Authors: Michael Mewshaw
Tags: #Domestic Fiction, #Psychological, #Family Life, #Literary, #Psychological Fiction, #Black humor (Literature), #Fiction - General, #Fiction, #Humorous, #Adult children of dysfunctional families
TO ARDEN PENELOPE MEWSHAW, MY FIRST GRANDCHILD
Everything in nature has a lyrical essence, a tragic destiny and a comic existence
I know the stars by heart. Not their names. Not what you’d find out through a telescope. But I know when they rise and when they fade, the ones that bring winter snow in the mountains and spring rain in the dry wash. Whatever the season I wake up in the dark and step outside and watch for the light. It’s a long watch, and even when the weather’s freezing I want to lie down in the sand and fall back to sleep. To stay awake I make a sound in my mouth that’s like the wind scraping across the desert, and pretty soon my head starts in on memories of all those years ago at home.
That was back east in Maryland. Now I live out west in the Slab City. It’s not a real city, just a crossroads near the California-Arizona line where people from around the country park their trailers. Old and young, retired or out of work, they spend the winter here. Then when the summer heats up they pack and leave, and I stay put and fix the slabs. The trailers leak water and oil and whatnot on the concrete. I wash that off and check for cracks and places that have chipped. There’s times I have to rebuild a whole foundation before folks roll in for fall.
Nicky, she’s the woman I work for and live with, she has me fix the fence around her property. It’s barbed wire, but not near as high as at a prison. Bushes and baby trees grow through it, and if you let them get big, the branches eat the barbed wire strand by strand. They can tug the fence straight down. So Nicky has me chop off the limbs. Afterward there’s chunks of wood stuck on the wire like strips of meat hung out to dry. I don’t care to look at them.
My favorite job is carrying cinder blocks on a hod. A hod is a contraption, a kind of tilted box on a stick. The Mexican that trucks in the blocks unloads them into the box on my shoulder and I lug them out to the slabs. Each trip the blocks on the hod make a different design, a checkerboard of hollows and solids and black-and-gray squares. But just half-thinking about it, I can keep them straight in my mind, like I keep track of my memories in the box in my head.
This box in my head is big, with dozens of drawers. It reminds me of the wooden chest in the prison library where inmates used to work on their appeals. Day after day they crowded around it, dragging out these long drawers, flipping through the cards, then banging them back into the slots. I imitated the sound, a sort of pistol-shot noise, but quiet so only I heard it.
In the morning when I’m waiting and humming and watching the mountains for the first sign of daylight, I’ll go to the box in my head and crack open a drawer. I’ll sniff it and taste it, and if it doesn’t smell too bad or taste too bitter I’ll dip into it for a spell. Most times it’s Cole I hunt for and crawl in with. Otherwise I’ll pass from drawer to drawer, visiting Mom and Candy and Quinn. Whenever they telephone, once or twice a year, there’s buzzing in my ears and water in my eyes, and it’s hard to find words. But in my head, in their separate drawers, things are clear, and I have no trouble talking.
Sometimes I visit myself as a kid. The memory drawers go back to when I was little enough for Dad to give me a bath in the kitchen sink. He set my bare ass on the cold drainboard and shoved my head under the spigot and scrubbed my hair with a bar of soap. The suds burned my eyes. But he didn’t stop. He plopped me on my feet and dried me with a starchy towel. His hands rubbed hard, like he was roughing me up, punishing me for something. Electricity went everywhere on my skin. That’s when I did the thing I’ll never forget. I balled up my fist and punched Dad in the face. He dropped his hands and the towel fell in the sink, and I busted out crying, knowing he’d hit me back.
That’s one drawer I stay away from. There’s others I break into, I’m so eager to climb inside. Only two drawers I’ve never been able to open. The first I figure has to be the day Dad died. The second I don’t have any idea what it holds and I’m afraid to find out.
The morning sky fades from black to blue, the stars blink out, and the world turns bright without them. I see the empty slabs all around me, and barbed wire with hanging wood chunks around the slabs. Nicky’s house is off in a corner. It’s an adobe as brown and smooth as a mud dauber’s nest.
The thing I like about living in the desert, there’s not so many changes. Just hot and hotter, then a winter that goes by so quick you don’t know where it went. No trees changing colors, no leaves falling, then burning with that sweet smoke that smothered me in Maryland, and none of the flowers that choked my nose in spring. Those in-between times were the worst, and I’m glad to live without them.
The same hour each day a plane from the West Coast swooshes past, up so high it barely leaves a nail scratch on the sky. In my mouth the wind sound becomes a motor. I’d love to fly. I know what it is to float. I feel that in my head a lot. But just once I’d love to be up there, looking down at the states between here and home.
