Issue 214, Fall 2015
I was a difficult little boy, and when my mother’s chronic illnesses made it impossible for her to care for me, she packed me off to her errant father, the filmmaker Anton Pavlak.
Friends have joked that it was an opportunity for her to punish us both. And when I tell people that I was sent to stay with Pavlak during the heyday of his Hollywood period and I name some of the actresses who were likely to star in the breakfasts I had with him at his home, they look at me as if I’d said that my mother used to send me out to play with lions and tigers.
These episodic visits to my grandfather lasted from the time I was ten until I was nearly fifteen. And it was certainly an eye-opening experience for a child who was used to a sickroom atmosphere and its lonely hush. Even now I find it hard to credit that my joyless, ailing mother was Anton’s child and that Anton had ever been married to my grandmother, a terrifying old lady with a heavy accent, draped head to toe in black, who appears only in my earliest memories, hovering around my mother’s kitchen like a vulture.
My grandmother had been part of some other life of Anton’s, an era and a continent away, back when the two of them and their infant daughter, my mother, were fleeing Europe’s gathering storm. The Anton I knew was indeed a brooding, complex figure, but he lived under the bright California sun, in a whirl of colors and flowers and activity.
In Anton’s house, I was exposed to brawls, tears, romances, scenes, and wild reconciliations. It was a tumultuous time for the tightly knit group of friends who served as the instruments to enact on film my grandfather’s dark visions, with all their implied violence.
My grandfather could be a tyrant. He was a womanizer. He was often moody and capricious, as his detractors assert. But he was kind to me, though he worked long and intense hours, and the daily tasks of seeing that I was fed and clothed fell largely to his household staff.
Whatever my mother’s intentions, my times in my grandfather’s irregular household were among the brightest of my life. And on nights when I find it difficult to sleep and I sit up watching old movies on TV, the faces of such Olympians as Zoe Sills and Duncan MacGregor appear in the air around me like guardian angels.
I met them there, at my grandfather’s—Zoe Sills, Duncan MacGregor, Evangeline Feld, Peter Lofgren, Coral Durance, Greta Seifert, Roman Karsk, Pansy Resnik, Tara Foley, Luther Kaminsky and Austin Arles. All of them, and so many others. They were playful and self-indulgent, and, probably because they spent most of their time like children, pretending, they were great fun for a child to be around, even blighted as they were by the famous self-destructive habits and narcissism of actors.
The youngest of them are now old, those who are left. My grandfather passed away decades ago. Evangeline, Pete, Tara, and Zoe are long gone, too, and the others are fading away. But I still think of the little gestures of kindness those friends of my grandfather’s made to the lonely child I was, and I wish I could repay them now, so many years later.
In fact, this attempt to memorialize my grandfather and his friends, to record these intimate glimpses of their lives, began out of an old debt to Pansy, who found me crying one day when I’d skinned my knee. She took me to her home and cleaned the cut gently and carefully, although I could smell the alcohol on her, and she put a Band-Aid on it. And then we merrily ate too much peppermint ice cream together.
The memory returned to me suddenly not long ago, when I attended a Christmas party where peppermint ice cream was served, and I resolved to look Pansy up. After many efforts, I traced her to the dilapidated apartment complex where she was living, neglected, in one room with only a hot plate to cook on. And though she seemed to confuse me with someone else, she clung to my hand and there were tears in her old eyes, as if some distant memory was sending its sunny rays into her cloudy mind.
What to do about all this horseshit? Nothing, really, nothing. But still, the ones who are left, those who happen to be in New York—Duncan, Coral, Roman, and Luther—have collected, on this glassily brilliant autumn day, in the noisy bar of a restaurant that Roman likes. Emma has been included, too, although if it weren’t for this so-called memoir, these old friends of her mother’s would no doubt have forgotten all about her. Even in the book, her existence is confined to pages 48, 49, and 316.
“You see, he’s inserted himself into the story,” Luther says, jowls trembling with indignation. “Clement Rouse—who is this putative grandson of Anton’s? Whoever he is, it’s not his story. He’s inserted himself into it.”
