Authors: Dan Fante
Sometimes, in a panic, you wake up in the middle of the night, not knowing where you are. Bolt upright. After you realize you’re okay, you suck back a half-dozen pulls from the bottle on the floor by the bed. You smoke a cigarette. Two. If you’ve had enough whiskey, you can fall back to sleep. Sometimes.
In the morning you come to and start puking. But you must drink again right away to hold off the heebie-jeebies. So you drink and you puke some more, because the booze won’t stay down.
You try eating food to settle yourself. Anything. Stale bread. Dry cereal. Peanut butter by the spoon. Anything.
Eventually the food stays in your stomach, and you’re okay and you can start again. The best thing, of course, is vodka in orange juice. Or ginger ale. Cold. Cold is always best. If you haven’t got vodka, a beer. But it has to be cold. If it’s not cold, you’ll puke again. And that’s how it goes—if you have money. If you’ve got money, you’ve got no worries—not a care in the world.
Sometimes my runs lasted ten days. Two weeks. How long they go on depends on how much my body can take. When your ankles and feet stay numb all day, it’s time to ease off.
The day I started back, I had a fistful of hundred dollar bills,
clean socks and underwear in my drawer, and a 5.00 p.m dentist appointment for an examination because my gums bleed all the time. I was thinking constantly about Jimmi, but I had made no conscious decision to drink again or even had any thoughts about it. The morning after Kammegian fired me, I was up early, slurping coffee in the communal breakfast room at my recovery house, re-reading my story, ‘Compatibility’. I remember for once liking what I had written. Straight up fiction. Dashiell Hammett. Boom boom short sentences. Like my father’s stuff. Hemingway. My twenty-five pages were just right for the high-end man’s magazine market. I had made up my mind to send the story off.
My plan for that day, except for the dentist, was to completely re-read my story, attend the movies, and go to an AA meeting with Liquor Store Dave. Because money was no problem, I told myself that I’d start looking for a new telemarketing gig in a week or so.
After more coffee, upstairs at the hall payphone, unable to stop myself, I dialed her number again and again. I wanted to say I was sorry and say hello.
Jimmi’s sister, Sema, with the two kids, answered the phone. One of them was crying in the background. Sis said Jimmi was in the bathroom and asked me to hold on. There was yelling through the door—Jimmi shouting something back. Sema asked me my name. I told her, ‘Bruno’. Jimmi yelled something in Mexican, then the phone clicked dead.
On my way to the movies, I stopped at the 7—11 for cigarettes. A guy was sitting against the wall outside the store—a street guy. Shaking one out. He wanted chump change for some beer. We talked for a minute.
Thinking back, that was how it started. I bought him two
cans of Coor’s and brought them out. I didn’t drink with him, but my mind did. I never let go of the impulse.
Parking my Chrysler at the movies, I was twenty minutes early. I hate the fuckasshole commercials and trailers and the hard-sell stuff they make you watch for fifteen minutes before the feature, so, with ‘Compatability’ under my arm, I walked to the bookstore nearby to kill some time, to see if they stocked any titles by the dead writer, Jonathan Dante.
The bookstore was closed. The sign in the window said opening time was one o’clock (the same time as the movie). Next door was an air conditioned sports bar: the Alibi Room. I walked in. Not a second thought—no hesitation at all—found a stool, set ‘Compatibility’ down on the bar, then ordered a double Stoli shooter with a beer back. One sip and I was home.
An hour later, Cin walked in. It was the beginning of the second inning of a Mets/Dodgers game on TV. I had finished re-reading my story about a dating service salesman being seduced by the red-haired manager of a uniform store.
Cin was short for Cynthia. Australian with an accent. Lovely large floppy tits. Her friend with the big hair and the shopping bag was Nikki. Cin had been in America for twenty years. She was older than me by a dozen years, but pretty. Short blonde hair. Ass wide and ample. By comparison, Nikki’s ass was huge, a hippopotamus ass.
Cin ordered tequila and smiled at me when they sat down. Nikki ordered something red that came with an umbrella.
Piazza homered early with two guys on, so the game was in good shape. The girls were talking about their vacation in Barcelona. They were animators at The Kartoon Factory in El Segundo.
Mike, the barkeep, was coming and going behind the bar. He and the weekend bartender, Stu, were involved playing
a video game. Yelling and whooping and high-fiving in an imitation of a commercial for basketball shoes. When any of us at the bar required another drink, we had to contend with getting Mike’s attention.
