I traced my wife to a small hotel, on Hollywood Boulevard, where I had occasionally stayed myself. The clerk was taking a room order over the phone. When he pulled out the plug I asked for her.
"Who wants her?" he inquired.
I hesitated. Before I replied he looked up.
"Oh, hello," he said.
"Glad to see you back." He plugged in again.
"....Yes, a gentleman to see you."
He turned to wink at me.
"A surprise—your husband."
His expression changed.
"You understood me?"
He listened for a few moments and pulled out the plug.
"Sorry," he said. "She can't come down."
I could see myself in a mirror behind the desk. My face was white and tense. There was a clock beside the mirror.
"Say if she's not down in five minutes I'm coming up," I said.
He plugged in again. I went over to a lounge and sat down.
"She'll be down," he said, putting the receiver back on the hook. I saw he wanted to be friendly but did not encourage him.
"Is there any water?" I asked. "I'd like a drink of water."
He pointed to the filter. I filled a paper cup. The water was ice cold. I felt better after it.
It was for an explanation I had primarily come. If it had not been for those last three days, and for our parting at San Francisco, I might not have come at all. Had I stopped to reason, I might have realized that it would be better to leave things the way they were. Even had I been in a position to support her the situation was not one that could have lasted. I think that if she had seen me at once and been friendly about it, I certainly, would have been spared a lot of subsequent suffering. When she did come down, she was distant. Obviously making an effort to control her feelings, but they were entirely different from what I imagined them to be. She said she was leaving in the morning for Nebraska to visit her mother. Because she was so distant and inaccessible I wanted all the more to break down her reserve. She said some things that I did not like. They may have been just, but at that moment, and under the circumstances, I felt they would have been better left unsaid. I kept wondering if this girl sitting next to me could be the same I had parted from in San Francisco.
"Why not come out with me and have something to drink?" I said. "We can talk better somewhere else."
"There's nothing more to be said," she said, getting up. "Goodbye."
She held out her hand. I took it, and then watched her go up the stairs....
It was nearly 10:00 p.m. I went over to see Humpty Bill. His father met me at the door. He was getting ready to retire for the night.
"Oh," he said, "you're back. Thank God for that. Come in."
I did not notice he was wearing a black band on his arm. We talked for a while about the war, about his eldest son who was on his way back from France.
"How's Bill? I wrote him, but he never answered me," I said.
Bill's father did not reply at once. Then he said:
"Bill passed away...three months after you left."
I waited, staring at him.
"The poor boy, his deformity," he went on. "Suffocation."
Presently he touched my arm.
"I know how much you thought of Bill," he said. "It was mutual. He was brokenhearted when you left."
I found the boulevard, and made my way back to the rooming house where I had engaged a room at $2. a week.
I did not sleep that night, unable to realize I was back, alone, and my wife was only a few doors farther up the street. I dozed off as daylight filtered in through the shutters, vowing I was through with her....
By noon next day I had weakened. I went over to her hotel.
"She left this morning at 7:30," said the clerk.
He must have noticed how badly I looked for he held out his hand.
"Don't say anything," I said, and walked out of the hotel.
I had less than ten dollars left when I met someone who had known us both during the short time my wife and I had been happy together. We spoke of what had taken place.
"Why not go after her? You came back so unexpectedly she was bewildered. You know how highly-strung she is."
I began to laugh, and produced what remained of my capital.
"If it's simply a question of money, I'll be glad to loan you what you need to make the trip to Nebraska."
I got up. The longing was in me to have things again the way they were those last three days.
"If I only had a job," I said. "That would fix everything."
"You'll get a job all right. Just a question of a little time. They're still talking about Black Orchids."
That night I was on the train for Nebraska.
There was snow on the ground when I got off the train. I found her house. A wooden frame building like all the others on the same street, which was lined with leafless trees. Her mother, a kindly German lady with white hair, opened the door. She was very nice to me, and went to fetch my wife who was more taken aback than when I had appeared in Hollywood. She was more friendly than she had been in Hollywood and kissed me on the cheek. But when I spoke of coming back she avoided the issue. She questioned me closely about whom I had seen in Hollywood, and seemed relieved when I told her. I said there were chances of getting a job, and asked her would she come back if I did. She questioned me closely again about what these chances were. We went for a walk later on, and when we came back I had dinner at the house.
That night I slept on a divan in the sitting-room.
