The Hopeful Twin Brother Wolf | Alan Rifkin
Early that summer I convince a doctor to help my son switch off his Zyprexa—it’s never helped enough, nothing has—whereupon things head steadily south. Every night brings a Facebook emergency. He posts a song about a father-killer, says my handwriting proves I’m Satan, sends video of a switchblade pressed to the throat of a kitten. Afterward he asks if I’ll take him to a shooting range—even he has to chuckle at the timing. And what I take to bed is that I got my son to laugh.
Because any laugh you share with your flesh and blood, with the person you welcomed into the world, seems to rejoin, all at once, your whole life history of shared laughter. Something inside of it promises it will outlast every sorrow, because that would just make so much sense. I am gambling we will ride out the transition.
But it’s hard to sleep, so I go outside and watch the city lights past the cypress trees that line the pool. This is on Mount Washington, where I’m staying temporarily with a friend. My younger children visit on weekends, rolling out futons in the spare room; Philip fled to his mother’s a year ago, complaining about my walls being bugged; and I’m apartment-hunting in LA after two decades of feeling trapped in Long Beach. The possibility that my moving helped undermine my son’s stability could just be my talent for self-doubt. But it also goes without saying that, as the Man with a Plan, I’m culpable for whatever fiasco now comes down.
Whenever my own absent father thought he’d found a short cut in the car—or when he took us out sailing in San Diego even though he couldn’t swim—I’d been nothing but proud, taken, enchanted. Shouldn’t my son be rooting for his father to win? Emilie, the ambivalent girlfriend I’ve loved for three years—a mystically lithe singer-songwriter who nestles hello, who laughs adorably with her teenaged children, who notices my every emotional vibration—who haunts my dreams—is now just a five-minute drive from where I live.
I got the idea for the medication switch from a homeless man I’d talked to outside the St Luke’s meals program. Apparently misdiagnosed, this man had thrown away all antipsychotics, keeping only his mood stabilizer. Now he was able to wander the world without fear. He kept his whole medical history folded in eighths, like a moldy wallet, in one sock. Philip’s doctor was a meek young man named Will who wore checkered shirts straight out of their cellophanes. “Your father raises an interesting question, Philip. I tend to agree it’s worth a try.” Across the room, Nola breathed fire.
“Jeffrey sees him one night a week,” she began.
Philip crawled his hands up over his ears, and Dr. Benson stood up in a nervous way that implied family counseling was down the hall.
Many nights I confide in Emilie over candlelight, a good father trying to comprehend the mindscape of his son. Is a paranoid delusion like one of those secret extra rooms you discover in a dream? Once you’ve seen the room, then all the floorplans that hide it are conspiracies. The fact the room can’t be proved is the proof of the room. Over time, Philip has grown tired of even explaining this to me, humbled by the genius of his enemies.
A few days after the shooting-range question, while I’m getting my hair cut near his mom’s in Seal Beach, he turns up at the salon door gesturing. He’s wearing a flimsy black backpack that I register, maybe prophetically, as a hobo’s bindle.
The manicurist asks May I help you?, both preemptive and polite. But Philip only wants me.
“I had a fight with Mom,” he says outside.
“Oh, Philip.” My tension melts somewhat. “She’s probably stressed out. Why don’t we go talk to her. ”
“Because I can’t go back.”
“She said that?”
“Well, okay then. Why can’t you?”
We’re ten feet from my car, which I gaze at until I realize he’s signaling something to me that he doesn’t want his pursuers to hear.
“What?” I say.
His eyes flash trying again to get through, but it’s useless—despite a lifetime of loved ones kicking me under tables, I’ve always failed to lip read in emergencies. At last he has to whisper in my ear.
It seems that they, who can’t be named, are coming for him right now, and he needs to escape as far as Oregon, although he has no funds even for a local bus.
I delay what I say only so it doesn’t look like I never take things in. “Okay. Yes. And, I can’t help noticing, they’ve never followed through on any of these threats. Does it help a little to know that?”
He doesn’t even look betrayed by my skepticism, which makes me feel impossibly sad.
“If there’s a real chance you’re in danger,” I continue, “of course I won’t leave you at Mom’s. But that aside! You can’t get on a bus with no money. Have you even had lunch?”
It’s heartbreaking, the priority that food has for my son. Any creature comfort, really. At 13 he confessed wanting a wheelchair, just so the family would have to push him. We all howled in outrage, but he only laughed alongside us—embarrassed, but not at all converted.
We pick up a couple boxed things at Trader Joe’s—kale broccoli salad, a sesame chicken wrap—then bring them to the table on the greenbelt to eat like gypsies, as we always have, ever since the divorce, when he was two. Over my warnings, he balances a cup of peanut sauce on his knees, and it empties onto his Levis. Power strollers hike by pushing babies.
“I grant you, Orange County is alienating,” I say. “But honestly, my gut says six months from now works better. Or a year. Then we could get our memoir idea to an agent.”
I trust my own words so deeply that I turn to face him, and my eyes, as Philip once wrote in a school poem, drill holes.
I know how to look people passionately in the eye for the sake of my son. One time at Von’s, so that they’d copy an image of Curious George onto his two-year birthday cake, I had to swear, “We own the copyright. H.A. Rey was my grandfather.”
Philip was so excited by the cake, he almost fell from my arms. “Q-Jo!” he kept pointing, topping off the syllables. There would be speech therapy besides.
“You’re not even working on the first chapter,” he complains. “You never show me any of it.”
“I never show anyone work in progress! Give me a deadline!”
He doesn’t answer. Food may be starting to drain the emergency.
“With some money, Philip, you could go to Oregon the right way. You’d be an author. You’d have, you know, women.”
His silence borders on deflation. Plus the sea breeze is turning cold, so we gather our trash and leave, resurrecting a childhood game of who can fling the Frisbee so it drops into the open trunk of the car.
I feel like father of the year by the time Nola opens her front door in an apron. Philip accepts a hug, then skulks past her to the converted garage where he lives with his mother’s Goodwill finds. Lots of wrought iron, lots of antique gowns. Hangers clack and sway when he turns in his sleep.
