The Coxwell Baby
“The only thing I love more than visiting Los Angeles,” says Kling as he peers over the steering wheel, “is leaving Los Angeles.” It’s a hazy morning in Santa Monica and the traffic is relatively light but Kling, still jetlagged from yesterday’s flight, sees enemies in every corner. I haven’t slept much either and so the surreal calm of the midweek morning seems to tingle in my ears like a warning klaxon. Alert, alert, Angelenos on the radar.
“Look there,” Kling says, pointing a crooked finger at a wheeled newsstand on the corner of 4th and Wilshire, the proprietor of which was experimenting with a homemade puppet show. A balding Mexican with a toolbelt around his waist is surreptitiously killing a lunch break with a copy of Penthouse, and is trying not to look perturbed by the Punch and Judy dolls shaking back and forth in front of a construction-paper set.
“Look at that moron,” Kling crows. “Guy’s just trying to buy a titty mag in peace and he’s getting harassed by Muppets, can’t even spell right. Parasites, all of them. Always wanting just a little more.”
Sure enough, the sign that flashes past us as Kling guns the engine says “DONATION’S ACEPTED.” I don’t even move my head to follow it as it passed; I know what I’d see if I looked hard enough. I’ve seen the same look in the mirror a few times myself.
Kling is my agent. The latest in a long line. Barry Kling, talent scount. He swore up and down his name wasn’t made up. To me, it sounded like something two idiots came up with on a bar napkin and sold to prospective clients, meaning the wide-eyed wannabes that flooded into talent agencies by the dozen during college graduation season.
“Goddammit,” Kling hisses as yet another SUV gallops past him, two tiny feminine hands clamped onto the wheel being the only visible evidence it was occupied by a human being. “That’s six. Six since the hotel.” Kling hated Los Angeles, and loved hating it. At least, until he got within earshot of whomever he wanted to take a chance on his client. And then it was his home away from home, the place where he left his heart, he said, just so he could keep coming back for it.
I need him, though. He’s good; good enough, anyway, to get the meeting for me at Paramount tomorrow. When I first hired him, somehow I’d negotiated him down to 12 percent and after he was through a solid 45-minute block of insults and invective, hurled from his office in Soho over the phone lines to my apartment line in West Philly, he never backed off it. But a trip to LA, Kling always said, is like a necessary evil, like doing your taxes or getting your oil changed. In this business, he always said, it’s just a thing you have to do. You have to pay homage.
We’re taking the scenic route; the signing is in Venice, but it isn’t for another few hours and so we find a garage, Kling complaining the entire way about the parking spot, the elevator ride down, the cracks in the sidewalks and the odor of the lunch he buys for us at a portable grease factory with all of two menu items in its repertoire: tacos and French fries, both of which left shiny spots on the picnic tables when we lifted the plates up.
“These things bother you much?” Kling asks me, brushing crumbs from his beard.
I shrug. “Not really,” I say. “It gets worse when they start running those ‘Where are they now?’ specials. Most of the time, though, they just want to tell me their stories.”
I’ve gotten used to people, at events like the one we’re about to attend, coming up to me and telling me when they first heard about me, what they were doing when they first heard about me, how they felt when they first heard about me. At the last one, a porcine woman with a handful of plastic bags packed with goods from the other stores in the shopping mall waited until the ink was dry on the foreleaf of the book she’d just bought, then stared at me and said only, “You didn’t grow up the way I thought.”
“Neither did I,” I said.
Bleeker’s is your typical Southern California book hideaway, the place writers go to in hopes of finding fellow lost souls. They never find them, but they’re guaranteed to find a good buy on a Queneau paperback, or maybe even a signed copy of a Carver anthology, or perhaps even a Bukowski manuscript with some of his vomit still sticking the pages together. The location alone, a sagging one-story a stone’s throw from Venice Beach, lent it the necessary decrepit mystique.
Today’s storyteller is a tall, sallow jogger in his mid-50s, the cord on his earbuds disappearing into his denim fanny pack, who finishes telling me how he was teaching class to a group of fith-graders and stopped to turn on the TV to watch me, stares at the cover illustration of the book, that famous picture of me with my brother dying in my arms, and looks at me, and back at the cover, and says, “To think, you’ve come all this way since then, and yet, there you still are, on the cover of that book.”