“Rather a shame his mother didn’t send him out to play with lions and tigers,” Coral says, as the maître d’ shows them to their table with a flourish that suggests he’s produced it from thin air.
Roman, all wiry eyebrows now, grunts. “Actually it is his story, the Clement Rouse story, the story of a guy who thinks he should have gotten to hang out with some people who hung out with his grandfather instead.”
“I think I should have gotten to hang out with William Shakespeare,” Luther says. “Maybe I’ll write a book about my intimate glimpses of William Shakespeare’s life. For heaven’s sake—Luther Kaminsky and Austin Arles, Luther Kaminsky and Austin Arles! All through the damned book it’s ‘Luther and Austin,’ ‘Luther and Austin.’ What about Luther and Greta, please!”
“She was a wonderful woman, Greta,” Duncan says. “May she rest in peace.” He pats Luther’s arm.
They haven’t even gotten settled yet, they’re still bumping around the table to kiss and embrace Emma, the last arrival. “It’s absolutely outrageous,” Luther is saying. “It’s like something Greek—he’s assassinating his dead grandfather! This is how people will remember Anton’s life. This is how people will remember ours.”
Roman grunts again. “Well, in the first place, you can’t remember someone else’s life.”
“I can’t remember my own life,” Coral says. She takes Emma’s face in her hands to survey her with bright, birdy eyes before kissing her on both cheeks. “Hello, Cookie,” she says in that familiar whisky voice. “Oh, my. And what is this wild, orgiastic time we were all supposed to be having?” she says to the table in general as she sits down. “What were you guys up to when I was at work?”
These people are near strangers to Emma. She hasn’t seen any of them for twenty years, since her mother’s funeral. And she saw them, and her mother, rarely enough before that. But it’s natural that they would have taken the trouble to track down the custodian of Zoe’s living genes—she is, after all, another voice to swell their small chorus of lament.
They look remarkably dapper, scrubbed clean by age. But hardy as they clearly are, these old friends of Zoe’s are no match for their own clownish simulacra, as reduced and banal as the book’s author, arrayed page after page against them: Pansy is sweet but gaga, Duncan is handsome but dull, Zoe is lovely but flighty, Anton is brilliant but cold, Roman is talented but lazy, Luther is a pompous ham, and so on—all of them stamped, sorted, and tossed into bins.
Actually, they happen to be virtuosos of the protean, and their various personae don’t adhere to the normal regulations, even of chronology. Between reruns, late-night movies, little film festivals, wigs and costumes, any one of them might pop up now at sixty-five, now at twenty-five, now at forty, now an arms dealer, now a doctor, now manning the spaceship, now grooming the racehorse, now striding through corporate headquarters, now stumbling through a saloon . . .
This scene of them around the table, too, could perfectly well be part of a movie, a movie that Emma has been hustled into by mistake. They seem to assume Emma has a role in it, but in fact it’s a movie about things that happened to other people long ago.
Ah, thank goodness, coffee. Emma takes a sip and sighs. “Not bad, is it?” Roman says. “I’ve always found the place reliable.”
Though Emma is by decades the youngest at the table, it’s her on whom time has set its irrefutable stamp. She has an abrupt sense of how she must look to her mother’s friends: Zoe’s child, impossible! So much taller than Zoe, frown lines and smile lines, a rather severe salt-and-pepper bob—so different from Zoe’s yellow dandelion fluff—and absolutely alive at just the age Zoe died.
A shadow swings over her heart, as if she has committed some shameful childish indiscretion, and for a moment she is visiting her mother out West, standing at the sliding glass door and trying not to cry at the sight of the vast, desolate evening, the sun setting instead of rising over the ocean—the wrong ocean—as the purling of the waves washes away the shards of cocktail-party noise from inside.
“Emma.” A warm hand closes over hers, calling her back through all the years into the restaurant. Duncan is looking at her fondly. He pats her hand: here we are, here we are. Dear Duncan, her mother’s lover, after so long . . .
