"Perfect for women," my lawyer, a world class drunk, had commented on the room, "they love this high tech look and with that bar…" Hell, it was office furniture, too many chairs, darkly upholstered in a modern pattern and a sofa to match, with black Lucite all over the place. Looks like a doctor's office. The room was comfortable enough for me, even though it seemed somehow empty and out of order. Too many chairs, too damn many chairs.
Stale cigarette, pipe smoke and odor of the whiskey and gin hung to the furniture. The usual cross breeze that cleansed the air when the deck doors were open and the windows did no good as the still air outside seemed not to move anything.
I looked at at the neatly arranged crystal decanters on the glass shelves of the bar, the collection of liquor on the counter reflected in the mirror, then stared out the open glass doors leading to the patio. I often did this to ensure everything was real, with the checkpoints being the two palm trees in front of his building. As long as they were, there was reference.
When the 757 touched the tarmack at Dulles, my concern was focused on how to get out of the airport, rather than my Mother's funeral two days off.
I'd flown in an out the remarkably unaccessable venue dozens of times over the past two decades, but only attended it via taxi. Now the adventure for the geographically challenged ex-reporter was to not only drag his wife's huge suitcases, mercifully equipped with wheels to the Alamo shuttle, then negotiate roads that hadn't existed a decade ago, the last time he'd been in Washington; then for his Father's funeral.
The humid air hung about him like the pall that he thought no doubt covered his mother, as he through Nita's huge bags and his lightweight Tumi in the trunk of the Toyota and headed out the the airport built for art rather than convenience.
Despite the dozen years he'd been away from Washington, once he crossed Memorial Bridge the lay of the land, as his father would say, returned and in a few moments the attendant at the Madison was emptying the car.
"I'd like a Coca Cola," Nita said, picking up the phone to call room service. He swung around quickly and hung up the phone. "There's a 24 hour drug store around the corner; we need to stretch our legs anyway," he told her, grabbing her hand and the room key simultaneously.
Despite his propensity to spend a buck at the drop of a hat on anything that required batteries, room service was always out of the question. Especially with an all night drugstore and Starbucks on every corner.
As they trekked the three blocks to the store, he noticed Nita clinging tightly to his arm.
He rose from the kit built, teak Adirondak chair and walked through the French doors into his living room from the apartment's expansive balcony that looked out over Los Angeles. He glanced at the clock on the VCR. One of the few things, at this point in his life, he could handle. No flashing 12:00. It was early morning, 3:30, and twisted the dial on the CD jukebox until the readout displayed 'Round Midnight by Miles Davis.
The small wet bar beside the stereo had crystal decanters and glasses. Fine crystal, he thought, remembering when he could afford them. Not now. He'd bought the glasses in pairs over the past few years. Waterford, Baccarat, Orrefors, Louis France. Ben opened a deck of Marlboros and tapped one out. He almost smiled when he pulled out his Dunhill Big Boy lighter.
He dropped a few ice cubes into his low ball glass, and refilled it with Scotch and a touch of soda. Bye Bye Blackbird was playing as he inhaled and walked back out on the balcony.
The deck was large, 35 feet long, covered with Astro turf, giving him room to pace, and frequently stub his toes in the darkness, because of it's narrowness.
He often sat here, music piping through his wireless speakers and generally the same Miles Davis tune.
Ben liked old things. Pushing 60, he should like them. Days were better then, he thought. Not simpler, just better. Sitting on the Adirondak chair, he rested his drink on his stomach and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to remember when? If? What? Who? It was growing harder each day to do so; to grind out that anxiety that tightened every muscle in his body and just remember.
His ex-wife, a new age fruitcake was working for a sawbuck an hour in an ice cream store up north and taking more than a third of his paycheck. One of his incomprehensibles. He'd think about it for hours.
After all, he had custody of the kids. It didn't seem to make anymore difference to that judge in the Santa Monica Muni Court that they were in their 30s than the fact that she was a trained mathmatician with nearly 20 years at IBM. The Court still imputed only 12 grand annually of income to her. Hell, Ben thought, where's women's lib now that I need it.
He looked at himself in the mirror over the switch lighted fire place. He didn't look old, he reflected, maybe thicker around the middle than the 150 he would have liked. He looked tired. Ben turned to look around the 1500 square foot apartment and began to feel stronger. His mouth widened into his half smile as he panned the paintings, the furniture and thought of how it could just have well been the 70s when he lived alone with his kids.
I had my car repopped. I'm on the verge of filing bankruptcy and a woman I thought I loved was as nuts as my ex-wife, Allison was holding up the proceeds from the sale of my home, wanting it all. My income had gone from a half million to a hundred grand a year, my business was gone and I was babysitting a drunken blond. What could be better?
