Chapter Six (San Mateo)

Elliot’s parents lived in a custom-built turquoise and white ranch style house at the end of a cul-de-sac up in the hills above the southern part of San Mateo. I liked going up there. The living room had plush, pearl-gray carpet that smelled like it had just been installed and soft cream-colored love seats and a soft cream-colored couch, all with matching end tables and table lamps with three-way bulbs.

The furniture in the living room was centered around a combination television and high-fidelity record player. Sliding glass doors opened onto a redwood deck with a panoramic view — north up past the airport to San Bruno Mountain, south down almost to San Jose and east across the bay to Oakland and Hayward and over the hills to Mt. Diablo. Beyond the deck there was a path of flagstones leading over to some jasmine bushes and a Cost-Plus waterfall. The kitchen was built around a gigantic two-door refrigerator full of all sorts of things I’d never seen outside a grocery store.

My own parents, by way of contrast, had bought a house in San Mateo Village, like I may have mentioned, down in the flatlands by the bay, with the same floor plan as all the other houses in the flatlands; the same hard grass yards, with short, newly planted trees. Instead of carpet, we had rugs. Nothing matched. Nothing was new. And the only remarkable thing in the refrigerator was maybe a bowl of browned potatoes left over from one of my mother’s pot roasts. There was nothing in the world my father liked better for breakfast than leftover potatoes from one of my mother’s pot roasts, sliced razor thin and fried in sizzling bacon grease along with his eggs — two, sunny-side up. I adore my dad. He’s dead. As I’ve said.

The other thing I liked about going up to Elliot’s house was his mother. She used to get a kick out of wearing skimpy clothes around the house. There was this one sheer white silk robe I remember in particular, with a sash she always had trouble keeping tied when she answered the door.

They had a mat on the front porch with the word WELCOME spelled out in pieces of pink rubber held together with short lengths of wire, and there was a brass doorknocker on the door with the name “FELTON” etched into it. The doorknocker was actually a doorbell disguised as a doorknocker. When you picked it up and pushed it back down, it was supposed to go “Ding…dong!” But there was something wrong with the dong. It sounded like it had a piece of broken Popsicle stick stuck down inside it. The ding was okay, but the dong just went “thunk.”

I rang the bell, “Ding…thunk,” wiped my feet on the welcome mat, and waited breathlessly for his mother to come to the door. Elliot never answered the door himself. His mother always did. I think it might have been some sort of deal they had. I heard her fumbling with the dead bolt. Moths fluttered around my heart like it was a three-way light bulb. The door opened a crack and I saw one beguiling green eye peeking out at me. She unhooked the chain and pulled the door wide open with a big whoosh, and the vacuum created by the door opening sheathed her thighs and the nipples of her breasts in sheer white silk for a second. When I looked up, she was looking at me with her head cocked, like she knew exactly the effect she was having on me. I melted. I couldn’t help but melt.

She was pretty from the top of her head to the tips of her painted toenails — short, fine, coppery-red hair, pouty lips, creamy red lipstick. Her mouth turned down at the corners; she looked perpetually sad. She licked her lips and I could see the wetness of her tongue and the shiny enamel on her teeth.

“Elliot’s in listening to his weirdo music,” she said and pointed toward the living room. Then she sauntered slowly down the hallway toward the open door of her bedroom with shafts of bright sunlight streaming through her sheer white silk robe, knowing full well I couldn’t help but notice.

When I got to know him better, I found out how Elliot had almost killed the football player. The football player had been drunk. He and some other football players had been drinking beer in the parking lot next to McDonald’s. One of them tossed an empty beer bottle over by where Elliot was waiting for a bus. Elliot kicked the empty beer bottle into the gutter. That wasn’t the right thing to have done. There wasn’t any right thing to have done.

One thing led to another. The football player took a swing at him. All Elliot did was duck. The football player lost his balance and cracked his face against the edge of the curb. Three teeth broke off at their roots. Blood puddled up. His eyes stayed open. He was trying to swallow. He looked like a fish. Elliot threw up.