I had decided, after a long talk with her, to take the first train back, at 6:30 in the morning. About five o'clock she came down to wake me. She made me a cup of coffee.
"When I get a job you'll come back?" I asked.
"Write and let me know when everything is fixed," she said.
On the porch I held her very tightly in my arms, hating to part from her. Feeling now, more, perhaps, than at any other time in my life, the need of sympathy and affection. But as I walked down the steps I had an idea that it was with a sense of relief she closed the door behind me.
The return was penniless, but I was hopeful, though not for long. After footing it around to all the studios in the vicinity of Hollywood, I began to lose heart. Always the same reply: The business has made great strides since you were directing.
I learned that H.O. Davis and Company were no longer at Universal City, and went out to see if I had any friends there.
I got in through the publicity department, having known the chief. He was very busy, but told me to go upstairs, Carl Laemmlae was there. He said to see Carl's secretary, Irving Thalberg. He had heard they were going to put on a couple of directors. Young Thalberg was polite. He had the office up the steps across from the old H.O. Davis sanctum. I said I had heard they were putting on new directors, and I needed a job. He said he would try and arrange for me to see Mr. Laemmlae, and to stick around. But he warned me that the business had made great strides since I had produced for Universal. I waited around from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. without lunch. Then Mr. Laemmlae came out of his office with a man who looked like a German cavalry officer and clicked his heels and bowed when they shook hands. It was my turn next, but I was not invited into the private office.
"Irving tells me you vish to see me," said Mr. Laemmlae. "What do you vant to see me for?"
I began to laugh.
"You'd never guess," I said, and then: "I heard you're putting on a couple of directors."
"The pusiness has made great strides since you was with us," he said. "But you can talk to Mr. Swigstrom."
He signed to someone else who was waiting to come into his office.
Swigstrom was Julius Stern's ex-bookkeeper from Fort Lee, a he-man voice issuing from a narrow chest. I found him. Very serious, wearing the chair one of the Davis land barnacles had been scraped off, following H.O.'s departure.
"The business has changed. We've been striding ahead," he greeted me, pushing buttons on his desk to prove it. (Julius just used to yell at Miss Greenberger when he wanted anything.) I listened to half an hour's discourse on motion pictures. The bookkeeper had become the executive. The industry had advanced with him. I jingled three quarters in my pocket and wondered when he would finish so that I could hit him for a job. When he paused for breath I suggested giving me a picture to make. He smiled, not unkindly.
"This is 1919," he said.
"If it was 1929 I'd have to eat just the same," I said.
"What is there you can do?" he said.
"Are you trying to be funny or were you just born that way?...I need work," I said.
I threw the three quarters on his desk.
"There's my capital. His Britanic Majesty owes me about one hundred and thirty bucks back flying pay, but I'm liable to starve to death waiting for it. I've made plenty of dough for this bloody company. All I want to know now is, have they a job for me or not?"
He started to speak but I cut him short.
"Don't kid me. Don't say you haven't a job. Remember, I know this lot, and today I've been here since 10:00 a.m. I've found out there are plenty of jobs going."
"You can't expect the dough you were getting here before," he said, "the business has changed."
"Goddamnit, I've got to pay $2.00 a week room rent and buy one meal a day!" I said.
I think the way I spoke must have put his wind up. I know I felt like crowning him with a chair.
He pressed one of the buttons, and a uniformed messenger came in....He came back with the boss of the scenario department.
"We'd like to use Rex," said Swigstrom gravely. "Who have you got to direct those two-reel westerns?
"We haven't got him," said scenario editor Lewis. "Fox got him."
"Give Rex the story," said Swigstrom.
"Thanks," I said when the editor had gone. "When do I start on salary and how much am I getting?"
"Leave that to me," he said. "Got to have a talk with the old men. Give me a little time and I'll make a better deal for you."
"And in the meantime what am I going to eat?"
"That'll be okay," he said, "don't worry about that."
"Can I get credit at the restaurant?" I asked.
"Why sure. Why not?"
"Write me a line saying I'm starting work so I can eat on tick," I said.
"That's all right," he said. "I'll see the guy that runs the restaurant. I'll fix that."
"Here's all I've got," I said, picking up my three quarters.
"You're on the level?—If not, say so now and I'll look somewhere else while I've carfare left."
Okay, okay," he said. "Be here in the morning."