Zealots | Alan Rifkin
When he got himself hired as executive editor of a groovy West Coast magazine, it was becoming possible for a reporter like Jim Fellows, with Western Washington Press Club trophies clanking in the back of his car, to picture Hollywood success. There were writers from Texas Monthly and New York Magazine, barely middle-aged, who wrote screenplays left-handed but magazine features with all their hearts, and then retired onto beaches in Jamaica. You’d see them in contributor’s photos, the boy-wonder haircuts, the billowing JFK swim trunks that announced their escape. Even in the years just after Watergate, this was a pretty lofty self-image for magazine writers to entertain. But like a lot of new ideas in the 1970s, it felt more like a natural, earthy, timeless one that had never been given a proper trial.
I first shook Fellows’ hand—twice, before he could stop us—the day Nancy had me in for my first real editorial lunch. But I knew all about his voice in print, had been breathing that in like cedar wood, cedar with flecks of pot: that whole mix of Ivy League stature and hippie cool that converted me to buying wool slacks and penny loafers that day, making me look like a job-seeker from guidance class.
He was tall: former-basketball-player tall, with a melancholy way of seeming more by flaunting less, which let you know he didn’t grow up in LA. Even though people like him were always the ones running things in LA.
Then he left the lobby and I could breathe a little, nursing Nancy’s professed crush on my writing. (I actually had a girlfriend, in Boston—an art student who’d picked me out on a trip west as if for a musical she was casting about a loud Boston girl, forever being cat-called by louts, who finally spots a boy timid enough for her to trust.)
Fellows got his job by writing an application letter that became legendary because they hired him by printing it—one of those Hail Mary shots that, in the highlight reel of history, turns out to be a sure thing every time you play it back. It blended Hemingway grace, Will Rogers drawl, and just-right local bonafides (he used “bene gesserit” to describe the benevolent Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley). Once, I’d taped a lead of his to my bathroom mirror.
I’m a writer, not a dune buggyist. My brother-in-law is a dune-buggyist, not a writer. Between the two of us, however, we just might have a story.
Nor had any of the looming darkness explored by Fellows’ magazine, the Quaalude-peddling teens, the child-molesting teachers, the Sacramento street preacher turning cult figure, ever really threatened the vibe of breezy decompression that his whole generation seemed to be enjoying together in the pages of each issue—a ritual so basic to the communal needs of grownup civilization, you couldn’t imagine it ever passing away.
I was a wannabe punk, afraid that even the other black sheep saw through me. At my older sister’s complex in Culver City, with the gas barbecues and coin-op Jacuzzis, I filled notepads with seditious verse, finding alchemy in words like “varve” and “melanoma” and “dismay.” In bars, I stood paralyzed by the jukebox (would my choice be some biker’s last straw?)—flipping the song menu for an anthem that would both offend my baffled father and make him take me in his arms.
Picture Fellows sliding into his wife’s car for their first dinner-hour drive from LAX. The bus benches say “LA’s the Place,” but plainly it isn’t, yet. It is the Sun Belt, giddy and unbeholden. The horizon feels like an arena of adoring fans, begging him to shoot. The Hamburger Hamlet in Brentwood is filled with golden women: screenwriters who’d been too awkward or too smart in college. At the Post Office, his neighbors practically drink daiquiris in line. He has to struggle not to look ten years ahead, the kids skateboarding in the Palisades, the dinner guests reframing the meaning of middle age at each milestone birthday.
One morning, paired up in Nancy’s cubicle, he looms over the next issue’s cover art.
“I don’t mind ‘The Masque after Hours,’” he says. “But why does the photo make the very same point? We need an emblem, a phone on a nightstand—“
“Oh, I think I love that!”
It takes a moment for Fellows to remember that Nancy feels no conflict about applauding an interesting idea prior to understanding it.
“And the cover line could be a mock public-service ad. It’s 4 am. Shall we tell you where your kids are?”
