Half a Life
Once a friend told me about a strange-looking man who gave the stock and futures report on an obscure cable channel. My friend thought he must have been chosen as a joke by some black-humored station manager. The man stammered, never made eye contact with the viewer (instead, he stared at a remote point in a generic living room), and often seemed on the verge of panic. He had the same last name as I did and she wondered if he could be a distant relative.
Blinking, sitting on the edge of her sofa, I watched my father. I hadn’t seen him in years. My father has always looked, to me at least, like a child’s drawing of an adult–a gigantic balloon tethered to the world by spindly sticks. He had not changed. His cheeks were enormous. His top lip perspired. His eyes registered no emotion save fear. I wondered who out there in television land was entrusting him with their life savings.
Then, closing my eyes for a moment, I felt something inside me break.
My father stopped living with us when I was fourteen. During our last months together, he spent the majority of his time gardening–eighteen, sometimes twenty hours at a stretch, a hoe in one hand, a flashlight in the other. He couldn’t understand why his children didn’t join him, and would stand on the brick patio, bellowing our names. His voice would crash through my dreams. And find me. In rooms I never visited during wakefulness.
When I opened my eyes, he was, full-screen, calling out the rock-hard elements of the world–gold up, silver down, platinum holding steady. And then he called out the staples–wheat, corn, eggs, rye...
His hands were trembling; his eyebrows looked exactly like mine.
I’d stumbled upon him twice before during our long hiatus, each time more disconcerting than the last.
Profiled in Time magazine as the quintessential type A personality, he was photographed on a doctor’s table, feet facing camera. If my brothers hadn’t shown me the picture, I probably wouldn’t have recognized him (he was even more obese than I remembered). For some reason, it was the soles of those bare feet that walked my dreams for weeks afterward.
The other time took place in a college library, as I was leafing through an art magazine. I was glancing at a photo essay on Los Angeles. It wasn’t a particularly interesting spread. The ideas were pedestrian, the images manipulative, the captions cliched. A full-color snap of a Jack in the Box restaurant clown.
“LA Eats,” the caption read. An overhead view of a colossal traffic jam: “The World Stops.” Then I saw, at point-blank range, my father’s apartment building, the Montego Arms, with his lime green Pinto out front. I could read the license plate, see a box of tissues on the dash. In those years, low-cost furnished apartments in LA were coated with glowing stucco to break the monotony of their bivouac style. The Arms was no exception. It stood sunstruck in the noon glare. The shadows under my father’s tires were purple. Through two open windows, I could see two orange sofas facing two blank TVs. The caption read, “The Living Dead.”
My mother, no great fan of my father, says he wasn’t always so peculiar. While we lived in Montreal, checked by the restraints of his extended family, he was–if not normal–passable. He had a business (his father’s hat store), a gang of old college friends, a semiattached house, a wife and three children. Still relatively thin and handsome in those days, he kept up a semblance of middle-class decorum–an Ivy League cut for his thinning black hair, a dark suit, and wing tips. He even let my mother trim his massive, unruly eyebrows. Though he disliked being touched and rarely showed affection, he sometimes let us kids climb onto his back. Only after we lit out for California did things go awry.
The year was 1964. Whenever I envision that journey, a couple of images come to mind. The first was fed to me by my mother and holds within its aura the power and pull of her imagination. It’s a picture of my father, and within him, some vital aspect of his being–his moral fiber, a stitch that fastens him to reality somehow getting snagged on our front porch in Montreal so that as we roll across the country, inch by foot by yard, he slowly comes undone.
The second is wholly my own and takes place in a boggy motel room, just outside of Needles. It’s our last night on the road. The air is stultifying. My parents, two brothers, and I are crammed into one room–a tiny double with three creaky cots. No one can sleep. By the way my father is lying there, curled on his side, I can tell he’s worried. I can tell because I’m worried, too. This is what my father and I have in common. We can’t stop worrying. My mother worries as well, but she has the enviable capacity to get her fretting done lickety-split. My father and I are brooders. All night long, our obsessions don’t quit; they go around and around, like socks in a washing machine.
Tonight I’m worried about moving to Los Angeles and not being able to shed my old, tiresome personality for the new one I’ve planned–a carefree California preteen.
