Chapter Eighteen (Ocean Beach)
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Not long after our chat in Mrs. Rousseau’s parlor — and a week or so before Ginny finally just went ahead and had the abortion — Elliot’s father killed himself. I don’t remember his name. I always just called him Mr. Felton. His father killing himself knocked Elliot for a loop, another loop. He was always getting knocked for loops.
Elliot’s parents had finalized their divorce before he got back from Vietnam. There had been lawyers and private investigators digging through twenty years of dirt with a backhoe. His father knew all about the Lebanese real estate guy by then — and the Nicaraguan plumber and the Irish roofing and siding salesman and the Italian maitre d’ at Westlake Joe’s. They were separated when she took up with the stockbroker, but I’m sure he was on Mr. Felton’s list of guys who’d fucked his wife, as well.
Elliot’s mother got the car and the house and everything in it, right down to whatever was left of the bottle of lemon-scented Joy under the kitchen sink. His father got nothing but the furniture that had been his mother’s furniture before the marriage. Mr. Felton also got nothing but sadder and sadder with each passing day. He was too sad to work and had to take early retirement. He was too sad to do anything. He didn’t have a house or a car or a wife or a job, and he had always been the kind of guy who only knew who he was by what he had. Now he had nothing. Now he was nobody. Even I felt a little sorry for the guy, and I’d always thought he was exactly the kind of cocky, brittle, know-it-all, authoritarian asshole who deserved to get shattered.
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When Elliot got out of the military, his father was living in a two-bedroom duplex out in the Avenues, a block from Ocean Beach. After he got the job at Dean Witter’s, Elliot moved in with his dad and took the N-Judah downtown before dawn every day in order to get to work by six in the morning when the stock exchange opened in New York.
The first time he caught his father crying, they pretended it wasn’t happening. Then they got used to it. They had no choice. His father cried all the time. He stood by the living room window and looked out at the fog with long tears rolling down his face. Elliot felt like they had traded places. When Elliot had cried when he’d been a kid, his father used to take off his belt and give him something to cry about. Now Elliot knew why. It drove a person nuts after awhile. He wanted to grab his father by the shirt, to shake him, to slap him, to take off his belt and give his father something to cry about…but Elliot knew it hadn’t really done him a lot of good, so he didn’t. Later he mentioned that maybe he should have.
Besides look at the fog and cry, Mr. Felton went surf fishing and read Anna Karenina. One morning, toward the end of the book, Elliot found his father on the back porch with his head blown half-off. He was holding the shotgun like an Easter lily. His body was stiff. His shoulders were stuck to the planks of the porch with dried blood and brains. They had to be pried loose with a fancy chrome-plated crowbar the coroner kept handy for such occasions.
Elliot stayed in the duplex and took up surf fishing. He quit his job. His plans went awry. He never took his new suits out of the closet again. His mother paid the rent. She was selling real estate by then. Elliot finished Anna Karenina from where his father had left off. The fringed bookmark that had belonged to Elliot’s grandmother was still marking the place. There were only around twenty pages left. When he was through reading it all the way through to the end, Elliot started from the beginning.
On particularly blustery days, Elliot put on his father’s rain gear, trudged down to Ocean Beach with his father’s fishing rod and his father’s fishing tackle, leaned into gale force winds blowing salt spray into his face and fished his heart out. Sometimes Elliot even caught a fish — usually some bony, bottom-dwelling scavenger fish, not fit for human consumption — but once he caught a pretty good-sized sea bass and invited Ginny and me over for dinner.
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His duplex was like walking into 1942. It was an oasis of middle-class Mormon restraint. Elliot’s grandmother’s furniture was arranged the way Mr. Felton had it arranged before he killed himself. There were rugs with fringe at the ends and crocheted doilies on the arms of overstuffed chairs and fringe hanging from dim yellow lampshades. Dust puffed up when Ginny and I sat on the couch. We watched it disperse up through the soft light being shed by one of the lamps and settle back down onto the ornate walnut end table. She was subdued. So was I. So was Elliot. We were all pretty much just going through the motions.
His father’s old room was stern. There were government memorabilia on a mahogany chest of drawers — pictures of his father standing next to J. Edgar Hoover and General MacArthur and a picture of a young Mr. Felton in a crowd of people behind Eisenhower when he was still a five-star general. In the closet there were four pairs of black wingtips, each with a separate set of shoetrees.
The thing that Elliot couldn’t seem to get over was that his father had managed to get through the ordeal of being held captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for more than a year. Elliot thought that if a person had survived that, he could survive anything. Not true, it turns out. His father couldn’t live with the fact of not having a car or a house or a job — or the inescapable conclusion that his wife did not love him and maybe had not ever loved him.
