In the Labyrinth of Selves

[This is chapter 5 in an ongoing work of fiction.  To see chapter 4, click here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/%5D

There was a Russian oil executive’s son.  Then there was a South African who had something to do with diamond mines.  Then there was a New York investment banker.  It didn’t really matter what they did.  What was important was that they were all loaded.

Evan played the part.  Over weeks, he began to understand the fields that Anthony Hopkins ploughs.  And David Haselhof.  And Donald Trump, too.  Evan had two selves, and he had to keep track of where they were at all times.  It was like they were tethered to each other by elastic.  Sometimes the selves were one person, but at other times, his real self stepped outside and watched the other one play the part.  Sometimes Evan watched it lie.  But the nub of lying was that he had to lie from truth.  Otherwise, suspicion would fester like a sore, and was liable to be fatal.  There’s a beautiful state park in Washington called Deception Pass, a beautiful bridge that stretches over a lovely forest and beach, and whenever he had to deceive, Evan said to himself: I’m driving over Deception Pass again.

IMG_1354.jpg

“Where’d you go to school?” the investment banker asked.

“Dropped out of Princeton.”

“I mean before that.”

“Oh.  Prep school in New Hampshire.”

“Which one?”

“Exeter.”

“Oh, my kid goes there.  Kid from my first marriage, before I discovered I wasn’t a breeder.  Did you like it?”

Evan stepped outside of himself and watched his other self panic.  He had done the research, but he didn’t want to get into too much detail.

“Hated it.  Hated the teachers, hated the kids.  It would be great if I never ever thought about it again.  Ever.”

That shut him up.  Only gradually did his two selves veer together again.  Hate was great misdirection.

The investment banker loved male strippers, which made the dirty work easy.  Sometimes he disappeared into a bedroom with one.  Over eight straight evenings, John took $2.4 million from the guy, and without protestation.  Evan decided not spend his share.  He was saving for a down payment on a house, but was unclear how he would do that in cash.

Φ

The young Russian was easy, too, but then he turned around too soon during a deck switch.  Evan looked at him.  Their eyes met, and then Evan looked away.  He began to sweat.  Russian eyes were scary because Evan didn’t know where they were coming from.  They seemed frighteningly unsentimental.  He looked over at John, whose eyes were eyes averted but who was still looking.  Evan thought about what he knew about Russia, that they were an alcoholic society, that they had been ruled for years by gangsters masquerading as communists, and now, gangsters masquerading as democrats, that they had been undergoing a brain drain for years and that natural selection had probably taken its toll.  They were such a corrupt society that they had to deal with loser American millionaires like Mr. Orange Hair.

Drunk 1a

A long minute passed.  Eventually, it became clear that the Russian was drunk.  He had seen something, but he didn’t see, the brain being a funny thing.

I’m thinking too much about my mistakes, Evan thought.

Almost everything is going right.

Over Deception Pass, almost isn’t good enough.

At home, Evan kept his cash in his shoes, and when he ran out of shoes, he bought more shoes.  After a while, he stuffed cash into socks in his drawer.  He bought somebody’s surfboard and had it hollowed out, stuffed that full of cash.  Then he found a metal panel behind the refrigerator, opened up the wall, and hid a big bag in there.  It was a challenge that he hadn’t expected, where to store his cash.  Evan wasn’t going to fall into the trap of spending it all.  He had self-control.  He knew that about himself.  After five weeks, he had bought a new car, but it was a two-year-old bargain, an Acura, nothing fancy.  On game nights, he would roll up to the house in some red racecar that John had arranged for.  As soon as he could after a long game, he would take Kara out and blow a few hundred on a great evening—dinner, dancing, a penthouse room somewhere, sweating on top of her, hands gripping her wrists, iced Champagne in bed after, club sandwiches and Truffle French fries for two, the works.

Φ

One night, John built a game around a Midwestern bakery millionaire’s son.  He was impeccably handsome, like Ryan Reynolds but without the kind eyes.  Evan stared at him for a while from a distance, deconstructed his look, and finally concluded that he wasn’t really gorgeous, after all, that it was mostly just a construct built on expensive tailoring and careful dermatology, like Ivanka.  The guy called over Kara and asked for a Quaalude or two, which John had conveniently stocked up on, and Evan realized it was going to be an easy evening.  There were two other guys at the table who liked to dream big but didn’t have the deep pockets to back them up, classic losers.

Around midnight, during a break in the action, Evan walked up to Baptiste in the other room.

“Rum and Coke, hold the rum,” Evan said.

“Hey listen, she turned me down,” Baptiste said, fixing the drink.

“Who?”

“The bitch.”

“What, Kara?”

“S’what it is.”

“I’m sorry about that, bro.”

“But I got a fix for it.”

“What’s that?”

Baptiste opened his palm, and there were two pills in it.

“What is it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Baptiste said with a grin.

“What is it?”

“Let’s just say I bought it from one of Bill Cosby’s friends.”

David and Angela drunk 1a

Evan’s first self was red-faced and fuming, but his presentation self remained quiet and mildly amused.  Baptiste was cool, too, smiling the widest disgusting smile that had ever been disgustingly smiled.  Evan turned and looked out the window at nothing.  It was nothing, his public self was saying, she was just a silly bitch.

