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Authors: Claus von Bohlen

Who is Charlie Conti? (9 page)

BOOK: Who is Charlie Conti?
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T
HE
F
RIDAY NIGHT
parties continued during the spring semester. Jeanine used to spend the weekends at my house and did her own stuff during the week. That was ok with me because we didn’t have a lot to talk about and there’s only so much sex you can have. Ray had pretty much moved in over Christmas, like I said, though when he was working he’d sometimes stay away for a few days. He was employed by a company that built holiday cabins in the hills. He told me he liked to sleep in the cabin before the roof was in place. That way he could sleep under the stars and have the feeling of the cabin growing up around him.

One of the first things I’d noticed about Ray had been his big workman’s hands. I’ve got to say, he sure was good with them. When I took down the Christmas tree I was going to throw it
away but Ray said to give it to him because he wanted to make something out of it. He sawed off the bottom of the trunk and set it up on a table by the pool, then he made me sit on a sun bed and he started to chisel away at the wood. From time to time he took my head in his hands or felt the contours of my eye sockets with his calloused fingers. Then he’d go back and chisel away at the wood some more. He was totally absorbed in his work. When he touched my head it made me think of the first time I took communion, back when I was at school in Rome. The priest had touched my head in the same way, like he was an intermediary between two different places. That’s what it felt like with Ray too.

The bust that Ray carved out of the trunk was pretty amazing. It’s kind of hard to judge something like that yourself – I mean, you never really know what you look like – but everyone else that saw it said it was a great likeness, though not quite life size. The only thing I didn’t like about it was the eyes. I guess it’s pretty hard to carve the iris and the pupil and all and make them look real, but the way Ray did it made it look like I couldn’t see at all, like I was blind.

It wasn’t until a couple months after he’d moved in that Ray offered to show me the cabin he was working on. I’d hardly slept the night before and I was feeling pretty bad on account of having done so much blow with Jeanine. Ray said the only way to feel better was to sweat it out. He suggested walking up through Franklin Canyon to the foot of the Santa Monica mountains to see the cabin. We took a couple of bottles of mineral water and drove the Buick to a parking lot just off Mulholland Drive; from there you can take a number of trails into Franklin Canyon. The
area is protected by the National Park Service but the cabin Ray was working on was part of the Governor’s initiative to give kids from inner city schools the chance to spend a few nights out in the hills. Usually Ray would have driven his SUV along the bumpy dirt road up to the cabin but he figured the climb would be good for me. Within minutes of hitting the trail I was drenched with sweat and my head was throbbing. Ray hadn’t been feeling bad and he was a pretty fast walker which didn’t help. Luckily he stopped from time to time to show me stuff, like tree stumps where trees had been felled to build the cabin. The Governor’s initiative was also supposed to show how a cabin could be built using just the materials at hand.

After an exhausting hour we broke out of the forest and onto the scree slope heading up to Boney Peak. It was warm up there too but at least there was a bit of breeze. I was just catching my breath when I heard a high-pitched, piercing whistle. Ray was standing next to me so I knew it wasn’t him. I looked round but there wasn’t anyone on the slope apart from us. Then I saw a little, furry brown animal in the distance.

‘Look, a woodchuck,’ I said.

‘That’s actually a rockchuck or yellow-bellied marmot,’ replied Ray. ‘Same family though.’

‘How do you know that?’ I asked. Ray looked at me in a way that made me think that he was evaluating whether I had asked because I doubted him, or because I was curious. ‘I’d really like to know,’ I said.

‘I got interested in rockchucks when I read Dr Blumstein’s paper on marmots. The yellow-bellied marmot is one of the
few species where mothers have been known to eat their own offspring. Norway rats do it, and a few types of squirrel, but they’re pretty much the only others. Of course, there are plenty of species where dominant males will kill offspring so that the females re-enter oestrus sooner; that’s common among lions, baboons and even bottle-nosed dolphins. But it’s very rare for the mother to do the killing, and even rarer for her to eat the dead offspring.’

‘Sounds like you were pretty interested in Blumstein’s paper.’

