Authors: Steve Erickson
She threw her arms around my neck. She pulled her face to mine, and put her little mouth to my ear. “I’m still so hungry for you,” was the last thing she whispered, before she disappeared like a ghost of the Seacastle, who had stepped from the shadows just long enough to show me not who I was but who I could be, before she stepped back.
The day after Viv left, Shale called with the news that Freud N. Johnson had finally fired him.
He was quite calm about it, which is not quite to say passive. As usual, he seemed most concerned about how to prepare the staff for the news; he had already told both Dr. Billy and Ventura, and asked that I not say anything to anyone else for twenty-four hours, until the firing became effective. “I know,” he concluded, “that this doesn’t come at an easy time for you. I don’t want you to do anything stupid. There’s absolutely nothing you have to prove to me.” Of course, I muttered. I hung up the phone and typed up my resignation. I waited for Ventura to call, which he did, and then Dr. Billy; both asked what I was going to do, just to make sure, I guess.
I didn’t presume anything of anyone else. I was close to broke, but my circumstances were no more dire than others’: Dr. Billy’s dead millionaire money ran out some time ago, and he hadn’t been able to get his latest documentary about sex addicts in Anchorage off the ground. No one had more at stake than Ventura, who confided he was deeply in debt. As Ventura suspected might happen, Freud N. Johnson did offer him the editorship of the newspaper; thus he was confronted with a choice between destitution and not only security but something that I think had always represented to him a secret dream, to run the paper he had started. I don’t think Ventura had ever given up on that dream. He always thought it was really his newspaper and, in a way, he had always been right. Now the tone of his voice was both funereal and charged, or whatever pitch suits the man who has to decide between having everything and having nothing, and finds for vague, almost inexplicably moral reasons that what should be the easiest decision in the world is the hardest.
By that evening the rumors were rampant. Around midnight the noir blonde from the advertising department called almost giddy with excitement; I finally hung up on her, because she was just enjoying the whole thing too damn much. The next morning it became official, and I got ready to head down to the newspaper. More than just wanting to get it over with, I also didn’t want anyone to think I had wavered, and I suppose it’s possible, though I honestly don’t think so, that I didn’t want to waver on my own account either. The Hamblin was in full bloom this morning, the sun blasting in through the hole in the hallway ceiling where the rain had collapsed; exotic vines wound up out of the elevator shaft. Ventura was strolling up and down the hallway lost in thought, his hands in his pockets. I told him I was heading down to the newspaper. It wasn’t until then I was completely sure what his decision was; he said Dr. Billy was on his way over and I should wait and they would go with me. Billy had phoned this morning, Ventura said, “wanting to know if we would be quitting if you weren’t.” Obviously I didn’t have an answer for that. Half an hour later Dr. Billy showed up, and for a while we stood around looking at each other in the hallway before Ventura said, “Let’s go.” The newspaper office was in a tizzy by the time we got there. The official word was now definitely out. I didn’t feel like talking to a lot of people about it, holding their hands and repeating ad nauseam my little speech about how everyone had to make his or her own decision. I certainly wasn’t going to try and rouse the rabble. I wanted to get in and get out. The three of us confronted Freud N. Johnson in his office with our resignations. His face went a distinctly sick shade of pale when we walked in. He sat behind a huge gleaming black desk that appeared to have been chosen both to assert his importance and protect him from moments just like this one, and on top of this mammoth desk was absolutely nothing but a digital clock and a video entitled
How to Fire People
. After a while he couldn’t bear sitting any longer, so he stood up. We didn’t beat about the bush. I had no illusions about the impact of my own leaving; of the three of us I knew I’d be the least missed. Dr. Billy was a much bigger blow, to both the paper and the staff, not only because of his popularity but because his departure dramatically contradicted what some might have misperceived as a survivalist’s amorality about office politics. It was Ventura’s loss, however, that the paper would find especially devastating, not to mention extremely inconvenient for Freud N. Johnson to try and explain, since the paper was not only losing a prospective editor but its most famous and mythic figure. So now Johnson was too shocked to say much, and while it surprised me at the time, in retrospect it’s entirely predictable that his main concern was not trying to talk us out of quitting, or making sure others didn’t quit, but preempting whatever bad publicity might come out of the whole thing. He tried a bit of strong-arming that was frankly beyond him. If there was any trouble about all this, he warned, he would put out any number of stories about Shale: embezzlement perhaps—his mind was whirring like a little wheel with a rodent inside, racing in place—or harassing female employees.
