The last hippies
[ fiction - november 12 ]
Santa Monica. 1999... end of...
Everything between them was still in delicate balance and he sensed the lightest breeze could blow it all to hell. Visiting a father she had never known seemed nothing short of steering into a tempest; but there was no debate. She would stare at his emotional incontinence and say get over yourself I’m going; it was her dream trip, planned since childhood, saved for through four years of lousy double-up jobs, and far from the fantasy of the ordinary traveller, this was a trip with a purpose – and chances to stop over in cities she had only read about. To broaden her culture, as she put it. So it covered a lot of bases she argued as if she were selling vacations.
At first sheaths of post cards jammed his mailbox, tiny scribbles weaving ropes of information round strange foreign stamps, framed address boxes with last-second thoughts and went marching off the bottom in tinier and tinier letters like rows of ants disappearing over a hole edge. She was taking time out to write to him and that was some comfort. He imagined her in exotic cafes with exquisitely mannered and deferential waiters, huddled over a coffee or one of those teas they pour from ascending and descending height, hosing her thoughts onto a deck of postcards piled like pancakes on the table. Daily international calls had him back by the phone every day at the prescribed time. Then sometimes she wouldn’t ring. That was okay. It probably wasn’t easy to phone from these places, what with the language difficulties, and he supposed sometimes her cell phone probably didn’t get a signal, or it was just too damned expensive. But the phone began staying silent longer, then longer, then the postcards became laconic, then thinned, then stopped, and finally the radar went blank and stayed blank. With her, no news was always bad news. Those were long, dark days for Timmy.
He received a call from the airport. Would he please come and pick her up? And the life slid out of him like mud. She was waiting in a bare room under strip light sitting at a metal table and being watched by a sour faced lesbo look cop. They were not taking her in this time but...
She was drunk of course; neon FUCK OFF blinking from a forehead shrunk and drained of life and colour. He could read the whole story the second he saw her ashen face floating under the bars of white light in that room. “I told you so” could not possibly be said.
He escorted her back to AA and NA meetings, and sat like a probation officer in parking lots praying the miracle would happen inside the rooms where her tribe of recovering fuck-ups hung out. Brief periods of sobriety were strained out, but disintegrated into intermittent relapses. Then the drunks and use-ups got more frequent, more scary, and he could feel her withdrawing from the human experience. She began to go missing and would reappear in lightless mornings, glowing sick. All forms of speech between them atrophied and died. Life was measured in muscle tensions, pains in his neck, stomach, a hotness in his throat. Phobias sprang from her: phone calls, the mailman, mornings, daylight, people, noise, all had her wincing. Seagulls wheeling in thermals of pollution became terrorizing Eumenides that brought on panic attacks. One day she went missing and he knew this time she wouldn’t come back. Don’t ask him how. He had this kind of magical thinking. He just knew. And he was right. He had that kind of atunement that sensed disaster a million miles off and totally missed opportunities slipping under his nose screaming ‘grab me!’ Calls to cops were made, information exchanged. Silence and absence became the palpable presence of his days.
He watches a seagull on his balcony and remembers how these creatures could pitch her into the heart of some mythic fear. “Eumenides,” he says, and looks it up in the dictionary: Furies, winged deities of vengeance and the embodiment of the act of self-cursing. “Yup man, they’re your birds,” and Timmy begins transmuting them into comic strip as if his drawings might weave some miracle into the universe that will heal her. The strip started as the evil eye carved on the door of a primitive dwelling in his head to keep the spirits at bay, but in someone in whom ambition and neediness still jostled with suspicions of congenital failure, the idea slowly grew on him as a creative opportunity, and began drifting him out of his torpor into a kind of dull excitement. Then the excitement fired up, the possibilities accelerated like jets, he began to do the drawing, gridded up a storyboard, and got stuck.
A pencilled seagull scatters across his drawing board towards a final image of a disabled girl incandescent with sadness; he has the beginning and end of a story, but is lost with what comes between. “Like life,” a colleague at work says, “the start and finish come automatic; the rest is criminal fucken negligence.”
Art and his wife are similar obsessions. Both necessary, both painful; at different times they were both ‘the answer’. His comic strip seagull idea assumes the form of an oblique prayer for his missing wife wandering God knows where with God knows whom. All his superstition; the crazy shit from the hippy infancy he hasn’t managed to wholly defecate, streams out of him in an incontinence of fear and hope. When stressed he is full of thinking that he knows is nonsense when he is calm. But he can’t rid himself of it, and life with Georgia is all stress and no calm. So thinking gets a little dented. They had booked a Maui wedding before she went looking for her father and despite all her objections he had been crazy enough to go through with it after she came back sucking the vodka tit. You’d have thought he’d have thought this through, the relatives whispered to each other, but from the bog of desperation Timmy was sinking in, he hoped it would motivate her to get sober.
