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An hour before he shot himself, my best friend Philip Strayhorn called to talk about thumbs.
"Ever noticed when you wash your hands how you don't really do your thumbs?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's your most important finger, but because it sticks out, away from the rest, you don't really wash it. A little dip and rub, maybe, but not nearly enough attention for all the work it does. It's probably the finger that gets dirtiest, too."
"That's what you called to tell me, Phil?"
"It's very symbolic. Think about it.... What are you reading these days?"
"Plays. I'm still trying to find the right ones."
"I have to tell you I bumped into Lee Onax the other day. Said he'll still give you half a million if you direct for him."
"I don't want to direct films anymore, Phil. You know how I feel."
"Sure, but five hundred thousand dollars would help your theater a lot."
"Five dollars would help a lot. But if I went back and did a film now, it'd be fun and seductive and I'd probably want to direct movies again."
"Remember in the Aeneid the hundred and forty thousand different kinds of pain? I wonder what number yours would be? 'I don't want to be a famous Hollywood director anymore because it'd make me confused.' Pain number 1387."
"Where are you calling from, Phil?"
"LA. We're still cutting the film."
"What's the title?"
I grinned. "Terrific. What's the most horrible thing you do in it?"
The telephone line hissed over the three thousand miles.
"Are you still there, Phil?"
"Yeah. The most horrible thing is what I didn't do."
"You were making a movie, man. Bad things happen sometimes."
"Uh-huh. How are you doing, Weber?"
"Good. One of my main actors is really sick, but you've got to expect that when you're working here." I looked at the small Xeroxed poster tacked to the board above my desk, THE NEW YORK CANCER PLAYERS PRESENT FRIEDRICH DÜRRENMATT'S "THE VISIT." "Our opening night is in a month. We're all getting nervous."
"Theater's so different, isn't it? With movies, opening night means everything is finished: nothing you can do but sit back and watch. In the theater, though, it's all beginning. I remember that."
There was a worn-out echo in his voice that I took for exhaustion. I was wrong.
Sasha Makrianes called to tell me he was dead. She'd gone over to cook lunch and found him sitting on the patio in his favorite high-backed armchair. From behind, it looked like he'd fallen asleep while reading. A copy of Rilke's poetry was on the ground next to him, as well as an unopened can of Dr. Pepper. She called his name, then saw the book was covered with blood. Going over, she saw him slumped forward, what was left of his head spewed in a wide splintered arc over everything.
Running into the house to telephone the police, she found the body of Flea, his Shar-Pei dog, in the big brown wicker basket Phil brought from Yugoslavia.
Hearing he'd killed the dog too was almost as shocking as the news of Phil's death. Sasha often joked through gritted teeth that he loved Flea as much as her.
The first thing that came to my mind was our thumb discussion. Was he thinking about that an hour later as he loaded the gun and put it in his mouth? Why had he chosen that as the topic of our last conversation?
A few years before, we'd been through an earthquake together. As the ground rumbled, Phil kept saying over and over, "This isn't a movie! This is not a movie!"
We'd been creating or adapting scripts so long that all part of me could think of was setting and the last words this character, Philip Strayhorn, would have chosen. I was ashamed my mind worked like that, but if Phil had known he would have laughed. In the process of spending almost twenty years trying to get our names onto the silver screen, we'd lost parts of our objectivity toward life. When someone you love dies, you should weep—not think of camera angles or last lines.
After the phone call, I went out for a walk. There was a travel agent down the street; I'd book a flight to California the next day. But a few steps out the door, I realized what I really wanted to do was visit Cullen James.
Cullen and her husband, Danny, lived up on Riverside Drive, a good hour's walk from my apartment. Pulling up my collar, I started out with the hope exercise and the tiredness it'd bring would take some of the edge off the news of Philip Strayhorn's death.
In the last few years, Cullen had become famous in a peculiar sort of way. When we first met, she was going through what could best be described as an "otherworldly experience." Every night for a number of months she dreamt of a land called Rondua where she traveled on a bizarre quest after something called the "bones of the moon." I fell in love with her then, which was very bad because she was happily married to a nice man and nursing their first child. I am not a wife stealer, but Cullen James made me crazy and I went after her as if she were the gold ring on my personal carousel. If I'd been a sailor, I'd have had her name tattooed on my arm.
In the end I didn't win her, but during that confused and passionate time I began dreaming of Rondua too. Those dreams changed my life. Those dreams and the earthquake.
When I got to the Jameses' building I was cold inside and out. The death of a loved one robs you of some kind of vital inner heat. Or perhaps it blows out the pilot light that keeps your burners lit. Whatever, it took an hour of hard walking in the blue lead cold of a New York December for me to really hold in the palm of my mind the fact my best and oldest friend was dead. He had almost no cruelty in him. After twenty years I knew Philip Strayhorn was even better than I'd ever thought. He once said there are thirty-one million seconds in a year. So few of them are worth remembering. Those that are, thrill and hurt us without end.
