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The Polka Dot Nude

The Polka Dot Nude by Joan Smith
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Audrey Dane rents a quiet cottage to write her biography of the Hollywood star, Rosalie Hart. But the portrait and diaries given her by the actress are stolen—along with Audrey’s typewriter and manuscript. Audrey is suspicious of the handsome college professor who has taken the cottage next door—and whose income appears to far exceed that of his profession.

Mystery/Romantic Suspense by Joan Smith

Belgrave House; February 1989
151 pages; ISBN 9780515097535
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Title: The Polka Dot Nude
Author: Joan Smith

Good luck is a relative stranger to me, but there happened to be a nail driven into the wall at the spot where I wanted to hang Rosalie’s painting. I lifted the picture and jiggled the wire of the big gilt frame till the picture hung straight, then stood back to assess the effect. It really was a beautiful painting. The style, Rosalie told me, was called “pointil­lism,” a painstaking refinement on impressionism, with every brushstroke forming a round dot, like confetti. A painter would have to be a masochist to adopt such a style, which probably accounts for the rarity of these pointillist works.

From across the room, the individual daubs of pigment merged to form the nude body of a young woman. She stood with her back to the viewer, peering over her shoulder. The sun struck her from the left, bathing that side in dappled light. The pigments—small, perfect dots of pink, orange, and gold—coalesced to a shimmering opal. The right side, away from the sun, was done in blue, green, and purple. The two shadings blended to an indeterminate shadow down the middle of the spine. Coppery hair, bright as the sun, was twisted into a knot, with tendrils falling along the legendary face of Rosalie Hart. She looked half-child, half-wanton, and all female.

Rosalie gave the picture to me when I spent a week with her last month. I treasured it not only for its beauty, but because of Rosalie. She had painted this self-portrait from a photograph. “They say you’re not supposed to paint from pictures, but lots of them did it that way,” she assured me. “Many’s the time I’ve seen Utrillo sorting through post­cards at a kiosk in France, to pick out his next painting, and now he’s hanging in the Louvre.”

She had often mingled with the artists in France during her frequent holidays there. The famous names sprinkled on her conversation had the aroma of history for me. I smiled fondly at the picture, remembering my sojourn with Rosa­lie. Rosalie Hart—sweetheart of silver screen, a real honest-to-God legend in her own time. And I, Audrey Dane, was the person chosen to write her biography. We hadn’t a thing in common, yet we’d got on famously. Or maybe she just liked having an audience again, someone to pay undivided attention to her. “I want the gal who did Bunnie Winters,” Rosalie had said. Bunnie had been her main competition in movies fifty years before. “If Dane can make Bunnie’s dull life readable, she’ll make a best-seller of mine."

Certainly the ingredients were all there. Rosalie had seen it all, done it all, and kept copious records in the way of letters, journals, and photographs. The woman was part pack rat. Rosalie was only a little younger than the century. She’d broken into films when she was fifteen and grown up with the industry, making the transition from silents to talkies without a hitch. Her sweet, cooing little voice had turned querulous with age by the time I met her. Half a dozen of her movies still played at film festivals around the country.

Her work hadn’t kept her from a lively personal life, either. Into it she’d squeezed five husbands and more lovers than even she, with all her letters and diaries, could keep track of. There were rumors of an illegitimate child of unknown paternity as well.

Rosalie had been coy about that. “We won’t tell it all. I may do a sequel, if it takes.” She laughed slyly. I figured that if there had been a child, it was born late in her life, after her retirement. She’d been drinking heavily in her forties, and gone to a European clinic for a year or so to dry out. Her beauty had faded by then, and her comeback attempt wasn’t successful.

Beauty wasn’t a word anyone would associate with the egocentric, dotty woman I’d interviewed in California. Her face looked like a skull with a crumpled sheet of yellow plastic pulled over it, but the old films and photographs showed what she once had been. So did the painting. There was a reckless, renegade smile lurking at the corners of her lips and lighting her eyes. They didn’t make them like Rosalie anymore. Of course, it’s hard to be a rebel when everything’s permitted.

