“His vague eyes expanded like blue bubblegum bubbles…”
I must have dozed for a few minutes. A dream rushed by the threshold of my consciousness, making a gentle noise. Death was in the dream. He drove a black Cadillac loaded with flowers. When I woke up, the cigarette was starting to burn my fingers. A thin man in a gray flannel shirt was standing over me with a doubtful look on his face.
He was big-nosed and small-chinned, and he wasn’t as young as he gave the impression of being. His teeth were bad, the sandy hair was thinning and receding. He was the typical old youth who scrounged and wheedled his living around motor courts and restaurants and hotels, and hung on desperately to the frayed edge of other people’s lives.
“What do you want?” he said. “Who are you? What do you wnat?” His voice was reedy and changeable like an adolescent’s.
“Is that all you want?”
From where I sat, it sounded like an accusation. I let it pass. “What else is there? Circassian dancing girls? Free popcorn?”
He tried to smile without showing bis bad teeth. The smile was a dismal failure, like my joke. “I”m sorry, sir,” he said. ” You woke me up. I never make much sense right after I just wake up.”
“Have a nightmare?”
His vauge eyes expanded like blue bubblegum bubbles. “Why did you ask me that?”
The Imaginary Blonde, Ross MacDonald
The small-chinned man did have a nightmare, a living nightmare, that becomes clear as we move through the story. We are in the hands of a confident, playful writer. MacDonald wrote for pulp magazines, the hard-boiled mystery compilations printed on cheap paper and decorated with lurid covers, a form of mid-century mass entertainment. He told stories of crime, misfortune and corruption in southern California, seen through the eyes of tough, fair-minded men who were exceptional only in their comfort with the multitude of grey shades that people live in. When I read MacDonald, I’m inspired by his choices, the things he leaves out and the things that he puts in. Form isn’t a constraint for him; it’s an inspiration.