He watches her nodding, shrewdly at first—then sublimely, with all her being. She is artsy, tipping toward short and round, with turquoise eyes to go with finger-gelled blue spikes in her hair. If it were Nancy’s magazine, the mock-PSA would address the kids, not the parents. The photo would show a payphone by an overflowing john.
“Below the picture, but above the title?”
“I’d think so. Yes.”
A beatific pause. “It seems wrong not to close shop on that note!” she moans.
Fellows is the slightest bit afraid she really means this.
He ventures on, reading from a narrow spiral pad. “The Christmas Memories thing. We all like ‘Five writers writing and a partridge in a palm tree.’ But should it be seven writers? Nine?” Inviting her in—it’s understood that he knows fewer California writers than she does.
Or was I living in Beachwood Canyon then? No, still Culver City, proofreading children’s schoolbooks part-time—but my plan was to live on Beachwood Drive, if only at the base of it, in a brownstone with fire escapes and dank walkways. I resented my sister’s complex for its whole lack of varve, and for two years before that, I resented San Francisco.
Why had I ever gone there? (Okay, a breakup. But why would anyone leave LA?) On visits back to Hollywood, carrying a suitcase the size of a tiger cage, I tried to peddle first-person stories about being homesick. I apartment-sat for a girl bass player who lived in the canyon, and just her phantom on the Murphy bed with clothes tossed everywhere, the suggestion that there might be a world of girls my age who slept elsewhere more than they were in, made me want to steal all her unusual hand soaps.
Then I’d take a plane and a BART train back north, schlepping my tiger cage up Van Ness while the wind destroyed my hair.
In unpublished letters to editors, I criticized the San Francisco cast of an LA play and the distance of the BART station from my flat. I lay daily under a sunlamp clipped to my bookshelf. My father flew to town and met me at a restaurant in the Marina, where he picked up a woman closer to my age than his. With his uncreased forehead glowing under the dome light of my car, he looked as charmed as an infant; wealth did this to some people. He looked like a newborn aficionado.
Pride of his immigrant parents, a ship’s doctor in WWII, he had progressed to silk suits, then season tickets to the Lakers and Rams. He held his parenting discussions from behind a desk. Each house he bought was farther west, the auburn lights outside his living-room window a Tonight Show backdrop. What did his story leave my generation to become? You can be orphaned by being born where people are supposed to dream of arriving.
The first thing I ever sent Fellows’ magazine was my unsolicited “I Lost My Heart In San Francisco” essay—a vehement, incantatory work that ended with a zombie punk girl trudging inexorably up Market Street, her song rising, “hymn-like, against odds that were becoming, with each moment, more apparent.”
“Alan, I mean it, I could have quit over them not wanting this,” Nancy D. told me by phone.
But before hanging up, she tacked something on—wistfully? significantly?—about an upcoming Christmas special. “Personal memories. It reminded me of you, the kind of thing you’d probably be good at.”
Had Nancy just given me an assignment? Anxiety makes you a terrible listener.
When I was in college, a visiting speaker who practiced Tai Chi kicked off an experimental dance demonstration with the words: “Would the volunteers join me onstage?” The operative word was the, the volunteers. But I’d been chatting with a classmate and only halfway heard.
I climbed onto the auditorium stage. Somewhere, the rest of the volunteers had obtained robes. A bit of recorded Eastern music began to play, and the other dancers’ bodies—followed by mine, in a troubling delay—pantomimed catching masses of celestial energy like medicine balls, then pushing this energy outward again, to the audience, to the universe. As a group, almost, we began to revolve, pirouetting on alternating feet, only one of us stumbling, while from the audience my friend covered his eyes.
I could think of no way to tell Nancy I hadn’t been listening. And if I did write a true Christmas memory of my own—about gazing at hills and smog in a drug-like fantasy of rapture, about growing up so ignorant in the Valley I once asked a Christmas charity for a Buick Riviera—it would be, in a freaky way, both too much in the real spirit of Christmas and not enough. It would violate the benign, eccentric groove that I associated with Jim Fellows and his magazine. My story would have no stoned alumni of The Farm attempting to roast turkey. No dog races in Tijuana, no Santas on surfboards.
