Home Tags Posts tagged with "M. F. McAuliffe short story"

M. F. McAuliffe short story

Hollywood, Guido Orlando, The Pope and The Mother

by M. F. McAuliffe


Was Pius XII. Who gave the world the commandments of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; who told the world what sin was, fleshly and deathly, and when and how and how often to do penance.


Is sitting in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 2 or 3 o’clock on a Wednesday in January, 1983. He is sitting there for the calm of the lighting, quiet and comforting leather chairs and lounges where time doesn’t pass or change. It could still be 1953, with this constant stream of wide-eyed tourists happy to spend and be astonished.

Opportunity has always walked through the door of this hotel, always found The Great Orlando – King of Contacts, publicity campaign manager extraordinaire, friend of the Pope, of former kings’ former wives, hamburger chain owners, Hollywood small fry, Ernest Hemingway –

He has always waited here. The currents of the day have always brought every kind of creature to the web of his perception. The post-war years were good. The post post-war years not so good – too much television, the studios falling apart. The post post post-war years are thin and tedious, the glamour gone, the fascination; the only glittering gatherings retirements, funerals, wakes.

The hotel remains, his oldest friend. And so he comes to sit and see what today will bring. These people are, yes, almost, maybe, no. Too many, too rushed, too scheduled, too planned, too Disney tourist –

His luck has vanished. He’s living on stocks and favours. He needs a writer.

He needs a writer because people are blind. People have to be made to see; they have to be told what to see. How can they see The Great Orlando in these lesser, daylight times without someone new and young to tell them?

There is a woman coming through the doors.


Whose name is Francesca, is of a certain age: dyed hair, wide mouth. Who performs the attentive, emotional work of carrying a conversation further, whose speech is powdered and laboured, whose face is slashed with lines as though by knives, a vertical surface of vertical scars, whose laugh is a vocalized smile. Who has stopped writing.

Whose husband had left her fifteen years ago for a woman fifteen years younger, whose every affair since then has been with a writer, been a temporary, unsatisfactory, hopeful, hopeless saga. Her last fling but one – on her way back to Australia for work – had been on Hydra. An Irish poet, she said, whose friends had formed a committee to get Seamus Heaney the Nobel Prize.

In Australia she was a temporary tutor sitting across from Jayne, another temporary tutor, in their temporary office. They were both new to the college, new to the city or the state; they were both filling in for lecturers on sabbatical. They were looking at the agenda for the Staff Committee.

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Francesca, husky, half-laughing, half-strangled.

Jayne looked up and turned towards Francesca. They had both been drafted onto the committee, both hated it. The word committee reminded them Hinstantly of the Hincident on Hydra.

A committee to push for the Nobel! To push the work! they said. Jayne was as aghast as Francesca was amused. Work was good or it wasn’t, they said. Worth was slow, complex, immense, a filtering through decades or centuries of chance, usefulness and clarity slipping past time and change.

“Deciding a Nobel must be quite an undertaking.” Francesca was considering, elaborating. “I suppose there must be stipulations. Procedures. Lists.”

“Mm.” As Francesca didn’t say any more Jayne turned back to the staff committee’s list.

The world was a net, not a list.

“A committee’s the sort of thing a group of men would find reasonable, would do. A team passing the ball down the field for a goal.”

“Long live the kingdom of footy,” she said. Francesca laughed.

She pushed the agenda aside and pulled her stack of assignments closer. Francesca’s elaborations were so anxious to establish harmony they were wearing. Her parties were as fussy as her speech, full of introductions that introduced to no avail: old friends to new academics, new friends to experts in restoring old houses; tales of London, the ways of English and American crossword puzzles, wine from the Barossa and the Loire.

She didn’t want to agree or demur or argue or play compare and contrast. On its way to her cup of pens her gaze passed over the window – low buildings, smoggy trees, hazy, indeterminate distance, a gridded lack of mercy. She had to start putting out feelers for another job.

