by Karen A. Romanko
If you follow the Glendale Freeway to its terminus and continue south on Glendale Boulevard, you enter the Echo Park District, home to Velma Vail for over 60 years. (Funny. No one names their daughters Velma any more.) Velma directed one or two feature films during the forties and fifties, though when we try to recall female directors of that period, the only name we conjure is that of Ida Lupino. No, Velma will never find fame as a result of her screen credits. But if she ever decides to reveal the secrets of that house of hers in Echo Park, you will hear of eighty-nine-year-old Velma Vail, rest assured.
In the cooler-than-usual August of 1932, Velma Vail married Johnny D'Alessandro, a bit player who had gained some small renown as Valentino's stand-in. (That is, until Rudy prematurely departed this life in 1926.) The lovers moved into their six-room Spanish ranch in Echo Park one year later. The Hollywood comers had hoped to move up and out from there. They never did. Even after Johnny died and the neighborhood changed, Velma could never bring herself to part with the place.
Velma and Johnny lived for the flicks, Velma moving from reader through hack to short-lived director and Johnny hoping to step out from the scenery into a breakthrough role. (The closest he ever came was the part of Jeff Mitchell, another hapless joe captivated by the title character in Laura, but in the end Preminger cut Johnny's handsome puss from the pic.)
The filmland twosome spent evenings, alone or with friends, screening films in their Echo Park living room. Velma often selected one of those dark mystery/thrillers we'd now call a "film noir" classic, though she never experienced much directorial success with the genre herself. (Her Lady on the Pier didn't make it to the theaters.)
The first sign that Velma's and Johnny's stucco doll house was "special," as Velma liked to call it, came as the couple viewed Double Indemnity. A fly, as flies will, was pursuing the annoying pastime of dive-bombing the movie screen with frequent landings for refueling (and an apparent affinity for Fred MacMurray's chin). Losing patience, Velma approached the offending insect and swatted it with bare hands. When Velma's fingertips grazed the screen, its black and white images still flickering, part of her hand seemed to disappear. She pulled the appendage back. Johnny stopped the projector. He ran over to examine the screen. It appeared intact: no holes, dents, or other anomalies. Velma looked bewildered. Johnny was just plain scared.
Velma and Johnny retreated to the abandoned sofa, hoping to find composure where they had left it. Once Velmaís heartbeat and respiration had descended to acceptable levels, she exclaimed, "What was that about?"
Johnny answered, "I donít know. And Iím not sure I want to."
"It had to be some sort of optical illusion. But my hand couldnít feel the screen. Maybe the illusion made the screen seem closer than it really was. Well, weíll find out more when we try it again," Velma said.
"Try it again? Vel, your hand disappeared!"
"Címon, Johnny, whereís your curiosity? And what about your derring-do? Have you forgotten how to buckle your swash already?"
"My swashbuckling days went out with Rudy."
"Well, Iím gonna try it anyway."
"Youíre a stubborn broad, Velma. All right, I guess it wouldnít hurt to try it one more time."
Johnny flipped on the projector. The Double Indemnity images started to flicker once more. Velma approached the screen with a wary, though unflagging, step. She tried to press her fingers to the screen, but her hand went right through. Not to the other side and not into the moving picture, but somewhere. Velma yanked her hand back again. Johnny turned off the projector. They both went to bed.
The next evening, instead of their usual pastime, Johnny suggested a game of honeymoon whist. Velma wanted to try a film again, but she'd never seen Johnny so spooked. She effected a casual air and smilingly agreed to cards.
The uneasy partners spent the following night in the same fashion. And the one after. And the one after that.
After innumerable evenings of honeymoon whist, Velma finally popped the question. "How about a movie, honey? Donít worry. I wonít go anywhere near the screen."
"Are you kidding, Vel? Iíll go to a movie in a theatre or a screening at the studio, but thatís it. No more movies in this house."
"Johnny, be reasonable. I didnít get hurt."
"Reasonable? I am being reasonable. Youíre not going to take any more chances, Velma. Life is too short."
"Okay, honey, okay. No more movies."
But the suspense of not knowing what was causing "it" to happen, added to the boredom of no movies, started to fray Velmaís nerves. One afternoon when Johnny was off contributing to the mise en scène in another forgettable movie, Velma Vail snapped on the projector, Double Indemnity still at mid-reel.
She sat watching the film for a few minutes. This is crazy, she thought. If "it" doesnít kill me, whatever "it" is, then Johnny sure will. She let that idea roll around her brain for a while.
But if itís harmless, she continued, then we can go back to watching our movies and this will all be over.
Velma Vail found herself walking right up to the movie screen. She touched it, watched her hand evaporate, hesitated, and kept moving right on through the screen.
She found herself at the offices of Pacific All Risk Insurance Co., which she immediately recognized, for she had just seen them projected on her living room screen. Her eyes scanned the handsome atrium and spotted the ladies' room door imbedded in the marble walls. Velma made a beeline for the familiar spot, seeking a place to hide, at least for the moment. V.V. had carried no purse, so there was little to do once she got there but wash her hands. Everything seemed real enough. Real sinks, real faucets, real running water. Nothing from the prop department.
At last Velma ventured back into the hallway. She glanced at her watch frequently, trying to convince passers-by that the person she awaited was overdue. Velma found the courage to ask a pretty young man the location of the office of a Mr. Barton Keyes, as she remembered the name of the movieís Edward G. Robinson character.
"I can take you right there, maíam," the youth replied.
"Oh, thatís very kind, but you can just point me in the right direction. Iím watching for a chum, don't you know."