What Rosalie rebelled against these days was age and obscurity. She lived in one wing of a ramshackle mansion called Hartland. All but one wing was boarded up. The famous rose gardens were gone to weed, the white paint peeling. It looked so sad, like an antebellum mansion, after the war. Her only companion was her old friend and stand-in, Lorraine Taylor. They’d been friends for decades, through the good times and the bad. There, amidst the decaying souvenirs, they relived the past, looking over cards and dried flowers from princes and presidents, exotic outfits left over from her ancient films, while a couple of Rolls-Royces turned to rust in the tumbledown garage cum stables.

But I had to shake off this nostalgic mood. The book might end on a sad note; it had to start on an upbeat. I went to the table and glanced over the research material. The ink in the diaries and letters was fading. It hadn’t photocopied well, so I was using the original documents, which made me nervous. I sat down in front of my brand-new typewriter with the shiny film ribbon. This book had to be good—it would have my name on it. Bunnie Winters’ bio hadn’t, but this time it would say “as told to Audrey Dane.”

Just as I placed my fingers over the keyboard, a car pulled up next door. Through the window, I saw it was a white Mercedes. The door opened and a tall, dark-haired man got out. He went to Simcoe’s cottage, knocked, and then disappeared through the door. The man didn’t seem a likely tenant for the other cottage. Simcoe owned two besides his own house. The three clapboard buildings hugged the shore of the St. Lawrence River, with a magnificent view of the Thousand Islands beyond. The view was the sole attraction discovered so far. The actual cottages were run-down, furnished in decaying Sears-Roebuck, and not close to any big city. Privacy to write my book was what had brought me to this corner of the state, no matter what my friends and family thought. I wasn’t here because of Garth. I’d been jilted by better men than Garth Schuyler, hadn’t I? Oh, but there wasn’t anyone better than Garth! I looked again at the man from the Mercedes. If my privacy had to be invaded by anybody, he wasn’t a bad invader.

Never mind, I told myself firmly, you can enjoy an orgasm some other time. You’re here to earn your advance, the one that paid for this new typewriter and the rent on the cottage. I centered the paper and typed “Chapter One.” The new ribbon gave a sharp, clean outline to the letters. Looking at the length of it feed out from the cartridge, I could see the word dog, clearly legible. “The quick brown fox mumps over the lazy dog,” I had written, to test that every letter worked, perfectly. The j actually worked per­fectly too, but my fingers didn’t. If this new book made me rich, my next purchase would be a word processor.

The empty white sheet held no terrors for me. It was an invitation and a challenge. Long before dark, I had filled five sheets, outlining the geographical and social back­ground of Elinor Brunn, who, along about chapter three, would metamorphose into Rosalie Hart.

A sharp rap at the door brought me back to the present. Simcoe here to point out some other splendor of this hovel, I thought, but through the front window the rear end of the Mercedes was seen, moved over to the other cottage now. Remembering the fantasy who drove it, I tucked my hair behind my ear, and regretted my lack of lipstick, and Dad’s old checked shirt that hung loose over my jeans. A pair of moccasins with both toes in good repair would have been welcome too. When I opened the door to a vision who might have been Cary Grant’s younger brother, I regretted all these lapses even more deeply.

“Hi, I’m your new neighbor. I just thought I’d drop over and introduce myself. I’ve hired the cottage next door,” the man said. He was so tall he had to bend his head to see me.

Life, in case I haven’t mentioned it before, has played a few mean tricks on me. I’m tall and angular, with a boyish figure. I don’t mind the lack of hips and bosoms so much these days, but during my formative years it gave me a complex that I’m still working my way out of, because of Helen. I owe a lot of complexes to Helen. If Freud had ever known her, there’d be a Helen complex, right alongside of Oedipus and Electra. Helen’s my older, perfectly gorgeous sister. She’s smarter than I am, prettier, and much nicer—or so I thought, till she set her baby blues on Garth. All my teachers used to ask with surprised disappointment if I was really Helen Dane’s sister. Even before I got miserable marks in math and science they used to ask. After just one look at my square, unlovely face, they couldn’t credit I’d sprung from the same loins as Helen.

