The storyteller’s life isn’t as flush as it used to be, and I guess I was a thistlehead for not seein’ it sooner. The pulp magazines went to Boot Hill years ago and the digests are gone to dust. Cold war spies and moon rockets are all the rage, and the name Archie Echols doesn’t pull any more weight with the paperback mills. An old key-puncher like me spinnin’ yarns about cowboys and cattle drives can’t hardly make beans and board in the space age. Nothing I can do but lean on an inheritance from Agatha, my wife of forty years—may she rest in peace.
I can’t say I’ve penned any real prose in quite a spell.
More than once, I’ve considered chucking the old Smith Corona off under a Death Valley cactus and retiring to Vegas. Likely that’s where I’d be right now if an ad in back of one of the film magazines hadn’t put a bug in my head—and let me tell you, that varmint went to work churning up a deep well of memories, dark and brackish.
That morning, my breakfast table was a basement bar looking out a pair of glass doors at our hacienda patio and the arid California landscape. Before she passed, Agatha had the place decorated real nice in avocado green and yellow ochre and my velvet matador painting on the north wall nailed the Western mood.
I sipped at my vodka-seasoned orange juice, stared through wiggles of shimmering heat at the abandoned lot across the way, and pretended it was old Mexico and I was a rootin’ tootin’ six-shooter.
Then I looked at the typewriter, at the blank piece of paper all snug in its place, waiting for me.
To kill some more time, I flipped through a movie mag on the bar until this advert I mentioned grabbed me by the short hairs.
Between the periodical’s heavy print for hernia belts and skin softeners, the publisher pitched woo to the silent film starlets of old with three lusty lines and the promise of a gravy train. “Movie flappers of the 1920s,” it read, “did you drive grand dad mad in his favorite flickers? Let your voice finally be heard. Big money paid for your real life story!”
I wasn’t surprised at the nostalgic appeal. Some of the two-reelers have seen some interest on the college campus lately, and a full-fledged Tom Mix revival is happening over at the Lux Theater on Paradise street.
While us oldsters were marveling at color TV, the kids were flocking back to Broncho Billy and William S. Hart.
You’d think it would translate into the Western book market, but no.
I was broke as a ten-key piano.
When I saw those three words:
I slapped the mag shut, determined to get me some.
Big money paid for your real-life story.
Archie Echols had a story alright, but it wasn’t all mine. Mixed up in the plot was a gal pal from the silent photoplay days—a bombshell they branded Tam Hinkle in the press, but her real name was Stella Toups.
I got on good with Tam in those days before I knew Agatha.
Here’s how it was. Back in the ’20s, I got high rates for my stuff, knocking out thousands of words a day for the pulps. Meanwhile, Tam lounged under the electric lights and made a fortune getting her moving picture made. At night we drained our paychecks together, and stayed chums even after I got married and she got divorced.
Me and Tam, we both had more dough than common sense, and our hormones ran as fast as the horses down at the track.
Then one day just before the stocks crashed, she asked to borrow my rocking chair.
A weird request—completely out of the blue—and not at all the kind of bourgeois thing you’d expect from a glamour queen who spent every waking moment surrounded by money men, imported cheese, and the finest in bootleg rum.
Tam had seen the Victorian-era mahogany rocker in my den, but darned if I could remember her ever sitting in it.
Whenever she came by the den we spent most of our time on the couch.