"Why are you being so mean to me?" She barely screeched, stumbling into the living room, hair flying away from her head in dry mats, robe opened enough to reveal her breasts and a thong. "Why am I here? Where's here?"
I sighed, thinking once again that Don and Diane needed the break and I didn't need anymore baggage.
"I don't want to live anymore."
"Kid, go back to bed."
I got up to help her. She looked toward the empty bar. Sad eyes, looking older. She turned and headed back down the hallway. "I want a drink," she mumbled. "You're mean to me."
My eyes felt red, almost weepy. The chair was getting old fast. It was an intrusion I had to accept. I sat for a half hour or so, thumbing through old New Yorkers and checked on her, before returning to my chair.
It would be a long night. Babysitting a blonde and broke. Four years off of 60, a hundred bucks in the bank, three years of bad choices and I wondered how the hell I came to this stage in life.
There was probably more coming. I don't think it matters now.
"I need a little something to calm me down," the blonde whispered, now staggering naked save the thong, into the living room. I caught her just as she walked into the floor lamp next to my chair. She passed out in my arms. Her skin was remarkably cool, dry, soft. Not what I'd expect for one so sotted with booze. Should be sweaty. Hell, she even smelled alright. I dragged her back her bed and returned to the living room.
It would be a hard night. And a hard week. I was due in court in just four days to let the remarkable system of community property in California take another piece of my life. It looked tonight so differently than it did even a year ago. I was alone. Babysitting a drunken blonde. And I was broke.
The smell of burning sage choked me as I walked through the front door. It was 85 the house, a touch warmer than outside. Sweat formed almost the moment I passed through the cool of the garage stairway into the foyer - its walls glistening with beads of dampness. The entryway was filled with the sulfurous odor of the homemade herbal tea Allison brewed constantly in a small, oddly shaped, small, earth toned ceramic cauldron designed, she claimed, for such utility.
The heavy scent of lavender joined the party as I walked up the carpeted stairs to my bedroom. My lungs, now thick with humidity and scent craved the clean, albeit hot air of the Santa Monica Mountains outside. I slid the wide French doors open in the bedroom. My throat was closing as I flopped down on the king size platform bed and gazed out at the mountains through eyes that were tearing from the heat permeated with the rude conglomeration of new age scents. Pressing two fingers of each hand against my eyes to rub away the rawness, I drew myself up and changed into a pair of jeans and T shirt. I filled the sink with cold water and bent into, blowing bubbles for nearly a minute. My eyes were filled with water, my nose touching the porcelain. Staying here, under water, head floating forever. A good thing I thought for a moment before I ran out of air, withdrew my head and shook it quickly, spraying water across the mirror. I dried off and walked down the hallway, feeling my T shirt dampening in the few short moments it took me to reach Allison's room.
"What the fuck is going on?" I shouted through a combination of now raw coughs and harsh sneezes.
"Allison, what the hell are you doing?"
She was lying on a futon, down quilt over her slender body, she know believed to be "frail" because of her various healers' conjectures that her immune system was weak and her adrenals weaker. She seemed to know what that meant. I supposed she simply had an allergy and no heart for life. On the other hand, she hadn't worked for years and I'd seen some otherwise intelligent women reach that point of inertia where the job market doesn't want them and the simply turn stupid. Allison, at once bright, had now made that turn. Yeah.
Cloaked in sweats, as usual, over the flannel nightgown she rarely removed until noon. The ubiquitous Walkman headphones was plugged into her ears, now a part of her anatomy. The room was dark, shades over the windows drawn closed. The futon rested but a few inches from the floor. Her eyes were closed and her lips were barely moving; the sounds emanating were unintelligible. She was speaking in "tongues," again. Probably her first language now.
Smoke from the smoldering, dried sage bouquets placed about the bed gave the room a Los Angeles midsummer's day haze. Allison smelled as if she'd bathed in lavender, drank it, then used it as a cologne. Scattered on the bed about her were scraps of paper covered with geometric patterns, each with a smaller piece in the center, carefully folded four times. There was writing on the them. Symbols. Couldn't be Aramaic, she hadn't a clue as to what that was. Pig Latin…or Esperanto. Tiny prayer sheets, filled with affirmations of the "new age," mostly asking for peace, and wealth, material wealth. Grand amounts of money, jewels and journeys.. Weird. Different. Way too different, even for me. Pathological. Yeah. Cassette tapes imprinted with the lost voices of her channels were strewn around the bed on the floor. Several vials of brackish looking liquid herbs dotted the nightstand, surrounding one of the urns of burning sage. Two more urns were on the floor at the foot of the bed.