My father is worried about money. I know, because all his worries are variations on a theme. As some people are terrified of spiders or heights or windowless rooms, my father is terrified of spending money. And he’s frightened of all objects that have to be replaced or repaired by spending money. And, I believe, he’s terrified of money itself, of its thin, friable surface. And, I know, he’s terrified of my brothers and me for outgrowing our shoes, for whining for comic books and candy bars.
My mother, often repelled by the touch of my father, is holding on to her narrow margin of mattress and fantasizing about a sunnier future.
And I have an unbearable feeling that if all our wishes were suddenly granted, I’d obliterate the very essence of my being, my father would dream his children away, my mother would have my father disappear, so that when the maid trundled in with her linen cart the next morning, she’d find the beds slept in, but empty.
We got to LA the day the hills went up in flames. The fire burned for days. It rampaged down canyons, sparing one mansion, ravaging another. For some reason, this conflagration completely satisfied my fantasies about California–it had unspeakable beauty, weeping movie stars, Technicolor flames.
On TV, in the sweltering motel where we lived until my father found work, I watched a palm burn in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s backyard; it burned like torched hair. Whole afternoons, my mother, brothers, and I sat spellbound, waiting to see if Burt Lancaster’s roof would catch fire, if Red Skelton would lose his poolside cabana.
As soon as the blazes were quelled and the police barricades came down, my family joined the hordes to gawk. In head-to-toe traffic, we rubbernecked our way past scorched pillars that flanked charred driveways that led to melted staircases spiraling up into ash. On one tiered plot, an enormous glass wall stood alone in its coal black frame, dividing nothing from nothing. Only the swimming pools lay intact, turquoise and sparkling, as though beckoning us to take a dip in hell.
I couldn’t get enough of it. Had I been given the option, we’d have returned weekend after weekend. Even my father seemed transfixed. Why the allure of charred ruins? The joy of someone else’s disaster? The fact that even money and fame can’t save you? Probably, but something else, too. While we motored past such total wreckage, the smell of smoke in our hair, I felt carefree. Since we’d arrived in LA, we’d harbored a tension that was enormous, even for us. You could see it in our gestures, hear it in the ping of our forks as we ate Van de Kamp’s take-out dinners in front of the TV. But on nights after we drove by the devastation, we slept like the dead, my parents flopped on a single bed, my brothers and I wedged into cots.
The motel was cramped and getting expensive. The walls were paper-thin. People slammed doors all night long. One elderly neighbor compulsively flushed his toilet. We had to find a permanent home.
LA is divided by the Santa Monica Mountains, three-thousand-foot peaks that snake between the ocean and the desert valleys, between opulence and hardscrabble tract houses, between salty mists and air that is so dry the sweat on your skin just flashes away to nothing. After the fire, whenever I saw a TV helicopter shot of the city, it looked as if someone had drawn a charcoal line down the center to divide Them from Us, Rich from Poor, Here from There. To save money and because somewhere in the back of my father’s head was the half-baked dream of becoming a pioneer, he opted for the valley.
Our real estate broker had once been a bit player on the old Superman series. I recognized him immediately. He stood six foot three and had ears gnarled as roots. He played the thug who always showed up with the green bar of Kryptonite to rob Superman of his otherworldly powers. When I got him to autograph the back of my comic book, I felt as if I’d truly arrived.
He showed us tract houses on the outer fringes of the San Fernando Valley, subdivisions with names like Sunburst and Cherry Tree Hills (there were no hills, no trees, let alone cherries). Most of the land had been stolen from the desert, the yards laced with chemicals to lure crabgrass out of the sandy soil. Once in awhile, a contractor would go bust, after having sold only one or two homes. These divisions afforded the best deals. When we drove down their desolate cul-de-sacs, the two or three children that lived there would charge to the front window or chase our broker’s station wagon with frenetic speed.
After weeks of indecision, our money dwindling fast, my parents finally settled on a ranch-style house in the dead center of the valley. While they signed the papers, the broker casually mentioned that where I sat, scrunched beside my mother at the built-in breakfast nook, was thirteen feet below sea level. Perhaps this accounted for the ear-ringing stillness, my sense of crackling calm. Our subdivision, Rancho del Sol, was almost five years old, ancient by local standards. Most of the neighbors had already erected six-foot cinder-block fences around their tiny properties. Cupping my ear to the hollow bricks, I could make out the dull thwacks of tetherballs, the pops of cap guns, the shrill squeals of children. Back east, only tiny shrubs divided the properties. Everyone knew one another. This was one of the reasons my mother wanted to emigrate. On humid summer Montreal evenings with the windows wide open, the Ehrenreichs, the Golds, the Richlers, the Hirshmans could all hear my father bellowing.
