The Tyranny of My Roots

Nancy Rommelmann
Oct 2 · 19 min read

Ty says the stains in our bathroom sink remind him of the ones in his kindergarten classroom.

“Except those were globbier,” he says. “They had mass.”

He means the oil paint, or it must have been tempera. They don’t give kindergarteners oil paint, do they? Not even in Los Angeles.

I stick my head under the spigot. The ammonia smell is not like the kindergarten room, that mixture of paint and construction paper and little kid sticky hands and the rot inside the lunch boxes. What happened inside those lunch boxes was disgusting; no matter which type you bought they wound up stinking of decomposed fruit. Put them in the dishwasher and the plastic would melt, poor little Power Ranger coming out that time with one elongated eye, which I thought might make Ty cry, but he only said, “He looks like the card on dad’s fridge.” I never found out what that meant. I thought I’d go retro and buy him a metal lunch box, the kind I imagined when my father told the joke, “So there are three construction workers, one Wop, one Mick, one Pollock…” Ty didn’t like the metal lunchbox. He picked it up with both hands and made a face like it was pulling his arms out of their sockets, and I wound up using it for make-up kit until it was stolen by a girl in St. Louis who’d come backstage to give me a dozen roses she spray-painted black.

The color going down the drain is more purple than I want, though color can be deceiving; it’s always darker than it looks on the box and fades faster, except for the colors you hate, which stay until you cut them out. The last one was way too orange. Bill did not stop tuning his bass when I’d shown up at practice, but I saw the beat of resignation on his face. He was clumping me in, maybe, with Loretta and her weight gain, which required copious amounts of nonspecific attention from him. (Part of the reason, I think, it took us eight months to get back on the road.) She’s made herself look like Ronald McDonald, I imagined Bill thinking, and that maybe I had dyed it that way on purpose, which I had not.

In the cave of wet hair framing my face I sing the song Bill wrote about his daughter; we have not performed it yet but he knows I want to. I sing it often enough. His life is not simpler than mine, with a wife, three kids, the solo career; the fact that we are no longer in easy driving distance. He said he sometimes writes songs on the drive in. All the people he needs to take care of and the songs just get better. I tease him that he’s the granddad of punk now.

“We were never punk,” he says.

I tell him, he has authority.

He says, “Marie,” and looks at my Gatorade bottle like it’s the enemy.

The last song I wrote was three years ago, though Bill says that’s not true, that we still collaborate. I tell him not to be a disseminator of nostalgia. I hear ads on the AM station coming out of Pasadena, for a carnival in Palmdale, say, at which Paul Revere and the Raiders are the headliner, and I think, that’s nostalgia, and, maybe it’s the case that people are nostalgic only for things that started out as crap; that good things don’t stand still long enough to turn into nostalgia. But people went to that show, they sat on blankets and ate cotton candy and spaced out occasionally in the direction of the stage. I thought it would be interesting to watch these old guys in tri-corn caps, but it was hideous. Ty and his friend didn’t want to sit with me and ran back and forth before the bandstand while I stayed with the cooler. I asked a retired couple next to me, relaxing amidst a good deal of relaxing equipment, if they could keep an eye on the kids while I went to the Port-o-Johns, and the wife said, “We’d be happy to,” though she gave me a sour smile when I came back the third time. Her husband was drinking beer and I figured he’d wink at me when she looked away, but he stayed looking at the stage, where Paul Revere was flinging fistfuls of flyers that offered $200 off a Caribbean cruise on which the band would play.

Our tour is sold out, same size places we’ve always played, three- to six-thousand. The crowds are as big as ever, bigger. People bring their kids; sometimes the little boys have faux-hawks. Ty and Bill’s daughter, both fifteen now, say the crowd smells. I tell them, yeah, well, a mosh pit makes you sweat.

“No, like farts,” said Natasha. “There are people farting like every five minutes.”

I don’t remember this happening at shows, but evidently things have changed. We attract old farts that scream for old songs I am progressively less sure I sing well. I tell Bill during sound check to turn up his mic and take down mine.

“We’re not going to do it that way,” he says. I tell him, just for this show, and he says, “It’s not about you, Marie, or me. The songs have to be in charge here.”

So we’re miked the way we’ve been miked since we were twenty-two, and open with “Help Desk,” and the crowd is screaming so loud I can hide in that for the first few songs, and then, as usual, Bill is thanking the crowd and he means it. I tell him after the show, they come to see him, that he doesn’t need us anymore.