Helen, after breezing through Hunter with straight A’s, got a terrific job on the editorial staff of a women’s magazine. Such tough assignments as covering fashion shows in Paris, and visiting the best holiday spots, were her lot. She invited Garth and me to go with her to Aspen last winter. Garth was interested in hot-dog skiing at the time, and as it turned out, Helen supplied the buns. They got married last month, and are presently in Greece on their honeymoon. If she weren’t on her honeymoon, she’d probably come home married to a Greek shipping magnate. Garth is a dazzlingly handsome plastic surgeon who makes a fortune reconstructing ladies’ faces. Helen won’t even deteriorate with age. She’ll just go on, gorgeous forever, having a nip here, a tuck there. Cary Grant’s younger brother would love Helen.

But it’s unfair to blame Fate and Helen for all my failings. It was my own fault that I now stood in rags before this vision in the impeccably clean sports shirt and light blue cords. He was the right age, too, somewhere around the middle thirties, to match my eight and twenty years. Pronounced grooves marked his forehead and the corners of his eyes, to give him his own unique look. Whoever thought such a mirage would visit me while I worked? Whoever dreamed he’d be a good six inches taller than me; that he’d have jet-black hair, my favorite color in men; eyes the shade of undiluted coffee; teeth that belonged in a toothpaste ad; and that he’d stand smiling, waiting to be invited into the shambles I’d created of an already bad room? Nobody could possibly have foreseen this unwelcome miracle, and it was therefore the fault of Fate, since I couldn’t reasonably blame Helen.

“Hello, nice to meet you. I’m Audrey Dane,” I said, and shook his hand.

“Brad O’Malley,” he said, and gave my fingers a firm shake. Even his hands were gorgeous—tanned, strong, with a gold college ring on his finger.

“Please come in,” I invited, with only lukewarm enthu­siasm. He’d take me for a bag lady, living in squalor. “Don’t mind the looks of the place. I’ve been working.”

“Am I interrupting? Sorry—I won’t stay a minute.” The coffee eyes were already touring the shambles: the type­writer and the brown carton of research fromwhich papers flowed over onto the table. There was no desk. I ate at one end of the table, worked at the other. A coffee cup, a crust of unfinished rye bread, and a heaped ashtray bore mute testimony to my slovenliness.

“Could I get you something to drink? A coffee—beer?”

“Beer would hit the spot, if it’s no trouble.”

For Cary Grant’s brother, I’d have walked through live coals for anything his little heart desired. “It’s no trouble.”

I flew to the kitchen and got two nearly cold beers from the fridge. The glasses, once the proud holders of peanut butter, were decorated with orange ducks, dressed in caps and sweaters. I took the bottles to the living room. Brad had risked his clean cords on the chintz sofa, but leapt up like a puppet on a string when I came in. So polite!

“I’m afraid these cottages don’t come very well equipped,” I apologized, and handed him the bottle.

“Privacy’s the thing,” he said forgivingly, then twisted the top and stood waiting for me to sit down. Decisions, decisions! Did I sit beside him on the sofa like a normal human being, or did I reveal my neuroticism and drag the chair from the table? I sat on the sofa, at the far end from him.

After a brief examination of the split toe of my moccasin, I said, “O’Malley, did you say your name is? That sounds Irish.” A truly brilliant opening gambit. There was nowhere for this conversation to go but up.

“You’re right, I am. Are you a teacher, Miss Dane?”

“Audrey! No, I don’t teach. What made you think that?” Because you look like Miss Grundy, that’s why.

“Who else has time to sequester herself in the woods for a summer? And you have the tools of the trade with you— books.” He nodded toward the table, where a dictionary lay open.

