Chapter Thirty-Two (Hillsborough)
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Note: Here’s the voice only chapter of the video book, in case you want to watch while you read. The multimedia version has music by Robert Johnson, Willie Nelson, Mozart, Ray Charles, James Taylor and Miles Davis, but this version ain’t bad all on its own:
From that hot night in Sacramento in 1973 until around the end of 1977, I pretty much have to extrapolate. I must have quit my job at the library and must have moved up to my parents’ house in Oregon again. Wendy sent me a piece of red construction paper with tiny, blue cutout hearts pasted onto it for Valentine’s Day one year, but I only know that because I still have it in my little pile of letters and things. Melanie didn’t send me anything. Not a word. Nothing. She was like that. The only thing that’s really stuck in my mind of that four years is a long empty dull blank ache.
At some point during that time, based solely on an old airline ticket in my pile of letters and things and only the most rudimentary of recollections, I flew out to Colorado to rescue Ginny. She and Elizabeth Clare Prophet had a confrontation of some sort — possibly having to do with a man. Some of Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s people were after her. Ginny was hiding out. She needed to be rescued. We drove her car back to California. There was a blizzard in Wyoming. It was around Christmas. Ginny was probably nuts. I didn’t care. My heart belonged to Melanie. She was all I ever thought about. I thought about her all the time. When we got to San Francisco, Ginny dropped me off at the airport. I went back up to Oregon. She cried in the car in the parking lot.
I also have a letter Elliot wrote to me. The postmark on the envelope is November 24, 1974. In the letter he said he was sorry for any hurts he had inflicted on me. I don’t know whether I wrote him back or not but I’m pretty sure I was sorry for any hurts I had inflicted on him, too.
Eight months later, I got the last letter I ever got from Ginny Good. It was postmarked August 25, 1975. She was living in the Berkeley flatlands with a guy named Ross — one of her New Age buddies from Colorado. The first page of the letter is just a picture of a guy with knobs on his knees, playing what appears to be a zither, with a small Christmas tree growing from his forehead. Under the picture she says: “I can’t write so doodles must do.”
On the next page there’s a Picassoesque clown patting the cheek of a twelve-legged, round-faced female French Poodle with a perplexed smile and antennae growing from her forehead who’s saying: “Hello. My name is Twoodle Bumskulltear. I am walking on smog. Not air.”
Then the letter begins in earnest:
“I so need a non-male friend. I wish you did not identify with a gender. I would like to come up there, but I don’t trust you. I don’t trust anyone. Too late. Money all gone. Me screwed up. Yep — dead. I was robbed and raped last week. Really. People broke in and did it. Took everything. I hadn’t made love or had sex once except for the aforementioned rudeness on the part of the aforementioned intruders. I suppose I could have tried to enjoy such a rare occurrence.
“Everything all gone. Even my new library card. I lay around sick and don’t have spirit to get a job or join a group or do anything…I WANT to LOTS…but seem stuck to invisible can’tfly paper. No car (doesn’t work) no way to fix it cuz no money. I just want a girl roommate, but am so stuck I can’t even muster that.
“My hatred for the sex game is eating my guts out — it’s killing me slowly but I can’t deny what I see and I wish I were blind. Women are going to have tyrannical power and deserve it! Oh doobrot.
“I am so determined not to drink that the emotional whammies cause ‘psychotic behavior.’ Yesterday was a scream. I joined B’rer Rabbit, jumped into the raspberry bushes, and stuck sticks into the offensive eye, the middle one, toward the right. Wanted to die so poured Rit dye in the bathtub and laid in it and changed color. Really. It was a symbolic act. More went on. It was much like our scenes. You and me. Me in the closet at the motel — remember? Or burning the curtains? Not drinking makes me nutty.
