with the back of his hand, so Byron says, and he spasms, like a purple sea squirt. “His expression,” Byron confides, “is what kills me.” His face goes rigid—beads of sweat pop out on his forehead—his mustache zigs and zags. “Then a spot of moisture appears on his pants, near the fly.” ith the back of his hand, so Byron says, and he spasms, like a purple sea squirt. “His expression,” Byron confides, “is what kills me.” His face goes rigid—beads of sweat pop out on his forehead—his mustache zigs and zags.
“Then a spot of moisture appears on his pants, near the fly.”
I can’t vouch for the truth of this story of Byron’s. As a matter of fact, when Byron told it to me, about a year ago in his studio, I somehow had the impression that he was talking about himself.
Fausto claims that he’s lost his destiny. “Not only my destiny, but my soul, my friend. I feel like a snake that has shed its skin—except that I’m the skin and not the snake.” He told me this yesterday morning at Clifton’s Cafeteria.
Fausto’s not the only one who’s lost his soul. I’ve got the same problem.
Thanks to Marlena. It was the book that did it. Her autobiography. I wrote Marlena’s autobiography, and that was my undoing. For Marlena read Alma Delia Mortadella and for Alma Delia Mortadella read Lilith and for Lilith read Kali the Destroyer. I wrote her story, not mine. And that was a mistake. I became her—flesh of my flesh. Marlena was my world and the womb in which I gestated, a rutabaga with tube feet, a cauliflower drunk with words.
A dream, last night, a dream about Marlena, a dream blackened around the edges by the blackness of my despair. We were making love on her big fluffy pink bed in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. The bed was mounted on casters and her husband—the half-man—had attached his motorized wheelchair to the headboard and was towing us down Hollywood Boulevard as if we were a float in the Easter Parade. “I’m fucking your wife, you crippled bastard!” I shouted. “I’m fouling the nest! I’m soaking her bush with my gysm! She’s mine, I tell you. She’s mine!” We’re approaching Hollywood and Las Palmas, the enormous flamingo-pink Angelyne billboard. Our bed is flirting with traffic. I’m gazing deep into Marlena’s eyes, licking her tongue, frantically biting her hair. I can feel the orgasms welling up behind her ovaries like a legion of blind seagulls.
I got a call from Starz, Milton LaStarza, a cinematographer on the skids. Or at least that’s how I remembered him. We’d both been poor in Paris, but life’s a grand adventure when you’re young, and we never minded being without things like toilet paper, deodorant and toothpaste. Later on, of course, there’s no denying that lengthy binges landed Starz more than once in the street. But now, apparently, the lad’s desperado days were behind him.
“I’m back, man,” he told me on the phone. “I’m really back. I had lunch yesterday with Danny DeVito and Naomi Watts.”
Starz was on a roll. A beach house in Malibu and let’s work together on a script. I was impressed, and it really was good to hear from Starz again. I didn’t have two nickels but I grabbed a taxi to Malibu and sure enough, Starz emerged from the beach house and paid with a couple of crisp Benjamins. A smashing escort service girl was just leaving. She took my taxi, in fact.
We went inside. “Cutty and water?” We sat on a barge-sized divan overlooking the Pacific Ocean and passed the bong. Starz looked good. His hair was short and spiky and he’d grown a prickly blond beard. Starz was in fact a regular prickly pear of a man, always getting into situations. Wherever he landed he’d stick like a burr, and soon there’d be a ruckus of some sort. Starz had big dreams, grandiose dreams if you like, but he had the stuff to make them come true, too—or at least I thought he did. He’d been a Steadicam operator in Hollywood before he started in on the sauce. I was feeling pretty optimistic.
“You remember Chief Dan George?” Starz began as we clinked our glasses. “Great guy, a natural actor. Remember in Little Big Man when the Chief said that thing about a pleasant show of enthusiasm? That’s what I told Bambi, that girl who just left. You saw her, didn’t you? What did you think? Wait—before you answer, listen to this. What do you expect for three hundred bucks? That’s what she said to me. What do you expect for three hundred bucks? ‘What do I expect for three hundred bucks?’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you what I expect for three hundred bucks. A pleasant show of enthusiasm! That’s what I expect for three hundred bucks. A pleasant show of enthusiasm!’”
We went back outside and inspected his six-foot San Pedro cactus, and then he told me about Sylvia.
“This, all of this, the beach house, the pool, the BMW, is Sylvia’s. None of this is mine, you understand. I just happened along, like Br’er Rabbit. I hopped into her life.”
“She adopted you?”
“Something like that. We met on the Internet. She’s divorced. Comes from old money. She’s a landscape painter, too, beautiful stuff. I’ll show you tomorrow.” He glanced at his watch. “Say, do you want to get some girls?”
“Maybe later. Let’s talk about the script.”
