History is dominated by ‘ifs’. If Archduke Franz Ferdinand had taken a different route home one afternoon, World War One wouldn’t have happened, if Alexander Fleming wasn’t a bit blasé about doing the dishes, there would be no penicillin, and if my mother hadn’t put my best white shirt in with her red slacks, the kids at school wouldn’t have called me ‘Pinky’. Life ain’t nothing but a crap shoot.
It was by chance that one morning that a little twinky by the name of Candy Gable sashayed into my office. She got lost on the way to the store to pick up some smokes.
‘Hello there,’ she said as she leant over my desk. ‘Do you know where a girl could find some cigarettes around here?’
‘You’re not from these parts, are you sugar?’ I said, taking a Camel out of my pocket and holding it up. A cigarette, you understand, not a desert horse.
‘I just moved in this morning,’ she said, gratefully accepting my offer between her full, pink lips. Her mouth, you understand; this ain’t the memoirs of Bill Clinton. I struck a match and lit it, and watched as she inhaled, closing her eyes with pleasure.
‘Thanks,’ she purred. ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t ask your name.’
‘That’s alright,’ I said as I filled my pipe.
‘No, I mean what is your name?’
‘John Flagpole, Private Detective.’ I said, accidentally flipping my library card at her before realising my mistake and passing her my real one. ‘And yours?’
‘Candy Gable,’ she said.
‘Candy,’ I said as I burned some sweet Carolina leaves. ‘That’s a pretty name. I had an uncle called Candy, you know.’
‘Yeah, he was a confused man. Real name was Frank. So what brings you to these parts, Uncle Candy?’
‘Well, I lived in L.A. for a while, trying to make it as an actress, that was always my dream, you know-‘
‘Hmm,’ I said, but I wasn’t really listening. Truth be told, I was trying to mentally undress her, which proved to be a difficult task because every time I got to the underwear stage she turned into my father’s brother. ‘Damn you Frank. Damn you and your fan dance,’ I breathed as she continued with her story.
‘What?’ she said.
‘N-nothing,’ I blabbed, losing my cool. ‘Please, continue.’ And with that she gave me her whole life story. It was the usual shtick; bad boyfriends, neglectful father, mother running away with a circus contortionist; I’d heard it a thousand times before from a thousand different broads, but she was unlike the rest. She was different. There was a naughty glint in her eye. Deep down I knew this piece was bad news.
‘So, tell me about yourself Mr Flagpole,’ she said, running her fingers through her tumbling blonde hair.
‘Nothing to tell, toots. Born, went to school, kids gave me an unfortunate nickname, my old man got me a job at the toothpaste factory, you know, the usual.’
‘And what made you decide to become a private dick?’ she breathed, biting her moist bottom lip.
‘Well, some guy at the toothpaste factory kept stealing my turkey sandwich from my locker. I had my suspicions, but couldn’t be too sure, so I asked around, dusted for prints, that kind of thing. In the end I caught him in the act and confronted him.’
‘And what did he do, Mr Flagpole?’ the glint in her eye came back and the blood leaving my heart began packing for the long journey south.
‘He punched me in the face and broke my nose.’ I said.
‘Oh my!’ she gasped.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘Thank God he was wearing boxing gloves at the time; otherwise God knows what would have happened. Anyway, as I hit the deck, I knew what I wanted to do. Next day I resigned as Chief Cap Screwer: Tube Division and set up shop here. And the rest as they say, is history.’
‘Just think; if that man hadn’t stolen your sandwich you’d still be at that factory, and we wouldn’t be sitting here having this delightful conversation,’ she smiled, showing the best set of pearly whites I’d seen since Doris Day bit me at the grocery store.
‘I’ll drink to that!’ I said as I poured some cheap Scotch from a bottle I keep in my drawer. ‘You want?’
‘Oh. Oh no. But thanks,’ she said.
‘Come on! Why not? We’re having some fun here!’
‘Well, mainly because it’s ten in the morning, but also because I have to go now,’ she said, taking one last grateful drag of her cigarette.
‘Alright, doll face,’ I said, giving a casual salute as I belted back my drink like a guy who knows how.
‘I’ll see you around,’ she said as she headed for the door. ‘Thanks for the smoke Mr Flagpole.’ And with that she turned and blew me a kiss. I swear to all that is holy, that invisible kiss did more for me than any game of hide the cannoli I’d had in years.
‘Damn,’ I said as I poured another drink. ‘That is one smoking broad.’
The rest of the day went by slow; a nervous looking guy shuffled in at around two telling me he thought his wife was being unfaithful. After about twenty minutes he broke down and confessed that he wasn’t even married and just wanted someone to talk to.
After I’d kicked his sorry ass out, I sat down and lit up again. That dame was still under my skin, so much so that I didn’t notice my hat was on fire. After the fire department had put it out, my phone rang.
‘Flagpole Detective Agency?’ I said, all the while thinking how much I needed a secretary again.
‘Mr Flagpole?’ I recognised that voice.
‘Yes?’ That was the first time I put the ‘s’ on that word since I was in the dock for groping my last secretary.
