Willing suspension of disbelief. That's what they call it in the movies. Like the story about how each procedure will be over in less than a minute. And how you won't feel a thing. How you may be foggy for a while, but in the end you'll be better. You'll be whole.
I want that. So I suspend my disbelief. I let them hook me up. Willingly. And then they give me something. And when I close my eyes, I am neither asleep nor awake but rather suspended in the dark, somewhere between the two. Willingly suspended. Watching. I feel my eyelids being taped shut and hear the gentle hum of the electricity. I have no choice but to give in and let the story tell itself.
Los Angeles 1984. California is a no-fault state. Nothing is ever anyone's fault. It just is. Day after day. Until it kills you.
Automatic sprinkler clicks on at dusk. SssstChchchSssstChchch. Flattens Oak leaves—yellowy, brown-veined—against stiff green lawn.
It is a warm September night when I leave my wife and eight-year-old daughter. I tell my wife I'm going out to the backyard to clean up the dog shit. It's the one chore I've never really minded. A couple of times a week, I use a long-handled yellow plastic pooper-scooper that came with an accessory—a narrow rake designed to help roll the turds into the scooper. I make my way systematically across the lawn in a zigzag pattern. The dogs, a couple of beautiful over-bred Irish setters who suffer from occasional bouts of mange, enthusiastically follow, sniffing as if hot on the trail of something other than their own crap. When the scooper gets full, I dump it into one of the black Rubbermaid garbage cans I keep in the garage. And when I'm done, I spray down my equipment with a fierce stream from the gun-like attachment I screw on to the green hose I use to top off the swimming pool. By the time I'm finished, the scooper is clean enough to eat off of.
"Jesus Christ, Greyson," my wife, Ellen, yells out the kitchen window, "it would be a whole lot easier if you'd do that during the day when you could actually see the shit." This is something she yells out the kitchen window almost ritually. But I always do it at night. I like the challenge.
Ellen accuses me of being antisocial. It's not true. My work as a studio executive demands a tremendous amount of social intercourse, the appearance of impeccable interpersonal skills, the ability to read the room better and faster than anyone, to negotiate every situation graciously and ruthlessly to my advantage.
I can hardly breathe.
I use the front door less and less these days. Want the ritual welcoming of the hunter/breadwinner less and less. Instead, most nights I let myself in through the little gate that leads to the backyard. I desperately need a solitary hour to catch myself by the scruff of the neck and stuff myself back inside that hollow glad-handing shell. He is all style and glitter and fast-talking charm. I cannot stand to be inside him when he does it. Now, the best I can do is stand next to him and watch.
I used to love my job. Didn't even mind the commute. After a cool rain or a good stiff breeze, the sickly yellow mattress of smog that hangs cozily over the Valley dissolves briefly. You can inhale without tasting the cancer in the air. That used to be enough for me. I have made the studio a lot of money over the years. My personal compensation—bonuses, stock options, gross points, profit- sharing—has been more than fair. I can't remember when exactly it was that the phone calls, the meetings, the glad-handing that once provided such a rush ceased to be a source of pleasure. But through a combination of experience, luck, fear, and an excellent secretary, I have held on.
It is difficult to find oneself after pretending all day. Eventually you are nothing more than a suit, a car, and a business card. So at night I go straight to the backyard, strip off my Armani chain mail, and dive naked into the cool turquoise pool. The shock of the cold water reminds me—my body, my skin.
Without toweling off I put on a terrycloth robe and slip through the sliding glass doors into my study at the furthest end of the house. I want nothing more than to sit alone looking out through the glass doors, watching leaves from the big, twisted maple tree in the backyard fall into the swimming pool. The branches of the tree have grown so large that the shallow end of the pool is always in the shade. No matter how high I turn up the heater, it's still chilly to swim there. But I refuse to let Ellen have the tree people come to cut it back. I need to see the leaves fall.
All day, every day, there is so much noise. Everything seems so much louder than it used to. I just want to be left alone. My wife is not quiet about what she considers to be my increasingly reclusive tendencies. She wants more. I don't have what she wants.
So I've paid off the mortgage, signed a quitclaim deed putting the house and a trust in her name, and I've packed a small suitcase and locked it in the trunk of my Mercedes. Nameless, easily accessible offshore accounts have been established.
Work is something else. I don't know where to begin. So I just leave it all—scripts half read, deals half done, foreign rights half sold. I want to apologize. Tell them we had a lot of good years. It's not you, it's me.
Truth is, though, the career of the average studio executive is slightly shorter than the lifespan of the average Medfly—those miniscule fruit flies being hunted by low-flying California Highway Patrol helicopters whose pilots spray insecticide over the Los Angeles basin at the height of rush hour. Best I could hope for at the end of my run is an indie-prod deal at the studio. A producer's office from which nothing is ever produced. That's if I'm lucky. I've seen better men than me leave my post with less. So, stay, go—the point is moot.
That last night—before dinner, before the dog shit, before I leave—I am sitting in my study watching the deadest of the leaves float on the surface of the pool and get sucked toward the filters at the shallow end. The pool man will be pissed off at the extra work. I am smiling at the thought when my daughter Willa walks in, small and blonde and long-legged. She has little circles of dirt ground into her kneecaps from playing on the black rubber under the jungle gym at school. She sits on my lap.