Φ

When the morning dawned, the bakery heir’s cell phone woke him up and he staggered back to the game.  Soon, the table was swimming in a cloud of smoke and their sweaty clothes stank of tobacco.  Kara pushed Sex on the Beaches hard on bakery asshole and he dug himself further and further into the hole.  To amuse himself, Evan rolled a half-dollar on the backs of his fingers.  It seemed like a smart-ass thing to do, something he might have learned from the bad boys at Exeter.

 

At 9:30 am, the two losers were in the other room with a couple strippers while the bakery boy was passed out on the sofa from too many hookers and Stolichnaya.  Evan looked at the kid’s face.  It was like seeing track marks on him, a face full of affluence and pampering, pink cheeks and perfect hair.  He didn’t feel sorry for him at all.  The kid had never had a day’s struggle in his life, that much was clear.  Growing up, Evan had had to save up for magic, tricks that cost $15 and $20 and each purchase felt like you were sacrificing something for it, a pound of flesh or something, but this guy could have bought Magic City, Inc., with his weekly allowance.  He was pissing it away.  Evan had no sympathy for bladder problems like that.  He didn’t know if it was affluenza or self-destruction or just a urinary infection, but Evan wove these moments into a narrative, like what he was doing was kind of like, not exactly like, but in a way like class warfare, like Karl Marx or FDR or Bernie Sanders.  He was doing a good deed.

Body art 1c

“I wann’ sleep for coupla hours.”

“What about coming back tomorrow night?”  John asked.

“Naw, sleep for coupla hours.”

“You guys up for that?”

The other two guys had been eyeing the scion’s cash all night and morning.

“If he can take it, I can take it.”

“I’m with him.”

“Fuckin’ A.”

While bakery scion slept, Evan closed his eyes in one of the bedrooms.  It was a gorgeous high bed with a beautiful bedspread.  It yawned before him.  Four hours later, he woke up to discover that he worked his way under the sheets fully clothed and still wearing shoes.  The sheets were fabulous.

“I never had a son,” he heard John say.

Evan looked up and spotted John in the doorway eyeing him, he didn’t know for how long he had been doing it.  Then he rubbed his eyes and looked at him more closely.

“Why didn’t you?”

“Hate kids.  They steal your life away.  There are a few I’d like to have killed, Jesus.  But even so, it’s nice to have somebody grown who knows what the score is.  Somebody who’s blood.  Somebody who isn’t a fucking round roast.  And somebody who can muck cards, if the occasion arises.  Where’d you learn to do that?”

“From books and other guys.”

“Not from your father.”

“No.”

“I’d like to meet those other guys.”

“It took me ten years or more.”

“No denying you got a talent.  You don’t take after your Mom, that’s for sure.  She was devoid of talent, even in the kitchen.  Hell, she could burn water.”

“She’s never been a good cook.”

“Listen, we’re going to do see how deep we can bury this guy, all right?  Wake up and suit up.”

Evan sat up on the edge of the bed and rubbed his eyes again.  Taking after people was a naval to gaze into.  It was like having a twin, like looking into a mirror and seeing something familiar, or even something that you hated.  It was like Kara and Kendra wrestling with each other.  Evan had John’s knowing grin, but he didn’t know whether that was venality or physiology.  A knowing grin seemed to be an iceberg, with seven-eighths under the water.

Maybe I hold back like that, Evan thought, splashing water onto his face and looking into the mirror.  Or maybe holding back is a reason to go to hell, too.

Φ

When they all knocked off at 3 pm, Evan sidled up to Kara.

“Don’t drink anything that Baptiste gives you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just promise me.”

“I promise.  But why?”

“Have you taken any drinks from him last night or today?”

“Just hemlock,” she said with a grin.

“I’m serious.”

“All righty, then.”

“Have you?”

“Just water.  Only water.”

“Come crash at my place.”

“What, you want us to babysit your cash?”

“Something like that.”

Evan started walking away, and then it dawned on Kara.

“What, you mean Baptiste….”

Their eyes met.  She got it.

Φ

Three weeks later, Evan showed up for a game with a Brazilian soccer star’s brother.  He walked in the front door, saw that the front room was empty, and then walked into the other room to get a Diet Coke at the bar.  He stopped.  Stared at a prop dummy hanging from the ceiling.  One of Baptiste’s practical jokes.  It was hanging from a strong reinforced trestle that held up a heavy curtain.  From the neck.  Wearing jeans and a sweatshirt.

Evan called John’s cell phone.  He discovered that he was out of breath when he talked.

“Where are you?” Evan finally managed to utter.

“Hardware store.  Why?”

“Listen, you better get to the house fast.  There’s a body hanging behind the bar.”

“You’re at the house?”

“Yeah.”

There was a long pause.

“What the fuck are you doing at the house?”  John finally said.

“We got a game tonight.”

“I texted everybody.  The game’s off.”

“My phone’s been off.”

“I told you never to turn your fucking phone off.”

“No you didn’t.”

“Don’t contradict me.  Get the fuck out of there.  Now.”

John hung up on him.  Evan looked down and stared at the phone.  One self wanted to follow orders, but his other self wanted one last look.  The tension between the two made his heart beat like he was a scared bird or something.

He said to get the fuck out of there.

Nobody will know.

This isn’t going to end well.

Everything will be fine.

It took him a minute or two, but Evan floated over to the bar again.  Looked at the body closely.  It was a strange feeling.  He wasn’t used to seeing bodies dangling next to him.  It was an intense feeling, like his other self, the innocent self that believed everything would be all right, were hanging up there.  Then he looked more closely.  Somehow, something wasn’t right.  He moved behind the body.  Suddenly, he noticed.  The hands were handcuffed behind him.  He drifted back in front to look at the face, which was tilted upwards so far that he couldn’t be sure.  But he knew.