People like to get insightful with me about what they think my life has been like since then. It’s pretty common, and the jogger isn’t the first to this particular well, but I still say, “ya know, I never really thought about it that way before, but you’re right, you’re absolutely right,” and more or less mean it.
“Have you spoken to Mister Bernardo recently?” he asks. Again, a common question, as Raymond Bernardo is a name heard often in places such as these. This lie is the easiest. “We speak often, but not recently.”
“I read his most recent,” the jogger continues. “It was just wonderful, didn’t you think?”
Again, an easy one: “I’m still catching up. He puts out so much. You know how it is.”
The jogger’s time is up and he knows it, but there isn’t much of a line (in fact, there’s no one behind him), so he leans forward and whispers conspiratorially to me: “I just want you to know, I’ve pulled for you throughout.”
“Thank you very much, that means a lot,” I say. Not a lie, admittedly, but piety isn’t something I take well. Kling is busy napping in a sagging armchair, his bowtie drooping and his suspenders appearing to be the only thing holding his prodigious gut to his body, and he was going to be no help in getting this guy away from me.
“Well, thanks for coming,” I say, scrawling the standard salutation and my signature across the title page of the book (“Thanks for your support! Miles Coxwell”) and finally the jogger jogs away.
Everyone knows my story. How my mother and father and brother went to bed on a cool August evening. How a fire started, sparked, according to Raymond Bernardo’s book, by a faulty electrical switch in my baby brother’s room. How my father was burned to death trying to find our pet dog, and how my mother fell into a disintegrating floor and how the house collapsed into itself on top of her. How I leapt free, breaking my leg and my arm in the process, and how I ran back into the flames and pulled my brother out. How badly he was burned, and how I screamed and screamed as the cameras flashed and caught me in that moment, that one terrible moment of exquisite agony.
The thing about these appearances is, I have to smile and be nice, because if I don’t smile, and if I’m an asshole, there’s always a backlash. Like the apocryphal story of the butterfly flapping his wings on one side of the world and causing a tsunami on the other. An asshole opens his mouth in Los Angeles and someone watches profit numbers drop like a stone on a computer monitor in New York. It happens. These are the things I have to deal with.
“Sorry,” Kling says, snorting awake, “I just passed right out.” He rubs his eyes and adjusts his bowtie. “Want a pick-up?”
“Absolutely,” I say.
Hours later, we’re in a dive bar in Hollywood, and Kling is full steam ahead into a wild and possibly only partially fictional story about a night out on the town with Oliver Reed. Sheets of aged one-by-fours nailed to the walls of the place give it a ramshackle look, but it’s just the sort of Hollywood hole-in-the-wall where an actor getting signed to a $50 million payday and a brawl over a brick of cocaine have an equal chance of happening. But the beer is still coming and there was only one grim-looking regular, a hollowed-out stick figure with trackmarks dotting his inside forearm and a look of patient misery.
“I do sometimes wonder why I always seem to end up here,” I say to Kling just to change the subject. “I’m not an actor, I’m not a writer, I don’t do theater. I just have my story, the story that was written for me, the story I don’t remember living.”
Kling puffs mightily on his cigar, grinning. In his Manhattan office, the Cohiba seems to complete the package, to sell the image he’s projecting. In an outdoor patio just off Sunset, it just seems like an excuse to act like an exclamation point.
“That’s all we are,” he says, “just stars in our own stories. You got lucky, people love your story. They just love it. And let’s face it, you ain’t got many more strikes left. A little notoriety can’t hurt you. They may feel sorry for you but they’re still flying you first class.”
“That’s Bernardo,” I say, and I instantly regret it. I know I’m going to get another one of Kling’s rants, and sure enough, his face contorts like he woke up with a skunk pissing in his mouth.
“Oh, please forgive me,” Kling sneers. “I’d be goddamned if that psycho ever did anything besides feed his own ego.” There was friction there.
