Siren Song, Chapter Two, Umberto Tosi’s “Our Own Kind”

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September 1, 2014 · Posted in Our Own Kind - Umberto Tosi 

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2. SIREN SONG

Six months earlier. New Year’s day.

Ring, ring, ring! Goddammit! Who’s calling this early? It’s barely light. The phone won’t stop hurting his head. It pings merrily off the bare hardwood floors and sparse furnishings of Benny’s rented cottage.

The cottage was a real find, just below Mulholland Drive– perfectly in the path of brush fires and mudslides. Chipped, Spanish stucco and red tiles, once a guest house on an estate that belonged to Charlie Chaplin, now subdivided, a cozy three-bedroom. Benny hears the rain between rungs – staccato against his windows. They said ’68 would be wet. That’s L.A. – drought or downpour, fame or famine, and junk food feasting.

Benny pulls a pillow over his face and calculates whether he can yank the phone from the wall. No rest for the wicked. The pillow doesn’t muffle much except the downpour spattering his windows.

Shit. He untangles himself from his twisted blankets and lurches for the phone. He is goose-fleshed naked and New-Year’s-Day hung over. Seems this comes with the still unfamiliar territory of the newly divorced – punctuated by alternate weekend daddy-hood. No score in the first inning.

The ringing stops before he can grab the receiver. Damn. Benny sits back on the saggy edge of his bed. Too awake now to recapture dreamless sleep. He brushes aside an urge to dash onto his tiny patio and catch raindrops on his party parched tongue. I used to love that when I was a kid, carefree and dumb. It wouldn’t wash away the sour taste of this morning. He remembers now, why he hates parties. He tells the sparrows twittering in the wind-whipped date palm just outside his window to shut the fuck up! What are you so damn cheerful about? It’s January and gray as my prospects.

The phone starts up again. Fuck it.

No robe. Benny pulls the top sheet over his shoulders and pads out to the kitchenette.

I’m the Sheik of Araby.

All the girls are crazy ’bout me.

He cuts his thumb opening the coffee can. He turns on the tap and watches blood turning pink in running cold water until the bleeding subsides. He fills and puts the percolator on the stove. Can’t find cigarettes. He grabs the yellow-and-red, peace-sign mug – with the hairline crack in the handle — from the cabinet. No cream for his coffee, he uses a splash of his kids’ leftover chocolate milk from the fridge. It will do.

The phone starts up again. All right! God damn it. His phone is deep red, a choice of calculated whimsy. Hello Nikita! About those missiles. Sorry, but we’ve had a little mix up with our nukes over here…

By now, his head clearing, he has a good idea who is ringing him. He’s been slow to give out his new number, but Lori already knows it from when he had the kids last week.

He picks up on the fifth ring and fakes a wide-awake baritone.

Lori doesn’t sound hostile or blitzed for a change. Her voice is edgy and small. Oh, shit. Maybe something’s happened to the kids. Should have answered sooner.

“Uncle Phil died.”

Silence, then he hears Lori putting down the receiver, coughing, yelling at her mother, crying, then picking it back up.

Poor Uncle Phil, funny man and the only sane one in her family. “Sorry to hear that, Lor. I know he meant a lot to you. … Shit, he wasn’t that old.”

“Heart attack.” Her voice quavers.

Uncle Phil owned a hardware and feed store up in Redding, near Mount Shasta. He was the older brother of Lori’s mom – blond, bright and still a knockout. They shared a small town childhood, but she didn’t stay in Redding. She hopped a Greyhound out of their woodsy hometown for Hollywood soon as she turned 16 and became Gwen Fox, bit actress, then bombshell spotlighted for a few fleeting years, starring, in half dozen forgotten movies that show up in art house retrospectives.

Along her way to stardom, leggy Gwen worked nights as a hat check girl at the Brown Derby by night, and mimeographed manifestos for the Socialist Workers party by day. That didn’t keep her from marrying oil fortune playboy David Granville III and becoming tabloid Cinderella paparazzi bait.

She was a little over for Granville’s age limit then, but it was true love – at least until he tired of his brainy non-bimbo wife and went back to teen nymphs pimped by his valet. His lawyers settled quickly in private, to avoid another paparazzi feeding frenzy, or worse – considering possible statutory rape charges. Lori walked away with a considerable fortune — by her Redding standards, though not by his. By then, the studios had found a new bombshell. Nobody would take her seriously as an actress, despite her underrated acting talent.

