Four brothers leave their home in the northeast in the 1930′s and converge in Los Angeles after WWII. A lawyer, a mobster, a screenwriter and a shopkeeper, each of these men makes a profound impact on the emerging world of postwar California as they deal with the impact their shared history has had upon them.
Celluloid Strangers evokes a time and place in American life: Los Angeles before and after the HUAC hearings, blacklistings, and betrayals.
January 1948 — Los Angeles, California
Morris stared at the sun reflecting off the swimming pool’s surface, wondering what his fraternal twin brother, Benny, needed to see him about. 1938 had faded into 1948 the way a baby yawns; ten years without a word and just the day before the telephone rang.
The pool was clear, like recently cleaned coffee table glass. It was one of those Los Angeles Sundays that reinforced Morris’ conviction to never return to the concrete-sky winters of his childhood. The shadows of palm trees and sequoias in his Beverly Glen backyard collided on the tan patio tiles, creating borders for the ants and spiders that crept out from the rose bushes. A lawnmower from the neighbor’s yard diluted the radio news he had been listening to. The air smelled of fertilizer and the smoke from his Lucky Strike. His lips tasted of the scotch he was sipping.
Morris loved the pool more than the actual house, even though at thirty-five he still carried his childhood embarrassment from not knowing how to swim. As kids in Dorchester, Massachusetts, he and Benny had relieved themselves from the annual August heat by removing their shoes and dipping bare feet into the pond at Franklin Park. Now the pond was dried up, gone—never to be seen again. Morris had thought the same of Benny, until the day before.
When Morris first came to California he told himself that one day he would have a swimming pool of his own to dip his feet into. He now looked about this backyard and felt he had “made good,” as his father, Henry, might have said.
A turn of the wrist, a look to the new Bulova timepiece his wife, Helen, had given him just a month before for Christmas. Benny was late. Morris held his breath; hoped his brother might not show. The lawnmower stopped and the news from the large Philco radio box facing out the patio door could be heard clearly. Helen had bought the wood-sided Philco during the war, when Morris was away, but it still had perfect reception.
THE HOUSE UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE, ALSO KNOWN AS HUAC, IS CONTINUING ITS PROBE INTO COMMUNIST SUBVERSION, CLOSING HEARINGS IN WASHINGTON AND MOVING THEM TO CALIFORNIA. TWO MONTHS AGO HUAC FOUND TEN HOLLYWOOD EMPLOYEES IN CONTEMPT. MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY OFFICIALS CONTEND THAT IT IS NOT NECESSARY FOR HEARINGS IN LOS ANGELES. SUNRISE PICTURES HEAD, LOUIS B. KATZ, STATES THAT HE AND OTHER EXECUTIVES SUPPORT THE CONGRESSIONAL OUTCOME, THAT THE INDICTMENTS HAVE PUT THE ISSUE TO REST, AND THAT HIS AND OTHER STUDIOS CAN NOW CONTINUE WITH THE ENTERPRISE OF COMBINING GOOD PICTURE MAKING WITH GOOD CITIZENSHIP.
Morris looked to his drink. Empty. The news made him wonder about his younger brother, Simon, a contracted screenwriter with Sunrise. Mostly, the lawyer in Morris took over; he wasn’t really interested in Simon, he was curious to learn if his brother knew any of the ten indicted. He was certain his younger brother was no Red.
Another look to his wristwatch. Where the hell is he? Morris thought. He had no desire to see Benny, but he wanted him to be on time. Morris smothered his cigarette in the ashtray, took his empty glass and left the umbrella shade of the patio table to pour another drink inside, trying to recall anything about the last time he had been with Benny.