On the drive back up to Mount Washington, I mentally tally the number of car loads that will move me to my next temporary address. This assuming Emilie balks at letting me join her in Pasadena. I’ll turn sixty on July 4th, and all the people who ever made me feel special on my birthday have died or moved far away, but I manage to feel there’s something attractively grownup about this condition.
Indeed, when I’ve schlepped all my bags to a new house sit, the summer nights are soft, and there’s a quiet old man reading the news in the duplex courtyard, while kids of every race play on the sidewalk out front, and I feel like an explorer. But nonstop illegal firecrackers ruin the mood, and once, on a walk around the block, a storefront’s plate glass explodes as I pass by.
On the Fourth of July, I’ve strained my back doing stomach crunches, a problem Emilie turns sexy, dropping off a gluten-free carrot cake and making out with me on the floor where I lie. Putting aside our tensions for one day. I can’t do much to excite her in return, which I worry is a little too fine with her.
Afterward she floats around slicing us cake and refilling our coffee—the spaciousness, the ease for once—before returning to her kids and their holiday plans.
By way of my own celebration, I take Daniel and Zooey to the army base in Los Alamitos, where we’re the only family without blanket or chairs: a distinction that formerly made me feel young and hip. I feel stirred by the Marine Corps singers, and a good dose of Motrin is allowing me to be playful with my kids—hurling tennis balls to each other over the throngs.
It’s in the chill of dusk, the suspended violet fugue before the first rockets whistle upward, that I find both my hidden sadness and who it’s about. I’m in pain that I haven’t brought Philip. I’m guilty despite the fact his paranoia in crowds would have made it all but impossible. He’d even agreed with me on that point. But the fact remained I was the one who raised it.
Now I’m no longer marveling at the fireworks, only adding to the thousands of them I’ve seen in my life, till it’s time to leave.
And the voice mails that crash in when I charge my phone at home are all from Nola. At first she sounds halting, withholds details. Then she’s panicky. Then pleading with me to be of some use.
Then, all at once, the messages become efficient. Unhysterical. The PET team has been called. He’s painting swastikas on the windows. Grandmom is afraid. This will be the phone number of the nurse’s station.
I am moved by Nola’s bravery; I want to thank Nola for handling yet another tragic emergency with our son, before I realize that what she’s doing is the opposite of reaching out.
She will visit only the first two days of his hospitalization. (Here are his things. This is the list of his other prescriptions. I can’t do it anymore. Time for you to man up.) If I ask whether she’s all right, she gathers her forces to pretend that no one spoke.
Philip’s curls have been cut so short they could bleed—Nola’s last backfired kindness. In the lockup courtyard, he rests his forehead on a school-cafeteria table, jerks upright at loudspeaker announcements. He gesticulates about the nurse who is promising to kill him.
The high point of Philip’s hospitalization is texting Emilie from the wheel of my car. I GOT THEM TO PRESCRIBE CLOZARIL!
Remind me what this is? Is that the good one?
The gold standard! Tightly regulated because it has a rare lethal side effect. Infinitesimally rare.
At this stage, I’m still indulging the belief it may be only weeks, if not days, before this wonder drug will uncase my happy son.
High point #2 is getting him out. I arrange for a bed at an independent living home in North Long Beach called, stucco-gothically, The Gables. He “passes” a semiconscious hospital-bed interview with the apartment’s manager, a woman who despite multiple tattoos has the haircut of a helping professional.
I try to make the departure from the hospital feel hilarious, like a junket. “Dude,” I say, as we depart the double doors, “you’re falling upward. You’re getting an apartment.”
We arrive at a ghetto lanai sort of building, the kind where a certain idea of California paradise has been memorialized. But there are signs in the neighborhood that I try to find hopeful. A Mexican cantina. A vacant lot with pasture fencing.
Naturally the manager, Robin, isn’t around when we pull up, but I can’t let Philip detect my worry. “Hello!” I call cheerfully through the locked front gate.
A ragged one-legged black kid crutches over to let us in. Behind him, an older resident, whiskery-wolfish like Red Foxx, asks if I have a minute, and then stands cogitating, as if he has a hustle to share but hadn’t expected the opportunity. On the excuse of my son, I slip by.
It takes a few trips to get the bags of clothes upstairs. “You want these in drawers or hung?” I ask.
But whatever Philip chooses, he’ll never find anything.
What he wants, he says, is some darkness, except that the “curtain,” a blue beach towel, doesn’t span the window. I peek through the gap at the rehabby scene outside. There’s a row of vending machines, a torn vinyl couch. They’re not allowed to smoke pot, but a sense of retro hippie promise seems to waft throughout—and then, in chilling moments, departs, like an airlift of GIs. Philip sits at a tiny desk eating studiously, forming drifts of pistachio shells, while I teach myself to sort his medication on the extra bed. The pills migrate like ball bearings across the lumpy mattress.
I set up a folding chair as his bedside table. Then I position a book at an angle that would invite someone to read it.
Then I need to score him his room key. Robin answers her unit door this time, but instead of providing a key of his own, she fronts me hers, making me swear we won’t lose it—half insult, half favor. I return to Philip’s room, feeling all the sorrow of a father who has no key to give his son.
After a long enough while, I say, “I’m gonna go. But I’ll be back in the morning. I love you, Philip.”
He only nods goodbye.
“Boss, let me, let me ask you—“ the whiskery neighbor hails me I’m back outside. I smile like a deaf foreigner, but he hurries to catch up. “Which way you heading, man?”
“Sorry, hurrying. Anyway, my car’s stuffed with clothes and kitchen things.”
“You don’t got ten minutes?” It’s a cringing smile—what kind of alien creature doesn’t have ten minutes? Finally he laughs at himself, easing off. “I know you’d help me out if you could. That was your son, yeah? He’s a smart kid, looks like.”
Not to seem arrogant, I give a knowing, caregiver shrug. “He wants to go back to school, if he can get well enough. He’s a writer. I’m a writer—I teach writing. You guys all need to take care of each other.” I look him in the eye as gravely as I can. “I hope you guys all take care of each other.”
“Well, now that we’ve met, I definitely will. I’m gonna look after your boy.”