She gave the assignments the evil eye from the corner of her eye and saw, coincidentally, the assignments were a footy high. Oh, stop, she said to the larrikin streams of her mind.

Jayne was happy to see someone from home was coming to visit, but was still surprised when Francesca appeared in Los Angeles three years later to see her and her new American husband, a writer whose editor was not returning his calls.

Naturally Francesca encountered Guido Orlando as he sat at a small round table in the lobby of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon in early 1983. Tall, statuesque, long red hair and line-scarred face: she had the kind of used lusciousness he immediately recognized, a woman whose best gifts lay in the silk-soft flesh of her address book.


The winter evenings so dark so early. It felt like eight o’clock at five. Her arms were tired, the basket so full she could scarcely get her fingers around the handle. The string bag was a shapeless weight at her feet. Marriage had swallowed her. The beach and picnics, food handled and cooked, packed, cup and thermos; more baskets, her sister’s as well as their own, children born and fed and attended to, fed and fed and fed.

Glenelg on Fridays: the hairdresser, then Barnett the butcher, corned beef, flank, shoulder of lamb or lamb chops; the fish-shop next to it, butterfish, whiting, gar, bream; Coles, Woollies. The picture theatre at the top of Jetty Road, dark and uncrowded of a late morning, the entrance a dark square of presences as the tram carried her past, dark ghosts inviting her to darkness and light: Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford. How they swung their shoulders in the mansions where they lived, able to carry any weight and control where it went. Swinging their shoulders and legs they turned to the light with a quip and a dismissal. How nothing got them down.

The world came when they beckoned. Whether it came or not didn’t matter. How it was theirs to ignore from the beginning.

She almost missed her stop, rocking with the tram’s rocking, the old, comfortable leather seats, a tenth of a degree’s pale warmth because there was no draught from the doors, no wind behind the afternoon’s thickening darkness. The overcoat she’d made was warm, large, mohair; it swept, sweeping down her height, another arm or muscle to balance the weight of the shopping.

She got off at the tramstop, walked, turned the corner. The house was as dark as the street.

She put the meat and fish into the fridge, the rest of the shopping into the cupboards. Jayne was sick and still asleep. The Little Golden Book and the chocolate cat in purple silver paper stayed waiting in their brown paper bags, the bags twirled at the corners for the cat, flat at the corners for the book. She had to start dinner, see how the child was. Jay would be home at five, dinner immediately after. Tuna casserole: it was quick and everyone liked it. They could use ramekins instead of plates, eat in front of television. Jayne in her dressing gown if she was well enough to get up. Brian home from Lobethal for the weekend, easy to get on with.



How they had become a battle and a grind.

Saturdays had been wonderful, dancing till the last tram, or sometimes going to the pictures with the girls from her table at work. They all loved the pictures, all talked and giggled about the awful side lanes the theaters emptied you into from the door under the red exit light, the crumpled newspapers, pie-wrappings, cigarette butts, trickles of water across the footpath. And the smell. And then all that gone as you stepped into Rundle Street.

They worked at the only milliner’s still open during the Depression. Laid off from time to time, they saved the ticket price and went when they could. The size of the auditorium, the semi-circular sweep of the balcony, sitting in the gods in the dark and the anticipation, the picture so large you were in it. You were still in it even as you walked to the swaying, rail-ringing tram. Even as you left the tram and walked home your mind still moved in thick, creamy light.

Before she was married she went home to her parents’ house, where she and her sister lived, instead of going home to the second best dancer in Adelaide. Jay was slight and quick, such a good dancer, provider –

Dancing! Helpmann so light on his feet at the Palais on North Terrace, the upstairs ballroom with the sprung floor and floor to ceiling windows looking straight into the plane trees; Helpmann such a dancer he’d gone to London, danced in the Royal Ballet, danced with Margot Fonteyn, danced in The Red Shoes.

After Helpmann left she danced with Jay, who was nearly as good, who wanted to marry her.

Had married her, Kathleen.

