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Put The Blame On Steele

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Storytelling used to have rules.

Remington Steele misses those. They're just about the only rules he's ever had any use for; all the others were made to be broken. But the law code of cinema is sacred, to him, and any movie made after the 1970s -- when Realism and other blackguards invaded his realm -- he considers highly suspect. In Steele's opinion, reality is grievously overrated.

No, he prefers the kind of stories that they used to tell. Stories that glowed in black-and-white, where women wore satin, and cigarette smoke was as sweet and ethereal as fog. In those stories, there were rules, and because of the rules, he always knew very early on what sort of a story it was going to be. You knew that the sparring lovers would reconcile, that the tragic lovers would be parted forever, and that the kids' show would make all the money needed to save the farm. The ending was there, waiting to be delivered to you, like the superb dish you'd ordered at a four-star restaurant; the pleasure was all in the anticipation. Surprises were in the margins, a bit of stage business here or there that could delight. When it came to the ending -- the most important part -- no surprises were found or required.

Perhaps this is why he's always found the situation with Laura so damned unbearable. After all these years, he still hasn't a clue how it's all going to turn out.

When he first met her, she'd struck him as a Stanwyck type -- though even lovelier than Barbara Stanwyck herself, which is almost heretical but undeniably true. Considering "Christmas in Connecticut" and "Meet John Doe," it seemed obvious; who but a Stanwyck would simply invent another human being and expect nobody to ask questions? The resemblance lay in more than that, of course. She was feisty and smart, not the sort to get her heart broken easily, if ever. Best of all, a Stanwyck wouldn't be averse to a discreet but passionate fling. Steele had imagined Laura beckoning him from behind a half-closed door, then shutting it behind them as the screen faded to black.

Steele has always been very good at imagining what happens after the screen fades to black.

Then came the single most brilliant event in Steele's life to date, which is saying quite a lot: He assumed the part of Remington Steele, took Laura's script and stepped in front of the cameras. (At the time, he thought it would make an engaging adventure; it wasn't very long before he knew he'd found his role, the way Bogart found Sam Spade.) A Stanwyck would have found his masquerade very, very funny -- annoying, perhaps, but also hilarious, and would instantly have begun twisting the story to make sure she gave him as much merry hell as he was giving her. Steele -- he has thought of himself as Steele from that moment on -- was rather looking forward to the games.

Instead, he saw Laura's eyes widening, her shoulders squaring, every inch of her afire with righteous indignation. At that moment, for the first time -- though, sadly, not for the last -- Steele realized he'd made a terrible miscalculation regarding Laura Holt. She was no Stanwyck. No, he was dealing with a Hepburn.

(Katharine, of course. Steele adores "Roman Holiday" and "Sabrina," but it is impossible to imagine Audrey Hepburn running a detective agency, or for that matter engaging in any activity that does not involve wearing a tiara.)

If he'd understood that he was dealing with a Hepburn, then Steele would have been better braced for Laura's anger, her cool distance, and her distrust of his decision to lead a fictional life. Stanwyck saw the fundamental division of humanity as being between rubes and players; for Hepburn, the lines were between Good and Bad, and through such lenses playacting looked distressingly close to lying. Steele had to do some rethinking, and fast.

Hepburn was not at all the type for a discreet fling. Her flings led only to tragedy, which was why, in all her best roles, Hepburn played for keeps and won. Steele has spent most of his life trying not to play for keeps, but Laura has made him consider it, for the first and last time in his life.

When he cast her with Hepburn, though, the prospect was daunting. Hepburn's greatest match was Spencer Tracy -- and Steele can wear many masks, live in many guises, but Spencer Tracy is not one of them. Coffee-drinking, cigar-chomping, slangy talk and stained neckties: Steele shudders at the very thought. Murphy Michaels, however, suggested that sort of mangy, down-at-the-heels charm, a fact that worried Steele considerably in the early days.

Then again, there was always "The Philadelphia Story." A Hepburn could also strike sparks with a Cary Grant, and Steele knew he was better than just about anyone else at being Cary Grant.

As time went on, though, he began to wonder if Laura were really a Hepburn after all. If one were describing Hepburn, one of the first adjectives that would spring to mind would be "aristocratic." That's not his Laura at all. She's as comfortable shinnying down a fire escape in a sweater and blue jeans as she is sipping champagne and making small talk at a society bash. She knows that she prefers foie gras to pate, but she also seems to have memorized the phone numbers of every cheap Chinese take-out joint in the greater Los Angeles area.