“Anyway, yesterday was extreme and rare and I’m glad of it. I feel more me that way, really — this dumb other pretend stuff and keeping cool is Really Crazy. Oh, well. I LOVE WHAT YOU SENT. Gads, I wish we could be FRIENDS…and do sex too. Oh, well. No hope that centuries of conditioning in me could be overleapt in a single lifetime’s bound. Well, bound is right, but not the kangaroo kind. Gotta go, here comes hubby. Yuk. I love Ross but not the predetermined roles that pollute and use love — rolls and rolls of roles. ‘Krapps Last Tape’ never comes. ‘Oh, no! Not the Last Tape! What to do? Play ’em all over.’ Krapp!”
Somewhere around the end of 1976, I stayed with Elliot in Palo Alto for a couple of weeks. His mother had become something of a real estate mogul by then. She had used the house she’d gotten out of the divorce from Elliot’s dad to buy more property. Then she kept buying more and more properties, using one to leverage the next, until by the end of 1976 she was worth maybe ten million or so. One of the properties she owned was an apartment complex in Palo Alto. Elliot was the resident manager. His mother had remarried. She was living in Hillsborough. Her new husband was another real estate guy. Between the two of them they bought or sold half of San Mateo County every couple of years.
While I was staying with Elliot in Palo Alto, I managed to get myself out of the paralyzing obsessive depression I’d been wallowing in for longer than I thought it was possible for anyone to ever wallow in anything…and finally was able to function well enough to get a job as a telex operator at the Bank of America in San Francisco.
Elliot was still painting. It was his skull period. He used to sit on the living room floor with the barrel of his dad’s .38 caliber revolver pointed at his forehead and stare at the bullets in the chambers until the gun hallucinated itself into a skull of one sort or another. Then he’d hurry up and go paint a picture of what he’d seen. The skulls were all different. Some were pretty; others were menacing and scary.
— — —
Another year or so later, Melanie and I got back together. That was a surprise. I had about given up on her by then — not quite, but almost. The daily doses of heroin had started rotting her teeth and were causing her hair to fall out in gobs, so she had gradually weaned herself off heroin and onto methadone and had gradually weaned herself off the Shakespeare guy and onto a guy who was on methadone, too. The new guy had swastika tattoos from prison gang affiliations.
Melanie called my parents’ house. My mother gave her my phone number in San Francisco. Two hours later I was in Sacramento. I packed her and Wendy and their meager belongings into a U-Haul truck and we moved back to San Francisco while the swastika tattoo guy was at a biker convention in Bakersfield.
We lived in a little Victorian house behind a big Victorian house out in the Mission for a couple of years. Eventually Melanie got off methadone and got into eating huge healthy cauldrons of broccoli, zucchini, parsley and green beans. Her hair grew thick and lustrous and pretty again. Her teeth stopped falling apart. I parlayed my experience as a telex operator and my innate ability to lie on a resume into a job selling computers. Then I got another job, selling a slightly different kind of computer, and another, and another, each more remunerative than the last. I wore suits and ties, took clients to lunch and filled out an inflated expense report at the end of every week.
I never forgot that Melanie had been in love with other guys, but I also never forgot that it had been mostly my fault in the first place — and the two equally bleak recollections canceled one another out. I had practically nothing to do with Ginny or Elliot anymore. Melanie never mentioned them. I didn’t bring it up that she’d been fucking her heroin boy day and night for the last four years, either — not to mention the swastika tattoo guy. We had a sort of mutual emotional nonproliferation pact. I didn’t think it was exactly fair. One measly little indiscretion on our couch in Burlingame didn’t quite seem the equivalent of fucking the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood nonstop for four years…but hey, whoever said anything about fair? That was the deal. We had to live with it. We lived with it.
Melanie went to work for an insurance company. We both made plenty of money and didn’t have much to spend it on. We moved into an apartment on the outskirts of the Tenderloin and settled into a quiet, comfortable, mutually considerate routine that would have taken ten years to settle into with anyone else. On Saturdays Melanie I went to Brother Juniper’s Breadbox for breakfast and, afterwards, stocked up on groceries down on Geary Street. Sometimes Wendy came with us, but usually she wasn’t around. On Sundays I watched football on TV. Joe Montana was just starting to come into his own with the Forty-Niners. It was an exciting time to be living in San Francisco.
