Authors: Dan Fante
CYNTHIA’S HOUSE WAS two miles up Laurel Canyon in the hills. On stilts. Wonderland Avenue. The back of the place, the garage, was against the road on the land side, and the front deck extended out over the canyon’s sheer wall. In L.A., the term for that is ‘cantilevered’. From inside, at an angle, when I looked out below, I could see the long poles that anchored the bottom of the place to the side of the hill. Then—a hundred foot drop—straight down. My mind reported to me that any minute the whole deal would give way and cascade my ass to the bottom of the gully. In the old days in Hollywood—the 40s and 50s—according to my father, Jonathan Dante, who worked as a contract screenwriter at Columbia and MGM during those years, Laurel Canyon was where all the brothels were located. Gambling and hookers. Many nights, rather than drive north on the Coast Highway to Malibu, Pop would shack up and play poker in Hollywood at The Garden of Allah Hotel at the mouth of the canyon on the L.A. side. Nat West. Scott Fitzgerald. A.I. Bizzarades. Bud Schulberg. Faulkner. Willie Saroyan—all came and went at The Garden of Allah.
There were two copies of my story ‘Compatibility’ on her piano. One was mine, and the other one was a Xerox duplicate Cynthia had made for herself on the copy machine in her den/office. She had all the gadgets an animator needs to work at home—an oversized computer, a printer, a fax machine, even a scanner.
Cin’s hearing aid was on, and we drank more tequila sunrises and sat outside reading my story to each other while Camus the cat lolled between us alternately demanding affection, then displaying fat indifference.
By the end, on page twenty-five, the place where the guy selling the dating service leaves and never comes back, Cin was drunk and had tears in her eyes. She put her hand on top of mine. ‘Wonderful,’ she whispered.
‘Thanks,’ said I.
‘You’re better than Raymond Carver.’
She handed me a pen. ‘Autograph it, please. Inscribe the following: “To Cynthia: In appreciation of our new and wonderful friendship.” Then sign it, “Your devoted, Bruno.”’
It was my first autograph of anything, to anybody. I dumped fat Camus off the couch and was about to write on the cover when Rick Dante’s voice began clanging in my head, louder now:
(‘Hey pussy, wait! Write this: “I will do anything for a piece of ass.” Then sign it, “Love always, Approval-drooling Twatbrain.”’)
‘What’s wrong?’ Cin wanted to know, her thousand-year-old eyes watching my lips.
I handed the pen back. ‘It’s
The New Yorker
L. A. Magazine
will publish this story. You’ll be famous, and all I’ll have are these scraps of paper.’
‘I’ll never be famous.’
‘I want to commemorate this afternoon. Is that so fucking
Camus the cat was waddling toward a corduroy chair in the living room. I pointed at him. ‘That’s
She handed me back the pen. I finished my drink then wrote,
best wishes. Bruno Dante.’
She read the inscription then grinned. ‘Splendid. Date it too.’
I did, then looked around in my head for Rick Dante. He was gone.
‘You’re the Shake-fuckin’-speare of West Hollywood,’ Cin slurred. ‘You’re Tennyson. John-fucking-Fowles.’
‘I’m Stan Laurel…Will you suck my dick?’
Cynthia laughed. ‘Absolutely.’
For thirty years I’d had the dream off and on. After Cin fell asleep I eventually dozed off and had it again that night: at Saint Monica’s Grammar School when I was eleven, mean-assed Sister Sirenus caught me and Paul Foley in the back of the room fooling around, having fun at the expense of weird Rudy Espinoza.
Sister had ordered Espinoza up front by the blackboard to give the answer to a history question. On his way up our row Paul chanted, ‘Rudy, Rudy why so fruity?’ Hearing it, I chimed in. The class laughed.
Espinoza was a simple kid, a fact that was common knowledge to all including Sister Sirenus who liked to use him when she felt the need to illustrate how stupid American students were as compared to the more precocious Catholic-educated kids in the Ireland school system where she grew up.
As usual, Rudy had been daydreaming and blew the history answer and was given five demerits. Everybody laughed. Once again SS had demonstrated how stupid and miserably feebleminded us American kids were.
He marched back past me to his desk.