I felt the first twinge of confidence since his arrival. “Actually, I’m a writer,” I announced. A writer was a nice thing to be—interesting, different. Maybe even accounting for the bohemian style of self and accommodations? Helen had never written a book. Helen was too busy living one—a regular Harlequin Romance. People were usually surprised to hear I wrote. They didn’t usually go into shock, however, as Brad O’Malley was doing.

“A writer! How interesting. Hey, this is a marvelous break for me.” A smile as wide as Texas and as bright as sunshine bedazzled me. “Who are you? What do you write?” he pressed on eagerly.

“I’m Audrey Dane,” I reminded him. The smile began to dwindle. He thought maybe I was Susan Sontag, Rosalie Wildewood?

“I mean what name do you write under?”

“My own. I’m a spook.”

“A what?”

“A ghost-writer. You read The Bunnie Winters Legend?”

“I’m afraid I missed that one. Did you write any others?”

“Nothing you’d be familiar with.” He wouldn’t have read The Mystery at the Old Mill, or The Secret of Meadowvale, my two preteen mysteries. I had failed to impress him. But in a flash I slipped another arrow into my bow. “I’m working on the life of Rosalie Hart at the moment,” I said casually.

Another spasm of delighted shock possessed his face. “Rosalie Hart! No kidding! That should be a good one. I’ll be looking forward to that. Have you actually met her?”

“Oh yes, I spent a week at Hartland. That’s her home in California.”

“I know. I’m a Hart fan.”

“What do you do, Brad?” I asked. What I hoped to learn was why he said it was a marvelous break for him that I was a writer.

“I teach literature at a little college not too far from here. A private college.”

“Oh.” This came as a surprise. His appearance didn’t suggest a little anything. Big-city doctor, lawyer, business­man—even actor—seemed more his style. My writer’s eye garnered up jarring details. The few lecturers I knew didn’t drive new Mercedes cars. Plastic surgeons like Garth Schuyler drove Mercedes cars. What was a lecturer doing in a hand-stitched shirt and Gucci loafers? Why did the watch on his wrist say Rolex, instead of Timex? Looking up suddenly from my examination of his watch, I noticed his eyes were narrowed, looking at me warily, as if suspicious, or afraid . . . of what? What threat could I possibly pose to Brad O’Malley?

“I do a bit of writing myself, on the side,” he said quickly. “Publish or perish, you know. Nothing you’d have read,” he added, a hint of condescension creeping into his tone. “I do academic writing. Modern poetry is my field.”

When you’re a writer, you’re sensitive to people’s actions and reactions as well as appearance. Brad was on the defense, and I hadn’t attacked yet. “I love modern poetry,” I said encouragingly.

“By modern poetry, I don’t mean contemporary poetry,” he pointed out. “The modern era in poetry begins at the time of World War I.”

“I know. Yeats, Eliot, Auden—I love them all. Much better than the contemporary poets. Of course Hopkins precedes the usual date given. The father of them all, in my opinion,” I added firmly. An inner wince stabbed me. I was doing it again, as if I were back in college, staking my claim to intellectual equality, and depressing any hope of romantic involvement in the process. Why couldn’t I gush, like other women?

“Right. Naturally.” He drained the bottle of beer and rose to that glorious height of six feet, two or three inches. In my moccasins, I hardly came to his neck. It wasn’t often I could physically look up to a man. “It was nice to meet you, Audrey. We’ll be bumping into each other from time to time, being neighbors.”

I had a sinking feeling any meetings would be purely accidental. Gush, dammit! You don’t learn to gush in two minutes. The voice that came out of my mouth was as cold as frost. “I’ll be hunched over my typewriter most of the time.” I could feel my damned eyebrow lift in that way that makes me look haughty.

He smiled easily—almost intimately. “I’ll know where to find you then.” It must be wonderful to be so full of yourself you didn’t recognize a putdown when you heard one.

I made another stab at gushing. “Great. If you want to borrow anything, feel free to call. A cup of sugar, type­writer, dictionary . . ."

“I brought all those things with me. Bye.” He smiled again and ducked his head out of the door.

