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Shades of Scarlett

I’D JUST MISSED THE LOUSY A-TRAIN for the third time in two weeks: a half- hour late again and this the day the big chief was coming in for a staff meeting –and there she was: an amazing-looking dame –if that’s the right word for the lady I was seeing– dressed to the nines in the 178th Street station –miles from Carnegie Hall of the Opera, or even the 55th Street shopping area. Dressed for the Waldorf, or at least lunch at Sardi’s– at nine-oh-five on a Monday morning. September 12th, 1955 to be precise. She looked like she shouldna even been up before noon, but here she was in a tiny black dress with a frilly collar, a big red cinch belt, red spikes to set your heart on fire, and a tiny red bag (leather?) and pillbox hat to match. And that was just the trimmings. Herself was pretty ritzy too –honey blond with a red-lipped smile that she’d turned full blast on this porky little business-type fella who turned all pink in the face and held up his newspaper like he was afraid he’d catch fire if he watched her. I swear, his lily-white hands were shaking. But that didn’t faze her: she just tripped along over to another dame, a blue-rinse type who liked to think she was classy –ice wouldn’t melt in her mouth– you know the kind: makes like she takes the subway only once a decade and then just to make sure it’s still there… There was this little bit of paper in the blonde’s hand –red-gloved hand, that is– like a note with some address or something. Well, Iceberg wasn’t about to melt for this one either. Then she looked up, straight at me, and I thought, uh-oh, here comes the news of the day, full-tilt. I just stood there watching her and thinking –where the hell is she from?! I soon found out.

“Why young man, sir, I’d be right obliged if you would just aid me in finding my way to this here address I have writ down on this little piece of paper? I do believe I have overshot my stop and am now at a loss as to how to make my way back.” Wild horses, West Virginia and shades of Scarlett O’Hara. “I guess this is just another one of my New York adventures!” And she let out the tinklingest laugh I’d ever heard in these gloomy subterranean tunnels. “I should introduce myself, ’twould be the proper hospitable thing to do, now wouldn’t it? I’m Isabel Gaffney, pleased to make your acquaintance.” A red glove hovered expectantly in front of my chest, so I took it and mumbled –I never got any prizes for elocution, I tell ya– “Pleased to meetcha, Miss Gaffney–”

“Oh, no!” red gloves waved dismissingly in the air “it’s Missis Gaffney, though” a glance at the red-gloved hand “of course, you couldn’t have known, now could you –not that I plan to keep wearing that wretched band of fool’s gold–” She broke off and I held my breath, thinking –OK, Miss Lonelyhearts, here’s your big scoop and you’re all out of hankies– but she kind of blinked her eyes real fast and went on “Well no, Mister–”

“Bealin. Jake Bealin’s the name, Ma’am.”

“–Mr. Bealin, I would be awfully obliged to you for some good instruction as to how I might get to this establishment here: it’s–” she peered at the paper and turned it towards me “‘Sayks Fith Avenoo’. Does that mean it truly is on Fith Avenoo?” I nodded. Sweet Georgia Brown! “And what would be the cross-street?” I told her. I was right, she was due at the shopping plaza for a spree with some New York relations no doubt– “Am I– is this the proper train to bring me to my destination, this A-train here?” I nodded again: “We just missed it, and I’m late for work again.”

“Oh, my, we just missed this train? And how often, pray tell, does it come whistling through this dark and deafening tunnel, Mr. Bealin?” Her smile was de Luxe.

“Every fifteen minutes until nine and every half-hour thereafter. Ergo, I am one half-hour late.”

“Well, then, I s’ppose there’s nothing to stop us furtherin’ our acquaintance then, is there! I have an appointment for ten o’clock, but I left a wee bit extra early just in case. You know how it is– a body doesn’t wish to be tardy for her very first job interview, now, does she!” Job interview? ‘First’ job interview?! This was getting kind of interesting in more ways than expected, I thought.