Φ

The newspaper reported that Baptiste’s body had been found in his studio apartment in Henderson.  Death certificate said the same thing.  Inquest revealed that Baptiste had been depressed for years and was taking medication for it, that a pharmacopeia of illicit drugs had been discovered in his apartment, and that he had been selling them to junior high schoolers.  As if.

The games went on, though, no big deal.  Money kept flowing like a dirty river.  Kara kept serving drinks and drugs.  The new bartender had the unlikely name of Boaz von Diebenkorn, a smiley Austrian chap with bad teeth.  After introductions, Evan wandered away, but John caught up with him.

“Tough about Baptiste.”

“Yeah.”

Evan looked at John, straight at him, even though he was afraid to, and there was something in his eyes that Evan had seen before but hadn’t correctly identified.  He hadn’t realized how malignant it was.  The first time he had seen it, it was roguish and charming, like Bogie, the lone wolf with a heart of gold, but now, it was like the pretty mask had been torn off and it was a wolf underneath and Evan tried his best to act like a good boy, I won’t tell, I won’t rat, don’t kill me, tethered by a thread above Deception Pass.

“Do I need to ask the question?”  John said in a low voice.

“No.”

“Okay, listen to me closely.”

“All right.”

John raised his finger sternly in front of Evan’s eyes.  It was as good as waving a hunting knife.

“You.  Don’t.  Steal.  From.  A mark.  The bakery guy was passed out and it was an easy roll, just a few thousand, but that wasn’t Baptiste’s juice, baby, it was mine.”

Five Meanings of I Love You

[This is Chapter 3 of an ongoing work of fiction.  Chapter 2 is here.]

1. I want to be closer to you

Evan had learned something about his mother that had robbed him of his smile, Kara couldn’t figure out exactly what, she wished to God she knew, it killed her that she didn’t know.

“What is it?  You can trust me.”

“I know I can, but…”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“…but I need to sit on this one for a bit.”

“That’s what love is all about.”

“I know.”

“Then why don’t you tell me?”

“It’s just that—”

“Is it something about me?”

“No, it’s just that some things take time to process.”

The look on his face broke her heart.

It was like the ancient Rapa Nui written language.  They have ancient writings, but nobody knows what it means because the Spanish conquistadores killed all of the Rapa Nui scholars by 1888.  Today, we look at the writings, but they’re absolutely impenetrable.  That was sometimes how Evan seemed to her.

There were so many things that Kara wanted to do with Evan.  Go on a train trip with him.  The idea of bumpy train sex made her wet.  Life was all about rhythm, she knew, figure out how his rhythms counterpointed with her rhythms and make a song, and whether that song was a good song or a tired-ass clunker.  Rhythms explained everything.  Once, she had stood onstage with her lead guitarist playing a solo behind her, and just from the rhythm, she realized that his girlfriend had just broken up with him.  She turned around and looked into his eyes incredulously.

Really, her eyes said.

Yes, he nodded.

It was all there in the rhythm: details and concepts, math and emotion, pink and zigzaggy and booyah, everything.

The next morning, Kara wrote up a list of other things she wanted to do with Evan, too.  She so liked lists.

  • Hike in Red Rock Canyon till we’re knackered.
  • Sing him my best songs. In the living room.
  • Not talk about coke ever.

IMG_2102 smaller

2.      If I can’t love, I can at least pretend to love

After a set in the casino, someone with a loving face came right up to Kara and killed her with kindness.

Oh my goodness gracious, your voice is such a blessing.  You songs open up my heart, I can’t tell you how much.  We’re from Indiana.

But, Kara thought as she showed her lovely smile, she still lived in a crummy apartment and drove a crummy car.  Sometimes she heard somebody on television, some real person in an interview, who said to a girl, I will transform everything, and he did.  The guy who married Mariah Carey.  The guy who married Celine Dion.  The guy who wrote songs for Ke$ha.

I want to meet one of those guys, she thought.  I could pretend to love him, too.

Sometimes Kara wracked her brain for something that would change things—a new song, a new band, new chops, a new writing partner.  But the thought that tortured her was—What if I need a new heart?

3.      I have the right to take what I want

It was 8 at night and Kara was on her way to surprise Evan at his apartment, but for some reason, she veered into a Catholic church.  Inside, it was so empty and shadowy that it made her think of an ancient Italian cathedral she’d read about once that had a splinter from the True Cross.  She couldn’t imagine being that close to Christ.  She walked up the aisle and the tile echoed off her heels, the proof of her own aloneness.  Kara had never felt close to Him, only far away, so far away that He’d always been nothing more than a vague concept.  Written on a piece of paper.  Stored in a vault.  Bolted to the bottom of the sea.  On Jupiter.

The sound of her own heels hurt her so much that she started to cry.

There was a young priest there.  He patted Kara on the back and said, There, there.  They ended up at Ichabod’s for a late dinner, and then at her place at 1:30 am.  They nestled together on the sofa and he was saying, I’ll tell you everything, and then he did, not like Evan, who wouldn’t talk.  The priest was young and handsome like Jesus, but humble and kind like no handsome man ever is.  When he took off his clothes, Kara saw he had a scar on his side.

Is that where the centurions stabbed you? Kara joked.

He became solemn and spoke softly.

You know, there’s a lance in St. Peter’s Basilica that they claim is the lance that the soldiers used to stab Jesus.