"Cullen? It's Weber. I'm downstairs. Do you mind a visitor?"
"Oh, Christ, Weber, we just heard about Phil. Of course, come up."
There was a giant holiday wreath on their door. The Jameses loved Christmas. For them, it started in November and went on well into January. They used their daughter, Mae, as an excuse for the festivity, but it was clear they liked it more than the kid. There were always oranges stuck with cinnamon cloves in every corner of every room,
Christmas cards on the windowsills, a tree out of a 1940s movie like The Bishop's Wife or It's a Wonderful Life. It was a good place. Slippers belonged there, and a friendly dog that followed you from room to room.
Cullen opened the door and smiled. There are perfect faces. I've known and slept with some, but they were meant to remain placid and untouched, not shaken or distorted by the push and pull of great emotion or a long and full night in bed. They're tuxedos—you wear them only on special occasions and then hang them up carefully in the closet afterward; a stain or wrinkle on them ruins everything. Cullen's is not a perfect face. She smiles too much, and many times it's obviously false: her safe and easy defense against a curious and persistent world. But she is beautiful and ... whole. When I first met her she was full of love and confusion. Even then I wanted it all but knew I'd never have any. Without trying, she handcuffed herself to my heart.
When she opened the door that sad day, instead of offering a hug, Cullen took off the silver bracelet she was wearing and handed it to me. When I was trying to woo her, I'd once asked her to do that. It was the only real physical intimacy we would ever share: her warmth, my only moments of owning it. Although she'd blushed when I first told her that, since then it had become her way of saying, I'm here, friend. I'll do what I can.
"How're you doing, Weber?"
"Not so good. Where's Mae?"
"Inside with Danny. We haven't told her yet. You know how much she loved Phil."
"Such a nice man." I started to cry. "You want to know something strange as hell? The last time Phil stayed with me here, on his way back from Yugoslavia? He slept on the couch and wore my pajamas. When he left the next morning, for some strange reason I took the pajamas and put them up to my face so I could smell them. Smell him. I don't know why I did that, Cullen. He was there. He's gone. He was everywhere."
She put her arm around my shoulder and pulled me gently into the apartment. Almost as soon as the door closed behind us, a little black Cairn terrier that looked exactly like the dog in The Wizard of Oz came trotting importantly from another room. Her muzzle was completely, comically white. She'd obviously just been rooting around in something thick and foamy.
"Mama! Negnug ate all the whipped cream!" Mae James, age five, came running in, arms windmilling, tongue stuck out, big eyes delighted. "Weber!" She leapt up on me and wrapped her legs around mine.
"Hiya, Mae! I came over to say hello."
"Weber, you cannot imagine what just happened! Negnug ate all the whipped cream Mama made for the cake."
Danny walked in with his great warm smile on, something I always liked to see. He stuck out his hand and we shook hard. After a moment, he put his other hand over mine. "I'm glad you came, Weber. We were worried about you. Let's have a drink."
"But, Pop, what about the whipped cream? Aren't you going to spank Negnug? If I did that, you'd spank me! Now she's probably going to throw up all over the rug, like she did last time."
A small fire burned in the grate in the living room. The dog was plopped down on its side nearby. It looked pleased and exhausted. Mae walked over and, hands on hips, shook her head disgustedly at the furry traitor.
"Now our cake won't be half as good because of you, stinkpot."
Cullen and I sat on the couch, Danny in a paisley-covered armchair nearby.
"Mae, honey, would you do me a favor and go see if the tea is ready yet? Just tell me if the water's boiling, but don't touch anything, okay?"
When the child had left the room, Cullen spoke quickly. "Fool around with her a little, Weber, okay? Then she and Danny are going to the movies. You and I have to talk."
They looked at each other. Danny spoke. "About a couple of things." He reached down and pulled a box from beneath his chair. "We got a package from Phil in the mail a couple of days ago. We thought it was Christmas presents for Mae. But when we opened it, this box was inside along with two others. It's got your name on it."
I sat forward. "It's from Phil?"
Danny shrugged. "We didn't understand it either, except he knows we all spend Christmas together. Cullen thought maybe he wanted us to open our presents from him together."
"The water's just beginning to boil, Mama," Mae called from the kitchen. "But I didn't touch anything. Not even the potholder."
Cullen started to get up. "He was a sad man, Weber. Had absolutely no patience with the slowness of the world. You know that better than anyone. He did everything quickly and well, but that's always big trouble. Because then you're always disappointed no one else can follow suit. I loved Phil, but what happened doesn't surprise me."
"That's a pretty hard-ass thing to say, Cullen."
She was walking toward the kitchen but stopped next to me. "There are two things that don't leave you alone, Weber—love and disappointment. You can't turn either of them off like a fan or twist the direction of their flow a little to one side.
"I'll tell you something. Once when he was in his cups, Phil called, said one sentence, then hung up: 'Life is comprised of fuck-ups and fuck-you's.'"
"Sure, but at the same time I've never known anyone as full of life as he was. He was curious about everything."
