The House with a Clock in Its Walls
Black, more than anyone else, should have been the one to wind up The House with a Clock in Its Walls. Too bad he doesn't…
McKEESPORT, PA -- The sky hung low and dripping over the Sheraton Motor Inn, and Robert Mitchum hunched his shoulders against it and scooted around to the other side of the Mercury.
"I bought some of that lime spray," he told Tim Lawless, his friend. "Maybe she'll go for some of that lime spray."
"Lime spray," Tim said.
"You coming or staying?" Tim shouted out the window to another member of the company. "Staying?" He started the car and guided it down a ramp and onto a highway, turning left, which was, as it turned out, a fateful decision.
"This is, I would say, relaxing work," Mitchum said. "They don't push you too hard. While you're resting they say, would you mind carrying these anvils upstairs?"
"Jesus, what a lousy, crummy day," Tim said.
"And here it is only 2 in the afternoon," Mitchum said. "Reflect on the hours still before us. What time is the call for?"
"They're looking for you around 2:30, quarter to 3," Tim said. "You got it made."
"You know the way?" Mitchum said.
"Hell yes, I know the way," Tim said. "I was out here yesterday. Sons of bitches, picking locations way the hell the other side of hell and gone."
"Look at those kids," Mitchum said. Three or four kids had parked their motorcycles at an intersection and were sitting backward on the seats, in the drizzle, watching traffic. "Kids hanging around street comers," Mitchum said wonderingly as if that were a sight he didn't see much anymore. "Oogling, drooling..."
"Drooling," Tim said.
"Oogling," Mitchum said. "What do we gotta shoot this afternoon? We gotta jam our asses into those little cells again?"
"Those are the smallest cells I've ever seen," Tim said. "Can you imagine pulling solitary in one of those?"
"I did five days of solitary once, when I was a kid," Mitchum said. "In Texas. Of course, in Texas you might as well be in as out."
"You did solitary?" Tim said.
"I liked it," Mitchum said. "You read about Alvin Karpis, up in Canada? They finally let him out after 40 years or something. Son of a bitch walks outside, and the guy who put him in is still sitting there. J. Edgar. Son of a bitch does 40 years, the least we could do for him is not have J. Edgar still sitting there when he gets out a lifetime later."
"Karpis?" Tim said.
"I guess he was a real mean mother at one time," Mitchum said.
The wipers beat back and forth against the windshield, and on the sidewalks people put their heads down and made short dashes between dry places. We were in Pittsburgh, now, and the smoke and fog brought visibility down to maybe a couple of blocks.
"I'm glad we're shooting inside today," Tim said.
Mitchum whistled under his breath, and then began to sing softly to himself: Seventy-six trombones led the big parade...
With a hundred-and-ten cornets in the rear, Tim sang, banging time against the steering wheel.
"'A hundred and ten? Is that right?'" Tim said after awhile.
"All I know is the 76 trombones," Mitchum said. "I don't have time to keep pace with all the latest developments."
So how long you been in Pittsburgh? I asked.
"I was born here," Mitchum said, "and I intend to make it my home long after U.S. Steel has died and been forgotten. I intend to remain after steel itself has been forgotten. I shall remain, here on the banks of the Yakahoopee River, a grayed eminence...I used to come through here during the Depression. I don't think the place has ever really and truly recovered."
He reached in his pocket for a pipe, filled it carefully and lit up. "I find myself talking to the kids," he said. "And they say..."
He broke off as a Mustang with two girls in it pulled up next to the Mercury at a stoplight. Through the window at his side, he mouthed a warm suggestion. "Hey, baby, you want to..."
The Mustang pulled away.
"They don't have lip-readers worth a damn in this town," Mitchum said.
"But the kids. I was talking about the kids. They say they figure they owe the community about two more years, and then they're pulling out before they're flung headlong into despair."
"I don't think we went through a tunnel yesterday," Tim said.
"Well, we're going through a tunnel now," Mitchum said.
"Are you sure we're supposed to be on 79 and not 76?" Tim said.
"I think I'm sure," Mitchum said. "We were either supposed to sing '76 Trombones' to remind us to take 76 or to remind us not to. I'm not sure which.”
"You're not leading me down the garden path, are you, Bob?" Tim said.
"Route 79," Mitchum said. "Maybe it was 76. Or...Route 30?"
"This is the goddamn airport road," Tim said. "Look there. "
"Steubenville, Ohio," Mitchum said. "Jesus Christ, Tim, we're going to Steubenville, Ohio. Maybe it's just as well. Make a left turn at Steubenville and come back in on the Pennsylvania Turnpike..."
"Ohio's around here somewhere," Tim said.
"I've always wanted to make a picture in Ohio," Mitchum said. "Maybe I have. I was bitten by a rowboat once in Columbus."
There were three lanes of traffic in both directions, and Tim held grimly to the wheel, trying to spot a sign or an exit or a clue.
"The Vesuvius Crucible," Mitchum said. "Pull off here, and we'll ask at the Vesuvius Crucible. If anybody ought to know where they are, the Vesuvius Crucible ought to."
Tim took the next exit and drove into the parking lot of the Vesuvius Crucible. Mitchum rolled down the window on his side and called to a man inside the office: "Hey, can you tell us how to get to the Allegheny County Workhouse?"
"The what?" the man said.
"The Allegheny County Workhouse," Mitchum said.