“Script? There is no script. It’s all in here. A beautiful reporter is possessed by the soul of a girl who was murdered by her stepfather twenty years before. She hires a handsome exorcist who promptly gets possessed by the ghost of the stepfather. So they’re going to play it all over again, the murder, a rerun. Unless…”
“You tell me. How does she get away from this guy?”
“Let’s see… She meets another handsome guy, an archer, in the woods.”
“He’s carrying a compound bow.”
“I like it.”
“Then they meet a hermit who tells them that if they dip an arrow in the reporter’s blood and shoot it into the exorcist’s heart the stepfather’s ghost will split and the curse will be lifted.”
“Does the exorcist die?”
“Somebody’s gotta die. This is a fucking horror film, man.”
“Well, the stepfather dies. That’s the idea.”
“More. We need blood. The exorcist dies. Tell me the exorcist dies.”
“Okay, he dies. The exorcist dies and the stepfather dies.”
“What about the hermit? Does he die?”
“Okay, he dies. The hermit dies…”
The next day we went sailing. “Any dumbfuck can drive a powerboat,” Starz told me, “but sailing is an art and a science. The beauty of the sunfish is that you can sail at a tight angle upwind.” I was scared but I didn’t let on. It was beautiful, I have to admit. We were racing across the water, completely silent except for the waves crashing on our bow and the howling wind.
That night we went to dinner at the Seven Seas, a posh restaurant owned by Sylvia’s ex, Norm. We both ordered the king crab. Norm came to our table and shook hands. He was Italian, big, sinister. But Norm was a prince, as it turned out. When it came time to pay we found out he’d comped us, king crab, champagne, the works. After dinner we went to the Las Palmas Dance Hall downtown, a taxi-dance joint across the street from the old United Artists Building. It’s a great place for buying affection if you’ve got the jack. I danced with Svetlana. She was Russian. Svetlana wanted a hundred bucks to go to a hotel. I didn’t have that kind of money on me and it was too early in the game to be hitting Starz up for a loan.
A week went by, then two. We’d become regulars at Las Palmas, and our days were filled with eating and drinking. Starz would order out—pizza, Chinese, crab cakes Dijon and veal scaloppini from Café Spruzzo, or filet mignon, lobster, you name it. Nothing was too good for us.
“My God, it’s been so long since I felt like a human being,” I almost said one fine sunny afternoon as we were sitting in the gazebo with a bottle of Bollinger and spoonfuls of beluga on little crackers, but I caught myself in time. You should never let people—even close friends—know how desperate you are. It scares them off.
The script was moving right along. We’d talk; then I’d go and type. I started running lines with Svetlana. She was an aspiring actress, it turned out, like all the girls at Las Palmas, like all of the girls at all of the dime-a-dance joints in LA, dreaming their Hollywood dreams while they dance with lonely desperate men who are dreaming about getting it on with them.
There was another issue. It had to do with Starz’s mental state. Back before the Paris days Starz’s mom had committed him to a lunatic asylum for seventy-two hours, and he was afraid she was going to do it again, even though she was in Brooklyn and he was in California. As a result he was half nuts with paranoia. One day—so he said—he was tending to the sailboat and six squads of F-16s came screeching overhead at just a couple hundred feet. Starz dove for cover and banged his head on the dock. The next day he was out by the sailboat again and an Apache helicopter landed on the front lawn. That chopper was real. I saw it touch down just a few yards from the beach house, and a soldier in tan cammies got out packing an M-16. It was probably just maneuvers or something, but Starz was spooked and I had to admit it was pretty eerie.
Right after that Sylvia, Starz’s quality woman, popped in, wearing a floppy hat. It’s a type, these rich women with their floppy hats. They take you over. But Starz must have known what he was getting into when he put himself up for adoption. It was a pretty sweet deal, though. He didn’t have to give her the time all that often, plus she was a nice looking woman for sixty-one. I saw right away however that Sylvia disapproved of me. I guess she could tell I wasn’t a member of the cucumber sandwich set.
Then Starz latched onto Svetlana. I should have seen it coming when they started in on the Banana Kush and the vodka. It was a thing with them, right from the get-go, as though they’d invented that particular combination. Svetlana was crazy about the sailing, too, another item they had in common. And then they ganged up on me about the blood. “We need more blood.” They were united on that. So I wrote in a flashback of the original murder. “The stepfather stabs her eighty-one times with a flensing knife,” I told them. “Then a woodsman chops the stepfather’s head off with a double-bitted ax.” I made Svetlana run the lines with me. She knew I was pissed off, and she understood perfectly well that I was the woodsman and that it was Starz’s head I wanted to chop off, not the stepfather’s.