“All these tourists!” Coral says.
Sure enough, all around them people are knocking back various brunch-type cocktails with a tentative, hopeful abandon, as if emulating native ritual.
And the ritual must be working: some minor gods have been made manifest! Smiles ricochet between tables and a few phones are out—There’s the dyslexic drug dealer from Toxins! And Phil from all those seasons of Flamingo Park! And isn’t that Coral Whosis, the nurse in those gory movies and the voice of the carrot in Vegetable Farm? But, wait, hang on, the colors aren’t accurate—these apparitions are . . . faded . . . Are they mere projections, imposters, ghosts?
“I can’t explain this,” Roman says. “Usually it’s so civilized. It must have gotten written up somewhere.”
“I don’t remember Pansy ever drinking much, do you?” Luther says to Duncan. “And her memory is fine. I had dinner with her just last month. There was nothing wrong with her at all.”
“Is she really living in one room with a hot plate?” Duncan says. “I must see about that.”
“Well, it isn’t a palace,” Luther says. “But it’s perfectly all right, very cozy. And she’s never cooked. She hates to cook.”
“But does anyone even remember this grandson of Anton’s?” Coral asks. I mean, ‘brawls’—please! Maybe once someone stamped a foot or two, but brawls? Clement Rouse, Clement Rouse . . . can anyone remember any such person?”
“Her eyesight has deteriorated, poor thing,” Luther tells Duncan.
“Give me her number, will you?” Duncan says. “I’d like to check up on her.”
“Would you agree that we were a . . . what did he say, a ‘tightly knit group of friends’?” Coral says to Roman. “Is that what we were?”
“Good question,” Roman says. “Were we a tightly knit group of friends? Were we a group? Were we friends? Did we even like each other?”
“Well, you liked me,” Coral says brightly.
A little boy, all dressed up in a suit, stands in the doorway of Anton’s house like a sentinel, staring at Emma. Emma dismounts from her bicycle and stares back. The boy inserts a finger into his nose, as if she can’t see him, and then she turns around and rides away.
This can’t be quite right, though, Emma’s memory. A suit? As if he were making an appearance, at age ten, on a panel of eminent authors?
There. Now, more convincingly, he’s in shorts. His scabby knees are horrible to be seen.
How abominable this book is—cheaply sentimental, stealthily vicious, meretriciously moralizing—a morbidly false soap opera whose coarse innuendoes and simpering calumnies affect to be loving tribute. But what are they supposed to do, ignore it?
Surely the others rushed, like Emma, as soon as the fizzy reviews appeared, to whatever bookstore they could find, in order to confront this abomination full-on; surely the others stood there, like Emma, searching the index, riffling through the pages, gasping with dismay.
Pure gossip and invention! Were any of them interviewed, they ask each other. Were any of them even contacted?
“Well, actually, he tried to get in touch with me through my agent,” Duncan says. “I’m ashamed to say I ignored the request—I didn’t recognize the name.”
So what were the author’s sources? The patchy recollections, distorted by retrospect and self-flattering fantasies, of a somewhat dull-witted child, bulked up with shoddy interviews, tabloid fabrications, and no doubt any number of biographies and Hollywood memoirs every bit as unreliable as his. Emma has been oppressed for days by the feeling of someone’s attention, someone’s attention trained on her like a sniper’s, the feeling that someone has been watching clandestinely, while she’s been going about her life . . .
It’s not even her life—and yet the book is all the creepier for that, all the more unnerving. Not someone just watching—someone’s grimy hands plunged deep into her foundations, rearranging elements, setting things quivering.
“What does it matter really?” Roman is saying. “It’s just one more idiotic book by one more idiot.”
True, true, the others murmur distractedly, thinking of who knows what—of horrible things that Rouse says about them, of preposterous claims he makes, of shameful things they’ve actually done that nobody knows about.