We had a little trouble with Wendy. It’s pretty complicated to try to get into but to boil it all down, she missed a lot of school, didn’t respond well to discipline and did way too many drugs for a twelve year-old. We had a lot of trouble with Wendy, actually. She ended up in Camarillo for stealing cars. Stealing cars was nothing compared to what she could have ended up in jail for. She was a handful. Oh, well. Our moderately comfortable life together went on and on, day after day, for years. We had our ups and downs. They resolved themselves with equanimity. Melanie was relatively happy. I was relatively happy. We were content.
— — —
Then one day, out of the blue, Elliot called me up. It must have been in1981 or 1982. I could look it up, I guess, but it was one or the other. I didn’t know who he was. I had put him and Ginny so completely out of my mind that I didn’t recognize his voice for a minute. Then he sounded like his same fidgety self again. He told me, in that halting, roundabout way of his, that we had made a pact ten years earlier, that we had promised each other that no matter what we were doing, we would get together on such and such a day — which happened to be the next day. I didn’t remember making that particular deal, but he and Ginny and I used to make all sorts of long-term deals with each other, so it didn’t seem unreasonable. We talked some. He was living at his mother’s house in Hillsborough. Elliot gave me the address. I wrote it down.
I had an appointment at Alumax in San Mateo later on the next day, anyway. I’d been trying to get in to see those guys for months — so that might have been on my mind. Getting Wendy out of jail might have been on my mind. Slowing down my back swing might have been on my mind. Trying to get free tickets to “A Chorus Line” might have been on my mind. It had to have been around in there somewhere that I’d been eating ice cream cones with Donna McKechnie in Sausalito when she got all huffy on me and told me I sounded like a crass tabloid reporter.
I had on a suit and tie. My Adam’s apple itched. I had a hard time finding Elliot’s mother’s new house. Whoever came up with the street plan for Hillsborough must have been instructed that its primary function was to keep the riffraff out. Roads meandered aimlessly, around and around. There weren’t any numbers on the houses. Finally, I recognized the green Jaguar his mother used to drive. It was halfway up a long driveway with a tasteful “For Sale” sign in the back window.
His mother answered the door. Apparently they still had the same deal they used to have back in San Mateo. Her mouth still turned down at the corners. There were a few lines in her face that hadn’t been there before, and she wasn’t wearing the sheer white silk bathrobe she always used to wear, but her eyes were as sparkly green and flirtatious as ever. She smiled. She was happy to see me. I still liked making her sad mouth smile. She showed me into the living room.
At first everything seemed fine. Elliot looked older. I may have looked a little older, myself. How old were we by then? Thirty-seven? Thirty-eight? Thirty-nine? Forty? Wow. We were old. It had been a long time. A lot had happened.
Elliot’s mother’s new house was full of jade and Persian rugs. There was an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the backyard. She had pointed out the pool and had mentioned its size on our way into the living room. Maybe she thought I might want to buy the place; everything she owned seemed to be for sale at a fair price. I was thinking she might know someone I could sell computers to, too.
Elliot was sitting on a royal blue Chinese wool rug on the living room floor. He wasn’t wearing his brocade smoking jacket. He was wearing a Pendleton shirt and a pair new Levi’s his mother might recently have bought for him. The rug had a pastel flowering bush woven into it. I bet it had cost a pretty penny, but I also bet it was worth more than they paid for it — everything in the house looked like it probably appreciated to the tune of about twenty bucks an hour. Elliot wasn’t listening to Yma Sumac or “Sketches of Spain,” either one. He wasn’t listening to anything. He was just sitting there in a half-lotus position, with his head bowed and his hands resting, palms up, on the insides of his knees.