“Jeffrey,” I say, and we shake.
As I fumble for the gate’s deadbolt, the young guy with one leg crutches over again to help. “That’s my boy,” Lewis says. “He’s a good one too.” But I’m not clear if he means boy as in son.
I look up at Philip’s window. “Hang on,” I say to Lewis, and I march back upstairs. Late sunlight inflames the blue towel window covering.
“Don’t remember if I told you, Philip, but the pill organizer will be right here.” I lay it on the folding chair beside his bed. I swivel the chair.
“And your phone is charging next to it.” I adopt a clandestine whisper. “Your wallet’s in the drawer of the captain’s bed. You hear me? This drawer. Unless the drawer’s not good. I just wouldn’t leave the wallet out.”
“I’ll probably go to bed in a few minutes,” he says.
“All right, then,” I say, but I don’t leave. “Text me when you’ve taken your med?” He has to get this med in him. We have to get momentum.
He nods, bleary. I can’t push, can’t make him feel I need him to do it.
From the doorway of his room, I text the manager:
FYI - Philip left your key on his windowsill. I’ll be by tomorrow to pay rent.
Ok no problem
Wondering - in exchange for extra rent, would you be able to give him a friendly reminder to take his meds.
It takes a long time, but she answers: Sure. (No attempt to waive the money, either.)
Thank you, so much.
An hour later, from my house-sit, I’ll text again: FYI - His bedtime meds are in organizer on nightstand.
Normally I don’t do this I will however check on him
I remind her: I can pay you.
But there’s nothing more for a good three minutes. Finally the screen lights:
She appends a happy emoji.
I fire back my own row of emojis—clapping hands and two thumbs up—to which Robin replies UR welcome with a self-congratulatory angel’s halo, and then: Movie time with my daughter.
This relic of normalcy fills me with sudden nostalgia; we’re old time parents, bonding over family rituals, overcoming our snipey beginning.
The next day I visit, and the next, but we keep winding up at the empty Mexican cantina in the middle of the afternoon, like shipwrecked gamblers. Thereafter we begin hanging out at my house-sit, where I read the apartment listings on Craigslist, one nervous eye on the calendar. Four weeks before I return to teach.
Or I work on my writing, while Philip naps gratefully on the king-sized bed. But he asks if he can stay overnight.
I’m scared, and I stall. “This isn’t my place. When I get my own place, and you’re stabilizing on the meds, we’ll definitely have that talk.”
Every day at the Gables, we’re met by the one-legged boy with the whiskery elder, Lewis, sidling in. “Listen a minute,” he says one day, collecting his craft under his tongue. “You said you teach writing? If you want some good ideas—some ideas that would make you rich, you get what I mean? You should read what that boy does. Science-fiction stuff. “
“Hey, wow,” I say, trying to seem passably believable, because there could be an ally in all this for Philip. Let this angelic one-legged boy be his protector.
“Yeah, he writes good—he just doesn’t know how to put things down in the right—the way you’re supposed to. But if someone, you get what I’m saying, someone like you helps him with that part, I’m telling you. You’d both get rich.”
“Well, honestly,” I say—and it’s what I’ve learned to tell people —“the best thing is for him to register in the fall for one of my classes, if he can get himself there.”
But I’m hoping this barrier still sounds generous enough to keep the one-legged boy interested in making friends with Philip.
On the apartment front, I start to feel as if the people who offer me advice might be rubbing something in. Nola, otherwise incommunicado, forwards links to singles buildings in places like Hawaiian Gardens or Paramount. A shrink whom Philip used to see says we should live walking distance to Philip’s blood draw in the city of Downey. My best friend in Long Beach, standing by me during my foreclosure and divorce, had let me sleep on his couch, but only Wednesdays. “You just need six other friends each week—doncha have six other friends?”
In the same buckaroo tone, he now says, “Whyncha stay in a motel till you find what you want?”
But a motel would eat my last month’s rent deposit in a week, and I’m angry he doesn’t know it.
An old friend named Stanley truly cares but is years behind the curve. “There’s a thing called board and care,” he recites from his notes, and I tell him I haven’t got time for this. Stanley was a roots rock and roller, and he still has the hair and the western shirts, but is elderly in the voice in a way that underscores when he’s righteous. “This is what I know. You need to not lash out at people who are trying to help you.”
Philip stirs in the king sized bed.
“I’ll get you back to the Gables in a little while,” I say.
In the car with Philip, in the silence, our thoughts sometimes drift like fingers toward each other’s hand. And then we’ll talk, and I find out by accident the most astonishing things. “You have to stop staring at people, Philip,” I say as I drive. “You’re staring at me again.”
“I’m sorry,” he says, and then, suddenly, “I guess it’s because I’m lonely. I start to have thoughts about things that I don’t want to value, because it’s better not to.”
I take the odd sentence in slowly, to unpack it. “You mean—thoughts like, feeling that we’re close?
“Yes,” he says.
“Because you think it’s easier to be cynical?”
“No. But I aspire to be. Cynical.” He says it like he means business.
“I get it.” I find that I’m starting to cry, which he probably finds embarrassing.
“Do you know what I mean?” he asks—he’s so vulnerable again, trusting, it’s like my son is back with me, from before. Then he coughs—he’s been coughing a lot, I notice.
“Yeah, I do know. I love you, Philip,” and my voice breaks. “I’m sorry. I’m worried we were foolish not to get a blood test for your cough.”
“What difference does it make if I die? I’m not saying I’m suicidal. My life is not going to go anywhere.”
“Well,” I say, “I don’t agree. There’s a chance that the best is in front of you. I think you could have a good life. You could be a good author.” My voice gives way. “I’m sorry. I’m crying because I don’t like seeing you in pain, and—“
He shakes his head. “I know that you’re crying for your own reasons.”
Uh-oh. “What do you mean?”
“Philip, I’m crying because I don’t like to see you in pain! And I guess because when they say your meds can have a rare side effect, it makes me think of what it would be like to lose you.”
He’s outright confused. “I thought you already knew I was going to die. I thought that was the point.”
“Of Clozaril. That’s why it’s named that.”