If one were describing Hepburn, one of the adjectives that would never spring to mind is "vulnerable." The Great Kate might falter, she might yearn -- but even in tragedy, she never seemed to have been beaten from without. Hepburn alone determined whether she would succeed or fail. Laura would like to think of herself that way as well, but after his first few months at the agency, Steele knew that it just wasn't true. He's seen Laura hurt, and seen her pick herself up again, but it was startling how soon he knew her well enough to see the scars she tried to hide. Sometimes he's had to know that he was the one to blame. Steele hated that, the realization that he could leave permanent marks on anyone, in any way.

No. Laura wasn't a Hepburn. She was both too fragile and too flexible. But then who was she? By the end of his third year with the agency, he had cast the role several times, and cast each actress aside.

She was too resilient to be a Vivien Leigh. (For him, "A Streetcar Named Desire" is Leigh's archetypal role.)

She was too sexy to be Irene Dunne. (Steele raises his eyes to heaven and asks Irene's forgiveness for even admitting the thought.)

She was too sure of herself to be Marilyn Monroe. (Besides, the coloring and build are all wrong; Steele does try to cast to type.)

She wasn't sure enough of herself to be Rita Hayworth. (Steele clung to this casting longer than he should have, because of the story ending it suggested -- a consummation involving silk sheets, lace lingerie and laughter. Even months after he finally let it go, he would find himself humming "Put The Blame On Mame" when Laura was around.)

Laura was too much of a woman to be Paulette Goddard, but she was too much of a girl to be Rosalind Russell. She was too funny to be Joan Fontaine, but she was too fierce to be Carole Lombard. Actress after actress, they all proved to be less brilliant or less determined or less warm - always, somehow less than Laura. Never in his life had Steele thought to find a woman who defied his pantheon of goddesses, who outshone every one of them. For a brief time, he thought reality might not be overrated after all.

But he learned otherwise in short order. Steele sought his true name (without ever, for a moment, intending to abandon the Remington role; he thought of it as a sabbatical), and found only disappointment. He tried to follow the rules of Laura's relationship talks, sensible advice about giving each other space and arguing fairly and the like. Instead of growing closer, they grew apart. Instead of understanding one another, they seemed trapped in endless confusion and dismay. Their banter turned bitter. All that sensibility and practicality and rationality only made things worse; their relationship couldn't breathe such dry air.

He knew that Laura sensed it too, but there seemed to be no going back. The bubble, he thought, was off the champagne. They'd waited too long.

Steele has, throughout his life, been a man who knew the cue for his final scene. Leave 'em wanting more, the old saw goes - and he generally did, exiting stage right at the perfect moment. Denouement is not among his many specialties.

But when it came t o Laura - he couldn't.

It didn't matter if she frowned at him more than she laughed. It didn't matter if her criticisms of his character were becoming both more painful and more accurate. It didn't matter that the greater success of the detective agency meant that he was spending less time being chauffeured around town and more time working on things like spreadsheets. Spreadsheets! Cary Grant never came within a mile of a spreadsheet in his life; Steele's certain of it. At his very lowest, Steele began to doubt that he still had any Cary Grant in him. Oh, he had the clothes, the car, the sophisticated manner of speech, but it was all just a little more - lightweight. Closer to, well, David Niven.

Finding one's self cast with David Niven is as good a cue to depart as Steele's ever had. But he didn't leave. He hung in there, through pain and peril and, worst of all, sheer boredom. When confusion turned to convolution and he found himself married to Laura - not in a frothy, delectable, "Father of the Bride" ceremony but in a dismal, infuriating rush - Steele knew, at last, there was no going back.

He'd tried explaining to Laura that if she'd arranged Remington Steele's papers differently, the green card difficulties would never have arisen. This had not improved her temper, which was then at such a pitch that he wondered for a while if he should have cast her with Joan bloody Crawford.

She was therefore in no mood for him to explain any of the other things he'd wanted to say to her, the softer words he wanted to speak. Steele wanted to tell Laura that she'd deserved so much more than that: a chapel full of flowers, a dress Edith Head might have designed on her best day and a proposal born of love, not necessity - and that such a proposal, at least, was something he could have given her. And should have done a long time ago, a long time before they came to this.

Considering how badly their marriage began, Steele thinks they've come a long way; four months in, and the anger has faded. They are cooperating again, playing on the same team instead of opposing sides. Tony Roselli, for a brief and yet too long a time his challenger for Laura's affections, appears to have recognized that he is a Ralph Bellamy and has vanished. Finally, at long last, they have gone to bed, and if the experience bore little resemblance to the dazzling consummation he'd always dreamed of (what with the phone ringing off the hook, cheap sheets, a drafty room and no laughter), it was still warm, and sweet. Even tender.