"Allison, what the hell is going on?"
"Isis told me that these are healing things and…"
A fruitcake. Perfect. If my house could be bottled, I could sell it as am emetic and recoup some of that hundred and a half she just spent on Isis, her new channel, over the phone no less, to guide her to greater spirituality and me into insanity, if not poverty, a condition that, because of my Samuel Johnson-like demeanor, "'tis better to live rich than to die rich," is fairly easy to achieve.
Still gasping, sweaty and now quite aromatic I walked out of her room, rolling my eyes and shaking my head, gestures now so natural around her friends wondered if was inflicted with Parkinson's. Downstairs, then, through the haze, past the tiny alters on the window sills filled with totems and notes to Allison's "higher self," crystals adorning the bookshelves along with "wish boards" cluttered with cutouts from magazines of things she wanted and scores of meditation tapes. An olefacts new age paradise. Better back in graduate school with cinder block bookshelves, mattress on the floor and an old Voice of Music stereo. Hell, Book and Candle. My own special hell.
I ramped the air conditioning down to 60, glanced around the cedar living room that rose nearly two stories. Oh God, those damned art deco leopard skin couches. A whore house hell. The Eberle sisters. Chicago in the 30s, my favorite period an eyesore. In smoky haze I caught my shin for the thousandth time on the heavy glass coffee table that separated the couches. It rested on three large gold ceramic balls. Brass balls. Neat to see them rolling down the driveway out into the canyon….bowling for cars and coyotes. Allison's follies. I poured myself a glass of wine, grabbed the laptop computer and walked out on to the deck in the early California evening air.
My litany. Work on the novel. Getaway money, Pop used to call it. Nowadays its "fuck you" money. The world has become such a harsh and hard place. No one says please or thank you. Carry on writer…doctor…nurse. Where are those great Brit comedies these days? Where are those days?
The laptop open, firing up with the sun disappearing over the mountains that faced the broad redwood deck surrounding the house, I dropped my fingers onto the keys and began to tap out words with what seemed to be an unconscious effort. It's always been that way. Maybe not always, but as long as I can remember. The words come and go. A little comfort in the graying teak Adirondak chairs I'd built. Did it from kits, but built them all the same. You need clear gratification sometimes. You know, a lot like masturbation…washing windows…wire service reporting. Gotta see results quickly sometimes when the world's gone awry for you. Everything seems erroneous and just one thing has to be right, has to be true. Wash a window, build a chair, beat off, file a story.
My eyes flickered and closed, Lids fluttering for a moment or two, then opening in the setting sun to see mountains blurred through the slants of the lids. Massing in. Wish I could paint. The browns, grays and greens of the hills blended together in large forms. Can't draw, gotta tin ear and lots of paints and instruments. Maybe that tells me something. Yeah, it tells me I've no patience for painting or playing music or neurosurgery. It tells me that I'll do just about anything to avoid what I do, write.
Concentration was off. Look at the trees, watch the hummingbirds. Can't fight it. I am, indeed, essentially a lazy man when it comes to writing. It had always come so easily and it will now, or later, or whenever. Getaway money. Everyone in this town is writing something. Screenplays. Money there. Eh, there's money in this. Getaway money.
My thoughts drifted to the nightmares of the past, nightmares and joys, old times. God, how I love old times. Increasingly perplexed about them. Thinking mostly of old times. The divorce was wandering through the labyrinth of legalities, emotion, history and explanation. Closure only weeks away, my life was a maze, a maze of mazes. Old times seemed about all I could hang on to. The puzzles grow more complex as I grow older. Finding one solution seemed to lead inexorably to another puzzle, always more complex. My divorce was plotted cleanly. The end was logical, definitive, legal, pragmatic. A few months from now, my house would be sold. There'd be a new life. A small house or a flat by the sea. Something cheerful, light. A place where I could write, a respite, q quiet place of ease, peace, but a temporary place until I could make our run to France. I had thought of Spain, following my parents' lead of long ago, but Paris appealed to me more these days. The 30s again, lost generation, Left Bank, art, music. Yeah, it would be my last gig, our last.
Some dream, Maggie, leaving this house of redwood, cedar and glass nestled against the hillside, so beautiful, comforting in the fashionable Brentwood area of Los Angeles…fingers tapping words that strung to sentences, paragraphs. The light now fading, but the screen bright, I looked across at the mountains. Beaux Arts. Yeah, I'd be looking out on Rue des Beaux Arts.