"I have a surprise for you," she says in a singsong voice intended to create suspense. Her breath is sweet and new.
"Oh yeah, what's that?"
"Ta-daa." She dangles the thing so close to my face that I can't see it. "It's a key chain, see?"
It's a heart cut out of cardboard and painted abstractly in the same primary colors that cling to her ragged fingernails and cuticles. Her school picture is stuck in the center. Elmer's glue has oozed out from under it and dried in hard, gray blobs. There's a hole punched in the top and a chain. It won't hold more than one or two keys without ripping.
"It's beautiful, thank you," I say, trying to mean it.
She looks at me for a while. I force an unconvincing smile and she looks away. She slides off my lap and onto the rug. I don't ask her what's wrong. I'm afraid she might answer.
Some people shouldn't be parents. I simply found out after the fact. I cannot tolerate the myriad responsibilities anymore—birthday parties and teacher conferences, soccer games and ballet recitals. And just as intolerable is the suffocating guilt of not attending those things. I cannot stand to disappoint. So better gone than absent. It is the only way to love her.
We look up when we hear Ellen talking to the dogs. She is walking across the Spanish tile in the kitchen and down the three steps to my study. She stands in the doorway and sighs heavily. She is barefoot and wears a pair of faded jeans with a hole in the right knee that gets bigger each time she washes them. She must have twenty pairs of jeans in her closet, yet she rarely wears any but these. Ellen gets attached to things—holds on to them even when they're torn and damaged and past their prime.
"There you are," she says, though she's clearly not surprised. "I don't know why we bother with the rest of the house." She looks from me to Willa. "What's wrong, Will?" Willa hugs her knees into her chest. "Did Daddy like his present?" She hugs her knees tighter, tucks her chin, and rolls backwards into a somersault.
"I loved it. I love it." I wring the enthusiasm out like the last drop of water from a damp washcloth.
"I told you he would," she says to Willa. "Come on you guys, dinner's ready."
The forced smile on my face twitches as Ellen heaps my plate with slices of meticulously prepared chicken paillard. She looks at me expectantly. This should be easy. I know what she wants this time, how to fill in the blank. But my hands are clumsy. I manage to slice off a corner of the chicken and lift it to my mouth. I think it is the best thing I have ever tasted and suddenly feel guilty that I am leaving on a good dinner night. Afterwards, I go outside to clean up the dog shit.
Then I leave.
If I'd waited until Ellen and Willa were asleep, I could have had a genuine Hollywood moment. I could have sat on the edge of my daughter's bed and stroked her hair. Tucked her in one last time. Or kissed my wife and had second thoughts and perhaps even gotten misty-eyed. It could have been classic.
Then maybe I wouldn't come off as such an unmitigated asshole. I might even appear sympathetic. Troubled. Conflicted yet caring. Someone the audience could identify with. I could have been box-office-friendly. But I don't do any of those things. I just leave.
On the way out of town, I stop by Hillside to see my mom.
Auburn hair. Green eyes through cat-eye glasses. Early death. Hated men like me. Then again, I do too. I wonder if we all feel that way. Men like me.
Al Jolson's enormous memorial is both the cemetery's mascot and its billboard. Climbing forty feet into the air with white Roman columns and a perpetually running waterfall, it rises high over the 405 Freeway. Ostentatious Hollywood wealth meets the looming specter of death.
Business hours are long over but there is always somebody on duty. I intend to make sure someone will be checking up on her. Frequently. I want the grass covering her grave to be lush and green, soft and well tended at all times. Fuck the water shortage. And she should have fresh flowers. None of that carnation crap.
I can tell right away the guy behind the reception desk is a hyphenate. A Hollywood hyphenate. As in actor-producer or writer-director. Or in this case, funeral director-actor. He is in his late thirties with an artificial orange tan he misguidedly thinks is going to get him in to read for late twenties.
"I'm sorry, sir. The grounds are closed."
I slide my business card and a hundred-dollar bill across the marble counter.
He slides me a flashlight and a headshot.
I hike up Abraham's Path to the top of the hill in the Mount Sinai section. My mother died before I could buy her a nice house. Being buried at Hillside is the next best thing.
There is a plot next to her reserved for Pop. If it were up to me, I'd let my old man spend eternity in the cheap seats. Located in the shadow of the massive mausoleum walls with names like "Courtyard of Eternal Rest" and "Sanctuary of Isaac," those soggy little plots never see a ray of unobstructed sunlight. And still they fill up like seats at the opera on opening night. In this town, Hillside is the only place to be interred. To spend eternity anywhere else is proof your life meant nothing.
I look at my mother's grave and wish, as I do every time I come here, that hers was the one still vacant. I hate that her headstone has a year on it for when she was born and another for when she died but only a dash for the life she lived in between.
My father's dash would be meaningless. But for some reason, which after all these years I still don't fully understand, my mother wanted him beside her. I made her a promise. So the man who spent his life putting her in the ground will spend eternity next to her on the top of the highest hill in the cemetery with a view of the green gold of the Santa Monica Mountains and the deep aquamarine of the Pacific Ocean.