‘It’s Candy Gable. From earlier?’ she said, laying on that sweet little girl routine so thick you could have bounced dimes off of it.
‘Uh, yeah, I remember you. You’re the actress right?’ I said, laying on that cool private dick routine so thick you could have bounced dimes off of it.
‘I suppose so,’ she giggled, laying on that sweet little girl routine so thick you could have bounced dimes off of it.
‘How may I help you, Miss Gable?’ I said, reaching into my pocket for more dimes to bounce.
‘I was just thinking about how nice you were to me earlier. And- well, it’s not easy making friends in a new town...’ she said, laying on that sweet little girl routine so thick you could have bounced a nickel, a penny and some lint off of it.
‘Go on,’ I said.
‘I was just wondering if you wanted to come round my house tonight, for dinner and drinks?’ I picked myself up off the floor just in time to hastily scribble down her address and bid her a civil goodbye, my cool private dick routine laid on so thin, a squirrel’s belch could have broken it.
‘Goodnight nurse,’ I said as I sat back down. I didn’t usually get this giddy over a broad, but this one was a real knockout. She wore that little blouse like most women in this town wear steak bibs.
I left the office early that night and called in at the grocery store. I knew I needed to smell extra fresh so I picked up some mints and some menthol smokes.
‘And throw me in some of that Cologne will ya?’ I said to the square behind the counter.
‘But sir, this is my ear medicine,’ he stuttered.
‘What the hell, kid? Did I ask for your opinion? Just put it in the bag so I can get on my way.’
I took a bath that night too, which was unusual for me. I normally used my bathtub for storing old editions of Private Dick Weekly. I don’t know why I kept my bath and that particular publication together. Probably because neither of them had me in them. Oh no, but Joey Saccamoni from Yonkers got in just for reuniting a mother with her son. Word on the street is the old dame was so senile she just forgot where he lived.
I threw the stacks of Private Dick into the garbage and climbed into the tub. Afterwards I felt refreshed, but covered in a fine film of ink because I forgot to rinse it out first. I went to my wardrobe; what a sad state of affairs. I took out the suit that was the least threadbare and the hat that had the least fire-damage and looked at myself in my mother’s old antique mirror.
‘You’re one homely son of a bitch, Johnny Flagpole,’ I said to myself as I dabbed some of that kid’s ear medicine on my neck.
Just before I left my house, I strapped a holster onto my leg and put my favourite gun in there. I never go anywhere without a piece. Not anymore. One time, I was investigating the disappearance of a local factory owner, and his daughter, who was, it has to be said, almost as smoking as Candy Gable, invited me to the mansion to look at his receipts. She was giving me the old come-on, so I went light. Needless to say, it was a trap and I was scrabbling across the roof of a mansion in my skivvies before the night was out.
Candy’s place was in the middle of a run-down street in a no-good part of town. ‘Round here, gangs would mob you and fill your hat with tartar sauce for kicks. As a precaution I stopped at a 7-11 and filled my own hat with the best tartar sauce on the shelf.
I knocked on her front door and straightened my threadbare tie.
‘Mr Flagpole! Hello!’ she was in a festive mood already.
‘Miss Gable,’ I said, lifting my hat as a gesture of respect and sending tartar sauce cascading down my face.
‘Please, come in,’ she said. ‘Everyone’s here already.’
‘Wait a minute!’ I said, stopping in my tracks. ‘Everyone?’
‘Yeah, silly, all my new college buddies are here!’
‘Hold on a minute, toots. You go to college?’ I was confused.
‘Yes, I told you, remember?’ she looked at me inquisitively.
‘Uh, yeah. Yeah that’s right.’ My cover was blown for sure. She must have known that I wasn’t listening to her in my office that afternoon, and from that, probably deduced that I was trying to do mental naughties with her, but couldn’t because Uncle Frank kept appearing in his two-piece.
‘I enrolled in performing arts at Colombia; I’m trying to become a better actress.’ As soon as she said it, my guts danced a pas de deux against my ribcage. Performing arts students. I was about to spend an evening with performing arts students. I was about to make my excuses and leave when this little squirt who was probably called Rosebud jumped through the door and pulled me through. Instinctively, I punched him on the nose, knocking him to the floor. Thank God I was wearing boxing gloves at the time, otherwise I could have been writing this from the can.
‘Hey man!’ said a homely girl with a carnation in her hair. ‘What d’ya do that for?’
‘Never jump out at me like that!’ I said, as matter-of-factly as a man with ear medicine on him can. ‘If you jump out I can’t be held responsible for my actions.’
‘Cool,’ said another beatnik standing to the side of me. ‘You’re like a ninja or something, right? That is totally awesome.’ He put his hand on my shoulder.
‘You’d get your hands off of me if you knew what was good for you, Buster,’ I said, holding back a tear at the memory of the Phil Collins movie of the same name.
‘Heeeey, mellow out dude,’ said the guy I had knocked out cold a few moments earlier. ‘Have a smoke.’ I was never one to turn down a free smoke, so I took him up on his offer.