“At Saks Fifth Avenue?” She certainly had the class…

“Why yes. I’ve always kept on top of the fashion trends, even down in Charlottesville. I know you Northerners think us rather quaint and provincial –her jaw jutted out just a little and I clamped my teeth so as not to smile– “but we do get the New Yorker, you know, and I have always made it a point to keep abreast of what the North was wearin’.” I bit my tongue. “So I thought to myself, ‘Isabel dear, you are in a crisis of Desperate Proportions, and when you get to New York you must buy one of those beautiful fall outfits, something very smart and sheek, and go on down to the best and finest and most fashionable store they have and get yourself a proper job. As a fashion consultant. And then you will be a truly independent woman and not be beholden to anyone, especially not Richard Gaffney;’– that’s my husband, you know– though I did have to charge this extraordinary little outfit to his account as I do not yet have a job or income of my own.” She sighed. “My friend Kay offered –very kindly, for she is a very busy lady and a true good friend– to set me up, as she called it, with a television producer and perhaps do some TV commercials, but I said, ‘No, Kay, I thank you from the bottom of my grateful heart for your kindness and hospitality, but I have made up my mind to become an independent woman, and I must do this on my own merits!’” I stood there, watching her red gloves gesture through the air like a pair of birds on manoeuvres, where does this woman come from. she’s an innocent, a babe in arms– only New York’s arms were likely to leave her a bit bruised... television producers, my eye... I kept hoping the A-train’d be even later than usual as I listened to her... “husband a bounder and a scoundrel… so-called best friend, everyone knew but me...ten-year-old daughter...start a new life and bring Laura up here...love Gramercy Park…treated well, dinner theatre, ballet with Kay and her charming friends... sometimes a bit forward...Now that I have been here a full week, it is time to get down to business. That is the nitty gritty of it all; what everything comes to is money, isn’t it? The awful greenback. But I am bound and determined to do my personal best in this matter– ” The train screeched into the station cutting her off and I thought real fast– do I do the Good Samaritan number, keep tabs on her so she doesn’t fall down a manhole or get run over by some looney cab driver or mugged by a hophead? or do I kiss-off and let New York take care of her. The doors opened and we found ourselves pushed in by the other commuters who had collected in the past half-hour. The doors squealed shut, almost taking the porky business dude’s shoe with them, and we grabbed bar straps as the car lurched forward. Over the clang! clang! shudder! shudder! clang! of the heaving train she continued to chatter.

“If Sayks Fith Avenoo does not wish to hire my services, I shall try Bonwit Tellers and I. Magnin. I just hope these little red shoes of mine” she twisted her foot on one heel “will hold out and carry me where I must go. The shoeclerk at Florsheim insisted that they fit me perfectly, even though he needed a shoehorn to get my little old foot in. There was no other pair quite like these charming red things, so I went against my better judgement and feminine intuition, and purchased them. Of course, I would have hired a car to Sayks, seeing as it is the most fashionable women’s store in the North, but I truly could not afford one and so I said to myself, ‘Isabel, this here is bound to be another exciting adventure, a golden opportunity to see the Northerners in their natural millyou.” I made up my mind.

“Lissen, Mrs. Gaffney–” “Oh, please, do call me Isabel, I feel that you are a right good friend of mine, allowing me to talk your patient little ear off in this fashion. May I call you ‘Jake’?”

“Sure. Listen, Isabel–” I had to talk fast as the next stop was hers “–I‘d like to give you my card. I‘ll be downtown at the bureau today, but should you need er...ah, in case uhm– Look, just give me a call and let me know how it went for ya. Here.” Her red-gloved hand rose in surprise and she smiled a pleased smile as she took the card and read it. “‘Jake Bealin, reporter-at-large’? Why, that’s right kind of you. I shall be able to call you and tell you about my new job this afternoon!” My heart sank like a lead shoe and I almost decided to get out with her, give her some good pointers and set her in the right direction, but I figured her pride would be mortally wounded, she really needed to find out for herself and I thought– some sob-sister! you’re too chicken to give two bits’ worth of good advice, you meatgrinder. We pulled into Columbus Circle. “This is it, Isabel!” I’ve given her my card… “Good luck to ya and make sure you call!” She waved exuberantly at me as she got off, blew a kiss with those impossibly red lips –I thought I was in a Marilyn Monroe movie– and began to walk away, black dress swinging confidently below the tiny red-cinched waist. Then she turned to wave one last time before the doors cut me off.