Within minutes, I was spared from deciding. Nancy called to say they were going to use big-name writers only—I had both confirmed my exciting news and lost it. I thanked her, shamefully relieved.
As if my room had just that moment outlived its lease, I stumbled downstairs, practically falling out of the building into a San Francisco Sunday. Sea air fluttered like a pennant. The bars were strung like charms along every avenue, and the time of day was whatever was left in the fourth quarter of a 49ers game. On Divisadero, I passed an address of a beautiful home that once had rejected me as a boarder. It belonged to a dowager whose voice had smiled on the phone but not when I arrived. I stopped there, subjecting myself to the shame, as if salvation might always lie just the other side of intolerability. I had no money to enter a bar, another wrong pregnant to be made right, and I envied the drinkers for not having to write their own magazine stories on a Sunday. Which I suddenly realized I needed to do.
I’m not taking credit for this realization—I wasn’t feeling any sense of “making my own luck” or “choosing life.” It was more a case of demanding that my future choose me. Like when Tony in “West Side Story” takes to the streets screaming for Chino to come shoot him, too.
The next morning, Nancy bought my Buick Riviera story, because the great columnist Herb Caen had inexplicably backed out. But the piece I wrote felt like a miracle all my own: sweet, goofy, graceful. And its opening lines were pure Fellows.
In December 1966, plenty of things were happening to people who did not live in the San Fernando Valley. Those need not concern anyone.
Another smart young person was rounded up for lunch, a photo editor wearing black whiskers left over from a fashion shoot, still getting her bearings. “What do people even order, martinis?”
At our crossing light, the noon sun beat down. “Make sure we spend a minute talking about your piece,” Nancy said, poking me.
“Let me pick your brains, the both of you.” The photo editor pulled a black and white glossy from her large purse. “For Dateliners. Is this high art, or awful?”
In the glossy, a female artist posed beside her latest work, a pyramid constructed entirely of Alan Alda head shots.
“What kind of text should it get? A long caption? A mini-essay?”
Nancy found me with her eyes, as if to say, Is this perfect timing, or what?
“Can he give us five hundred words tonight?” the photo editor asked. “Pretty please?” It seemed to be helping my magazine career a lot to be going to lunch with two women my age.
The light turned green, Nancy linking her arm inside mine, as though we were already drunk, while the whiskered photo editor linked my other one, making me Dorothy of Oz.
So while the neighbors all watched M*A*S*H* on CBS that night, I was deconstructing it, praising the sitcom star’s winning grin but simultaneously daring to josh him. For perhaps the first time, the show’s opening theme song, “Suicide is Painless,” fluttered like the rerun it would become.
Thus began my rise to fame. Nancy took her mascot-genius status to another local magazine and then another, somehow sliding all my fresh-take stories past her superiors. I flew with glider pilots at Barron Hilton’s ranch, embarrassing the hotelier in print for the crumbs on his dress shirt. When L.A.’s most celebrated homicide detective lapsed into a drunken, racist anecdote, I quoted him gleefully, in full.
She’d fallen in love with LA as a child from DC when the locale most had the power to confuse her. My stories reawakened that deTocqueville state. We’d go for drives disguised as lunches, and I made up alternate histories of gorgeous, ghostly neighborhoods. I taught her about the healing properties of Vin Scully’s voice. I pitched my crushes on other women as feature essays.
A late-night television show debuted on Van Nuys Boulevard, in order to joke about the low-watt locale, but my review slipped away from the show’s production studios to some rune-like Kiwanis signs at the gateway to Van Nuys that used to creepify me as a child. I chased the synesthetic birthplace of the Beatles' "Rubber Soul" period, that Motherland past the next range of hills, where lovers went off to sleep in the bath.