For the first couple of nights, between the stillness and the unfamiliar bed, I couldn’t fall asleep. Most mornings, I tried to nap or poked around the backyard with my brothers until the heat became intolerable, until I flopped down on the brown lawn in a stupor. My limbs felt as weighted as sandbags. Sometimes it seemed as if, with no effort, I might sink into the soil, into dirt that was so parched it would absorb anything.
Despite the heat, my mother unpacked boxes, eyeballed measurements, paced off rooms in her lavender felt slippers. (She was still trying to be a good housewife in those days. Only later would she hem my father’s pants with a staple gun, take up my skirts with duct tape.) For her, any and all change was good. If the next hillock was a tad greener, even a dull pea green greener, she yearned to take off. In restaurants, she could barely enjoy her food for envy of what everyone else ordered.
She was thirty-three years old but looked twenty-three, with a lost, smoky gaze and flyaway hair she dyed in endless shades of blond. Even though my dad was only six years her senior, they were often mistaken for father and daughter.
By midafternoon, if she wasn’t too tired, she took us on walks through the neighborhood. She wanted to orient us in case we got lost. She also wanted to see where in the world she’d wound up. In every direction, mountains scrambled out of the haze. Cars hurled down the boulevards. We met no one. We were the only people on foot. We donned rubber thongs and trod upon our own tiny shadows.
Despite the isolation, or perhaps because of it, my mother sensed possibilities. And I got caught up in her mood. As we walked along, she told us stories about soda jerks and movie ushers discovered by big-shot producers, a young mother who made zillions gambling her grocery allowance on uranium stocks, the local plumber who found oil under his backyard, men and women who went to bed paupers and woke up Vanderbilts. My father’s distant cousin had emigrated here after the war and invested in land along a dirt strip that later became the Miracle Mile. Anything could happen.
When the sun reached its zenith and the sidewalk turned scalding, she herded us home and sat us in front of the swamp cooler. It came with the house. I’d never seen anything like it before, and never have since. The cooler’s front looked like an old Chevy radiator filled to the brim with water; its back held a gigantic fan, with blades as long as baseball bats. When you turned it on, the floor and walls shook. Our sofa lay perpendicular to it and we sat in a row, our clothes flapping, our hair sticking straight out. I believe the cooler’s wind gave my mother the sensation of going places. It certainly gave my brothers and me the pomp and thrill of a hurricane ride. And for the rest of the afternoon until my father came home, we shouted over its blast or crooned songs–”You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “Mama Said,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (I chanted the “wimoweh” chorus). Normally, I never let myself sing out loud (I am tone-deaf and find melody as mysterious as night). But in the roar of the swamp cooler, I sang along with the family, crooning from the depths of my soul.
Then my father pulled into the driveway. He wasn’t doing too well. You could hear it in the tone of voice he used to call for my mother. He didn’t call so much to find out her whereabouts as to express some baleful need. He had taken a job with Sears Roebuck, designing the circuitry for their lighting-fixture exhibits, the garish displays where chandeliers dangle beside pogo-stick pole lamps. Having studied to be an engineer, he found the work demeaning, the pay pitiful. He didn’t get along with his boss or his colleagues. He came home edgy. His edginess scared me–not for any violent quality, but because it was so doggedly mundane. Say one of us kids accidentally spilled a carton of milk during dinner. He became frantic, obsessing about the wasted milk. He thought of nothing but milk. He talked ceaselessly about the accident, asking us again and again how it could have happened. How could we have been so reckless? And when (to all our relief) he finally went to sleep, I know he dreamed of milk, aqueducts of milk, milk gone bad, soured by the sun, ending in drains. And for some reason, I woke up thirsty.
The house was pitch-black. I put my feet down to make sure the world was there, was flat. Then I padded out onto the patio. My older brother Jack must have heard me because a moment later, he shambled out in his striped pajamas. Next my mother appeared, carrying my little brother Tommy. She sat down on the brick parapet between Jack and me. The air was smoky. A new fire burned on the far side of the mountains. But from where we sat, in the bowl of the valley, it looked like it was burning in another world.