Everybody I knew liked Herb Alpert. It is possible to have had an absolutely awful childhood and yet to have been happy. There were influences. All of the girls in my fifth grade wanted to kiss my classmate because he looked like Paul McCartney. I stole Beatles’ cards to give to a girl. Martin Luther King was killed right there in town but I had never heard of him. They sold Beatles’ wigs at the Woolworth’s 5&10 cent shop. I got caught stealing Beatles’ cards I’d shoved down my pant legs. It was just the beginning of my many fuck-ups. It was not the first of my many humiliations. It was not the first time I lied. Had I had Chiclets that morning instead of bubble gum, I might have become a hardened criminal. I came very close on many occasions to becoming a total ass. Many would say I succeeded. I was hated, no doubt about it, but nobody on this entire earth ever hated me as much as I hated myself. I was ashamed of myself. I was pathetic. I didn’t know why then and don’t know now.
Here’s the thing. My brother liked Combat and I didn’t. Here’s another thing. He liked baseball, basketball, and football, and I didn’t. He was different. I was the conformist. In our house sports were nothing. My parents didn’t play. My father was a cripple and couldn’t run. My mother was a hippie and thoughT organized sports were evil. I was like them. I wanted to be liked by them and was. I wasn’t strong enough to like things they didn’t like. That takes guts. I had none. Here’s another thing. I tapped into the fact that my father had contempt for things he couldn’t have. If he wanted it and couldn’t afford it, he didn’t work hard for it, he pretended to despise it. He passed this on to me. It is like inheriting a tumor.
There was an Impala in the driveway. Funny things went through my mind. Not sex. Revenge. I thought of ways to kill my parents. I wanted to get away. When my mother got sick of us, she promised to help us pack a suitcase. She said this to me a thousand times. When I ran away, I said nothing. She did not pack a bag. I didn’t take one so as not to disturb her. I just went out the back door one day and never came back.
People wonder about child-rearing practices. I can offer nothing, but one of my parents’ mistakes as I think about it now was that they believed what they said counted for nothing, just like everything else. They didn’t think I would remember. They didn’t think I was listening. They weren’t listening. They told me to get out often. When I did, they claimed never to have said that. They claimed only to have said nice things. They claimed to have loved me.
I wasn’t fooled by The Brady Bunch. Home Alone was more my speed. Dennis the Menace. The Three Stooges. They hated each other. I got that. Malice amused me. Pain gave me a thrill. Like my peer group, we all got a kick from watching people hurt each other. Sports had too many rules. I liked chaos. I understood revenge. I loved to watch bad guys get it in the neck. Loved to watch bullies knocked to the ground. I loved it when bad guys got killed and the audience applauded. Wow! No sympathy when a teenager sped by only to die in a wreck a few miles down the road. I loved saying, “He deserved it” right away. I loved thoughtlessness. Better yet, I loved saying, “See.”
All of this was put to the test when I moved to Los Angeles and made friends with a rich family in Pasadena.
Puttering around: I was beginning to think, “you’ve done it.” I knew about wasting time, if not wasting away, like the blue-haired ladies in Pasadena who drove Cadillacs into the ground. She wanted her cat in her will, Mrs. Rabb. Her husband had disappeared. The old black gardener was the only one she knew who didn’t lie. She was missing her teeth. She hated her son. She’d been wetting the bed for years. She preferred roll up windows. She wanted Yorkshire pudding for Christmas, not mashed potatoes. The raccoons ate her gold fish. The terrier had taken to peeing on the carpet. She forgot to let him in so he scratched at the door in desperation.
Richard Nixon was a son of a bitch. Everyone agreed. She once saw Pat at the Whittier Playhouse. “Nobody in Pasadena liked Dick,” she said. Her husband had moved in high circles. She was not going into town until she found her eyeliner and that was final. She’d wait until next week for that nice man to come and trim the trees. I told her I was that nice man. She said, “You?”
When you are 73 you lose all interest in the opposite sex, or should. She’d much rather have a cat than a husband. She remembered the day he went away. The lady was pale and shriveled like a polar bear’s scrotum. Not distended but retracted, her flesh was never warm. She’d lost her teeth. She hadn’t been touched in over nine years.
That was the year her husband kissed her good bye. He gave her a pat and left for work. The next thing you know his Continental was found abandoned on the Arroyo Parkway. Investigators searched everywhere. The boys found some stains on the leather upholstery. Sergeant Hines swore they’d find blood in the trunk. All she ever heard was that he was last seen heading north in an aqua Cougar.
