Authors: Steve Erickson
Trivial or impure dreaming literally rots the fabric of the future.
I wish I never wanted then what I want now twice as much.
MOTT THE HOOPLE
’M MOVING UP TO
the suite at the front of the hotel. Ever since the Quake I’ve been living in one of the single units, but now I’m making the move up to the suite. Abdul the manager is giving me a deal, sort of hush-hush between us, assuming his bosses don’t fire him first and scotch the whole thing. The other day I heard the landlord chewing him out, as he surveyed Abdul’s grand plans for upgrading the building. “You’re throwing away money, it makes me sick!” I was standing at the top of the stairs, on the third floor, and I could hear the argument down on the first, and I thought, Well, there goes my suite. They’re going to fire Abdul.
They’re all Palestinian terrorists, the guys who own this building, but Abdul is a
Palestinian terrorist. He imagines himself a worldly man, and for all I know he is. He reads books. He’s dapper. He harasses the female tenants but he thinks he does it so smoothly no one notices it’s harassment, dropping by in the morning in his bathrobe with his cup of coffee in one hand and his cigarette in the other, complaining back at them that they complain too much. He finds their complaints—about the cracks in the walls, the plumbing that gushes through the ceiling—petulant and unreasonable, but it isn’t that he says he won’t do anything about them, he’s too smooth for that. Rather he says he’ll take care of it and then gets around to it when he damned well feels like—weeks later, months, never … He makes the rest of the world feel as though it’s mired in the impatience and pettiness that he has transcended through a disciplined self-education, faith in Allah, and sheer dapperness.
He saw a picture of me in a magazine, I guess, some review or another of my last book. It impressed him. The fact that it was years ago and a lousy review to boot couldn’t mean less to him. He doesn’t want me dissatisfied, he wants to keep me happy; he considers me a prestige item, as tenants go. He lets his bosses know I had a picture in a magazine once and now they call me to write resumes for them, business proposals, in terrorist code no doubt because I’ve seen, in Abdul’s closet, the portraits of various Middle Eastern dictators and strongmen he keeps hidden. “There you are,” he said triumphantly, when we signed the lease on the suite, “you now have a contract signed by a Palestinian.” Well, he’s cut me a deal, which is the only way I can afford it, and I waited until I got all moved in before I thought I should let him know I’m not likely to be getting my picture in any more magazines. I let him know his investment in my “fame” maybe wasn’t the smoothest move he ever made. He wouldn’t hear of it. The smirk on his face in response said, I’m a smooth Palestinian of the world. You can’t terrify a terrorist.
Station 3 on the radio. So far to the far end of the dial it’s barely on the radio at all. Broadcast from somewhere in the desert, way beyond the farthest backfires. …
Station 3 only comes in at a certain time of the evening, and when it does it collides with another signal, a channel in Algiers that’s broadcasting to an asteroid hurtling out beyond the moon. The Algerian station is owned by a Moroccan religious sect that believes the asteroid is heading straight for earth and carrying with it a message from God, so the station is sending a message back, only to have it bounce off the asteroid and land here in L.A.—if I understand it right. And mixing with
signal is yet another that was originally broadcast in 1951, from just outside of Las Vegas when they first started testing nuclear bombs; that broadcast was vaporized by the explosion and apparently only now, fifty years later, has reassembled itself in the stratosphere. So jajouka music from northern Africa floats through Station 3 along with the death-rock anthems of young metallurgic huns from the inner valleys, and Max Steiner conducting the theme of Now, Voyager, all as dreamlike and beautiful as the twilight, which turns a very particular shade of blue outside my windows.
I live in an old art deco hotel on Jacob Hamblin Road, a small concrete avenue that winds and twists so much on its short two-block journey from Sunset to Santa Monica Boulevard that at the beginning you can’t see the end. Even in L.A., city of great non-sequitur streets like National Boulevard and San Vicente, streets of absolutely no linear logic whatsoever that disappear on one side of the city only to suddenly reappear on the other, Jacob Hamblin Road has some crazy turns in its short life. Back in the Thirties the Hotel Hamblin was built by the studios to put up young studs and starlets shipped in from all over America for screen tests, which is to say it became a sort of private brothel for producers and casting agents; Abdul’s apartment on the ground floor was the lobby, marble and spacious. Now, along with the telephonic punctuation of in- and outgoing communiqués to and from the hotel’s single women, the rooms and nights groan with the sounds of vicious homosexual exchanges. In the mornings I wake to someone somewhere in the building crying out “I’m tired of this life!” with so much force it’s hard to believe he’s really dying, but so much anguish it’s harder to believe he’s kidding.
Over the years the hotel has succumbed from its earlier, slightly debauched elegance to Caligari dilapidation. Plaster buckles around archways carved in lightning-bolt zigzags, and a coat of white paint covers doors originally patterned after the portals of Austrian chalets. A gloom has overtaken the Hamblin’s dark halls, where images of huge water lilies wave in shades of brown. In front of the hotel, hovering right above Jean Harlow’s name scrawled in the sidewalk, is L.A.’s last remaining fire escape, something I took note of not long ago when one of the city’s backfires jumped its demarcation line and threatened to slip south of Sunset. My new suite is on the top floor in the southwest corner of the building, with eight huge windows that run to the ceiling, facing every direction but north. At one place in the apartment I can see east, west and south all at the same time. The mists of Santa Monica fill the third window, the first and second contain the looming Hollywood Hills, near the base of which the Hamblin stands; along the upper ridge of the hills tiny barren palms sway in silhouette, and the Strip is visible below them, with the passing figures of amazon Japanese waitresses drifting in and out of the sushi bars. A clandestine helicopter lands at four o’clock every morning on top of the towering silver-and-glass old St. James Club, at which time the tower’s lights go out …
In windows number four, five and six is the constant glint of the backfires. In windows seven and eight is the rain of their ash.
