Alan Ladd and the Coyote Solitario Cantina
By Rodger Jacobs
She was a floater.
The woman’s body had sank to the bottom of the old-fashioned clawfooted bathtub, remaining there under nineteen inches of water until it became bloated with gas and buoyant, floating back to the surface days later.
It had been an unusually warm October in L.A., so Trace figured it didn’t take long for gas to form and rigor mortis to set in. The nails had already loosened from the fingers and toes. Her pupils were huge, dark, dilated orbs, gazing blankly at the stucco ceiling. The blue lips were slightly parted, as if in apology or prayer. She was completely naked, which always made the police suspect foul play, the theory always being, until proven otherwise by autopsy, that bathtub suicides are normally clothed and nude bathtub suicides are the mark of a murderer trying to fake an accident. Drowning, Trace knew, is always a diagnosis of exclusion.
Trace noted a half-empty bottle of Old Grand Dad on the tiled bathroom floor. She had been drinking from a Dixie paper cup, washing down Seconal with the cheap bourbon. The Seconal bottle, located on the bathroom sink next to a biography of Alan Ladd, had recently been refilled at the Rite Aid pharmacy on West Sunset Boulevard. Trace picked up the Ladd biography in his gloved hands and studied the spine: Property of the West Hollywood Library. The check-out card was still intact inside the book. Like all of the other books in Mildred Spruce’s lonely apartment above a long-closed Mexican restaurant on La Brea Avenue, the Ladd biography had been pilfered from a library in the L.A. County system.
The apartment was hot and the stench of decay was clinging to everything. Trace left Mildred floating in her watery grave and moved to the bedroom again. The drapes were thick and brown. When he pulled them aside he was sprayed with a fine mist of dust. The window was one of those old-fashioned frames with handles on either side that you pull upwards to slide the window up and open. Fresh air blasted into the room like it had been hovering outside for days, maybe weeks, desperate to gain entry. The sound of light Sunday traffic on the boulevard below filtered into the room. Everything was brown: brown threadbare carpeting, brown sheets and comforter on the overstuffed mattress, brown wallpaper with flecks of gold.
On the bedroom dresser was a crazy, crowded collection of framed photographs of the late film star Alan Ladd, many of them personally signed, always to someone other than Mildred Spruce.
“To Cynthia, All My Best, Alan Ladd.”
“For Janine, Keep Your Chin Up! Best, Laddie.”
“To my number one fan, Alan Ladd.”
She probably bought them on E Bay, Trace thought, or hounded them down through collectors networks.
Weeks earlier, Trace had begun writing an essay for a film magazine comparing Ladd’s titular character in the 1953 film “Shane” with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s characterization of Truman Capote in “Capote.” There were, Trace told the magazine editor, distinct similarities. Shane is a mysterious stranger from parts unknown who comes into town and impresses the innocent and intimidates the hell out of everyone else. He doesn’t dress like anybody they’ve ever seen before, doesn’t speak in a manner they are accustomed to, and seems hell bent on doing what he came there to accomplish.
But Trace got sidetracked in his research. He found himself immersed in the tragic life of Alan Ladd. “Shane” would represent the last quality motion picture Ladd would star in. The diminutive Hollywood leading man would commit suicide at his Palm Springs home on January 29, 1964, an overdose of alcohol and sedatives at the age of 50.
“Every book about Alan Ladd is missing from the Los Angeles Public Library system,” Trace told his editor one afternoon. “Not just biographies but any book that mentions Ladd or his movies. Gone. Vanished. Not checked out, but stolen.”
“The entire system?” his editor asked, uncertain what this minor mystery had to do with a critical dissection of a mythical western film and a bio-pic of one of America’s most gifted and strangest authors.
“West Hollywood, Hollywood, Mar Vista, and Culver City,” Trace said.
Through the L.A. Public Library’s online database, Trace cross-referenced the thefts. They began in Hollywood and moved steadily west. He tapped into the Santa Monica Library system. They had one copy, still on the shelves, of an obscure biography titled “Ladd: The Life, The Legend, The Legacy of Alan Ladd.”