Closest to me was Cin, only a stool between us. Nikki had anchored her ass on the far side. Everything Cin said was in a low voice, a semi-whisper, which I liked. Sexy. I learned from the girls that animating is a lucrative occupation. It’s piece work, but when animators are being paid to animate, the money is excellent. The two of them traveled a lot together and made excursions to various foreign destinations.
My buzz was good and my money was on the bar: a stack of hundreds and twenties to impress the girls. I was paying for their drinks and for mine, but Mike clearly didn’t give a fuck about his patrons because of the video game. I tried tipping him ten dollars, but it didn’t help.
‘Compatibility’ was in front of me. I said I was celebrating a film deal. Big Nikki suggested that she and I might have friends in common at the studios and wanted to know who I was doing business with. What producer. What production company. I changed the subject.
The Dodgers got five runs in the third and two in the fourth. I bought us each three rounds, so we didn’t have to worry about Mike. Presently, good and drunk, I began to put a move on Cin. I told her ‘Cynthia’ was my favorite woman’s name. My aunt’s name was Cynthia. As a kid, my family had pet bull terriers, brother and sister, named Rocco and Cynthia.
There was a sweetness about her. Not like the insanity in Jimmi’s eyes. A gentleness from some old sadness. She knew New York too. Manhattan and Soho and the upper West Side, The Ansonia Hotel. While we talked, she leaned over to pick a piece of lint off the front of my Yankees cap.
Mike came back and poured more drinks then switched the
satellite station from the Mets to hockey without asking shit from anybody.
Soon, big Nikki was bored and drunk. Five tiny, bent, pink umbrella sticks spelled out ‘N I K I’ on the bar. Finishing her drink, she suggested to Cin that they both should leave. After some conversation I didn’t hear and a quick phone call from the cell portable in her purse, Nikki went off alone.
Cin and me continued talking. It turned out she was an avid reader. Agatha Christie and that stuff, but Harry Crews and Sherwood Anderson too. And Herman Hesse. Even one or two by Selby. Her breath was sweet, and her thighs were firm and strong against the inside of her thin dress. She was touchy too, putting her hand on my arm as we talked. She asked if she could read ‘Compatibility’ and wanted me to loan it to her. I shook my head no. My last copy, I said. It was my only copy.
One drink later, she leaned close to my ear. ‘Time to go, Bruno,’ she whispered. ‘Meeting friends for dinner.’ Then she kissed the side of my head. ‘You’re quite drunk. You should go too.’
The sadness in her was deep. It filled the room and touched me. Impulsively, carried away by the emotions of the moment, I passed her my story. ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘read it and send it back.’ I wrote my Venice P.O. box number and zip code on the front by my name. Then I said, ‘Can I tell you something?’
Cin was smiling. ‘Of course.’
I leaned close and put my hand on her leg. ‘The way your body looks in that dress makes my dick hard.’
Her eyes came alive and began to twinkle. She tilted her head back. ‘Say that again.’
I kissed her neck. ‘I said, you make my dick hard.’
Her fingers were on my arm. ‘You have to look at me when you talk.’
‘Why? Are you a lip reader?’
Without shame she pulled the hair back on the left side of her face. There was no ear where an ear should be, only an indentation and a smooth scar. ‘I have to be face to face when we talk.’
She nodded, looking almost afraid. ‘I hear a bit out of my right ear, but not much,’ she whispered. ‘So, say it again, Bruno. I am interested.’
Being sure she saw my mouth, my words came out too loud. ‘I love you. Could we go somewhere and fuck?’
Cin laughed. ‘Not today, angel.’
‘Would you like my phone number?’
‘I would. Yes. I want your phone number.’
Taking a pen and a business card from her purse, on the back she wrote her name and a Hollywood 323 area code number. The penmanship was perfect. ‘Drive safe,’ she said. Then she was gone. ‘Compatibility’ under her arm, a sweet melancholy lingering behind like the quietness of jasmine.
Now it was only me and Mike. Stu, his video game partner, was gone. Walking back from the pisser, I stopped by Ninja Bloodbath/Marauders of Death. A kickboxing video deal. Mike was still at the machine. I watched for a minute. It was bullshit. A preposterous child’s amusement. The principle of the game appeared to be maiming your opponent by karate kicking, then hacking and dismemberment. There were controls: two red buttons and a joy stick.
He sensed me behind him, and I knew it made him uncomfortable. I didn’t care if Mike was uncomfortable. Mike was an asshole, a crime against the environment.