And taken all her freedom. She had to leave work; it was against the law for a married woman to be employed, taking a job from someone who needed it, unless she or her family owned the business. Now she had no money except the housekeeping, and though he was generous it was a donation; she knew it could change or stop. She saved from it, secretly, to have some hope of scope or decision. She lost control over her time: shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing. Though she could still walk to her sister’s in an hour she had to be back in time to cook the hot hotel dinner which was all Jay would eat, and a hot hotel breakfast every morning, even Saturday. Roast leg of lamb after Mass on Sunday.

Then the War, Jay working all hours, Holden’s making munitions instead of cars. She lived in silence, the sky was iron. The day France fell the whole city was silent, the colour of guns. Once television came all it was was guns, and that’s what they watched on Saturday nights after cleaning the stove, washing up, eating, cooking, preparing, watering the garden, gardening, trimming the edges, mowing the lawn.

There was no going back. Time wouldn’t stop; the war wouldn’t stop. It went on after it stopped.

How she had loved Marlene Dietrich, her cigarette smoke white as the gowns of the women her white shirts outshone.


The Hills moved in just after the maisonette next door was built, just after the War. The Hills made deep, rich garden beds: peas, beans, cauliflower, potatoes, turnips, trombone in winter; strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and lettuce, and loquats and apples from the trees in summer.

Their chooks laid big, rich eggs, yolks almost orange. Mrs. Hill sold eggs to the neighbours and charged the same as the grocer. She sent Jayne to the side fence or the Hills’ back door to pay and bring the eggs back, heavy and fragile, shells thicker than any she’d ever known, the eggs themselves so round and solid, so large and heavy they almost spilled out of the bag.

Mrs. Hill told her she made Alec hand all his wages over every week; she added the egg-money. The Hills were Presbyterian. They never went out beyond the pictures, never invited anyone home, never visibly turned a light on after dark; they were saving for a house.

Some months after they moved in Mrs. Hill invited her to the pictures; her group went to the Bay on Thursday nights. Over the fence she explained she couldn’t go to Glenelg on Thursday nights, she had to be home to cook dinner.

Mrs. Hill’s mother eventually came to stay, old and sick, to sit on the seat outside the back door in the long warm afternoons, her ivory fingers and hands as stiff as the knees under her crotcheted knee-rug and one black dress.

Violets, Iceland poppies, pansies; deeply fragrant, almost black Burgundy roses, pink Lorraine Lee roses, gerberas, geraniums, hydrangeas; hibiscus, frangipani. As they came into flower she cut little bouquets from their garden and sent Jayne next door to give them to Mrs. Hill for the old lady. Eventually, over the fence, Mrs. Hill explained that the flowers made a mess, the petals and pollen spread a sticky dust.


She looked at The Advertiser on Friday mornings to see what would be on in town on Saturday, but Jay was up till all hours laying cement around the house before the war, at Holden’s till all hours as soon as it started, uninterested after. If he wanted to go out on Saturday night it would be to a Holden’s or Hibernians’ ball.

Helpmann had been gone twenty five years. His body had been so light it was almost though he weren’t there at all; as though they were both moved by an idea of movement so clear and encompassing he was only a point of balance and impulse, an almost intangible will and joy.

She didn’t like the Bay. She loved the Mount Lofty Ranges and the Morialta Falls, water breaking on the rocks in a rich white flow, a stream of the same white flash that diamonds caught. Even when she was putting out picnic sandwiches or pouring tea from the eternal Thermos she felt the pressure of that effortless sharp break into splendour. Sometimes, in the tram, tired, on the way home from shopping, she could feel it at the back of her mind, the wish for it.

Brian was her great comfort. She could talk to him like an adult, describe things to him. He’d understand anything she meant at a glance; they’d be convulsed before a word was spoken.

Jayne was late and an accident, sullen and a nuisance. She didn’t want to do anything; she didn’t want to be anything. She didn’t want to go out or get dressed up or play sport or go to the pictures. When she finally asked her what she wanted she said she wanted a cat.

Something else to be attended to and fed.