Reality had been the grand enemy throughout his childhood, and his comic book seagulls were just another hiding place. He was often blind, but he could see it sometimes and then all the curses he could muster were flung against himself. Once again he had taken the wrong fork in the road. Now he was married to insanity, and legally responsible. “My wife is an alcoholic addict”, he had noted himself saying at the Al-Anon and Families Anonymous meetings, where at least he felt the married status conferred a gravitas on his problem that just having a girlfriend as an addict wouldn’t.
But when she was a mere girlfriend she had been clean and sober and always there for him, always constant, if a little kooky and a little fragile. When she came back from Dad all that had gone and nothing of it returned with the wedding ring, or the seagulls. The only difference was that when she disappeared she did so as a married woman, and when she re-emerged white and bloodless refusing to answer his questions, there were legal implications. Unpicking this dreadful knot would now be expensive. Then that morning she just didn’t come back. And days stretched on and still stretch on.
He struggled to keep everything secret and invented a home life when at work. But they knew something was up, and weren’t surprised; he was the type to attract disaster. There was absolutely no one in whom he could confide and so meetings for the families of addict alcoholics with their groups of embittered women bewildered men and scared children became his social life. At least he could unburden a pebble or two from his load, but the end of each meeting ushered in a feeling of emptiness that he couldn’t fill.
Timmy looks down at the sketch of his seagulls. The ambitions that seeded and grew through childhood were stunned in adulthood by the evidence of his own limitations. Dreams of artistic glory have led to a job inking the original pencil drawings of comic strip artists. Each day he labours under the humiliation of playing second fiddle to cartoonists, knowing he is nothing more than a skilled labourer digging ditches for readers with the attention span of goldfish on Prozac. Each day he asks why he short-changes himself with this trash and has no answer except self-doubt and a history of sustained under earning.
Nevertheless the magical seagulls are an idea if nothing else. There might be a story in there somewhere, might be, and he has moments when the impossible seems possible, when fantasies of cult success, commissions and Hollywood options fleetingly visit and get him through the dull days at his desk. These birds could be the escape from serfdom to the Oscar and that house in Malibu, the suburb of dreams, where the blessed loll behind armed response signs. But in cooler moments he suspects it’s drivel.
A sudden rage engulfs him. Forget seagulls, they won’t bring your wife back, stick to the inking, it pays the rent, forget ideas - you don’t have fucking ideas. Other CalArt buddies have ideas, not you. God gave you artist’s hands but not the sensibility. You are a cartoonist’s inker. Your calling is to polish banality into parable.
“Have something to fall back on”, his parents had said, way back when he disclosed his grand design. Where Georgia’s childhood was strained, bitter, and disfigured by parental break-up, his was gentle and free in a Californian hippy home. The great hippy idea was already melting like snow on a river when he was birthed in a bath, and there was a precious, elegiac quality to these dwindling days of buckwheat idealism. “We are the last Human Beings before the Cheyenne Autumn”, his Mom would say, usually through tears whenever a debt collector had shaken her with the cold pragmatism of the outside world. However, where Georgia was resented by the single remaining parent Timmy was loved by several parents, and encouraged to run naked and piss where he stood. Marijuana and music dissolved angst from the canyon dwellings and encouraged his tight little personality to hang looser. But all that serenity and freedom seemed to tighten his little personality more. He didn’t fit into the easy hippy sway but was the odd kid, cruising around like a little IRS clerk lost in the Velvet Underground. When he showed some talent with crayons, his parents discouraged him from drawing automobiles and planes, but crowed over his animal smudges, and it was concluded that their boy would one day be an artist. His desire to be a cab driver was gently pooh-poohed, “Any one can be a cab driver. You are in touch.” and his paintings and scribbles were pinned above the rice shelves.
But things began to change in Paradise. Time and failure to live comfortably in a material world without material slowly drifted his parents away from Nirvana towards the suburbs and the inner peace of the regular paycheck. Hippy things were put aside. But his parent’s ambition for an artistic son had taken root in the boy, and as he grew into longer pants he could sit in cabs without any sense of attachment, but became quietly hysterical around art.
Anxieties opened between generations. How much of his determination to be an artist came from the usual child/parent antithesis, was never clear. “Maybe if we’d stayed hippy he’d of wanted to be an accountant”, observed his father. Years later when he was offered a place at CalArt his father was pleased but asked him what kind of world it would be if everybody did what they wanted – he had done what he wanted when he was young and it hadn’t done him a great deal of good. The concession Timmy made for their financial support was that he would find something to fall back on. But he had no intentions of doing such a thing.
However at CalArt he found his level. While contemporaries inched or blitzed their way to New York and TriBeca openings, he held the lower depths, watching figures shuffle through and out of his one, modest exhibition in a Lower East side fish warehouse.
His return to California was his Cheyenne Autumn, his defeat. Inevitably, the fallback came around - just a fill-in till he established himself back home. An LA comic company needed hands to ink in the pencil sketches of the strip artists. His parents were happy for him. He was in despair but the money was a mild analgesic on the failure ache. In time the fall back position became first position. A better apartment was rented, and the resins and detritus he used for his installations were slowly forgotten, then resented, and finally consigned to the trashcan.