Plus, when she split with Granville, Gwen was already pregnant with Lori. Nothing was said about this. The lawyers had photos of her with another man, Sean Bliss, a part-time actor, screenwriter and radical leftist cohort from the old days.

Lori got his surname, plus a half sister, Nola, favored by her daddy and, by providence, with stunning, unearned good looks.

Right around that time – in the early 1950s – Sean Bliss made a perfect red witch hunt target. Never a man of good judgment, he not only attended Communist party meetings, but had traveled once gone to Stalinist Moscow to attend a solidarity conference. It was a free trip. He was young and curious, idealistic and stupid.

When Lori was twelve, she returned home from school one day to discover that her presumed father had chosen to answer a House Unamerican Activities Committee subpoena by locking himself in a Cadillac de Ville belonging to Lori’s mother, garage door shut, motor on, garden hose from tailpipe duck tapped into the wind wing window.

In need of a tune-up, however, the Caddy’s motor kept dying instead of Mr. Bliss. No problem. He put a Walther P38 in this mouth and pulled the trigger.

Young Lori smelled fumes when she returned from school and walked into to their rambling split-level house in Topanga Canyon. She heard what she thought was a backfire. She walked back through the kitchen and into the garage to check the car. Lori remembers nothing precisely after that except seeing the blood splatter on the car windows. She fled back through the house, vomiting, and locked herself in her room.

She hunkered on the floor behind her bed for a long time, through all the commotion, when her mother arrived and called an ambulance. She didn’t respond to her mother’s pounding at her locked door. She heard her mother screaming, getting an emergency guy to kick open the bedroom door, after which her mother threw a scene. Mom wasn’t mad at her Mr. Bliss for shooting himself in her car. She blamed Lori for his death, somehow, for not calling an ambulance right away, as if it would have mattered. Thenceforth, mother and daughter never spoke of this in any rational way. But her mother would bring it up in angry fits as she took more and more to drink.

Lori’s phone call, on this New Year’s Day, reminded Benny of when he first met Lori. Both of them 18, it was at a New Year’s Eve party on her mother Gwen’s estate attended by various Hollywood celebs, wannabes and hangers-on. A press agent friend had invited Benny, offhand – Ben, at the time, being the b-list during his brief stint as a part-time reviewer of art films for the Times.

Ben saw right off that Lori didn’t fit with this crowd crowd either, even though that’s where she was living. She busied herself in the kitchen mostly, helping the caterers with snacks. Gwen looked annoyed seeing her daughter carrying trays around. He loitered in the kitchen too, and helped a bit, breaking through Lori’s shyness asking her questions about this and that. He preferred asking questions to answering them.

Unlike a lot of other girls his age he approached, Lori didn’t react as if Ben were Casper the Friendly Ghost or a zombie. She looked straight at him when she talked.

Ben drew Lori away. They wandered the estate ground along paths through rows of white blooming rhododendron bushes, illuminated by a pearly gibbous moon. They wound up at the tiled, kidney shaped swimming pool on a patio overlooking the bejeweled vastness that is Los Angeles on a blessedly clear winter night. The city – squat in daytime — spread out before them like diamonds on a vast black velvet cloth.

No one was there but them. The pool area was secluded from the main house by a stand of cypress. Perfect. They kissed and explored each other to the faint music of the party from the house up the path beyond the trees.

Before long – damn the cold – they stripped and plunged, laughing and yelping, into the steamy turquoise warmth of the pool. They played like dolphins, all sensuous and silky, skin-to-skin beneath the water, stirring vapors from its heated surface. They hardly noticed the whooping from the house at the stroke of midnight. This was happy new year enough. They started the year enraptured – oblivious to the sounds of car horns and far off fireworks from the city streets below. They glowed with the passion and glamor of it – two naïve kids swimming in the illusion of luxuriant, Hollywood Hills glamor, with not a clue that life just wasn’t going to be like that moment.

They made clumsy and breathy love until they tired, sates, then dried off best they could with a towel Lori’s mother had left down at the pool that afternoon. The put their clothes back on, sat close on a chaise lounge and talked and talked, baring their souls with the fervent, earnest naïvete of youth determined to do it all better than their parents.