“You know,” I say, just to irritate him further, “there were other offers. Lots of other offers, probably. It’s the way it works. You know that, right?”
“Fuck off,” Kling says, taking a deep pull at his highball. “Six-fifteen, I’ve got Basil Pellington’s name on the dotted line all ready to go. Six-twenty, after one phone call from Raymond Bernardo, half the publishers in Manhattan are yanking me out of their Rolodexes and Basil Pellington’s assistant is who I start talking to. And he commits the worst sin of all. He’s boring.”
“You know Bernardo,” I say. “He probably thought someone else would have just made shit up to sell books. You know that whole thing of his. ‘The whole of it and nothing but.’”
“That’s his problem,” Kling says, hammering the table with the flat of his thick paw. “World doesn’t operate according to his philosophy, much as he’d like to think it does. You gotta fudge here and there. He says he never has, I say there’s a liar making noise in my presence. People don’t pay for the truth, they pay for closure.”
“You gambled, you lost,” I shrug. I’ve wound Kling up, though, and I realize too late that now I’m going to have to deal with angry, manic Drunk Kling instead of angry, morose Drunk Kling, who’s a lot easier to pour into a hotel bed and forget about for a few hours. “You probably came in too low or something. Maybe they thought you were too small-time to bother with you.”
“Someone’s word, it don’t mean nothing any more,” Kling moans into his empty highball, raising a hand to gesture for another. “Don’t mean nothing at all.”
“Bernardo plays hardball,” I say. “You don’t get what he gets by asking nicely. But he’s been good to his word to me. That counts.”
Kling has his mind made up about Bernardo. “I have my mind made up about Bernardo,” he announces, forgetting the many previous times he’s told me this. “He thinks he owns topics. Like anyone who wants to write about boats should check with him first. He’s insane. A certifiable crazy man. A horrible, horrible crazy man.”
“His checks never bounce,” I say, “Never once. I know what I know about him, and that’s enough.”
“I would like to introduce you to something,” Kling says, leaning forward, whispering theatrically, “it’s called Stockholm syndrome.”
“Fuck off,” I say, but Kling already has me laughing.
Outside, the day has slid into one of those spectrally beautiful Southern California evenings that makes you want to learn how to write songs. The sunset over the Pacific is like some kind of magical accident between red, yellow and orange. It’s a school night and it’s right in that sweet spot of building quiet, that hour or two when the night seems to be taking its first deep breath.
“Where does that son of a bitch live?” Kling slurs. “I’m gonna go and piss on that asshole’s doorknob. Swear to God I will.”
I’d deter him but the gin is doing funny things to my knees. “Beverly Hills,” I say, pointing east. “That way. Kind of a hike though.”
“You got something better to do?” Kling asks, jabbing me in the chest with one of his spindly fingers. Drunk Kling can be Pushy Kling and I’m not interested in the LAPD bouncing our drunk skulls off the sidewalk, so I just roll with it and chirp happily, “Nope! Follow me!”
“Beverly Hills,” I hear Kling snort through a fresh cigar jammed in his jaws, punctuated by the plink of his Zippo. “Figures.”
We stumble into a Rite-Aid and I buy breath mints for us both while Kling procures a bottle for each of us. Outside, he hands me mine, a skinny fifth of vodka which I empty into my flask. Highland Avenue spills gently down the hillside in an intimidatingly straight line. On the way down, a burly but clean-cut Mexican figures us for an easy mark and asks us for money. He’s surprisingly polite and suddenly I feel myself wanting to help him somehow, but Kling huffs a lungful of Cohiba at him and he fades back away from the sidewalk.
It’s a longer walk than either of us realized, though, and a few blocks later, Kling collapses onto a bus bench in front of a sign store. Before us, the familiar sight of the Hollywood First National Building, the castlelike spires already lit up for the evening. Kling wipes sweat from his eyeglasses and watches a tall, skinny man in faded jeans and a torn T-shirt, tattoos curling across every available inch of skin save for his face, pass us. He looks familiar and sure enough, Kling nods at the door of the tattoo parlor the man disappeared into.
“See that guy?” he asks. “Used to be in a band. They were big. Did videos, had some hits, the whole thing. See that tattoo parlor he just went into? He works there, bet you anything.”