“I’m not getting this.”
“Like in baseball,” he says knowingly, and then he reverts to a harried whisper. “The pitcher.”
“No, no, oh Philip. I can’t imagine that’s the idea. I’m sure it wasn’t named for that. No, no, no!”
Above us twirls a sign: The Panda Garden, at Atlantic and Carson. At least it isn’t the cantina. We pull in to eat and I talk him down further. I’m hoping to turn this narrow escape into one of our jokes on the family tree. I’m furious with God that this could have gone either way. The tenuousness of human rescue.
“Trust me, if you were in the focus group when they were naming this medicine, they definitely wouldn’t have named it Clozaril!”
Philip settles in, distracted, to his rice.
Realizing, suddenly, that even a misread fortune cookie could trigger him, I elect to pay quickly at the counter. It’s still light outside as I lead Philip, like some very dejected VIP, across another restaurant parking lot to our car.
The next morning when I pick him up, he’s already had breakfast, and a bad experience. “Two cars tried to run me down in the crosswalk,” he seethes, slamming and locking the door from inside. When Philip gets into cars, he’s a fireball of energy, then pays for the expenditure by getting doubly depleted.
I try to interrogate. How do we know these cars were actually aiming?
“Because I saw the drivers’ eyes,” he says.
“I’m going back and counting your pills,” I announce, not even caring if he feels accused by my U-turn.
But upstairs, Philip’s pill tray shows he’s missed only one dose all week.
That’s when I realize: The increments. Philip’s Clozaril dose was supposed to be walked upward, daily, from the first dose he received in the hospital. But on the day of his release, the outpatient pharmacy dispensed as if Day 1. We’re moving backwards. He’s at risk for a full psychotic break.
“Listen to me, Philip,” I say, gathering up his bag of pills. “Fuck. Fuck.”
After burning rubber back to the housesit, I phone Dr. Will, pulling him out of a meeting—I’m not just another caregiver to trample.
“You see that something has to be done. We agree on that, right?”
In his Huckleberry Hound way, Will agrees. “The thing is, though, there’s no system, no protocol for –“
“For fixing a mistake?” I give a tortured laugh. “Doctor, is that even—Hippocratic?”
Pathetically or admirably, Will admits, “No.” But thinking aloud through the iffy logistics does not get him the traction he’d like. “I’d have to score the titrated difference,” he says, “of a tightly regulated, tightly regulated substance that can only be released by the pharmacy in Downey, and we’re all due to meet at his mandatory discharge meeting at 2 in Lomita, which is hours from Downey in traffic, but,” and he gives a series of concessionary sighs that suggest he’s only complaining about his day.
I gaze out the window of my house-sit, from which any freeway is a maddening summer obstacle course away, a course of road crews and walker patients, and transients pedaling slowly on bicycles with American flags on the backs. “What if the patient was in your hospital, doctor, and needed this drug? Are you saying it couldn’t be done?”
“I’ll see what we can do,” he says. “Can I reach you at this number?” In a few more minutes his nurse, Eric, calls me, and all the men are on board.
“Bring his old meds,” Eric says. “The doctor will replace them with the corrected dose.”
“I heard. I hear him in the background.”
“Bring the meds.” And we hang up.
Thanking them both in my heart, I dig through our black bag of prescriptions. Digging again and again. Incredibly, I can’t find the old pills.
The bag is turned out, the bag is turned in.
I shake Philip on the king size bed. “Up. Now. Sorry. I may have left your PILLS at the GABLES, and now we’re—. Son of a—“
Nor are the pills among the belongings in the back of my car, the socks and liquefied coconut oil and the loose tennis balls and kitchen spices.
Midmorning still, but nearing noon, late enough for us to be hungry already—how does anyone without stable housing do anything but deal with getting food?
No sooner do we reach the Gables this time than it’s clear something’s off. For one thing, the gate stands unlocked—the courtyard gives off a dusty, high-noon impression. But from someplace hidden, we hear a wet, roaring rant, reverberating like a sprain, neither far off nor close. It’s as though a ventriloquist, ironing out some weird bug in his act, has instead made himself disappear.
“Hello!” I call, whanging on the screen to Philip’s shared, three-bedroom unit. Both of Philip’s housemates can be glimpsed through a gap in the drapes. But with each bang, they freeze, crouching in place. At last the one named Arnold loosens the chain. “We thought you were Lewis.”
“What’s wrong with Lewis?”
“Aw, he’s drunk!” Arnold says, sounding as beleaguered as the owner of a dead jalopy. “When he drinks, he accuses everyone of owing him money.”
Arnold suffers a panicky form of OCD, which he channels into marathon bursts of janitorial work, splashing buckets of Lysol onto counters and floors as he hunkers down for the torment to pass. This makes him as beloved to Robin as he is dependent upon her.
The upstairs housemate, Greg, trudges in slow, steady circles, as if he’s being marched for another man’s crime. “Two more weeks in California and I’m done with these goddamn criminals.”
At this moment, Lewis’s voice nears the window. Motherfucker, mess you up!
The ruckus then passes to a next unit and a next.
It’s hard to convey how perfectly suspended between misery and peace these middle-aged sufferers appear. How cheated by life, and how accustomed to it.
“I wanted to see Santa Monica before I leave,” George says. “Have you been to Santa Monica?” He’s holding a map book that he picked up from a Holiday Inn.
“That would require a lot of buses,” I say, edging past him to Philip’s room, where I check for the lost pills. They’re not on the windowsill, not on the desk with the drifts of pistachio shells. Not in the captain’s bed drawer or on the folding-chair nightstand. Not in jean pockets or jacket pockets—it’s hopeless, I decide, cursing, and now we hear sirens.
Inasmuch as Lewis probably wants to keep me for a future touch; inasmuch as the last thing we need is to get trapped here during a police action, I decide it’s safe to get Philip outside, slip out through the gate to my car. It’s been another futile trip.
“Where are we going now?” Philip asks when we’re almost to the ocean.
“South on Atlantic,” I say, just to be a jerk to someone. (This afternoon, I tell myself. The curve of his life will point upward.)