It had been her first time, not his, but he was barely experienced himself. She didn’t mind his albinism, he could feel it. She asked him direct questions about it as they talked about growing up. She seemed to enjoy sliding her hands along his long pearly body, then holding back instead, with the awkwardness of a young girl who thinks herself homely.

Star-struck, thinking-with-your-dick damn fool, he thought to himself these days, nine New Years later. Regret had replaced romance, followed by guilt for regretting their involvement. Because how could he?   Without his meeting Lori, his two darling, rascally daughters would never have been born.

—————

Lori’s distressed voice on the phone, wasn’t helping his hangover. He sips bitter coffee as she inches to the point.

“I’m going to drive up to Redding for the memorial and stay a while to take care of Uncle Phil’s affairs.” Her voice changes from cheerful to flat, determined.

“You buried the lead.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Uncle Phil, as he had promised, had left Lori a comfortable inheritance, including his tidy, craftsman house on Shasta Lake outside of town.

“Okay. Great then, I’ll come by and pick Linda and Nicole. Pack them some extra clothes. I’ll see they get to school while your gone.”

“They’ll be fine with my mom.”

“No sale, Lori!” Contentiousness and mistrust had not abated between them in this, their second year of awkward, joint custody.

“No. It’s all arranged. She wants to do it. I’m leaving today.”

“What the fuck? You can’t just do that without checking with me, Lori? I am their father. They should stay with me.”

“Don’t start” Gwen insists. “ can’t deal with my mother and you at the same time.” Gwen’s hostility towards Ben – predating the divorce, wasn’t news. The whole family, except old Phil, displayed an insatiable appetite for drama. Addiction was more like it.

At least Lori sounds coherent this morning – on the surface anyway. No talk of space aliens or the CIA watching her and transmitting coded messages to her over the television, nor of doctors and nurses conspiring against her.

“Look, Lori. I don’t want to argue. Just bring the kids over or let me pick them up.”

More silence. Ben wants to slam the receiver down. If it weren’t a holiday he’d just call his lawyer.

Lori piped in, her voice softer now. “Benny.”

“Yes.”

“I was thinking that if the girls stay with my mom, you could come with me, to the funeral….” She let that hang. He said nothing. She went on: “I know you liked Uncle Phil. We could spend time together, alone. It’s been so long.”

“I can’t,” he said, but meant, I won’t. “I got to work. Busy as hell down at the paper.”

“Uncle Phil left me his house and everything, enough to get by without my mom or anyone’s help. You could quit the paper, write your novel. We could bring the kids up there in the fresh air, put them in good school You might want to work for the local paper. Think of it.”

Benny flinches. He flashes back on those fleeting days of L.A. bliss at the beginning – a couple of self-conscious hipsters in black turtlenecks cruising jazz clubs, poetry readings,critiquing half-understood art movies. Then came a careless pregnancy – but they were young, had high hopes just like JFK used to say. They’d raise kids the right way, with Dr. Spock’s help. When the baby came, Benny quit school and got on the paper as a copy boy,, working the swing shifts.

Wide eyed, clueless, starter parents, they were: The doted on baby Linda’s every gurgle. Benny, uncomfortable in his uncertain cheap white shirt and regimental tie, played journalist and aspiring film critic. In slow motion, it all unraveled in ways that Benny did not see coming – or chose to ignore – until chronic dysfunction became melt down. Lori, downing six packs night and day, talking incessantly – first blackouts, then the suicide attempts.

… “Hello? Benny? Are you there?”

“Yes.”

“Will you drive up to Redding with me?”

“I can’t. You know. My eyes. They’ve gotten worse. No highway driving at night for me anymore.” A transparent dodge: he’s perfectly able to drive under all conditions. Lucky for him, his type of albinism involved minimal ocular disability. Medically, they had diagnosed his condition as hypomelanism, a partial lack of melanin, accounting for his alabaster complexion, but deep blue, pink eyes. But he rarely talks about such details, even to those close to him, well aware of this engendering mystery, and maybe even liking it. Better to be a man of mystery than a medical freak, he told a shrink once.