The next afternoon, a Thursday afternoon in January 1983, Francesca and Jayne and her husband sat in The Great Orlando’s current apartment. Mae West’s former apartment, he said. Francesca asked flattering questions; Jayne’s husband took assiduous notes.

Jayne was puzzled – The Great Orlando had offered them neither water nor tea nor coffee nor anything else. She saw no signs of actual occupancy. The Great Orlando to be on the skids if he was bothering with the likes of them, she thought; they had no experience, contacts, influence, power. It was crazy, it was nuts; it had to be The Great Orlando bored and going through the motions. It was all of them going through the motions. She didn’t have anything like a real job; the ink on her green card was so fresh it could have smeared. Her husband had a personnel job in a factory; the factory was relocating to one of the Carolinas, and they were not. At the college Francesca’s position was now permanent, no longer temporary. And that was the extent of their collective wealth.

After The Great Orlando had opened and stood at his door, offered his right hand, (his left around a long slim cigar), had bade them enter as though the carnation in his buttonhole had made him a monarch, and after the flattering, anxious questions and the expansive answers and The Great Orlando had presented them with the last copy of his Esquire profile as they left, after they walked over the pink and green terrazzo, down the slightly damaged steps, managed their legs and backs and shoulders into the cab Guido had phoned for, after everyone in the back seat furtively pooled the contents of their wallets, Jayne sat.

She was displaced. She was lost.

There he was and had been, all unknown, all along. An ancient and unsuspected spider, a mechanism, a robot hired for one amount of money to pursue a vastly greater amount of money, to spin his threads across countries, across oceans.

The ocean was Glenelg. The Bay, the beach was the edge of Southern Ocean, dark, unimpeded, breath-chokingly huge and thick, its wrinkled skin lying and heaving to the horizon and then continuing, rounding the curve of the world not in a block but in a net of waves and layers, each layer its own temperature and gathering of creatures and ever-darkening water, down to the fire-bearing fissures in the skin of the seabed, to slotted doors into red-hot, liquid iron; the Southern Ocean liquid on liquid, so salt and vast and unfooted her mind struggled at the conception of it, and it continued to Antarctica, cliffs and states and countries of tall white cold ice, silent until it shifted and uttered vast subsonic groans, bigger than all the cream, sandy beaches and yellow or dust-red deserts of Australia.

And there this man sat, beside her where she couldn’t readily see him, find his face, his aspect, couldn’t dismember him with her eyes; in his suit, carnation and moustache, wanting money, wanting to fabricate money out of the stories he told, the people he’d met, the people he introduced, manipulated, had photographed and published in the papers of gossip and record.

There he sat, web-bare above the terrazzo expanse of Mae West’s former floor, framed by pewter-coloured wrought iron stair rails descending from a corner, just as he had sat, walked or sat once upon a time in a dark wood hotel room in Hollywood, with a thin Hollywood afternoon curtained outside, when he had thread-footed across an ocean, ignoring it. And then across Europe, to the Pope.

Hired by hat manufacturers to persuade the Pope to exhort women to wear new hats to church, showing renewed devotion to peace and hope and the world after war, thanks be to God.

To exhort women, under pain of sin, to buy new hats to save American hat manufacturers and him, the spider in the dark wood hotel room one thin Hollywood afternoon, from bankruptcy.

At his behest, the Pope, who owed him a favour, had sent his edict into her childhood, the light her parents turned on from the doorway, into her sleep in the dark mornings, into her chest of drawers, the drawer where her hats and berets were kept. Get up it’s time to get dressed we don’t want to be late

Her father commanding, her mother in the bathroom, angry, sweating, dressed in her corsets, yelling about being late. They were late every day every week and it was her fault. They would be late and the whole parish would see, it was her fault her hair was tangled and took so long to do (she’d combed it, just finished combing it), her mother combing her hair again, yanking on more tangles, pulling on the roots of the hair she was plaiting, poking her head forward poking her shoulder forward, pulling the beret from her chest of drawers down, pulling the bottom edge of the beret down onto the ache spreading across the back of her head.