By the time I came into the picture, if I ever came into the picture, the husband was long gone. I was working for private law firm as a gopher. The firm handled her estate, which included some commercial properties in Santa Monica, a lot of old Standard Oil stocks, the property in Pasadena, and some other stuff I didn’t know too much about. The firm had sent me out to the cookie shop on San Vicente to find out why they hadn’t paid rent. They were pleased that I came back with the dough, so they sent me on out to Pasadena.
I discovered the anxiety of wealth. My boss drove a Maserati and lived in Encino but slept in his office off Wilshire. He was a man of integrity, a professional, respected, but he over-charged his clients and padded his bills. He wanted to do a good job. He was famous. If he invited me to stay for dinner, he’d send me to the grocery to get my own lamb chop. He was surrounded by go-getters and hustlers. He was like Gordon Gekko. We fawned over him.
Being at the top of own’s profession is not a small accomplishment. My boss deserved to be honored. He was a back-seat driver and a consummate liar. He cheated his own employees. He didn’t pay overtime and asked his secretaries to sleep with his clients. He called 40-year-old women “good girls” when they joined clients in their rooms at the Beverly Hills Hotel. He was a kind of pimp. He expected the ladies on the payroll to put out. He was too old to partake but loved that his VP was fucking the secretaries. He admired the Kennedys and knew Senator Cranston. It was a man’s world, and it wasn’t that long ago. He was a Harvey Weinstein, one might say. The ladies lined up to be put against the wall. Things have changed, people say. I don’t know. It sounds nice. I have my doubts. I thought he was likable, but I was naïve. Many thought him a monster.
Times change. Melvin Belli was in and out of the office. Sam Dash was on line one. He was consulted on O.J. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark was expected at 4, with his staff and a couple of reporters. The New Yorker was calling. He wanted me in Pasadena by six. “We’ll discuss it later. Take the Plymouth.”
I miss him. I miss being young. I miss the pastrami sandwiches at Langer’s. It saddens me to learn he has died. It is in some ways difficult to believe people come and go. It’s even more painful to accept that it will be my turn soon. He went having done a lot and will be remembered.
The old lady had taken in a beggar, some guy right off the street. He’d been brought in by the cook to do some odd jobs and somehow got invited to stay. He was now living in the old chauffeur’s rooms in the back of the garage. He didn’t owe rent but he had to go. Had he owned a race horse, the firm would have asked me to cut off its head. I was there to check these out. They weren’t about to let some guy get her dough.
We don’t often say things like this but in Silver’s case one was dealing with damaged goods intent on doing further harm to himself and others. He was a menace. The old lady couldn’t see this. The cook was a life-time do-gooder. She’d met him some time ago at a food-kitchen in downtown LA. The cook and the lady of the house were “friends,” at least that was how Pia described her. Everyone who works for the rich is called a friend until dismissed. This is a rule. Read Ross McDonald if you don’t believe me. If you are not a reader, ask Barbara Bush. She knows.
Out of boredom, Pia devoted herself to volunteer work, especially for the homeless. She was guilt-ridden. It didn’t help that he was partly Indian, a Native American, that is, of a desert tribe, the Mohave, currently flush from the burgeoning casino business. Somehow Silver missed out on the profit-sharing or, as he had it, the profiteering.
Silver was once a killer and had served time in San Quentin. Even this impressed Pia, so intent was she on knowing someone authentic. Yes, she was so desperate to befriend a man who’d actually done something other than teach that she let him convince her that murder was an accomplishment. On top of this he bragged to her about having roughed up other inmates whilst in prison. He was a survivor. She admired him for that, too. “If you think you could have gotten through a thing like that, why don’t you try?” She said this to me one day and I realized she would be one of those friends I didn’t like.
This effort to make me feel small spelled the end of our friendship. The whole thing had coarsened Pia and wrecked our relationship. Silver knew how to squeeze her bleeding heart. He played her like a piano. As a Holocaust survivor, she identified with his fortitude. She idolized tough. After years of marriage to Dr. Rabb, a European intellectual, a university professor, she was ready for a man of action, at least that was how I saw it. Pia felt alienated from all the Southern California success she saw around her and was relieved to finally find someone who had had a miserable life. She decided they had a lot in common. She believed Silver deserved a medal, not scorn.
This guy was no threat to me, but I couldn’t allow him to cause further havoc. He’d moved into my friend’s garage one summer, into rooms built back in the heyday of fine automobiles and live-in chauffeurs. The family had once kept a grand Packard sedan and even installed an underground gas tank with its very own pump. He fit right in and she had hopes that he would flourish. Instead, he went insane.
