We’d assembled at the Terrapin Grill on Sunset Boulevard for an end-of-the-work-week celebration. The public relations firm I ran in those days had landed a high-profile client. By “high-profile,” I mean about as big a starlet as there was going. Not that I’m the sort to go name dropping. Then again, this isn’t really about a famous Hollywood starlet, or even about me, for that matter. It’s about a story told that late-afternoon by a guy who’d been with us only a week, and from whom I haven’t heard a word since. Normally, I wouldn’t waste my time repeating a tall tale, but his story was so sensational, so outlandish—I’m sorry, but despite inherent skepticism, I have a hard time giving anybody the credit to make up something so fantastic.
There were four of us—me, Gwen, Lois, and the new guy, Douglas Reilly. In the short time he worked for me, Douglas displayed competence in his marketing research skills but otherwise wasn’t terribly remarkable. Early thirties, thinning chestnut hair, doughy, the kind of man you pass a hundred times on the street and never look at twice. And unless it was job-related, he rarely spoke. Frankly, when the girls asked him to join us, I was shocked he agreed.
We’d ordered a bottle of pinot and an appetizer, parmesan-encrusted salmon patties with fried basil leaves, I think. I forget how the conversation started, but soon the girls had grown catty, gossiping about who had had what done, you know, various sordid tales of augmentation, collagen injections, breast implants, that sort of thing. Such conversation hardly interested me. I mean, who in Hollywood hasn’t undergone a little nip and tuck?
They’d just finished dishing on an actress who’d had two inches of her backside removed (“But she’s not even Latina!”), when one of the girls, Gwen or Lois, I forget which, asked Douglas to recount the weirdest plastic surgery case he’d encountered in the field.
Something about his countenance made us all stop what we were doing.
“I’m not sure it qualifies as ‘plastic surgery,’ per se,” Douglas said, “but I did know this one guy.” He looked so dreadfully intense, and I couldn’t understand how a topic so mundane could elicit such a strong reaction. “He was a very good friend of mine, actually, and in the end—”
The waiter interrupted the mood by taking our dinner orders. When he left, Douglas collected himself and repeated this tale, which I have done my best here to reproduce, as close to verbatim as the human mind will allow. I, obviously, wasn’t recording the conversation, but I’ve always prided myself on having remarkable recall. And, if nothing else, I can assure you, I’ve captured the sentiment.
Here is what he said:
“I met Jimmy Dugan senior year of high school, Hollings, Ohio, the town where I grew up. He transferred from the East Coast. Right away, you could tell Jimmy wasn’t like other guys. For one, he was incredibly handsome. Beyond handsome, really, without a doubt, the finest looking man I’ve ever laid eyes on. Everyone, boys, girls, teachers, noticed it. And how a boy of seventeen could’ve sculpted that physique mystified me.
“The weird thing though, girls wanted nothing to do with him. Normally, a new boy in class, even one with moderately good looks, would’ve been the subject of incessant crushes. Not Jimmy.
“After a few weeks I remember talking to this girl in my science class, Alison Hodgson, a very pretty and popular student. I asked her why none of the girls fawned over the new kid. She said, ‘It’s his eyes. Something’s not right there, like he’s…from a different world.’ When I asked her to elaborate, she couldn’t, only adding that every girl she knew felt terrified of him.
“Of course the guys weren’t terrified of him. Still, no one seemed anxious to befriend him either.
“Jimmy and I had art class together that first semester, and in time, we began a casual acquaintance. His being so good looking and such a disaster with the ladies, I thought he might be, well, y’know.
“Back then, I looked much the same way I do now: nobody’s prize but I never hurt for dates. Like most boys that age, my conversations tended to revolve around girls. So I tested the waters with Jimmy, throwing out names, and he certainly didn’t respond like any homo. One day, I asked him, point blank. It was shortly before Homecoming Dance and I inquired whom he planned on taking. When he replied no one, I asked whether he even dug girls. Like I’d questioned whether he was bipedal or breathed air, he responded, ‘Of course, I like girls.’ Then after a moment of careful deliberation, he added, ‘But girls don’t like me.’
“Senior year rolled on, and Jimmy and I became good friends. And while he was certainly cordial with a number of other guys in school, I seemed to be the only close friend he had.
