Jul 23, 2007


Back in the homelands after many years. Early Sunday afternoon. Vince Scully is still calling games on KFWB.

“And there’s a high fly ball,” he’s saying, voice rising with the ball. “Deep to right field. Going way back is Kemp.....” Then, before the arc is completed, Scully relays an anecdote about the next batter who bought a monkey, but had to sign an agreement that he would take care of it for 40 years. After a few days at home, the player decided that was not feasible. “Kemp makes the catch at the warning track and the Mets are retired. Bottom of the first, no score.”

Scully remains the Chekhov of color commentators. But his rhythm is a little slower, with a trace of slur. A stroke perhaps, or a new denture. Not quite the same enthusiasm, not the same sense that the high fly ball is a metaphor of good times, now it’s a just a high fly ball.

Forty years ago, there was no end to the optimism. You merely had to look at Rudy,the Filipino house boy, in his 50s then, in his white jacket and black tie, on a Sunday, after making dollar-sized pancakes, sitting in the kitchen, on his stool with his old beige am radio on the counter, singing Scully all afternoon.

While he listened to the radio, I shot lizards on the woodpile.

* * *

I’m staying in Venice. The night before, I walk with S over Monet-style bridges and along the narrow walkways next to the canals, on the way to dinner. These are all glass houses. Originally, these were cottages. Those have all been torn down and tiny lots built to the brim. Everything is glass. Everything is exposed.

“You think of Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut, don’t you?” We say.

“But different,” we say, “because his idea was to deconstruct the barrier between inside and out. And there, the view is of meadows. It’s private. Here, nothing is private. Here, the glass is to expose you, to taunt perhaps, to say, ‘look at me. Envy me.’

I’m struck by how many living rooms have exercise machines lined up. Living as exercise. Mechanical, demanding, for the passively active, for the quick living, and you see size does matter, look at my machine... That old artifact room, the living room, often left to entertain IRS agents, the police and a priest, the room about who we pretend to be, is gone. Now, there is no pretense. ‘ If you come to my house, I may have to exercise while we talk. I cannot just sit and converse with you. I cannot just sit. I need my endorphins, I need to lose weight, I need to gain esteem. You understand. We are all like that, aren’t we?”


In Venice, the next morning. We brunch. And walk by an old garage turned into a Yoga and Spinning Center. Rows of people on exercise machines desperately peddle to the orders of a woman on a microphone. “Faster now” is the mandate. And look at those people go. When they finish they look like real bikers. But you wonder why people would seek that out. Why not actually go for a bike ride? On the other hand, this is compact, convenient, and in a country desperate for a leader, a woman gripping the mic and screaming like an auctioneer at a hog fair will do.

It’s even worth $15 a half hour, to be forced and berated, lured into becoming an insaniac riding through the Alps of a lifestyle that is mostly flat after all. Not much else to do but compare yourself to everyone else. Play As It Lays is still playing. The gardener, the checkout lady, the person in the next japanZeuro luxury sedan, everyone is either up a rung or down, from you babe, and seeing yourself relative to them is the only way you know where you are, that’s the triangulation, that’s the dead reckoning that will get you home.

* * *

All the old themes. But not as if you’d left and come back to find out that everything was the same. But as if you had never left, stayed a boy all this time, and nothing had changed, and your mind had wandered off during a red light. During the wait for a hamburger and milk and orange cake and the next to last chapter of Peyton Place.

Difference is, while you were asleep at the light, 55 percent of the people got Latino. How did it happen? The white wash is fading.

And the freeways are no better, single women are unhappier than they were before, men are more uptight, more about ‘making it’, the air is as strange and dull glossed as ever.

And you’re in the car just like it always was, driving up Robertson, past Cadillac, past Pico and Olympic, right up to Doheny and all the ghosts are sitting at a bus stop. A girl raped and garroted. A mother screaming. Another mother with a bouquet of tennis racquets. A father with dark glasses even at night, middle aged women, singers and actresses, all sitting there and waving as I go by. I wave back and go on.

* * *

A few minutes later the door opens in a dark hallway on Oakhurst, in the flats, in a building with 12-foot tall black doors but inside low and lightless, the smell of old carpet, cracked tiles, a place behind the lines.

Door opens. Older woman just out of the hair salon. Heavy make up. Betty Davis eyes. A starlet at 90 with Bacall blonde hair, a woman of some age but what. In her late somethings, but you would be stunned to hear 90. You would be stunned.

Over her shoulder familiar objects, paintings and furniture. A small dog at her feet. That’s the law now in El Lay. Everyone has to have a very small dog.

Then a sideway hug. Nothing personal, no hint of real contact. As though nothing was ever personal. — I’m glad you’re here. — I am too.

And then right into it. No warm up, no sit down, no news. No, “well, how long has it been?” I don't know how long it's been. The better part of 10 years.

No, “How are you doing?” No, "What about the old days?"

No. Everything is apparent; there's nothing to ask or say or do, except make a choice, move it out. Rawhide.

I get the backgammon table, the Queen Anne desk, the long dark bench, a table, two lamps, two recovered chairs, some odds, ends. Everything is in disrepair. Take this. Take that. I would like this. Well, actually not that.... But how about some old silver-plated serving dishes? How about these chairs?

I can’t, I say. What about this dictionary stand? I’ll take it.