“What’s his name?” I ask. Kling shrugs.
Before long, we’re up again, and we hang a right onto Hollywood Boulevard, and soon enough we’re stumbling into Beverly Hills, carefully navigating past Rodeo without trying to call too much attention to ourselves; I’d found out on a previous trip that the average merchant in this particular ZIP code loved to introduce sloppy tourist drunks to their overzealous security guards.
Another couple of turns and Bernardo’s street curved quietly in front of us, lined on one side by a series of small, gentle two-story townhomes dappled with white stucco and wood shutters, tastefully aged and carefully stained. On the other side, a small park, dotted now only by a couple of joggers bouncing off into the gloom of the evening and a pair of chitchatting mothers pushing comically overdesigned strollers so bulky one expected there to be an engine somewhere within.
“Up there,” I say, waving my sloshing flask at the building, the white stucco seeming to glow in the dusk. “Seventeen forty-five.”
“Huh,” Kling says, before taking a mighty pull from the smoldering stub of his cigar and belching a billowing plume of smoke towards it. “Son of a bitch. Is he home?”
“I called him before I left New York with you,” I said. “He didn’t answer. He’s probably out on assignment.”
Kling let out a long, dragging squawk of discontent, like an old cat coughing up something cancerous, and rattled the security gate.
“Cool it,” I say, but I already know the night has gone out of my hands and into Kling’s. “Neighbors’ll call the cops.”
“Oh, I’m just here visiting my client, and you’re visiting your old friend,” Kling says, knocking some potted plants over, looking for the key which he eventually finds. “What are they gonna do? Look at that book of his and claim you don’t know each other?” With that he slips the gate door open and I follow, my heart thumping in my chest already.
The front door doesn’t open, but the stoop is quiet and covered, and I start to catch my breath, as I peer in the front window. It’s dark and still.
“Definitely no one home,” I say. “Look, Tuesday’s paper is still sticking in his letter box. He’s out of town, I told you.”
“That may be,” Kling says, taking another hit off his own bottle, “but that don’t mean I can’t leave a message, now does it?” With that, he unzips and lets fly, urine coating the doorknob. I roll my eyes and dig in my pockets for my cigarettes.
“I’m gonna grab a bench in the park. You get busted, bail yourself out and I’ll see you in Newark.”
“Ahh, Raymond,” Kling says in an exhale of great relief, “this is me thanking you.”
Heading back down, I peek around a corner on a whim and discover a small ladder which leads to the roof. Kling, after emptying himself onto Bernardo’s door, follows me up shortly thereafter, pulling another bottle out of his pocket and passing it to me after taking a deep pull off it of his own.
The permanent twilight of an LA evening glows above us, the reddish-yellow haze of streetlights, headlights, and neon reflecting off the low canopy of clouds that have moved in off the Pacific.
“You know,” I say, trying to make my tongue work like I know it should, “you take it for granted how much light is everywhere. Nobody lives in the city knows what darkness is. Not real darkness. Ain’t no darkness in Los Angeles. Just shadows.”
“You’re a poet,” Kling says. He’s out of cigars and has moved onto black cloves which send heavy curls of smoke into the still night air, and a fragrant odor that for some reason makes my stomach grumble with hunger. “And you don’t even know it.”
“I know it,” I say. “I know I’m hungry too. Let’s head back up to the strip, grab some food.”
“In a minute,” Kling says, looking up at the sky. “I wanna just sit here. Sit here and pass gas into Bernardo’s ceiling. It would make me very happy.”
“That’s real mature,” I say, and I grimace at the sound of the words as I hear them. Kling just rolls his eyes at me.
“I don’t hate him,” Kling says. “Naw. I don’t hate him. I know how this business is. Hardball, not softball. I get it. Speaking of. I used to play with him when I lived here. Softball, I mean.”
“You mean Raymond?” I ask, and again, I grimace. Everything that’s coming out of my mouth sounds helplessly infantile. When I drink, I get self-critical, and the problem is, when I drink, I drink hard, and the hangover makes me forget how self-critical I become.