“Our friendship made sense, I suppose. We were both on the artsy side; neither of us played sports. And we shared something else in common: old movies. Though that hardly paints an accurate picture. What I mean to say, while I liked old movies—black and white detective pics, that sort of thing—Jimmy was obsessed with them. This obsession provided the first indication that Jimmy might be, well, slightly touched.
“An only child, Jimmy shared a tiny duplex with his mom. He never spoke of a father. Hollings was a nice town. Still is, but like any town, we had our less well-off sections, and Jimmy lived in one of those, by the turnpike, in the shadow of trucker motels, OTBs, and skin joints.
“His bedroom was in the attic, with barely enough space for a bed, television, and VCR. The blistering pink neon sign from the Kit-Kat Club next door blazed so brightly into his room, I wondered how the poor guy got any sleep.
“Whenever there was a party, Jimmy passed. School function, dance, likewise. When I’d ask why, his reason was always the same: he’d recently gotten his hands on some old-time flick that he wanted to check out. Far as I could tell, that is all the kid did: watch film noir.
“Being a fan of the genre, I’d sometimes hang out and watch with him. It was quite an experience watching these movies with Jimmy. After Alison’s comments, I took to studying his eyes, which were, to tell the truth, otherworldly. An impossibly bright cobalt blue, they were strangely…lifeless. This all changed, however, when Jimmy was in front of his VCR. There, as though a switch had been tripped, they’d come alive, the blue of his irises literally illumined.
“He knew everything about every actor. And even more about the actresses. Martha Vickers, Mary Astor, Ann Savage, Alida Valli. Like some guys chart Playboy Pets, Jimmy kept a running log of these gals’ hobbies. What their favorite meal was, what size shoe they wore, their best childhood memory. He had notebooks filled with that stuff. And whenever one of these ladies graced the screen, he’d gaze forlorn, as if he were actually in love with her.”
“Douglas,” I interrupted, ripping a hunk of table bread, “plenty of people like old movies or other odd things. I don’t see why this should strike you as so bizarre.”
Douglas took a sip of wine. “I am looking back, of course, knowing things that I haven’t told you yet.” He held up a hand. “Listen to the rest.
“After graduation, I went off to Columbia, and Jimmy and I stayed in touch via the sporadic letter or occasional phone call. But soon those correspondences waned. And, one day, he disappeared.”
“I called his mother’s house and that’s what she said. No note. Not even a phone call. He’d simply packed his things and moved out, and she hadn’t heard from him in over a year.”
“You were his friend,” I said. “He never mentioned any plans to you?”
“He didn’t go to college?” Lois asked.
Douglas took his napkin off his lap, his face washing flush. “No, he did not go to college. And he never went on dates with girls. It was those goddamned pictures!”
Exhaling heavily, Douglas recomposed himself. “I’m afraid, I haven’t told the story properly. When I say Jimmy was entranced by old films, I can’t do that infatuation justice. It’s all he talked about. All he cared about. It’s all he ever did. Which is why, when I finally did hear from him again, his news, while of course startling, wasn’t as difficult to wrap my brain around as perhaps it should have been.”
“A few years back, having not heard from Jimmy in all that time, I received a late night phone call. I had moved several times since our last contact, both in and out of state, and how he’d been able to track me down was a mystery. My parents had passed a few years earlier, and Jimmy never met my brothers. So that was my first question: How on earth did you find me? He said that was his job these days. He was a PI.”
“A private investigator?” I said, incredulously. “Sounds like some—”
“Old movie,” Douglas quickly retorted. “Exactly.
“He said he had recently moved to Southern California to open his practice, the Jimmy Dugan Private Investigation Agency.
“Our conversation that night was short, but we made arrangements to meet for lunch the following afternoon.
“I arrived early at Citrix off Santa Monica and secured a table outside. I wondered if I’d still be able to recognize my friend. I, after all”—Douglas pointed to the top of his crown—“had lost a little up top, put on a couple pounds, as men our age are wont to do. Such concern was for naught. I spotted him immediately; he didn’t look a day older. But his attire! Gray suit, with dark gray shirt, tie, and a display handkerchief, black brogues—in short, exactly like Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep.
“‘Hi’ya, kid,’ he said to me, with a broad grin and slap on the back.
“Jimmy sat down and pulled out a monogrammed, silver cigarette case from his breast pocket, and with a precision I’ve only seen onscreen, he tapped an unfiltered off the table, flipped it in the air, and caught it in his lips, lighting a match off his thumbnail, a very smooth gesture, indeed.