The plane crosses the mountains from peak to peak. They’re shaped in steps, like a moving staircase in a department store. But the mountains stay still, and it’s the sun that jumps over the snow on the high places in a sort of signal that might mean good news or bad.
When I assure people that I’m happy and I love where I live, they presume that I mean London itself—the theater, the world-class museums, the Regency mansions and growing numbers of restaurants run by celebrity chefs. The whole vast thrumming multicultural megalopolis. But I feel little connection to that guidebook cliché. What I love is the leafy enclave of Hampstead, tucked away in the northwest corner of the city. For me it serves as a refuge, which despite its well-burnished history, carries no echo of my own fractious past.
I’m an actor, one whose career has reversed the arc traveled by an illustrious line of British entertainers. Unlike, let’s say, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, and Bob Hope, who crawled out of the English gutter, emigrated to the States, and reinvented themselves as Hollywood stars, I fled a scruffy precinct of the New World for the gentility of the Old. I traded the giant golden jackpot of America for a life of human and very handsome dimensions.
Plenty of Londoners don’t share my enthusiasm for Hampstead, and I’ve taken considerable ribbing because of the neighborhood’s reputation for designer-label living. Friends from edgier areas dismiss mine as trendy, snobbish, twee, a zone of house-proud toffs and politically correct kooks—the kind of constituency represented in Parliament by Glenda Jackson, for God’s sake.
I don’t bother to argue back. Nor do I waste my breath explaining that the village has historically attracted residents fleeing natural disasters and man-made catastrophes. The English raced to Hampstead’s high ground to escape the Plague, the Great Fire, the flooding Thames and its miasmal vapors. The street names alone—Well Walk, the Vale of Health—promised miraculous restoration to a roll call of famous consumptives and neurasthenics who flocked here. So who can fault me for settling in happily after the tumult of my childhood in Maryland?
Every day on my afternoon walk up Frognal Lane as I reflect on the life I’ve made for myself, it occurs to me that it resembles the red brick path I follow. Lovingly arranged, meticulously tended, each brick has been laid in place like a piece of a beautiful mosaic. The overall pattern remains pleasantly comforting even if a deep-buried tree root does occasionally rumple the surface.
My house is a sanctuary within the surrounding Eden. A renovated abattoir with beamed ceilings, it has a fireplace in the living room, exposed stone walls in the kitchen, and a conservatory that looks out over the garden. Mal, my agent, jokes that a conservatory is an oil-and-cash-guzzling space dedicated to the proposition that anyone with sufficient income can deny the reality of the English winter. While I’ll grant that it costs a bundle to cover the mortgage and keep the place ticking, I love sitting snug in the conservatory, ignoring the pissing rain or pelting sleet on the glass panels.
My garden is actually a ragged clump of shrubs and locust trees. Nobody’s done any pruning in ages, and I rarely have the grass cut for fear of uprooting the wildflowers that bloom in spring and chasing away the critters that burrow in the weeds.
My neighbors, no kidding, buy tiger shit from the London Zoo and spread it over their flowerbeds. They believe its wild scent scares off animals. But I allow creatures large and small free rein of my property. Squirrels, hedgehogs, voles, and field mice (they mutate into rats and become fair game for traps if they sneak into the house) frolic for my amusement. On clear winter mornings, like this one, a tawny fox, regal as a lion on the Serengeti, sometimes stretches out in the deep grass, soaking up the feeble warmth of the sun.
Today, however, I have no time to admire the view or search for the fox. I’m booked for lunch with my agent and a BBC producer. Already late, I nevertheless stroll to the restaurant by a circuitous route, reveling in cold air that rings like crystal. On certain streets, the walls of cottages huddle close, none more than a hand span apart. Each door is a different color—lipstick red, royal green, Della Robbia blue. At Admiral’s Walk, in front of the white wooden mansion where
was filmed, a brigade of tourists gape as if expecting to spot Julie Andrews sailing overhead, pulled along by her umbrella.
At Whitestone Pond, the highest point in London, the water is usually like a detergent-filled bucket stirred by a grimy mop. Today it glitters with jeweled ice. Convinced I’ve kept Mal and the man from the Beeb waiting long enough, I turn down Heath Street. The ethnicity of the restaurants along the road switches every month. Indian, Hungarian, Moroccan, Thai, Argentinean—maybe these joints just trade signs and go on serving the same grub. Only La Gaffe never changes. Despite the French name, it has an Italian menu, and attracts a clientele divided evenly between those who look like Peter O’Toole and those who crane their necks looking for him.