But Ben had told Lori all the details, except that they had talked about the delicate matter of heredity only after Lori got pregnant – not that there was any choice by then, except a back-alley coat-hanger. The doctor told them what Benny already knew. Chances of passing on the recessive gene in a “mixed marriage” were as remote as it popping up from the union of two “normal” parents.

His partial albinism, however, had the plus of disqualifying him from military service, had he been drafted, although college, and then Linda and Nicole’s births got him deferments anyway.

Antiwar protests escalated in their first years of marriage – along with the war – and their arguing. He had told everyone he’d sooner go to Canada before Vietnam, a moot gesture. He burned his draft card in an ash tray at a party. It got him a few laughs, nothing else. There were no deferments from a marriage going south, however.

Benny cradles the receiver with his shoulder to pour coffee. He pushes two of Nicole’s stuffed animals aside to make room on his garage-sale, sea-foam Naugahyde couch. Lori keep talking, persuading, finally pleading. This is awful.

Got to pee. He puts his cup on the coffee table and drags the phone with him to the bathroom, pulling its tangled line taunt. He sits on the toilet to muffle the telltale sound, leaves the door open, leaning forward to keep the receiver to his ear. He will have to flush after the call – not from modesty. He just doesn’t want to let Lori in on any aspect of his private life ever again. Enough she and her mother pressure the kids to report on him.

Lori goes on about the trip to Redding, and the vision of them re-settling there, a dream Benny knew from experience could flip negative into a horror show at any moment. “Lori, I told you I can’t.”

“You mean you won’t?”

Pause. His patience expires. “That’s right, Lori. I won’t. No, no and no! Please don’t ask me again.” He feels bad, saying this to her – even now, even meaning every word of it.

He finishes and returns to the living room . He sips his coffee, tepid now, acrid as his guilt for exploding at her. “You left me, remember. Not that it matters. It just won’t work with us. Let’s leave well enough alone.” A better man would step up – the mother of your children needs you, for better for worse, and all that. He downs the last of the coffee and feels dregs gritting his tongue.

“Things could be so much better, Benny, with a house of our own up there.” Now she was all hearts and flowers, on the upswing.

He envisions himself exiled up there, no one to talk with but half drunk loggers and half stoned weed growers. I would go crazy up there in no time – right along with Lori – call my confessional novel, Folle a Deux. Our double suicide could make it a bestseller.

He tries a conciliatory tone again. “I feel bad, Lori, believe me. But I can’t do it just up and leave. I have assignments.” Not the real reason. Actually, he’s grown to hate his job. I’m such a coward. What’s wrong with telling the truth? Benny pushes the receiver hard against the side his head. His ear feels hot.

Lori’s voice hardens from meek to manic, spits like a cornered cat. “What you mean, Ben, really, is that you want to stay here to screw all those whore girlfriends of yours, you fucker!”.

“Here we go again.” Back to crazy town. “Sure, Lori, if you say so. Fuck yes! And oh wow, is it great! All I do is screw starlets. Orgies here at Chez Benny, every night! I’m a regular Hugh Hefner. You should see the pair of gorgeous groupies, I got here right now, sitting on lap while we talk.”

“Fuck you, Benny. You never loved me. You fucked my sister; then you went and fucked Viola.” Here we go again.

“Oh sure. There we go! Viola, Viola, Viola. Hello! You dreamed that I was with Viola, Lori, over and over. It never happened. You would wake up and rant about my infidelities with your sister – who wasn’t even in town, by the way. Nothing ever happened.”

But I wish it had. Viola Sabroza, jazz samba diva who lived next door to Gwen, a man would have to be far gone not to catch his breath in her presence, women too. Her daughter Ella played with his daughters.

“I know what you’re doing Benny!” Lori’s all-purpose accusation failed to evoke Benny’s natural guilt anymore. “I hate you! Fuck you.” She hangs up.

“And a happy, friggin’ new year to you too, Lori,” he says into a dead phone.

Same old, same old: Nothing new about this kind of exchange — but this time Benny senses finality in it, a threshold crossed before it could be noticed, the door back into his marriage slamming forever shut. No more chances to mend – and he wasn’t sorry, only washed out. Closing that door brings relief, freedom, but not release. He could never detach himself from their daughters, which meant he could never insulate himself from their mother. Some new accommodation would have to be found. None was apparent or even conceivable to him at this point.