‘I was,’ said Ray. ‘I read it while I was researching my own thesis. I thought I could use the counter-intuitive behaviour of humans to prove the dualism of mind and body, and to distinguish humans from other animals. That’s why I was thinking about Christ forgiving his enemies when he was hanging from the cross. I also thought about Abraham who almost sacrificed his own son Isaac. But then I read Blumstein’s paper about infanticide in the animal kingdom. There’s plenty of it, and infanticide is about as counter-intuitive as you can get.’

Ray stopped and pointed to the cabin just visible between the trees on the other side of the scree slope and a little lower down. I ran across the scree which was kind of fun because the little stones rolled away from under my feet but my balance was ok and I was able to slip-slide my way down pretty fast.

The cabin wasn’t finished but you could see it was going to be good. The roof was just a frame and the windows were just holes in the walls but there was already a table inside – a massive slab of stone supported by two sturdy segments of a tree trunk. Ray said it had taken twelve men to lift the slab onto the two segments.
The taps inside the cabin were already functioning; the water came directly from a spring a few hundred meters further up the slope. We refilled our water bottles and sat on the table.

‘I’ll tell you, Charlie, there’s nothing like the feeling of building a house with your own hands, watching it grow up around you and knowing that without you it wouldn’t be there.’

I wasn’t sure how true that was because I knew Ray worked for a construction company and he worked with a lot of other people most of the time. But I didn’t want to be unfriendly so I just said, ‘I bet. It must be great.’

Then a wasp landed on the stone table between me and Ray and quick as a flash he squashed it by hitting it with the underside of his closed fist. That was a trick of Ray’s; he said if you were quick enough it wouldn’t have time to sting you. The body lay squashed on the stone table until he flicked it off.

*

Even when he wasn’t talking about building a house with his own hands, Ray seemed obsessed with the idea of home and of roots. To tell the truth, I was getting a little sick of hearing about it. That first night I’d told him that I thought my father might be George Chesterton the actor, on account of the movie he’d made with my mother. Ray wanted me to go and meet the guy. He even found out where he lived, on some island in the Bahamas.

‘You gotta go meet him Charlie, you owe it to yourself.’

‘I don’t even know if he’s my father. It’s just a guess.’

‘You gotta go and find out, one way or the other.’

‘Give me a break, Ray. The guy’s already got five kids and he sounds like a schmuck. I don’t want him to be my father.’

I really didn’t want to go meet him. I imagined turning up on his doorstep and asking him if he was my dad, but I didn’t see what good could come of it. I mean, I guess Ray was right in a way; I was pretty rootless. I remembered less and less about mom and our life in Italy, and I didn’t really know much about America outside of a few schools and an apartment in New York. But I was actually happy in my house in LA. There were people living with me that I liked and it felt a little bit like a family – a strange kind of family it’s true, but it sure beat living with a tutor and a cook and a housekeeper. Also, there were people I found interesting at the Hollywood School and I liked some of the classes I was taking. I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, but there wasn’t much pressure. I’d always liked the idea of being a writer. Problem was, at the time I couldn’t think of a good story. Now I’ve got a lot more important stuff to worry about, but a pretty good story too. That’s kind of funny, if you think about it.

Maybe one reason why I got pissed whenever Ray suggested I should go meet George Chesterton was because it reminded me that Ray himself was not my father, and I guess I kind of wanted to see him in that light. Sure, part of the reason I admired him was because everyone else did, but also I trusted him. At the time I was surrounded by a crowd of people who were trying to make it in acting or trying to get ahead or whatever. Ray just seemed solid, like he knew who he was and he didn’t want to be anything else.

Eventually Ray accepted that I didn’t want to go and see George
Chesterton. But he still seemed to take it personally that, although America was my adopted home, I hardly knew anything about it. When Ray was younger he’d travelled all over the States.
On the Road
had been a kind of Bible to him. He said that it was his experiences of travelling the length and breadth of the country that made him who he was. I loved listening to the stories of his travels and they made me want to see America with my own eyes.

‘Charlie,’ Ray used to say, ‘you gotta see the land. You want to be a writer? What do you know, a coupla boarding schools, a luxury apartment in New York and a villa in the Hollywood hills? Come on, Charlie. You gotta feel the land.
I was born on the prairies, in the freedom of the winds, with nothing to obstruct the light of the sun
. Do you even know who said that?’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Geronimo.’