This calamity didn’t sink our boat, but the next one did. Sylvia threw a huge party at the beach house, entertaining a regular battalion of her upscale New York friends, a local poetry circle and a glittery Polish count who swept her off her feet that very night. This new twosome, Sylvia and the Count, were resonant of the handsome archer and the beautiful reporter in my screenplay, so I wrote them into the script, as doppelgangers to my regular characters. Then I wrote Starz and Svetlana into the screenplay. I was writing everybody into the screenplay. But I felt bad for Starz, even though he’d stolen my girl. Starz didn’t see what was coming, with the Count and Sylvia; he didn’t sense the finality of what was going to go down, but I did. Sylvia would marry the Count, Starz’s allowance would be cut off, and we would be evicted.
That was how we ended up working at the Seven Seas, Starz and me, in the scullery. The dish room was called the scullery because the owner, Norm, Sylvias’s ex, was retired Navy. It was damned decent of Norm to hire us on, but the work in the scullery was brutal with only three dishwashers, Starz and me and our supervisor, a little beer keg of a man named Joe Gorsky. Joe Gorsky was four and a half feet tall, full of muscle, and he was mad for work. His hands had only three fingers on them, and he had a speech defect of some sort. “Guhh beg ahr guhh huhmm,” he’d shout. “Go big or go home!” As runty and deformed as he was, Joe Gorsky was a natural leader. There was something heroic about the man. He’d been toiling in the scullery for fourteen years and apparently he’d loved every minute of it. Charisma is a hard thing to pin down, but Joe Gorsky had it in spades. His esprit de corps was contagious and it spurred me on to work like a demon. “Ugghh ugh mugh in dagh pugh pan roooom bughbugh," he told me one day when Starz was out sick. “Just you and me in the pot and pan room, baby!”
Starz and I were sinking lower and lower. We were sleeping on Joe Gorsky’s floor. This wasn’t Paris poor, the romantic poverty of idealistic young artists, it was real poverty, third world poverty, the deep-night desolation that creeps in on rat’s feet and shreds your soul. You get down too far, you lose your edge, that wafer-thin buffer zone that separates the human being from the beasts, and the street comes looking for you. You start out eating veal scaloppini in a Malibu beach house and you wind up living in a cardboard box on San Julian Street.
Starz was losing his grip. The paranoia was getting worse. He was seeing the soldier in tan cammies everywhere. It had to do with the drinking, of course. Then, too, he and Svetlana were dropping double stacks of X every night. He was constantly talking about the glory days in Hollywood. “I played ping-pong with Gene Hackman on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums,” he’d mutter fiercely as he wrestled with a charred sauté pan. “I pissed in Carrie Fisher’s bathroom.” He’d go on and on, too, about the lunch with Danny DeVito and Naomi Watts, which he finally admitted took place not just the other day but back in 2005. On top of that, he wanted to go back to the beach house and cut down the six-foot San Pedro cactus to extract the mescaline. The end product would be worth around two G’s on the street, he assured me. We’d need chemicals, sodium hydroxide and benzene… I didn’t like the sound of it.
“By the way, do you have the ending yet?” he asked me one day when we were elbow deep in dirty dishes.
“The ending? The ending of what?”
“Of the screenplay.”
“Maybe. The exorcist tries to escape in a boat and she fires the magic arrow into his heart and the boat bursts into flames…”
“A Viking funeral.”
“Yeah, sort of.”
I was over Svetlana, but I met another Russian girl at Las Palmas. Katrinka. Katrinka wanted a hundred bucks, but I talked her down to the seventy-five that I’d managed to borrow from Joe Gorsky. We went to a by-the-hour hotel on San Julian. She got silly drunk—on purpose, it seemed to me. She flopped around, consumed with laughter. Then she began weeping like a goat and talking Russian. I was pretty sure it was all an act. It was her sly way of spoiling a hard-on. But I was determined. Just the same, it was over in minutes. I was furious. Now she wanted to talk about Tolstoy. “You’re disappointed,” she chirped triumphantly. “Tell me something. I’m curious. Just what is it that you want from a woman, anyway?”
That was an easy one.
“A pleasant show of enthusiasm,” I said.
Then Starz was picked up on a public drunk charge that turned into a 5150. A nurse called the restaurant from the psycho ward on Beverly. I got Starz out of there but he was thrashed. “I pissed in Carrie Fisher’s bathroom,” he kept saying. “I pissed in Carrie Fisher’s bathroom.”
After a few more days at the scullery we both decided that Starz would be better off in the nuthouse. “It’s three hots and a cot,” I prattled glibly. As soon as I’d handed Starz over to the nurse at the lunatic asylum I began to breathe easier. At least his hash was settled. I’d survive one way or another, I figured.
A Viking funeral… “My God, it’s beautiful,” I muttered to myself the next day as I scraped some glazed-on guck off a six pan. “She fires the magic arrow into his heart and the boat bursts into flames...”