It was then that I made the mistake of getting caught making a jerk-off gesture—pounding my doubled fist against the crotch
of my school-blue slacks. More class laughter. SS saw me do it, and then saw Paul Foley imitating my hand movement.
She squelched the room’s sniggering by loudly slapping her pointer against the top of her desk. She had not traveled seven thousand miles to be saddled with a room full of hypnotized, drooling buffoons—dim-witted, mannerless hooligans. She slapped the desk again and again with her ruler. Our fifth grade class had just born witness to the commission of mortal sin. Full stop. This was no laughing matter.
Justice was swift for me and Foley. Our lesson was humility. The room was deadly silent as he was ordered up front and given six whacks across his open palms—three on each hand. Zing, zing, zing!!…Zing, zing, zing!! And twenty-five demerits; the most any of us could remember one kid getting, all at one time.
I got twelve whacks—six on each hand. Then Sister let the class know that she was reserving the full measure of my penance until after school. She needed time to confer with her Lord and Savior.
At five exactly, I waited alone, scared shitless, in the cold classroom for Sister Sirenus. It was getting dark, and the ticking of the wall’s ancient clock continued to remind me that I was missing the last bus back up the Coast Highway to Malibu.
Sister Sirenus shuffled in in her black Zorro getup half an hour later. I kept my eyes on the linoleum, but I could sense the fury of saved-up convent rage. Did I know
what I had done?
Was I aware of the seriousness, the evil, of the hand gesture I had used in her classroom that day? Did I know what that hand gesture really meant?
I nodded again.
I could feel SS’s face getting redder. Did I know that every time a boy like me committed the sin of masturbation, it was the same as murdering
baby. God saw everything. God was watching me right now. Did I know that me and every other boy who masturbated was no different than Adolph Hitler? Did I know what abortion was?
I shook my head. I wasn’t sure what abortion was.
Sister wrote it on the blackboard in big capital letters; ‘ABORTION’, then snapped her chalk, drawing a thick line beneath the word.
Masturbation was a form of abortion. Murdering the unborn was called abortion. The corpses of the babies I had murdered would gnaw the flesh from my skin for all eternity in the fires of damnation. Sister wanted a note from my mother verifying that I had told her precisely what I’d done. Sister wanted it on her desk by the following morning. I was to go to confession on Saturday, inform Father Burbage of my sin, using the word ‘masturbation’ in a complete sentence, and ask for his and God’s forgiveness.
It was over thirty years later. Satan and I had become old buddies, but I still hated the fucking dream.
In the morning, she was gone while I stayed in bed. Off to submit a portfolio full of sketches for a walking toothpaste tube to some guy at Paramount TV. A big, sad woman with wonderful fat tits. So needy. Wanting somebody to replace the vanished husband and fill the hole in her heart that she could not fill herself. Her paintings and sketches were full of it; the house was full of it. Emptiness.
There was no tequila left in the kitchen, so I switched to scotch with my coffee and ate microwaved English tea cakes in bed. An hour later, I realized I had overdone the scotch
when I started making phone calls to Jimmi’s sister’s number. Hitting the re-dial button again and again. Hanging up when her machine came on.
My room at the Prince Carlos was paid for the next five days and I had plenty of money in my pants, so, feeling good about what Cynthia said about my story, I decided to try some more writing.
On my way back to the motel, still drunk on the Australian girl’s scotch, I pulled into a big liquor store deal on Robertson Boulevard to stock up. Benny J.’s Wine & Spirit Mart.
The place had everything: a toy aisle, greeting cards, even a vitamin section. I bought a carton of Lucky cigarettes, three quarts of vodka, cranberry juice, orange juice, and cold cuts and mayonnaise for my motel room’s little fridge, beer, several jars of cashews for breaks and watching TV, a jigsaw puzzle, and a pack of 100-sheet, 20-lb erasable typing bond. The excursion took an hour. Up and down the lanes, pushing a red plastic cart.
When it came my turn in the check-out line, the clerk eyed me and made a face. He seemed to disapprove of the slow way I was unloading my purchases on to his conveyor belt. A gay kid, college age, impatient. American Philippine, with a ring through his pierced eyebrow and dyed white blond hair and barbed-wire tattoos around each wrist. His name tag read, ‘Todd—Assistant Manager’. I grabbed two tabloids off a rack and tossed them on the moving counter.