I sat in front of him without saying anything, the same way we used to sit in front of each other not saying anything when we were in high school. After I’d been there for maybe half-an-hour, Elliot excused himself and went down the hallway. I heard a door close and lock. Five or six minutes later, he came back out into the living room again.
“What did you do? Take a leak?”
“Nah,” he said. “Brezhnev’s worried about getting oil into Vladisvostok.”
“Brezhnev’s in your bathroom?”
“I went to my room. He called me on our phone.”
I hadn’t heard a phone ring, actually, but it didn’t seem like a good time to argue with him. I sat there uncomfortably while Elliot confided to me what he’d been up to since I had last seen him. He spoke in fits and starts, always diffident, never one to toot his own horn. Somewhere along the line, Elliot had acquired a controlling interest in one of the big Japanese trading companies — Marubeni, I think it was. He wasn’t bragging, he was just answering questions. Brezhnev needed a favor now and then. I smiled. I may have looked at my watch.
Elliot also owned a sizable share of Wendy’s Hamburgers. He had named the company after Wendy, as a matter of fact — our Wendy, my Wendy, Melanie’s Wendy. He’d used a picture of her in the logo — a little sketch he’d made of her that time he stayed with us in Burlingame. She’d had her hair in pigtails the day Elliot drew the sketch. Wendy’s was just getting off the ground, but Elliot had big plans. He wanted franchises in the Soviet Union. Brezhnev could open doors. It was strictly business, tit-for-tat, you scratch my back, I scratch yours.
“You’re full of shit,” I told him.
“Yeah? Come on, I’ll show you.”
He stood up and motioned me to follow him down the hallway and into his room. When we got there, sure enough, there was a little red plastic toy phone on the floor. What more proof did I need? Who but Brezhnev could it have been? It wasn’t funny. Only Elliot had heard the phone ring. Brezhnev spoke English. They kept it a secret from the State Department to avoid putting translators out of work. Brezhnev was a union man; Elliot was a full-on, dyed-in-the-wool, free-market capitalist, but they accommodated one another in the interests of global trade.
Elliot wanted people to pay attention to him. He’d always wanted people to pay attention to him. Not many people did anymore, including me. I barely paid any attention to him at all. I had this appointment, see.
Then he showed me some pictures he had painted. He took down one of his mother’s big Abrams art books and pointed out a Botticelli, a Goya, a few Vermeers. He’d painted them all. Reason didn’t faze him. He knew what he knew. He was classically crazier than a fucking loon. There were gaping holes in his personality. He was hanging on to remnants of who he used to be. He had made himself into famous painters — dead or alive, it didn’t matter. He was a diplomat, a statesman, a world power, a Renaissance man sitting cross-legged on a Chinese rug in his mother’s living room, shooting the shit with Brezhnev, sending off urgent cables to the Shah of Iran, getting the oil situation straightened out in Vladivostok.
Go nuts, he seemed to be saying. It’s the only way. He was coming up with such pitiable, off the wall, megalomaniacal stuff it was hard even to pretend to laugh. I used to just laugh. Even when the things he did weren’t all that funny, I still used to be able to laugh. But this just wasn’t funny at all; there wasn’t anything funny about it. All the quaint little psychological quirks that used to make me like him had run amok. He was as transparent as a soap bubble about to burst. His whole life had been one long series of jolts that he’d been able to defend himself against, somehow or other, by hook or by crook, but now that one of them had broken through, all the rest had come tumbling in after it.
As we sat there, it became obvious to me that the jolt that had made the initial breakthrough had been Ginny. He was still in love with her. He would always be in love with her. I made the mistake of asking him if he had heard from her.
“So what’s going on with Ginny? Do you know?”
His eyes lit up. He smiled one of his twitchy smiles and leafed through the big Abrams art book again, pointing her out to me. There she was in a Goya, and there she was again in one of the Botticellis — and that was Ginny standing by a window in one of the Vermeers. He stopped at the Vermeer and shook his head and bit the inside of his lip and said, “You probably won’t appreciate it, but getting the light right through that window was a bitch. Ginny was an angel. She glowed.”
