She felt a little uneasy and half regretted her decision to sally forth on her own. Not that she and her sister were joined at the hip, so to speak; they had each lived their independent adult lives for years. But Los Angeles was new – a strange city to her and strange in many ways – a world apart from Minneapolis. People here were so informal: a consequence, she supposed, of not being confined indoors half of the year. It was wonderful; she embraced the freedom of it, nevertheless, all that spontaneity was off-putting, alarming at times. You never knew what someone was going to do.
It was reassuring to have a companion. Two middle-aged women armed with paint boxes appeared less approachable, a united front, while alone, in this easy going society, she practically invited intrusion, curiosity, downright meddling. Art criticism by an unwashed habitue of MacArthur Park : That looks pretty, lady, but you’ve got the fountain in the wrong place, actually was less annoying than a raised eyebrow by a fellow student at the art institute.
At any rate, although Hughberta was busy, Zora had committed herself to a solo Echo Park outing. Smaller, more intimate than MacArthur, its bowered pathways and the arched bridge to nowhere – a tiny island in a very small lake – charmed her. Echo Park ‘s seclusion was enticing her this day, even though the prospect of strolling around there by herself made her a little nervous.
Clutching a Grumbacher sketching pad, Zora exited the bus at Belmont and made her way through a pathway encroached by a tangle of leathery vines and bright yellow bushes. It was mid-March, still winter back in Minnesota, but the California sunshine on her face that day felt as clean and bracing as a splash of cologne; the spicy scent of young blooms and ancient eucalyptus invigorated in an exotic way, hinting perhaps at something – enigmatic.
A glimpse of weathered blue assured her that her surmise was accurate and that she was approaching her quarry: an exotic old building hidden by years of unrestrained vegetation. Several weeks earlier, Zora had caught sight of something large and intriguing and it had become something of a minor obsession. Now here she was, closing in on the place, probably in the front yard, however from there it looked as though the building could only be approached with the help of a machete and a team of ground-beaters. She imagined herself wearing a pith helmet, armed with a viper gun. In trepidation she drew nearer, stepping off the path into the underbrush, making her way a few feet, then discovered that the building wasn’t completely inaccessible. An old walkway of crumbled concrete invaded by weeds turned out to be manageable and she proceeded up a series of wide steps. With delight, she beheld the mansion: an unusual, foreign-looking edifice, odd angles, domes, Mediterranean-type arches. With dismay, she beheld a figure sitting on the tiered stairway, midway to the open portico.
He was wearing a hat, a fedora, striking her as somewhat unusual; she had seldom seen a man in a hat since arriving in LA. He nodded to her, noted her sketchbook.
“Nice day for art.”
Oh bother. This was going to be one of those busy-bodies.
“I’ve been wanting to sketch this place for a while. It wasn’t easy to find.”
The gentleman in the hat stood and started down the steps.
“You don’t need my old frame intruding in your picture.”
Zora smiled. He seemed harmless. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to disrupt your rest.”
“That’s alright. I come here frequently to clear my mind. I will return.”
“Clear your mind? Here?” she glanced at trees wrapped with vines, out of control bushes and grasses nearly smothering a building with broken windows, listing slightly to one side.
“This seems a strange spot for meditation.”
“Do you know anything about this place?” He was now standing beside her, an arm raised to the cracked dome. “At the beginning of the century, this was the Victor Segno Mentalist Institute.”
“Mentalist? What does that mean?”
“He believed that thought operates in waves, like radio. Folks from all over the world subscribed to his metaphysics. Upon request, he and his disciples, from these domed towers, would induce a state of intense contemplation, sending a mental response to the petitioner.”
Zora laughed. “What a racket. There must have been quite a bit of money involved. Mr. Segno didn’t build his magnificent mansion with pure thought.”
The gentleman nodded. “People paid him well for his service.”
“I get the feeling that you half believe something real happened here.”
“I couldn’t say. I just walk up the steps and sit a while. It clears my mind.”
He walked down the stairs and disappeared among the bushes.
“Stuff and nonsense,” Zora muttered as she opened her pad and fished around in her purse for her pencils. Los Angeles! No end to the crazy stories.
She sat down on a cracked cement post staring at the old place, fascinated by the curious architecture, and pictured the charlatan entranced in his tower. She thought of a young woman, her face streaked with tears, writing to Victor Segno; she imagined a grim faced businessman in suit and tie desperately reaching out to the west coast wizard; she saw a careworn mother, beside the photograph of her son in uniform pleading for a miracle. Images scrolled by: disconsolate people, down to their last hope, frivolous daydreamers, yearning for riches they would never earn.
“Poor gullibles,” she thought, but she felt neither compassion nor disdain. She sat there, as the visions of Segno’s correspondents wafted away with the springtime breeze. Her mind cleared; she saw the ruined Mentalist Institute for the compelling composition it posed.
Finally, she began to sketch. She felt inspired.
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