The smoke was sharp, and hit me right at the back of my throat, causing me to hack and cough like my old man whenever someone mentioned Uncle Candy in the house. I looked back at Miss Gable, standing all pert and nubile in the corner; she nodded and smiled in encouragement. I looked back at the smoke and took another drag, and the rest of the night was a blur.
I can only recollect certain parts of the evening, like being shown how she to act like a tree by a girl called Cristal, playing the bongos as accompaniment to Rosebud’s beat poetry, and giving a lusty, tearful rendition of Groovy Kind of Love in the kitchen while we were waiting for the pizza to arrive. I’m not proud of what happened, I’ll come right out and say it, but it was a weird, weird ride.
I woke up the next morning on the breakfast table. Everyone was sitting around, eating. I daren’t move because there was butter, milk and juice balanced on my back.
‘Morning, sunshine!’ shouted Rosebud, the blood now dried to his face.
‘The last guy that called me sunshine is in a wheel chair now, kid.’ I said as menacingly as I could. It’s true; he called me sunshine and then ran out in front of a bus.
‘Uh oh, someone’s cranky!’ he cooed. Instinctively, I jumped up, picked up a chair and smashed it across his back.
‘Where’s Candy?’ I asked, in no mood for games.
‘Ohh maaaan, why you gotta kill our buzz?’ complained a crusty sitting in the sink. Before you could say ‘kick out the jams’, I’d reached into my holster and pulled out my favourite gun.
‘Where’s your buzz now, shortstack?’ I said, pointing it at his greasy head.
‘Dude,’ he began, holding his hands up. ‘She’s upstairs, OK? Jeez. I don’t see why you’ve gotta start threatening people with a banana. It’s just not groovy.’ Holding back a tear at the recollection of Groovy Kind of Love, I realised that some schnook had replaced my prized Colt.45 with some fruit.
‘I’ll be back for the piece!’ I called as I walked up the stairs. At the top I had to step over piles of comatose beatniks, being careful to only tread on the ugly ones.
Just as I was about to launch into a tirade against the youth of today, a bedroom door opened in front of me. There she was. Wearing nothing but a tiny negligee and a smile.
‘C-Candy,’ I stuttered.
‘Mr Flagpole, hello. Did you have a good time last night?’ she said.
‘I’m not gonna lie to you, kid, this kinda thing ain’t my scene.’
‘Oh, I think it could be if you gave it a chance,’ she said with a wink. ‘Anyway, I must get ready; I’ve got classes in an hour. I’ll see you tonight.’
‘Tonight?’ I said, thinking I was going to get some alone time with her.
‘Yes, silly. At the theatre. That thing you said you were going to do for me?’
‘Ah, ah yeah. That thing,’ I was lying worse than when I denied groping my secretary. ‘Sure. I’ll be there.’
‘Great,’ she said. ‘Be there for seven thirty.’ And with that, she leaned over a guy who was throwing up and gave me the best kiss of my life.
I was in such a good mood that day that the hours just flew by; problem was my mind wasn’t on the job. A guy came in wanting to find out as much info on his ex-wife as possible. I came back to him with as much info on Gary Coleman as possible. Apparently, on many occasions, he had at least an inkling of what it was that Willis was talking about, despite his protestations to the contrary.
That night I went through the same ritual I did the night before, and as I emerged, inky but triumphant from my bath, I thought about the night ahead. I planned to take her to One Eyed Dave’s Kosher Steakhouse for a ‘Shalom Sirloin’ or ‘Rabbi Rib-Eye’ after I met her at the theatre. One Eyed Dave is a great guy; even if his name is slightly misleading (he doesn’t have one eye. He has three.)
I arrived at the theatre stage-door for seven-thirty, having picked up some more mints from the deaf guy at the grocery store. When it got to seven-thirty-five, I thought she was fashionably late, when it got to seven-forty-five, I thought she was pushing it, when it got to eight I was about to turn and leave, that was until the door opened,
‘Mr Flagpole!’ it was Candy, in a spangly jumpsuit cut down to her waist. ‘Where have you been?’
Before I could answer, she pulled me through the door, and I was whisked into a whirlwind of bodies, things were stuck on me, people clasped my shoulders and kissed me on both cheeks, and I was pushed towards a large curtain.
‘What the-’ I looked around for familiar faces, people I’d never seen before were looking at me expectantly. ‘Candy?’ I called.
‘Here I am, Mr Flagpole,’ she beamed, standing next to a young, football playing type.
‘Who’s this?’ I asked, gesturing feebly.
‘Oh, this is Josh, my boyfriend,’ she said, ‘but there’s no time for introductions now, we’ll chat at the wrap party.’
‘Wrap party?’ This was too much, even for a seasoned tough guy like me.
‘Yeah, now are you ready? Your scene is next.’
‘Scene?’ I felt like a parakeet.
‘Yeah, now remember; you are a swan? OK?’
‘Good luck,’ she whispered and ran away into the wings. The curtains opened and I was blinded by the lights, but not enough to block out the three-hundred people staring back at me. And as I stood centre stage, wearing some kind of sparkly bib and quacking like a duck, this is what I thought:
That’s the last time I’ll hang out with performing arts students.