“No, I appreciate it,” I said. “It’s beautiful.”
“Thanks.” Elliot was proud, but modest — still a little shy, still a little guilty, maybe. Ginny came into his room at night, he told me. She modeled for him the way she used to model for him at the house in Kentfield, the way she no doubt modeled for him when they were living together in L.A. The two of them talked while he painted pictures of her — just chatted, not about anything special. She was fine. She didn’t mention me much, no, but I didn’t have to worry, she was happy, she was doing okay.
I forget exactly how the pictures got into the book, but he had an explanation. He had explanations for everything. He was so sure of himself it was hard not to believe him. Maybe he was buddies with Brezhnev — and the women in the paintings did all sort of look a little like Ginny. I mean, who can say? Maybe she was the reincarnation of all the women in the all the paintings, and he was the reincarnation of Goya and Botticelli and Vermeer. He was so calm and peaceful and at ease that something like that could have been going on, couldn’t it? It would have broken my heart if he were just completely crazy. I didn’t want my heart broken. I didn’t have time to have my heart broken. I had to get over to Alumax pretty soon.
— — —
The next day Elliot shot himself in the head with his father’s .38-caliber revolver. Sure, of course, obviously I should have known he might have been going to do something like that. I did know. But it could also have been symbolic, therapeutic — like Ginny dying herself in a bathtub full of Rit dye. I probably could have done something about it, too — which was very likely why he’d gotten me over there in the first place. We hadn’t made any deal ten years ago; he was getting ready to blow his brains out, is all. He probably wanted me to talk him out of it.
People, when they’re getting ready to kill themselves, sometimes make elaborate, ceremonial preparations. They make a big show of settling old accounts and patching up past misunderstandings, but what’s really going on is that they want you to talk them out of killing themselves. They don’t just come right out and say, “Okay, I’m going to be blowing my brains out, so if you want to talk me out of it, now might be a good time to start talking.” No. That’s not the way it works. The way it works is that you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. You’ve got to decide whether you want to interfere or not. That’s part of the deal. It’s not really all that tricky. They want to be talked out of it. But I didn’t get it. I didn’t figure it out. I guessed wrong. I’m not trying to justify anything. Or maybe I am. Who the fuck knows? Not me. Sure, I was a little wrapped up in myself. I’ve always been a little wrapped up in myself. Who isn’t a little wrapped up in himself or herself? We’re all a bunch of fucking water spiders, skimming over the surface of everything, face to face with nothing but our own stupid reflections. All I had to do was look. All I had to do was listen. But I didn’t. I had this appointment, see.
When I was leaving, his mother gave me the same sort of imploring look that she used to give me twenty years earlier when Elliot had stayed in his bed that whole year after he had walked in on her and the Lebanese real estate guy on the drain board. What should she do? Only this time it was also like she was blaming me, too, like if it hadn’t been for me, Elliot never would have gotten mixed up with Ginny and none of this would have ever happened. I might have given her something of an imploring look, myself.
How was I supposed to know what she should do? What could I tell her? Your son, Mrs. Felton, is off his fucking rocker. He’s crazy as a loon. He’s nuts. He’s insane. You should lock his ass up somewhere before he blows his poor fucking brains out, like your poor fucking husband blew his poor fucking brains out, like his poor fucking father blew his poor fucking brains out. But what could she do? What could anyone do? Bake him cookies? Call the police? Call the fire department? Get Army Intelligence over there? What? Love the crazy motherfucker? How the hell was I supposed to know? He was her kid. She had to do with him whatever the fuck she was going to do with him.
That was about all I could tell her, and I didn’t even tell her that. I didn’t tell her anything. I needed to find my way out of the maze of winding streets in Hillsborough and get over to Alumax before two. It was a solid lead. I stood to make a lot of money.