“You try that,” Dr. Billy said, stepping up to Johnson around the desk and pressing his nose inches from the other man’s, “and I will come back, and find you, and get you.”
“Wh-Wh-What?” Johnson croaked.
“I said,” Dr. Billy repeated very calmly, “that if you try that, I will
.” I don’t know exactly what he meant, and I’d bet almost anything Dr. Billy didn’t know either. But that didn’t matter. None of us had ever seen Dr. Billy do anything like this, and it was a little frightening, every bit of his affability falling away to reveal a livid core—to which the color of Freud N. Johnson’s face went from ill to cadaverous. If I had tried to threaten Johnson in this way, it wasn’t likely anyone would have taken it very seriously, including Johnson, and if Ventura had done it, well, Ventura was crazy enough that while everyone would have taken it seriously, no one would have been shocked by it. Moreover, Ventura was taller than Johnson, and I was taller yet, and it would have been different for Johnson to be threatened by a taller man: it might have allowed him the luxury of seeing himself as a sympathetic figure, being bullied. But Dr. Billy was looking right into Johnson’s eyes and Johnson was looking right into his, and in this moment Johnson was having one of the few true epiphanies of his life, one of the few true moments of clarity where he actually understood something profound, which was that Dr. Billy O’Forte could be a foot shorter and he would always be a big man, and Freud N. Johnson could be a foot taller and he would always be a little man. And that realization was almost too much for him; I wouldn’t have been surprised at that moment if he’d run howling from his office out into the street and thrown himself in front of a truck, if only he had the self-respect to do it. Instead he cowered and fell back into his chair, far below Dr. Billy’s gaze, at a height that suited him all the better, and said, “I want you to know I respect you for feeling that way. I want to thank you for telling me that, and I want you to know how much I respect that you said it.” The next day he would call Dr. Billy again, just to make sure Dr. Billy understood how much Freud N. Johnson respected Dr. Billy for having told him that he would come and get him.
To their credit, in the next twenty-four hours two other writers quit as well. They included an English woman who had just passed up a couple of other job offers the previous month, including a teaching position and a big-time gig at a newspaper in Chicago; and a guy who had just closed out his house with his wife and packed everything they owned off to Washington, D.C., contingent on an arrangement with the newspaper that he would continue to write from the East Coast as a staff writer. Without thinking about it ten seconds he quit anyway, he and his wife last seen driving off into uncertainty, neither prospects nor steady income anywhere in sight. I suppose in these situations you can always figure there will be people who, with the least leeway possible, will take a principled position anyway. Back at the suite, the messages came in on my phone machine over the next forty-eight hours. There was one from the noir blonde, apologizing for the conversation the night before, and as the news filtered out—like I’ve said, people three thousand miles away find out what’s going on in L.A. before anyone here does—writers and journalists from other newspapers and magazines called to get the story. Those were the tedious messages, which I nonetheless returned. Much better were the outbursts from others on the paper’s staff, a rare few of which were mature and consoling and regretful, most of which were frantic and resentful. “You’ve abandoned us,” angrily sobbed one woman. Seethed another, “You’re so
you could quit.” There apparently seemed to be a general feeling among the staff that those of us who quit didn’t really need these jobs, but worked at the paper as some sort of hobby. Over the coming days my machine recorded many more wails of woe about how terrible it was to have to still work at the paper, as well as expressions of alarm when it came to light that Shale had actually saved the jobs of a number of people that office gossip had it he was trying to get fired. I have to admit I had quite a good time with all these messages. I drove around the city playing them over and over on my car stereo, a long symphony of collective sniveling so rapturously shameless it verged on the transcendent. There was a genius about it, really, the way the kids had managed to turn themselves into the martyrs and still collect their paychecks. It seemed rather dim of Ventura and Dr. Billy and me that we hadn’t thought of it.
