Edendale: Chapter 11
THE APARTMENT HOUSE ON ROWENA
By Phyl M. Noir
On a Tuesday in January 1996, Jade Yee sat behind her desk in the John Steinbeck public library in Salinas.
It was cold outside. It was always cold outside in Salinas where it was often said you had your winter coat and you had your summer coat. The rooms inside of the library were too warm. The air was too dry.
A man walked up to her desk. Jade recognized saw him as he used to be – Ralph, a small slight boy with hair worn in an exaggerated pompadour like Jim Carrey’s in Ace Ventura Pet Detective standing on the varnished blond wood floor of the music room in the Yates house a violin tucked under his chin. She saw the music score to Chopin’s Polonaise left open on the piano stand. She saw herself at thirteen sitting on the piano bench although that image was an import into her memory from a photograph her mother had taken: straight Chinese hair on each side of a perfectly straight part, a white nylon blouse with a little black velvet tie, and her hands poised delicately over the keyboard. She remembered seeing the observatory on one of the Griffith Park peaks through the window behind the piano. The park was not always on fire but she remembered Ralph’s face tinted red and the flames in the windows and their teacher Frances’ powerful bronze hands on the orangeade ivory keys.
“It’s been thirty years,” the man standing in front of her desk said. “We haven’t seen each other for thirty years.”
“Ralphie. It’s you.”
In June 1996, Ralph sat in Jade’s living room. His eyes looked yellow because of the light cast on him by the amber lampshade. The table standing next to him was green. Jade had painted it with Graumbacher oil paint and varnished it so that it reflected the trees behind her house; its surface looked like the surface of the Los Angeles River home in Edendale. She had hung blue curtains and upholstered the sofa with similar blue cloth. A streetlight shone through the window behind him.
“I had a dream,” he said. “It was vivid.
“I stood behind a pane of glass and on the other side of the glass stood a crazed unicorn. You’re laughing.”
“It’s all right. Go on.”
“The unicorn was covered with thick brown hair. He charged through the glass and broke it trying to get at me. I slid into another room and he got someone else.”
She picked her dictionary up from the green table and read out loud, “‘A mythical horse-like animal with a single horn growing from the center of its forehead. A mistranslation of Hebrew for wild ox.’” She turned pages. “’Ox. Any of several bovine mammals as the buffalo, bison, guar, yak, etc. A castrated bull of a domesticated breed used as a draft animal.’
“You are afraid of becoming a domesticated castrated bull used as a draft animal.”
“I am a domesticated effectively castrated draft animal. I teach high school.”
“You escaped in your dream. You slid into another room. The beast finds someone else.”
In April 1997, Ralph stood on the other side of the screen door to Jade’s house. The new leaves in the minotaur-shaped head of the tall tree on the other side of the street shook. The wind blew the screen door shut behind him when he came inside.
He sat in his blue chair under the lamp with the amber shade.
She went into the kitchen and came back with a small green bottle of mineral water. She placed it on the table next to him.
“I had a dream,” she said. “I was in another country. I was a citizen of that country employed as a minor government official. I lived in the capitol. It was night in early summer and I was returning from a jazz concert held in the old round city – purportedly the first city but no one believed that it was. A comrade walked ahead of me. He was drunk and belligerent. He wrote poetry badly. He wanted me to say it was good writing.
“We walked along a path or road that paralleled the river that coursed through the middle of the city. White city lights spotted the surface of the river and the water looked almost black but in daylight the river was brown and ran fast. Ahead was a suspension bridge. Apartment buildings stood on the other side of the bridge. I saw lights in some of the rooms. I lived in one of the buildings with other people who had become friends. The apartment building was ocean liner-like creamy colored with stylized elements painted the color of mint ice cream and portholes on two of the floors.
“To our left tree leaves rustled and made the same sound as women’s skirts in the breeze that came up from the river. The climate was neither hot nor cold. I was a little drunk.”
Ralph thought about the old neighborhood. All the parents had met twice a month to dance mazurkas on the Silver Lake recreation center’s varnished floor. If you looked at the building from the outside you saw a black iron silhouette of two country folk dancers. Jade had played the piano spiritedly on a piano that stood on a platform near a large fireplace.