“You gals would make life a lot easier if you worried about things that were actually happening,” he says, though I am the only gal here.

I squeeze out my hair. The light around the mirror makes my eyes look sunken. I look like my mother. When I turned forty-nine, I thought, I’m older than she was when she died. I remember my mother as fat, though in photos — I am thinking of one of her in our kitchen, wearing an apron her sister made — she is busty but not fat. Ty recently took a bottle of aspirin I was struggling with out of my hand and said, “You can’t wear that anymore.” There was too much sun in the kitchen and I didn’t know what he meant.

“That,” he said, pointing the aspirin cap at my kimono. “You’re busting out of it, mom.”

I wrap my hair in a towel, tuck in my breasts, and cinch the kimono tighter. There’s nothing in the fridge but one bottle of cold wine. We’ve been touring three weeks and Ty was with his dad in the Valley. Marco’s got a nice place, a corral for that horse he got after the movie about the horse, and room for the trucks. Ty’s gotten good at working on a straight-8, and I told him when he gets his license he can have the Galaxie, but he said Marco’s already giving him the Jeep. I remember barreling home from a show in Santa Monica in that Jeep, three am on the 10 Freeway, eight months pregnant, the air whipping my hair and Marco keeping his shift arm hard across my lap.

I bring the wine to the couch. I don’t want to watch TV, and I don’t want to check phone messages. It used to be there might be something fun to do; some artist in from New York, a private set after a show. Now it’s to hear someone has pancreatic cancer and can we play a benefit; that someone’s kid wants to get into SVA and do we know anyone there; that a drummer who the last time you saw him was so deep to the bag his front teeth were the color of tobacco spit is currently clean and looking for studio work. Surviving means you get these calls, but the problem is — or the problem for the caller is — unless it’s life or death and I like you or your work or both, what’s in it for me? You want to clean my house? You want to come over and fuck me? Both those things might be useful, and I am sure neither offer is on the phone.

I turn on the TV. It’s Saturday night, which means Cops is on, which is occasionally entertaining. I finish the bottle of wine and it’s America’s Most Wanted, which is not interesting. On the way back to the kitchen my foot snags the cord and the phone crashes down. It’s an all-metal phone, an old table model; another gift from another girl. Because I sometimes wear, or used to wear, an apron of my mother’s onstage, people think I’m kitsch; they build little stories around how they think you live. I once got an email from a man who said we were in college together; that he remembers the fire at our Pearl Street apartments, and the tragedy of me losing my thesis. Except I never lived on Pearl Street, or wrote a thesis, nor do I have any idea who this person is. Yet my “dark beauty” (his words) resides in a special place in his mind. People are going to write their own stories no matter what you do.

As I place the phone back on the table it rings in my hand. It vibrates.

“Hello?”

“Is this Marie?” It’s a man’s voice.

“Who’s calling?”

Silence. “I’m looking for Marie K.”

A pulse starts behind my sinuses.

“Marie? It’s Julian Strong.”

This sounds vaguely familiar. Usually, if I can get the person to keep talking, I am able to place them. But he’s not talking.

“Julian…”

“How are you, darling?”

The kimono slides open.

“Fine,” I tell Julian Strong, whose name strikes me as too end of the époque. “Sort of beat.”

“Of course,” he says. “I was at the shows last week. You were fantastic.”

Last week… “The show in Portland?”

“And Seattle.”

There are people who follow the tour. They are usually young. Julian does not sound young. I commend his stamina.

Julian laughs. “For work, darling.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose. It appears this is going to be one of those times I have a hangover without actually getting drunk.

“Julian, I’m shot,” I say. “We just got into town a few hours ago.”

“I know,” he says. “Can I take you to dinner? Nothing elaborate.”

There must be an infinite number of reasons to agree to meet a man you don’t remember but tonight I am fairly sure it’s about punishment. I blow-dry my hair with the usual apprehension. This is always when you see the coverage has not been great. That since you applied the color forty-five minutes ago your hair has grown, there’s a spider vein of white at the part, and the color you put on, so intense coming out of the bottle, is in fact translucent; white glows through the hair shaft like a baby tooth beneath the gum. My hair turns out to be the color of pomegranates.

