Salter woke up to Lola shouting there was oil fucking paint on her Jil fucking Sander. He couldn’t at first tell if he was having a heart attack or caught in an earthquake or both but Lola was so up in his face she appeared to have one long ice-blue eye in the middle of her forehead, a monstrous organ of inhuman beauty, a lens through which he could not see the future but through which the future could plainly see him, despising the information it gathered.
On the street ten minutes later he caught his reflection in a shop window showing his t-shirt inside out. Never dress in terror. No wonder those foxy Jap girls had giggled. In that case he headed for the park and wouldn’t bother looking for a new girlfriend until he had a chance to get home and change. He sat alone under a two-hundred-year old tree for two hours, enjoying the indirect pleasures of the So Cal sunshine. The tepid milk breeze and the leaf-cut kaleidoscope spangling the yellow grass at his feet under the quadrophrenic wig of the tree. Fucking squirrels, too. Funny about squirrels: no one seemed to appreciate what a nightmare life would easily be if squirrels decided to go militant. Make mosquitoes look like a blessing. If rats had half the talent and energy of squirrels…
Later, when Lola was at her post at Chez Guevara, gilt and alabaster under her designated beam from the track lighting, he slunk home and started work on a new slab rather than bothering to change and bike over to Pacific Beach in hopes of finding that one true lasting Love capable of paying rent. The name of this new slab was Oil Fucking Paint on Her Jil Fucking Sander and he got bored with it after x-hours of pointless messy work, slopping the cadmium red around the canvas with a palette knife like it was lead-based organic van Gogh spaghetti sauce. Why not just eat it all and kill himself?
It was too late to make it to the beach, too early to sleep and too soon to call Lola at work to see if she was still in hate with him. Yet he grabbed the phone and punched the number with a relatively paintless thumb.
“Chez Guevara, can you please hold?”
Brief pause of recognition and then the “hold” click. He’d half-hoped to get Jem, who could always be counted on to flirt with him a bit before handing it over to Lola, thus proving his worth to Lola. Jem: what kind of parents named a girl that? He could never have a girlfriend named Jemima. Names were important to him. A bad name was worse than bad breath. He’d backed out of something once with a model named Santana.
He caught himself nodding to the black black jazz they treated him to while he waited for Lola to release him from the tasteful limbo of On Hold. A CD burned from an authentic and scratchy old 78. He couldn’t help visualizing a synchronized chorus line of Al Jolsons in shoe polish, dwindling towards infinity, strumming banjos and grinning like skulls while being buggered by an equal infinity of Satchmos. Black black jazz for a white white restaurant. Friendly racism. Does any Ethnic Group valued chiefly for the quality of its suffering stand a chance?
When Lola got back on the line, Salter was relieved to find that she was half-whispering conspiratorially in the phone to him so he knew he probably wasn’t in danger of Fargo in bed that night. Fargo; Siberia: name your frigid wasteland. He so badly needed the existence-confirming sensation of something fuckish tonight.
“Get this,” she hissed, “rich fucker just dropped $42,000.00 on a dinner for five.” She pronounced “fucker” fokkar. Otherwise her speech was thoroughly Americanized, which is to say ornamented with luridly nasal banalities. “I don’t know why but the servers thought he’s going to stiff them so each one goes and spits in the butternut squash soup.” Punch line: “Eight thousand dollar tip.”
She got home at one, eight-feet-tall in her heels and the cool fuselage of her dress and hair of burnished blades. He was watching television like a good boy when she clomped into the bedroom waving hello but not speaking as though speaking’s a kind of touch and she wasn’t in the mood but he got a bobbing erection the instant he saw her in all her pomp and name tag.