Really.  You know, I didn’t sign up for a sermon.

What I mean is, there’s another one in Paris.  And other ones in Vienna and Krakow and Istanbul.  So don’t worry about feeling far from God. 

Ah.

Kara pushed her head into his chest.  There was so much consolation in his attitude towards despair, as if despair were simply proof that we can be happy.  She made love to his despair more than anything else.  Afterwards, their conversation settled upon their pasts.  He talked about trying to please his Mexican father, who was so obsessed with not going to hell that his son wondered what horrible thing he had done.  His father had indeed done a horrible thing.  One day, he discovered what that sin was: him.  That’s what made him join the priesthood.

It was my way of committing suicide, he said.

Kara talked about what was consuming her, the old love that was ruining everything.

Harris left me.

Oh no.  Tell me what happened.

November.

What, you mean…last November?

Yes.  I always think about him when I’m making love to Evan.  Sometimes I start crying when he’s making love to me and I have to make an excuse, like I say, ‘Oh, I’m only crying because it’s so awfully beautiful.’ 

You do what you have to do.

Exactly.

I mean, I do what I have to do.

Of course, I paid her back…

Who?

My sister.  She stole Harris.  She dug a grave in my heart.

I’m sorry. 

My boyfriend Evan is a complete mystery to me.  I wish to God there were an Evan-to-Kara dictionary.

I’m sorry.

It’s so beautiful that you apologize.  I wish everybody would apologize to me.  All the time.

I’m a great apologizer.  Give me a sin and I’ll apologize for it.  I’ll apologize for Saddam Hussein’s sins.  I’ll apologize for the weather. 

We’re a great pair.  We fit into each other like puzzle pieces. 

Hey, you want to do some more blow?

IMG_2026 smaller.jpg4.      Don’t blame me, I’m a mess

Five days later, Kara made a list.

  • Organize papers
  • Do delicates
  • Never go back to church ever

Kara loved making lists.  She did it because her life was a shambles.  She made lists and she sang for the same reason: so that she could live with the chaos.  Singing elevated the mess into art.  She’d heard that in ancient Greek, chaos comes from the word sing, which made complete sense to her.

5.      I must control everything

Kara was out shopping with her friend BabyLynn, who was a costume designer for performers on the Strip.  They were eating frozen yogurt in the mall and talking about late paychecks.  One thing they had in common was they both worked in entertainment, and both their employers commonly delayed payment.  Another thing was sobriety.

So how are you doing with your twelve steps? BabyLynn asked.

Kara had forgotten that BabyLynn was her AA sponsor, they had so much fun together.

I don’t know.

That doesn’t sound good.

I mean, look, the Big Book says to be “searchingly honest.”  Why can’t we just be honest?  Isn’t that a bit obsessive, I mean, like, trying too hard, to be “searchingly honest”?

You are too much, Kara, that’s why I love you.  What brought that up?

Oh, I guess I’m having a little trouble with control issues.

Like what?

You really want to know?

Yes.

I’ll be searchingly honest, then, all right?

Okay.

Okay, here it is.  I want Evan to talk to me.  It kills me that he holds back secrets from me.

You think he’s cheating on you?

Could be.  All men are dogs.

What are you going to do about it?

And then Kara began to cry and people at other tables started peering over their shoulders.

I just…I just….

What?

I hate myself for loving him so much.

[Chapter 4 is here: https://whathappenstous.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/55-las-vegas-days/]

His Father’s Secret Journal

In 1990, when I was first becoming obsessed with the curious art of magic, I asked an agent her opinion about who was the best kids’ magician in Los Angeles.  She said, hands down, that Andrew Frost was.  So, since I was an ambitious sonuvabitch, I set about to insinuate myself into Frost’s good graces.

David Groves with Afro ca 1979At a party in the San Fernando Valley, I met Frost and Jackie, his girlfriend of more than a decade.  Smalltalk was small and insignificant until I mentioned that I’d just spent the previous ten years as a full-time journalist for such national magazines as Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, McCall’s, Psychology Today, and many others.

“Wow,” he said.

“Whoa,” Jackie said.

“See, I’m dyslexic,” Andrew said, “so being able to master words like that is, like, wow.”

It was an instant entree into his world.  It was the beginning of something that sometimes resembled mentorship, sometimes resembled friendship, sometimes resembled dysfunction, and sometimes resembled a clown car soapbox derby.

Frost was not a polished character.  In fact, he was immersed in a depth of chaos that I had never experienced before.  He lived in the back unit of a house in Glendora.  His living area was a mess, detritus scattered across the floors, many of it bits and pieces of magic tricks.  It was like the room of a child whose mother had never made him clean it.  If you looked, you might easily find a stray ace of hearts or even half a rubbed-banded deck, a dirty sleeping bag smushed into the corner, empty liters of Coke, the white caps tossed somewhere unknown, and a stack of bootleg VHS pornos that had fallen from a shelf and never been picked up.  Plus, he never seemed to catch up on his dishes.

Our bunny Lulufifi.

Outside his window, his rabbits and doves lived in a chicken-wire cage perched above the overgrown lawn to keep them away from predators.  His house was nestled next to the San Bernardino foothills, and so mountain lions and other predators would sometimes cruise down in the dead of night.  Once, a predator scared the animals so badly that a rabbit died of fright.  Another time, he tried to breed rabbits and succeeded too well, and there were too many bunnies to fit in the cage.  So he just let them run free, bunnies of various colors hopping everywhere.