We leave for Japan next week so there’s no point in unpacking. I pull from the back of my closet a dress, also Japanese, a gift from the designer. We met him six years ago after a show in Paris; he asked if I knew how influential I’d been to his generation. He did not look much younger than me but maybe that’s not what he’d meant. He said, “Please come tomorrow to the shop. I have something to give you.”

Bill and Jimmy had come with me, walking the narrow streets of the Sixth; I was wearing a coat I got in Echo Park, with what looked like a rat-fur collar. The designer’s shop was one of those enormous white boxes with six pieces of clothing artfully staged. The designer was in all black. I saw Bill rub at the corner of his mouth while eyeing the tiny white waiting chairs.

There was one dress preset in the dressing room. It was made of strips of crisscrossed black material and looked pre-molded for someone smaller than me. From somewhere Nico was singing, “You’re written in her book. You’re number thirty-seven have a look…”

“She’s a femme fatale,” Jimmy sang, as I spun before them in the dress.

“Don’t encourage her,” said Bill, and winked at me.

The designer wrapped the $2200 dress in tissue. “Thank you for everything,” he said.

Tonight there are beads of sweat in my cleavage by the time I tug the dress over my hips. I pivot on tiptoe before the mirror and see, through some engineering known to designers who make $2200 dresses, my ass being cradled and essentially resurrected. I think to call Marco, to tell him I’m back; to say, I’ll get Ty in the morning. Or they can come here? I can make eggs and sausage? But we’re supposed to be more judicious about those calls now.

While I was away my neighbor’s orange blossoms bloomed. Their smell is always a distraction; they open at night and result in your standing in the carport for five minutes before you realize you’ve again been narcotized. I back the Galaxie out of the carport. It must have rained while I was in the shower; the streets are wet. On the drive to Sunset I don’t see one other moving car.

I pass the Tropicana and Siete Mares, both restaurants already closed. I pass Alvarado. It’s a cool night and there’s more rain in the air, and I keep the window open, to clear my head of the wine. Julian knew I liked the garlic chicken at Versailles. This of course means nothing; everybody likes that chicken. I instead suggested a Burmese soup place the LA Weekly keeps mentioning. I am coming to the last hill on Sunset before you reach downtown, a stretch that since I’ve lived here has purportedly been the site of a new high school, but so far the only structure is an apartment building perched on what looks like a hill of broken concrete, a building where tenants hang their laundry out the windows, a building painted red and yellow that would look exactly in place in Tijuana.

I pull the Galaxie to the curb in front of a store with a brass bedframe chained to its security grate. The window next door is gold-stenciled in what I assume is Burmese. The door is open. Brass bells hang from the overhead hinge. A monk in a saffron robe and a tiny topknot of hair holds his hands in prayer to me as I enter. Through a service window, I see a stockpot at a boil, and droplets of condensation on the tin ceiling. The only other customer is reading a newspaper. I sit at one of the two other white plastic tables and take in the smell of cilantro. I read that cilantro is one of the world’s most loathed foods, and that the word for it in Greek also means “bedbug.” I’d never seen it before I moved to LA, and while I think it smells like water and some kind of floral mint, Bill wouldn’t let me have it in the house.

“It’s unnatural and wrong,” he said. “It makes me angry.”

The bells ring again, swinging next to the head of a very tall man. He has white-yellow hair in what I might call a Nordic cut. It hangs straight and past his ears. He is wearing a blueberry-colored velvet jacket with patch pockets. His hands are in the pockets, and I somehow know they will be overly large and bony. He is in general too lean, too little flesh on his frame. I get an unbidden image of him sitting naked on a bed, a concave gut above a spread of scant pubic hair.

“Hallo,” he says, scraping back the white plastic chair across from me. “How did you hear about this place?”

Julian holds his hands in prayer and bows his head as the monk sets tea on the table.

“No beer, I presume,” he says, and laughs, bringing with it the smell of tooth decay, of iron and shit. I watch the only other customer put five dollars in the fishbowl set in the service window. The woman chopping in the kitchen watches the man leave, her flat features changing not at all.

“I’ll take a beer,” I tell the monk. “Two beers.”

“Make it three,” says Julian, and laughs again, and I realize where I’ve seen him, though it’s been ten years. He played a grave robber in a very bad independent film, called I think The Grave Robber, that played at a festival in which Marco appeared in a very good film.

“Are you still acting?” I ask.