But there had to be times I nearly wrecked things for her. When one of my stories used made-up book titles as placeholders on an interview subject’s shelf, Nancy’s rebuke had such snap that I saw at once how generous her hazy allegiance had been.
Who none of this could ever succeed with, of course, was Jim Fellows. He turned down anything I sent him. He rejected a proposal to explicate the suicide of a rock and roll photographer. (“God, I’m just now reading about his arsenal,” my query gasped, as if spontaneously.) He rejected an essay about love in LA, its lead a moody whirlpool of non sequiturs.
So many months passed, in fact, that I more or less gave up trying. Then, during a brutal September heat wave, I sat pining for the lunch truck at that educational publisher in Glendale, proofreading schoolbooks so watered-down that even the first-graders smelled censorship, and a clear voice in my head announced: Between the two of us, we just may have a story.
“Jim,” my proposal began.
I’ve meant since last year to get back with a few ideas, which I think may be very good ones. But other deadlines kept coming up, along with my column for the Weekly. And then yesterday, of course, it was the heat.
It is said that good news never arrives by mail. But in Jim Fellows’ era, it did, on crisp letterhead.
Dear Alan, I am forwarding your proposal about the sorry state of schoolbook publishing to Ben Boly with my recommendation for feature treatment. The Big Brothering of our language and literature by pressure groups of the left and right has concerned me for some time. The angle you suggest is an excellent one—it makes us fighting mad.
Fighting mad, Jim Fellows said! My proposal had made Jim Fellows feel such things. But each time I reignited the thrill of being regarded as his professional equal, it turned to panic. It rose again, then dropped, like spent casings, into a dark interior lake, and I felt a new level of terror, a more original level of alone.
I did my job, or I pretended to. But my whole body kept telling me I was doomed.
I flew to a state textbook conference in Sacramento. I shook hands with the reformist State Superintendent of Schools. I interviewed school librarians, wishing I could just ask stupid, David Letterman-style questions about whether real librarians practiced shaking out their hair.
A congressman from Orange County, I’d once read, stopped making love to his wife after the Gulf of Tonkin attack, informing her there was a war on. He was ridiculed, as the over-serious always are, but didn’t the over-serious deserve our admiration too?
At the worst possible moment in deadline week, Sylvie, my Boston girlfriend, flew out for two days, hinting of moving west for good. Teasing her Worcester accent, my buddy Greg got her laughing on the phone about me having to “Woak, woak, woak,” and the two must have giggled for seven minutes before I bounced my electric typewriter across the floor.
It wasn’t just the pressure of impersonating one of Jim Fellows’ A-list reporters. With this manuscript, I was offering him my soul. I wove in sad soliloquys about the American workplace. Deadpan vignettes from editorial meetings in which I, as Fellows’ eyes and ears, beheld the gang-rape of our literary heritage. I followed the life cycle of a children’s book that was meant to include a near-drowning but had been revised to give the victims water wings. “We strapped water wings to the children,” I’d reflected, “when reality would no longer do.”
For more than two weeks, Fellows did not reply.
“Alan,” said Greg on our next hike, arms swinging wide, “you know I like your writing.” His voice was a chuckle of self-recusal. “But I’m not following this manuscript at all.”
Fellows’ editorial notes arrived in the next day’s mail.
Educational publishing is one heck of an interesting subject. Your proposal is worthy of 60 Minutes—perhaps you have that proposal nearby?
Let me apologize, first, for not having framed the following question at an earlier stage. But what kind of story does this aim to be, precisely? A confessional? An expose? Magical realism? Right now it’s a little of each, and I’m not certain that the weave fully works. Not to suggest you should throw out every scene—a couple are brilliant. But I find myself wondering if your story may need (ironic, given the subject at hand) to be dumbed down for a general audience.
