From the lost photo album of "Alice", Echo Park Los Angeles 1947
Fire Escape - An Echo Park Love Story
a short story by El Niño Angeleno
Alice has recently arrived from Davenport Iowa and has taken up residence at a quirky apartment building on Sunset and Alvarado in Echo Park. She catches the #42 bus each morning to her job at the Three Wishes Coffee Shop located on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles, sharing the short ride everyday with the same poker-faced crowd heading into the theatre district. The nineteen year old girl from the Midwest boards the bus and walks down the working man‘s red carpet as every passenger has their face deep into the Los Angeles Examiner. The Black Dahlia case is splattered across the front page this morning. She is running late and takes a window seat at the back of the bus while gazing at her shoes wondering if they will get her through the day. Arriving at the ‘Wishes’ as the locals call it, she pushes through the swinging doors, heads to the dressing area and returns to the dinning room as the Alice the waitress. The audience of hungry patrons applauds her grand entrance.
“What will it be today Mac ?” she asks the dark-eyed man wearing a brown fedora hat and a gabardine buckle back jacket. He arrives every morning at 8am and sits at the same corner table by the window. His shirt and pants change every day but his fedora hat and the leather camera case around his neck remain consistent day to day. Today, a light but steady rain is rattling the windows of the coffee shop. “Eggs, sunnyside, toast and black coffee,” he says to her as he shakes his hat off from the rain and lays down his camera on the well aged maple table. “Somehow the word ‘Mac’ does not seem right coming from you. My name is Hal, originally from Schenectady, New York,“ he says. Alice seems a bit embarrassed and avoids eye contact as she jots down his order and quickly takes it to the grill.
Over the course of several weeks Alice the waitress and Hal the customer exchange the same coffee shop dialogue as if they were rehearsing a scene from a low budget movie. She quickly begins to show interest in the older man and eventually shares her last name, her age and her ambitions with him as he politely inquires about the pretty brunette. She slaps down the plate of eggs in front of him and asks, “What’s the camera for ?” With an ear to ear grin on his face he replies, “It’s kinda an extension of my hand, I take photographs of pretty women and ancient pyramids and since Los Angeles is devoid of any pyramids, then care to say ‘cheese’ for me one day?” Alice is flattered and returns a smile, briefly forgetting her role as the waitress at the Three Wishes Coffee Shop. Her daydream is interrupted by a quick and abrupt buzzer at the grill. “Order Up!” yells Sammy, an ex-boxer and now the full time cook and owner of the coffee shop. Sammy is legally blind in one eye and his eggs usually arrive at the counter a little runny while the coffee shop’s books he attempts to balance always seem to be in the red. His previous grill man had turned up dead under suspicious circumstances in a tenement building on Figueroa. Alice rushes to the counter to pick up an order for a group of hungry young men sitting at another table. One of the young men with an anchor tattoo on his arm whistles at her as the others burst into laughter. From across the dinning area, Hal seems annoyed.
After months of delivering eggs and black coffee to Hal, she finally agrees to meet the man from “Schenectady, New York” at the Echo Park Lake after her morning shift. She stops by her apartment to change her shoes and fix up her hair. As she is locking the door to her room, Florentina her neighbor from down the hall approaches her. An attractive Hispanic woman, and an aspiring starlet from Del Rio, Texas, she has been acting as a surrogate mother to Alice since her arrival to Echo Park. Much to Alice’s displeasure, Florentina is a little overbearing while trying to protect her from the sins of the city.
“Where ya’ rushing off to Alice?” asks Florentina.
Alice fumbles to find the key to lock the door.
“I thought we were going to a matinee at the Million Dollar today?” Florentina adds.
Alice looks up from the doorknob she is focusing on.
“I got a date over at the Lake, a charming man with a great big smile!” replies Alice.
“ Wouldn't you know it, standing me up for a man,” says Florentina as she squints her eyes a bit in displeasure.
Alice pauses slightly and says, “Oh, we’ll go the movies another day Flora.”
“Be careful out there, there is a killer loose in the city or don’t you read the papers?” says Florentina, throwing her voice towards Alice as she rushes down the staircase and out the building.