Lola unsheathed her nude glory. Breasts and hair lifted and falling as the dress went up and she clomped into the bathroom in heels and zilch else to brush and floss and mop the angel-face off then proceeded to snore and smell of soap on her side of the bed within thirty minutes of walking through the door. A record. He wouldn’t even have minded the usual missionary position and get it over with. No touching the tits, don’t mess up my hair and keep that finger away from my rectum. Poor Salter sat knees-up beside her, treated to a view of a meter of tawny back and he clutched the remote. O wretched man who craveth a fuck.
Robbie The Robot warped and blurred, swimming in them. Salter was ostensibly watching “Forbidden Planet” (Walter Pigeon, Patrick O’Neal, Anne Francis) with the sound off and he strained to make sense of the flick through the seawater filter of his grief. The Griffin-like monster, visible only as raw energy, howled and clawed the protective field around the ship. It would have blown Salter’s mind to learn that Griffins are a symbol of monogamy. A heroic crew member with his pastels-emitting blaster was seized and ripped apart. Anne Francis with her buttery coif and the spanking sarcasm of her dotted pout startled a recognition in him for she was his genuine Sexual Ideal and he correctly pegged the futility of his sex life to her unavailability.
Snuffed the tube and the reading lamp on his side of the futon and stood up. Suddenly saw himself running across the bedroom from an impossibly distant corner, axe over his head, bringing the blade down with a scream of regret to cut his frustrating girlfriend in two but the very cartoon of it horrified him and made him sorry and love her all that much more, exacerbating his desire, which frustrated him further, which re-ignited his anger, which again made him see himself running across the bedroom from an impossibly distant corner with an axe hefted over his head, bringing the blade down with a scream of regret to cut himself in two instead.
He crept miserably into the living room with an unrequited hard-on of devilish force and he knelt milking it across the gleaming black pumps with arched backs like onyx cats stacked in a diptych of sadism and sexual snobbery under the coat hooks by the door. He lay three lengths of solder-colored semen in her $300 heels, steadying himself with a hand on the sleeve of an old coat which stood like a priest with its back to Salter’s indiscretion. Not the first time he’d fucked those shoes either. He crouched there, postmodern shoe-rapist, still burning with richly-satisfying orgasms and he pondered this awful exchange:
Lola: Honey, I hate to break it to you, but as a painter you have no talent whatsoever. Not that’s visible in the paintings, I mean. A retard with a paint-soaked ass and no arms could do better.
Salter (with a shrug): So?
That had been six months ago. She’d dropped that A-bomb six months ago so what next? Everything escalates. Hunger, porno, Vietnam. She’d be punching and kicking him soon. Stabbing him on the toilet. Scissoring his face off and wearing it like a bib at breakfast.
In fifteen minutes he was dressed and out on Fifth Avenue in the dark. He walked by the Tea Leaf and Rockit Records and the boarded-up and tramp-infested deco-era Bijou. The Starbucks on the corner and the Rite Aid parking lot across the street. Left towards Sixth Avenue up Robinson. Then a right to the park. What really hit him as he sailed along was the unbelievable number of people in the sultry night who seemed to be happy. There they were, the dozens, the hundreds, holding hands and swinging arms in that triumphalist goose-step of love. Salter had to wonder how abnormal he was. Had it been him all of these years? Him and not them; her; It? His problem and not The World’s?
Standing at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Upas, he near-swooned as his mind came that close to accepting the notion that the Misery he once considered typical of Sentient Life was in fact just his own and his own fucking fault, not even necessary, just the result of faulty thinking and bad choices that could be blamed on nobody else. A pink convertible was honking at the traffic light.
Me? Salter pantomimed and the car honked yes.
The pink convertible was some kind of vintage wonder. Salter didn’t know from vintage cars but with white tires and a lot of chrome and the salvaged motor from a B-52 it looked and sounded like a horny birthday cake in the form of a yacht piloted by a white-haired gent in a Commodore’s cap (Salter didn’t know from Commodore’s Caps but that’s how he would have described it to the police). Beside the gent was a white-gloved woman in matching white shoulder-length hair, presumably the gent’s better half or lady-friend or however the old quaintly put it.
