Part 3: The Departure
October 26, 2011 | by Mark Van de Walle
After two months of twelve- to sixteen-hour days, and six-and-a-half-day weeks, I began to realize I’d misread the signs that led me to the Beat Hotel. The caretaker’s house did have the advertised citrus trees, pool, fireplace and view, and the Camaro—glowing, golden—was there, too. But I hadn’t spent a single night in the house. Instead, I collapsed in a room at the Beat, got up early and went back to work. The Camaro stayed in the driveway. Worse, my fantasy about living the writer’s life in the desert was precisely that: I hadn’t written a single page. Instead of breaking my writer’s block, Steve entombed it beneath an endless, proliferating series of tasks.
Some of these were fairly mundane. I moved the manual typewriters that decorated every outdoor table into the shade during the day, so that they did not become dangerously hot in the sun and burn unsuspecting guests. At night, I put them back again. There were no guests yet, apart from Steve and myself, but we agreed it was important that the ritual be established and observed, so the typewriters were moved nonetheless. Other tasks were less mundane. I pretended, for instance, to be a guest in a TV spot for something called “The Fine Living Network,” which was doing a show about “unique hotels,” with Steve and the Beat as the stars. My job was to lounge poolside in 40-degree weather, talking about the Beat writers’ impact on my life while wearing nothing but a dripping-wet bathing suit. I was “atmosphere.” We had other atmospheric touches, too. When the show’s host interviewed Steve in the main lobby, he stood next to the mugwump, which sat in its director’s chair. One of William’s big, black and white paintings took up most of the wall behind them. We referred to it as “semi-abstract,” but really, it was a painting of a giant cock, surrounded by a swirling filigree that looked not unlike a spray of come.
Steve wasn’t just trying to open an eight-room hotel, and he wasn’t just creating a monument to William, either. He was also re-creating his relationship to William, in reverse, with me in the subsidiary role. I didn’t mind, exactly. I loved the project, and I loved Steve, too; the more demanding the two of them became, the more I loved them both. This sounds masochistic, but it more or less defines the amanuensis’s relationship to the dictator. Samuel Beckett, James Joyce’s amanuensis—among other tasks, he transcribed one of the most notoriously impenetrable sections of Finnegan’s Wake—took to wearing shoes too small for him in imitation of Joyce’s tiny feet. Beckett didn’t want to be Joyce’s assistant; he wanted to be Joyce. Later, he opted to become his former master’s opposite instead. Proust died almost immediately after finishing A la Recherche…, and Céleste said her life was over, too. For four decades, she merely marked time, until she finally broke her silence with Monsieur Proust. Her book is more than three hundred pages, and not a single word in it is about anything but this peculiar love.
Just before the New Year, when I’d been at the Beat for three months, Steve got sick. Or, more accurately, Steve began to die. My cell phone rang one night around midnight, when I was upstairs in bed, reading Monsieur Proust. I had to look at the number on the screen to figure out who was calling; Steve’s voice was a rasp, an unintelligible whisper. I found him in his room on the first floor, huddled on the bed, shaking, wearing a hoodie under a bathrobe, wrapped in a comforter. His temperature was over 103. His sheets were soaked, right down to the feather bed, so I half-carried him over to a chair, made him sit while I changed his wet clothes and wet sheets, and then got him back into bed again. The next day, we agreed to hope it was just the flu, and gave him over the counter drugs, Advil, Tylenol.
Steve had been HIV-positive for thirteen years, but he’d never been sick, or had any symptoms, even. He was so freakishly strong I always half-believed he’d be one of those people whose blood contained some mutation that killed the virus, and eventually, they’d use him to create a vaccine or a cure. By the time I called the ambulance, though, we both knew that his HIV had turned into full-blown AIDS. The doctor at the ER recognized this immediately, too. I thought that was a good thing; I was wrong. Steve had an AIDS specialist he’d been working with, one who, in theory anyway, knew him and his medical history. This, too, should have been a good thing, an example of the value of planning and foresight, but here, again, it was not. Instead, it meant that no one would do anything until that doctor saw him and confirmed that what everyone knew was happening really was happening, and figured out his treatment plan. In the meantime, they gave him some more Tylenol, a bottle of Gatorade, and told me to take him home.
All the way back, a half-hour drive, Steve talked about the homes we passed. He knew everything—the architect, the client, when it was built, what kinds of special features there were, what the original interior décor was like—about every Modernist home we passed. He told me about how awful Bob Hope’s Lautner home looked inside, ruined by his widow. “There were these horrible crocheted things and dolls—it was some kind of suburban John Waters trip. She owns a house by a genius and just shits in it!” Of another home we passed, he said that the architect had built the drawers in the house exactly as wide as the owner liked to fold her clothes. As soon as we got back to the Hotel, he passed out again.
Eventually the doctor came back from his holiday and Steve got his drug cocktail, a giant mound of pills which all had to be taken at different intervals during the day. He hadn’t stopped sweating, or started eating yet, so he kept on losing weight, the skin pulling taut across his cheekbones, his eyes looking out from inside deep, black pits. But he wasn’t dying anymore.
After that, Steve ran the two hotels by cell phone, issuing whispered orders that rose in volume as he got stronger. There was a lot of laundry. Steve still went through several changes of sheets and towels every day. There were only four apartments at the Lautner, but all of them needed giant piles of sets of sheets and blankets and towels, which always turned out to be missing a washcloth or sham and so required a trip to the Beat and then back again to complete the set. Plus, each new guest had to get the same lecture I got when I came, about the building and its history. I could fake some of Steve’s knowledge and enthusiasm, but I never fooled anyone, and so the task was guaranteed to generate a profound sense of inadequacy. I began to hate the guests. I cursed the women for their long hair, which wove itself into the duvets, and had to be picked out by hand, or with tweezers. I cursed the men for their shorter hair, which collected, unnoticed behind the toilets or in the sinks. Steve always said that the hospitality business was a lot like his father’s funeral parlor. I thought of that when I cleaned rooms of the night’s effluvia, the hideous stains I could not ignore or unsee.