*

“…‘Well, this has not been the most productive morning, Isabel Gaffney, has it,’ I said to myself, ‘You have wandered over hell’s half acre’ –you understand, I was merely speaking with my self– ‘and they most certainly did not desire your services at Sayks…nor did they at Bonwit Teller’s or I. Magnin’s. That last man looked at you distinctly queer, as if it were somehow pee-cue-lear that you might be wanting a job as fashion consultant–’”

“He looked at you ‘queer’, Mrs. Gaffney…?”

“Oh yes, in fact he looked at me a bit the way you did just now, Dr. Rinehart,” Isabel giggled, “not quite believing me. In fact,” she giggled, more nervously this time, “I am not certain that I believe you, Mr. Doctor. If I were not in a public hospital in New York City, I might feel a little bit frightened of this situation.” Her voice grew serious. “I would dearly appreciate being informed as to your intentions: you have succeeded in worming out of me –not that a woman as chatty as I needs much worming– ” she smiled deprecatingly, “with your clever little questions, my entire life’s story. And you have confiscated my favourite cinch belt and my handbag as well. Not to mention my little red shoes, though they are most certainly the villains of this affair.”

“Your shoes are the ‘villains’ in an affair…?”

“There you are, asking me a question –without seeming to– and sounding as though you still don’t believe this Southern belle with her wild New York adventures. Now Doctor,” her voice a confusion of irritation and flirtation “this little adventure has gone on long enough! You have had me remove my shoes, now would you be so kind as to examine my aching blisters without further ado? It has been a pleasure chatting with you, and I am certainly pleased that Northern Physicians are as personable and concerned as you, but I should like to wend my way home in the shortest possible time and I am certain that you must have other patients eagerly awaiting your expert ministrations out there in that horrid green corridor.” She leaned towards him conspiratorially. “I cannot fathom why a place of healing would suffer such dreadful colours –it’s enough to disturb a poor body’s mind, don’t you agree?”

“The colours disturb you, Mrs. Gaffney.” There was a scritch of pen on paper, a silent pause, then a throat clearing. “Let me understand something. You have left your husband and child to come and live with your –‘model’ friend. She had introduced you to a number of wealthy ‘patrons of the arts’. One gentlemen has offered you an apartment and financial support, but you wish to be a ‘fashion consultant’ instead. You have arranged a rendezvous with a newspaperman. And you come here, to Bellevue Hospital, to have a blister examined, that is correct?”

“Well…yes…”

“Tell me, Mrs. Gaffney,” the doctor shifted forward an inch, “who has sent you here?”

“Why, you see…I was, well I thought, after my third unfavourable interview, that I might go to Times Square and see those famous billboards first-hand –you know, the ones that blow smoke and whatnot– and then home to Kay’s for a late lunch. Well, I had not gone two blocks beyond the subway entrance when I thought I should fall to the ground! The sheer agony of my poor little feet was more than a body could bear! So I stopped right then and there, and pulled off one shoe –I was able to lean my weary self upon this kind gentleman’s newspaper stall– I removed the more offending of my shoes, and there it was –an absolute brute of a blister, the size of a silver half-dollar!”

She shuddered and threw another glance at her stockinged feet. “A young man came up to me with his Bible in hand and asked if I needed assistance. After I told him how I had acquired this wretched thing –and I do so wish that it might be looked after– he suggested, as I have no money, that I come to this hospital. ‘It is a charity hospital,’ he said, ‘they’ll take good care of you.’ This was after he had talked my ear off about Jesus and salvation and how the Lord does not want His lambs to walk the streets of Gomorrah and I told him in no uncertain terms that if the good Lord did not desire us to walk, why ever did He give us feet and shoemakers? Though I confess I was sorely tempted, at that moment, to accept his offer of a taxicab. It was truly gallant of him, but I had to do this on my own. And now I am here...”

There was an expectant pause during which Isabel shifted in her chair.

“Mrs. Gaffney, we will have to keep you under observation for the present. Those are the regulations.” His words were accompanied by a scratching of pen on paper, a business-like slash, and the sound of his chair moving away from the huge oaken desk on squeaky casters. “Would you please accompany these gentlemen.” The doctor rose and nodded towards the opening door.