I continued to watch the action. His warrior was getting nailed and sliced up. The opponent, the computer, was piling
up points. Then Mike settled down. He pounded the buttons in front of him, wiggled furiously on the joy stick, and made his guy leap in an impossible twirling pirouette. Down he came, hacking off his opponent’s fighting arm. The next move was a gore to the throat. A nifty one-two. The tide had turned. Mike’s digitized killer began bouncing up and down waving his weapons, waiting for the opposition to get up. Oozing blood and bodily fluids, the enemy squirmed in an attempt to get to his feet. But Mike tapped crazily at his red button and his man showed no mercy, kicking out viciously with a stiletto-pointed armored boot. Down again went the opponent, the spike driven deep into his forehead.
It was time for the game’s final move. Mike’s killer did a flip and crashed down on the fallen warrior’s skull. Blood and brain tissue squirted against the inside of the video screen. Death! Victory! 940,000 points.
‘How ‘bout it, Ace,’ Mike sneered. ‘Wanna play? You and me.’ He was ready. His neck veins throbbing. ‘Tell you what,’ he said, ‘I’ll make it easy; ten bucks a match. Loser buys the drinks.’
‘How about fifty bucks a game?’ my mouth shot back. ‘How about that,
‘You know Bloodbath? You play?’
‘Fifty bucks a game,’ I said. ‘Here’s mine.’ I slapped a hundred up on the glass.
After he had won the first round, we began going double or nothing. Half an hour later, I was cleaned out. Twelve hundred dollars.
I was evicted. That night at the recovery home, Chickenbone, the manager, saw me come in drunk. That was that. While I was packing I kept trying to call Jimmi from the upstairs payphone but her sister’s answering machine kept clicking on,
screening my calls. After a pocketful of quarters, I finally left a message.
‘Jimmi—Bruno…I’m moving out. Tonight. They kicked me out…You there? I’m sorry you got fired. I got fired too. I want to see you. I want us to talk.’
I heard a click, like someone was listening on the line. Then it went dead.
MY RUN LASTED nine days. Drunk around the clock with the blinds down and porn movies blinking at me from the TV. My new home was Room 117 at The Prince Carlos, a U-shaped, fifties-style ‘remodeled’ motel on Sepulveda Boulevard. Before the neighborhood changed the building had once been two floors of furnished studio apartments. Now it was $197 per week. Two weeks up front. The Carlos was the only motel on the street advertising air conditioning, weekly rates, and all rooms with HBO and Adult Movies. ‘Se habla español.’
It took several days for the crazies to start. It had been over half a year since the last time, but now they were on me. It was bad. I had been sleeping only an hour or two at a stretch and hadn’t got drunk enough—hadn’t been numb enough—so when I fell asleep there they were—the terrors—the phantom fuckers. Huge bastards, scurrying around, the size of dogs—bodies like roaches—on my wall, scooting along, their lizard fucking tails twisting, up the ceiling and across, one side of the room to the other. Watching me as they crawled. Leering. If I woke up with a jerk, sat up, sometimes it would take a full minute or two for the images to go away.
Sometimes I would hear them in the drawers. Or the floor creaking. They bred in closets, hidden places. By the hundreds. Scratching noises everywhere.
A day later, with a lot more booze, it got better because I
kept myself awake, burning myself on the arm with the tip of my cigarette.
Scratching. Scratching. Scratching.
If I had to piss, I pissed in an empty vodka bottle, pissed over everything because I was shaking. Pissed on my fingers. On the sheets.
Then finally, exhausted, I slept.
When I opened my eyes, it was to a different noise. Outside, the rumbling sound of the motel maid’s heavy, metal-wheeled cleaning cart. I realized it must be morning. I had no idea what day. My body hurt. I couldn’t move. My face, my legs, my back. Pain everywhere.
Looking around, I saw that I was not in my bed. I was in the bathtub, naked. With me was my stuff, all that I owned: shoes, bottles, clothes, my typewriter, a fake plant, a suitcase, my books. I had relocated my life to the bathroom. The sharp pain at my temple was being caused by the volume dial of my portable radio.
Shifting positions, I looked at my watch. Seven o’clock. On the linoleum floor was a bottle. Half empty. I took a long hit. With the drink came an acute awareness. I was now fully crazy. If I kept going, I would be dead.
I was hungry. My shakes were bad, and the sourness in my stomach was choking me. I unloaded the tub, slowly, one object at a time, then moved all my shit back to the main room.
After puking, I took a slow hot shower, putting down the rest of the vodka; then I found a shirt and got dressed.