Georgia falls into his life. Slightly older. This suited - he needed a senior female. His mother and the many maternal figures of his tribal youth hadn’t always turned up for the job. She was also slightly crazy and that fitted too. Freshly clean and sober, full of the anything-is-possible belief, he found himself distracted, then deranged by her. She stood her ground and said they should think before jumping into a relationship, but thinking was nothing to do with it. He became forceful, not in a decisive, dynamic way, but in the way of the hurt, helpless child. His technique was like his name. He could not possibly be called anything other than Timmy. But it sucker-punched her. She would be furious, then acquiesce, then resist, then be furious, then acquiesce and the wheel turned endlessly, but somewhere in the revolutions a Maui beach wedding was booked, and Timmy felt the burbs calling and was relieved.
The thing with her father was her thing, private and almost sacred. He had disappeared when she was three weeks old, and she had no memory of him, but an imaginary connection had swollen through her childhood like a widening river. Endless hours in whatever town of her peripatetic childhood the wind dropped her and her mother, were passed secretly reading about him in the newspaper archives in libraries, looking at the same news photos, adding to the fantasy that somewhere in this desolate world he was waiting for the daughter he had to abandon. “You know,” she once said to Timmy, “whenever I see a library it kind of feel like it’s where dad lives.”
He couldn’t understand these concerns about a parent, but he supposed she was a special case, she was, after all, a part of American infamy by blood, and it must have been difficult growing up as the daughter of such a man, keeping it secret, longing perhaps to acknowledge him as dad, but not being able to because the consequences would be too brutal. When she determined to find him Timmy was aware of drifting towards a panic attack, but it was all part of her recovery programme and that, as she reminded him, was none of his fucking business. So she went and he wished her God bless and wallowed in the dread that things were about to take a big turn for the worse.
Then the disaster rolled off the plane at Lax. He had grown up with adult dope-heads, but never been close to an active alcoholic before. They were scary. He burned when he remembered the way everyone looked at them as he tried to guide her into the parking lot, as if they were looking at something beyond humanity, and he could feel the horror and fear pumping off passing strangers even though she was incapable of doing anything that was a danger to them; she could hardly walk, and he was offended by those stares as if they were watching a traffic accident instead of a sick human being. But in this state she also terrified him with something deep and atavistic, filling him with a sense of extinction, as if God were having a psychotic episode and wrecking the universe, and he supposed it was this primitive stuff that prompted the tourists and travellers to keep their distance and stare fleetingly or from cover in case she caught their eye.
He adds a few more desultory strokes to his seagulls, then throws down the pen.
“What the fuck! Modern-myth shit? They want pictorial hamburger. Not Prometheus in All-Stars!”
That he loathes the public for whom he farms the lower regions of his ambition is beyond question, but infantilism is a big market and he is a drone in the dumbing business. Adult readers turn his ear lobes hot. Herds of them sweep across the junk savannahs, indistinguishable from the rest of humanity but for their infatuation with the fanny pack. They teem through the comic-conventions where he and his hippy/geek colleagues, edged in Gothic runes and Grateful Dead t-shirts, sit behind trestle tables and I-Macs to run off signed drawings of the Comic Factor's copyright characters. Timmy feels as if he is suffering from some autoimmune condition at these conventions; his skin feels hot, his throat seems to swell and he finds it difficult to breathe. He is supposed to smile, but that is beyond his powers as herds of bellies ballooning Silver Racer or Nemesis t-shirts, bump past euphorically. He wonders why so many of these creatures with their religious attachment to the comic strip are so seriously obese. Can fat cells migrate to the brain?
But they are consumers, and a new market and new culture have been endowed with legitimacy. University departments offering comic/sci-fi/fantasy as semiology and modern myth studies, spring from the skulls of academics with an eye for the scholastic niche market. Now Batman and Madame Bovary stand together. A Cornell mathematician, big as the Death Star and with a phone number I.Q. withered Timmy in the hospitality room at a comic collectors convention with his deconstruction of the language of Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. The four hundred pound Erasmus had translated the gobbledygook into a full language with its own lexicon. Housed in a body almost as mountainous as Jabba’s himself, capped by banks of black hair, bottle bottom glasses and a beard that fanned across the fat overhangs on his chest, this weird intellectual was a legend in Geek-land. He was Jabba the Hutt with tenure, founder and President of the Huttese Society, his correspondence course "Huttese and its Linguistic Origins" selling out at $29 introductory, $40 intermediate and $155 advanced. Weekend conventions were booked on the net at huttesestudies.com, (currently in meaningful negotiations with Lucasfilm lawyers). His eight-hour translation of 'Julius Caesar' into Huttese had been celebrated at public readings in Seattle and Memphis, and over a KFC family bucket he confided to Timmy that he was about to embark on the intellectual challenge of reducing 'King Lear' to nonsense.