“You know what?” I say. “We’ve got about an hour before we head toward Kaiser. There are rental listings in my shirt pocket. I might look at a couple in Belmont Shore.”
But do I want Philip to come in with me, if we do? I look him over. He seems to be wearing the jeans with the spilled sauce from the park. My phone chimes twice and I pull over.
Asked the owners about your request to pay by the week they said they might but its gonna cost extra. $15 a week more So its due do you know if he’s staying another month
I’ll know more in a couple days, I reply to Robin. Then I feel my anger rise and I passively bargain. Is Lewis still going to be there?
He’s evicted. Gone as of today. Leave the check in the garage office with my wife
Wife? The woman in the garage office is a Hawaiian bruiser who misspells receipts on a Speed Racer note pad. These particulars make the neighborhood immediately feel 10 degrees hotter and 10 miles farther from Mount Washington.
I will, I text back, engine idling. There’s an ocean of cars waiting to turn onto Ocean, only nobody seems to be moving. I nudge my way into one lane and the next, slipping into the queue, but traffic on Ocean remains a crawl.
“This isn’t going to work,” I say. “We’d better get to Kaiser.”
But crews have blocked traffic toward the Vincent Thomas Bridge—there’s a fire in Edison’s underground electrical vaults, says the traffic cop. Servers are down, additionally, Siri unavailable, so I can’t even navigate a short cut. There’s only a very long way around, if I take the 710 to the 405 to the 110 to PCH, through Wilmington.
I consider telling the cop about our situation, the way my father might have, medical black bag on the seat beside him. This ghost of childhood privilege hovers and then vanishes, as I watch myself not seize it.
By the time we get onto the 710 we’re running dangerously late, and for the second time this week, I’m beginning to cry—simultaneously trying to remember, because I’m sure people have been here before me, how to make falling apart a good thing. I explain certain facts to God: that I’m 60 years old, doing all the footwork I know how to do. As proof, I submit these tears. When I am in earthly crisis, I am a hopeless and humorless person.
“Let’s try not to get anybody killed,” I say to Philip. What dramas might I be triggering with these words?
Dr. Will’s air-conditioned office, where we arrive 18 minutes late, is as close as the 21st century HMO affords to a scene of backroom dealing. Eric the nurse welcomes us in, then pivots to corral the doctor, hand already extended for the dropoff of old pills, which I have to soberly explain I‘ve lost.
The news lands personally, and not happily, on Eric’s shoulders. His estimation of my character has possibly been the fulcrum on which our whole agreement rests. “You . . . can’t find them?” he repeats.
As if in time lapse, I watch Dr. Will age a little further into his ethical land of no return.
Still, it takes not a minute’s thought in any direction to conclude that our least complicated option is to stumble forward, like a team of football players after a missed handoff.
Then Philip and I emerge into the afternoon haze of Lomita. There’s a Jack in the Box in the same parking lot, where I sit him down with a large soda to wash down the lifegiving medication. While he sips, I step outside to phone a few more apartments, spying through the restaurant window on my son, alone, motionless. How does anybody sit that riveted by a cup and a straw?
Can anybody know the absurd pride I feel? The tragedy, the special beauty of him just as he is? Is this the tragedy of the whole human race, only unique because he’s my own? I almost snap a photo to post on Facebook. But I know he would feel ripped off.
By the time we hit the Gables, around 7, street parking is scarce enough that we have to park a block away and walk, and against the low setting sun we see the silhouette of a shuffling, swaggering man.
“Hey, now,” Lewis hails us, with what I assume is forced good cheer.
“Lewis, I heard what happened.” Ambiguous solidarity seems the only way to go. “Where will you be staying?”
“Where am I staying?” He screws up his eyes. “Where would I stay? I’m staying right here!”
“Oh. Robin had said—have I misunderstood?”
“Listen to me,” he says. “These fuckers gonna talk tough every time. Every time. You think I don’t I know my rights?” He cackles. “You and I know that. I know you know—right?”
But the next day, when I look to Robin for answers, she only shrugs—a fellow victim now. “I don’t even want to be here anymore,” she says, with shit-kicker frankness. “As soon as I can get out—“
“Oh, no,” I say. Don’t leave us, is all I can think.
“Just sayin’ you’re right to be upset.”
Something in her compassion sounds less than straightforward, though. She’s in the doorway of her unit, one foot tapping and her teeth a little on edge. Suddenly she motions me inside. We’re just an inch inside her place. “The cashbox just got stolen,” she whispers. “And my car. Anyway, the owners probably think I faked it.” She turns away, one eye looking back for my reaction.
“Are police looking for your car?”
She sucks on a cigarette. “Oh, Christ, no. I already found it, a block away! They got some clothes and CDs is all.” She makes a slightly sympathetic face, to convey that my naiveté is sadder than her loss. “It’s just, your kid is nice. I’m on your side! I can see why you’d want him out of here.”
I put aside the incongruous sensation that, in an earlier decade, we’d be about to kiss. I erase the tattoos and her halter top and try to locate the corresponding scene from the ‘70s teen movie that the housing project pays its homage to.
“I’m looking for places,” I say. “I’m working on it.”
“Yeah? In Seal Beach?” She’s forever stuck on that detail of Philip’s past. It excites her to assume that he skateboards.
“We’re looking all over the place, basically.”
“Here,” she says, fishing a card from her purse. “I haven’t told anybody else. This board and care near City College has a bed. He can go to school. He can skateboard to school.”
“Do me a favor,” I say to Philip in the car. “Open my Maps.”
“Siri!” he shouts at my phone. “Siri! 1281Walnut Aven—“
His timing is off, so the app won’t open.
“You do it,” he groans, but instead I pull over and use my thumbs.
I don’t love what I see. The address is not near the college’s main campus, but its ghetto satellite. In the name of faith, I suppose, I don’t turn around.
It’s the inevitable board-and-care courtyard. The raving masses wearing trunks and jerseys from mismatched sports. A deafening loudspeaker, like from a submarine movie, orders a janitor from accident A to accident B.
In honor of the lumbering director, Tatiana, I pretend to be thoughtful, pretend to measure drapes. A day room features a large box TV, blaring ads for injury law firms.