“H-how long will you need to observe my blisters, Dr.–” White-sleeved arms moved in, stopping her hands in mid-gesture. Isabel started, then shrugged off the intrusion. “Doctor, tell these gentlemen to mind their manners. This is an ungallant way to treat a lady!” The white-sleeved arms merely tightened their grip. Isabel tried to twist her body to see who they were. Fear crept into her heart as the doctor merely stood by and watched. “Where is your hospitality? Surely the Yankees ceased beleaguering the poor South some nine decades past!” The doctor held the door open, Isabel found herself lifted bodily and turned about, quickly shuffled out of the room, and as she squirmed and struggled, her stockinged feet barely touching the floor, the door slammed shut behind her. “Doctor, please!” White-skirted figures with cup-cake hats approached. “Nurse? Oh, Nurse, please tell these gentlemen to cease and desist. I cannot believe–” The white skirts swished past without stopping or even indicating that they had heard anything. Isabel panicked. “NURSE! HELP!– please let me go! LET ME GO!!” She began to sob as the orderlies drew her further and further away from Rinehart’s office, to the right, down another hallway, stopped at a large door with a grilled window set very high up; the one on her right rattled a ring of keys and proceeded to unlock the door. Isabel suddenly screamed and wrenched her arm away from him. The two men grabbed her roughly, pinned her arms to her sides and shoved her into the room. She stumbled and nearly fell. One of them swiftly stepped inside, whipped a gown from a chair by the door and threw it at her.

“Put this on, miss, and leave your clothes by the door.”

His crepe-soled footsteps retreated and the door swung heavily shut. The room felt dead. Isabel ran to the door and pounded it with her fists, “LET ME OUT!”, but the sound was muffled to a whisper. All she could hear was her own heaving breath and choking sobs. “...oh my gracious Lord...”

*

“Ring!”

Over the clatter of numberless typewriters and the opening and shutting of doors, a man’s voice yelled, “Bealin! Get the earbox!”

Jake rose impatiently from his desk, ripped a piece of paper out of the platen and flung it into the editor’s basket on his way to the phone.

“Bealin here.”

“Is this Jake Bealin,” a woman’s voice asked, reading, “‘Reporter-at-large’?”

“Yeah, Jake Bealin for the Daily.” What now?

“Are you acquainted with an Isabel Gaffney? A Mrs. Isabel Gaffney?”

Jes–“Ah, yes I am...” Must be her friend, what’s it, Kay...

“May we ask how well you know Mrs. Gaffney?”

“That’s in the nature of a personal question.” Definitely not a friend, this dame– an employer? “Who, if I may ask, are you?”

“Oh. Yes, well, this is Miss Edna Phinney speaking, Dr. Rinehart’s assistant.” He could almost hear the flush of pride in the woman’s voice, at her presumed status. “Mrs. Gaffney was–”

“Hold on a minute, who is Dr. Rinehart?” An accident?

“Dr. Rinehart is the admitting specialist at Bellevue Hospital.”

“Bellevue? How in heck did Isabel get into Bellevue?!”

“Please, Mr. ...Bealin, Mrs. Gaffney is in excellent hands,” her voice smirked. “Dr. Rinehart is a well-known specialist in the field –”

“Dr. Rinehart? A headshrinker, right?”

“We prefer the term ‘psychiatrist’, Mr. Bealin,” the woman returned icily. “Dr. Rinehart is a fully qualified –”

“Look, Miss Phinney, just what’s this all about?”

“If you would just permit me to explain...”

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“Mrs. Gaffney is being kept under observation at the moment. She came to the hospital, under her own cognizance this afternoon, seeking treatment. She was exhibiting symptoms of,” reading, “‘disorientation, paranoia, manic behaviour, and possible auditory hallucinations.’ Un-quote.”

“‘Auditory hallucin–’ of course the dame –I mean lady’s ‘disoriented,’ she’s never been to– Miss Phinney, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes– make that ten.” This sounds like a helluva new job...!

“Mr. Bealin, we have not yet established your relation to the patient in question.”

“What office are you in? Or Dr. Rinehart?”

“Really, Mr. Bealin, that won’t be necessary.”

“Look, lady, I can find out if I have to. I’ve been in the business long enough to know that... The Daily loves nice little uptown scandals, especially for a slow Tuesday morning...”

“Scandal? How preposterous!”

There was a long pause.

“Room 802, East Wing.”

“East Wing 802? Why thank-you for your co-operation, Miss Phinney, and good-bye.”