He went over and over it in his mind for months. He got obsessed with ways he could have kept it from happening and ended up making a vow to himself that he wouldn’t ever fight anyone again, no matter what, not even to defend himself — next time he wouldn’t even duck. He was as close to being an absolute pacifist as a person could reasonably be. The idea of hurting living things made him literally sick to his stomach.

Being such a pacifist made Elliot do things differently from other people — like take out his aggressions, for example. A normal person would, you know, just hit a wall or kick a hole in a door or something, but Elliot had to resist such simple solutions for fear of wiping out whole civilizations of microscopic wall dwellers. That wasn’t the case when it came to Dru Davidson. When it came to Dru, all bets were off.

Elliot presumed that he and Dru would be getting back together any day. The way he saw it was that pretty soon he’d be making a name for himself as an actor or as an artist or as a guitar player and she’d come crawling back, make it all up to him in ways they’d never thought of before. They’d get married and live happily ever after in a house he was going to build for them on one of those huge outcroppings of rock that juts out into the ocean down around Big Sur.

Then Elliot’s imagination started falling apart. Dick Joseph saw Dru playing tennis with some Japanese guy at the tennis courts behind Burlingame High. Not long after that, John White saw her with the same guy at a party in Eichler Highlands and mentioned that he thought the guy might be in dental school.

Elliot didn’t believe anything Dick Joseph or John White or anyone else told him. He knew his darling Dru wouldn’t be caught dead with no sorry-ass Jap, period, and especially not with no sorry-ass Jap who was going to spend the rest of his life mucking around in people’s mouths for a living. What kind of a person would pick at putrefaction and decay and dig root canals all day? Would Dru want to share a life like that? No. What would they talk about? Plaque? Gingivitis?

It certainly wouldn’t be the sort of life she and Elliot would have together. Would some Jap dentist take her to Spain to see the sublime shadows and lights of El Greco? Would they go to the Prado to marvel at “The Garden of Earthly Delights?” Would they worship at the altar of Antonio Gaudi? Or listen to Segovia? Or Charlie Bird? Or Charlie Parker? Or Miles? Or Mozart? Would he read to her from The Book of Ecclesiastes or sing to her from The Song of Songs? Would she be his Cordelia? Would they live and pray and sing and tell old tales and laugh at gilded butterflies?

Then, with his own eyes, he saw her arm in arm with the selfsame Japanese guy he’d been hearing about, and Elliot knew the guy. It was Jerry Takahashi. He wasn’t in dental school. He was taking classes at the College of San Mateo — in Dental Technology. He wanted to make false teeth for a living. That was just the beginning. Not much more than a week after he’d seen Dru with Jerry Takahashi, Elliot saw her again, this time all snuzzled up to Steve Goldner by the front window of Sherman & Clay, looking at pianos. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about Steve Goldner. He was a Jew. He worked in his father’s jewelry store — he was a Jew jewelry clerk in his Jew father’s Jew jewelry store!

I have no reason whatsoever to believe that up until then Elliot had an ax to grind with the Japanese or Jews, either one (well, his father spent a year in a Japanese prison camp, but I doubt that had much to do with it). All I know is that from then on all Elliot thought about was hunting down Japs and Jews indiscriminately and hacking them to pieces with the machete his father had brought back as a souvenir from the war in the Pacific. This was at odds with Elliot’s strict pacifism, however, and he ended up painting strange, disturbing pictures instead.

At first the pictures were nothing but bloody piles of body parts, but they got more sophisticated as time went on, subtler, more refined. I think I was the only person besides him who ever actually saw any of the pictures. Elliot wasn’t proud of them. They were necessary. They were therapeutic. I kind of liked them myself. I mean, however objectionable the subject matter, the pictures themselves were just plain pretty to look at. They were like Russian Orthodox icons; they were so gorgeous they almost glowed. One was all in dull reds and yellows and somber browns, depicting bodies being loaded into a row of fiery furnaces. That one he simply called, “Hitler’s Ovens.” Another, with the fragile outlines of a Japanese family vaporized like spider webs against one of the interior walls of a house in Hiroshima, he called, “Roll On, Enola.”

