There is a cassowary bone dagger, a Nazca pot, a blowgun with darts, and a curious skull I had found on a beach in Morocco. Buttressing a long row of books is a Neolithic pestle and mortar that props up a painting-on-tin of a Mexican peasant praying in the desert before the Virgin de San Juan de los Lagos, a beautiful goddess on a burning cloud. Beside her is a hovering dome.
Hard travel and years on the road had taught me how to be thrifty and resourceful. I liked to immerse myself in new worlds, to discover what was ancient or novel, and sometimes I would hear people calling my name in the street, and I wondered if it was because I was deprived of my culture and language—or if a door had opened. In September, the month of the crash, I returned to California and learned that Lehman Brothers had just filed for bankruptcy.
“Do you know what that means?” asked a man on the bus.
I shook my head.
“It means there’s goin’ be a run on the banks.”
“That’s too bad,” I said. “I’m looking for a job.”
“Can you wait tables?” asked a rider with a bandaged foot.
“I used to wait tables. I could carry four plates,” I said.
“You should look for a job as a waiter in Hollywood,” he said. “It’s what everybody does.”
“He could be a waiter,” said an elderly woman in the back of the bus.
I found a job washing dishes at the famous Musso and Frank’s. It was a classic time machine with red-leather booths and white tablecloths. A bartender in red livery served stiff drinks behind a long mahogany bar. “At Musso and Frank’s,” somebody said, “waiters are waiters. If you’re an actor and want to be a waiter—don’t apply here.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not an actor,” I said.
“You look like an actor,” said the manager.
For the first few months, I saved money by sleeping at the bus station or at the all-night Laundromat. I was exhausted after my ten-hour shift, and it wasn’t hard to fall asleep sitting up in the molded plastic chairs. Gradually I got used to the work and needed to walk around the city to tire myself out. This is how I discovered dive bars.
At the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, I became friends with a woman who was a professional Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She introduced me to a group of lively regulars who were actors, writers, and comics. Everywhere else people were talking about the “global meltdown” and how the world was “on the brink,” but times were good at the Frolic Room. An older actress with a recurring role in As The World Turns explained it to me: “Actors live in their own bubble—we are an irrationally exuberant and optimistic people. Nutty!” she said and laughed.
“Like the real estate market,” said the Japanese man sitting on a stool next to me. “There are more foreclosures than they’re talking about.”
Kaito was a tall, small-boned man with horn-rimmed glasses who worked for Sumitomo Bank. Marilyn said hello and joined us. They hit it off right away, and Kaito came back the following night. Soon he was a regular. One day Marilyn told me they were living together: “It’s an owl and pussycat thing. He’s my Arthur Miller.”
A year went by. I was now working at an Italian restaurant and had rented a room in East Hollywood. I began watching late-night television and discovered I was susceptible to pitchmen selling infomercial products. One of my purchases was an instructional video on how to buy banked-owned property with no money down. Another was a video called “Dress for Success” that advised: “One’s blazer is the successful man’s greatest talisman.”
I hadn’t been to Musso and Frank’s for months. I could hardly recognize myself in the barroom mirror. I had a good haircut and was wearing a blue blazer. Kaito told me about a property Sumitomo had recently foreclosed. He described it as something out of Gatsby. “It’s a pink castle! Actually a replica of Andrew Carnegie’s castle in Scotland. It’s got eleven bedrooms, a fantastic dining hall with marble floors, great room, library, waterfall, crenelated walls, you know—”
“Like a castle!” I said.
“With a tower! The problem is that vandals broke in and turned it into a party house. Broke all the window. Made a huge mess. Stole everything—appliances, chandeliers, the beautiful bronze sconces—”
I ordered another martini for Kaito.
“It’s the ultimate fixer-upper—what we call a ‘toxic asset.’ The bank hired a security guard who moved in with his German shepherd, and the dog had the run of the place. Doors are scratched, dog shit everywhere. Last week the guard got arrested for growing pot in the inner courtyard. It’s fallen out of escrow four times.”
I laughed. “Sounds like my kind of deal.”
“You look happy,” I said. “Are you still living with Marilyn?”
“You haven’t heard—we’re getting married.”
“Lucky you. She’s amazing—the real deal.”
Kaito thought about my comment. “How about you?”
“No girl. No time. I’m working two jobs.” I took my hand out of my coat pocket.
“What the hell happened to your hand?”
“I lost three fingers in the meat saw in the kitchen. They reattached them but I can’t grip yet. And no feeling.”
“That’s gotta be tough.”
“Is there any financing on the castle?” I asked.
“A big loan—and it’s assumable.”
I found the castle in worse shape than I had imagined. We needed flashlights because the windows were boarded up. The stench of dog shit was suffocating. The dog’s bed was in the library next to a heap of pizza boxes, dirty clothes, and beer cans. The bank’s representative apologized, saying he hadn’t been to the property since the guard moved out. Broken glass crunched as we walked. In the great room somebody had set the drapes on fire; the marble floors were growing scum; bathtubs and pedestal sinks were missing, carpets ripped out, and the terrace balusters looked like they had been beaten with a sledgehammer. It was the money pit of all money pits, which I scrupulously detailed in my nine-page report.