“Alas, no,” he says. “I’m a professional photographer.” To prove it, or not, he flips a camera onto the table. It’s made of bright yellow plastic, a caricature of a camera. I think how the ridiculousness of this moment would be all right; it would be a gas and a story if Bill were here. That, or he could smash in Julian’s aquiline nose. Bill hasn’t had to defend me in a long time, not since the boys with blood on their shirts would wait outside until we were loading out. They desperately wanted Bill to punch them in the face but had no way to articulate this except to grab his wife’s tits, my tits. Julian is not going to do anything as honest as grab my tits.

“We haven’t met,” I say, and move the camera so the monk can place a tin hotpot we have not ordered on the table.

“Los Angeles is a small town, Marie,” Julian says, smiling at the monk. “Isn’t that a line from one of your songs?”

“No,” I say.

“Anyway, we did meet, at ____’s,” he says, mentioning the name of a woman who lives in Bel Air. Marco and I were once at a party of hers. We sat on a settee in the foyer, watching guests arrive and leave and drink the free booze. But I did not meet Julian there, because if I had Marco and I would have parsed the questionable British accent, the fey ingratiation. I would have told a story about how he was ____’s walker; how he would go down on her in the box seats at the Dorothy Chandler. Marco would have been genuinely kind to Julian, had they met; he might have discussed with him a point much on his mind then, how acting had not seemed important until he realized he was being given the responsibility of interpreting the art of others.

“And you spoke with Marco there?” I ask.

“We did speak,” he says. “You were, I think, having more drinks somewhere.”

On the terrace overlooking the sea,” I say, but he doesn’t pick up the lyric. I pull apart my chopsticks and survey the soup. It smells of bad oil, and floating on top is a black sea grass shaped like giant sperm.

I swat at the chopstick Julian it trying to poke at my ear. “What are you doing?”

“You have something,” he says, and strokes my temple with his chopstick. “It could be a melanoma.” He takes a compact (what man carries a compact?) from his pocket and positions the mirror so I can see. Jesus Christ.

“Julian,” I say, rubbing at the splotch of dye.

“Marie,” he says, putting the mirror back in his pocket. He smile is too bright, and it occurs on me that we might be on one of those asinine “I got you!” TV shows, where has-been celebrities pretend to be surprised, or flattered, or to cry. Can Julian be the host of some hidden camera show, this man who stinks of dental decay?

And here’s a question: to rot or hide away? Just before we left on tour, I complimented Glen, who works the loading dock at Sound House in the Hollywood flats, on his smile. The comment left him looking at his feet. The teeth were fakes, he said; that his agent back in the 80s would not send Glen on auditions with the ones he’d come from Montana with.

“But he didn’t send me out after, neither,” he said, leaving me with the image of Glen looking in the bathroom mirror every morning for the past thirty years, confronting the unwanted souvenirs he’d paid and was still paying for.

I have no appetite for any of this.

“I think I better go,” I say, and start to stand.

“Wait,” says Julian, and reaches again in his pocket, which makes me suspect he is going to press a demo on me, or maybe his kid’s. But it is not a CD he slides over. It’s an address book: red leatherette, its corners curled up.

“Oh my god,” I say. I open the book, on whose inside cover is written, “Marie Karalewski,” and below it a phone number — the phone number I have fought to keep for three decades, only the area code changing — and my first address in Hollywood, and the sentence, in what used to be my handwriting, “If found please return, or not.”

“It was at the Goodwill,” says Julian, as I turn the pages and see the names, of a booker, now dead, and a beloved club owner, also dead, of girls I do not remember, and some I do.

“She fell eight floors, off a balcony,” I say, looking at Lisa L.

“Did you see it happen?”

“No. She was at a party in a hi-rise off Franklin.”

Why am I telling Julian this?

“We were heading there after a show. I was carrying a six-pack of Michelob. As we got close we could see squad cars in front of the building.”

There was a body under a plastic sheet, and a man in a pajama top saying the girl had bounced off the awning in front of the building, an image that still makes me flinch.

“Was there blood?” Julian asks.

“No,” I say, if not that I would not have known it was Lisa under the sheet had it not been for a tiny girl in a Rezillos t-shirt screaming Lisa’s name over and over, a high-pitched scream that made me set the six-pack on the ground and start for the girl before Bill grabbed my arm and said, “We’re not doing that, Marie,” and took me home, where he let me beat my fist against his chest and drink all the beer until I fell asleep in my coat. Later that afternoon, I sat at the dinette and wrote “She Flies,” which we sang last night for the six hundredth, the six thousandth time.