Timmy cannot connect with these fanatics. How, he wonders, can he light up such foreheads, and what makes him so concerned? Show ‘The Seagull’ to his Boss? Give her an opener for more derision? “It's like The Crow,” she’ll say, “Except it's a seagull.” then slide it over the desk and look away till he gets out. The word ‘artist’ depresses him. Once it lit up his childhood.
His watch reads 8.05 p.m. Friday. TGI Friday. Fridays are good. Not as good as they used to be. Last Friday before the last Friday before the last Friday (and day) of the current Millenium. Two weeks to a new world with a lonely Christmas between. Midnight the week after next everything changes and we encounter the IT Armageddon that will stop everything in the world that isn’t clockwork. That’s his hope. All the systems of the world crash and the naked natives of the Brave New World come forth looking for reboot. As if. He realises he has an affection for this Friday, probably because it is the last unexceptional one of the second millennium. Next Friday is Christmas Eve. But then today is a significant Friday of sorts he supposes, as it is the last insignificant Friday and that gives it significance, partly, he suspects from some deep stagnant pond of insignificance in his interior whose surface carries a perfect reflection of the insignificance of this final Friday but two of the last thousand years. Next Friday the world lights up in Christmas, and the following Friday in the fireworks of hope and difference. And in the middle of his crowd at work, cheering and drinking with the hordes of partying Los Angeleans under the huge video screens of the millions of others round the world, all heaving joyously together in this unique moment in the history of the human race, he’ll probably still feel as if he’s inside his apartment alone.
Little trace remains of her in his apartment but for a few clothes and their wedding photograph, crucified with cheap plastic pins on his workroom wall among half drawn super heroes and soft porn anti-heroines. Jockeying in this thicket of weirdness, shiny as fish in matching silver satin and tux, Timmy and his ghost-wife glow through Hawaiian leis like pewter figurines blanched by photoflash against Pacific rain clouds so black, they look like a studio background.
I should take it down, he says again and means it again.
From his balcony he watches distant taillights stud the Pacific Coast Highway up by Malibu, and thinks of the meetings for friends and families of alcoholic/addicts, of the kids, wives, husbands, siblings, lovers, innocents going down on someone else's shipwreck. Now he is so battered by it all that some system in him is finding gaps in the day when he doesn't think about her. He has even begun to notice other women: waitresses grinning through their disappointment in nipple hugging, buttock blessing uniforms: wannabe actresses and dream chasers running away from the small town in their minds.
He pushes the videotape into the player, and wanders a beer onto the balcony. Spinning with superstition and alchemy every Friday evening like a sailor's wife lighting a candle for souls in peril on the sea he replays their wedding video to ritualize his grief to the point of mechanical numbness. But his reserves of sentimentality are running low. Maybe he will make it the last, break the habit with the end of the old century. Yes, he decides, he will bury all that stuff in what will soon be the last millennium; it would be appropriate to leave it in this century that is ticking out, a century of wars, disasters, and epic idealism, where the Kingdom of Heaven was sought on Earth in so many ways and too often brought so many little and larger Hells instead. The great ideals birthed, murdered and crumbled across the twentieth century and now outside his windows there is the latest Brave New World feel, a peaceful, contented one, a Clinton glow and a frontierless future; the Global Us. The Evil Empire is gone and its dreadful denizens now hit the malls in tourist incontinence. What will replace all those causes, he wonders and hopes the new optimism and its stupid glow finds the same universal toilet double quick time, because he doesn’t want to be the last disappointed man on earth. He thinks of his sad mother and her cosmic connections impervious to all logic till the debt collector blew Nirvana away. Now all she has is food. He will let his own aspirations and false hopes sink with the twentieth century too. He must or it will drive him mad; both he and his wife are victims of that century’s great delusions, she a casualty of its great philosophical divides, and he of its alternative tune-out and turn-on freedom shit. “Jesus,” he mutters, “I’m thinking like a Republican.”
But he will play his wedding tape just one last time before consigning it to dust; the matrimonial Last Post for the last time.
The crooning of 'On This Our Wedding Day' seeps out of the Sony and coils its joylessness round him. This is the first of many artistic flourishes that the gay Fotophot photographer who buzzed in and out for close ups or long shots for a visual posterity of this cherished and sacred day, thought would deeply personalise the eternal meaning of love. Timmy no longer watches the video; he knows the sequence of images and lets them flicker as background to whatever is playing out on any particular Friday evening. Like the noise from the family in the next room that reminds you you’re at home but absent at the same time. The sounds and images slip through his head as Friday night familiars: torpid carp under rain splashes in the Kanaapali Beach hotel pool, silver decorations on the early Christmas tree in the lobby, a grey sea hurling onto the Maui beach, abandoned sun beds slippy with water, sodden black beach torches, Molokai invisible behind sheets of rain, the lawn where they were to be hitched against a Maui sunset, littered with puddles, the roar of overflow pipes gushing into the storm drains, giving way to the babble of guests in the dining room distracting themselves with the spectacle of a Hawaiian storm bruising in across the Pacific. As the crooner fades on the video track he is replaced by the hotel muzak and a black voice wailing “Hey, hey baby, Aaaaaaah..”