This morning, crowding into Emma’s waking mind were tatters of the late night before—a quantity of alcohol for which she is far too old, an unfortunate encounter, vivid, punishing dreams, and the looming appointment with Zoe’s old friends. Almost noon, the clock announced; it had to be kidding. There was a soreness on her skin as if she had been slung into a bag in the rear of a van and driven over rutted roads. She swung her legs out of bed. She could feel the floor’s molecular thrum.
It’s over and done with, she’d said out loud. Out loud! It’s over and
But seriously, isn’t that the whole point of the past? That it’s immutable?
“And how is your dear father, Emma?” Coral asks.
“Your father. How is he?”
Her father? How does Coral know her father?
“The last time we were in touch, he had been through a tough bout of pneumonia.”
“You’re in touch with my father?”
“Oh, not regularly. A card during the holidays, that sort of thing. What a kind man he is.”
“Really? No, yes, he is a kind man . . . ”
“And good company, too. We used to have so much fun in those years when you were too small to travel by yourself and he would bring you out to see your mother. Of course, he and I disagreed about so many things back then—I always thought he was naive, you know—an idealist, vulnerable to all kinds of propaganda. But now that the country has dropped utterly into the toilet, I see things quite differently. In any case, it was always very lively.” She sighs. “It sounds like he had a dreadful winter. I do hope he’s fully recovered.”
“Yes,” Emma says. Yes, she owes him a visit. She must do that soon.
Zoe Sills had little formal education, but she loved the great novels of former times, even naming her daughter after Jane Austen’s spunky heroine, Emma. Zoe was often to be found posed on a divan, all wrapped up in a soft throw, reading. But Anton, an intellectual and a good thirty years her senior, never took her seriously.
The truth is that there was never anything more between them than the inevitable generic attraction between power or talent (in Anton’s case, both) and beauty. Anton cared more about his films than about any mere human, and perhaps he was too arrogant to realize what would surely happen when he cast Zoe opposite Duncan MacGregor in Devil’s Banquet, or too egocentric. But if he couldn’t see what was happening in front of him in real life, he came face-to-face with it during one fateful evening’s screening of the day’s rushes, as the dailies were called back then.
They were all sitting in the screening room, Anton, the script girl (as the continuity person was called back then), Zoe, Duncan, Ruffle Anselm, who designed the costumes, and of course Kurt Schoenfeld, Anton’s famous cinematographer. And there was that unconcealable nervous excitement in the air that there always is when movie people are about to find out what it was the camera saw them do that day.
The first two scenes they watched were simple, Zoe alone, walking along under the leaves at twilight. It was just snippets of raw footage, but rough as they were, the scenes were clearly successful, starkly ominous. You could see every thought, every sensation playing over Zoe’s perfect face.
While the clips unspooled in front of them, Zoe’s hand was on the arm of Anton’s chair, as if she wanted to touch him, to make some kind of contact with him, as if she wanted his reassurance. But Anton’s hands were occupied with a pen and a pad of paper so he could make notes, and every fiber of his being was focused on the small screen. Duncan MacGregor was sitting just a little off to the side, in front of Zoe.
The third scene, the big scene of the day, was longer and more complex. Many takes were shot. It was the famous scene in which Zoe’s character catches a glimpse of the stranger, played by MacGregor, for the first time. He is partially hidden by trees, doing something, and after a while we see, as Zoe does, that he’s digging. His shirt is lying crumpled near his feet, an agitated dog is nipping at him. If Zoe keeps walking, she will come into his line of vision. She stops stock-still to watch. The intensity he projects is terrifying, but riveting.
Some little thing goes awry in each of the first many takes. Zoe stumbles, then giggles, the spade slips and MacGregor swears, the dog gets distracted and goes wandering off, Zoe visibly stifles a sneeze, a helicopter wobbles into the shot, and so on. Take eight! Take nine! Take ten!
On film, the actors are becoming tense and stiff. In the screening room, everyone is on edge. Even if they could budget in an extra day to shoot the scene again, the dog has another commitment. Zoe sighs loudly, as if to express and thus diffuse the general anxiety, but none of the other viewers respond.