Until I insisted that I was too busy to travel into town, the gent from BBC proposed that we meet at his club, the Atheneum. This led me to expect a blimpish Oxonian nearing retirement age, someone who, instead of a gold watch, had been offered the opportunity to produce a last miniseries. But when I get to La Gaffe Ian turns out to be a short, trim fellow no older than Mal and with the same leathery tanned complexion. The two of them have the faces of hard riders to the hounds and hard drinkers after the hunt. They’re dead ringers for a couple of flamboyant hustlers at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Next to them I appear threadbare and pallid in my beat-up old Barbour coat.
Well into a bottle of Brunello di Montalcino, Mal and Ian are boisterously discussing foreign real estate. They break off for a moment while we exchange names and handshakes. Then Mal returns to the previous conversation and flabbergasts me by revealing that he owns what he refers to as “a bolt-hole in Brazil.” He must be doing much better for his other clients than he is for me.
As I pour myself some wine, Mal begins talking about a woman in Brazil who promised to introduce him to her “paralyzingly posh friends who have their own bolt-hole up the coast. There’s no road,” Ian says. “You reach the place by boat, a kind of local water taxi. It reminded me of a punt with an outboard motor and a fringed awning.”
“Brilliant,” Ian encourages him.
“As we put into this cove,” Mal continues, “Anthea started stripping off her kit. ‘Mal, be a darling,’ she said. ‘My friends are frightfully eccentric. They’re not nudists per se, but when they’re in Bahia they never wear clothes and neither do their guests. So be a love and do away with your swimsuit.’”
Ian leans forward, grinning, eager to laugh. None of this instills confidence in me that I’ll come away from lunch with anything except a heavy stomach and a headache. Still, Mal is no fool and I figure he must have something in mind. So I resign myself to doing what actors do between roles—attempting to seem interested, but not anxious, patient, but not a pushover.
“We waded ashore naked,” Mal says. “Don’t get me wrong. In different circumstances, I’d have been delighted to be on a tropical beach with Anthea in the raw. But with strangers watching me it was like that nightmare when you realize you’re at the office or in church.”
“Or on television,” Ian adds, “with no clothes.”
“Precisely. But this was hugely more embarrassing because, you see, as we crossed the sand toward this thatched hut I noticed a dozen people, proper British people, at a table and”—Mal slows down for effect—“and every one of them was dressed as if for a dinner party at Le Caprice. Only we were starkers.”
Ian guffaws, and a gout of wine, red as blood, spurts from his nostrils. Shielded by the menu, I don’t catch a drop of it. But pink polka dots well up on Mal’s Dunhill shirt. Through tears of laughter, Ian struggles to apologize. A waiter rushes over with salt and a seltzer bottle. At other tables people stop searching for Peter O’Toole and glare at us.
“Sorry, old man,” Ian says.
“Don’t be,” Mal says. “Getting a good laugh out of you makes up for any number of wine stains.”
“Do send me the laundry bill.”
“Don’t be silly. With all the pounds that Quinn and I plan to wring out of BBC what’s a few quid for the cleaners?”
Ian guffaws again, refills his glass, and tops up mine. Then as abruptly as that, the prologue ends, and although the tone stays chummy, the pitch commences. It’s not what you’d hear in Hollywood. No, this is London. It’s more like an oral exam in an Oxbridge tutorial. Still, a pitch is a pitch.
“I suppose you’re familiar with Aeschylus?” Ian asks. “The
“Of course he is,” Mal breaks in to save me from potential embarrassment.
“I haven’t read it since college,” I confess.
“But you remember the trilogy?”
“Who could forget it?” says Mal.
“We hope nobody has. Or nobody will once they’ve seen it as BBC means to present it. We’re convinced the Greek classics can be relevant to a wide audience if they’re properly formatted.”
A hovering waiter leans in as if listening to Ian’s project. But no, he’s waiting to take our orders. We all ask for salads and pasta, and Ian resumes.
“BBC is prepared to commit to a play a night for three nights on the trot.”
“Live?” I ask.
“No, tape. But we don’t believe that’ll compromise the intensity or immediacy. Our idea is to set the
in contemporary London, the House of Atreus in council housing. We want the characters to have the dramatic grandeur of archetypes, and yet at the same time human identities. They need to be people, real people, trapped in tragic dilemmas.”
“Some of these council estates outdo the Greeks,” Mal says. “You’ve read the headlines, haven’t you, Quinn? Female circumcision. Forced marriages. Islamist terror cells.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Ian slows Mal down. “We’re not planning to turn Aeschylus into tabloid journalism. But as we conceive it, the principal characters are Muslim immigrants. Very religious. From Pakistan, Afghanistan, someplace like that. Not political, just strict adherents to ancient traditions.”