Ten years. It might as well have been ten decades. It had taken Morris a few moments to recognize his twin’s voice on the telephone the day before. The last time he had heard that voice was when Benny moved from Boston to Los Angeles in 1938. Benny had slept on the couch of Morris and Helen’s one-bedroom apartment on Wilshire Boulevard for two weeks, living out of a suitcase with three changes of clothes and a shaving kit. Their mother had been dead for years. There was nothing left in Boston. Benny had been the last of the four brothers to let go. When he arrived out west, Helen was working as a receptionist in an accounting office; Morris was finishing his law degree as a night school student. After two weeks, Benny said he had made contact with old friends from Dorchester and that he was moving. He didn’t mention where.
Morris knew who his brother had contacted and had said nothing. After that, the last Gandelman boy to move to California vanished. In the time since then Morris had completed law school and heard rumors about Benny; some he wanted to know, others he wished he had not. But he never saw his twin.
Morris went to the front room of the house, stopped and thought of how far he had come in ten years. He worked for almost nothing those first years out of law school and held to the idea that if he could just make a name for himself—a decent, respectable name—he would one day “make good.” When he had told Helen he was going to run for Los Angeles City Council five months ago, she was perplexed. She never thought her husband had a chance. No Jew—not even a lawyer who had taken his gentile wife’s surname—was going to be elected. She tried to conceal her frustration when Morris dreamed aloud: “If I make it to city council I can run for District Attorney, then State Legislature, maybe even Governor after that. If I become Governor, anything’s possible.” Helen admired her husband, but they were living in a two-bedroom with poor plumbing then. Still, she made telephone calls and passed out information literature on sidewalks after work, figuring that every man had something he needed to attempt. She rode the bus from neighborhood to neighborhood; going door to door in her best pin-dots on cinder red dress she bought at Bullock’s. She campaigned as if Morris was running for President of the United States.
When her husband won in November, she was shocked, but not as much as when the mayor announced that Morris G. Adams was to head the City Commission on Crime Enforcement.
This finally gave Morris the joy of telling Helen that she could quit her job. More than that, it gave him the respectability he had desired his whole life. He would have a reputation for being tough on crime. Helen kissed her husband and immediately informed him that he would be supporting somebody else as well: she was pregnant.
Three months later, just after 1948 arrived, Benny had called.
“Got your number from the telephone listings. I heard the good news,” Benny had said in a gravel-raked voice. “Congratulations, Mori. God, you’ve been married almost eleven years now. We were starting to get worried—no kids yet—thought there might be bad blood between you and Helen.” Benny laughed. Morris did not.
Morris had hung on how Benny had said, “we.” He did not want to speculate.
“It’s been a long time, Benny,” Morris had struggled to say.
“Long time, yes,” Benny had said. “We should see each other.”
“Sure. Maybe sometime in February.”
“No, Mori, we should see each other as soon as possible. You free tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow?” Morris had said, more to himself.
“Great, tomorrow it is.” And the clap of Benny’s hand on a countertop rang through the receiver. “I hear your new house has a swimming pool, is that right?”
Morris and Helen had bought the house two weeks before Christmas. They never thought they would ever be able to live in Beverly Glen. Baldwin Hills or Silver Lake had always been the practical foresight.
“Yes, we have a pool,” Morris had said.
“Big man now, that’s what you are, big man living in Beverly Glen. Who would have thought back in Dorchester that one day Mori Gandelman would have a pool? See you tomorrow at noon.” Benny hung up. He had not asked for directions to the house.
Eric Wasserman was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, where he attended Lewis & Clark College. He holds an MFA from Emerson College in Boston and is the author of a collection of short stories, The Temporary Life (La Questa Press, 2005). His short story, “He’s No Sandy Koufax,” won First Prize in the 13th Annual David Dornstein Creative Writing Contest, and his work has appeared in many publications, including Glimmer Train and Poets & Writers Magazine Online. Celluloid Strangers, Eric’s first novel, is set in late 1940s Los Angeles and tackles the anti-Semitic nature of the early McCarthy witch hunts in Old Hollywood. He is currently working on a new novel based on the biblical story of Abraham being instructed by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Eric lives in Ohio with his wife, fantasy writer Thea Ledendecker, and is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Akron.
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