‘Will that be all?’
I nodded ‘yes’ but threw on two king-size Snickers bars from a candy display.
‘Sir, will that be all?’
‘Yes Todd, that will be all.’ Then I changed my mind and
tossed on an additional pack of Life Savers and a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco. Impulse purchases.
‘Cash or charge, sir?’
I peeled off a hundred and put it on top of the rolling twelve-pack of beer. ‘Cash, Todd.’
As he was feeding my stuff through the register’s scanner he hesitated while swiping the peanut jars. ‘Sir, the sale is on the beer nuts only. The Benny’s Beer Nuts.’
‘I don’t eat beer nuts. I don’t like the skins.’
Todd huffed and rolled his eyes. ‘Okayyyy—sooo…which jars of nuts do you want, sir?’
They all looked the same to me. ‘The cashews,’ I said. ‘I only eat cashews. I don’t care about the sale.’
‘Sooo, no Benny’s Beer Nuts?’
‘Correct. No Benny’s Beer Nuts.’
‘What about the Benny’s Mixed Nuts, sir?’
‘What about ‘em?’
‘You have two jars of Benny’s Mixed Nuts here. I assume you can read, sir?’
‘A selection error. I don’t eat Benny’s Mixed Nuts.’
Todd snorted, shook his head, and made a conspiratorial ‘what-an-asshole’ face to the guy behind me in line. A construction guy with two cases of beer in his cart, wearing a sweaty
‘Nobody Knows I’m Elvis’
T-shirt. ‘Great sir,’ sneered Todd, making a dramatic deal out of sweeping the extra peanut jars aside.
Behind me Elvis snickered. The woman behind him with fleshy arms shook her head. This was Todd’s turf. Making customers eat shit was a skill he’d refined. ‘Sooo then,’ he hissed, ‘you don’t want the Benny’s Mixed Nuts and the Benny’s Beer Nuts even though
are the one who put them in your shopping cart?’
More chuckles and snickers.
Me and Todd were face to face separated by the moving conveyor belt. ‘For the last time, Todd, I only eat Benny’s-fucking-Cashews.’
‘Sir, I just asked a question. A simple question.’
‘Can I ask you a question, Todd?’
‘What is it, sir? I’m waiting. And, as you can see, everybody behind you in line is waiting too. Our store is extremely busy this afternoon, but
have a question. What is your question, sir?’
I could feel myself losing control. I leaned across the counter. ‘Are you a cocksucker, Todd?’
a question! I’ll ask it again: Are you a motherfucking faggot cocksucker?’
Todd stepped back, and so did the other customers. This was L.A. A 9mm automatic pistol might accompany my outburst.
But I was done. I grabbed my money off the register, then tore the tab up and away from one of the cans of Benny’s Mixed Nuts, emptying the container on the counter on top of the jigsaw puzzle and the other shit.
Out in the parking lot, after I got in my Chrysler and put the key into the ignition, I noticed something strange: I had an erection.
I TRIED TO write, but I couldn’t. Nothing came out. I would scribble a sentence, then sit there and forget and write it again. I attempted to rework some poems. Nonsense. Guff. As a solution I turned on HBO and continued with vodka the rest of that day and into the night. Then, for an hour, I walked, attempting to tire myself. I slept a little, woke up, and started on the booze again.
But something had happened. I had lost the ability to get drunk. It had been replaced by a black, bottomless depression. My body was slow and unresponsive, but my mind stayed lucid, yakking away, wanting to kill me. Finally, I figured out what it was. The cause. It was Jimmi. Thinking about her, I had made myself impervious to alcohol. The time I had spent with Cynthia, her irreversible sadness, had only made Jimmi’s presence more profound. I could smell the smell, close my eyes and see her, feel her next to me on my bed.
It was morning. I got up, vomited, and drank again. Still haunted by these thoughts, I opened my legal pad, and sat at the desk. If I couldn’t write anything worthwhile, I would write to her. So this is what I wrote;
it began, ‘I
walked last night. I couldn’t sleep, so I started walking south on Sepulveda Boulevard in the direction of the airport. The whole time it was about you. Stupid miscommunications and problems. I mean this: it’s all my fault. Not yours. I’m the fool. I overreacted. I’m sorry.