In addition to acting and painting pictures, Elliot played flamenco guitar and sculpted. He sat out in his backyard, sweating under a prickly red Indian blanket in the ninety-degree sun for hours, staring at a blank rock until some combination of dehydration and incipient sunstroke caused him to hallucinate something he could chisel into permanence. His backyard crawled with the gruesome little things. He called them his lobotomies.

After his mother let me in the front door, I finished watching her saunter down the sunlit hallway and made my way into the living room — and there he was, Elliot Felton, rocking back and forth on a Persian prayer rug, listening to music with his eyes closed and his legs folded under him in a sort of half-lotus position. He was wearing a shiny green quilted brocade smoking jacket with black satin lapels. There was a yellow silk cravat tucked down the front of the jacket. He was smoking a meerschaum pipe. His mother made the smoking jacket for him for his seventeenth birthday. The pipe had the head of a bearded gnome carved into it. His father had brought it home from the property room at the FBI. He told Elliot that the pipe had belonged to some famous crook.

I just watched him for a while until I felt myself start to chuckle so deep inside my chest it brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t say anything — I just walked over and sat down across from him and listened to whatever he was listening to. It could have been most anything — “Sketches of Spain,” Segovia, “The Magic Flute,” Charlie Parker, Beethoven, Bach.

That day it was Yma Sumac. People might not know much about Yma Sumac anymore. Not many people knew much about her then, but Elliot worshipped Yma Sumac. She was supposed to have been an Incan Princess whose voice had a range of around nine octaves, lower than thunder on the low end and so high only bats could hear it on the high end. Well, either that or she was some Puerto Rican chick from the Bronx named Amy Camus who spelled her name backwards and masqueraded as an Incan Princess.

Whoever or whatever she was, however, Yma Sumac’s voice did more things than any human voice I ever heard before or since, and Elliot flat-out adored her. He listened to her records so often he knew the words to all her songs by heart. Whatever Yma Sumac did with her voice, Elliot tried to do too. They sang duets together. While everyone else in America was singing along with Mitch Miller, Elliot was singing along with Yma Sumac. She’d growl like a jaguar and hoot like a howler monkey, and he’d try to match her syllable for syllable. He and Yma Sumac stalked each other. The living room was a Peruvian jungle. He peeked out from behind one of his mother’s huge philodendrons, then pounced like a jaguar out from between the couch and the coffee table, tipping over lamps and crashing into a set of brass fireplace tools. It was funny. He was funny. They were funny — Elliot and Yma, an odder couple you never did see.

His mother worried about Elliot. She was proud of him, but she thought he was odd. Quirky. She didn’t think he fit in. We talked about him in their kitchen one afternoon. We were looking out the window at Elliot sitting under his Indian blanket. She was wearing a pair of tight white tennis shorts. Her legs were tan. Sunlight sparkled through pretty red highlights in her hair.

“Elliot’s always been…exceptional,” she said.

“Everyone’s exceptional,” I told her.

“Yeah, but he’s always been so — I don’t know…difficult, I guess — even when he was little. He thought he could do things nobody can do. He thought he brought a bird back to life. It was just a sparrow, a little fluff of a thing.”

She stopped and seemed to be picturing him as a curly-headed little three-year-old with his baseball cap on sideways, then went on in a faraway voice:

“It flew into the screen door of our house in Salt Lake — probably the first time the poor thing had ever been out of its nest. I’m sure it was only stunned, but Elliot thought it was dead. He picked it up and cupped his hands around it and blew into his hands and pretty soon the sparrow started chirping. He was so proud. He beamed up at me. His eyes were happier than anything I’ve ever seen. I said something silly, like, ‘Now it thinks you’re its mother.’ And do you know what he said then?” she asked.

The color of copper glinted in her hair. She wet her lips and there was a sad, baffled, smoldering sexual look in her eyes, like if I could come up with the right answer, she’d be grateful beyond words.

