UNITED STATES—For three years, Morris Stewart had been systematically evicting everyone from DeVille Manor, soon to be torn down to make way for the Stewart Art Condominiums. A footnote: Morris himself went to art school. Interestingly, the old apartment house was built for artists: the courtyard full of ferns was flanked by apartments with very high windows, meant for an artists’ studios. It was a rare place. During World War II, it had been home to an expatriate surrealist painter who promptly went home to Paris after the war ended. They say he hated to leave DeVille Manor, but his departure was hastened by fears of being charged in the Black Dahlia murder case.
For Christmas the courtyard was lit by inviting lanterns, the weeping pepper trees and ferns adorned with sprays of red and white holiday lights. Most people just hurried by, oblivious; but oddballs and perceptive souls would stop on the sidewalk to glimpse, beyond the narrow gate, an oasis of green and beauty. They couldn’t believe their eyes. A city official had overstepped the bounds of his office and installed a plaque commemorating a surrealist’s sojourn in Hollywood. You would think these venerable ties to the past would make the building impervious to the wrecking ball. Not so.
Morris Stewart had a plan to turn the 16 rental units with a marble fountain in the central courtyard into a rectangular glass and cement cube containing 60 singles. It would run at full capacity, given the continuing new influx of actors, dancers, and hipsters and their need for a roof over their heads. The human being in Morris Stewart liked DeVille Manor as it was; the businessman in him knew that the current figures were untenable: he was losing money.
The DeVille had been a Bohemian paradise, with long-term tenants happy as clams and addicted to low rent, meanwhile, the property tax and the costs of insurance were climbing sharply. It was impossible to turn a profit. Improbable as it seems: the Bentley-driving Morris Stewart was a poor little rich boy, just trying to get something under the Christmas tree, like everyone else. Stewart’s second wife, Lana, was psychic, and she once said Morris has been a businessman in past lives, and now he was fed up with it, and was on to superior endeavors involving art, expression and charity. She wasn’t psychic in everything, like the trophy wife in waiting who usurped her, but her kooky theory explained the ambivalence that often vexed him.
Now, as he lived with his trophy wife, Morris’ pursuit of money on her behalf was fiendish and he preferred the clear monetary gains of business. There was a spirit that had Morris humming ‘Deck the Halls’ this season. They were down to the very last tenant in the old building as Christmas neared, Christmas, the rite of goodwill and giving. Morris went to the DeVille Manor to meet with the last stickler standing, and receive the keys. They had a deal; Gil would be moving out and would avoid eviction: a legal process that would forever rend him as unrentable. After a pause, the beret wearing, bushy mustached, Gil Talbott shuffled to the door. Another day, it would be the sheriffs with a locksmith on hand. Morris’ good spirits didn’t help avoid a last pang of regret as he knocked on Gil’s door. The old man had known him years earlier as a boy when he did sweeping for his father, from whom he inherited the property.
The noisy process of opening a series of chains and bolt locks concluded, and the old artist opened the door a few inches. It was obvious Gil hid something behind the door.
“Happy holidays,” Morris said.
“I have a present for you,” said Gil, a twinkle in his rheumy eyes. “Here’s your present.”
Out came a shotgun. “Merry Christmas.”
To be continued…
Grady Miller is the author of “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet,” a holiday survival guide (available on Amazon).