Ralph remembered when Jade left Los Angeles and did not write. He had not known where she was.
“I was so alone I could have eaten my arm,” he said. He raised his arm to his mouth and chewed at his hand.
In July 1999, Ralph’s Japanese wife Ryoko sat on the blue sofa in Jade’s living room. “Too blue,” Ryoko said. Boys from down the street set off firecrackers. Ryoko jumped a little when she heard the explosions.
The walls were white. The table was green. There were red bottles on the shelves built into the walls. “It’s not too blue. It’s fine.” Ralph said.
“You must paint the house red,” Ralph’s daughter said. The girl didn’t look like either of her parents. She looked like an Umayyad princess. “Red! Red!” Jade said and thought of a firehouse.
The girl lost her enthusiasm and walked to the window and stood looking at the street. A field opened at the end of the street. A man on a tractor drove down the aisles of the field. Ralph’s daughter wasn’t a child anymore but no one listened to her.
“We knew each other when we were children,” he explained to make amends to his wife and daughter for his defense of the house that was not red and was too blue. “I played the violin. Jade played the piano.”
“You play the piano, Lorf,” his wife said. “The piano is too big.” Perhaps Japanese people believe big pianos are bad luck, Jade thought. “I play the piano now,” he said.
“You must come to the hot springs with us,” Ryoko said.
“That’s kind of you.”
“You don’t want to come do you? You like too much excitement.”
Ryoko had her finger on the cosmic pulse. She knew everything: what was too blue, what was too big and how much excitement was too much.
In March 2000 Jade took Ralph through the kitchen into the garden. The back of the house was sheltered from the wind that came from the Monterey Bay every day beginning at noon. The gold and red nasturtiums she planted grew in the neighbors’ yards. Nasturtiums killed all growing things in their path. When they died their twisted stems remained on bare hard earth.
Apple and pear trees survived the wind. She had only planted the pear trees last year so there was no fruit yet but when she had apples they were tart. She made compote with cinnamon and white sugar and a little sea salt.
Elderly Nisei — brothers who had been gardeners and their wives — lived on each side of Jade’s house. Their families had arranged their marriages when they were young. The women hadn’t met their husbands until just before their weddings. They had all grown up on farms that their parents had not been allowed to purchase because they came from Japan.
The United States government drafted the men to fight on the European front during World War II. It sent the women and their children to internment camps and confiscated their houses and businesses.
Ralph knew her neighbors from church because sometimes he was a Presbyterian like them. Mostly he was Jewish but he felt a real closeness to Presbyterian people.
“I played the piano for a long time last night,” he said. “I’m different late at night.”
Piano was also a direction to play an instrument softly. Pianissimo meant to play very softly. The pianoforte was the “soft-loud” – named to contrast the instrument with the harpsichord for that had negligible variation. Jade and Ralph had been ten years old the first time they came up the stairs to the studio in the Micheltorena Street house where Peter started Los Angeles County’s “Concerts on the Roof” program in the 1940s. The architect Rudolph Schindler had cantilevered a roof over an existing Silver Lake bungalow in 1938 to create space for concerts.
In the middle of the studio stood Peter’s thinking chair and a table with a rack of his tobacco pipes on a table next to it. Above the chair hung a print of the Watts Towers. Peter built a clavichord that stood in the back of the room. It smelled like new wood.
Peter’s back had been turned to them. They didn’t know who he was yet. He played one of Ives’s pieces on the black piano that stood between his thinking chair and the clavichord. He said without turning around, “Like this. Play like this, without rancor.”
Jade was thinking about that day when Ralph said, “When I was eighteen I thought if I learned French I would have an apotheosis. I would become someone else, a French man. I didn’t become someone else after I learned French so I went to France.” Ralph said.
“You are the first person I ever heard say the word ‘apotheosis.’” Jade broke off the ends of the peas and filled his cupped hands with them. He had used the word incorrectly. She was unsure what the word was for what he meant: to become content through the help of an illusion you were really someone else.