Suppose we were to begin at the beginning. There’s a problem with educational publishing. The issue is lousy textbooks. California as bellwether of the nation. (You have facts and figures on page 17 that belong in your nut graf.) Enter Superintendent Silverman. He is your newspeg. That textbook conference in Sacramento offers us a ringside seat from which to see an important political player in action. Yet you veer instead to a lurid dream sequence involving a librarian behind that lunch truck in Glendale.
Two full pages later:
I know this all might sound discouraging, but Harold, our intern from Loyola Marymount, is a very accomplished line editor. His perceptions can be quite valuable to a struggling writer. Assuming you take his notes to heart and pull this together in a few weeks’ time—I’m confident you can— we’d like to explore a few interesting art possibilities.
This was my cue, in other words—to suck it up, to be a pro. To do my time in the Italian summer leagues of journalism. To pass through a perfectly challenging, but perfectly finite, series of character tests before receiving a never-doubted-you embrace from the unknowable Jim Fellows. Instead, each rewrite was more grandiose than the last, more tortured yet deliriously hopeful, and each response from Fellows more disappointing. “Sorry I suggested that tack. . . Better move that paragraph back where it was. . . I should have flagged this back in Draft #2, but you fooled us with your pleasing rhetoric.”
Trudging the sidewalk, my song rising hymn-like, I fell into Ports and found company. A handful of slovenly writers I’d known from the alternative weeklies, plus Greg, waving me to their corner booth. Beside him was Dean Temkin, the bogusly urbane reporter who now worked for a Marxist radio network. There was the Echo Park poetess in a muumuu; the bushy author of a monograph on West Coast utopianism.
“Unionizing writers is worse than herding kittens,” Temkin said, the first full sentence I heard.
Proving Temkin’s point was Russel H., a novelist with British supergroup hair. “Writers don’t join groups. A writer has to feel unbound.”
“Unbound,” Greg laughed. “Like a pamphlet?”
“Like a herd of kittens,” the poet said.
“It’s not you, Alan,” Temkin consoled me. “Jim Fellows is assigning eight pieces for every one he accepts. They’re getting away with that because of the meaninglessly low kill fees.”
These were turning out maybe not the worst people to postpone productive grief with, and after two Heinekens and some gossip that had no connection to the business of Hollywood except that we lived there, it emerged that I might help them. I could serve as the first local delegate to the American Freelance Magazine Union convention in New York, then report home to make a quick, informational-recruiting kind of speech.
“I cannot do that,” I said, with all my heart—it was the speech I was thinking of—but they took me for needlessly gracious.
Within days, they’d scored me a ticket. The Westchester, NY, delegation was volunteering to house me. Sylvie would shuttle me after the Sunday session to hang with her and her sister in Worcester, MA. Wearing suede boots that she’d given me for my birthday, I boarded a redeye, its aisles jammed with investment bankers in loosened ties.
A lecture hall at SUNY: acoustic panels, theater chairs, just like out west, just like in experimental music class, but on the complete other side of the continent—did other people grasp this? Could the mind hold such opposite thoughts?
When it was time to deliver greetings from the new Los Angeles chapter, I fumbled, “Well, we got me here!”—reddening even before the sentence was out. There seemed no way in English to arrange the words.
I sat down, harshed my hair with one hand. A gavel struck for lunch.
Two voices hovered close. A very pale sex columnist for the Long Island Weekly, along with a gay poet who was even paler. The Brooklyn delegation.
“So when you got you here,” Devorah Miller said, “Barry elbowed me, and we shot each other the question.”
“The question?” I was preparing to show I got the joke, though I didn’t.
“‘Are you going to sleep with him or should I?’”
With a bread knife that Devorah Miller had used to lift some spilled candle wax, I was deepening a groove in the beveled edge of her wooden nightstand. Devorah noticed this but appeared only idly curious.
“Are you okay?”
I was shoring up personal affirmations like stolen money. I was a jet traveler, a national delegate to a writers’ convention. I had slept with the kind of New York woman who wore glasses in bed and typed in her panties.
“Oh, sure. I don’t know.”
