Interior, night. The short end of an L-shaped bar. The bartender is young, shining glasses unironically.
The detective crossed his legs in a manner almost feminine, tugged the cuffs of his white shirt another half-inch towards his fingertips, and tilted his head approximately 45 degrees to the left.
The colour of his eyes matched a background of drapes. He poured from the bottle. The light was low but I could make out an autumnal copper stream tinkling and twirling into the glass.
Lingering on the upstroke of the L-shaped bar was a woman, swinging across her torso a hand conducting some silent symphony. A forgotten scent drifted from her end of the room. The detective leaned his left elbow on the counter and thumbed in the woman’s direction. “Dimmer than a thirty-watt bulb at midnight,” he said.
The slow-motion bartender appeared at my right, the detective’s left, and placed a glass tumbler two thirds full in front of me. “I’m left-handed,” I said. He stared at me for either a second or an hour; eventually he swallowed the contents of the glass and glided back to the centre of the upstroke.
The interview was going none-too-well. “Why do you come here? To the Idlewild?” I said.
“For the atmosphere, Mr Butler.” He made an expansive gesture with his hands during which he glanced at our single companion, the conductress. “The smells and colours, the lights at midnight. People tell you what you want to hear by candlelight.”
I glanced to my left. Outside was a Packard convertible; through the rain on the window pane it was a splash of paints arranged impressionistically. I asked: “What’s your favourite movie?”
The detective laughed. “I don’t go to the cinema.” I began to like him some more. He tugged again on his cuffs. “In subdued lighting the heartbeat slows to almost nothing. The Idlewild, by that reasoning, hardly exists at all.”
The bartender and the conductress were talking. The sub-silent hum of their conversation came through like an underwater cymbal crash. I sipped from my glass and strained to make out a word or two. She was pouting, unpouting, blinking too slowly; I began to appreciate my companion’s assessment of her.
The detective unwound his legs, tied them in the other direction. He straightened his head.
“We are all actors in tiny cages, Mr Butler. We have such a small domain in which to perform.” He paused for no reason. “Small cogs in a large machine. It’s just that–I would rather be the oil.”
The detective was a man in his forties. His aquiline nose and severe jaw were filmic, emphasised by the shadows cast on the deep green curtains. He wore his tie loose. Beneath his suit jacket like a poorly wrapped Christmas present was, I knew, a pistol.
The conductress had broken off her dialogue and was dragging her eyes across the misshapen bar. She smiled a false smile. She was pretty in a leonine way, honey-coloured hair pulled back away from her forehead, skin stretched tight over high cheekbones.
“You are a poet? A newshound?” asked the detective.
“A writer.” I bobbed my head in a horizontal movement. My glass was empty so I picked up the decanter. I poured first for myself then for my subject. The stream of liquid caught the candlelight and made a perfect arc before coming to rest. A literal spirit level.
Lifting his glass to propose a toast, the detective said: “To the oil.” I replied in kind.
We sipped a little more. I looked through the tumbler at the fisheye reflections in its sides. The detective’s feral quality was made bulbous, clownish rather than grotesque. I watched him take a drink and imagined derricks dipping and rising. Small cogs in a large machine.
“Writers.” he said. “Why is it always writers?”
I placed the glass on the formica table top. It cast a flickering candlelit shadow in one direction; in the other the bar lights produced a stiff, stark phantom.
The detective leaned forward, uncrossed his legs. “Every production of nature has had a history.” I didn’t argue. “Every complex structure is the summing up of many contrivances.”
“Is that what you do? Deconstruct? Decontrive?” In one movement he shrugged off the question, picked up his glass and leaned back into his seat.
“Do you think there is a purpose, Mr Butler? Something more than blind, pitiless indifference?”
I told him I didn’t know. He made a small circle with his left hand and half-hearted ice cubes chimed.
To my left and outside the window the detective’s convertible was now a photograph that had been left out in the rain. The clouds had eased apart and the Packard’s roof sagged under the weight of its watery load.
“What about you, detective?” I said. I held his gaze for longer than I had all evening. “Is there any purpose, any meaning to what you do?”
Crossing his legs and tugging at his cuffs, the detective said: “In my work I am turned into a sort of machine. A machine built for observing facts, extinguishing lies and grinding out conclusions.”
In the Idlewild each candle was being quietly pressed out. The bartender touched his tongue to his forefinger and thumb before leaning over each table. The conductress was lifting a beige belted overcoat onto her shoulders. She pirouetted away from the counter. Her eyelids were heading south.
After some verbal arithmetic I said: “well my job is to extinguish facts, grind out lies and observe conclusions.”
“Newshound…” he murmured.
“Writer,” I said.
The detective unwound his limbs and leaned forward until his body creaked into an upright position. I thought of old newsreel, buildings miraculously reconstituted by simply reversing frame by frame the footage of their demolition.
He nodded an oil derrick nod.
Exterior, night. The two men stand behind the Idlewild. It has stopped raining. They are situated between the window and the detective’s automobile.
The detective turned and began to walk away. He shrank as though observed through the wrong end of an eyeglass. I heard the drag of a door being pushed to.
Standing in the damp gravel I laid my hat on my head and pulled my coat over the peaks of my shoulders. The whirr of the car motor sounded distant, the transmission of a tin-can telephone.
Inside the Packard the detective was a series of shadows bent around corners. The cogs in my chest were finally turning faster and my heart thumped in my head. As the car drew up, I laid a hand on the concave indent. “Goodnight, Mr Butler,” he said.
“To the oil, Mr Pinkerton,” I replied. The taillights dimmed and I woke as though from a big sleep. [ends]