Elliot still made art out of anything he touched. Walking into his bedroom in the duplex was like walking into the sky. There was no furniture. He slept on a pile of pillows and down comforters on the floor and there were great heaving gobs of urethane foam all over the walls and ceiling that Elliot had airbrushed different shades of white and foggy shades of gray, like huge cumulus clouds.
Ginny and I went into the dining room and sat down at the table. Elliot had built a centerpiece out of pinecones and seashells and driftwood. We were ill at ease. He served baked sea bass on one of his grandmother’s silver serving trays. He would have looked more at home in his quilted smoking jacket, tugging at his meerschaum pipe, but he looked at home enough. It was sad. I don’t know why. It just was.
When we were through with dinner, which amounted to not much more than the three of us picking the bones out of the sea bass and leaving most of the meat on our plates, we drank a bottle of wine and talked about Tolstoy. Elliot showed us a picture of his father that had been taken after he’d been liberated from the prison camp. He just stood there holding it, looking at it. His father was nothing but skin and bones. Elliot went over by the window and looked out at the fog. It was too sad for words. Ginny and I didn’t know what to say. We didn’t say anything. Then we said we’d better be going. Elliot didn’t say anything. We left. And Elliot pretty much dropped out of the picture for another couple of years or so.
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Ginny and I were having troubles of our own at the time. It would not have been practical to have a kid; it would have been cool, but it would not have been practical. She and her father’s lawyer talked on the phone a lot. He arranged for her to get a letter from her shrink who arranged to get another letter from another shrink — which was what you had to do to get an abortion back then — and Ginny went into the hospital and had an abortion in the middle of February. I waited in the lobby. It didn’t take long.
At the beginning of March, Ginny and I moved into the biggest apartment in Mrs. Rousseau’s building. It was huge, with all kinds of Queen Anne windows and nooks and crannies and more of her fancy furniture, but it still only cost a hundred and fifty bucks a month. We lived there less than three weeks.
Ginny went off on one of her irresistibly deranged, drunk, blacked-out binges sometime toward the end of the month. Her Christmas troubles were winding down, but she still had another humdinger of a fling left in her. She ended up at a pizza parlor on Fillmore Street and picked up some guys in one of the local fledgling rock-and-roll bands who used to hang out there — some of the Charlatans is my best guess, but it could have been Jefferson Airplane guys. I think the pizza parlor was the one that got turned into a rock-and-roll club called The Matrix a year or so later. It could have been most anyone, though. Sopwith Camel? Sons of Champlin? Moby Grape? I don’t know. A bunch of fledgling rock-and-roll guys used to hang out on Fillmore Street back then.
All I know is that at around two in the morning there was a lot of noise coming from the kitchen. I got up to see what was going on. Ginny and two scruffy guys were drinking wine, smoking dope and yucking it up at our new kitchen table. I kicked them out. Ginny threw a fit — a bigger fit than usual. She broke two of the big bay windows overlooking California Street, wrecked one of Mrs. Rousseau’s Japanese silk screens and smashed my new electric typewriter.
We had to move. Ginny stayed with Tom Piper. I went up to my parents’ house in Oregon. The only reason I was able to put up with Virginia as long as I did was that I always had somewhere to go to get away from her when she went completely crazy for too long. That’s how I have the little stack of letters I still have. She wrote them to me while I was up in Oregon.
In early May of 1965, I hitchhiked back down to San Francisco. The Christmas stuff was pretty much over — well, you know, until the next Christmas. She was the picture of health, happiness and good cheer. While I’d been in Oregon, Ginny had taken acid with one or another of her rock-and-roll buddies. I was jealous. The last thing I wanted was my god damn girlfriend taking LSD with some scruffy rock-and-roll asshole — especially when I hadn’t taken acid with anyone, and even more especially when it was all she could talk about.
I absolutely HAD to take acid. It wasn’t just a matter of popping a pill, either; no, no, you had to prepare. There was a whole catechism. You had to read Doors of Perception, Joyous Cosmology, King Solomon’s Ring, and a bunch of other books: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones — I can’t begin to remember them all. There was a whole bibliography. Then you had to go somewhere, to the ocean or the woods, and finally, on top of everything else, it had to just, like, happen. Jesus. It sounded like a lot of trouble to go to just to get stoned, but, hey, I’d never taken acid before. Who was I to say? She had, like I said — with one of her scruffy rock-and-roll buddies. La dee da.
We picked the woods.
We went to La Honda.