to needles. I remember the way she looked at me, a beatific, sleepy-eyed expression on her face. I remember her exact whispered words after I pressed the plunger home. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.”
Got to give it to her, she was right. This was Oz. Except in this version the bricks were black and the road led straight to hell. Funny. I had thought I was protecting her by not letting her try it, but I soon found out it was me I was protecting all along. Although I didn’t know it yet, heroin had taken my place in her affections and things would never be the same.
Over the course of the next few months we sunk into addiction together like panicky swimmers who drag each other beneath the waves. Larger and larger quantities of our time went to scraping together the cash to buy. With two sizeable addictions to feed, it was no easy task. Pretty soon I found I wasn’t in a band anymore. I pawned my trumpet. Why not? It was no good to me just sitting around. When that money was gone I brushed up on my lock-picking skills and turned to breaking and entering. But in the end it was Coraline who became the real breadwinner by selling the one thing she had to sell—her body. It killed me to let her do it, but the dope it provided helped me forget.
With her looks and that body, it wasn’t long before Coraline had built a fairly sizeable number of steady clients, many of them key players in the film industry willing to pay good money for a quickie with a discreet gal. Most times I went along with her on her “dates,” to make sure no one got out of line. One particular night, however, I shot too much and got too high and Coraline drove out to a certain producer’s Hollywood Hills house alone. She came back three hours later with her lovely china doll face all beat to hell. Always a gentleman in the past, the bastard had gotten drunk and mean this time around.
One eye swollen shut, the left side of her face a violent tale in Braille, I listened with growing rage as Coraline filled me in around a fat lip. I’d grown up watching my mom take regular beatings from my dad until it killed her. I didn’t believe in laying hands on a woman, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to let some rich Hollywood asshole get away with doing it to mine. I went and grabbed the snub-nosed .38 I kept under the mattress for protection.
“Let’s go see him.”
She looked at me, curious. “What are you gonna do to him?”
“I’m gonna beat him until his face looks like yours and then I’m gonna beat him some more.”
“I have a better idea. He’s rich. You know how you hurt a guy like that, baby? You take his money. He got screwed by the banks back in ’29 and now he keeps all his cash in a wall safe in his house. I saw it. He paid me out of it once. I’d never seen so much money in my whole life. We do this, our money troubles will be over.”
I should have said no. If I had everything would have been different, but I didn’t. I was mad—mad as hell, if you want to know the truth—and she was preaching to the choir.
“Let’s compromise. We’ll do both.”
We piled into the black Packard we were driving then and drove to the Hills for a little social call. The house—a tall two-story number with ivy-covered white-stone walls, a terracotta roof, and an arched entryway— looked like a thousand others stabbed down along the twisting roads that snaked through the Hollywood Hills.
We knocked. No one came to the door, so Coraline and I let ourselves in. We found him passed out on the living room couch, knuckles still covered with Coraline’s dried blood. He was a big fella, but the muscle of his youth had turned to a jelly-like fat from years of overindulgence and good eating. He woke up to the barrel of my .38 doing a Woody Woodpecker routine on his forehead. His expression went from surly to worried in the time it took him to recognize Coraline through her swollen features and take note of the gun.
“I’m back, Roy, and I’ve brought a friend,” Coraline said over my shoulder. “What’s wrong? Aren’tcha happy to see me, lover?”
He didn’t look happy. Scared. Confused certainly. Not happy.
“Whaz’is?” he asked, his words still slurred by drink. “Whaz goin’ on?” He looked back and forth between us. I let Coraline do the explaining. She was always the better explainer.
“Look at my face, Roy. Look what you did to me. I came over to show you a nice time and look what you went and did.”
“I shouldn’t’ve done thzat.”
“No. You shouldn’t have. So now you’re going to have to pay for it. That’s what grownups do after all, isn’t it? Pay for their mistakes.”
“How much d’you wan’?”
“Well, I’m not going to be able to work for a while looking like I do, so you’re going to have to pay me disability. It could get expensive.”
“Make you a deal. Let’s go into your safe. You start paying and I’ll tell you when my face stops hurting.”
“I’m not opening my g’damn safe for nobody.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Coraline said, with a look at me. “I suppose you’d better hurt him, Mick.”
I hurt him. I was happy to do it. I pistol-whipped the fat drunk bastard until his face matched Coraline’s and then I pistol-whipped him some more. He was sobbing like a huge overgrown baby by the time Coraline grabbed my wrist and made me stop. A slick mixture of blood, snot and saliva dripped from Roy’s nose and mouth, staining his expensive linen shirt.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right, Roy. I forgive you. It’s over. All you have to do is be a good boy and give us the combination to the safe and I won’t let him hurt you any more. I promise,” Coraline cooed.
Battered as he was, Roy still hesitated. I raised the gun again, and the numbers came spilling out like a jackpot in a Vegas slot.
We herded him at gunpoint into the mahogany world of the office. The safe was in the wall, behind a portrait of Roy’s homely mother. Pulling it from the wall, he made as if to go and open the safe, but I pushed him aside. I didn’t want to take the chance he might have a gun of his own hidden within. I handed the .38 to Coraline, told her to cover him, and spun the small black dial. The safe popped open first time round, revealing a stash of cash the likes of which I’d never seen outside of the movies, and a small black pistol.
Shaking a disappointed finger at Roy, I turned back to the safe and began to toss the cash—what looked at a glance to be about forty grand or so— into the bag we’d thought to bring. When it was empty I closed it and zipped the bag and smiled at Coraline.
She didn’t notice. She was too busy staring down the barrel of the .38 at Roy. The way her one eye was swollen shut gave the impression she was taking careful aim.
“We’ve got the money, but my face still hurts, Roy,” she said regretfully.
“Coraline—” I interrupted.
“This wasn’t the plan,” I said.
“Stay out of it, Mick. It’s not your face he beat up. It’s not you it happened to.”
I had to admit that it wasn’t. Still, this wasn’t the plan.
“Put the gun down, baby.”
She smiled. “I don’t want to. And besides, he knows my name. He can finger us. We walk out of here he’ll have the police on us in an hour.”
“No I won’t. I won’t. You can have the money. I don’t care about it,” Roy sounded a lot more sober as he pleaded for his life.
“He says that now, but we leave, he’ll start to care, Mick. It’s a lot of money. He’ll care and he’ll call the cops. You know he will.”
I knew it, despite the vehement way Roy was shaking his chins at me. Still, killing people—even ones who maybe could do with killing—wasn’t my style. Not back then anyway. We had his money. We’d given him a beating. It was enough.
“We’ll tie him up,” I said. “We’ll go to Mexico. By the time he works himself free we’ll be across the border.”
“I don’t want to live in Mexico,” Coraline said.
Coraline shook her head. “Not there either. I like it right here.” She looked highly satisfied about things as she cocked the gun.
Roy went all pie-eyed. I didn’t know eyes could get that wide.
“You promised you wouldn’t hurt me if I went along,” he said. “You promised.”
Coraline shook her head and smiled like a teacher speaking to a confused student. “No, Roy. What I promised was that I wouldn’t let Mick do it,” she said sweetly.
The crack of the gun left a ringing like alarm bells in my ears.