“We don’t need ’em all,” he said.  “Most of ’em’ll end up mountain lion food.”

What I remember about him most now was his voice, which was deep and slurred.  It had something to do with his dyslexia, because he slurred his words even when I knew he wasn’t drinking.  Every so often, a client would complain to a booking agent that the magician had showed up drunk, although they weren’t complaining about his behavior or any alcoholic aroma, only about his slurred speech.  They didn’t much complain about his shows, either, because they were always entertaining.

“Wuzza somethin’ I said?” he would sometimes suddenly say.

Every so often in the middle of a conversation, he would drop that particular bomb.  It took me days to unpack it.  It was a phrase that implied that you were attacking him in some way, and your natural response was to back-pedal: Did I offend?  What did I say?  I didn’t mean to offend.  In fact, it wasn’t about anything that you said, he was just determined to make you back-pedal, and for no other reason than to maintain his dominance.

Jim Skaggs and David Groves ca 1995 blurred 2a

One Monday after a weekend of kids’ shows, I was sitting with Andrew in his squalor talking tricks.  Across the room, he was making a bootleg copy for me of an instructional magic videotape when suddenly, he jumped out of his chair.

“Oh my God,” he said.

“What?” I asked.

He didn’t answer, just ran out of the room and out to the garage.  He walked up to one of the dove-vanishing boxes that he used during his kids’ magic shows.  When he performed the effect, he would lift up the lid and suddenly, as if by magic, the bird inside had transformed into a rabbit.  In fact, the bird had been safely transported to a secret compartment, which was narrow and dark.  After the show, when the audience was safely out of sight, the magician would remove the bird from the secret compartment, but Andrew had forgotten.  Andrew opened up the compartment, and sure enough, there was the dove.  Thankfully, the bird was still alive.

Formal promo shot

I followed Andrew around like a poodle for one reason: He had the secrets.  He had studied the secrets since he was 10, and now, at 27, possessed a bona fide repertoire. In magic, the secrets are golden, and can cost you thousands of dollars.  I had no money, having spent the previous ten years writing for the top magazines in the country.  That dove box alone cost $500, but even just simple instructional videos were expensive, as well, running $40 per.  Books started at $40 and ran up to $300 for the most highly prized ones.

The bowling ball production costs $1,000.

This coin trick costs $1,000, too.

I once paid $90 for a book that explained a trick that I desperately wanted, but when I sat down with it, I discovered that the writing was hopeless and I have never performed it the way it’s explained in the book, so that was $90 down the drain.  Here’s how I perform that trick today:

But more than the money, having perspective on those secrets is even more valuable.  So I followed Andrew around and considered every word that proceedeth from his mouth to be a pearl.  The pearl necklace that he eventually gave me consisted of both secrets and a philosophical approach to the secrets.

Here are some of the tricks that Andrew taught me, performed not by him, but by other people who had the secrets.

I was thrilled.  The magic was starting to happen in my hands.  At the same time, though, there was Andrew’s chaos to contend with.  To me, the road to success was orderly.  You learned things by applying yourself.  You succeeded by putting things together in a logical manner.  You memorized.  You studied.  You had Aha! moments in the shower and on the 405 freeway.

But to Andrew, order, logic, and studying were for chumps.  As much as possible, he thought, you should try to get away with things.  Don’t rehearse, just perform things on the fly and deal with the mistakes in the moment, the moment was everything.  Don’t read instructions, just do it.  Don’t memorize a script, because that would make your patter sound wooden and unspontaneous.  Don’t write your own jokes, just steal them from others.  Let your life fall apart and get your rocks off on the mess that lies around you.

I wondered if he was right.  After all, Einstein never combed his hair.  Jack Kerouac and the beatniks lived in squalor.  So many legendary musicians–Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ginger Baker, James Taylor, Kurt Cobain–created great music out of heroin addiction.  Andrew was a dyslexic, and I wondered if that, too, might be a source of genius.

At first, I tried to see how much disorder I could stand.  I adopted Andrew’s priorities.  Magic was on the highest shelf and cleaning didn’t even have a shelf.  The inside of my car became a mess, and unless I had a date, I didn’t care.  I started considering all the time we spend cleaning and arranging things as wasted time.  Doing the dishes, picking up your clothes, making the bed, putting away the iron, sponging off the kitchen table, everything.  I started to see my chaos as a whole new world.  I felt that, in some ways, it opened up new intellectual vistas to me.

But at the same time, I had doubts.  A voice deep within me told me that Andrew’s chaos was simply the result of family dysfunction.

I remember the day he confessed to me that he was cheating on Jackie, his girlfriend of 10 years, who was a lovely rebel who idolized him.  He was now secretly sleeping with his landlady Jennifer, the woman who lived in the main house.  Both Jackie and Jen worked as clowns, and were friends.  On Mondays, after a weekend of kids’ shows, they would all pal around together in Andrew’s place, laughing and having fun.  This continued even after Andrew started sleeping with Jen.

It became even more complicated one day when I came over and witnessed a strange scene.  As usual, Andrew was sitting in the center of the dining room, the center of the vortex, while Jackie and Jennifer chatted amiably, talking about their weekend’s shows.  Jackie, of course, was clueless about the infidelity, and Jen was playing dumb, hoping she would catch the big fish in the end.  And all the while, the big fish, Andrew, was talking on the phone with another woman that he had secretly slept with a couple nights earlier.  Everybody was screwing over everybody else, but Andrew was doing the most screwing of all.