I passed by a darkened Methodist church, a crazy place at three o’clock in the morning. A ghostly place. I realized that I might have lost you for good. I sat there and tried to pray. But, as a kid, the nuns told us that Methodists and Jehovah Witnesses and Jews and everybody else who is not baptized in the rapture of Jesus is lost. All damned. Crazy, diabolical, Catholicism. These people must convert to the true faith or burn forever. So I knew the prayers didn’t work. Then I had the thought that maybe I’m not really a Catholic. The idea came to me; I might have been switched at birth for a fucking Seventh Day Adventist or a Baptist. Anyway, without you, I’m doomed too, Jimmi. Empty. A goddamn fool. Please call me. Bruno.’
It was a preposterous and childish letter. I tore it to shreds and threw it away.
To keep myself from going crazy, I decided to go out and copy my story. I didn’t care if I got stopped for drunkenness. Locked away. I wanted to be arrested. I deserved it. I was alone now. The woman I cared about was out of my life for good. Like a madman, imitating Jimmi behind the wheel, I drove to a copy store, made my copies, then to the post office in Venice, running lights and screaming at the other drivers.
From a list of high-end men’s magazines in
The Writer’s Market
I bought stamps and mailed off seven copies of ‘Compatibility’.
On the way back, I became more cautious. What if a publisher accepted the story, but I was arrested? I’d be in jail doing eighteen months for my second drunk driving, unable to get the acceptance letter at my P.O. box. A published short story writer rotting away at Wayside Honor Farm. Also, it had been over an hour, and I needed a drink badly.
Alone again at the motel, I drank more, finishing the quart on the night table, then part of another.
This was the onset of madness. For hours, there was only raging in my sober brain. I was waiting for something, I knew
not what. Drowning in the fear of something not understandable. It wasn’t Jimmi. She was dead to me. Gone forever.
Finally, as a solution—a distraction—I remembered a porno arcade on Century Boulevard a mile and a half from the airport. Fifteen minutes away.
I dressed and was about to leave my motel room when, opening my door, I saw three pink phone-message slips left for me by the manager. All from Cynthia. Then I knew what was wrong: I had sinned against the memory of the woman I loved. I had caught this curse of sadness from Cynthia, this overpowering melancholy. This living death.
I had been to the porno place a few times before I got sober and started my vacuum cleaner job, giving away coupon books in Glendale.
I was always drunk when I went in. A dark parking lot in back and a small black and white sign above the door identified the building with one word: VIDEO.
Inside, a large, semi-lit room with porno magazines and empty for-rent movie boxes displayed on tall wire racks. Guys roaming around, cruising, staring at each other’s crotch. On the far wall was a curtain and a doorway. Through the door was where the action took place. Little phone-booth sized cubicles with a chair and a TV screen in each one. Inside the booth, next to the screen, vending slots for coins and dollar bills. Not locking the door to the booth is the signal. Eventually, one of the guys cruising the hall comes along and finds the unlocked door. Wordlessly, they enter, get on their knees, and suck you off.
I stayed in my booth for half an hour, watching the porn, feeding dollars into the slot, then got a long, slow blow job.
On my way back to the Prince Carlos, I pulled off the freeway
and bought another bottle. I was less tense. Now, I hoped, I could stay drunk and drown my life.
Leaving the liquor store, across the parking lot, I saw a pay phone. I thought of Jimmi and felt the sensation of glass shattering within my chest. Unable to stop myself, a fistful of quarters in my hand, I began dialing her number again and again, hanging up each time after her sister’s answering machine would click on.
At The Prince Carlos, sitting on my bed, exhausted—undrunk again—I decided to try to write. Not another moronic letter to Jimmi, something else. I began with the pen and a legal pad but soon discovered that my hands wouldn’t cooperate from the booze. Keeping the scrawl between the lines was impossible. I switched to Jonathan Dante’s portable typewriter, propping it between my legs for better results. My fingers began hitting the keys one at a time.
To my surprise, words started spilling out. An old, sad memory. Not about Jimmi or anything to do with Jimmi. A recollection about me and a girl in a store—a donut shop.
