First there was Doris, and several years after that, Helen.
By which I mean I found Doris first. I learned a lot about her and I thought I understood her pretty well. There were missing pieces, as there always are, but the story seemed nearly complete.
But one day in a cluttered antique store just off La Cienega in downtown L.A., I stumble upon a framed sepia photograph of two women lying in a large bed together.
They are bathed in light from several directions, so I know that the scene has been carefully lit by a photographer. The woman on the left is half-sitting, propped up on her right elbow. Doris, unmistakably. The other woman—I don’t know her—is lying down, her head on the topmost of a pile of pillows, hands tucked up under her chin.
They are both beautiful. Dressed chastely in simple white cotton nightgowns, they stare directly at the camera, looking slightly amused. The scene is posed and has subtle discordant notes. Such as, if they’re just waking up or just turning in, why is the unknown woman so carefully made up? Is it my imagination, or are they just a little bit drunk? Why has Doris, who dominates the scene, worn lace-up shoes to bed?
The photo is clearly the work of a professional photographer. Who has hired this photographer, and why?
I turn the picture over. The frame job is shoddy. Four rusted brads, one per side, hold a scuffed and slightly torn brown cardboard backing in place. The cardboard has started working its way out past the brads, which are tunneling through it. I ask the store manager if I can take the cardboard off to see the back of the print.
“Sure,” he says, shrugging. “Twenty bucks.” The price of the framed print.
I hand him the money, which he puts in the cash drawer. Reaching deeper into the drawer, he feels around and pulls out a pair of needle nose pliers and hands them to me. A nice gesture, which I appreciate—maybe he’s curious, too. I waggle the brads gently, one by one, until they come out. The cardboard lifts out easily, exposing the back of the print. I see a photographer’s stamp in slightly smudged black ink:
Edwin Bower Hesser
34 West 58th Street
New York, New York
There is nothing else. No other names, no date. No hint as to what Doris is doing there or who this other woman is.