“Raymond Bernardo, yes, whose doorknob I have defiled,” Kling says. “And quite a few other guys. Mostly movie people.”
“I didn’t know that,” I say.
“Yeah,” Kling says, and now there’s something new in his voice which I can’t say I’ve heard before, something odd and almost tender. “A couple of bigshots who were actually pretty nice. The peons were the assholes. That’s how it is though.”
Kling rolls onto his side and glances up at me. “I mean, I’d just moved here. I knew a guy who knew a guy and I gotta tell you, I played two games straight through end to end before I even realized who he was. He was just the tall dude playing shortstop. That’s how this town is. You find yourself in line to buy beer and the guy in front of you is looking at his own face on the tabloids. Or whatever.”
“He bought me my first drink,” I say. The memory comes into my mind and it warms me, as though the last pull of vodka had been the first, and I can feel the goodwill glowing in my veins. “October of ’95. Just turned 21. I was good up until then, if you can believe that.”
“I read your bio on Wikipedia,” Kling grins at me. “I know your sordid history.”
“Still,” I say, continuing on through his interjection. “It meant something to me. I don’t even remember the bar’s name. Some place in Westwood. This was when they’d made the TV movie and they were sending us out on a new round of book signings ’cause they’d put out the tie-in edition.”
“To synergy,” Kling crows, and raises his bottle.
“Synergy,” I reply, and our bottles clink.
“And I remember,” I say, “how he kept everyone away from me. People always were wanting to come up to me and Raymond kept them away. He was nice about it until he had to be not nice. Couple of guys, you know the type, they decide they need to pick a fight with the famous guy from the TV and whatnot. Raymond sent them right on their way without hardly moving a muscle. Don’t even remember how he did it but he just looked at them in that way he does and said a couple of things back to them and that was it.”
Even now I can remember the glint in Raymond’s eye, that sparkle of dangerous possibility, and I remember it was the first time in a long, long time that someone else had made me feel safe. But I can’t explain this to Kling; he wouldn’t understand. He’s got plenty of experience in finding the lost, but not much in being found.
“Still,” Kling says as though he hasn’t heard me, “he’s an asshole.”
“And we’re sitting on his roof,” I say. “Life is funny like that.”
“Life is funny,” Kling nods. He raises his bottle again.
“To Raymond,” he says.
“To Raymond,” I say, and our bottles clink again. We drink and drink but Raymond, to his credit, never appears.
On the way back to the hotel, we zig and zag and find ourselves stumbling down the Miracle Mile, still ablaze with light even in the middle of the night. Expensive goods glitter and sparkle in the storefronts, from behind sheets of gleaming glass. I have to sleep; I can feel exhaustion nibbling at the edges of my vision and my stomach rolls queasily. I need food, and rest, because I have a big day at Paramount tomorrow. Well, I think as I check my phone for the time, wincing at the 2:28AM readout that glares back at me, later today.
Kling, with a hoarse shout, suddenly veers off the sidewalk, and disappears into an alleyway, a sudden burst of energy propelling him in a winding path through a series of back yards, patios and loading docks. I follow as closely as I can but the light is occasionally dimmer in spots than others, and sometimes all I can see is the white beacon of the back of his suspenders, floating in the air like some mysterious V-shape that beckons for me to follow.
Kling pushes through a shelf of hedges and we tumble down a sudden incline which opens out into a wide, empty grass field. It’s a baseball field; at the far end, the hexagonal shape of the backstop rises up and over the catcher’s box like a protective palm.
“Right here,” Kling says. “Right here’s where we used to play.” He thumps down into the grass, the bottle coming out again. I say nothing; I can’t take much more. But Kling seems to have forgotten I am there; he takes another deep pull off the bottle, lights another clove and stares at home plate.
“This is where I learned how to play the game,” he says to the field and the night. When I climb back out of the field and turn back, he is still there, smoke curling into the air above him, the crickets his only company.
“They should change the saying,” Kling is saying to the receptionist as I enter the executive’s office at Paramount. She wears her best I’m-interested-because-it’s-my-job mask as Kling pontificates. “We say, on a scale from one to ten. It should be, on a scale from Los Angeles to New York.”