“You have a script?” Mal asks, no doubt wondering, as I do, where I fit in.
“Yes. It’s Aeschylus, almost word for word. Only the context and motivation and a few scenes and lines have changed. Agamemnon is a fundamentalist patriarch who murders his daughter Iphigenia because she falls in love with a Christian boy. It’s an honor killing. His wife, Clytemnestra, goes mad with grief and avenges her daughter’s death by shooting her husband. Now her son Orestes is in agony, knowing he has to settle the score and kill his mother. The cycle of violence doesn’t stop until the boy’s trial, where the state replaces personal vengeance with institutional justice.”
“Christ, that’s quite a story,” Mal says and he sounds sincere.
“We think so. Out of savagery,” Ian recites as if from a cue card, “comes harmony. Through suffering the characters achieve grandeur and ritual significance.”
“Hubris leads to nemesis leads to catharsis,” I recall from my undergraduate course in Greek tragedy.
“Exactly. So you’re interested?” Ian presses me.
“That depends,” Mal chimes in.
“I’ll let you two argue about money,” I say. “My concern is the part you have in mind for me.”
“We believe you could play both Agamemnon and Orestes.”
“How’s he going to do that?” Mal asks.
“Orestes doesn’t appear in
,” Ian says. “He comes on in
The Libation Bearers
, years after his father’s death. Then there’s his trial in
. We think you’re the right age. What are you now, Quinn, early thirties?”
“Closer to forty.”
“Okay, we’ll age you for Agamemnon, but with a few touches of makeup you can still play Orestes. You’re center stage all three nights. For a serious actor, it’s the role of a lifetime.”
“I’m interested.” I keep it understated not just because I am with Brits. I have to hide my excitement from myself to guard against disappointment if I don’t get the part. “Before I decide, I’ll need to reread the plays.”
“Plenty of time,” Mal says. “Ian and I’ll hammer out a contract.”
“When do we shoot?” I ask.
“Ideally, this summer.”
I nod, and as if on signal the waiter arrives with the first course. Ian moves seamlessly from pitch-master to talk show host and tries to round things off by razzing Mal about his bare-assed humiliation in Brazil. But Mal puts him on the spot, saying, “It’s your turn. Tell us your worst embarrassment.”
I assume this must be a fixture at meals for old boys from English public schools. Ian joins the game with no reluctance. In fact he relishes the chance to describe a recent prostate examination.
“You’re probably too young to be familiar with the procedure,” he tells me. “What you do is drop your trousers and bend over the examining table. In goes the glove, and the moving finger having rooted around should promptly move on. But my doctor has offices at a teaching hospital, and in his plummiest bedside manner he said, ‘Hope you don’t mind, but our urology students are making the rounds today. They’d like to observe.’ What he meant was they’d like to do more than observe. He pulled his finger from my bum, and in wriggles one student’s, then another and another.”
This time, Mal guffaws. Fortunately there’s no wine in his mouth. I suspect that they’re both brewing to ask about my greatest embarrassment. On this score I have a rabid aversion to sharing. It’s nobody’s business, my hoard of childhood humiliations. My father’s death, my jailbird brother, my crippled sister, my brutal mother who bitch-slapped me into manhood, I hold them as close to the vest as a bluffing cardsharp holds his hand.
I sip the wine, followed by a glass of water. I finish my salad, then my pasta, and mop the plate clean with bread. By the ceremonial gravity of my gestures I cast myself in a classical mode, a man who doesn’t welcome personal disclosures. Refusing coffee, not tarrying to watch which one of them picks up the check, I step outside La Gaffe and into blinding sunlight. Down on Flask Walk in the tobacco-scented warmth of Keith Fawkes’s bookshop, I buy a used copy of the
Before I had Hampstead or my house and its conservatory and garden, books were my refuge, words my first love and last line of defense. Mom claims this came from her side of the family—a clutch of long-winded, loudmouthed, poetry-spouting Irish. I wouldn’t know. My encounters with my relatives tended to be brief and bruising, and I regarded reading as a way of avoiding them and everything else that pained me. But I don’t see myself sinking blissfully into this Penguin paperback. It’s not simply because it’s freighted with scholarly footnotes, a glossary of Greek vocabulary, and a ninety-page introduction. From college I remember my deep unease at Aeschylus, my shock of recognition at the House of Atreus. Too close to home, too close to home, I had thought, and tried to shut the tragedy from my mind even as I mechanically kept turning the pages.