“To see someone in modern day Hollywood, dressed like that, carrying on with those mannerisms, you can imagine how strange it looked. But Jimmy didn’t display a hint of self-consciousness. When we were younger, his sensitivity toward other’s perception of him betrayed an extremely insecure man. This current incarnation came across as anything but.
“We ordered. Actually, I was the only one eating, Jimmy’s opting for the liquid lunch: double scotch, straight up. He drank several throughout the meal, though he never appeared drunk.
“He asked what I’d been up to, and I filled him in, how I’d graduated with a degree in public relations but had had a tough time finding work back east, thus prompting my decision to move west. Pleasantries.
“It was a typical sunny SoCal day. The sidewalks teemed cosmopolitan and bohemian, beautiful people in the latest mannequin fashions, beach bums with Huka shell necklaces and cut off jeans, loud colors and louder conversations, but it was Jimmy, in his dull gray suit and fedora, framed by the tiny wild orange trees lining the boulevard, who shone the brightest.
“I inquired, What about him? Besides the recently opened practice, what had he been doing all this time? And it was then he told me about his life-changing decision.”
Douglas drizzled a pool of olive oil onto his plate and dabbed some bread crust.
“Well?” the girls implored in unison.
Douglas smirked, the proverbial cat with his canary. “Jimmy’s father, it turns out, had been a wealthy man, something Jimmy failed to mention during our time together, and apparently he too was not without his peculiarities. When he passed, the old man didn’t leave the mother a cent, instead putting it all in a trust for his only son.
“When Jimmy turned twenty-one, he suddenly found himself very rich. After I left, he said, he didn’t have a friend in town, and with all that money he didn’t see any reason to stay.
“Stashing some feed for his mom, he packed his bags and dusted out of dodge. For the next seven years, Jimmy kicked around the country, working odd jobs in various border towns, playing butter and egg man for the ladies. He’d hoped maybe geography would provide a cure. But wherever he went, Jimmy encountered the same strange looks, the same feelings of alienation. Nothing had changed. He was still an outcast.
“Jimmy said it got so bad, he starting thinking of doing the unthinkable. But he couldn’t stomach the thought of an afterworld devoid of his one, true passion: old film noir pictures. And with that thought, he said, suddenly, everything became clear.
“It wasn’t this world; it was this time, this modern age. His identification with that bygone era was so strong, the only remedy would be a permanent transplant. Of course, all the money in the world can’t buy a time machine. So Jimmy said he did the next best thing.”
Douglas raised his hands, palms upward, as though he were about to perform a magic trick for twelve-year-olds, pausing for dramatic effect. He leaned across the table and whispered, “He had the color removed from his vision—so that he would see the world only in black and white.” He swiped his hands clean.
The girls and I exchanged curious looks, before I began laughing. “Good one, Douglas. You almost had me. That simply isn’t possible.”
“I didn’t believe so, either,” Douglas continued, undeterred. “But Jimmy did not back down from his claim. He said it took a long time to find a doctor willing to perform the procedure, and that, ultimately, it cost him virtually all his inheritance.”
“C’mon,” Lois said, “how does someone get the color removed from his eyes?”
“Not from his eyes,” Douglas calmly stated. “From his vision. The eyes retained their otherworldly blue brilliance. And I don’t know, to answer your specific question, how the operation worked. But apparently it isn’t impossible. Jimmy gave me a rudimentary lesson. Basically, our eyes break down into two components: rods and cones. The former handles light, blacks and whites, the latter color. Jimmy merely had his cones disengaged somehow.”
“I’m still not sure I’m buying this,” Gwen said.
“And neither did I. At first. I concluded my friend had suffered a psychotic break and there was nothing I could do for him. For the rest of our luncheon, I remained cordial, smiled a lot, and planned on never seeing the crazy bastard again.
“But now that we lived in the same town, of course I did see him again. And I began to realize that whether the surgery actually took place was irrelevant. Because, in his mind, he firmly believed it had. And his claim, however preposterous, was not without supporting evidence.
“The first time I went to his office, I had to walk through the slums, bowery bums passed out, crack fiends and dope dealers on the corner, whores crawling from back seats, the whole nine yards. Spring and 5th is a very sordid location, and decaying, degenerate America smacked rudely with every breath of exhaust and ether. But once I climbed those three flights and pushed through the heavy mahogany doors, it was like I’d been transported to another world.