“Damn’ man and his hats!” Her mother was yelling, poking her shoulder, pushing her forward. “New hats! I was a milliner! As though I haven’t made enough hats!” Pulling her hair tighter, the first knot, the root of the plait a dull, tugging pain. “Men don’t have to wear hats. They have to take their damn hats off!”


Was someone her mother wanted to speak to.


Her mother was looking through the tramstop window. They were waiting for the tram to town. Her mother wanted to go shopping for material for clothes, patterns and material for a summer dress, for pyjamas, for blouses, so they were going to go to Moore’s, Harris Scarfe’s, John Martin’s, Myers, up the escalators, past the Manchester departments, to the tables with rolls of material. The patterns were at the counter, in huge, heavy volumes. Though they looked at them all they usually got Simplicity.

She hated the patterns, the dresses, the material, being measured, poked, pinned, turned, pushed, and fitted, hated the mess of her mother’s sewing and sewing table, set up for weeks or months. She hated being told how to look.


Of World War II, of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, of sending Italian Jews to Germany. Pius XII was someone Jayne wanted to speak to.

“You’ve proved there is no God,” she would say. “We’re cursed with each other.”


And there he was and is and forever will be, in Esquire and his West Hollywood apartment, talking about his fantastic campaigns.

There he is, Jayne sees, a full-page photo at the front of the 1971 Esquire feature, nearly seven pages of a magazine which measured 13 ½” x 10” at the time, another one of those faces made more attractive by being half in shadow, veins on the back of a hand, a cigar, a cascade of medals, a knowing look; there he is, photographically surrounded by all those beauties, pretty girls and women who might as well have been machines machined into existence, the way he sold them, events, photos, reputations, outcomes. There he is in a modest Hollywood hotel talking feverishly though the night because he won’t spend the price of a sandwich to feed the Esquire reporter, nor the price of a dinner, either, though he insists on meeting at dinner time.

And in Mae West’s old apartment, that spacious ‘30s architecture, cool and clean, his skin is smelling of powder, is looking like paper; he’s a spider in a three-piece suit of armour.

There he was, falling into the past as first the taxi (dropping them all at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel) and then her husband, drove south (their ancient, third-hand Volvo) down the I-5, home to the South Bay.

In her mind Orlando is upright on the couch from which he rises twice daily – there are no more clients, he lives on the market because he knows there will be no more clients – to take his stocks for a walk. There’s a groove in the terrazzo where they’ve travelled out to the footpath, where he drags them by their leashes and Swarovski crystal collars like trembling three-legged chihuahuas.

She opened the window slightly to create some movement in the air.

The Great Orlando in Hollywood for decades – a happenstance, a spasm of cosmic junk, time, chance, money, talk; a tiny hidden Pope, a lobbyist, an agency, an army and proto-committee of one –

She closed the window. The air was as grey as the sky.

There must have been thousands of them. Tens of thousands; all the history of all the tumultuous plains, armies, monasteries, palaces, castles, roads, churches, cities, towns. All the minds, mouths, commandments…

By the hair on the back of her headie-head-head, the only question was how to stay out of their reach.


M. F. McAuliffe is an Australian writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. Her long poem “Orpheus” was staged by La Mama as “Orpheus, an Australian Tragedy” at the Courthouse Theatre, Carlton, in May 2000. From Nov 2016-Feb 2017 her poem “Crucifix I” appeared in the Yoko Ono installation “Arising” in the Reykjavik Art Museum. Co-founder and co-editor of the multlingual magazine Gobshite Quarterly and Reprobate/GobQ Books, her titles include the novella Seattle, the short story cycle I’m Afraid of Americans, The Crucifixes and Other Friday Poems, and 25 Poems On The Death Of Ursula K. Le Guin. She is also co-author, with Red Earth Poetry Award-winner Judith Steele, of Fighting Monsters, and with Portland sculptor and artist Daniel Duford, of the limited edition artist’s book, Golems Waiting Redux.