Alice heads down Alvarado and turns on Clinton street. She reaches the end of the street where the concrete staircase that leads down to Glendale Blvd is located. Slowly she makes her way down the steps like a nervous beauty pageant queen on her way to the microphone. From across the Lake, Hal is sitting on a bench and recognizes Alice descending down the steps. He walks around the lake and greets her with his now familiar three mile smile.
“Good afternoon, I was not sure you would make it,” says Hal.
“My Neighbor Flora, kept me gabbing at my apartment,” says Alice.
Hal throws his right arm around Alice as his other arm is dangling his camera at the hip. They start to walk around the lake and towards the boathouse.
“How about a boat ride around the lake?” asks Hal.
Alice nervously pauses. “But the water is cold,” she says.
He stops walking and turns to face her. With his index finger he pokes the brim of his fedora hat up slightly, grins and says, “What if I promise you this won’t be like the Titanic, I think I can navigate these waters pretty well.”
Their harmonious laughter echoes across the lake where an old Chinese man on a park bench lifts his head up from a nap he was deeply submerged in. They board a rowboat and proceed to row around the lake sharing a conversation that no one can hear. Only laughter can be heard as Alice is clearly enchanted by the man with the three mile smile and the fedora hat. Hal suddenly stops rowing and holds his camera up to his eye, snapping a photo of the pretty brunette as she squints her eyes into the mid-day sun. “I was certainly not ready for that,” she says. He remains silent and puts down the camera while moving closer to Alice as the boat begins to drift around the lake. As he presses his body up against hers, he takes off his hat with his right hand, holds the back of her neck with his left and kisses Alice in what seems to be a scene from an ill-rehearsed movie. As the kiss slowly ends and their lips become unlocked, Alice says in a playful tone, “Nor was I ready for that!” He suddenly retreats back to the other side of the boat and says, “We should return the boat now, it’s getting late in the afternoon.” Alice seems a bit taken back by his reaction.
He offers to walk her back to her apartment. They walk slowly and continue a conversation mostly about Alice and her acting ambitions while the stranger reveals very little about himself and remains aloof. They arrive at the bricks steps in front of the apartment building where there is an awkward moment of silence. “Well, I will see you tomorrow, two eggs sunnyside,” he nervously says. Alice seems disappointed that their date as come to an end and says, “Out on the lake today, that was nice, can we do it again?.” Hal pauses for a moment and shifts his eyes away from hers and looks up at the fire escape of the building as he replies, “Yes, of course.“ He promptly tips his hat to Alice revealing the sweat on his brow. He turns around and walks down the steps and onto the street, camera dangling from his hand. Alice rushes up the stairs and from the second story window she can see him walking off into the distance, disappearing onto the busy sidewalk traffic.
The next morning Hal is strangely absent from the corner table at the Three Wishes. His continued absence day after day is a new role that is reprised for the remainder of Alice’s role as the morning shift waitress at the Wishes. For weeks, Alice glances at the corner table looking for Hal as she delivers plate after plate of steak and eggs, corn beef hash, and sunnyside eggs to a hungry ensemble of downtown office workers, salesman and drifters, but the man with the three mile smile and the fedora hat never returns to his familiar seat by the window.
“Alice, you got a letter!” yells Florentina from the bottom of the staircase of the apartment building on Alvarado. Alice emerges from her quarters and walks down the stairs in her bathrobe, her hair is slightly disheveled. A letter with a post mark from Los Angeles but devoid of any return address has arrived for her. She flips the envelope to the back and rips it open with a long fingernail. From the envelope a stray photo falls out and lands at her feet. She immediately recognizes the photo of herself that Hal had taken out on the lake several weeks ago. Her face begins to glow and her heart is beating as she kneels down to retrieve it from the ground. She flips the photo to the backside to reveal an inscription. Her voice is traveling faster than her brain as she reads it out loud, “Gone Fishing.”
“What was that Hon?” asks Florentina while keeping her eyes on a stack of mail she is flipping through. Alice remains catatonic for a few seconds and does not answer. She puts the envelope in her robe’s side pocket and climbs back up staircase disappearing into the darkness of the hallway. The echo of the door slamming rattles the building and the earth it sits on.
Copyright © 2011 El Niño Angeleno