I turn the pages of the address book, wondering if Marco’s name will be there but knowing it will not be, that the book was lost, perhaps stolen before he and I met. But Bill’s name is, and in the margin beside it, a tiny heart. I had once been a girl who drew hearts next to the names of boys she liked.

“At the Goodwill,” I say.

Julian nods. “I guess no one else remembered your real last name.”

“They probably never knew it,” I say, and smooth the book’s cover, thinking I will go through the whole book later, when I’m alone. I can stop at the 7-Eleven on the way home and grab some ice cream. Julian clears his throat, a suggestion perhaps.

“Can I pay you for it, Julian?” I ask.

He waves away the offer. “It was at the bottom of a box of unmatched earrings,” he says. “It cost fifty cents.”

I close my hand over the book.

“Thank you for the gift then,” I say, taking a twenty from my wallet and trying to get the attention of the monk, who is in the doorway smoking.

“Of course,” says Julian, looking where I am looking. “You know that theater?”

He nods at the one-story movie house across the street. I do know it. Marco and I used to see $2 matinees there, and then one Sunday, when Ty was still in a sling on my chest, we went and the place had closed down. “What about it?” I ask.

“The roof is caved in now, and it’s painted that horrible matte black, but it used to be so festive.” Julian swings his platinum hair. “We had a premiere there, that fat dyke councilwoman came; the boys wore feathers. We had a whole Carnivale thing going.”

I’m not sure he wants me to say. The councilwoman has been dead ten years.

“I think we should have plaques in the sidewalk or something,” he continues. “Brass ones that declare, ‘This happened here.’ Do you know what I mean?”

“Like the ones on Hollywood?” I say, thinking of what I saw recently while grabbing a coffee near Mann’s Chinese, workman wheeling onto the boulevard a life-size fiberglass Marilyn lying on her side. The figure was pitted and grimy, a grotesquerie put into service day after day so tourists might surreptitiously pinch her nipples, and little kids leave their ice cream cups on her white halter dress. How long were they going to keep this poor woman in service? Is Julian suggesting there might be satisfaction in having his name set before a grimy two-bit theater? Did people in Hollywood want to live forever because they felt they were not living now?

“It was good sleuthing on your part,” I say, of the phonebook. Then, “Could you not get anything for it?”

Julian half-opens his mouth, then reconsiders.

“You’d be surprised,” he says, “at how many Karalewskis there are out there.”

“I grew up in Cleveland and so would not be.”

My hip grazes the table as I stand.

“Wait,” says Julian, steadying the soup. “We haven’t had anything.”

“We have,” I say. I head to the service window, where the cook is clanging the ladle around the pot, and drop a twenty in the fishbowl.

“One photo!” Julian shouts, as the monk closes the door behind me.

It is twenty degrees cooler outside, the oil and bile smells of the café replaced by jasmine, and tar leeching up through the blacktop, a smell I always taste in my mouth. I do not feel like getting in my car, not yet. It’s barely a mile home. I take off my shoes and step in the street, cool from the rain.

I am walking west, up that big hill, when I hear the clop of horses and see two coming over the rise, big Tennessee Walkers favored by the mounted police. The image is surreal, something you see when you are out late drunk with your friends, everyone saying, “Do you see this?”

The officers approach. They are watching me, or what counts for watching with the LAPD, who must be trained in the art of looking while not appearing to look. The one on the right, the older one, has the method down, his head tipped at an angle where the cavalry hat keeps his eyes in shadow. The young one does not yet know how to do this, or is too curious to do it. He is Latino, with wide cheekbones and dark eyes that, from twenty feet away, appear rimmed with black eyeliner. He’s a beauty and I wonder, as the space between us closes, whether with my pomegranate hair I appear a bright spot in the night, or like a crazy woman with no shoes walking in the street at one in the morning. Either way, will they ask to see ID? Will they offer to call me a cab? Might the young one say, “If you can get your big ass up here, I will give you a ride home”? And I think, this magic malleable dress might have enough give that I could hoist myself up, and away! The fairy tale image makes me laugh. At this, the young one looks at his partner, so I hold to my ear the red book cupped in my hand and pretend I am laughing into that.

Nancy Rommelmann

Journalist (LA Weekly, NYT, WSJ) and author most recently of TO THE BRIDGE, A TRUE STORY OF MOTHERHOOD AND MURDER (July 2018). More at nancyromm.com

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