In the daylight on the staircase of the Prince Carlos Motel, it took a long time for my eyes to adjust. When I had convinced myself there was nothing crawling near my feet, it became okay to walk across the asphalt to my car.
I drove slowly to Vons market and purchased cold beers to
taper down. A ham and cheese sandwich from the deli section. Only one quart of vodka.
Back in the Chrysler, after I ate and drank two beers, I felt okay. Better. I still had the shakes, but I congratulated myself on making it out into the world. I decided to drive to the beach to my Venice P.O. box. I hit the radio. The blues station. 88.1. Otis Redding. ‘I Been Lovin’ You Too Long.’ I cranked the music up to make sure it was louder than my head.
At the post office, opening my P.O. box, ten days of congested pulp spilled out. There was a big brown envelope. Even before I looked to see who it was from, I knew the sender was the sad Australian woman. Then I saw the handwriting, formal, calligraphic. My returned manuscript.
‘Cynthia Appleton. 8743 Wonderland Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90048.’
Post-marked two days before. Safe to open.
Most all the other stuff was crap, but two letters worried me. One had a New York law firm as the return address; I assumed it was my ex-wife’s attorney. Another one, an evil-looking, blue-bordered prick, note size, bore one of my mother’s stick-on return address labels. The postmark was a week old. Trouble. I threw everything into a trash bin except Cynthia’s package and mom’s note.
I was right.
Mom’s letter was to notify me that my brother, Rick, was dead from an exploded ulcer. Forty-eight years old. The family genius. Jonathan Dante’s first-born pride and joy. Ricardo Frederico Dante. Rick Dante. My big brother. Chess champion at ten, scholarship to art school, one of the designers for NASA of the flexible struts that held the first space stations together. A thinker. A guy deeply into books and Wagner and the histories of weird SS German generals. A confused, sad, isolated, bad-tempered, damaged mooch of
a guy. Dead from years of scouring his large intestine with two quarts of whiskey a day. First Pop, then Fat Willie. Now Rick. Dantes were dropping like flys.
I shoved mom’s note down into my pants pocket, then locked my P.O. box.
Outside, at the top of the steps, I was hit by a blast of summer heat and dizziness, so I sat down. The mighty Pacific sun had worked its way above the buildings, blinding me. A dozen nearby roofs had become shimmering, punishing, mosks: vengeful fire gods reflecting their contempt on anything not young and tan and imbued with L.A.’s frenzied TV optimism.
Below me were people, locals coming and going around the Venice Boulevard traffic circle. Skateboarders. Mothers pushing strollers. Rollerbladers. People attending to the business of Monday. Lighting a Lucky, I took a deep hit and leaned back out of the glitter. Soon the day would be swarming. Pizza stands and ten-dollar parking lots would fill with tourists and immigrants talking in thirty different languages. Another perfect, cloudless summer day in the endless California dream. And my brother Rick was dead. Insignificant by comparison. Nothing at all.
A girl in a tight two-piece bathing suit skipped by me up the steps into the post office, her thighs brown and flawless. A depilatory commercial.
I opened Cynthia’s envelope. Clipped to the cover of ‘Compatibility’ was a note on Victorian-looking pink paper telling me how much she liked the story. Little fat angels with roses in their mouths floated along the paper’s border. Cin’s telephone number was there too.
The post office has pay phones in front, so I punched in the number and let it ring.
I had forgotten Cynthia was deaf. When she answered, her
voice had a distant, officious tone. She asked me to speak up and told me that an amplification gadget was attached to her earpiece.
I immediately realized that the call was a mistake. I was unprepared for conversation. My brain began pounding. Cin started asking questions, normal conversation shit. Too much. How was I? Was I writing?
‘I’m sweating,’ I said. ‘My brother Rick is dead. How are you?’
Speaking his name triggered a phantom. Suddenly Richard Dante’s sour face was in my mind: a sneering, twisted genie. Part hangover, part insanity from my motel room. It felt like the asshole was standing next to me on the concrete—in my face the way he used to be when we were kids.
I began shaking.
Attempting to save myself I hung up the telephone. But I could smell this ghost’s odious, stinking breath. To quell the stink I lit a new Lucky Strike, took a deep hit, and sat back down on the concrete.
In a few minutes I was calmer, alone again.
In my pocket I found more quarters, got up, and re-dialed Cin.
‘Bruno, you rang off.’
‘AT&T. The fucking telephone company. The Military-Industrial Complex.’
‘…Much better. I can hear you quite clearly now. Did you say someone died?’