The wedding was only meant to placate the immigration officials, but those officials have backed off, and Laura hasn't. Steele doesn't intend to either. But not a word has been spoken, not a single line of promise or commitment. It is as if one wrong word will shatter the spell, and this is quite possibly true.

They're back in Los Angeles now, refurbishing the agency, making a life together. Moving into a shared apartment was strange to Steele; he'd never been in such a position before, negotiating over who possessed the better coffeemaker, the superior lamps. Steele had been wondering when the time would be right to raise the question of his posters, but to his surprise, she simply hung those on the walls without even asking. Surely, with Humphrey and Ingrid and Jimmy and Grace watching over them, his idols and patron saints, he and Laura will be all right. Steele wants to believe that very badly.

But there is no question that he and Laura are not leading the brilliant life he'd dreamed of, the one they could have had. The pleasures they have seem to be cut from a humbler cloth. This, he suspects, is Realism. It has its virtues, but he misses their old magic.

So tonight, they are sitting in the living room - their living room - comfortably occupied in separate pursuits. Laura's snuggled up with a book, some Jane Austen or other, and he is sitting on the floor to rearrange his videotapes, which were unpacked completely out of chronological order. Steele tells himself, bracingly, that this is marriage. He loves Laura, and she loves him, and these bare facts put them ahead of most married couples, if statistics are to be believed.

If it is not sparkling and bright all the time, it's comfortable and safe and strong. It's just not dramatic. There is a reason, after all, that movies end with weddings instead of marriages.

He looks down at the videotape in his hands; the hand-lettered title reads "The Thin Man." Steele needs no additional notation to tell him that's 1934, after "Grand Hotel" but before --

Wait.

The answer comes to him in a flash, a lens flare of light that takes Steele's breath away. How could he not have seen it before?

Myrna Loy! Laura is a Myrna Loy.

Oh, he knows all Loy's roles, from "The Crimson City" to "Cheaper by the Dozen," but she is now and forever Nora Charles from the Thin Man series. In other words, she was one half of the greatest detective team of all time, Nick and Nora, husband and wife, inseparable partners, playmates and companions.

Nick and Nora's story didn't end with a wedding; they were married before the story had even begun. They didn't stop having fun with each other, or solving crimes together, even though they argued and bickered from time to time. Nick and Nora understood how to live with style; Steele's always known that. But now, for the first time, he realizes that the Charleses also understood how to be married.

Thank God. Steele thought he'd never know his lines again. But now he has cue cards, and the words are exactly what he most wanted to say.

Of course, he has to recast himself - but William Powell's not a bad way to go, really. He's a bit friendlier than Cary Grant, isn't he? A little more -- flexible. Down to earth, yet still with a bit of a rakish air. Powell aged well, too. No, that won't be bad at all. Now he just has to make sure his wife learns her lines.

"Laura," he says, patting her foot. She looks up, dark hair falling across her cheek as she does so. "That book - have you read it before?"

"Northanger Abbey?" Laura smiles fondly. "Dozens of times, ever since I was a girl."

"A favorite, then. You, ah, already know the ending." When she nods, he slides to the foot of the couch and holds his hand out for the book. She hands it to him without bothering to mark her place; he realizes that she knows it too well for that. As he runs his hands across the cathedral pictured on the cover, he says, "Then would you consider picking up your reading again later? Tomorrow, perhaps?"

"Why, Mr. Steele." Laura still calls him that; he finds it strangely endearing. "What did you have in mind?" The slow smile on her face tells him what she's thinking, and ordinarily he'd take her up on the idea. But they've been smoothing over their problems in bed lately, as though the fact that they're finally lovers can solve everything else, and it can't. No, more direct steps are called for.

He says, "We should watch some movies."

"Movies?" She arches one eyebrow, then shakes her head. "Okay. What did you have in mind?"

"There are six films in the 'Thin Man' series. Obviously best to watch them in order, but in many ways 'Song of the Thin Man' feels as though it deserves an earlier place in the timeline -"

"Wait, wait." Her fingertips press against his lips. "Six films? Tonight? It's already nine o'clock."

"On a Friday night. Were we but a few years younger, we would scarcely have begun our evening's revels." Steele smiles as he kisses her hand.

"We're old married people now."

"And our revels are merely more private," Steele insists. "Not over."

Laura smiles more broadly, and when she tugs his hand he takes the hint to sit beside her on the sofa. "All the same, we don't have to watch them all tonight."