According to Ventura, the universe doesn’t know from random. “Happens all the time,” he used to say confidently to the most peculiar instances of synchronicity. So there might well have been meaning—though I’m not claiming one—in the coincidence of the letter I received right after turning in my resignation. It was from the Committee of the First and Only Annual Craters of the Moon Film Festival, inviting me as a guest to the festival’s opening night, where there would premiere the long lost but rediscovered and restored silent masterpiece
The Death of Marat
. The festival was also pleased to announce that the film’s director, Adolphe Sarre, would himself attend. My first reaction, particularly given the timing, was that the joke had been taken rather too far. But then I remembered that I was, after all, the one who had taken it there.
From the summit of Laurel Canyon, the second light to be seen in the northern hills on the other side of the Valley—if you move your gaze westward—is my mother. She lives there where she’s lived my whole life, in a two-bedroom flat above a little theater she used to run. From the summit of Laurel Canyon it used to be twenty minutes by freeway to reach this light; now it’s a little under an hour by surface streets. Now the only ones who live in the Valley are the ghosts of the Indians who lived here to begin with, until the Spanish monks came and built the mission, and the keepers of the lights in the hillsides, of which I count no more than six or seven most nights, and on some nights not that. If her eastern neighbor, whoever he might be, leaves his house dark, then my mother becomes the first light rather than the second, and I have to backtrack.
My mother is in her late sixties. As one is supposed to do but rarely does, she seems to have gotten better at life as she’s gotten older. With my father gone she hasn’t had much choice, unless she was going to give it up altogether; and though in that first year following his death she may believe she came close to such an option, no one else who knows her is likely to think so. Give me the rest of my own life and I’ll see if I can remember my mother ever giving up on anything. I worry about her being alone, of course—I still wince at how easily, just months after my father died, I almost left L.A. with Sally—though sometimes I think she worries about my solitude more than I do hers. For a woman of such strong ideas about things, it must have taken all of her will to resolve, sometime after I left home around eighteen, not to tell me how to live my life; but she hasn’t, even if once in a while she hints gently. Driving out tonight I already know she isn’t going to be happy with my two bits of news: that I’ve quit my job; and that Viv has left. Quitting a job on principle is the kind of grandstanding self-congratulatory gesture I’ve been making my whole life, so she’ll probably get used to that one, but as for Viv, my mother is more partial to her than to anyone I’ve ever been with. The two of them have the same edge, as well as a nearly genetic hostility to ambiguity, however much wisdom may have taught them how much life is ambiguous. “If you ever let Viv go,” my mother laughed not all that long ago, “I’m afraid I’d have to kill you.” She was only half kidding when she said it. She had drunk only enough wine to inspire her to say the truth, rather than so much as to say what she didn’t really mean. She fears and dreads, I think, what she senses is my true nature: to go it alone in the end. But recently I’ve come to suspect it’s only part of my nature; just how big a part is what I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now, along with everyone else who blindly, haphazardly wanders across the firing range of my life.
My mother cooks dinner and we discuss movies, the empty theater beneath our feet and the days when it wasn’t empty, and politics and the country. We disagree a lot about politics, except that as time passes each of us moves toward what the other views as an evolving reasonableness. We usually have a good time in these discussions, though lately, as things in the country have gone the way they’ve gone, I guess I don’t enjoy it quite as much. “Your father couldn’t talk about these things without getting angry,” she remembers correctly. We don’t talk that much about my father; perhaps both of us sometimes wonder if we should, though it doesn’t feel like there’s something significant that’s being avoided or left unsaid. When he died we didn’t have a funeral or a memorial, since the one thing we all shared, my father most of all, was an abhorrence of ritualizing death. He was privately cremated and his ashes cast at sea, as I would want to be. Still, there are times I wonder fleetingly if maybe we should have done something after all. I don’t know. I suspect not doing something seemed stranger to other people than it did to us. Having married the man when she was eighteen and spent over forty years with him until his death, my mother was baffled and a little annoyed with herself when, a year after he died, she wasn’t over it yet. She may be the kind of person who couldn’t function in her indomitable fashion if she allowed herself to believe that, in fact, she would never really be over it. Being the sort of person I am, I accepted that from the beginning, and that somehow made it easier.