The hotel muzak was another disaster, but the main one was the bride herself. Her condition was ignored publicly, but privately discussed with contempt or pity, “She was doing so well”, was the mantra, but the degeneration was frighteningly rapid. The consensus was that Timmy must be as dumb as his cartoons. Only Uncle Henry seemed easy around her. By the pool bar on the morning before the wedding, Henry caught her sneaking a drink when she thought the others were catching the rays or shopping. She froze when he told the barman to put it on his room number. Credit card America was vacationing around the pool or body surfing onto hot beaches, but under the thick blonde hair where she hid, her skin had the pallor of bar interiors, of a vampire in the sun. Her abandonment had always been a touchstone for Henry's hatred of her father, and she had returned from him trailing death on her marriage days. “No shit Sherlock” was all he had said when he was given the bad news of his niece’s return to the road to death, but that day, as the barman mixed her drink and shuttled in the ice, he kept it light and affectionate, his desire to ruffle her hair the way he did when she was little, blown away by the alcoholic legacy of her father’s curse. He settled for a quiet “God bless you honey.” The barman put the drink on the coaster, and she swept it off to the hotel shadows.
A garden wedding to the sounds of the surf and the breezes soughing the palms was visualised, but killed by rain, and a corner of the dining room under a ceramic Mahi Mahi became the place of matrimony. As the hotel engineer couldn’t be found to switch off the muzak the sacrament was celebrated to the Sounds of the Seventies, with an accompanying - or in the circumstances, competing - live Hawaiian ukulele duo. The bride’s asides caught by the microphone our Fotophot Greg Toland had pinned on Timmy's tie, underscored the Papuan Minister's veneration of the spirit of Aloha in the sun, sea and rain, with a 1,000 decibel whisper that something had to be done about that fucking music.
Everyone felt uncomfortable at the wedding, but for Georgia it approached cosmic destruction. The only way to deal with it was to be drunk. Appeals for cancellation had been blocked by her mother: she had pleaded with Timmy to have nothing to do with her, but he vowed to help her get clean and sober, and Georgia gave up and went with the flow.
On Timmy’s balcony the Papuan rhetoric disappears in the noise of the Santa Monica Friday night, mixing with bursts of drum n’ bass shaking up and down Montana Avenue in the cruisers.
'...Very special and exciting moment as we gather to view this odyssey today before God, and the special spirit of Aloha which will preside over you and celebrate...'
A twin exhaust farts across the boulevard. On the TV screen a wall of wind heaves against dining room windows in Maui, and 'dumb fucks' whistles from the video bride over the balcony honeysuckle.
The ladies crooned over the Papuan minister in his short-sleeved shirt and brown sandals. A trace of thin hormones in natures ossified by weight gain and the boundaries of mall and suburb was released into the hotel air system '...of you Timothy and gathered, your family and friends..' the waves lilt in the Minister's voice, the prayers lift across the sea and the sky, blending in banners of Pacific rain to dissolve every Friday till the next. But no more after this one, no more for sure, this is bad for me man. He wonders if the minister in a quiet moment with his Aloha, remembers them.
Inevitably she stopped the ceremony till Motown was switched off. Heads turned to the civilizing force of the storm as the wedding manager set off to castrate the hotel engineer. Epileptic flower tips in her bouquet transmitted Georgia’s shattered body rhythms. She asked for a glass of water and Nathan, Timmy's cousin and best man smiled sure and brought it. By the time the glass got to her lips half the contents were on her satin dress where they remained like an incontinence blemish. At that moment Timmy realized he was participating in an act of public cruelty.
Finally Martha and the Vandellas cut off. The sun blew a hole in the blackness, glittering the sea and edging the slopes of Molokai in gold.
Timmy lights a joint and puts his feet on the balcony. He often wonders why he parked his car in her bay. What is it about her? He didn’t know. This city is full of babes, so why settle for a traffic accident? Someone told him that the philosopher Schopenhauer wrote about the unconscious drive to find the partner with whom you could create the perfect kid. Once achieved the drive switches off and a man can chill out in Hooters. But he doubted he could wade through pages of German philosophy to find out if it said he would get another girl friend.
Back inside, the minister is on full throttle on being born and staying together when the white wings of death shall scatter their days. “Yah mean seagulls Rev?” The toke is teasing it all out; she is a babe and a half again who maybe should die and leave them mythologizing a cheap death.
‘Yes, you shall be together even in the sight and memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness....‘
“This space enough, reverend?” he cries to the sodium sky as the winds and heavens were called to dance between them, and he and his wife exhorted to make not a bond of love, to let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of their souls.
He recalls a solitary tear making its way down her mother's cheek and feels the compulsive desire still to be part of that damaged family. He thinks of his parents and regrets not inviting them to his wedding, but is relieved they weren’t there. His father is too depressed these days and his mother too fat.
‘Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous.’
Georgia's sullenness burns in his video player to the Papuan rhetoric of flowers symbolizing the life of connection, while on a Santa Monica balcony an abandoned husband wonders what the composition of connection is.