“They are very interested in selling,” the representative said as he re-nailed the two-by-four to the front door.
After three negotiating sessions Sumitomo agreed to sell with no money down, provided I assumed the existing mortgage. I was elated. I couldn’t believe my good luck. I would soon be the owner of a castle, but the attorney for the bank called, saying there was something they hadn’t discussed. I assumed the worst.
“We can’t close escrow until we deal with the insurance company. I have prepared a document which will assign the settlement for the vandalism. Unfortunately we can’t give you the check unless you agree to do the repairs. There is thirty-six thousand dollars for the broken windows and twenty-two thousand dollars for the fixtures. If you are agreeable—”
I was agreeable! Escrow closed and I got to work immediately. The windows were replaced by a local glazier for one-sixth the estimate. A local handyman repaired five out of seven gravity heaters and waterproofed the roof with hot tar. In the library and living room, we stripped the old paint and discovered beautifully coffered oak panels.
Soon the castle was clean and warm, and people began asking me if I had rooms to rent. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but once I made the decision, it seemed like the right person would show up at the right time. One of those was a young man who worked for the gas company and was an excellent plumber.
Klaus Burden was the most recent arrival. He was tall with a black, European-styled ponytail and cut a dashing figure. He worked in assemblage and colored lights. His show “Untoward Doorways” had been a hit at MOCA, but he fell on hard times when his socialite wife divorced him. Klaus showed me sketches of a new installation. His idea was to hang an array of “curated” metal objects from the branches of the oaks in the inner courtyard. His “bells” would be selected for shape and tonal quality and would be played by the audience. The installation would be ready in time for Ebba Strauswurtz’s fortieth birthday party.
“The Baroness, by the way, is very excited you are hosting her party,” Klaus said.
“You know I haven’t met her yet.”
He looked solemn. “Ebba,” he said. “She was one of the most beautiful women in Los Angeles. She was my lover and when it ended, we stayed friends. We would go to parties, and she would ask me which girl I wanted to meet. Sometimes we would enjoy threesomes—she was irresistible. We lost track of each other after I married Clarissa, and then she called about a month ago. She said she needed to see me before it was too late. We met in a bar. I walked right past her table. ‘Klaus,’ she called out. She was wearing a hat and scarf. ‘Oh, Klaus,’ she said.”
He pressed his fingers to his forehead. “The first thing I noticed was how dark her eyes were—and how the skin on her face looked thin and lifeless. It had been five years, but she looked twenty years older. She said it isn’t progeria, but the doctors aren’t sure what it is.”
It was a sunny day in November. Jose was patching the balusters, which he had expertly matched to the original plaster. I was thumbing through Klaus’s retrospective. The hardback book contained the assemblage pieces Klaus was famous for and his earlier engravings. One of them, Heaven and Hel, was a surrealistic rendering of biblical figures standing before a floating dome. The alternate spelling of hell was a reference to the goddess of the Norse underworld.
Klaus stood in the doorway with a handful of silver cords. “These are new,” he said. “They reflect whatever they come in contact with—like the leaves of your oaks. They have Kevlar strands to hold heavy weight and are virtually invisible.”
“Are you hanging the large pieces today? I can help.” I said.
“I took the liberty of conscripting Jose. He’s strong as an ox and a natural musician. He showed me the woodpile, and we found a broken axe handle to use as a striker. Come out, I’ll show you what I’ve done.”
In the courtyard hung a collection of suspended objects arranged by shape and size. There was an array of hanging tubes and discs mounted on stands. Klaus explained how he had salvaged some of the pieces from bins at Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The largest object, a metal dome, was strung up by three Kevlar cords and seemed to hover under the bough of an oak.
“How beautiful, Klaus.”
“It’s my Bell Garden. You can play the bells any way you like.” He demonstrated with a wood-and-rubber striker, playing a hollow tube, then a cymbal-like object before moving to an array of funnels.
“Strike them here…or here!” He struck them on the crown, yoke, shoulder, and waist. “Work your way around. Some of the bells sound better played in pairs. It’s a game. The acoustics of the walls build echoes. It might make your head swim a bit. Explore and enjoy.”
He left me alone. I played the tubes, the discs, and the great domed bell. It seemed the striker was too small for its massive weight. I picked up a broken branch and struck it against the dome. There was a solid tone, and I felt a something I didn’t like. It seemed the tone was pushing back. I struck it again and I could feel a force—a ring—surrounding the dome.
We were in the library. Klaus examined the pestle and mortar in the bookcase before he sat down. He crossed his legs like an actor in an old Hollywood movie. “I like your touchstones. Touchstones remind us of the past in a way photographs can’t do. The objects in my art are touchstones. My touchstones hold memories that belong to many people. Before I mount them, I sort them. The art is in the sorting. You understand that, don’t you, Timothy? How the objects find you? The same way the castle found you.”