“When I was in Paris, I ate soup from a can. I became so ill I went to the hospital but nothing was wrong with me.” Ralph said. “I came back to Los Angeles and took LSD. I was on the lawn in front of Peter’s house when the police arrested me.”
“Why did they arrest you?”
“I was eating the lawn.
“After that, I went up to the White Mountain Forest with Ronald. I saw some very nice areas of Spring Beauties, squirrel corn, Canada violet, downy and smooth yellow violets and there was a strong showing of trilliums. I lived inside of a large tree hollowed by a lightning fire because Ronald went to the nearest town to score drugs for us. He never returned.
“I got lonely. I went back to Los Angeles and got a master’s degree in Japanese and went to Japan. I translated Christian theology for a Japanese scholar who wrote, ‘The Jews, of course, are the cat’s paw of Satan.’”
There used to be a shoe polish that came in tins. On the cover of the tins was a drawing of a cat. Under the cat were the words “Cat’s Paw.” Jade had worn what been called saddle shoes, which were half black and half white. She had polished the black portions with Cat’s Paw.
“It was important to him to know what Americans thought and he didn’t want to offend Americans. He was anti-Semitic but I was the only Jew he had seen in his life. He had thought Americans wanted to hear Jews were the cat’s paws of Satan. He hadn’t realized some Americans were Jewish or that I was Jewish. He was sorry for what he wrote when I told him I was a Jew.
“Ryoko was a student of Christian theology studying with the cat’s paw doctor. She had a stomach tumor. I went to the hospital to see her. I asked her to marry me.” Ralphie said.
It wasn’t night yet he was thinking night thoughts, the nocturne intoxication when his thoughts flew.
Ralph walked home.
He turned the light on in the foyer of his house. He looked at himself in the mirror hung in the entrance. He wore a short beard to compensate for his baldness. He would love to still have enough hair to wear in the pompadour he wore when he was thirteen. “Look at my hair!” He would say. “Look at my lovely hair!”
A problem with growing old was that you looked old. Otherwise it need not matter. After all anyone could die anytime. Looking old was like a cat wearing a bell on a ribbon around its neck to warn away birds or a leper with a bell. When you looked old young people thought, “He’s old. Must be going to die.”
In May 2000 Ralph removed his hat and stood outside Jade’s front door.
The city had planted ornamental cherry trees on its corner easements. Behind Ralph the trees bloomed like a brilliant coda but the branches grew in one direction because of the wind. He came inside Jade’s house, put his hat on the green table and sat on the blue couch.
“I’ve never been in the prairie states,” she said. “The wind can’t blow any harder there than it does here.”
“Sit with me on the couch,” he said. She sat next to him. The soul of a being he said to her but looking straight ahead out the window was its history. The soul of a tree was in the first branches. The soul of a rock was in a volcanic upheaval. A tree did not forget its growth. A stone didn’t forget the lava.
“I was thinking. I’ve decided your dreams are about Prague.” Ralph said. “My first violin was stamped with the word ‘Prague.’ I’ve thought about Prague all my life.” She had never thought about Prague before.
He got up and went to the bathroom. She forgot to tell him she used paper towels to dry her hands. He was going to dry his hands on her curtains. He returned and settled in his chair.
“Your curtains tempted me,” he said. “They look like towels.”
“They are towels. I sewed towels into curtains. Are you sure you didn’t dry your hands on the curtains?” She was going to have to either put more towels out or wash her curtains often.
He put on his hat and stood at the door. He took her in his arms and She went into the bathroom. The curtains were damp.
On Halloween in 2000, little boys came to the door. “You were here a few minutes ago wearing masks.” Jade said.
“It wasn’t us!”
“Yes. It was.” Jade took the dish of quarters from the green table and gave them each two.
“Japanese,” Ralph continued with what he had been saying before the children rang the door bell, “is a Ural-Altaic language.”
“Did you read today’s paper?” She asked.
He shook his head and asked, “You don’t have ice cream in the freezer do you?”
“No. What about cherries?”