‘..a life of oneness; a life of love...’
He switches off the video player. The drug hits. Everything’s fine. But the words din in his head about love being dynamic like the ocean. Fuck the ocean. Fuck love. Timmy pulls up Alanis Morrisette to full volume and lets her blast her Jagged Little Pill through the wedding memories.
He takes the five sheets of seagull spattered drawing paper and folds them into five origami birds, as Morrisette swings into the corners in her head and jangles back with neuron music.
When they took the vow Georgia’s hands were clammy and she made the vow to his tie. All he could see was the top of her head. She had dandruff. She always argued addiction was an illness; he couldn’t get that. ‘Flu is an illness. But at that moment he saw she was right. God bless her. Another drag on the toke and the past closes with the drug and he swims with the divine Alanis in streams of sexual holiness, goes naked with the alchemist turning pain into electric ice, jag-assing him into stinging wavelengths of now time living. He pulls up the volume and turns a little dance onto the balcony, arms up, shoulders forward, chest concave, light, minimal movements, nothing over expressive or extrovert, a question mark rotating and bobbing to the sublime sounds and connections of a half Canadian. She riffs him back to his paper birds. Lighter fuel and broad nib marker pens clatter beside his origami; a few pen strokes make head markings, bills, and metamorphose the paper birds into seagulls. He’s singing now. Singing, dancing and creating. Harmonies with Alanis crash the dome of streetlights pushing the long night sky. He delicately places his five paper seagulls along his balcony, and douches them with lighter fuel. The disposable lighter bursts blue flowers of flame around them. The birds glow, buckle, and lightly topple over the balcony, slow burns gliding down the honeysuckle to the gardens, hot beauty, turning like bright eagles, boats of brilliance tacking apart, together, down and round; five slow falls of floating fire as Alanis breaks the brittle air.
“Asshole!” The voice is from a distance, but Timmy is fire-welded to Alanis a million miles from Maui.
She got drunk on her wedding night in the privacy of their room. He could do nothing but lie on the bed and watch her. Sometime in the night he woke to see her standing on the balcony in the darkness, watching the sea. The diaphanous curtain was blowing between them and softened her to a ghostly mirage.
The next day he and his cousin took her to an AA meeting in Lahaina and waited in the car. His cousin told him to get real. She didn't appear after the meeting and they were told she had slipped out after it started.
She got back about four. About six he woke. She had wet the bed.
“Is she worth saving?”
The graveyard shift ministering to the wrecks spilling into his ER is almost over and the doctor is disappointed she is still alive and needing attention. He had come to this place with its population of the socially marginalized because he had misgivings about the Medicare issue, but six months in the place has made the Hippocratic oath a little anorexic.
“Stinking like a distillery.”
“There's this too,” The nurse lifts her wrist. Rubies of congealed blood and small fingers of bruises button her forearm.
His ophthalmoscope scours her retina. There have been no diagnostic tests, no witnesses, she was found in the street, so there is no way of knowing what she has shot into her arm, though he’s pretty sure it isn't Gatorade. He straightens painfully. If his back gets worse, maybe he can get time off.
Something pushed into her arm and she floated down again. She was aware of Timmy sitting on the edge of the bench, elbows on the table looking at her father, who has a Russian accent for some reason and is wearing a very bad toupee that is fashioned in a thick widow’s peak, like a joke Dracula wig. He looks at Timmy and indicates Georgia and Mom with his eyes. “I vos a bad boy,” he says confessionally and childishly, and the eyebrows jerk up and Timmy says “That was a long time ago man, c’mon..!” and she wants to murder both of them; boys against the girls. Dada moves off with the silent young woman he is with and they stand at the end of the table in the sunshine rubbing noses. He has a ski-run nose, but as he noses his loved one’s nose his nose seems to fold into a perfect little nose and he looks completely different.
“Who is that man?” says Mom.
“Dad!’ incises out of Georgia in a lacerating whisper.
“I’ve never seen him before” says Mom and Georgia sighs hopelessly, but Timmy thinks he looks twenty, maybe thirty years younger than Mom and is nearer the age of the young girl he’s canoodling. Mom’s a wrinkled old hag. He’s not much older than Georgia. She knows he is thinking this.
“He looks like.. that actor.. you know..” says Timmy
“Bill Holden” says Mom, “he used to when he was young”.
“He is young, Mom” hisses Georgia again.
“Naw” says Timmy, “naw not Bill Holden, that other actor.. although he’s got the kinda Bill Holden type nose till he shoves it in the babe’s face, naw I mean.. God I can’t think.. oh, you know..”
“No I don’t fucking know!” comes out of Georgia like compressed air. The pressure’s building, building.
“I think he was a Brit. Lost Weekend guy. On TV. They show it on Classics on TV.. what’s his name..?
“Yeh!” cries Georgia, “I know.. oh.. what’s his name.. he wore a toupee too.. oh God, yeh he was a Brit...”
“You know,” says Mom seriously, “You never get Half Moons in Ohio..”