She didn’t know how to handle an alcoholic who drank beer by the case and could down an entire bottle of vodka in a single afternoon. He would rant and rave, dance around the property shouting for her, throwing stones at her upstairs bedroom window at three in the morning. She’d come down to calm him and he’d bend her arm behind her back and force her into the cellar stairs to where the family kept the wine so he could steal a few bottles. This went on for ages. My law firm was notified. The police were called. Pia would be hysterical, but the thing would eventually blow over. When he sobered up, Silver always apologized. On top of that, Pia was old school. She believed in loyalty and couldn’t bring herself to press charges. She refused to take responsibility for Silver’s demise. And there was always hope. Pia believed above all in redemption.
Undoubtedly, there were quieter times. I wasn’t around. I heard about these things when things were dire or not at all, unless I got a call from Cindy, Pia’s daughter. But things were getting out of hand. I knew Cindy, but didn’t get to see her too often. She had an apartment over by the famous glass house in Beverly Hills designed by Richard Neutra. She was dating a black tennis player, or so I’d heard.
“I noticed you have a police dog in your house.”
I saw its long snout and hairy prick. It was carrying a gun and had a pot belly.
“When I tried to pet him, he snarled and barked.”
I’d say anything to get her attention. Like a lot of the rich of her generation, she refused to acknowledge reality. The first reality she was bent on denying was that she was rich. She felt so much guilt she could barely walk. Had Freud been alive, he would have cleaned up.
“Jesus Christ. What’s up? You having bad dreams? You expecting trouble?”
It’s not what people normally see in the home of a ballerina, that and the loaded shot gun. Like a lot of the rich, she danced. She’d met Ronald Reagan’s son.
“I notice too that you’re putting on weight.”
This upset her more than the news about her mother.
“You depressed? Saw you out last night with your dog. That was him squatting over
the Palladino’s petunias.”
I’d parked my car in front of her house and promptly fell asleep.
“I take it you don’t like flowers. You didn’t bother to pick it up.”
Was she crying?
“The Italians threatened your life? How so?”
“The German Shepherd will protect me.”
I loved the certainty of the rich. The grand confidence that everything would be all right. Of course, for them it almost always was.
“Tell me you had it trained to tear out the jugular, otherwise you might as well forget it.”
“He promised to cut off our genitals.”
I wasn’t involved.
“He thinks we’re lovers. He called you my husband.”
“Jesus Christ. How’d that happen? I barely know you.”
“Why don’t you spend the night?”
“No, I don’t think I’m prepared to sleep with you.”
“That way we could say we’re married.”
“Why must we pretend to be married? You’re kidding.”
“Why don’t you hit me? Prove that you love me.”
She told me she wanted a black eye.
“You want a black eye so we look like we’re fighting? But I don’t love you.”
I realized Cindy lived in cloud cuckoo land. She was more than a temporary resident. She was a citizen.
“Okay, you can hang my underwear on your clothes line.”
“I want to make love. Like an Italian couple, you know, rough.”
“Fair enough. I’ll come over and we can do it with the lights on.”
“And you’ll take the dog out right after?”
She told me to take the dog over to the Palladino’s front porch.
“I’m not leaving anything on the Palladino’s stairs. Absolutely not.”
She was sulking. It might have been the first time in her life she wasn’t getting her way.
“Look, you may have to get rid of it.”
I saw immediately she didn’t care about the dog.
When I told her that I didn’t want to get too involved, she asked if I was already asking for a divorce.
“No, not divorce. An annulment.”
She wanted a kiss good bye.
She dropped to her knees in front of me.
“I’m not Catholic,” she said, as she unzipped my fly.
“Howard Hughes is paying something like $100,000.”
I had no idea what she was talking about.
“I prefer to swallow.”
I had no problem with that.
She asked me to come by every morning.
“I should be so lucky.”
The entire episode reminded me of what I had come to talk about. Recently, Silver had broken Pia’s arm and locked her in the basement. He’d pissed on her and dragged her down the drive by her hair. He made her take out her dentures and suck his cock. He fancied himself some sort of shaman and she believed he spoke ancient truths. No matter what he did, he had her convinced he deserved a second chance. He had her under his spell. She loved him.
I didn’t. This time Silver had upset Cindy, who drove out to the house. Even though she was able to get a restraining order, it was not easy to kick him off the property. Not without Pia’s consent. Of course, there was nothing I could do. I just heard the stories and seethed. I dropped by Cindy’s more and more often to hear the news. She’d leave her door open and asked me to crawl in under the covers.
“Come in from the bottom of the bed. I don’t want to see you.”
Killing was not my thing, don’t get me wrong. I knew nothing of such matters, but having grown up on Gunsmoke and the like, I had a strong sense of justice, understood revenge, and recognized the benefit of murder as a solution to nagging problems. I couldn’t help thinking something drastic had to be done.