The receptionist emits a sound which might conceivably be considered be polite laughter, a birdlike hoot in the back of her throat, the sound of which doesn’t emit from her pursed lips, but seems to emanate from her head like a telepathic signal.
I am hung over and operating on three hours of sleep. A cup of cheap coffee, laced with enough sugar and cream to murder a diabetic, curls into a sour ball somewhere near the bottom of my stomach. I’ve practiced the pitch so many times, and pitched it so many times, that I don’t even think about it any more. It and me are one, entwined in a sibilant curl. It is my story, after all, the one they all want to know going in, and never seem to want to know coming out.
You may not know this, but even before all this happened to me, I had a recurring dream. I dreamt that I could go back in time. I dreamt that I could go back, armed with what I know about the world now, and take it all for myself. But when I tried to take something of my own, say, to pick up a newspaper, I never seemed to be able to lift it off the ground. It seemed too heavy, or even as if it had been bolted to the earth.
People in my dreams would talk to me and I would talk to them. I didn’t walk through the world like a ghost. But I simply could not move the things I wanted to. I would huff and puff and strain and struggle but nothing ever budged for me. Not a one.
And I had this dream many times. And I had it many times after what happened as well. It was only later that I started thinking about it as a story, my story, the one I am about to tell you.
There is a man whose life has taken turn after turn in the wrong direction. We meet this man at a time when the stars never seem further away to him. He is ready for it all to end. And one day he discovers a way to step backwards through time. It is very simple, really, just a doorway he finds where before there was nothing. He finds the doorway that wasn’t there before and he walks through it.
And to be sure, he finds himself moving backwards in time. He sees himself walking into this office. He sees himself drunk on the roof with his agent. He sees himself get off a plane in Los Angeles. Each moment that mattered in every day, it’s what he moves through. He sees himself getting out of a taxi in Philadelphia. He sees himself leaving a brownstone in East Philly. He sees himself waking up from a stupor, his agent calling on the other end, shaking him out of it.
As he moves backwards through time, he realizes what is coming. He sees the darkness ahead of him, the darkness that he thought he had left behind him, but he can’t stop, he’s trapped, pulled screaming through doorway after doorway that wasn’t there before.
He sees rehab, arrest, defilement, relapse, sobriety, rehab, arrest, debasement, relapse, sobriety, rehab, arrest, sadness, relapse, sobriety, rehab, a cycle that winds its way around and around through year after year. He sees every one of his most terrible mistakes replayed before his eyes and, even worse, the steps that lead to them, in hindsight seeming like the clumsiest explorations of a man without sight, a terribly destructive blunder through people good and kind and caring who receive that which they do not deserve, and horrible people with empty souls that receive the same.
He sees, in the distance, the pop and flash of lights, and feels the stares growing, the attention, the fascination with his every move, and suddenly he is once again surrounded on all sides with people pressing in, staring, thinking they know why he is the way he is because of what they think they know about him. He sees himself exploding with rage on a talk show and he sees all that led to it, from the last time he blew up in front of the cameras, and the time before that, and the time before that.
He realizes the worst is yet to come, the very worst, and he tries to pull his knees into his chest and to dig his hands into his eyes, to even pluck his own eyes out, so he does not have to live through all this again, but he seems to have no choice and he continues hurtling through the doorways that have appeared, each opening backwards in time.
He sees himself freeing himself from the people that say they are protecting him, and it’s only now, as he moves backward, that he can see who really was protecting him and who really was simply wearing him like a fashionable accessory. The last to leave his side is Raymond Bernardo. Before that, dealers, a few distant relatives, some friends. Some more friends. Even more friends. Even more family. Even as he falls backwards through time he watches his friends and his family and the people he cares about, all faces that seem to turn on a new light in his heart, and knowing their arrival is actually their departure makes it worst of all.
He sees the most intense crush of attention coming, the very worst, the tidal wave he seemed to be trapped within forever. Beside his side, always, Raymond Bernardo. The friends and even the family can vary but it’s always Raymond Bernardo at his side. He sees that first drink, October 21, 1995, at a bar and grill in downtown Los Angeles called Dorothia’s, go back into its glass. Raymond Bernardo’s eyes don’t burn like terrifying fire, and a group of young men don’t have the urge to prove themselves.