It was take thirteen, the final take, that told the whole story. In the few seconds of film that remained after Anton had yelled “cut,” everyone assembled in the screening room witnessed the two gorgeous and magnetic actors let loose and laugh, knowing they’ve finally gotten a whole flawless take. And then, as the last few frames flicker out, their gazes meet, fuse, and ignite.
There was total silence in the screening room. Neither Zoe nor MacGregor moved a muscle. It must have been nearly thirty full seconds before Anton spoke. “Let’s see that one again, please,” he said. His tone was level, and chilling. “Let me see take thirteen again.”
“I certainly don’t remember that,” Duncan says. “Wasn’t it after Devil’s Banquet was finished that your mother and I got together?” He looks at Emma, as if for confirmation, but how on earth would she know?
And how would Clement Rouse know? It’s safe to say that Clement, who would have been five or six when Devil’s Banquet was made, was not in the screening room that evening. Or, probably, ever.
Duncan frowns. “Yes, I’m sure it was later. I don’t think Zoe and I gave each other much of a thought until Island of the Blind. And she and Anton were living apart by then, anyhow.”
How would anybody know anything about anybody, really?
Emma sighs, and brushes a tiny crumb off her sleeve, as if she were brushing away loose filaments of the tattered web spun out since Adam and Eve between the little figures continually replenishing across the earth’s surface.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” Luther says, as the waiter hurries from one of them to the next, setting down immense breakfasts. “We’ve lived long enough for eggs to be healthy again.”
“All those years when they were considered pure poison,” Duncan says.
“What about hollandaise, I wonder,” Luther says. “Is that healthy now, too? And bacon?”
“Oh, I think we’re too old for bacon to kill us,” Roman says.
“The Mouse is coming over to play, be nice to him, sweetheart, won’t you? I think he has a great big crush on you.”
That’s right: Zoe recruited Clement the Mouse to come over and play with Emma. Or, as he seemed to interpret his function, to boss her around. The Mouse scrabbled and flinched, but he must have been—must be—two or three years older than her, a significant difference back then. That poor Mouse—bully as he clearly is by nature, it was probably the only opportunity he’d had thus far to boss anyone around.
That hair of his! Hair of no color whatsoever, like some sort of cellulose packaging. And his gruesomely bitten fingernails, and his sad little face, like a knot of grubby string . . . Oh! And her mother’s dress that day, splashed with delicious pink flowers.
Milk and cookies—the white cloth spread out on the dainty tea table, the milk and the porcelain plate glimmering white, almost equally liquid in all that sunshine, the dirty mouse paws with their scratches and Band-Aids, the hypnotic glitter of the ocean, a vase of peonies, the cookies, the lawn . . .
Two strays, propped up opposite each other at a tea table, wondering what on earth they’re supposed to do: there’s the milk, there are the cookies. This moment, always this moment, the eternal threshold—all the preparation: learning to walk, learning to talk, how to tell time, how to tie your shoes, learning about stars and continents and dinosaurs . . .
So you’re born, and then what? Outside, the ocean glitters. She and the Mouse are sitting across from each other. From here on, it’s all wide and empty—you can’t see where the water meets the sky, you can’t see what’s written on the pale sheet of air. The sun’s magnificent salvos announce the opening of each day and its close—one by one the unprecedented, irretrievable sheets of writing are revealed, then discarded. The Mouse stares fixedly at the cookies, then grabs one.
By the time I arrived in California, Zoe and Anton were on good terms again, and although she had left Anton for Duncan MacGregor a few years earlier, I often saw her around Anton’s house. She had sent for her little girl, Emma, who lived in New York with her mentally unstable father, and at last mother and daughter were reunited in something like a real family, with MacGregor. Emma was a shy child, stiff and awkward, nothing like the ebullient, light-hearted Zoe.
No one who ever saw the radiant Zoe Sills in person could ever forget her. She was even more beautiful in person than she was onscreen. And truly, she was so ethereal that at the age of ten, I seriously half believed she was a fairy.