The deck, the canyon, the comfortable Adirondak chairs and the writing were my only safe harbors these days. the Hotel Bel Air. No life at all save this orchestration of a divorce from 17 years of marriage. On the other hand, the orchestration of Maggie, in so many ways was as problematic, more so perhaps as I had no control. Eh, my entire life wound into this evening ritual anyway: the return to my writing, the letters to Maggie. The novel, my second in thirty years or so, had promise. The letters to Maggie, reflecting my journal, were long and filled with the days thoughts and moments.
I had been dreaming and writing for about a half hour when Allison burst through the French doors onto the deck.
"Ben, I've found a way to cure my hot flashes and our sex problems," she said excitedly. Allison had always been slender, proportioned, attractive with a soft smile. Now she was almost gaunt, with small eruptions of her face, a result no doubt of the myriad of esoteric herbs she ingested almost constantly. Unless she was leaving the house, her dress was old, haggish, layered as if she were living on a glacier. That she had become physically unattractive was not an issue as I'd learned long ago that a woman's beauty was momentary thing, a flash, a brief look, no more as it faded into tedium. Allison had acquired a flaccidity that seemed to permeate all of her being. Her personality had taken on a syrupy quality and her intellect dimensioned now only by the new age metaphysics the understanding of which required a lobotomy, which I thought she may have secretly had effected via psychosurgery from one of her healers. For her to intrude these days was unusual. She knew the marriage was disintegrating - that we had no interest in the other, save that which might have been construed as economic and perhaps a bit of history together.
"What are you talking about," I responded harshly, as the topic was inexplicable considering our relationship and that she knew better than to disturb me with such issues. After all, there'd been no sex in a year. It had been a year and a half since I moved her from the master bedroom to the guest room. I'd long ago lost my taste for the little physical pleasure she might afford.
"You know, my hot flashes and our sex problems," Allison said, pulling on a sweater over her sweatshirt, which covered a blouse, a T shirt and a turtleneck. In 75 degree weather she imagined herself cold, in 90 degree weather…there was always an ailment.
"We don't have any sex problems. We don't fuck at all. Turn up the air conditioning, you won't have hot flashes. It's 85 degrees in here all the time."
On the hottest of days, she'd keep the air conditioning off, pointing out that anything less than the current temperature would give her a chill, which would in turn give her the sniffles, which would lead to a cold, which would run down her body, which would lead to beriberi, chronic fatigue syndrome and possibly an immaculate pregnancy.
She would all be alright, according to Renaldo, one of her channels, who could cure anything. She had told her sister that she had a cancer, which Renaldo had found and dissolved the tumor over the phone.
"You know I'm menopausal."
"Right, and last year you had chronic fatigue, the year before hypoglycemia and you've been menopausal for ten years. And didn't you think you were pregnant a couple of years ago, you know, and had it aborted by a psychic healer?"
"That's not fair, you know we have sex problems."
"Nah, no, no we don't. I just had a headache for about a year, maybe more."
"I know what my body says."
"Does your body ever say anything rational?" I asked. "You know, like it's alright to eat oatmeal, or exercise, or eat a peach?"
"I've got a way to fix it all - Thea."
"Who the hell is Thea?"
"A spirit that Jean channels up in northern California. She'll give me a great deal - ten 90 minute sessions for $1,000."
"Why do these spirits always have to make a buck? You know, Christ didn't charge for his services."
"Even spiritual people have to earn a living. And how do you know Christ didn't charge. You don't know everything."
"You've got to be kidding." My eyes rolled so I thought my brainpan was coming into focus as exasperation began to make me faint, a little dizzy and desperately in need of a large measure of scotch.
"No, you don't know he didn't charge, no one does. And I want to do this 'intensive' with Thea."
"You mean Christ might have charged for the miracles?"
"Well, he could have. You don't know."
"You mean a liter of water to a liter of wine for a half a buck? More maybe for something vintage? What'd he charge for the fishes and loaves?"
No question, I'm in the asylum. Thea might just suggest a meat cleaver to solve the problems. My home, the abattoir.
"I supported you and the kids when we got married. I did it for five years."
"So, what've you done for the past 12? Listen, spend the fuckin' money, I don't want to hear about it anymore." There was a clarity in it all.
It was a movie. The only answer. All a Bobby Ewing dream and I'll be up soon. In Paris. Yeah, that's where I really am. Paris. Yeah, a dream…
"You'd feel better if you came with me to The Ecclesia next week," she said speaking of her latest near cult experience with a latter day EST group that promised prosperity as it got richer from its students' "contributions."
"Just fuckin' shoot me now. I told you I don't want to hear about any of this."
"Why do you keep using the 'F' word."
"Because you're driving me fuckin' crazy. Just leave me the fuck alone."