“I said,” said the duffer when Salter had scurried out into the street to lean over the convertible to hear him, “Would you like a ride young man?”
The duffer gunned the motor for emphasis. Or to pressure him. Salter was 30, and the old gent was 66, so, arithmetically speaking, the offer of a ride in the gent’s car was no different than if their respective ages had been 5 and 41. Defying his mother, Salter jumped in the back seat of the car, banging his elbow, as the light changed. He jumped on the naïve belief that a man with a woman is never as dangerous as a man alone. The old guy twisted to face Salter as he drove, saying,
“This is the only city in the world that it makes sense to own a convertible in. Others are too damned dangerous or rainy. Are you from the area?”
Talking like a man in a gale. White-haired ringer for Don Ameche. Salter was, in fact, tempted to ask the old guy if he was related (or even Ameche himself) but instead merely limited himself to responding directly to Don’s query.
They drove as far as Robinson and did a swaggering u-turn so wide they nearly took the door handle off a parked car on the other side of the four lane road and headed back the way Salter had been walking when they picked him up. With his eyes on the road again Don smiled in the rearview.
“We’re practically neighbors then. We do this every Friday night…” he inserted a pause to indicate his companion, whose teeth were the simplest smile… “We see something new every time.” He added, “For example, I’ll bet you didn’t know that there’s a banana tree in the yard of that bungalow on the corner of Robinson and Third Avenue.”
“No,” said Salter, surprised, “I didn’t.”
“Delicious. Stolen fruit tastes better in an open convertible at night, you know. And you probably weren’t aware of the fact that there’s a full-sized statue of the comedian Jonathan Winters in the backyard of a place up there on Point Loma. On a six foot plinth. A prop from the movie ‘The Loved One.’ We saw that when it first came out, at the old Bijou.” He thought a moment. “Evelyn Waugh.”
“Really?” Salter had never heard of the movie or the comedian or Evelyn Waugh. He wasn’t sure about the word ‘plinth.’
“Awful lot of movie people down here,” concluded Salter’s genial host. They were idling at a red light at the corner of Laurel and Sixth. To the left was Balboa Park and its orderly arrangement of skyscraping palms attended by a vassalage of shorter pines in low darkness. The old woman was touching up her lipstick and the drawstringed mouth was grinning at Salter in the rearview and he was thinking what have we here? A crucial detail was all wrong, of course: the combined age of the two was more than half the age of America. Otherwise things seemed to be shaping up into one of Salter’s hoariest fantasies.
Rich couple picks up a young stud… drive to a deserted stretch of the beach. Towel on the sand. Millionaire with his arm around the young stud’s shoulder: love my wife but I’m impotent… please… don’t know how to ask this, but could you… would you… ?
“Vincent Price had a house over there, back a-ways, in Mission hills, overlooking the Airport. Lindbergh Field. I always had a problem calling it ‘Lindbergh Field,’ you know. I guess I’m showing my age, but I can never hear the name ‘Lindbergh’ without remembering one of those awful ‘Lindbergh Baby’ jokes.”
He assumed a perfect deadpan and turned with his right arm along the top of the seat and looked at Salter and cleared his throat and said, “Say, what do you call a… a, uh… oh, wait a minute. That’s not how it goes. Dammit. I’m useless. I just thought of one the other day…”
A classic specimen of one of those old-time couples, thought Salter. The man doing all the talking; the woman just smiling… beaming, really… mostly at the man himself, oblivious to outsiders. Salter tried to remember. There was another example. It rang a bell…
Salter tried his hand at small talk.
“So, you two are married, then?”
Don was still idling at the intersection of Sixth and Laurel, despite the long-ago fact of the light going green. Was he still trying to remember a Lindbergh Baby joke? The traffic light became a clock. The old guy was staring at something to the left, away from his wife, in the park maybe, so intently just then that Salter guessed that he hadn’t even heard the question but as Salter cleared his throat and undertook to repeat himself verbatim, the old guy replied, overlapping him, “For a very long time.”