The cameras don’t flash. The crowds pull away from him instead of rushing towards him. The family flies back together as fast as it flew apart. Accusations, threats, lies, arguments all snap back into the throats of those that open their mouths.
The cameras don’t flash. He’s not standing at a storefront window, looking at Raymond Bernardo’s book, with the picture on the cover, the picture of him holding his brother in his arms, the picture that’s now becoming famous. He doesn’t realize Raymond Bernardo’s lie, the one thing he knows about Raymond Bernardo’s story that isn’t true. He’s not living in a series of foster homes, each populated with families who look at him knowing he won’t be with them long but try, in spite of everything, to make him stay. He’s not living as a ward of the state.
The cameras don’t flash. He’s not sitting with Raymond Bernardo, night after night, telling his story. He’s not replaying the fire in his mind, over and over and over again. He doesn’t say yes to Raymond Bernardo’s proposal to write a book about his experience. He doesn’t ignore Raymond Bernardo’s many messages, his many emails, his many answering machine messages.
The cameras don’t flash. That night doesn’t happen. That night when he’s pulled screaming into the ambulance. The camera’s don’t flash and they don’t capture that one moment, the moment that echoed around the entire world like a gunshot in an empty stadium. They don’t capture the EMTs prying his fingers off his brother’s poor burned body. He doesn’t scream like his soul has been torn in half.
The fire doesn’t roar out of control and swallow everything in its path. His mother doesn’t disappear into the floor when it collapses. His father doesn’t disappear up the stairs looking for the dog, never to be seen again except as a shape in a black zippered bag. His brother doesn’t die screaming.
And yet through all this pain, all this horror, he can see the light coming, the end of the pain, and he is glad. But he’s still moving backwards and he sees, with terrible cool clarity, the moment that changed everything, the moment that Raymond Bernardo lied about, when he tampered with the light switch in his brother’s room, thinking he’d wait a few hours until he was asleep and then wake him up, dressed in a dark black cape, just to scare him senseless. Raymond Bernardo lied about it in his book; he said that the previous owner had lied about a preexisting problem with the wiring and that no one had to die. It fit the argument he went on to make over and over again, the argument that made him a moral crusader, the one for whom the truth was the highest standard to aspire to, and nothing less.
I see what only I know pass before me, and then it’s done. It’s like nothing ever happened. My parents don’t tell me good night for the last time. My brother doesn’t giggle and swing at me, fruitlessly, as I throw pieces of half-chewed carrot at him, laughing. There is no pain. There is no sadness. There is just the one moment, the one moment I remember as the last in my first life, and the first in the next.
I feel my movement slow. Only one more doorway remains and I fall through it, and I see my family and I standing on top of a large mound of sand in the middle of a forest, a telescope between us, looking up at the stars, and I hear my mother and father tell me, “I hope we get to see what’s out there one day, together, the four of us,” and I realize I am going to have the little brother I always wanted. And it’s there, in that one moment of inexplicable pain and quiet love, that I stop, finally, and I’m able to look back at the path I’ve taken, and I get a second chance.
I have nailed it this time; I know I have. It has come out of me like an aria only I know the words to. I have taken the room and made it my own. And I’m not surprised to see the glances being exchanged, the ones I always see. It doesn’t matter to me. Not now. And probably not ever again. And I know, as I leave the room, exactly what they’ll say when they call me to decline: It’s nice, but it’s just not a good fit for us, they’ll say. Because no one wants to see the story of a guilty man.
I walk out of the room and I’m feeling better. My head is clear and I’m awake, and somehow I know everything will be okay. Kling is still perched on the edge of the desk, smiling over his bow tie at the receptionist, who seems to be finally responding to him, based mostly on the fact that she’s now looking him in the eye and smiling.
“Oh, I love New York,” Kling is saying, “but Los Angeles is where I left my heart,” and he looks up at me and winks, and I realize, with a wry smile of my own, that he’s been telling the truth all along.