Devorah pulled me by the shoulder, and we had a bumpy, childish kiss, the kind that always left me extra incited to keep correcting it.
“All right,” she said, getting up. “Because I thought we had a relatively good start. For people just learning each other’s bodies.”
She started filling a bathtub, which was in the kitchen, barely a closet’s space beyond a counter with landslides of manuscripts, and I took note of what a cave the apartment was; a suggestion of front stoops and planters loitered outside. In Brooklyn, the only rebellion available was by closing the blinds.
When she’d decanted unequal parts cold and boiling water, she plunked herself in, a pink dumpling—hair frizzing, nipples swollen. “Do you want in?”
Just that word, in. I cursed her appreciatively.
“My girlfriend is going to pick me up after today’s session,” I said. “My girlfriend, Sylvie.”
Devorah began massaging her nipples, and then she slid her hands down, alternating thumbs beneath the suds as if toggling a light switch. Her back began to arch. “Is this a problem—that—I should know more about?”
“No, it’s not. I just—I haven’t thought it through.” I came over and gave her a kiss but stopped myself, said sorry. Then kissed her again and stopped.
Devorah found this spectacle weird but amusing, between mounting grimaces. Then I stood quiet and transfixed while she finished herself off before opening her arms wide toward me.
I said, “I probably still need to wake up all the way.”
My weight was leaning more toward the tub than away, though. So I went ahead and climbed in. Of course, then we did it again, although without the abandon I’d felt the night before. The more wrong everything felt, the more fitting, as if I’d found the missing ending to my story for Jim Fellows.
That afternoon, when Sylvie met me at the convention, Devorah shouted from behind: “He’s a little sore, but no worse for wear!” and Sylvie walloped me, bruising my ear.
My boot heels squeaked, and a little collective gasp spread through the corridor, which I may have made worse by trying to smile goodbye to my fellow delegates.
Devorah also slept in my Beachwood apartment during a union trip west. I met her at baggage claim and drove her ten miles out of my way without saying so, just to show off the new downtown, the upstart highrises spaced like fence posts. “Aren’t we kind of doubling back now?” she asked.
“No. It only seems that way.”
I was loyal to Sylvie that night, but Devorah was canny. Over morning coffee, when I told her how misunderstood I’d been by Jim Fellows, it unfolded she’d been a mistress of his current boss, Ben Boly—a man who, unforgivably, had wound up ridiculing her sex column at a party. She beckoned me close, enacting a hug of deep solidarity. She guided my head down, unsnapped her jeans and began to move me, as if applying makeup. The world smelled like old denim and unpaid bills, and I could begin to imagine saying that I loved her.
Devorah, I’m sure, didn’t share my sense of gravity. She had me drive her to the home of a public radio correspondent she knew, and I watched the two of them conceive and compose a hit piece for afternoon drive-time about West Coast Magazine’s Secret War on Writers, with several sentences devoted entirely to Jim Fellows.
Three phone calls, sources on record—this was how the big brains did it. Devorah Miller’s story was credited with hastening, perhaps even causing, Ben Boly’s decision to give the middle finger to Los Angeles and leave. Fellows’ exit was more undramatic, courtly and bittersweet. He’d been a journeyman reporter, a shoe salesman with a Ph.D., a strong forward in basketball; he would land on his feet. Solar gardening called him now. Professorships. Books.
“I’m thinking of killing it, though,” Devorah teased when we got back to the tar beach rooftop of my apartment. “Should I kill the piece?” She’d stepped out of her jeans again and was beckoning, waving loose pages behind her head while I reached for them.
A long time after this— my firstborn would have just turned three—we visited San Francisco as father-son tourists. I was newly divorced from his mom (another proofreader, but you might recognize her tottering through certain ‘70s beach movies, always someone’s neglected daughter), and as I carried him outside from a meal out with friends, he fell heavily asleep over my shoulder.
That’s when I realized where we were. It was that spot, or close enough: the place where I’d lucked onto the idea to go ahead and write a Christmas-wish story for Nancy D. Where the dowager lived who’d seen something wrong with me.