Benny sinks head in hands. He seethes over the years trying the spring over her walls of resentment and suspicion, years of trying to ameliorate her stubborn self-destructiveness. But now he realizes that she had, just now, in that New Year’s morning phone call, suddenly open the gates – just for that one moment, a one-time offer. At least it felt real.

But things had gone to far for him – and now, refusing her unequivocally, he had broken her heart as surely as she had hardened his own.

He feels queasy, ignoble. He had responded viscerally, without hesitation. He had not considered her as once-his-wife or even as human being, nor the mother their children, nor any of the practicalities, nor even his own desires. He had seen fire and rushed for the exit in unseemly self-preservation. His life would never be the same, neither would Lori’s and neither would the lives of their two girls.

He dials her back – but doesn’t want to talk, only to press for what he wants now. “Hi Lori” – like nothing happened. “I forgot to ask you what time I can pick up the girls? I’ve got extra clothes for them here, enough if you need to stay a week or so, and I can bring them to school until you get back.”

“Fuck you.”

“Did you tell them that I’ll be there?”

“You’re not picking them up, Benny.”

“The hell I’m not.”

“My mother will take care of them.”

“That’s not acceptable. The court order gives me joint custody. I’m their father.”

“Fuck you. I’m leaving today. I’ve already dropped them at mom’s house.”

“Don’t do this, Lori.”

She hangs up again. No calling back this time.

Ben broods for a while. Then he slides one of his phonograph records from the shelves where he keeps his collection – that collection, and the stereo being the only items he took besides his clothing, when he split with Lori. He removes a 1929 shellac of Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy from its jacket. He likes the weight, how the light reflects off its ebony surface and its burgundy and gold RCA label. There’s little Nipper, head cocked to “his master’s voice” from a brass, Victrola horn – the terrier he always wanted when he was growing up dog-less with his single mother in Hollywood practicing on their spinet after school, fantasizing about playing a gig at a smoky club – maybe Rick’s in Casablanca.

He sets the disk gently on the turntable. Be careful – no telling how many plays left on its scratchy surface. Arthur Whetsol’s poignant horn fits his mood. Somehow it reminds him of Uncle Saul – on his Jewish side – who was a studio violinist who also owned a rundown music shop on Fairfax. Benny used to help out there after school, and Uncle Saul paid him, mostly in records and advice.

Saul would fish precious rarities from cardboard boxes in the back. He never knew what – symphonies, opera, jazz, Caruso, prized Rachmaninoff and Busoni performance originals, Mary Garden, whom Saul hinted richly having romanced once when she toured Europe. But Uncle Saul never talked about the row of numerals tattooed on his forearm that Benny spied when his uncle would roll up his sleeves. Benny learned about such things later.

Ben grubs a half-smoked Pall Mall from an ashtray, collapses on his sofa and listens to the rain and the music – breakfast of champions. He picks a half-crumpled letter off the coffee table and reads it for the fourth time.

At least it was more than the usual, perfunctory rejection slip – a chatty personal note from his old pal Roger Zwick, scrawled by hand, under a Rolling Stone newspaper-boy logo – but disappointing nevertheless. Why keep reading it over and over? He feels a generational pull, more on the political than on the mind-altering side of the new age, grooving like everyone, with the latest Revolver and Magical Mystery Tour albums – others.

Just make the music – any kind – as long is you keep it real, and not manufactured, not sloppy, not histrionic. He had enough of that. Benny had been at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Strip when they shut down Jim Morrison for screaming, “Mother I want to fuck you!”

Okay, Benny owned the Doors album, and grooved on it, “but that was bullshit.” Benny imagined a time machine parked in his garage, awaiting repairs, jazz being prematurely declared dead as of the go-go sixties. “It’s just not my time. I don’t belong even with those who say they don’t belong. I’m not turning on, tuning in or dropping out. I not standing defiant on the barricades, not getting my head bashed in Selma. If you’re not part of the solution, your part of the problem.

I’m just not with it, man, not hip, not straight enough, not regular and not GI Joe. I feel like John Lennon wrote Nowhere Man just to call me out. But I move with Monk, soar Coltrane and chill with Miles – and miles and miles to go before I sleep.

 

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