Some dinners produce masterpieces. In 1889, Joseph M. Stoddart, managing editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, hosted a dinner at the Langham Hotel attended by, among others, Conan Arthur Doyle and Oscar Wilde. Both men promised Stoddart pieces for the inaugural English edition of his periodical. What came of their efforts made literary history: Doyle submitted his second Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of Four, and Wilde submitted his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
The story which you’re about to read embarrasses itself by appearing anywhere near the names of these giants, but it too was inspired by a little friendly competition at a dinner party. It’s completely fictional, but the history is roughly accurate to the events of fall 1936 and the genesis of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. No story about Los Angeles would be complete without an homage to Raymond Chandler, and for that, I thank you for indulging me in this experiment.
Smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles County and just south of the Angeles National Forest was a tiny Chinese joint called New Moon. The five Rocket Boys from Caltech gathered there for Happy Hour, not because their graduate student wages couldn’t weather a full priced French 75, but because they needed a drink, and they needed it now.
They’d spent the day testing a small rocket motor, which they’d cobbled together with spare parts and spare change. On the last attempt they’d accidentally set fire to their oxygen line sending a giant flame whipping through the Arroyo Seco. Since no one had been killed, they figured it was cause for celebration.
There was an election on the horizon, and the eldest Rocket Boy, a mustachioed man with a vaguely Eastern European accent, seemed more concerned with that than their new engineering feat.
“The Armenians,” he said. “You think they’re paying taxes? The Russians? You’re the twit, Kaiser.”
Kaiser looked up from his Harvard Cooler. He shrugged: “I’m still voting for Roosevelt.”
Three other Rocket Boys, exhausted from the day’s events, sat quietly in the tufted booth.
“I miss Hoover,” sighed the mustachioed man. “Bonus Army, my ass. You fight for your country, or you’re not an American.”
In the door walked a skirt with cherry colored hair, drumsticks up to her chin, heels clicking loudly on the tile floor. The Rocket Boys could barely believe their eyes–what was a dame like that doing in a place like this?
She sat down in the empty seat at their booth, picked up one of the quiet Rocket Boys’ burning cigarettes, and took a long drag. “Evening, gentlemen.”
They were silent. They understood bi-propellants and projectile trajectories, but they didn’t understand women.
“I’m looking for someone, and I think you can help me out.” She reached across the table for the bespectacled Rocket Boys’ beer. “I’m looking for the man with no ass,” she said and then finished the glass.
Each man in turn peered over his shoulder to his rump, probably a little sweaty from the pleather banquette, still silent. They all looked guilty, guilty as Shapiro and the Anti-Trust Act. Guilty as a dog who’d done his business in his master’s house. Guilty as a bub whose old lady caught him red handed with quiff.
The mustachioed man said: “You don’t belong here,” but the others were too intimidated to speak to her.
“Oh, but I do. You see, this crumb owes my friends some cabbage.”
“What are you, some kinda shamus?”
“Of sorts. I have my ways.”
“You women get the right to vote, and you think you can come in here and disturb my friends?”
“I don’t think so. I know so.” And with that she reached for the mustachioed man’s cocktail and drained it to the dregs. The Rocket Boys went slack jawed. They’d spent their day blowing up stuff in a deserted gully, and this sweet smelling abercromie’s arrival at New Moon caused an explosion they couldn’t control.
“He’s legendary,” she continued, and as she talked, she leaned into the table, just enough so the Rocket Boys could get a look at her goods. She knew what she was doing. “No one knows exactly how he lost his ass. Was it in a poker game? A horse race gone bad? Did he lose it to ass cancer? Just how did this particular Tom end up 35 sawbucks in debt?”
With that she flipped open a sterling silver cigarette case and matching lighter. Her smokes were as thin as her lips, but when she puckered them up and inhaled, they couldn’t have been more alluring.
“Is that your Packard?” asked the mustachioed man looking out the window.
“Your driver’s side door is completely smashed in.”
“Cost of doing business.”
“Or maybe you just don’t know how drive.”
She flicked off the ash from her half-smoked cigarette. “Wanna race?”
The mustachioed man shrunk a little into the booth. “I drove with Barney over there,” referring to the Rocket Boy in a red sweater. “Wouldn’t be fair to him.”
“Sure,” she said smiling.
The small waitress tiptoed over with a plate of wontons. She bowed and left this motley crew to stew in their discomfort. Barney, Mr. Mustache, and the other two Rocket Boys stayed still. Kaiser grabbed a handful and crunched loudly from the corner seat.
“I might need to tell you more, paint a picture for you, see if I can jog your memories,” she continued, her voice slightly raised. “The man with no ass seems like a decent mac. Hard working, married. Rumor has it that if he left his wife, he’d lose his ass all over again, but the poor fella doesn’t have an ounce of fat to spare, so he’s stuck there like veal in a crate.”
The guys shot glances at one another. Eyes darted to fingers, searching for wedding bands, then the Rocket Boy in the white shirt slowly withdrew his hands from the table, hiding them in his lap.
“Don’t worry, dollface,” she cooed. “I know you’re not him. You don’t have the eyes of a calf to slaughter.”
The bartender slammed a hammer into a block of ice, and the whole table jumped, but not the dame. She took another drag and focused on Kaiser.
“And you? You’re a part of this Suicide Club. Don’t you ever worry you’re gonna start a fire you can’t put out?” She inhaled deeply, and the orange embers of her menthol Spud burned straight to the first joints of her fingers.
“Not really.” He smiled, sipping on his cooler. She laid her ample bosom flat on the table, reached diagonally to the back of the booth, slowly pulled the drink out of Kaiser’s hand, dropping her cigarette in.
“You know, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve performed an ass-ectomy.” The bespectacled Rocket Boy choked on his water. “I’m glad your little test today didn’t blow you all to smithereens, but rockets ain’t cheap.”
With that, she placed the cooler down and slid out of the booth.
“You suffragettes are all the same,” barked the mustachioed man.
“Have fun with your little experiment, boys.” She eyed Kaiser with an unsavory mix of excitement and disgust. “You’ve got two weeks. I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.”
The sun slid behind the San Gabriel Mountains as she climbed into her car and drove off toward the city. The Rocket Boys said nothing. Kaiser raised a finger to flag down the waitress.
“Can we get the tab, sweetheart?”