She went to the kitchen and filled a dish with yellow cherries and brought them into the living room in a cobalt blue dish. The cat leapt into Ralph’s lap. He stroked the cat’s striped flat head with one hand and ate cherries with the other.
“Today I found a good article in the newspaper. Genetic studies show the Eskimos descended from ancestors of the Japanese. They crossed the land bridge 15,000 years ago. Other American aboriginals are related to another Japanese people who have Caucasian features.” Ralph said.
“The Ainu,” she said. “From the Basque word aienatu, the dispersed people.
“The aboriginals here ate the horses. There were horses on this continent but there weren’t any after human beings came here. If they hadn’t eaten the horses the Indians might not have lost against the Spanish conquerors.”
“That’s not correct,” Jade said.
“It’s correct that the California natives ate all the mega fauna but the Indians’ bones show long periods of hunger. The primary reason the Indians lost is that they were hunter-gatherers. They were not immune to the agriculture-related diseases the Spanish brought with them.”
“Do you know how people got to Japan?” Ralph said.
“I wonder why anyone stayed in Alaska. I would have migrated south. Not too far south.”
In December 2000, Ralph stood next to his car. He wore a beret, a beige cardigan sweater, a badly ironed yellow shirt and soft old trousers. Perry Como was the only other person she had seen wearing a cardigan and that was on television. “I was going to get you flowers.”
She was too upset to answer.
“I need to explain.”
“You confessed before the congregation that you wear women’s clothes.”
“They’re Presbyterians, Ralph. Besides they barely know you. Those are normal people Ralph.”
“And a cold lot they are, too. There I was pouring out my heart to all of them and no one said a thing.”
“No one cares if you wear women’s clothes,” she said.
He walked home and went inside his house. Ryoko and their daughter were asleep but one of them had left the light on over his piano and the light on in the foyer.
He looked in the mirror. Ralph repeated Jade’s words deepening some of them as she did. She became wise and spooky. He was becoming an expert in the timbre of her voice. Solipsistic hermetic he slowly turned into her.
He sat on the bench in front of the piano and opened sheet music for Ravel’s Pavane for A Dead Princess. The Pavane was conventional and inconclusive but there was something moving in its stately opening. His hands hovered above the keys. When he slept his hands played the piano. Ryoko told him his hands played algebra on the blankets. She meant arpeggio. He closed the score.
One summer forty years earlier he had a sustained and solid experience of intensities without remorse. He had played the violin with its name Prague stamped on the bow in gold letters and Jade had played the piano in the Micheltorena Street house. Peter had yelled, “Get your damned foot off the damned damper pedal!” He and Jade hadn’t been able to stop playing Chopin. He was Chopin.
He got up and removed the 1962 Barristers yearbook from the bookshelf. He opened it to the photographs on page 29.
Jade wore a long ponytail in the photograph. When he was seventeen he had written in the margin: “This gentle, petite flower, the paragon of oriental beauty.”
On September 10, 2001 Jade emailed Ralph, “I was in the old neighborhood. It’s night in the dream and I’m driving but I don’t know where I’m going. The streets are dark and confusing. I leave the car in the street. I’m in a bazaar.
“I touch my ears. The amethyst earrings I wore were stolen thirty years ago. I had forgotten. I look for a jeweler and find many. Lapis lazuli and topaz necklaces are arrayed in trays. A man in an odd hat sits in one store and he turns a large piece of copper over a flame and there are shelves of copper pots on the walls.
“A man wearing an embroidered skull cap touches my hand to stop me. He has black hair. He wears a long dress. ‘You must stop,’ he says in another language yet I understand him.
“He hands me his wallet. It’s thin and black and inside of it is an identification card written in a different alphabet from ours. The photograph was taken years earlier when he was young. Inside the wallet is also a photograph of his sons, wife and daughter. His sons are large young men with short hair. They are so full of energy they come out of the photograph next to us. There’s no money in the wallet, no driver’s license and no credit cards.
“His wife joins us. She wears a green gauze mantle over her head so long it almost reaches the ground in back.