“Robin,” I say when we’re back, so calmly I surprise myself. “You’ve actually been to Chez Bon?”
“Oh, yeah.” she says, poker faced.
“Then, of course, therefore, you know that it’s a death sentence.”
She appears to be a little thrown by my honesty—and then, because I don’t react to her expression, she looks entirely not thrown. She’ll offer any face I want.
“I wanted you to see the contrast,” she says, opting for shrewd. “I wanted you to see you can’t be choosy.”
I could throw a punch, right here, only I’m not certain I even believe that Robin means this. And my son is looking flushed and stranded, and exposed, like a pale prisoner forced to change clothes behind a towel.
We climb upstairs, Philip’s arms dangling limp at his sides. At least they’re not rigid, I think, not like when we tried him on Abilify. The temperature jumps ten degrees by the upper landing.
“Is Mom coming to visit soon?” he asks, pulling bedcovers to his neck despite the heat.
Nola has an older son, cerebral and sweet, with an Asperger-like syndrome, and I’m astonished I haven’t thought to text him till this moment.
Murphy, I type, is anyone there well enough to let me know if Nola is OK? She left very upset and shaky last week, and I haven’t heard from her since.
I will call her, he replies.
So I wait, while Philip shuts his eyes. I wait a few minutes before I get Murphy’s earnest follow-up.
I was able to reach her, but I unfortunately cannot remember what she said to tell you.
I burst into a laugh. I can’t help it. “Philip, you’d love this!” It’s as if we still chuckle at such in-jokes all the time.
But he’s gone to sleep. I kiss his forehead once, and leave him.
Are there good things about my being a vagabond? The soreness of sleeping on floors, on air mattresses, is becoming, itself, sleep-enhancing. My next two nights, exhausting every resource, are on the art studio floor at my old editor Nancy’s in LA. Nancy’s survived a year of chemo for breast cancer, her only updates being a couple mass emails about the odd wonder of discovering that she’s not afraid to die. But she’s so used to the sanctuary of her minimalism, that even my breathing sets her off. Her aloneness feels like a shrine.
Then comes a week, five miles from Philip, at the Long Beach home of a lady who takes off to be with her boyfriend if I’ll care for her two dogs. Despite knowing every detail of my situation (crucially, that I’m ten days from starting fall semester as a homeless professor), she includes me in a demeaning charade, texting daily to ask if I’m enjoying the peace and ease.
I’m expecting another such text when I hear from Philip instead. It isn’t good.
Dad, they’re showing my room? They’re going to move me to Unit 4 so they can paint?
This is, Robin confirms, no delusion.
Eli my boss will help with placement we are closing the Gables down.
???? Why? And when?
Converting to Section 8 we are closing by the first I can try and team him with a group that’s staying if u like? I’ll have my boss call you. Or you can try him but not after five they’re Orthodox Jews.
Having been born and raised a Jew, I’m thinking one thought only: I must catch the eye of these owners. I must hail their entourage, touch the hem of somebody’s garment. But when I arrive at The Gables, a silver Mercedes is pulling away from the curb, undoubtedly theirs. It could not possibly help my cause to give screaming chase.
The gate stands wide open this time, tenants everywhere.
“Stomp your feet when you walk past Unit 4,” Robin welcomes me, walking in staccato. “They have bed bugs.”
“Wait. Isn’t that where Philip’s being moved?”
“Ugh,” Robin says, though it’s not clear if it’s in understanding or impatience. “Don’t stress. I haven’t even been home all morning.”
A blonde man who reminds me of a camp director stands in the center of a circle of bewildered tenants, handing out cards for a downtown sober living. I push in to the front, not caring what it is. The scene is that of a third world airport. Philip’s guitar has already been moved to the new unit, and a conversation is in progress with the one-legged boy about local punk bands.
“You need to meet this man,” I say to my son, but the camp director calls out “How you doin’, Killer!” in a voice so big that Philip scurries behind a bush. This maneuver assigns no more blame than a pigeon does creating distance from a child.
“We’re going to see the place anyway,” I tell Philip. “We can’t afford not to.”
“I can’t share a room,” he says.
It’s true, he can’t. In his imagination or otherwise, every shared room is an extension of a bullying ritual begun in middle school.
I look for Robin, who’s suddenly vanished. My thumbs crush the touchscreen.
These are mentally fragile renters who need stability! You told him he’d fit here! You knew about him, you interviewed him. He is frightened.
I’m sorry I feel bad he is a good kid. Make him talk to Carl. He would be around people his age skateboarding etc
“We’re just going to look. Okay?” I say to Philip.
Downtown Long Beach, through a certain filter, can emit a funky, backstreet grace. It’s like the cities of my twenties as I romantically saw them: San Francisco, Sacramento. It’s a past I’ve dangled before Philip many times. I’m standing in both worlds, in the sweet spot of the time capsule and exiled outside of it. Not far is a Food Not Bombs collective with a tire swing in the backyard. A girl broke Philip’s heart there when he was a senior in high school.
Inside Carl’s sober living, the guys on the leather couch are of a certain wayfarer mold, reciting 12-Step wisdoms when asked about their plans. On the TV is an action thing with Charles Bronson. Philip roams the interior not too fearfully, though he doesn’t interact. Countless airy Victorian bedrooms have been reconverted with Home Depot fixtures. A locked walk-in pantry is where Carl keeps all the meds. “How many times a day do you take medication, Philip?” Carl asks.
“I prefer not to live here,” Philip recites, Bartleby-like.
“Hey, no worries.” We watch Carl banish all drama from his brow, pretending to watch birds cavort in trees. “Why don’t you take your time and think about it?”
“What don’t you get,” I say as we return to The Gables, chopping my words like a machete, “about needing to keep our options open.”
“He’s an asshole,” Philip says. “He blinked his eyes in code to say I didn’t belong there.”
The one-legged boy, crutching across the courtyard to admit us, asks, “Is it amazing? I heard some of the guys say it’s amazing.”
I ask if he’s going to go see the place too.
He surveys the empty courtyard uncertainly, then reassures us, “I think someone’s supposed to take me.”