Jake dumped the receiver, grabbed his coat and hat and yelled in the direction of the editor’s open door, “I’m on the tail of a good one, boss. Back in forty-five– make that sixty!”

*

Trying to stop a hack at 4:30 on a Monday afternoon is like trying to get tickets to a Dodgers game in mid-August –everyone else is after ’em too– but I was soon being whisked over pipes and potholes up Sixth Avenue to Bellevue, dodging dozens of other cheery Yellows and Checkers all trying to outrace each other uptown. In eight minutes flat, I was throwing the hack two bills for his efforts and eating the stairs up the central portico three at at time. Inside the granite tomb that is Bellevue’s main entry I found a wizened geezer in a grey uniform, tapping a pencil on his counter like he heard 76 Trombones playing in his head. Yessirree, the East Wing was that-a-way, mister, but maybe I’d like to know –I was almost out of earshot before he got it out– that’s for the violent ones. It didn’t hit me until I’d streaked down a mile of puce-green corridor, past an army of shut doors, and pressed both buttons at the elevator bank. A sign said ‘East Wing – RESTRAINT AREA.’ Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what’d she DO– hit the doctor on the head with that ridiculous little bag of hers? Three elevators announced their arrivals like triplets and I jumped the nearest one, hitting ‘8’ and ‘Close Door’ at the same time. My cranial cavity percolated like breakfast at Baker Street and I was just straightening out my tie when ‘8’ lit up and the doors rattled apart. I fished in my pocket for my press card and headed into the fluorescent haze. An accommodating nurse pointed me to the left when I flashed the card and asked for Rinehart. Who should come flapping towards me but the shrink himself, extending a hairy white hand and saying, “Mr. Bealin, you are a punctual man. Rinehart. Please come into my office.”

We hitched our trousers and sat on opposite sides of his desk. The Doc pulled out a folder and began leafing through it. “Well, Mr. Bealin, my assistant tells me that you are a-ah...” his beady eyes watched me like a pigeon waiting for peanuts.

“Friend?”

“...a good friend of Mrs. Gaffney,” he pecked at the word ‘good’ slyly, “and we have a mutual desire to see that she is treated well. Now,” he scanned a green form, “Mrs. Gaffney applied for admission at approximately 1:38 p.m. today, Monday, September 12, 1955, Caucasian female, age 28 etc., etc. –I won’t bore you with the statistical details– and the admissions clerk made the following comments:

“Patient talked in a high-pitched voice, disturbing several other patients in admissions area with various queries and comments.
“Was not shod and carried a high-heeled shoe in each hand (red, leather), which she waved while talking.
“Expressed strong mistrust of admissions procedures.
“Recommendation: Psychiatric evaluation.”

I listened to Rinehart intone. He paused as if expecting me to say something, but I was starting to smell some real coffee, so I just nodded go on.

“I subsequently interviewed Mrs. Gaffney. After hearing her story and observing her behaviour, I made an evaluation of manic-depressiveness –her present state being clearly the manic or ‘high’ phase.”

“Umh-humh.” I waved my hand as if to say you’re the boss, and watched him, clearing his throat and rearranging his sheets of paper, unfolding his theory like a kid who thinks he knows exactly what his parents got him for Christmas this year. His chest puffed a little whenever he used a particularly tasty word like ‘classic’, ‘borderline’, ‘neurosis’ ... ‘paranoia.’ He looked up at me as if for a barometric reading and went on. “...exhibiting what is termed ‘inappropriate affect.’ Her speech was rambling and metaphoric, rendered in a high-pitched, excitable tone, interspersed with frequent smiles and giggles. Her attempts to elicit responses from the interviewer ranged from placating smiles, flirtatiousness and conspiratorial facial gestures, to vaguely historical threats and violent anger.

“It appears that she had abandoned her husband and child over an alleged and unconfirmed adultery on the part of her husband. She has taken up with a childhood friend, a Miss Kay O’Dell, who appears to be a self-supporting ‘model.’” The old goat raised an eyebrow at me: we know what that’s all about, but I had what I needed now. “Now, it’s entirely reasonable to suppose–”

“Excuse me Dr. Rinehart, but why was Mrs. Gaffney carrying her shoes?”

“Let me see,” he rifled through the papers, “ah, yes, here it is: she claimed ‘The shoes are the villains in the affair.’” He beamed. “Quite an interesting projection of her own libidinous state, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Did she make any other references to her shoes or her feet?”