I love the ashes. I love the endless smoky twilight of Los Angeles. I love walking along Sunset Boulevard past the bistros where the Hollywood trash have to brush the black soot off their salmon linguini in white wine sauce before they can eat it. I love driving across one black ring after another all the way to the sea, through the charred palisades past abandoned houses, listening through the open windows to the phone machines clicking on and off with messages from somewhere east of the Mojave, out of the American blue. I’ve been in a state of giddiness ever since the riots of ten years ago, when I would take a break from finishing my last book and go up onto the rooftop, watching surround me the first ring of fire from the looting. I still go up there, and the fires still burn. They burn a dead swath between me and my memories. They burn a swath between me and the future, stranding me in the present, reducing definitions of love to my continuing gaze across the smoldering panorama as Viv, my little carnal ferret, devours me on her knees. I love having nothing to hope for but the cremation of my dreams; when my dreams are dead the rest of me is alive, all cinder and appetite. Don’t expect me to feel bad about this. Don’t expect my social conscience to be stricken. My conscience may be touched by my personal betrayals but not my social ones: the fires burn swathes between me and guilt as well. In this particular epoch, when sex is the last subversive act, I’m a guerrilla, spending my conscience in a white stream that douses no fires but its own.
Halfway through Sahara’s routine, Viv cooks up the kidnap plan. She maps it out for me on the cocktail napkin under my shot glass of Cuervo Gold, a tangle of lines and arrows that bleed into the tequila smudges. She explains it in the din of the music: “Now we’ll grab her here,” pointing at the napkin, “you throw her in the back seat—” Sahara has dropped her dress at the end of the second part of her act; true to form, once the third song begins she emerges naked from behind the curtain. The third song is the naked part, every dancer, every act. It’s clear right away that Sahara’s mystique doesn’t lie in her body. It’s good enough as a body but it’s not out of the ordinary: it’s Sahara’s face I love, and Viv too. Neither of us can get over it. She’s some mysterious blend of Persia and Icelandic, perfect and remote; her face says, If you are seduced by me, it’s your choice. I don’t care. The other people in the Cathode Flower, all men except Viv and the dancers, have no idea what to make of Sahara, that’s obvious. But Viv wants her as much as I do, maybe more. …
“The last time we did this—” I start to say.
“This isn’t going to be like the last time,” Viv shouts, over the music.
“I’m not throwing anybody in the back seat,” I explain. “I’m not good at that part. Besides, I’m driving.”
Viv looks at me in total exasperation. She’s five foot two, a hundred and six pounds; tonight she’s wearing a little white dress with nothing under it but a white garter belt that holds up her white stockings. She’s a wicked little angel, and suddenly I can’t help myself. I pull her up from the table and into the back of the club, around the corner into the hallway where the bathrooms are, and I pull up her dress. She opens my pants and puts me inside her. Fucking her against the wall I can see Sahara in her eyes like they’re little mirrors; she has a perfectly good view of her. Oh ooh, she says, those little sounds she makes when she’s not sure whether it feels good or hurts her, a confusion she finds particularly exciting. I stop when I know I’m going to come because I hold back until the evening’s over, our little agreement. “The plan!” she suddenly shouts, having left it on the table with our tequila, so we beat it back to our seats. Viv watches the rest of Sahara’s act transfixed.
Now all we can do is wait. Sahara won’t come out into the club for fifteen or twenty minutes, doing whatever the girls do backstage after they’re done. When she finally appears she glides along the back wall. She sits with the other girls in one of the booths, and Viv goes over to ask if she wants to have a drink. Viv is a lot less shy about it than I am and, since she’s a woman, less threatening; the dancers always talk to her and usually after a while they come to our table. Sahara strikes me as less approachable, but after she and Viv exchange a few words she joins us, shaking my hand perfunctorily and then the rest of the time talking to Viv.
She orders a Kahlúa. In the music I can’t hear a thing either of them says to each other, which is exactly the way I like it. Neither of them particularly wants me in the conversation anyway, which is also the way I like it; I just sit and check out the other dancers and drink my tequila and wait for Viv to fill me in later. From what I can tell in the dark Sahara isn’t the wildly animated type, as passively remote as she appears on stage, hiding the same secret damage all of these women hide. But Viv is undaunted. She has that kind of personality people instinctively trust, and as far as I know that includes Sahara. I just want to run my wet finger around the contour of Sahara’s mouth like I would around the rim of a wine glass trying to make a sound. For a moment I look away, and turn back to the two of them in time to see Viv lowering the top of her dress, and Sahara placing that mouth on her nipple. …
Outside the club the night sky is red from the backfires. “I didn’t know they were burning tonight,” I mumble half drunkenly in the car, behind the wheel. Viv is in the back seat like always and says something about how it was scheduled for next week, but the long-range forecast was for high winds so they moved it up. From what I can tell it’s either the second ring or third, starting at Beverly Hills to the west and circling around to Silverlake in the east, which means we’re pretty much confined to Hollywood unless one of the Black Passages is open on Sunset. Sahara has told Viv she gets off at one-thirty and we’re waiting in back of the Cathode Flower for her to show, assuming she does, which would make the abduction unnecessary; I don’t know that I’m really up to tossing strippers in the trunk tonight. For a while Viv is content to listen to the sky glow. “Maybe we should go watch the fire,” she murmurs dreamily.