That night Emilie comes to Long Beach for her daughter’s soccer tournament, a rare convergence (she’s the ride to, her ex is the ride back), and she wonders if, despite (or because of) all that’s going on, I’d want to be together. Maybe grab a bite after the awards. She can’t hang out super late, even though it’s the ex’s custodial weekend, because if their daughter goes to sleep early and their 15-year-old son needs a ride back from Fiona Apple at Largo, Emilie might prefer to pick up the son rather than make her ex throw their daughter in his car. Her every verb—hang, grab, wonder, prefer—is from a foreign America.
Into the phone, at a not quite detectable volume, I want to say: Your life is overwhelming. How may I pitch in? Instead I say it would be a miracle to see her face, however briefly. Which is, humiliatingly, true.
Nearly every day she’s served as sounding board on the phone—sometimes for hours, sequestered from her kids—but only from a distance. She is stepping into Pilates. She is stepping outside a party to say, “Just a bookmark for now but I wish I could hug you.”
The highwire act of my life has not been hastening romantic breakthrough. She wavers between lovingkindness and self-preservation; I waver between minimizing the horror of my situation and flinging it at her. Before Philip landed in the hospital, with Emilie forever on the fence, I accepted, then backed out of, a certain infamous swimming invitation from a single mom I’d made ambiguous steps toward. There’s been strain.
The soccer tournament takes place at the park where Philip lost his virginity. His high school girlfriend, now a dancer at City College, lay down with him behind some bushes and got pregnant. He was slender then, before all the metabolic changes, wearing a ribbed thermal undershirt self-consciously, like a white cholo, but breast tissue from Risperidone was raising a mound of fabric across the front. The swelling could look buff, until he turned to the side. Then it became visibly conical. He was a handsome, nervous boy, miserably walking his dancer girlfriend from class, watching out for all the rival lovers he’d been hearing on the phone wires.
For all my nearsightedness, I always spot Emilie before she spots me. In sunglasses, she wanders a grass field like a celebrity who’s strayed off set. Her hoodie is lint-free, her lips glossy and fresh. But when you reach her she’s funny and haimish, kvetching at you for not hugging like you know who she is.
“You’re sweaty,” she says, with concern.
“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”
“No, no! I’m not complaining. Jesus! Now you’re mad!”
“I’m not mad,” I say, but she can’t tell, because I haven’t smiled. “No, I’m just—I’m sure I’m very sweaty. Anyway.”
“What should we do?” she says, after we’ve stood a few seconds. “Eat first and walk? Walk to eat?”
“I wouldn’t mind a walk,” I say, looking around. “Of course, if you don’t want to walk, that’s fine, too.”
We stroll halfway around the park in the twilight; we cross Carson Street to get tacos for dinner, and then, feeling sadly jaunty, I offer a driving tour of apartments I’ve applied for. We drive from Lakewood down to Spring, past the airport to the 405, to the 710 downtown, then toward the university. I point out the leafy crow’s nest in the arts village with stairs as steep and narrow as a fire ladder. A couple in their twenties had sat on a futon couch so blankly that I eventually derived they were high. Or maybe only putting their conversation on hold until I left. Maybe they were breaking up. Maybe that was why they were moving out.
I point through the windshield at the apartment where five tenants have to jockey their cars backward into traffic from a barber shop’s driveway to let each other out. I am dreaming this all could sound impressive to the woman I was angling to live with a few weeks before.
Emilie can’t glean much through a car window, of course. But she’s happy for me if I’m excited to be going for something high-density and urban. Is this what I want? she asks.
I don’t know what I want, only what I wanted. The distance between “happy for” and “happy with” feels transcontinental.
We kiss goodnight at her car, and then I lead her to the freeway toward Pasadena, watching her in the rear view mirror, releasing the visual tow rope, until she’s on the onramp and out of view.
I can’t bear, now, going back to care for someone’s dogs. In a mini-mart parking lot, as if finding candy in my jacket pocket, it occurs to me to text some fighting words to Robin.
By law that unit must be sanitary. I am a 40-year veteran journalist. Look me up online. I will rain holy hell.
The release feels near-cathartic—I’ve played my privilege card overtly, for once. I’ve requested a life line, purchased a vowel.
But the next day, when I drive out to see the suspect Unit 4, it isn’t the filth that I notice. It’s Lewis.
“Didn’t you live across the way?” I ask him.
He pivots on the upstairs mattress to see me, then winks. “I know how to talk to them,” he says. He is not asleep, nor even drunk, but upon seeing me he has sprawled himself absurdly in both directions across the bed, limbs stretched territorially to the walls. He will not be surrendering this bed now.
Downstairs, the one legged-boy lies facedown, half on a pile of sheets, half off, his crutches strewn where they fell. His weariness seems epic, his rest a preview of heaven. Robin stands over, attempting to roust him. “We have to spray. I am so sorry to do this.”
“Actually,” I say to Lewis, “Philip’s supposed to be up here.”
“Oh yeah? I think they got an extra bed they could set up. Maybe you could see?” He works his whiskers and adds, “You know I like your son. He’ll be fine here. Where you staying? You moving in here too?”
Philip begins to groan—for a man who stands six foot two, he accommodates himself so obediently to life’s checkerboard—then trudges up the stairs of his old unit, which is now draped in painter throws. The big man from Oregon stands outside his own bedroom, permanently in standby mode, as if there’s been an accident or a flood.
“Seriously,” he says as we pass, “your son is the best housemate I’ve ever had.”
When I’ve been turned down for nine straight apartments, I start to question if my prayers are even heard. There are such things, the Bible says, as curses, demons, mighty spiritual warriors with flaming arrows. Once, when I’d rented office space in a crumbling mainline church, the evangelical friend who picked me up there for lunch got knocked backward at my office door. He sniffed the air like a bloodhound and then asked if I’d let him pray over my computer. “Sometimes these old churches. . . How can you work in here?” he’d said.
I miss who I was the day that I let this man pray. I long for the way of eternally childlike belief. I’d been a member, with him, of the men’s marriage accountability group at his church.