Velma spent the better part of an hour in the atrium. Suddenly Walter Neff, the Fred MacMurray character, appeared in the hall. The murderous insurance agent sauntered by Velma Vail and gave her a roguish wink. How brazen, thought Velma. V.V. was tempted to follow the charming cad, but common sense prevailed. She was a woman alone in terra incognita. What would happen if she actually exited the office building? Would she be able to find her way back to the other side of the screen and her beloved Johnny D.? Yearning for the solace of her Echo Park living room, Velma located the exact spot where she'd passed though the wall. When the hallway finally emptied, Velma seized the moment and followed the path back to life with Johnny.
Velma said nothing of her little "experiment" when Johnny returned home. She hated to deceive her husband, but dared not risk his frightened opposition before all the nagging questions were answered. Her brain having something of a scientific bent, she'd already devised several additional tests to conduct over the next few days. For once Velma relished the prospect of being out of work.
The first logical step, thought Velma, was to see if the screen itself possessed the power, whatever the power was. She tried projecting Double Indemnity on the living room wall and again opened the portal to that other place, eliminating the "magic screen" theory. Velma then moved into the bedroom and used its wall as a movie screen, with the same results. Johnny and Velma had each brought his and her own projectors to the marriage, so Velma next ruled out the equipment as the source of the phenomenon. The following experiment determined that the unique ability did not reside in their borrowed copy of Double Indemnity. After conducting these and additional tests, Velma concluded that the Echo Park house itself was the key to the invisible door.
In the days that followed, Velma Vail had herself some fun. She had a monte cristo and iced tea for lunch at Mildred's restaurant in Mildred Pierce. She sang the Marseillaise with the French sympathizers on Rick's cue in Casablanca. And she browsed rare books at A.G. Geiger's shop in The Big Sleep, while detective Philip Marlowe played the fey dilettante to obtain information. (Velma loved Bogie.) Since Velma was still uncertain as to the nature of the new reality or realities, she was careful in every instance not to draw attention to herself.
As the weeks passed, however, Velma grew bolder. During the umpteenth run of Double Indemnity, Velma took the Los Angeles Railway, seen in the opening shots of the movie, to her own house in Echo Park. Summoning all her courage, Velma presented herself at the door, half-expecting to see herself on the answering end as well. A slender, blond woman with perfect features, a complete stranger to Velma, responded to the call. Velma apologized, saying she must have the wrong address, and quickly departed.
Taking the street car back to her living room, Velma realized she couldnít escape the conclusion any longer. There was a "real" world on the other side of the screen. The strange universe retained every detail of its respective motion picture, but added life outside each frame of celluloid. The streetcar made real stops, the houses weren't merely facades, and the people had actual jobs. What was it all about? Velma knew that if she were ever to find an answer, she'd need to open the door again and again.
So off she went. Murder, My Sweet. Lady in the Lake. The Postman Always Rings Twice. The Maltese Falcon. (Velma loved Bogie.) Yearning for a little travel one afternoon, Velma selected Out of the Past, knowing her whirlwind tour would include Tahoe, Frisco, and Acapulco. Having scratched her sightseeing itch without packing a bag, Velma at length stepped through the screen back into Echo Park. To her startlement, there sat her cherished Johnny eating a handful of grapes on the sofa. Johnny dropped the grapes and his jaw.
Once her husband had collected himself enough to speak, he said, "What were you doing, Velma? I don't understand."
"Johnny, I needed to find out what was there and why."
"Some things are better left alone. You should know that by now, Velma. What if you never came back?"
"But that didn't happen, honey."
"It could have. It still can. Please promise me you'll never go through the screen again."
"At least let me tell you what I've learned. Then decide."
"I don't want to hear anything about it. Now promise."
"All right, Johnny. I promise."
Velma Vail broke her promise to Johnny D'Alessandro only once. It was in the summer of 1974, eight months after Johnny had passed away. Velma had taken to running the old boy's movies, tragically brief though most of his appearances had been, in the same way that most people flip through photo albums or rummage through dusty boxes of pictures when a loved one dies. As the nightly ritual dragged on for months, it grew harder for Velma to resist the temptation to visit Johnny on the other side of the screen, even if he had someone else's name over there. When the pain finally became unbearable, Velma opened the door using her own The Dark Alley, which starred Johnny D'Alessandro in a pivotal supporting role (and which also never made it to the theaters).
Velma approached Johnny's character, Bob Pierce, on Hollywood Boulevard, not far from Musso and Frank's Grill. Pierce lit a cigarette while waiting for a meet with Bull Burton, one of gangster Frank Damian's boys. As Velma got closer, she caught sight of her aging visage in a drugstore window. Suddenly aware of an old woman's foolishness, she kept right on walking past Bob/Johnny. Velma never made the same mistake again.
Over the years Velma Vail has developed a theory or two about the meaning of the door in Echo Park. Velma thinks there are an infinite number of parallel universes/realities, which are almost always beyond our direct experience. Who's to say what reality is anyway? Perhaps every time we make a motion picture, so vivid and complete in every detail, we spin off a new reality. Or, maybe all our ideas for films and novels somehow bleed through from the parallel universes. Why did they "bleed through" in Echo Park? Who knows?
Velma Vail knows she will die soon. She has decided to take to the grave the secrets of her Spanish ranch in Echo Park. The house where she loved Johnny D'Alessandro. And the house where she loved the movies.
Did you like this short story?
"The Door in Echo Park" ©2000 Karen A. Romanko. First
published in The Writer's Hood.
Raven Electrick ©2000-2001 Karen A. Romanko. Clipart by Corel®.