“’What did you think?’ She asks me angrily in that language I translate instantly in my mind. ‘I sent him to get money. Did you think he was flirting with you?’ She’s angrier with her husband than she is with me. They had become beggars.
“I give him back his wallet and I open mine. There is crumpled American money in my wallet. I straighten out two bills and hand the money to the wife. She takes the money as if I owe it to her.
“I look for an explanation for why these dreams fly by me. The air is full of them. They are like radio signals.
Dogs can’t see color but there is color. We can’t hear high certain sounds animals hear. Three dimensions look like two when seen on a camera obscura.”
Shortly after 9/11, Ralph and his family moved back to Silver Lake and rented an apartment on Rowena. The apartment building had a large swimming pool with algae on the surface of its water and pots of green plants standing next to it. Large Armenians sunbathed on the lounge chairs. They were friendly and taught Ralph how to stretch before swimming.
Ralph said one day when he and one of the Armenians swam in the pool together, “I have decided to explore my homosexual side. I’ve been going to gay bars.”
“You wear the wig?”
Yroko nursed Ralph’s mother Sara during the year before her death. She was tender with her as if she were her own mother. If there is heaven Yroko has a place in it. Sara was nice after she suffered from dementia but Yroko remembered the old woman’s cutting words from when Sara had been sane.
Jade left Salinas and got a job in the Edendale Public Library on Sunset Boulevard. She lived in a tiny turquoise-painted cottage on the Loma Linda municipal staircase on the noisy side where you could hear the roar of traffic on the 2 Freeway.
Yroko held the old woman’s hand when she died. She sang Japanese songs to her until her breathing stopped.
Jade went to the funeral at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. It was the oldest remaining cemetery in Los Angeles and one of two that had allowed African-American burials. Sara would not have cared to be buried there if she had had a choice. Ralph’s brother Richard chose the cemetery for that reason.
Sara’s mother Annie had moved from Back East in 1890 and lived on Temple Street, which was then the Jewish center and then she moved to Boyle Heights in the 1920s. The main street was Brooklyn Avenue and all along it had been Jewish druggists and Jewish haberdashers, the Jake Garfield tailor shop, Canter’s Deli, Curry Mile High ice cream and produce markets. There were beautiful big synagogues but a lot of the people were secular and socialists or communists and didn’t go to temple.
Richard was at the funeral. Richard was a puffed-up lecturer in sociology at a community college. He stood like a stick and didn’t say anything harboring grievances and thinking about how poorly life had treated him. Ronald and his brother Marnix also came. They had already lost their own parents. Peter had dropped dead from a heart attack while he was drying dishes in the kitchen.
Peter’s had been the hardest death for them because he was the only measure they had of what to do in life, which was to live fully even when he couldn’t afford a car and Frances Mullen had to lug bags of groceries up Micheltorena Street, a street so steep the children used to walk backwards up it to get to their music lessons with her.
Peter was erudite. Jade and Ralph often had not known what he said and then he wrote letters to them and they understood. From him they learned to speak in sentences. Sometimes their questions disturbed him and they saw his pen had broken through the paper when they opened the envelopes containing his letters. When Jade wrote to Peter that she had become an Anarchist and worked in a worker-owned collective loading trucks in Hollywood, he wrote, “Think of the Mensheviks!”
They did not want their parents to read Peter’s letters so asked him to mail them to the house where Malcolm and Bruno lived and Malcolm ate one of them believing it to be a sandwich.
Sara’s casket looked like an orange crate. It looked like it might fall apart. It wasn’t like the caskets Jade had seen before, which looked like expensive pianos with white silk upholstered interiors.
The rabbi didn’t know anyone there so he spoke about suffering and loss in general terms. Richard didn’t say anything because he had hated Sara too much. Ralph spoke. He said that Sara maybe hadn’t been such a good person and was very difficult but now that she was dead people should look at her accomplishments but he couldn’t think of any.
Malcolm smelled a squirrel in the sycamore a few graves over. It smelled like acrobats.
In the years that followed Yroko missed Ralph’s mother and visited her grave.
Ralph published the first of his books, the one that begins, “I dreamed I drove down Hollywood Boulevard in a pink convertible. I shyly removed my shirt and revealed my bounteous white breasts.”