I had been helping the painter strip the cabinets in the butler’s pantry. My bad hand hurt and the chemicals made me feel lightheaded. The painter said he was used to it, but I should go outside to get some air. I took a walk down to the mailbox and came back through the inner courtyard. I stopped to play an aluminum ring that looked like the prototype for a ship’s airlock. This time I could feel vibrations go down my spine. I struck it hard and listened to echoes that magnified against the castle walls.
“Enjoying yourself?” asked Klaus.
“Did you find Jose’s striker? It’s here somewhere.”
A wind came up suddenly. I looked up and saw the tops of the live oaks sway. The wind made the bells swing and clash discordantly. Klaus put up his collar, and I followed him into the library. I tossed a chemical log into the fire, and Klaus poured two glasses of wine.
“Ebba came by last week when you were at work,” he said. “She brought the dress she wants to wear to the party. I let her change in your bedroom. I hope you don’t mind. My toilet has stopped flushing and I have to—”
“She’s aged more since I saw her. The poor woman. She wanted my opinion on the dress she’s wearing to the party. It’s quite short and her legs are wrinkled. She’s very brave. I didn’t notice before how her teeth had yellowed. I told her it was a lovely dress and that she would always be beautiful.”
“I’m sorry, Klaus,” I said.
Klaus stared into the fire. He picked up the MOCA retrospective from the coffee table. “Did you see my love machine? I built it for the LA show. I wanted to do another one for the party. But there isn’t time.” He showed me a picture of an instrument with cowbells and stirrups.
“How does it work? Do you strap in to play?”
“Couples strap in and thrust their hips. It’s lovely when you perform in the nude.”
“Why cowbells? To attract voyeurs?”
Klaus laughed. “I didn’t think of it that way but you have a point. I should have built a love machine for the party.” He looked like he remembered something. “Ebba will underwrite whatever the party costs. We have a caterer and everything is set—but I had the wrong date. It’s next week. We have to send out new invitations immediately.”
On Sunday I spent the night with a friend in Hollywood and got back to the castle the following afternoon. I was tired so I went upstairs and jumped into bed. When I woke it was twilight, and Ebba was standing nude in front of the mirror. There was just enough light for me to see her outline. Her back and arms were thin and shapely. Her silver dress puddled beneath her on the floor.
“You’re awake,” she said, speaking into the mirror. “You missed the party, Timothy. Everybody asked where you were. You missed everything: the music, the colored light show, all the wonderful food. So many old friends came. Then Klaus and I had a fight. Out of the blue, he said he didn’t want anyone playing the bells. I said, ‘It’s a party, Klaus, let them play.’ He got angry and started pulling everything down. He kicked over the stands and cut down the cords with his knife. He crashed my beautiful party.”
I was trembling. The party wasn’t until Saturday, five days from now! I tried to remember. I didn’t go straight to bed.
“What do you remember, Timothy?” she said.
I closed my eyes: I see a room with stone walls and windows. I see men in robes and children with daggers and darts. A man is grinding something with a pestle—he looks like an older version of me. I see a dome and a burning cloud with the Virgin of San Juan drifting by.
Ebba turned around. Her blonde hair hung down to her shoulders. “What do you see, Timothy?”
“I see you, Ebba. You’re so young.”
“Try to remember,” she said softly.
My memory came slowly: “I heard something in the courtyard. I opened the library door and saw the dome illuminated by afternoon light. On a cylinder I hadn’t seen before was the axe handle, whittled to make it easier to grip. I picked it up and struck the dome. It rang with a buzzing resonance, and it sounded like something opened. I struck again and a circle of light appeared with bands of pink and phosphorescent white. It was a beautiful sight. It made me feel a sense of wonder, like the first time I saw Saturn through a telescope. There was a doorway!”
“Very good, Timothy. What’s inside?” She was beside me. Her limbs were pale and firm—her breasts slightly peaked like altar bells. I wanted to take her in my arms. I reached out and felt the ring surrounding her vibrate when I touched it. It had no color or temperature. It was weaker than the field-ring in the Bell Garden. I thought I might be able to lift it up or push it away. I tried to push it sideways. It moved a little and sprang back.
I closed my eyes.
“Can you see the woman? Do you see her face?”
“I see a child with a blowgun. He blows a dart into my bad hand and I feel sensation. There is a hum coming from the dome—I feel it in my spine.”
“Do you see the stone window? Do you see the woman on the other side?”
“I’m back in my bed. You are beside me—so beautiful. Let me hold you. If I touch you under the ring—like this? I see the stone window. I see the woman on the other side. She is old.”
Todd Easton Mills
As a young man Todd defined himsef as a traveler, working his way around the world like the protagonist in this story. Todd co-wrote and produced the documentary Timothy Leary’s Dead. His work has appeared in the Santa Monica Review, Coe Review, ONTHEBUS, Serving House Journal, OxMag, Euphony, Yellow Silk, Rougarou, The Alembic, Griffin, Jet Fuel Review, Forge, Crack the Spine, Barely South Review, the Penmen, riverSedge, Antiochracy, and many others. Todd received his bachelor’s degree from Antioch University.
If you enjoyed Ebba’s Party, leave a comment and let Todd know.
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