Pia had been spending money on Silver. This alarmed the firm. An expensive tool kit and a used Chevy van. She got him paint supplies to help start a business. She even hired him to redo the inside of the house. She gave him $10,000 to get his act together. It was all gone in a week. He treated all his friends under the freeway pass to champagne. They drank themselves silly. Someone stole the van, someone else took the tools. Or had he sold them? Who knew? In any case, it was all gone within days. Then he came crawling back drunk as a skunk and set the garage on fire. The whole place had to be knocked down and, in the mean-time, Pia moved Silver into the main house. He was king. I figured he wouldn’t be going back to the new garage any time soon, and I was right.
He wore a size 14 shoe and was over 6’4”. He was all man and that impressed her. I pricked up my ears when she said he had a perforated liver and had been warned not to drink or he would die. She’d taken him over to Cedars Sinai and he’d been seen by a specialist. One more drink and that’d be it. Bad news for Silver, but Pia, of course, didn’t see it this way; she couldn’t have been happier because now she could play nurse. Hey, everyone wants power.
My friend had locks installed on the basement and grew ever vigilant. She believed she had everything under control, but I began to make plans. I’d stopped by one night at the local liquor store over by UCLA to buy cigarettes and noticed a sign offering home delivery. I made inquiries and learned that I could have a case of vodka delivered to the house and, if I did it right, she’d never find out. He’d get the booze and, knowing him, hide the bottles before she got home from delivering meals-on-wheels to bedridden millionaires in Bel Air. I ordered the vodka, the cheapest brand, and they threw in a bag of ice. I paid a bit extra for orange juice. I figured he might have a thing for screwdrivers.
And then everything turned around. He’d gone too far one night and then ran off rather than having to face her. He had brought another woman into the house and there had been violence. They’d spent time watching movies in the library, no doubt fucking on the floor, and then he’d knocked her around and who knows what all ensued? They’d wrecked the place. This time Pia was mad. She threatened to call the police. Silver went off to the park, his old stomping ground, and got himself cut in a fight. The police found him the next morning under a palm tree. He had died there where he lay. There was a pool of sticky blood under his body. The coroner kept his body for a while and then lost it. As soon as I found out, I called the office. My boss said good. I said, “See?” I admit the thing made me happy. I also got a promotion and my own car. I turned in the Plymouth. Jill, the office manager, gave me the keys to a Blazer.
There was no funeral. Everyone forgave his antics, especially Pia. Everyone said he was a good guy, even desperate Cindy. Many felt sorry for him. Not me, to tell the truth. I kept my thoughts to myself but I was pleased as punch. The thing of it is, Pia liked to feel needed. He was just the thing for her, the sort of thing a woman like her needed, not a friend.
Her first lover had been in the Dutch resistance but turned out to be an informer. She spent the rest of the war in a Dutch prison camp run by the Nazis. It was a defining experience, one that made the post-war years pale in comparison. In LA, she suffered a life among academic phonies just back from expensive trips to Europe. Lots of studious children of the proletariat married to millionairesses. Silver was a breath of fresh air. He was real. Who knows? We all have our needs. Although no freedom-fighter, he may have reminded her, I eventually realized, of headier times, when men were men and loyalty meant something. He was earthy.
She wasn’t about to send anyone to jail no matter what he did. She wasn’t vindictive. She was tough, and she wasn’t about to rat on a guy she saw as a victim. I didn’t agree, but then again, I wasn’t asked.
David Lohrey is from Memphis, Tennessee, a graduate of U.C. Berkeley. His plays have been produced in Switzerland, Canada, and Lithuania. His poems can be found at Expat Press, Cardiff Review, The Drunken Llama and Trouvaille Review. His fiction can be seen at Dodging the Rain, Storgy Magazine, Terror House Magazine, and Literally Stories. Three new anthologies in 2019 include David’s work: Universal Oneness (India), Passionate Penholders (Singapore), and Suicide, A Collection of Poetry and Prose (UK). David’s first collection of poetry, Machiavelli’s Backyard, was published in 2017 by Sudden Denouement Press (Houston). His newest collection, an anthology of prose and poetry, Bluff City, will appear this fall, published by Terror House Press. He lives in Tokyo.
David Lohrey, Literary Bibliography
July 3, 2020: “Southern Comfort”
May 12, 2020: “No Wonder”
May 5, 2020: “Kabuki Rites”
September 8, 2019: “Spam in a Can”
April 16, 2019: “By the Bay, By the Bay, By the Beautiful Bay”
July 4, 2018: “Consumption”
February 26, 2018: “Spam in a Can”
September 18, 2017: “Das Capital”
Lohrey, David, Machiavelli’s Backyard
Lohrey, David, The Other Is Oneself: Postcolonial Identity in a Century of War
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