Céleste was a good amanuensis to the end; after only three months, I was already beginning to fail. While Steve was in his room, it was still high season in Palm Springs, so buses full of architecture tourists were showing up at the Lautner, and guests, all of them friends, or friends of friends, asking about Steve. Where was he? Was he well? Could they see him tomorrow? Next week? Finally, I asked him what I should tell people about his condition. He fell into a sort of panicked rage: no one could know, he told me. “I can’t have it get out that the hotelier has AIDS,” he said. “No one will come. We’ll go under. We have to finish this place.” I told him we would be fine, even though I was by then in a state of panicked rage myself: because my 12-hour-a-day job had turned into a 24-hour-a-day job; because I knew it was impossible, and I would fail, no matter how many hours I worked; because I wanted my own life, my own work, more than I wanted to complete his.
I stayed for as long as we’d agreed, through to the Beat’s opening weekend, almost exactly four months. Steve had gone back to living in his house by then, and a huge, blonde California boy had moved in with him. He was a massage therapist, but he also sold a line of custom-made titanium cock rings on the web. “We send people leather ones for sizing,” he explained when I asked about the business. “It’s tough to cut the titanium ones off if they’re too small.” He’d met Steve in the hospital years before, when he’d gone in to get treated for his own AIDS symptoms. I forget why Steve was there, but he showed the blonde a Lautner documentary, and the beauty of the light in the architect’s buildings had been the main thing that pulled the boy out of his illness. Now, he said, he had come to repay the favor.
Steve found two people, a 21 year-old girl and her 25-year-old boyfriend, to replace me at the Hotel. They were beautiful, dressed in matching black with matching tattoos (his said “REPENT” and hers, “CONTRITE”) and silver piercings. They were not mere nouveaux goths. Contrite’s mother, who came to live with them, was the daughter of a movie star from the forties, and a Baroness in the long-vanished Austro-Hungarian Empire; on her left hand, she wore a discreet gold ring with the Hapsburg crest on it. The three of them moved into the caretaker’s house I’d seen only once, the idea being that the kids would work on the same terms I’d had at the beginning, only minus the Camaro. I wrote instruction manuals for all the details of the Beat: how to make the coffee and how much yogurt to put out for the breakfast buffet; what kind of wine to buy for the evening wine parties, and suggestions for dinner for the guests afterwards; where the files were for the stationary and the business cards; when to put the books from the library out and when to take them away. Still, I was not especially hopeful they would be able to cope with Steve and the Beat. They looked like kids to me, who would prefer their own lives and own desires to the quasi-slavery of the amanuensis.
Steve and I talked regularly for a while after I left, a couple of times a week, and then less and less. As I’d feared, none of my replacements lasted long. The beautiful kids turned out to be a problem: “They actually drank blood! Can you imagine? A hotel owner with AIDS and two vampire wanna-bes for help?” Steve said. The massage therapist was gone, too, for reasons left unspecified. A couple of years later, Steve called to tell me he’d expanded his real estate empire to include two singlewides in Bing Crosby’s trailer park. We both agreed that I should come out and see them, but I didn’t buy a plane ticket and months went by without us talking again.
I learned that Steve was dead via email. His old doctor had moved, and his new doctor switched his drug cocktail to a simpler regimen. A few days later, he started to feel sick, so he went back to his old meds, but this only made him feel worse. He told a mutual friend he might go to the emergency room. The next morning, they found Steve in the parking lot of the hospital in Palm Springs.
There was a memorial service, but I didn’t learn about that until it was too late, so I never did get to say goodbye. When it looked like Steve was dying, I’d spent a lot of time writing wills that he would dictate to me. Then he got better and since it seemed like he would live forever again. In the end, there was no will. Everything went to his closest relative, a twin sister whom he disliked intensely. She decided to liquidate the entire estate. There was so much stuff it took two days for a Los Angeles auction house to sell. All of Steve’s collections were there, from the Richard Tuttle books to the spray paint cans William blasted to make his shotgun paintings, from the porn novels Steve had written to the Italian Fascist-era chrome and leather chairs that had been in my office at the Hotel. I thought about bidding, to have something tangible to remember him and the Hotel by, but in the end, I couldn’t bear to do it: I looked at the catalog online once, and then never looked again.
When Steve was alive, I told him I wanted to write about him, about his life and the Hotel. The idea didn’t quite enrage him, but almost. The stories were his, he said, and no one else had a right to tell them. I agreed, but I was lying. I’d already started making notes. I’m sure if he were alive, he’d see this essay as not just theft, but betrayal. But when you’re an amanuensis, the stories are given to you—all of them, even the ones your dictator didn’t want to tell. The only question is whether you’ll claim them for yourself. Even Céleste, who was so assiduous about remaining behind the scenes that she refused to keep the diary Proust urged her to write, wound up telling her story: not just about how Proust’s work shaped her, but how she shaped it. Steve, even though he might not have admitted it, did the same thing with William and the Beat, turning the 1950s spa into a narrative about their time together. All I had left from Steve and the Beat was the stories, so I’ve made them my own. And even if Steve is right, and it’s a betrayal to take them, these stories are the only gift an amanuensis ever really gets, and the only ones they can ever really give in return.
Mark Van de Walle’s first book, a cultural history of trailer parks in America, will be published by Ig Press in September.