Idiot! How long has it been since you met a man taller than you, with a job, and a clean shave and a car newer than 1970? A man who speaks real English, and gets his butt off the chair when you come into the room? Not since last June, when you met Garth Schuyler. But do you know enough to smile? No, you meet him at the door in dirty jeans and falling-apart slippers, and can’t let him patronize you a little. You have to go dragging in Gerard Manley Hopkins. You couldn’t name one poem Hopkins wrote. You hated Hopkins worse than Eliot. Helen was right: You shouldn’t let your brains go to your head. You should detour them to your hormones; big sister knows best.

I went to the window and stood behind the curtains to watch him unpack his car. Beautiful matching bags. Vuitton luggage, for God’s sake. A case of wine, more cartons than you’d think that little trunk could hold. A hi-fl, no TV. Records—probably Beethoven. The trunk of my own rusty Ford had come full of research, typewriter, TV, and one plaid soft-walled suitcase of clothes. I hadn’t even brought a coffeepot, and I planned to survive largely on coffee. Luckily Simcoe’s cottage came equipped with an antique aluminum pot, with a little glass bubble on top.

These feelings of inadequacy weren’t good for me. I went back to the table and started to read over the five pages of Queen of Hearts written so far. That was the working title of Rosalie’s book. I had about umpteen compound sentences in a row, and marked them for revision. When I looked at my watch, it was five o’clock. I had intended to call Bell about getting a phone installed, but Brad’s visit put it out of my mind. An editor (or a handsome neighbor for that matter) couldn’t call me if he wanted to. Nobody else would. The family were the only other ones who knew where I was.

The next thing to consider was food—whether to fry a couple of eggs here or drive into town for a hamburger. While I stood staring at the carton of eggs, there was a wrap at the door, and Brad peeked his head in.

“Me again. Have you eaten?”

I was startled that he’d come back, and so soon. “No.”

“Good—don’t. I’m simmering a boeuf bourguignon. It should be ready in a couple of hours. Why don’t you come over around six-thirty and we’ll have a drink first?”

“A boeuf bourguignon?” I asked, bewildered.

“It’s fast and easy.” An egg was fast and easy. A steak was possible; boeuf bourguignon was for restaurants. “I just want to put a few things away and take a shower. I look forward to seeing you at six-thirty.”

“I’ll be there. Thanks.”

The black head vanished, and I put the eggs back in the fridge. Boeuf bourguignon! He hadn’t even unpackedyet and he was simmering a French dish. Was this man real, or was I dreaming him? “I bet he even does windows,” I muttered to myself, and grabbed an apple to sustain me till dinnertime.

I decided to pop over and use Simcoe’s phone to call Bell. For some as-yet-undetermined reason, he was always reluctant to let me inside his house. I thought maybe his wife was a bit strange. She sat behind the curtains at the window all day, peeking out. At the door, Simcoe said he’d make the call for me, and let me know when Bell could come.

“Thanks, Mr. Simcoe.”

“You’re very welcome. I guess you were pretty surprised to see young O’Malley land in on you, eh, Miss Dane?” His merry blue eyes danced behind a pair of glasses. Simcoe was best described by what was missing. His glasses were rimless, his head was hairless, and his mouth partially toothless. He was a short, stocky man, who had worn the same blue shirt and trousers and suspenders since the first time I saw him.

“I certainly was. You didn’t mention renting the other cottage.”

"I wanted to surprise you,” he said, and laughed.

Simcoe was definitely not the kind of person to plan delightful surprises for his tenants, but I just said, “You succeeded.”

“Oh I can keep a secret.” He laughed again, and closed the door.

I went back to my own cottage, puzzling over that cryptic conversation. For some reason, it reminded me of the fleeting moment when I’d looked up and seen Brad narrow­ing his eyes at me. I shook the thought away. Neurotic, that’s what I was. A silver cloud had chanced my way, and I wouldn’t spoil it by looking for a lead lining. Ah, “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo”! Hopkins had written that one. Lousy poem.