From the first glimpse I caught of her, I imagined doing something bold, like gathering roses from my grandfather’s garden to make a bouquet for her, as if I were a medieval knight in armor. So imagine my astonishment when she approached me—a ten-year-old boy!—and invited me to the tastefully luxurious home overlooking the ocean that she shared at that time with MacGregor.
Her mentally unstable father! Where on earth did Clement get that one? Apparently from the same overstocked storehouse of substandard goods—his imagination—where medieval knights staggered around, clanking, in hundreds of pounds of armor plucking roses!
Besides, Anton loathed roses. In fact, as Emma remembers, he made quite a to-do about growing only wildflowers. If a rose had ever managed to breach the ramparts, the gardener would have had to fall on his fucking halberd!
At home in New York, something was wrong. The rent had gone way up, her father said. The two of them moved in with Sandi, and Emma was to share a room with Sandi’s two little kids until her father found a new apartment. Sandi was kind, but on the TV soldiers were trapped in a jungle with explosions, and people were dying and dying—not like a movie, there was no ending—and her father couldn’t stop watching.
She was old enough to go on the plane by herself for the first time. Her father had let her pick out a little suitcase. Yes, now she remembers—the consoling embrace of the plane, the seats and the armrests that could move, arriving into the lush air, sunsets shimmering in the fringes of the palm trees, Zoe’s pink dress, wide, empty days, milk and cookies . . .
There was a bicycle. Sometimes she rode over to Anton’s house, where she had stayed on visits when she was little, but her old friend was working on a movie. The housekeeper, Flora, would visit with Emma and let her roam around the sun-struck rooms that were so familiar and yet so unfamiliar. Hello, house. Did it remember her?
And then there was the day when the boy with the colorless hair and scabby knees was standing in Anton’s doorway and Emma stopped at the bottom of the driveway and they stared at each other and she turned around and bicycled back to Zoe’s.
And there was some other day, when Zoe took her shopping. They were all going to go out to dinner, Emma, Zoe, and Duncan, and why hadn’t Emma brought a party dress with her, Zoe said. “Close your mouth, darling, a fly will get in. You’ll need something pretty tonight. What was that crazy father of yours thinking?”
They went to a shop and the lady there hugged Zoe, and Zoe picked out some dresses. There was a white cotton one. “Just look at that precious eyelet!” the lady said, and when Emma tried it on, the lady almost cried, she said, because Emma looked like a princess. Emma looked at Zoe.
Zoe considered, and nodded. “All right,” she said. “We have to do something about your hair, darling, but that’ll have to wait until I can get you to Philippe.” Eyelet? “This,” Zoe said, indicating the magical little holes that made the dress look like it was floating.
Later, it must have been later, that afternoon, Emma went out to ride her bike, but when she came back to the house, Zoe was slamming around. “Serena Lassiter! Can you believe it? And this is the second one, the second one! Serena Lassiter! That’s not acting, that’s mime. You can see that girl coming around the corner.”
Duncan was darkly silent as Zoe stuffed Emma roughly into the delicate new dress. “I don’t care what Leo says, Serena Lassiter does not look one week younger than I do!”
Zoe was in no mood to go out, she had changed her mind—settled. Did she want to see any of those people? They’d all have heard, they’d all be snickering. But Emma and Duncan were to go, nonetheless. She herself needed some privacy, please—some silence.
It was hard to sit in the car without creasing her new dress. Duncan said not to worry. At the restaurant, they got out of the car and a man in a uniform got into it. Duncan came around to her side to help her out. Inside, there were carpets and candles, and the soft chime of glass, laughter, silver, china. Behind the tall windows the palms swayed and tossed their graceful branches like dancers.
Duncan was handsomest of everyone there. He let her have a sip of his cocktail. The waiters brought her special things and spoke to her tenderly, as though she were soon to ascend the throne.
If only she had a picture to show her father! Maybe there was a postcard. But it would be grabby to ask. You could never tell about her father, anyhow. Sometimes he didn’t like nice things.