For a very long time.
Which sounded so nice. It sounded so nice that it made Salter regret every single fact of his life as it was and made him hunger for a change and it made him long for a second chance and the first thing he resolved to throw out before relocating into the shiny new home of the Duplex of his re-organized Soul was ‘Art,’ that dusty thing, that furry brown shit-caked 19th century attic heirloom called ‘Art.’ Fuck it! Toss it! Filthy old bristly bearded hoary repulsive thing! Musty fusty dirtbag thing! What had ART done but ruin his chances at Life?
Where was Salter’s convertible? Where was Salter’s love-dumb, worshipful wife? Where was all his stuff, his security, his peace-of-fucking-mind? Somewhere back there, at some juncture so remote that he couldn’t even remember what sickly-sweet pop song was a hit on the radio the day that he did it, he had veered Left when so many others had trudged ahead. So many others kept on going down that long straight road. The long straight road of happiness. So easily achieved! You just remain on that long straight road. How hard could it be?
The light went green again and the car moved forward as effortlessly as a breath or a liquid downhill advertising wealth and a jet bellied loud overhead on its way to Lindbergh Field and Salter hollered, “It must be great to grow old with someone you love!” and he was nearly choked with emotion as he hollered it, touched as he was by the serene beauty of human completion radiated by the white-haired couple, the living opposites of Salter’s world and Salter’s monotonously unspectacular luck but Salter vowed to change all that inspired by this couple.
“It must be great…”
“Rubbish,” laughed the old coot. “We can barely stand the sight of each other.”
Salter laughed right back at him. Weren’t old guys always funny in the same way? Never quite slap-your-knee funny but just as reliably never unfunny, either. Wry. Are young people ever ‘wry’?
“I suppose you think I’m joking,” he said and then grunted, like a man on the phone on the toilet, doing something complicated with the gear shift and clutch or whatever as the car took on the hill that rose up before them, “But I’m not, I promise. ‘Hate’ is too strong a word, of course. But…”
“But, no. Love? No. I can see how you’d get that impression. Nice old couple, cruising around in a convertible on a Friday night, right? Not a care in the world! All smiles…” He winked in the mirror.
“But that’s just nerve damage. See? Look: that’s a permanent grin on her face, like a Jack-O-Lantern. Pure luck it didn’t freeze into a scowl. I’ll give The Good Lord credit for that much.”
“She’s ten years older than I am, but you’d never know it. Got a collection of face lifts older than our grown children. I even started naming them! The last one I called Griselda. That’s the nerve damage right there, if you ask me. You can only lift a human face so many times. Something’s gotta give.”
He released a sigh so long that Salter could smell his breath. Bananas.
“I could have had two convertibles for the money I’ve spent on making a seventy-five year old woman look seventy!”
They were headed for the Highway. Salter could see it clearly with his Tales From The Crypt imagination: a Luger in the glove compartment. A Luger stuffed in beside a bloody road-map folded around a sandy, black-edged ear. Or: thirty two wallets. Or: Mexican scalps on a belt. A cock in a jar? Don Ameche was shaking his head. He exploded with a guffaw that sounded like an Apache War Whoop which made Salter jump.
“You must think I’m awful! But don’t worry, I forgot to mention, the poor thing can’t hear a word. Deaf as an old boot!”
He leaned on the horn and raised his voice over it and shouted, “AREN’T YOU, NAT? AREN’T YOU? Can’t read lips, either. Couldn’t be bothered! I keep this happy look on my face,” he nodded, grinning, “And Old Yeller just thinks I’m saying nice things about her. Haven’t done the Hokey-Pokey in a Coon’s age. Mostly I abhor the smell of talcum powder. Turns me off.”
After a long pause he added, with extra significance, “I’m dying for a little company,” and he waited a calculated interval before slipping a shy glance into the rearview. But Salter was already gone. Had he ever really been there?