“No,” I said. “What did he say?”

“He asked me…he said, ‘Are you my mother?’”

“Most kids wonder about stupid stuff like that,” I said.

“Sometimes I don’t feel like I’ve been a good mother.”

“He never says anything bad about you.”

“I was so young.”

“You must have been,” I said.

During his last week of school, Elliot went home to get the gym stuff he had to take back in order to graduate and walked in on his mother and a Lebanese real estate agent having deliberate, consensual sexual intercourse on the drain board next to the kitchen sink. He told me about it later. He trusted me. I trusted him. The real estate guy’s pants were around his knees. He hadn’t even taken off his tie. That bothered Elliot more than anything else. His mother spoke to him only with her eyes. She pretended it wasn’t happening. He got his gym stuff and went back to school.

Elliot spent the better part of the next year in bed. He still hadn’t gotten over Dru. His mother and the Lebanese guy had been the last straw. Every time I went up there, he hadn’t moved since the last time I’d been there. He was always in bed. His room had sliding glass windows with drapes that didn’t close all the way. There was a half-finished painting on an easel over in one corner, a bare bones rendering of the kitchen sink. The dishes were all washed and stacked neatly in the dish drainer and there was a fancy silk tie draped around the silverware.

I sat on the edge of his bed. The ceiling sparkled where sunlight came through the crack in the drapes. His bed was a mattress and box springs on the floor. He flicked the ashes from a cigarette into a teacup. The cup had morning glories on it. The ashes sputtered. He coughed. Veins stood out at his temples and in his forehead. His skin was so thin I got the feeling he could see me with his eyes closed. With his eyes open, it hurt to look at him.

He didn’t know what to do. He was thinking about maybe cutting his vocal cords and playing flamenco guitar in the gutters of Madrid. He was thinking about maybe taking a kayak to the source of the Amazon River. I brought him a National Geographic map of Brazil. According to it, the Amazon River had several sources.

“Hey, so, go up them all,” I said.

“Which one should I start with?”

“Throw a dart.”

But he couldn’t make up his mind, period, not about anything. He was close to catatonic. He just stayed in bed, smoking cigarettes. His skin turned yellow and his muscles atrophied and his fingernails grew long and his fingers turned the color of the empty packs of Camels strewn around his room. He didn’t want anything from anyone. His mother thought it was her fault. She implored me with her eyes, what should she do, what should she do? What could I tell her?

Then, one fine morning, without saying a word to anyone, Elliot got out of bed and joined the Special Forces before anyone had ever heard of the Special Forces and was going to be going to Vietnam before anyone had ever heard of Vietnam, and this time it was his father’s turn to be proud. He’d known the kid had had it in him all along. He bragged about his son, the Green Beret, to his buddies at the FBI.

Elliot’s decision to go into the military crushed his mother. She thought he was trying to hurt her in the worst way he knew how. She thought it was a conspiracy, that Elliot and his father were in on it together, that they were punishing her, that they wanted her to die of pain and shame and guilt and sorrow and regret.

Personally, I didn’t get it at all. I pretty much just thought he was nuts — why an absolute pacifist would join the army, I did not know.

“What are you going to do in the army? Grow up? Liberate people? Stop communism? Get laid? What?”

“Special Forces,” Elliot said.

“Yeah? What makes them so special? They don’t kill people?”

“How will anyone know whether I kill people or not?”

“What are you going to do, pretend?”

“Maybe,” he said. Then he smiled the way he had when I’d winked at him back in drama class. It had been almost two years since then.

During those two years I’d gotten to know Elliot well enough to know that while I may not have known what the hell he was doing, he usually did. For one thing, he was going to get a lot closer to Bangkok than I ever had. Maybe I was jealous. Maybe he was brave. Maybe I was chicken. Maybe the army would be good for him. I couldn’t think of anything that could have been much worse than what he’d been doing. And, besides, he’d already done it, signed the papers, taken the oath. He couldn’t have changed his mind at that point if he’d wanted to.