“Inside was an exact replica of Sam Spade’s office in The Maltese Falcon, down to the smallest detail, which included the secretary, who was the spitting image of Lee Patrick, same uptight blonde bob, same conservative black pant suit, same terse grin. I almost asked if the hire had been contingent on remaining in character. She instructed me to ‘wait in the sitting room while she rang Mr. Dugan,’
“When I get buzzed into his office, there’s Jimmy, doing his best Philip Marlowe, feet on the desk, half a bottle of corn camped by his feet, cigarette dangling from his lips, shuffling a deck of nudie playing cards.
“He said something like, ‘Sorry for the delay, goose. Just got off the phone with the DA’s boys downtown. Had to tighten the screws after tooting the wrong ringer. Somebody’s got to step off for this caper.’
“And that’s the way he always talked now. One needed a hardboiled glossary to even understand him. ‘Horses’ were ‘bangtails,’ ‘money’ was ‘cabbage,’ ‘guns,’ ‘roscoes’ or ‘gats.’ It was unreal. Yet, being around him was so strangely fascinating. I kept thinking back to what he said, about not being able to invent a time machine and having to do the next best thing. I’m here to tell you, whatever you may or may not believe, Jimmy Dugan found a way to trump the space/time continuum. He now existed entirely within that yesteryear realm of film noir. He talked the talk, he walked the walk. The hard drinking, hard fighting lowlife of the shamus. And remember how I said that Jimmy, despite his movie star good looks, couldn’t attract a female? Well, the fighting and drinking soon started taking their toll, and that pretty face took one helluva beating, but the uglier he grew, the better looking his girls—or ‘dames’ as he called them—got.”
“Over the next couple years, I saw quite a bit of Jimmy. I had to. Away from him, the remote of my life remained stuck on pause, a safe but boring vacuum. But with Jimmy—I was a bona fide co-star, smack dab in the middle of the glamorous 1940s. I’d schlep through my dull day, and then trade glossy high-rise for dingy skid row, where Jimmy’d fill me in on his latest case or whatever femme fatale was driving him wild that week. And, damned, if I wasn’t getting sucked up into it, too.
“Soon, I started going with him on stakeouts. He’d fit me with a gat, and I had to be ready to use it. Who knew Tinseltown crawled with so many nymphomaniac heiresses hell-bent on revenge, so many ex-prize fighters desperately seeking a last shot at redemption? Sometimes things got hairy. I learned to handle myself with my mitts.” Douglas showed us his hands. They trembled slightly. “But I suppose it’s good things ended the way they did, for me at least. A man can’t live with that duality for long.”
Douglas shook his head. “Never met anyone else like him.”
Our food arrived and Douglas began spicing his plate, while we all anxiously waited for him to resume, mouths agape.
“So, what happened to him?” I finally asked.
“In short?” he said, shoveling a forkful of mutton. “Got fitted with the Chicago overcoat. Some high roller’s doll put him on the nut, and he began owing schlocks serious lettuce. He tried to push orphan paper to escape the droppers, but with all that booze souping the kidneys, his grifts were as useful as a bindle stiff.” Douglas chuckled with a snort. “They found him with two slugs in his belly at the bottom of the Lido pier, still wearing his shades. Would you believe those coppers ruled it a suicide? Talk about a trip for biscuits.” Douglas sighed but continued to chomp away. “I do miss him, though.”
That was our lunch, and that was his story. He didn’t say another word about it, no matter how much we pressed. That was Friday. Monday rolled around and Douglas Reilly didn’t show up for work. For some reason, I wasn’t surprised. I tried reaching him on his cell but found it disconnected.
As for his story, as time goes on I remain unconvinced. I’ve been around long enough to know some folks crave attention so desperately they’ll say just about anything. New guy on the job, wants to make an impression… My cousin’s an eye doctor, and after Douglas’s disappearance I phoned him, for the hell of it, and recounted the tale, asking if such a thing were even possible. Of course he said no.
It wasn’t long after that I grew tired of the public relations game, all those phonies with their plastic body parts and money. I sold my interests to a junior partner and moved down to San Diego. I bought a little bungalow on the beach, where I write this now.
I often think about Douglas Reilly and his crazy story. I don’t know why it still resonates as strongly as it does, why, after all these years, I can vividly recall the way that mousy man’s dull eyes came to life while telling it. Really, have you ever heard of such a thing?