So I phone there. “That’s intense,” Pastor Brandon says of my situation. This is what I mean about young. He puts me in touch with the Sozo prayer team of Lorrie and Gabi, who tell me they don’t normally do such triage on a Friday, but who also seem, unmistakably, to relish the emergency.
And suddenly it’s like I never left. The windowless carpeted room. The semicircle of chairs both folding and beanbag. The locked cabinets of Goldfish crackers. Lorrie, a former policewoman, will be the lead investigator, Gabi the note-taking technician, watching for movements of the divine.
Sozo prayer, as Lorrie explains it, is impressively systematic: an inventory of blockages on the order of chakras. Whom haven’t I forgiven? Where have I not forgiven me? Who do I say God is?
As we explore my childhood, my marriages, my bosses, my professional disappointments, I roll out my skillful absolutions. Then, suddenly, we hit a root nerve, and I’m sobbing authentically. It unfolds that the thing I most desperately envied growing up, the thing I envied the way Lex Luthor envies Superboy, is the thing I have failed to give my children: A stable marriage in a stable home.
It’s one for the Sozo annals, of course, that the demon I’ve just named is also the symbol of my presenting complaint—homelessness. Which result sets off a lot of knowing eye contact between Lorrie and Gabi. And though I don’t know how any of this changes the equation of the nine turndowns, I know it’s unlikely that a better stopping point for the session is in the cards. I only want to stay in this singleness of my guilt, the honesty of it, like it’s a home in itself. Although there is always this not wanting yet to head back outside into the fearsome world.
In the parking lot, they hand me a printed sheet of Biblical affirmations, phrased like royal nicknames (Chosen, Conqueror, Child of God, Heir). And what’s surprising, here, isn’t the stillness that follows me to my car. What’s surprising is that my stillness doesn’t quite care if I ever solve my housing problem.
Recognizing this to be a higher grade of stillness, I decide I’d better savor it awhile. I drive not yet in the direction of my house-sit, instead traveling south along Redondo to Second Street, where I stop and park. It is a Friday night in Belmont Shore. The usual beachy vagabonds loiter by the bars. American tweens eat sticky cinnamon buns in paper trays. To their strolling, overfed families, I feel a sudden middle-American allegiance. But it isn’t that I want to be like them. I just want them to exist, and to feel as purged for one moment of their lives as I feel for this moment of mine.
I remember the throwaway newspaper they used to have in this neighborhood, back when I used to call Belmont Shore “Bedford Falls” (first snidely, and later accidentally). I meant the wholesome Bedford Falls, not the nightmare version where all the people have gone bad because Jimmy Stewart wasn’t there to help them. The fact is, any real town is both towns at once—a lot of wholesomeness that tries to keep out all the agony at the gate. Keep it out or help it in, it can only do one or the other, forever.
Lo and behold, it still exists, this freebie newspaper—The Grunion Gazette—stacked right there inside its coinless rack. As crowds pass me on the sidewalk, I unfold the pages, the dwindling classifieds, the rental ads so wary of outsiders, because who in the age of Craigslist advertises vacancies in an old neighborhood newspaper anyway, except people who are wary of outsiders?
“You’re a professor?” says the first landlord I phone the next morning. He’s astounded at his own good luck.
It must be my birthday, because it’s clearly the Fourth of July, but for some reason that I can’t explain, it’s Philip’s birthday too. The firing range at the Alamitos army base is closed for the holiday, but Eli, the carnie/caretaker of the place, has agreed to hide his keys beneath a rock where we can find them. We wander inside, unbox our weapons from hot crates and hold them, lawless, unhindered. The heat is surreal, astonishing, and we’re shedding every kind of armor, clothes, skins, even weight. The sense of release, of emancipation, is so not like us. It’s like some kind of Jubilee. We aim our guns in tandem at a large, fallen horse with one lame leg, a horse beset by agonies, we fire a mercy shot each into its neck, father and son, but in the creationist flash of the explosion the animal is made whole.
Not until I wake up Philip to leave The Gables—he’s supine on his captain’s bed, on clouds of bunched-up comforter—do I realize that Lewis, quite logically, may have taken possession of Unit 4 merely in order to stay close to his son. Assuming, of course, that the one-legged boy is Lewis’s literal son.
In any case, I don’t see either of them here today, which spares us all an awkward goodbye.
Outside, the line of Section 8 applicants has formed at the gate. They move aside, with what strikes me as tense courtesy, for Philip and me to pass.
That Saturday, Emilie visits our new apartment in its unfurnished, squatter phase. The dimensions, the balcony are palatial. “It’s nice!” she says, pacing the living room, which is empty but for two temporary futons. “Do you feel good about it? I mean, still?”
I say I do, with a sigh of qualification that is meant to remind her about the calamity that has chosen my son.
When Philip takes his evening meds and passes out—his cough beginning to trouble me greatly—I walk with Emilie to dinner at a sidewalk bistro that adjoins the independent record store. She wears a white textured peasant top, her arms and shoulders as flawless as a child’s. Over salmon and asparagus, I tell her my Sozo prayer experience, and, for one of the only times in our relationship, I don’t need to translate the churchy jargon to her language. “You look so good right now,” she keeps saying, something I often have been told when I am about to go away.
What is brown with the palest possible pink? Those are the two colors combined in Emilie. It’s a lovely, suspended interlude in which I seem to notice everything—end of summer, date night, sidewalks thronged. In the setting sun, the transients appear more like touristy carousers. Emilie takes my hand, tuning out the hordes, and we’re a couple of miraculous beings when we touch and release, fingers thick and musical, before I begin my new future with my son. It’s a toast to the end of romance. Then I go back home alone, listen to Philip’s breathing, and stretch out on the wood floor where our couch is going to go.
Sometimes, reflecting on Lewis and his one-legged son, I’ve thought: What good are my privileges and my blessings if they aren’t also everyone’s? And other times, I think: Who am I to comprehend the mind of God?
But for Philip’s part: however hard he tries to remember the Gables time, it’s fogged over, a dark passage, like he’s the survivor of a traumatic twin birth. Aside from the mysterious fact that I came to visit him there every day, he remembers nothing.