Rinehart was trembling with excitement: at last, a layman with a true desire to understand the mysterious Psyche. “Possibly yes, although this comment is a clear and classic summation of her neurotic complex.” He looked through the file again. “I did make a note at the end of my interview that the patient made several references to ‘blisters’ and incapacitation and ‘wanting to be on her own two feet,’ which I interpreted as metaphors in support of my diagnosis.”

It was time for me to show my hand.

“Did you ever, at any time during the interview, actually examine Mrs. Gaffney’s feet?” He looked me like a pigeon smelling poison in the peanuts.

“Of course not, Mr. Bealin. This was a psychiatric evaluation, not a physiologic one.” He eyed me warily.

“Dr. Rinehart, I don’t doubt your psychiatric expertise, nor your evaluation, based on the facts as you have seen them.” He relaxed. “However, I question almost completely how you have seen these facts. I would like to see Mrs. Gaffney in here, with you.”

“Mr. Bealin,” he became patronizing, “Mrs. Gaffney became violent when the attendants led her to her room. I would not guarantee her behaviour if we were to bring her in here.”

“I believe the two of us could handle that, couldn’t we?” His Adam’s apple bobbed a few times. “Oh, and would you please have her change into her own clothes? Perhaps then we can decide what course of treatment would be appropriate. I have a hunch...” I stood up. “May I have the use of a phone around here?”

“Very well, Mr. Bealin, but I have grave doubts as to the wisdom of this tactic. There is a telephone at the nurses’ station, which you may use. I shall arrange for Mrs. Gaffney to be brought in.”

Ten minutes later, as I sat back in my chair mulling over the telephone call, the door to Rinehart’s office swung slowly open. There she was. Pillbox hat, red gloves, shoes and all, and her smile –a few shades paler, but in my books still de Luxe.

“Oh, Mr. Bealin! Jake! –you have delivered me from the lion’s den!” she gasped and sat down abruptly in the chair by the door. Tears sprang in her eyes. I noticed she limped a bit. Rinehart breezed in, a knowing look on his face, and Isabel quickly dabbed at her eyes. When Rinehart had hitched himself behind his desk, I stood up and signaled to her to take my seat.

“Well–” Rinehart began. I cut him off: “Watch!”

Isabel limped over to my chair.

Rinehart’s jaw twitched. “Mrs. Gaffney! Have you injured yourself?”

“Injured myself, Doctor? Why I, no,” she sat down, “it’s these shoes of mine. They really are not well-fitted, and although my little rest here has helped, the blisters do hurt something dreadful.” Isabel looked straight at him with her clear blue eyes. I shouted a silent hooray.

Rinehart had the grace to blush. I almost felt sorry for him.

At that moment the friendly redhead popped in and said: “’Scuse, Dr. Rinehart, there are two people here to see Mrs. Gaffney.” Two? I thought.

Rinehart looked green at the gills. Isabel’s hand flew to her mouth like a butterfly attacking a flower.

“Eh, well– eh, let them in, Miss Hennessey, by all means let them in.” Rinehart’s hand started fidgeting with his collar button. And then a woman rushed in crying, “ISABEL!” followed by a man, “Darling!” Kay O’Dell, I thought, and someone’s just poured whipped cream into my coffee– I’ll be a blind shamus if that isn’t our friend Richard Gaffney! He was on one knee clutching Isabel’s red-gloved hand.

Rinehart backed away from his desk as though from an invading plague. Kay and Gaffney were both talking at the same time. “Darling will you ever forgive me?…” “Oh Isabel, I was worried sick!” “…Will you take me back again?”

Well, there was one thing that still needed taking care of. As Kay and Richard wrapped their arms around Isabel and the three of them walked out of EW 802, I raised an eyebrow at Rinehart and held my hand out. He picked up the folder and placed it in my palm, almost gratefully I thought. I flicked on my lighter, set the flame to one corner, waited for it to catch, then dropped it neatly into the metal wastepaper basket. Gee, Boss, it turned out to be one of those red herrings...

As I walked towards the elevators, I could see the three of them already inside one cage. Isabel looked up at me and waved. Then she blew me a red kiss before the doors cut her off.

Published on 15/07/2005

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