One day, Andrew himself offered up a psychological self-diagnosis that rang a bell of recognition.

“You know, so many of the tricks that I choose to do involve tearing or cutting things,” he said.  “I tear up a newspaper and restore it.  I tear up a playing card and restore it.  I cut up a rope and restore it.  I just love destroying things!”

Here’s a video of one of those torn-and-restored tricks, performed by someone else.

And another.

But that diagnosis only told me what, not why.  That all-important why wasn’t explained until Andrew started talking about his father.  It was a sad story.  The man used to earn six figures as a computer programmer, but had lost his job due to drug use.  Every so often, I had seen Andrew’s father.  This sad white-haired man would drive over when he was low on money, shuffle up the driveway, ask for money, and Andrew could never say no.

“This is a loan, all right?” Andrew said, handing over five C notes.

“Oh yeah, I’ll pay you next Friday.”

“Next Friday.”

“Definitely.”

Next Friday would come and go, and the next time Andrew saw him, his father was broke and would need more money.  And Andrew would give it to him, over and over again.  His girlfriend Jackie told me that the old man was into him to the tune of 10k.

“He drove up with bald tires on his car,” Andrew said in his defense.  “What could I do?  I don’t want him to have a blowout on the freeway because of me.”

Eventually, Andrew realized what everyone else knew, that repayment of the money wasn’t coming at all, so he started asking for repayment in kind.  Since his father had worked in the tech field, he repaid him in computers.  To Andrew, it was almost as good as money.

One day, I came over to Andrew’s house and found him huddled over one of those computers with intense interest.

“You gotta see this,” Andrew said, a solemn tone to his voice.

A bronze statue in Bewley's Oriental Cafe

In one of the computers, Andrew had discovered a personal journal that his father had kept.  It recounted his exploits with prostitutes in the San Fernando Valley in suburban Los Angeles.  He had documented in great detail how he had picked up prostitutes, what acts they had performed on him, and how much it had cost.  There were dozens of girls.  It was like reading the unexpurgated diary of an addict.  And suddenly, he realized: That was where all his money had been going.

One encounter particularly riveted us.  It involved a 15-year-old prostitute he had picked up on a Sunday morning.  At this point, Andrew’s father had to be in his sixties.  She had taken him to her parents’ house.  While they were away at church, they had engaged in various sexual acts described in copious detail, all the time worrying whether her parents were going to come home.  Then he paid her and fled the scene.

Andrew was devastated, to say the least.  He was disappointed in his father’s reprehensible behavior.  He was disappointed in so many things.  And as we talked it out, Andrew’s emotions hanging in the air like ozone, everything suddenly fell into place.  It was absolutely clear.  I knew exactly from whence Andrew’s dysfunction had derived.

Very soon, my accomplishments grew in the art of magic.  I started following another magician around like a poodle, and this one was the bona fide world champion who had high standards for his life.  My stage repertoire grew, as did my abilities to manipulate a crowd.  I started wrapping street audiences on the Third Street Promenade around my little finger, holding out my hat and collecting dollar bills.  I started performing at corporate parties for adults, not just children.  I began reading minds.  I wrote a magic book about the street–Be a Street Magician!: A How-To Guide–and published it.  I began traveling around the world lecturing on the subject of magic, first to the Midwest (Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma), then to the South (the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas), then to the East Coast (D.C., New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut), and then overseas (Hong Kong, Sydney, Melbourne, Dublin).

 

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My knowledge grew, as well, until I possessed a closeup repertoire that stretched to several hours and a stage repertoire nearing two hours.

And as my abilities grew, Andrew mysteriously began to make himself scarce, almost in an inverse proportion.  He would rarely return calls.  He would make an appointment to get together and then not show.  It was like he wanted to keep me in the subordinate position that I no longer occupied.  The more I chased him, the more he fled from me.

Once, we were booked at an event together, and afterwards, we talked.  By that time, he was no longer working full-time as a magician, but had landed a regular job as a tech advisor for some widget company, doing magic only on the weekends.  By that time, he had been with Jennifer for nearly 10 years and they owned a house together, although not a wedding ring. He was a kind stepfather, too, although the kids weren’t turning out too well.

“Show me some magic,” I said, trying to conjure up old times.

Instead, he pulled out his cell phone and showed me a photograph.  It was of a young female employee of his.  The woman was nude, her tongue out and an erotic expression on her face.  Then he showed me pictures of another young woman, also cheesecaking it up for the camera.  He no longer had any magic to show, only this.

[All names in this article have been changed.]

The Whole Damn Thing

The other evening at the Magic Castle, I performed for a lovely young couple from Perth, Australia.They had flown into Los Angeles for their honeymoon and were dressed to the nines to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the magical capital of the world.

They were both beaming.  She was a pretty and chatty blonde.  She seemed like the kind of woman who isn’t quite beautiful, but through highlights and makeup, has turned into a fair approximation of it.  Most importantly, though, I could see some intelligence peeking out from behind the mask.  He was on the short side with red cheeks and a good physique.  Peeking out from behind his mask, I caught a bit of an inferiority complex, but he was charming, nonetheless.  I did a couple tricks for them, including a romantic piece of magic that gave them a souvenir.

“This,” I told them, holding up their signed playing card with which I had accomplished the impossible, “will remind you of this moment, 50 years from now, and you’ll say to each other, ‘Honey, remember this? It’s from that time on our honeymoon when we went to that Magic Castle place.’”