"Perhaps not. But I want you to see each one." He glances over at the videotapes, still spilling out on the floor, out of order. "And after that, perhaps, we can begin a sort of chronological tour through cinema history. What do you think? I realize most people have scant interest in silents these days, although I'm sure you'd appreciate Chaplin -"

"Wait - you want me to watch every single movie you've ever seen?"

Steele considers this. "Well, I wouldn't put anyone else through 'The Life of Emile Zola' even once, and I've no interest in seeing it twice."

"I watch old movies with you sometimes," Laura says. She looks more dismayed than delighted. "But all of them? We'll never leave the house again!"

"I can think of worse fates." He grins at her, but she is still staring at the pile of videotapes in front of them. "Seriously, Laura. We're going to spend the rest of our lives together. We have the time."

She turns to him, and her face is serious now. For a moment, Steele thinks that she looks younger; then he realizes that she is simply looking at him with less certainty than he's seen in her expression for a long time. "Do you mean that? About us spending the rest of our lives together."

"We're man and wife, remember? I distinctly recall something in the vows about 'til death do us part.' Or does my memory deceive me?"

"We took those vows out of necessity," Laura replied. "You know that as well as I do."

"Our wedding wasn't what it ought to have been," he replies, taking her hands in his again. "In so many ways - the immigration trouble, the subterfuge -"

"-the fishing boat -"

"Perhaps we shouldn't dwell on the past." Steele can see her hackles rising at the memory, and he doesn't really blame her. "The point is - those vows we took -- I meant every word. I always will." This next question may send the plot spinning in a direction he won't like, but it has to be asked, all the same. And the sooner the better - Steele's not greatly into suspense. "Did you?"

"I - I don't know - maybe I hoped -- I guess I never thought that you seriously - that you could ever -" Laura is gaping at him as though she's never seen him before. "But you do mean it, don't you? "

"Most certainly."

"You're ready for - mortgages. Bills. Joint checking accounts."

"We had all those arguments and settled them at the agency. Good thing that's already taken care of, eh?"

"You're willing to watch me get old and gray."

"If you're willing to watch me." Loy was always luminous, all the way through to "Airport 1975."

"I wouldn't miss it." Even her arched eyebrow can't diminish the warmth behind her words. "I've always wanted to see how your story would end up."

"That makes two of us. But I've hoped for a long time that it would end up with you." So much of a line is in the delivery; Steele's always known that, but he feels it anew when he sees Laura's eyes as he speaks.

She squeezes his hand, uncertain again for a moment. "And children? Have you ever thought about children? I used to think I didn't want to be a mother, but in the last year or so - well --"

Not a problem. Nick and Nora had Nicky Jr., after all, although they waited until "Another Thin Man." Steele takes her hands again. "Absolutely, yes, we should have children. After a few years, mind you, but definitely. And - first, perhaps, we ought to get a dog."

"For practice?"

"And comic relief." Laura laughs, as though he's made the world's most delightful joke. After she watches the movies, she'll understand.

She embraces him tightly, and he holds her for a long time, neither of them saying a word. After a while, she sighs, and it feels as though she's letting go of more than one breath. Whatever it is that has held Laura at bay, whatever it is that's kept her from feeling safe for so long - maybe that's gone now. Or maybe it's only begun to loosen its grip on her. Steele can wait until it finally sets her free. He will outlast it; he will endure, and for once he doesn't need to think of a movie where the hero did the same thing. He's going to do it, and that's enough.

"I love you," she whispers.

"And I love you, Mrs. Steele."

Her mouth quirks in something that's not quite a smile. "I told you, I'm keeping my name."

"I took my name from you in the first place." he reminds her. "Don't you think it's time you took it back?"

Steele expects her to argue, but instead she grins, just the way Myrna Loy might have done. "You know, I never thought of it that way."

They kiss, and the kiss is better than the one at the wedding, better even than any they've shared in bed. Steele thinks that soon the screen is going to fade to black, and for once, reality may be even finer than his imagination.

"These films are favorites of yours?" Laura whispers against his cheek. "You already know the ending?"

"I could consider watching the films with you later - after --" he agrees, between kisses. Videotape is truly a marvelous invention. "Yes, I know the ending."

How absurd it was of him to worry! But then Steele realizes: Of course he despaired of everything working out in the end. Audiences never do, but he hasn't been in the audience this time - he has been the leading man. The characters always give up on love in the third act, and they never see the happy endings coming, not until the moment they arrive.

THE END