"True, but that doesn't keep your heart full."
"What about Sasha?"
"Mom, come on. It's boiling!"
"They weren't living together anymore. Wait a minute. Let me get the tea and I'll be back." She touched my shoulder and moved on.
"Do you want to look at the package?" Danny held it out to me.
"What do you think, Dan?"
"I saw Phil last week."
"What? He was in town?"
He nodded. "Asked me to come and meet him at the Pierre but didn't want you or Cullen to know."
"Why not? Christ, what'd he say?"
"Okay, everybody! Teatime!" Cullen walked in carrying a big tray full of tea and cakes. I looked fast, then at Danny again. He shook his head, said only, "Look in the package."
"That one? The one from him?"
"Yes. We'll talk about it after you see."
"The videos. You want some help with that, Cul?"
There was a new log of applewood on the fire. The room had been silent for some time while Cullen and I looked into the flames. I shook my head. "He wanted to be liked and admired. He wanted to be left alone."
"Who doesn't? You know what fame is, Weber. When it comes, it's like a crazy fan who won't leave you alone. And who can be damned scary! It gets obsessed with you in all the wrong ways. You know that old line about how the woman catches her man? 'He ran after me till I caught him?' Well, that's the same thing with fame. You want it, but once you've caught it, you realize it's been waiting for you all along ... like some kind of monster from one of Phil's films. Like Bloodstone! Philip Strayhorn wanted to be a very famous man but stay private, live his own life. Good luck with that, as we all know.
"Look, you guys got exactly what you wanted, what you dreamed about when you were at Harvard. Or so you've told me. But what did you two do with this fame you wanted so badly? You threw it over to direct dying people in obscure plays. And Phil? He shot himself. They're not new stories, Mr. Gregston."
"You're really showing your teeth today, huh?"
She sighed. "No, it's just coming up through my brain like a slow fog that sweet Phil Strayhorn is really dead. That makes two of my friends who've died violently. I hate it. Neither of them deserved that."
"Phil killed himself."
She rubbed her mouth. "Do you believe that, Weber?"
"Yes. He talked a lot about suicide."
"Shit. I believe it too. I wish I didn't. You know what I can't stop thinking about? The lovely, exact way he peeled an orange."
I opened my package from Phil before the elevator had reached the ground floor of the Jameses building. As Danny mentioned, three videotapes were inside but nothing else. I wanted a note or some kind of explanation, but there were only the three tapes, each 240 minutes long, labeled FIRST, SECOND, THIRD.
In the taxi home I continued to stare at them. What was there? I remembered telling Cullen how I'd smelled his pajamas after he visited the last time. I felt for a moment like smelling the tapes too, each one of them, in case there were some kind of trace of him there. But that was silly and strange, unnecessary: I had 720 minutes of something Phil thought important enough to show me shortly before he died. It would have to do. The answers would have to be there.
The view from one of my windows is directly into the apartment of a pretty woman who likes to walk around naked. I am convinced she drops her clothes as soon as she gets home, the way some people drop their umbrella in a stand by the door. She must have a high heating bill because summer and winter her pink skin and small pointy breasts dart and bounce through her rooms at all hours of the day. She always seems to be in a hurry. Running here and there, objects in her hands, pacing the floor while she talks on the telephone. Always busy and always bare-assed.
I have often watched her, although neither she nor her nakedness excite me. What I love is being able to live in her everyday privacy. Not as the proverbial fly on the wall, because that image evokes seeing something forbidden. No, sometimes I feel like her husband or roommate: intimate as well as comfortable enough to watch her walk into the kitchen nude, enjoying her familiar sights without having to have them.
Getting out of the taxi I looked up and saw her standing there, waiting four feet away. I had so much on my mind and was so surprised to see her close up that the first thing I said was, "Did you want this breast?"
"Uh, this cab. Do you want the cab?"
"Yes, please." Her look said she thought I had a few screws loose. I got out fast and held the door for her. She had on a nice woody-smelling perfume. I almost asked her name but held back. Did I really want to know who she was? Then she would only be a Leslie or a Jill. A name, a zip code number, a Diner's Club member. Slamming the door behind her, I smiled and was happy for the first time that day. I don't know why. It made going back into my empty apartment that much easier.
After Phil saw my New York place for the first time, he laughed and said, "'A Room in Brooklyn,' huh?" Later that day he went out and bought me a copy of The Notebooks of Louise Bogan. In it, he'd marked this passage:
Edward Hopper's 'A Room in Brooklyn.' A room my heart yearns to: uncurtained, hardly furnished, with a view over roofs. A clean bed, a bookcase, a kitchen, a calm mind, one or two half-empty rooms. All my life wants to achieve, and I have not yet achieved it. I have tried too hard for the wrong things. If I would concentrate on getting the spare room, I could have it almost at once....I must have it.
Excerpted from A Child Across the Sky by Jonathan Carroll. Copyright © 1990 Jonathan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 24, 2009
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