Georgia closed down for a while.
Fire broke out at the top of the curtains. She saw the Edwards fire alarm but her body was ten times its normal weight and she couldn’t move. Nor could she speak; the voice mechanism seemed to have shut down with the body. The fire spread and she waited to hear the crackling of the flames, but slowly it became sunlight, a mouth of brightness at the top of the curtains, slitting the darkness. Everything else was in shadow and she was swaddled at the bottom of the gloom in a room that was bare and cheap, cheap green walls, cheap cream framed beds, cheap linoleum. On another cheap bed was a heap with a face pulled in pain, deep asleep in some awful place. A nurse sashayed in, black, buxom, young, speaking with the authoritative confidence of the un-addicted professional in a place of human wreckage, and the parental sarcasm of she for whom patients are always children.
“Oh. You’re back” arrived with an arched eyebrow.
Georgia stared blankly suspecting there should be some logic connecting the confusions that swilled around her. It was impossible to speak. Her throat was raw where the tube had been rammed when they pumped her stomach. The nurse opened the curtains and sunlight vomited through the room. Georgia needed to speak, but all she mustered was a hoarse whisper.
“What you say, Georgia?” The nurse ambled over and inclined her head to hear again, and on cue Georgia took a big breath and pushed it through the hotness and pain in her throat.
“I need to speak with Ray Milland.”
She drifted as far south as San Clemente in her mooch round meetings, still waiting for that jolt that declared she was plugged back into sobriety. In some she felt drawn in, in others she remained remote, but at an early evening AA meeting in Laguna, an older man said something that made her feel the connection. The meeting was locked in a quasi-religious groove expounding how there was no such thing as a coincidence and that nothing happened without a divine reason; sweet Jesus stuff she thought best left in Sunday School. The man in front of her shifted in his seat. It bothered him too, but when he spoke his tone was reasonable and, in a relaxed and articulate way he informed the meeting that he was a retired mathematician, and if any of them knew the slightest thing about the laws of probability, they would never come up with that bumper sticker again. Georgia quietly celebrated the news but few others seemed pleased. She loved heretics, and at the end of the meeting went over to him and for the first time since coming back, voluntarily spoke to another member. His name was Jerome and he gave her his card. “Call me. If it gets bad and you think you’re going to drink – or take a drug - call me first.” Another old-timer called Harv joined them. It was Jerome and Harv’s habit to retire to a diner after the meeting and as a relapse just back in out of the cold they invited her, but although she was hungry, she wasn’t ready to socialise with human beings. She headed down to the beach and her bus back to Newport.
However she returned a few days later and, shaking like a leaf, shared about who her father was and the destructive impact of going to see him. The confession was aimed specifically at Jerome. She could feel the shock in the meeting, but at the end was cosseted by members commending her honesty, her courage and insisting that everything was going to be all right. Jerome and Harv sidled over and asked her out to the diner. Suddenly she felt some urgency, a passing wave that had to be caught, and said yes. She got into the back of Jerome’s Lincoln town car and they coasted down PCH to an art deco Ruby’s Diner in Salt Creek.
It was a perfect Southern Cal evening: pollution saturated the sunset over Salt Creek, Ruby’s waitresses chimed their good spirits at every customer, and she wondered how often each cracked under the burden of charming strangers whose throats she would not piss down if their lungs were on fire. There was so much charm everywhere, a whole country smiling up the courtesy in case it fell to earth and ruptured the national spleen.
Jerome was a serious man. Harv’s banter was ribald – he was so old he could get away with it.
“You know the old whore house in Dana Point? A friend, Jimmy from San Juan says they had a blind whore.”
“Could be an advantage for a whore.”
“I don’t have the lungs for Viagra.”
They were well known to the waitresses in Ruby’s. The hamburger habit under Schwinn cantilever bike frames, tin coke ads, and other hallmarks of an Eisenhower teen-age they think they remember but have mostly forgotten, was as regular as their meetings and inextricably wound up with their sobriety. The diner with its red leatherette draws Jerome as a nursery of lost childhood, but the retro house style, classic Packards and Chryslers mounted by Ruby’s door trigger no more sense memories than the photos of dead aunts and grandmothers that litter his house. The old past washed away with the Jack Daniels, joints, and finally with the simple lengthening of time. Harv tells Georgia he remembers five-second fragments as a kid watching the Depression drag past, losing his platoon in Normandy then virtually nothing till the bootlegger’s son got the White house and he sobered up. They both confess to being haunted by a feeling that they are still children trying to impress the adults, even if the adults are all about forty years younger than they are.
“You remember my father?”
“Oh I remember your daddy,” said Harv and she sensed a man whose position was not sympathetic to idealists like her father. “How long you been sober, Georgia?”
“This time round? In, out. Couple of weeks. Fifteen days to be exact. How long you been sober Harv?”
“I had my last drink a year before your daddy made himself scarce. I didn’t think he was still alive.”
“He’s younger than us Harv.”
“He’s younger than us?”
“No. He’s younger than us?”