I sit down beside my mother and decide to stay and watch the sunrise. And when the light begins to fight its way through the fog over the ocean, I get back in my car, merge onto the 405 and watch Jolson disappear in my rearview mirror.
It takes me a while to realize I'm not headed out of town. Instead, I'm driving the other way, back through Culver City. I turn right on Pico, drive past Twentieth Century Fox and keep heading east. I am only half interested in where my car will go next. My muscles go slack. It's kind of pleasant giving myself over to the care of a luxury German driving machine. The only thing missing is music.
I am up to my neck in the glove compartment looking for a Harry Nilsson tape when I hear the sound of tires squealing and metal meeting glass. I have run a red light. While I slipped through the intersection unscathed, the cars trying to avoid me slammed into each other. The hood of the smaller car, a little silver Alfa Romeo, has folded back like a piece of crumpled origami and its whole front end is nestled cozily into the collapsed passenger side of an old Ford pickup.
I pull over to the curb and watch the two cars pinwheel lazily together across two lanes, scattering shards of headlight glass before finally coming to a stop in front of a Der Wienerschnitzel. I appreciate the geometry their union has created. It seems to me they complete one another now. Like a set of vehicular Siamese twins.
And then it occurs to me that there are people in those cars. I know I should go check on them. As soon as I find the tape. I rummage around in the glove compartment, throwing one thing after another onto the floor under the passenger seat.
Then I pull up the armrest. It's been right here next to me the whole time. Well I'll be damned.
I'm taking Nilsson out of his case when someone starts knocking—loudly. Three someones actually, bent over looking into my window. Clearly this is going to take some negotiating. To begin with, it's important to know what one has to work with. Fortunately, it appears that no one is seriously injured. That could've fucked everything up for me. The first guy is Mexican. He has dirt under his fingernails and clearly belongs to the truck. There are gardening supplies scattered across the intersection—rakes, a leafblower, and something I think might be a Weedwacker. With any luck he'll turn out to be an illegal.
There's a woman, early forties—small cut on her forehead, wearing a diamond wedding band. A big one. The guy with her is a good ten, maybe fifteen years younger, ringless, and has a supporting role on a new ABC pilot. This is my lucky day.
"Out of the fucking car this minute you asshole!"
And suddenly the actor's hands are around my throat. I hadn't even realized the window was open. He has me by the neck and I'm fumbling with the door handle so when I finally get it open I fall into the street. They are all yelling at me. Growling and snarling and staring like a bunch of angry rottweilers.
"Christ, I don't know what happened." Trembling, I stand. "One minute I'm fine and the next I'm dizzy and lightheaded, and then I think I blacked out."
The gardener starts shouting at me in Spanish. I nod. "Sir, I don't speak Spanish but I'm sure you're completely justified."
The actor is gearing up for his big scene. "I almost went through the fucking windshield," he says with feeling.
The woman puts a protective hand on his arm. "It's a miracle Dale and I aren't strewn all over the street in tiny pieces."
"I know, I know and mea culpa absolutely, but thank God you're alright. I guess we better call the police, huh?"
Silence falls over the group. They mumble incoherently. The woman shoots Dale a piercing look.
"I'm willing to take full responsibility. We'll just have to fill out the standard police report stuff: circumstances of the accident, names of drivers, passengers, where we were going, address, phone, employment information, social security . . ."
I'm fairly sure I hear an audible gasp.
"Or . . . I can compensate you in cash right now and we can skip the paperwork."
"Bullshit," Dale says. "You don't have that kind of cash on you."
"Shut up, Dale," the woman says. Then she puts her hand on his. "Why don't you find a phone and call us a tow truck." Dale slinks off toward a strip mall across the street.
The woman turns to the gardener and begins speaking in rapid-fire Spanish. He nods. So I open up my trunk, unzip my special bag—false bottom, crisp bills in tidy, bound stacks, as if I just robbed a bank—and pay them off. Considering they have no leverage, I am very generous. Everyone leaves the scene happy.
No harm, no foul, no fault. Not in LA.
Back in my car, I pop Nilsson Schmilsson into the tape deck and pull into traffic. "I am driving this car, I am driving this car, I am driving," I whisper to myself and the beat of my pumping, pounding heart. But instead of heading toward the airport, I continue driving east. Toward the past. Into the past. Not my plan. But I sit back and watch. Suspended. To see what will happen next.
Yesterday, when I left, it was September, but here, in this now, it is April. I pull up to the curb and see that sticky purple jacaranda blossoms cover nearly every car windshield on the block. They hitch rides on rubber-soled shoes, bicycle wheels, and roller skates.
Suddenly everything old seems old again. Tinged with the sepia of fading Kodak photos. But I am in them. Where I was. Who I was. Yet I am fully conscious of my full-body flashback. I am was. How would I tell that story? There is no tense to describe it. Telling, though, is not my job. I am the audience—always watching, always suspended, always waiting for what comes next—burdened with both hindsight and self-awareness. Always present in my past.