I say, yes, to please, to affirm. That’s an old rhythm. That’s always been our way. You’ve had this life of horror; I will forever honor your tragedies.

She disappears. I work the hand truck. I rattle off, in and out. An hour passes. A neighbor stops by. E and this woman compare small dogs. A phone rings. The work is ending, the tension is increasing. The apartment is looking distraught, as though there had been a fight perhaps. This is the hour of the wolf in moving. She has to stay here in the confusion, with bare walls, with things missing. I’ve come and started to deconstruct not just her apartment, but her life, her future even.

Yes, this is the last time probably.

I always used to say that to Marina and Dylan. This is the last time you’re going to see your grandfather so pay attention. I became obsessed with ‘last times’. But it was never the last time until the last time and then it was all gone, him and the lifestyle and Hollywood in the old days, and the 1930s at Mike Romanoff’s, and every electric charge, gone, like the view of a city from 35,000 feet.

Well how’s your mother, she asks. Dead, I reply. She goes into a trance, like the gypsy woman in the booth at musee mechanique that tells your fortune for a quarter. Suddenly, she’s very stiff. This fortune wasn’t in the deck.

“Don’t go there,” she says, to herself mostly. “Don’t go there.” And the hair is straight on the back of your neck.

She has no emotional shocks left, there's nothing to soften the ride. And in her condition, with all that tragedy, even if the stories have been mistold or she’s recited a life that wasn’t quite so phantasmagorical, still it is amazing that she got through it, and that she could look like this now....

Of course, you should have seen her when she was my age, we are just at that point, she and I began just when she was the age I am now.... She looked like a woman in her 40s then, in the late 1960s, a ‘fragrant phantom’ as Zelda Sayre once described herself on the night she fell in love with F. Scott. Blonde and hot and would not be denied. “I can’t keep my hands off you,” she would say. “I just can’t.”

Dissolve, as we used to say.... POV, now.

“Let’s not talk about your mother,” she says.

Okay, I say.

“Keep it in the moment,” she says, "steady now."

Steady as she goes and we cross through the straits. There is no more talk.

Move this, move that. Unplug this, plug that. She empties some desk drawers, but not really. When I get it home the desk is full of credit cards and uncashed checks. And eight of an inch cockroaches.

* * *

I took the last things and put them in the back of the pick up truck, paying special attention to the paintings. I should have taken more paintings, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to make the walls barren. I just couldn’t do it, but I will regret that of course. Regret is also part of the rhythm.

She’s tried to get me to take more, to lure me with old playing cards and expensive poker chips and a cork backgammon table on which the points are barely visible. Want the stones, at least? She wanted me to stay I suppose, looking back, and yet....

We sit in her bedroom for a moment. Want these books? Some written by her first husband. Some written by this lover or that. There’s the John Huston biography; she’s Cherokee in that. No, I have all those, copies. I don’t want any more books. I can’t take them. But I suppose she’s saying, asking, for another moment. But I can’t manage it myself. All these old scents, still the original perfume, she’s wearing. And the bookcase in her room coming undone. A reminder of gray gardens. I want to get away. I would stay if she knew how to negotiate a place, a reason....

The room is as it always was. Recreated, I mean. The same paintings, of her daughter, of herself in the company of the stars of yesteryear. When people were named Belden Cattleman and Diortis Niven and Jack and Cubby Brocolli.

We wander into the living room. she looks one way, I look another. Like partners in a tango. So you don’t want this or that or anything, it seems. That’s what she’s thinking. And so she senses that I want to go, and that she wants me to go. We’re not really thinking this is the last time.....

And then suddenly she said, “okay that’s it. I’m going to turn away and I’d like you to be gone.”

She turned and I left.

Land of no goodbyes. Fade to black, to black and white reels on a noisy projector. Was I ever there?

* * *

I drove up to the old house. “The house” as it was called. As if there were no other. “Come up to the house. The bar is always open”... Decade after decade. The parties that got done in that house, the betting, and John F. Kennedy’s Los Angeles campaign headquarters in the summer of 1959.

I hadn’t been back but have been writing something about it and took the opportunity. The road was unchanged, the neighborhoods had settled. They were new when I was a kid. Now the trees have matured. The cement has cracked and been redone. It was dirt road when I first got there in 1957.

The house itself was different of course, then. Now, the garage is a house. The main house, the house, has a second floor. The cottage in the back is a house. All things have been enlarged, engorged and hidden.

I wanted to go to where the woodpile had been, to say a prayer to those lizards that I played with and then shot. It’s the thing I most regret from that time. Other crimes, which were serious enough, were nothing next to that. And why? I played with them as pets, took them in the house, put them all over me, treated them like domiciles, fed them flies, you can’t imagine. And then one day I turned, I got afraid and mean and the adolescent got violent. I became an adult and lost on whatever day that was....

I wanted to do that, to make a pilgrimage to the lizards, to pay my respects, to acknowledge my crimes, but now there’s gates and hedges, you can hardly see anything.

* * *

I finally drive away, past the park where it rained high fly balls, now to be a reservoir; past the old hotel and Our Lady of the Good Cadillacs, down into the flats, on to Pico and Olympic, past the apartment where my grandmother lived at the end.

The game is still on but Vince Scully has been replaced. The Dodgers are on their heels, the relief pitchers have fallen apart, the Mets have gone ahead. The air has that opaque quality, like air next to a waterfall, moving, moist, unreal.

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