He was very glad to see Jade when she visited him in the hospital. He felt a real connection with her. She looked out the window and saw the cross on the Crucifixion-Resurrection building in Forest Lawn.
“I don’t think the morphine affects me,” he said. “I lie here thinking about the green plants around the swimming pool on Rowena and how the light strikes them.”
“I had another dream,” Jade said. “I want to tell you about it.
“The colors in the dream were shades of brown. I came to a town with unpainted wood houses and stores. In front of them was a sidewalk made of planks and hitching posts for horses. There were no people and no horses.
“I entered a store filled with clocks: grandfather clocks, gold clocks encrusted with cherubim, platinum Electraclox, cuckoo clocks with brown shepherds walking out on a track and returning to Alpine cottages carved in wood.
“The face of one of the grandfather clocks was a human being’s face with Roman numerals painted on it. Each movement of his tiny hands across his clock face reminded him he was imprisoned in a machine. His eyes filled with tears.”
“I hate this dream, “ Ralph said. “Are you telling me this because it upsets me?”
“It hasn’t anything to do with you. I don’t think you’re a clock.”
Ralph fell sleep but Jade continued to talk.
“There was a fake Western town built on Glendale Boulevard. We never saw it because when we were children, Mixville was already gone. Walt Disney made Frontierland because he had seen Mixville on the other side of Bohemian hill.
“I used to ride bicycles with Celia. You remember Celia. She sometimes played with us in the studio on Mitcheltorena Street. She never understood Chopin but she played Debussy well. She paid for her lessons by taking shorthand for John Yates.
“Celia and I rode our bicycles to one of the Chavez Ravine neighborhoods. We found mailboxes on a post. We saw all the empty houses. There were three neighborhoods surrounded by Elysian Park: Bishop, La Loma, and Palo Verde.
“By 1955 Chavez Ravine was a ghost town although a few people remained because the Los Angeles Housing Authority had condemned the property to build public housing.
“During the Red Scare the City acquired the land and gave it to Walter O’Malley to build Dodger Stadium. It forcibly removed the last of the people who stayed there and leveled the houses.
“The dream was about the day Celia and I rode our bicycles past what had been Mixville all the way to Chavez Ravine. “
The following summer the real Ralph — not the one in the story she had made up about him — walked next to her along a ridge in Griffith Park towards the observatory. It was a bright clean day not too hot. The sky went on forever. They walked up the stairs when they reached the observatory and looked out at Silver Lake, Boyle Heights and Glassell Park through the telescopes that stood on the sides of the walls on the top level.
Unusual purple wildflowers grew in random clumps downhill from them. Jade and Ralph had never seen flowers like that and would not live long enough to see them again. Fire had burned everything two years earlier.
“You’ve got me in a hospital having a sex change operation. I don’t like that ending. You write that I’m a cross-dresser. You don’t use my real name, do you?”
“No.” She lied.
She realized it was an ugly ending to the story and Ralph was a dear man and a good friend. She was ashamed of herself.
“I’ll think of a different ending,” she said. He was sixty-four and yet his face was ruddy and healthy. He appeared young. Anything was still possible for him.
He went to France again and wrote about it exquisitely in the journal Jade got for him. He bought a house near where he had grown up in Boyle Heights next to an empty lot full of beautiful yellow grass. He saw miles from the top of his hill all the way to Bunker Hill from the top level and to the Sears & Roebuck building in Boyle Heights and to The Avenues on other levels. He planted fruit trees. Yroko grew spinach. Their daughter went to UC Berkeley and graduated and then came home for the summer and worked for a property management company.
Jade and Ralph did not see each until they both received phone calls from Sam Garfield asking for help.
Sam’s wife had removed his WWII rifle from inside the grandfather clock in the hall and walked of with it. Justine felt that her brother-in-law Max was exchanging all of her clothing in her closet with different clothing. It didn’t help about the milk thing but that wasn’t the real reason she was upset. Sam and Justine had not seen Max in forty years, which made his theft of her clothing alarming.