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It was so sweet.

“But how did you do it?” the woman asked.

“A magician never tells,” I said. 

“But I just don’t understand.  It was two cards, and now it’s one….”

But then, all in a moment, it all came crashing down.

“Just stop talking,” the man said.

“What?” she said.

“Just stop talking. You make yourself sound like an idiot.”

It was an extraordinary moment in which I saw everything converging at once: love, marriage, honeymoon, and divorce, the whole damn thing, all in a single moment.

Adventure on Road X (part 11)

[Continued from a previous post]

It all started with a baby.

027 (2)In the spring of 1956, Donald and Sally Groves had hearts that were fuller than they could ever imagine.  They had both had difficult childhoods and gotten tangled up in their own pain and anger along the way as a runner might trip over his own shoelaces.  But finally now, holding a baby in their arms, for the first time in their lives, they had found themselves.  They knew they were doing something good and pure.  They had brought a baby into the world and they were going to give him all the love that they had never received.

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Sally had witnessed violence in her household.  Her father regularly hit her mother.  Her mother hated the pain, but in a strange way, loved it, too.  It made her feel alive in some primal way, so in some ways, she provoked it.  In fact, she was filled with primal feelings.  She put her daughter’s feet on the stove, ostensibly for coming home five minutes late from school, but actually, for beginning to grow up.  It was a confusing sin for the daughter.  Sally’s father had gone out with other women.  He longed for adulation and fame, as his grandson later would, but the progression of a Mexican entertainer in the thirties was by tradition stunted.  For his violence at home, he was rightly charged with assault and battery.  When Sally’s older brother grew old enough, he beat up the father for his violence.  As a reward, the brother was sent away from home to CCC camp.  It was a confusing and enraging childhood.  Heroes were punished, beauty was damned, pain was pleasure, pleasure was never quite pleasure, and truth was buried in the backyard along with the dead cat.

But now, with this child, it was all over.  The new baby wasn’t going to go through any of that.

I wasn’t going to go through any of that.  And I didn’t.

Sally Groves with her new babyMy parents took a 2-week trip, the baby in tow, to the Midwest to visit Don’s relatives.  Don’s grandfather Charles had died six years earlier, and his widow Dora had moved in with her son Earl in the oil town of Ponca City, Oklahoma.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Sally with her son in 1956 at Dinosaur Park, located in Rapid City, South Dakota.

It was an eye-opening trip.  I don’t remember it, of course, but we visited the Black Hills of South Dakota. We drove through Oklahoma and were refused service at a diner because of my mother’s skin color.  And when we reached Earl’s house, my parents were stunned to learn another ugly fact: The old lady didn’t want to see them.

Dora lived in a back house on Earl’s property, and she wouldn’t listen to reason.

“Why did she have to marry a Mexican woman?” she told Earl.  “I refuse to give my approval to a dirty Mexican and her dirty son.”

My parents were terribly disappointed and hurt.  They had traveled halfway across the country, after all, just to be refused at Dora’s doorstep.

After that, they looked for solace with Don’s great-aunt Caroline Allen, who lived in Colorado.  When he was in the service in 1948 – ’51, spending several bloody months fighting in the bloodiest battles of the Korean War, Aunt Caroline was the only one who wrote him letters.  Don always thought fondly on Aunt Caroline, and when the baby came along, they gave her last name to their child as a middle name.  But astonishingly, Aunt Caroline disliked my mother because of her race, too.  Caroline offered a chilly reception, and they went away terribly sad.

In the years that followed, my family looked back on that incident many times, and it eventually became a defining moment for them.  They settled into the comfortable suburbs and Sally hardened herself to those who had rejected her.  Thereafter, my mother referred to all Midwestern locations as “the South.”  To her mind, they weren’t worth visiting because they were all racists.  (There was much more to this story, which I’ve written about in a previous blog post.)

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Many years passed.  In that time, the civil-rights movement transformed the country.  Racism began to be considered as an abomination, no longer the status quo that it once had been.  The child grew up not knowing what crucible he had been born into.  A whole new generation began intermarrying–brown with white, yellow with brown, red with white, and all shades in between, even black.  The n word became forbidden.  Laws changed.  Blacks moved into white neighborhoods.  In the 1950s, my Mexican Uncle Ray had been banned from purchasing a house in Paramount, but his son lived long enough to be glad that he had been turned down.  Hispanics were elected to Congress, state office, and even became movie stars–Freddy Prinze, J. Lo, George Lopez, and many others.  And finally, as a crowning glory, a black was elected President of the United States.

It is now 2013 and the baby has grown into adulthood.  A couple months ago, he was visiting Kansas on a genealogical quest and had stopped in at the local library to peruse the old newspaper archives.  It was at that moment, sitting at the reference desk, that he discovered an odd fact.  He stared for a long time at the article from the Hutchinson News-Herald that the librarian had given him.  It didn’t fit in with anything that he knew about the situation.

Dora Groves obit date

Dora, as you’ll recall, was Don’s grandmother, who had refused to see her own great-grandson because he had Mexican blood.  But there’s something strange about this obituary: It was published on September 25, 1955, reporting that Dora had died the previous Friday, September 23.  That was eight months before their trip to “the South,” and in fact seven days before he was even born.

When I returned to Los Angeles, I questioned my mother about it.  But she was adamant.

“Your Dad’s grandmother wouldn’t see us,” Mom said.  “It was Grandma Dora.  She was living in the back house at Earl’s place.”