“Yeah” confirmed Georgia.
“I must be lying about my age.”
“I was three weeks old when he left.”
“He must have seen a change then.” Harv caught a passing coffee waitress. “Three weeks?” Their mugs were refilled. “Not long after Kennedy was shot wasn’t it?” Jerome knew this last observation was aimed at him.
“Naw, naw, it was a while after that. I wasn’t born then.”
The waitresses delivered the national dish in fifties uniforms to Formica tables; the sun flared the relish tray and the steel napkin dispenser. To most, the Pacific evenings were living post cards, but to Jerome they were symptoms of some slow slide to disaster. In the late fifties he lost his research position down La Jolla because of his reefer habit and drinking, but cleaned up and gained tenure at the university. Mathematics and sobriety were the twin poles that held him in harmony until retirement when a set of navigational disciplines seemed to blow away and be replaced by a sense of disintegration. Harv joyfully played farm-boy to Jerome’s ascetic academic with his love of symmetry, his ecological concerns, and his morbid fears for the future.
“He’s an intellectual. Educated out of his wits.”
“Harv is proud of never having had a reflective moment.”
Over the hamburger and french fries she filled them in on her story. Harv occasionally interrupted with some faintly disgraceful anecdote from his past. “Married in Hawaii? When I was married we had a Hawaiian cleaner, and I used to have intimate relations with her when my good lady wife was at the hairdresser’s. Of course that was when I was drinking and my wife came back one day and found us hoovering the stairs naked. Except I was wearing the kitchen apron, so I had preserved some sense of modesty. Nevertheless, you could say I got un-married in Hawaii.”
“No such thing as a coincidence, huh Georgia? Ignore him. Carry on.”
“You stay with your husband?”
“No. I got into a mission in Newport.”
“Newport? How d’you get here?”
“The only people on buses round here are Mexicans.”
“I kinda like it. Switch off for a while, just travel, watch the ocean slip by. Feels good. Feels safe. Nobody can get you on the bus.”
“So what’s going on round your husband?”
“Does he know, Georgia?”
All her resistance around Timmy snapped into action. The ‘yes buts’ trotted out but they were having none of it. Like it or not they were kicking her ass back into the road to recovery, and it had to start with her husband.
“You following your dad’s pattern? Just walkin’ off?”
“You gonna disappear without trace?”
“Just make a phone call. He needs to know, you need to tell him.”
“Shouldn’t I wait until my ninth step?”
“We’re not talking about making amends. We’re talking about letting him know you’re alive. He may want to remarry.” Sometimes Harv really did think he was Spencer Tracy. “It may not be welcome news but he’s entitled to it.”
They could see her wavering, retreating, calling off, stalling the recovery engine.
“Just a call. Come back here next week. Tell us you’ve done it, and we’ll buy you another cheeseburger.”
Although the last thing she needed was facing out the Timmy problem, she boarded her bus with a strange feeling, and as she sat among the Mexicans and the other non-car class watching the sun bleed across the Pacific horizon, she realised it was relief. For a brief part of the journey she felt content and wondered if she were deluded.
Jerome and Harv settled back into the sunset shooting through the diner.
“All the way to Daddy to find disaster. That’s a real commitment to screwing up. Death by shit. Kills millions.”
A tray crashed somewhere. The evening burned Jerome.
“She’s kinda flaky.”
“Flaky’s a good word..”
“And the same age Mary would have been. Kind of looks like her too.”
The sigh Jerome heard all his days, the noise of exhausted patience that ran like a harmonic through his life, hissed across the ketchup.
“I’m hearing a girl who’s lost a father and a man missing a daughter,” Jerome got the stare from the days before psychobabble and Oprah. “You are two people who do not meet. Understand? Whatever you think you’re doing for her Jerome.. Come on. You got your ass in that old burble. If she turns up next week and she’s done it, we’ll buy her a cheeseburger, but Jerome! That’s it! God bless her. God bless her but. Let her go her own way. She can get herself sorted in Newport. You know this Jerome.”
Jerome’s shadow nodded across the wall behind, at the check, the mouths working the food chain across the diner, and the sun scorching out the evening. His daughter died in an auto accident with a head full of coke and a bellyful of resentment. For years at meetings he shared how ‘if’ was the saddest word in the language. Now, at his age time should be precious but there was too much of it. He stared at a baby transfixed by a Mylar birthday balloon tied to her high chair and wondered what kind of burnt out world awaited her. Her little mouth was smeared with ketchup.
“Jerome, there’s God and the IRS. Everything in between is entertainment.”
Time passes. They were tumbled out of the Mission first thing and not allowed back till evening. Between meetings she padded the streets, head down, away from the look in strangers’ eyes, but one day on the Newport sidewalk caught a stare from a dude in a surfer headscarf that suggested she was not as far down the food chain as she thought. She noticed traces of interest in other men’s glances; the normality of life began to wink at her, and slowly the unthinkable issue of her husband insinuated into her consciousness.
“Shit” was all she could say when she thought it.