I was living on Fifty-first Street in New York at a rooming house off Eighth Avenue. Her name was Yee. She worked afternoons and nights at her parents’ shop near the Columbus Circle Subway Station. A part-time computer student. Yee’s mother and father were old-country Chinese. They handled the early morning and day shift. I became a patron the day I started my new six p.m. job, a phone-sales hustle, setting appointments and demoing funeral services at
Gowan, Fitzsimmons & Sons Mortuary
on Columbus Avenue. I would stop in, dressed in the required uniform, a black suit and tie and black shoes. I would stop in, buy my bagel and coffee to go, then catch the ‘D
Train uptown to Eighty-sixth
Street. Sometimes I’d have a buzz going, sometimes not, but I always bought the same thing. And Yee always smiled. It went on that way for a few nights. Being new in the bereavement business, unsure of myself I practiced on Yee. She enjoyed my formal, exaggerated good manners, bowing when I bowed, playing along. Shaking my hand. Her smile had a gentleness from a galaxy a billion miles away from Taipei or the ‘IND’ Subway Station. When she would bend forward, reaching into the glass case to get my bagel, her hard, small-nippled breasts would show themselves in the gap in her uniform blouse…One night when I came in, the baked-goods case was empty. Until then, our conversations had never exceeded a minute or two. I poured myself serve-yourself coffee and waited for Yee to finish taking care of another customer. When she was done, seeing me, she walked down the counter to where I was standing. ‘Hello,’ she said, bowing, smiling, mimicking my mortician-trainee stiffness. ‘Hey,’ I said playfully, ‘you’re out of bagels.’ She stepped closer, pressing herself against the counter. From within the pocket of her white jacket, she removed a clump of carefully-folded waxed paper, then slid it toward me across the glass. ‘I save for you, ‘she whispered. ‘I know you come.’…A little startled by the kindness, I unfolded the offering. ‘Thanks,’ I said, seeing the bagel. It felt like a birthday gift. Yee beamed, ‘See! You special customer. My special customer.’…I didn’t say anything, worried for fear my incautious tongue might sabotage the moment by dispensing some smart-assed, gratuitous idiocy. Instead, instinctively, formally, I extended my mortician’s hand. Yee shook it. It was then that our eyes met, really connected. I knew. Yee knew too. Zammo!…The next few nights our greetings went by with us grinning and shaking hands some more. On Sunday night, the end of
Yee’s week, I waited at the register after paying. ‘I want to take you out on a date,’ I half-blurted; ‘to a movie.’ Yee glowed; her magic, shy smile. ‘I never go to movie,’ she said. ‘Okay…’ I replied. ‘That’s okay. But do you want to go?’ I’d made her uncomfortable and she began re-stacking coffee lids. Then the smile was back. ‘Okay, yes,’ she said, then nodded, ‘I go. Thank you very much for ask me, Bruno. I go.’…The following afternoon I called in sick to my supervisor, Lawrence, at the funeral parlor, got a warning because I had already missed two days on account of illness, then walked uptown on Eighth Avenue in the honking bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic. I was mostly sober except for a few beers, and my pants were pressed and fresh from the cleaners, and my shirt was new. Not a starched, bereavement-demo work shirt, but a twenty-five dollar blue cotton deal with jazzy buttons. Turning the corner at Fifty-eighth Street, I walked into the shop…Yee’s father was behind the counter. Not Yee. I assumed she was in the back room. Pop recognized me and looked away. We’d seen each other a few times. ‘Hello, Mister Chin,’ I said, holding out my hand, trying for cheerfulness. ‘Nice to see you.’ He ignored me, keeping his attention on the register. ‘You want bagel?’…‘Is Yee here? I asked.…Pops was stone. ‘Yee off today. Not here.’…Unsure of what to do, attempting to conceal my disappointment, I nodded okay…But after he rang me up, I tried again: ‘Mister Chin,’ I said, ‘Yee told me she would be here. We’re supposed to be going to the movies.’…Two black darts bored into my forehead. ‘Yee off.’…‘I know. I’m here to pick her up.’…‘I say to you, Yee not here. I say Yee off.’…Paying for my order, I took the bag and walked out…For the next hour, covered by the shadows of the subway entrance across the street, I waited, sipping