"Hell, they closed that down back here six months ago," the man said. "It's empty now."
"We just want to visit," Mitchum said. "Old times' sake."
The man came out into the yard, scratching himself thoughtfully. "The Allegheny County Workhouse," he repeated. "Well, buster, you're real lost. You turn around here and go right back to downtown Pittsburgh. Take the underpass. When you get to downtown Pittsburgh, ask for directions there."
"How wide are we of the mark?" Mitchum said.
"Buster," the man said, "You're 38 or 40 miles away from where you should be."
"Holy shit," Mitchum said.
"I'm telling you," the man said, "they shut the workhouse down back here six, seven months ago. You won't find anybody there."
"Thanks just the same," Mitchum said.
Tim drove back up to the expressway overpass and came down pointed toward Pittsburgh. "We should have taken Route 8," he said.
"Sorry about that," Mitchum said. "There's the road to Monroeville. Ohio's around here somewhere."
"Nice countryside," Tim said. "You ought to buy it and build yourself a ranch."
"I could be the biggest rancher in Pittsburgh," Mitchum said. "Get up in the morning and eat ham and eggs in my embroidered pajamas. Some girl broke into the motel; did you hear about that? With a pair of embroidered PJs?"
"A great big red heart right over the rosette area," Mitchum said. "I've got an idea. Maybe we should hire a cab and have it lead us to the Allegheny County Workhouse."
"I don't even think we're in Allegheny County," Tim said.
Mitchum hummed "76 Trombones" under his breath and filled his pipe again.
This is your first picture since "Ryan's Daughter," right? I asked him. The picture is "Going Home," and Mitchum plays a man who murdered his wife years ago, gets out of prison and is confronted by his son.
"There's a funny thing about that," Mitchum said. "At the same time I was reading this script, I was also reading a script about a jazz musician in San Francisco. So I ask myself, do I want to play a jazz musician in San Francisco, or do I want to go out on location in some god-forsaken comer of McKeesport, Pa., and live in a motel for two months? No way. Noooo way. So these two guys come in, and we have a drink or two, and I sign the contract. On their way out, I say I'll see them in San Francisco. I thought they looked a little funny. Do you know what I did? I signed up for the wrong fucking movie.”
"Here's Route 8 right now," Tim said.
"That's Exit 8, not Route 8," Mitchum said.
"We're going to be real late," Tim said. "Real late."
"They can rehearse," Mitchum said. "They can practice falling off stairs, tripping over lights and shouting at each other in the middle of a take."
The car was back in the tunnel again now, headed the other way. Tim came down through a series of cloverleaves and found himself back on Route 79, headed for the airport.
"I'm lost," he said. "Baby, I am lost."
In desperation, he made a U-turn across six lanes of traffic and found himself on an up ramp going in the opposite direction with a cop walking slowly across the street toward him.
Mitchum rolled down his window. "Roll down your window," he told Tim. "Let's get a breeze in here." He shouted to the cop: "Hey, chief! We're lost! We been 40 miles out in the country, and here we are headed right back the same way again."
"'What are you doing making a U-turn against all that traffic?" the cop said. "You could go to jail for that."
"Hell, chief," Mitchum said, "that's where we're trying to go. We been looking for the Allegheny County Workhouse for the last two hours."
"They closed that down back here six months ago," the policeman said.
"We're shooting a movie out there," Mitchum said.
"Hey, you're Robert Mitchum, aren't you?" the cop said.
Mitchum pulled his dark glasses down on his nose so the cop could see more of his face and said: "We are so lost."
"I tell you what you do, Bob," the cop said. "You take this underpass and follow the road that curves off on your left before you get to the bridge."
"Thanks, chief," Mitchum said.
Tim drove onto the underpass, followed the road that curved off on the left before he got to the bridge and groaned.
"We're back on Route 79 heading for the airport," he said.
"Jesus Christ," Mitchum said. "Screw that cop. Screw that cop and the boat that brought him."
"Now we gotta go back through the tunnel," Tim said. "I'm upset. I am really upset."
On the other side of the tunnel, Tim pulled over next to a state highway department parking lot and backed into it down the exit ramp. A state employee came slowly out of a shed, wiping his hands on a rag and watching Tim's unorthodox entry.
"Ask that guy," Mitchum said. "Offer him a certain amount to lead us there with a snowplow."
Tim got out and received some instructions from the state employee. The instructions required a great deal of pointing and arm waving, and their essence seemed to be: Go back that way.
Tim tried it again, back through the tunnel, across the bridge, down the overpass to a red light where a police squad car was stopped in front of the Mercury. Mitchum jumped out of the car and hurried up to the squad for instructions. He got back just as the light turned green.
"You'll see a sign up here that says Blaunox," he said. "That's what we need. Blaunox."
"I'm out of gas," Tim said.
"I got a letter from John Brison today," Mitchum said. "John's in Dingle, in Ireland. Where we shot 'Ryan's Daughter."'
"I am really upset," Tim said.
"According to John," Mitchum said, "they've formed a Robert Mitchum Fan Club in Dingle. The membership is largely composed of unwed mothers and their brothers."
"Where the hell are we?" said Tim.
"That's what happens when you shoot on location," Mitchum said. "It's nothing but a pain in the ass."
He began to whistle "76 Trombones" again, softly, but not too softly.
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