I showed her the obituary again.  She looked at it for a long time, puzzling over it.  Finally, she looked up at me with confusion in her eyes.

“Then who was living in that back house?” she said.

You Didn’t Hear Anything

Writing a novel is truly a journey of discovery.  And in the writing of my most recent novel, I came to realize that I had something to say about the entire espionage apparatus in this country that I hadn’t heard talked about before.  I wrote it, then rewrote it, then rewrote it again about 80 times.  I vacillated between obscurity and obviousness, iconography and narrative, Carl Jung’s symbols and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.

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In the story, Cat and Dante are hiding from a man who works in government surveillance who is trying to kill her.  They have gone off the grid and taken up residence in the tunnels beneath an upstate New York university.

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Chapter 18

After a bad night’s sleep, Cat went to bed the next evening at 11.  A couple hours later, Cat felt Dante squeeze her foot three times to wake her up, as he sometimes did when she had something scheduled.  When she turned her head and looked, no one was there.

Above ground, all was quiet.  One campus policeman was watching television 1,000 yards away while another slept two rooms away in a lounge.  Finally, Cat took a walk through the tunnels to clear her head.  During the day, there were always little noises—clicks inside electrical boxes, the rush of water through pipes—but at night, it all went quiet.  Cat made herself a cup of chamomile, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and walked blindly through the tunnels.  Holding her cup of tea, she savored the timeless quality of the night, thinking about nothing in particular except perhaps the hopeless pursuit of sleep, when she turned a corner that she had turned a thousand times before.  She stopped short and dropped her cup; it shattered on the concrete walkway.

Sitting next to the opening in the ancient brick wall was now a red chair.  It had never been there before.  After the cup shattered on the concrete, she realized that there was a small possibility that Dante had put it there, but somehow, she sensed that he hadn’t, and in fact, when she asked him the next morning, he said he had spent the night at his microbiologist girlfriend’s place.  It changed everything in the tunnel.  Cautiously, she approached it with little steps, glancing around to see if she was being watched.  Finally, she reached it and placed a hand on it.  It was a wooden straight-backed chair that looked like it had been painted over several times, the final red coat popping red in a way that made it seem like a dream chair.

Suddenly, Cat heard a quiet noise inside the brick enclosure, a place that should not be emitting any noise at all, and smelled a familiar odor.  It was a living odor, though, not something that was long dead.  Cautiously, she stepped up on the chair and reached herself up to peer inside.  She could see only shadows, and at first, nothing was moving.  There seemed to be places in the dark where someone could stand, although the rest of it was piled high with skulls and skeletal remains.  Then suddenly she saw movement.  The idea that someone might be inside there was inconceivable.

“Hello?” she said.

Suddenly, Cat heard a frightening noise in the other direction, like something tall and heavy falling to the ground, and yanked her head around in alarm.  She didn’t say anything, and something came into her head but it was a thought, nothing more: What’s that?

“It’s nothing.”

The sound of his voice shook her deeply and she nearly fell off the chair.  Cat hadn’t heard that voice since he had passed away eleven years earlier.

“What are you….?”

“You didn’t hear anything.”

“I did hear it.”

“You’re always making things up.”

Normally, Cat would be fleeing, but there was something impossible about it all that made her screw up her courage and tell herself that it wasn’t happening, that perhaps the conversation existed only inside her head, although she couldn’t for the life of her see how.  She knew she was awake.  She knew there was no one in the tomb.  Perhaps it was a trick, like hanging a spoon on your nose.  She heard the noise behind her again.

“Why are you running?” he said.  “If you’re running, you must be guilty.”

“My God, I don’t have a life anymore.  I have someone else’s.  Some girl who looks like me and talks like me but isn’t me.”

“You should have had my father.  He hit my cat in the head with a rake.  It crawled under the house and wailed all night till it died.  Would you rather I had done that to your cat?”

“God I feel like that cat.”

“Oh stop feeling sorry for yourself.  You’re not that important.”

There was a slight rattling of bones and skulls and she saw the silhouette moving to the right, the glow of a cigarette moving with it, and so realized that familiar smell, for in her mind, the smell of burning tobacco had always been inextricably tied to the idea of father.  In life, her father had had bags under his eyes, but they had derived more from overwork and smoking and bad thoughts than from genuine aging.  He was disappointed at what he hadn’t accomplished in his life but had buried the disappointment in the backyard.  It had taken a huge amount of digging.  His harangues often boiled down to digging.  He had beefs.  He had blamed immigrants and welfare mothers.  That was also digging.  He had lived with his wife in a vodka bottle.  That was some serious digging.  Everyone was his enemy.

“All I want is not to be chased anymore.”

The falling sound echoed again.  She turned around, trying to locate where the sound was coming from.  Was it above ground?  Was it part of the machinery in the physical plant?  Was it in her head?  She turned and faced him.

“Tell me what it is.”

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

He turned in profile, the bones clacking again, and she could feel his intensity like a plate that was too hot to touch.  A stepdaughter is like a gift that a stray dog leaves on your lawn.  She didn’t hear those words, exactly, but that was the feeling.

“It’s the sound of your body hitting the asphalt, dear, when that man who borrowed my gun shoots you dead.”

She was a patsy.  She dropped the rifle.  It wasn’t hers.  There was a man with a rifle on the grassy knoll, but that would be dismissed as mere conspiracy.  Nobody would ever know the truth.

To download a copy of What Happens to Us for only $3.99, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00DSSN5SU.

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