my coffee, smoking cigarettes, watching the donut shop’s door. Yee never appeared…The next day I was early at the shop, two hours before work. From my hideout across the street, I watched Mom and Pop behind the counter, as usual. Shift change time, five thirty, Mom went home and Pop stayed. No Yee. Now I was crazy…I had been drinking most of that day and realized too late I had forgotten to call in sick again. It didn’t matter. I hated my fraudulent body-bag job; the manipulation and pretense. Lawrence, my supervisor, was a flatulent asshole. Always making some correction in my demeanor, giving me ‘notes’ on the way I ‘conducted’ myself with this customer or that. Fuck him and all the necrophiliac sour-faced fucking ghoul cocksuckers who spend their days and nights hoodwinking the bereaved, up-selling, claiming a coffin was mahogany when it was really plastic laminate…I crossed the street and entered the shop, determined to see Yee again. Unwilling to take NO for an answer…Standing at the counter, I faced old man Chin. I wanted to let him know things were different. I spoke bluntly, ‘I’ll have a dozen donuts,’ I said. ‘And coffee to go’…Chin eyed me. ‘No bagel?’…‘No sir,’ I shot back, determined to break the rhythm of our absurd, former communications. ‘And…I want to speak to Yee. Is she here?’…‘You want me pick donut—or you pick?’…‘You pick,’ I blurted…When Pop was done, he pushed the pink cardboard box toward me across the glass. ‘Three seventy-five.’…I handed him a ten. ‘Mr Chin, is Yee here? Yes or no?’…‘Daughter not work now.’…‘I can see that. Is she okay?’…No answer. ‘Three dollar-seventy-five!’…Pop laid my change on the counter. I scooped it up. ‘Okay,’ I called out, not knowing what else to do, ‘two dozen more.’…‘Two dozen? You want two dozen? What kind you want?’…It felt good to be in control. ‘It’s of no consequence, Mister Chin. Mix ‘em
up. Two dozen. Sprinkles, glazed, chocolate caramel. And toss in a few buttermilk bars. And those three cupcakes on the end. The ones with the pink icing.
After the new box was filled and wrapped with string, Pop punched the register. ‘Two dozen! Seven dollar!’…I slapped down a new twenty. ‘What about Yee, Mister Chin?’…No answer. The embalmed glance of the forever silent…I would not be deterred. Glancing down at the donut case I estimated that it was three-fourth’s empty. Most of what remained was on the top shelves. Specialty stuff: eclairs, oversized glazed bear claws, lemon puffs, fruit tarts of different colors, and a dozen or so wrapped canoli-looking cream-filled numbers. ‘I’ll take everything on those shelves,’ I said, pointing across the glass…Pop didn’t move. He folded his arms across his chest. ‘Daughter go school. College. No come back.
He pushed my twenty back across the glass. There was a gentle smile on his face. Yee’s smile. ‘You go now.’…That was it. He was gone. Into the recesses of the back room, to the secret place where heat and flour and sugar combine to formulate perfect confection. I never saw Yee again.
Sometime after midnight I got to my feet, dressed, and walked to the pay phones next to the manager’s office. I couldn’t stop myself. Jimmi answered before the first ring, about to dial out herself: ‘…Who’s this?…Flaco, izat you?’
‘…How are you?’
‘Wha’ chu want, man? I thought you was somebody else.’
‘I want to talk.’
‘Sept I don’t wanna talk wichu. Go piss on somebody else’s life, man.’
‘Are you okay?’
‘Hey, I got fired too. Remember?’
‘You crazy, an shit. Okay? You callin’ me fifty-fuckin’-times-a day. You ‘bout the craziest motherfucker in Venice. Wors iz, you act so high n’ mighty n’ shit—like you’re some kina shopping-cart-fuckin’ rock star.’
‘I just wanted to check in. To talk.’
‘I know whachu wan, man. Bah tha shit ain gonna happen.’
‘Can we be friends?’
‘I knew this girl in my detox, the last time—homie girl they all call ‘Zippo’—when she smoke rock, for fun, if someone pissed her off, she used to squirt lighter fluid on their house, their trees n’ cars n’ shit, then light ‘em up. She showed me how to burn stuff. You know, just stand there on the street and watch the shit go up. Crazy. You’re like her, man. You don’t give a fuck. You burn up everything around you. You don’t give a fuck.’