‘It’s good.’

‘Yeah, and we stole it from him. New Orleans, Charlie, the slave markets. First thing they saw, a stage where they got auctioned off like cattle. South Carolina and the sea islands, Charlie. You know the old folks there still speak a mix of American and Congolese called
gullah
? You know they still weave baskets the West African way? Jeez Charlie, your girlfriend’s from South Carolina.’

‘I know that.’

‘So go there with her. Take a road trip. Go visit her parents.’

‘Ok, I’ll ask her.’

*

When I asked Jeanine if she wanted to go on a road trip back to South Carolina she said yes. She wasn’t so mad about going to see her parents – they’d fallen out about something (her choice of career I guess) – but she said she wanted to visit a few friends back home. I was surprised by how enthusiastic she was; it was unlike her. I’d really asked her along just to please Ray; he’d gotten pretty obsessive about the idea.

I was looking forward to the trip. I decided to take my laptop and write a journal like Sal Paradise. I wasn’t thinking of getting it published or anything, not back then anyway; I just thought it would be good practice. Also, once I’d decided that, it made me really want to get right inside of America. I mean, before I’d decided to write the journal I’d kind of imagined we’d take a trip and stay in some nice hotels and say hi to Jeanine’s friends and then head back, all air-conditioned and comfortable. But now I was thinking maybe we’d go stay in some shitty motels that were really brothels and do the whole peyote-in-the-desert thing and find some old black guys who spoke
gullah
, that sort of stuff. I knew I wasn’t the first to want to do it that way, and I wouldn’t be the last, but that didn’t matter. I also thought that we should go for at least a month, maybe more. The spring vacation was six weeks so I had time to spare.

I was a bit worried about leaving the house empty for so long but Ray said he’d look after it and he’d pay the bills and so on. He’d been helping me out anyway with some of the paperwork for the estate – accountants’ reports and tax returns, that kind of thing. I found it all pretty confusing but Ray seemed to like it. He had a practical, analytical side and he was a really smart guy, despite the drug dealing. Anyway, I was relieved that he would be looking
after the house, though I felt a bit guilty for leaving so much for him to take care of.

Ray wanted to know what our route was going to be but I told him I didn’t know yet and I hadn’t planned it because I wanted to be spontaneous. Then I went to get the Buick checked out and serviced. I told Jeanine that I was going to travel pretty light. Still, I was amazed when she arrived the day before we left with just a small weekend bag, not much bigger than her handbag. It’s true that she spent most of the time in a bikini, but still, she was the kind of girl who liked spending time over her appearance. I guess there was a lot of stuff I didn’t realize about Jeanine. Maybe things would have turned out differently if I’d tried to talk to her more, but it wasn’t easy. In conversation she would come in and out of focus. There were a few occasions when I felt we were really talking, then other times it was like looking at someone through the wrong end of a telescope.

Before we left Ray gave me a bag of blow and a bag of grass. I thought it was too much but when I told him he said that the beat writers had all been high most of the time, which I knew, and that I should quit fussing. To be honest, I was more worried about Jeanine than about myself; she’d hoover up pretty much whatever was around. But Ray had a point: it was kind of inconsistent to want to do the whole beatnik thing and to complain that you’d been given too many drugs. So I shoved the bags in the glove compartment with my laptop and the fake ID I’d made by photocopying Ray’s drivers license and superimposing my own photo. I had my own New York State license, but at the time I wasn’t yet twenty-one so I still needed the fake ID to get into bars. Then we swung out of
the driveway in the old Buick which was looking pretty sharp after coming back from the service.

Ray stood in the doorway and waved goodbye. Seeing him waving like that reminded me of the last time I had seen my mom. It was raining and I’d been standing underneath the green awning in front of the apartment in New York, waiting for the driver to bring the car round to drive me to school. I’d just gotten into the car when I saw my mom coming down Park Avenue toward the apartment. She’d been out all night and her hair was wet from the rain. I remember her waving as the car pulled away from the curb. Like I said, that was the last time I saw her. And I never saw Ray again either.

BOOK: Who is Charlie Conti?
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