“I’m staking out the Santa Monica library,” Trace informed his editor.
“You’re two weeks from deadline, Trace.”
“This will be an interesting sidebar story. Don’t worry. I’m not losing my focus.”
For two days he patrolled the aisles of the Santa Monica main library, keeping a steady eye on that Ladd biography and taking sporadic breaks to eat stale hot dogs and drink sour black coffee from a vendor’s cart in front of the building.
On the third day he saw her. He guessed she was about 50, wearing a flowery housecoat and fluffy blue slippers. Her brown-blonde hair looked like a spider’s nest, uncombed and unmanageable. She wore no make-up and she spoke to herself uncontrollably in barely-audible whispers, like a devout Jesuit at constant prayer, except her God was Golden Boy Alan Ladd and her holy writ was anything committed to paper on the man.
Trace leaned back on the opposing aisle next to a shelf of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels (Jesus Christ, that guy was prolific, Trace thought) and watched silently as Mildred Spruce simply dropped the Ladd biography into a large Trader Joe’s canvas bag she was carrying.
He didn’t alert security but followed Mildred Spruce to the exit, where she walked right around the security portal without any protest from the bored and lazy library staff. On Wilshire Boulevard she boarded a Big Blue Bus heading west.
Trace tailed the bus in his car. Mildred got off on La Brea near Hollywood and walked two blocks to the façade of Coyote Solitario Cantina, an old Mexican restaurant and bar that had been shuttered years ago. From the outside it reminded Trace of the haunted houses that various civic groups and rotary clubs used to put on at Halloween when he was a kid.
“Excuse me?” Trace called out to her at the mouth of the alley.
Mildred was hobbling down the alley toward the old side entrance to the restaurant. She turned at the sound of his voice and was startled by his presence.
“I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to know about the book.”
She stared at him blankly. She didn’t know what he was talking about; in fact, he could have been speaking in gibberish for all her understanding of human language in the grip of her madness, the insanity clear and definable on her prematurely aged face.
Trace tried another tactic. He pointed to the apartment window above the ghostly restaurant.
“Do you live here?”
She spun on her heels and scurried like a fat rat in a flowery housecoat toward the side entrance, fussing with a key that she kept on a string around her thick neck.
“Can I talk to you sometime?”
“Talk to me?’ Her voice was harsh and phlegmatic.
“About Alan Ladd.”
Her eyes then came alive. A smile appeared, revealing a row of uneven rotting teeth. She thought about his request for a moment, gave it long and due consideration.
“Tomorrow afternoon,” she finally announced. “Two o’clock. We can have tea and watercress sandwiches and talk about Laddie. But now I have to go to bed. Goodbye.”
Trace watched her retreat into the vermin-infested bowels of the building.
When Trace arrived the next day just before the appointed time he found the side entrance to the Coyote Solitario Cantina unlocked. He donned his black leather gloves by instinct. Or maybe the distinct smell of decomposition told him he would need to cover his tracks very carefully.
And there was Mildred Spruce, floating in the bathtub, every room in her small and musty apartment stuffed from wall to wall with Alan Ladd memorabilia and books about Alan Ladd and framed pictures and scrapbooks and old movie magazines. All about Laddie. Mad about the boy.
“It’s a damn museum,” Trace muttered.
In the kitchen, an army of cockroaches swarmed over a styrofoam container holding what was once a grilled cheese sandwich. A note, written in a shaky scrawl, had been secured to the container with Scotch tape.
“No library police are taking me to jail,” the note read. “Goodbye, my dearest Laddie, and I hope and pray I will be seeing you soon. Yours in love … Millie.”
Trace sat down on a kitchen chair. It was an old metal frame chair with red vinyl padding and backing. He lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply as the hot October wind raced through the now-open kitchen window and threatened to dismiss the smell of death and decay.
“I really should mind my own business sometimes,” he said to no one but himself and the slow parade of cockroaches.