I paused, at least until Nathan’s weight started to really crush me—thinking, I suppose, about where the molecules that became the DNA that became the son on my shoulder had been distributed when I was young in San Francisco. Thinking about the chances and choices that had wind-blown our future realities to here. But if the location held any special sacredness, you wouldn’t have known it tonight. Only damp sidewalk and foghorn, the full-bodiedness of a San Francisco night.
This is the son who, at 18, was diagnosed with a disabling mental illness. TV commercials spoke to him in code, random motorists made shoot-yourself gestures. All his life before then—and you hear this often enough from parents to make you superstitious—he’d just been special. At the Halloween parade, you’d be forgiven if you noticed mainly him, lowering his ghost mask over and over to see how you liked him. Breaking bad was attempting a nonsense word in Scrabble.
He’s the eldest of three, and I’m willing to allow that this can be deep, this helping him build a safe, stable life—this and the sorting of meds, and the standing in line for weekly bloodwork—it can be a more complex and beautiful bookend to my own life than anything I’d have written for myself. All the same, of course, I’m prone to daydream. I mean, what if, in a cosmic, guardian-angel sense, someone were assigned to my case? What if Nancy K invited me to marry her, baggage and all?
But I’m old enough to know that her kind of crush on me required that I be dreaming of things farther off, that I be holding a hand of cards, instead of having played them. Is there any other kind of crush?
Jim Fellows, as the sort of journalists I’ve lost touch with know, died in the ‘90s—not on any palmy island, but in Orleans, Massachusetts. According to his obituary, which I looked up long after the fact, he’d written two very well-reviewed books (one exposing a suicide cult, the other a true crime about a vintner in Sebastopol who murdered a labor organizer). Both had indeed been optioned to Hollywood, though he never saw them produced. A daughter, however, was taking up the cause of the latter book, and its screenplay was in production at Universal. A later New York Times profile showed her, the daughter—a Nieman fellow, read the caption, who’d developed a popular Amazon Original miniseries—seated golden-shouldered on a patio in what had to have been Italy, beside a wooden table that was six inches thick.
The same day West Coast published Jim Fellows’ resignation letter—likening this state to a “vast and visionary pitch meeting for the future” in which “each generation gets one chance to score”—Greg was landing Sylvie a maid’s quarters at the top of Beachwood Canyon.
“Suppose we take a little drive,” was how Greg led off on the phone—what was he, from homicide?
His phone call caught us blacking out unsuitable rental ads with a Sharpie, close to fighting over whether she couldn’t just move into my studio open-ended, so I was pretty relieved, basically. I was celebrating with a few beers at sundown when Greg drove up, ridiculously, in an Austin Healy 3000 BJ8.
“Don’t ask how I do these things. I just do.”
“Fucking shit!” Sylvie whacked his arm. “Where am I?” She and I jackknifed ourselves into the back.
“I won’t even ask why I’m here,” Nancy said, leaning across the front. “And this is Sylvie, from Worcester? You’re so beautiful!”
“Nancy is Greg’s editor, too,” I explained.
I was having what amounted to my very favorite experience of youth: the sense that you’re somehow living as yourself and vicariously both at once. I had an extra six pack at my feet, and between Sylvie and me sat the magazine, whose pages I’d caressed as much as read.
“So, to be clear—this is that friend’s car that you wanted to write about?” Nancy asked Greg. “With the parts all over the driveway?”
“Leftover car parts aren’t a good sign,” I said.
“You remember Clive, Alan,” Greg said, shifting gears. “The guy who did the old Hoover commission documentary. He bought this with the royalties.”
“And said you could take it out?” Sylvie said, eyes wide. Making herself the definition of a fall guy.
Greg was gleeful. “Oh, Miss Beantown. A night like this is legal grounds.”