‘You said you liked “Compatibility”?’
‘You have a great imagination. Have you written other things, more stories, more screenplays?’
‘I lied about the film script, Cin. I’ve never written a screenplay.’
(There he was—again—suddenly. Next to me. Less form than voice this time. About twenty years old, hissing
in my ear…‘Wait! Ha-ha, my brother, a writer?’ he ridiculed. ‘When did that happen? Is this some kind of idiotic, witless, preposterous attempt at humor?’)
I was shaking again. Dizzy.
(‘Who is this twat? I know! This is the thick-thighed fat-ass blonde from the bar? That Australian bitch?’)
‘Bruno, you have to speak up. I can’t hear you.’
‘I’m not really a writer.’
(‘Whaddya know, the truth! Our father was the writer, a giant of words, a poet, a raconteur. Tell her that. What you are is a regurgitating, moron fuck. A pathetic outpatient.)
‘What, Bruno…I’m sorry.’
I was dizzy, passing out. I had to hold on to the frame of the phone stand to keep myself upright. ‘Cin, I have to call you back.’
‘…Why? What’s wrong?’
‘I’m a telemarketer…An unemployed boiler room phone guy. I’m not a writer. Not really.’
(‘Thanks for the honesty, bitch! What you are is a loser. A Twelve-Step recovery-home cripple. Now tell this deaf kooze about the twelve hundred dollars you lost gambling at that fucking video game. Tell her, cheese dick!)
‘Please don’t hang up. “Compatibility”
your story? It’s a good story. You wrote it, correct?’
My body was breathing hard, sucking air in and out, half-coughing words into the phone. ‘Let’s get together for a drink, Cin. I want to see you.’
(‘Drink? What drink? You want pussy. Say it! Pussy, pussy, pussy. You can smell the tangy stink of her snatch right here over the phone. Tell her that.)
‘Please slow down. I’m losing what you’re saying.’
I formed the words carefully. ‘I want you to ask me over to your house. Can we get together?’
(‘Now it comes! The begging! Shit-pants little Bruno.)
‘Is today okay?’
‘You sound…a bit odd, Bruno. Are you alright?’
‘I said my brother’s dead…I just found out.’
(‘What happens when you’re in the sack with this fat kooze and you decide you want a blow job? Think about it! What do you do, use fuckin’ sign language?’)
‘I’m terribly sorry, Bruno.’
‘Cin…I like you. I like watching your eyes move while you read my lips. I need to talk. To be with someone. Do you mind?’
(‘Fuck you! You don’t give a rat’s dick about my rotting body. You want pussy!’)
‘I’ve got appointments and errands to run until this afternoon.’
‘I remember Cin, you like tequila. I’ll pick some up on my way. Okay?’
‘About three? I’ll be home at three.’
‘I want to kiss you, Cin.’
‘You’re very impulsive.’
‘You want to kiss me too—don’t you?’
(‘I’m about to shit myself here…’)
‘…Okay. But Bruno, only to talk. I’m quite serious. I don’t like moving fast when I first meet someone. Please understand.’
‘I know your address. Laurel Canyon, right?’
‘I’ll see you at three.’
(‘Outstanding, dickless! You have the verbal acuity of a Central Avenue crack dealer.)
There was a homeless guy at the bottom of the post office steps. Young and drunk. In his twenties. Toothless gaps when he talked. Seeing me smoking, he waved his hand, pointing at my Lucky cigarette.
I handed him one. When he saw what it was—that it had
no filter—he tossed it over his shoulder into the street. ‘Got anything else?’ he cracked. ‘I smoke filters.’
Cin’s house on stilts and her big red cat named Camus had come in a divorce. Gerald, the ex-husband, was an important corporate guy in the London/L.A. music business. Nineteen years into the marriage, one night at dinner over a bottle of Pouille Fousse, Gerry let Cin know that he took it up the ass. He’d decided to go full-time gay with his Puerto Rican lover, Ugo. Along with the house and Camus and a permanent case of the empties in the divvy up, Cin got four thousand a month in alimony.
It took me two hours, a shower, a Burger King Whopper and half the quart of Stoli, and blasting my car radio, to quiet my brother Rick’s voice. My Chrysler was running good except for a funny engine smell, and the A/C was blowing cold. I took Venice Boulevard east toward downtown L.A. When I got to La Cienega, I turned left to Pico, then over at Crescent Heights. Crescent Heights turns into Laurel Canyon Boulevard when you get into the Hollywood Hills.