I breathed in the fragrance of the hillside, foresty and mysterious while never taking you more than steps from a laundromat or a bus, a fact about L.A. which made you feel wild while also buckled in tight. There were hollows and burrows and hairpin twists, and the foliage on narrow streets pushed so close it triggered Nancy’s allergies. Her eyes teared up so badly she could not see.
“It’s like with binoculars. I have never seen a thing through binoculars. Which way is the Hollywood sign?”
“Well, we’re above the Scientology spire,” Greg said. “And the mountains are behind you.” We spun hard. “They’re kind of circling you now.”
“That really tells me nothing,” Nancy said.
“There are zeppelins, hovering,” I said. “Jeeps bouncing by, after a war.”
“Totally!” she applauded, still weeping.
At the summit—really there was no lot higher—the home perched like one of those pristine canyon synagogues surrounding LA. A real synagogue might honestly be smaller.
It belonged to the Konigs, a couple Greg’s parents had known since law school—for just such reasons, it was important to know Greg. We parked, adjusting like some liberating army, like Maccabbees, to the concrete and dust and the sudden quiet—quiet and yet, music, faint behind a service door in the garage. I seemed to have already been hearing X, the LA band X, even before the teenaged Konig daughter let us in and confirmed it: Exene’s agitated harmony, John Doe’s field-holler vibrato—
Sylvie pulled my arm: The family had installed, in Sylvie’s honor unless it had belonged to their maid, a brand new art table equipped with a T-square.
“I’ve been using this chest as a second dresser,” the daughter said, bagging clothes in a crouch that also kept time to the music. “But I’m almost done cleaning it out.”
Sylvie said, “Oh, I don’t even need this many drawers!”
“Really? My God, could I just leave two drawers full? And you can wear anything you want. We can be sisters!” She said it with spirit, but also with a weary, thespian flourish. “We can get tipsy!” She offered a lit joint to the room.
“May I say a quick hi to your folks?” Greg said.
“Greg. Is this one of the seven nights? They’re at their thing. Or their other thing.”
I joked, “It’s 4 a.m.—do you know where your parents are?”
“Services,” the daughter said without emotion.
I was probably becoming obsessed with the girl, because she knew just how to sound exactly this spoiled and yet neglected, and when I was her age I’d only ever failed to be noticed by girls as rich as that. I’d always felt if I could just make a moment’s connection, it would be like getting a bike up and rolling, and I could have ridden my life to wherever I wanted it to go.
Also, she was pale, shoulders sunburned from a day at the pool, which made her seem nerdy enough that being with her might feel platonic, while also not, and so how not to pretend to myself I would soon spend many days with her and Sylvie too? And that Sylvie would still love me and even delight in me for the purity I shared with the rich neglected Konig girl.
How accepting of life’s hurts, how glamorously plain, the band X always managed to sound. Like squatters in some antique LA doll house. After “Soul Kitchen” came “White Girl,” and then the immortal “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts”: two chords conversing in endless, fever-dream alternation—if only I’d ever played it for my father! And both chords are finger-picked, whirling like arpeggios (I’m waiting for you/ I must go slow), an effect that makes the song at first sound traipsy, nearly defenseless. But it’s the alternating second chord that claws at you (I must not think bad thoughts/ What is this world coming to?), because of the tinged half-step upward it takes, so that you feel the sound really could start to lift you away.
Somehow, the girl noticed me loving the song and smiled in agreement, and, for just a second, we seemed to be. . .dancing? For just a second she found nothing unusual about the two of us having this song in common around the Hefty bags of clothes. Beyond the pool, the city shimmered in fragments—Los Angeles, give me some of you!—and I was getting hammered, but then, the Konig girl was, too. When I stumbled a second time, Sylvie caught me, not happily. She had to set down a spaghetti-string top she’d been holding up to herself before a mirror. “It’s kind of small,” she worried to the girl, and I pulled Sylvie close to say wear it tonight, causing her to freak: this is my home, they got me that art table, god fucking damn you. Wear it anyway, I slobbered, but she wrestled me out to the garage.