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"It's going to be a nice day," she declared; as if in obeisance one corner of the milky overcast peeled away. At once the windows of the houses atop the right-hand hilltops began to shine, winking down on the sudden checkerboard of the sea.
"No, it is not," said Bartie.
I glanced back in the mirror: his face was buried in dog fur, the wind socks of the animal's ears twirling just above his own. He wasn't, I knew, referring to the climate.
"Why are you being so negative?" Lotte replied, though I doubted Bartie could hear her in the rush of air. "René is looking forward to the afternoon and so am I and you should be too. He is a wonderful cook. He is going to a lot of trouble to make a special treat. And his house is a little dream."
"A little dream on stilts," I muttered.
"Well, of course it's on stilts, Richard. It's a beach house. I hope you're not going to be in a negative mood too. Let's relax. Everybody just relax. We're going to have a good time."
I pulled around a Bekins van and was able to speed up after Carson Canyon. Lotte twisted her pale green scarf under her chin, and in that clamp fell speechless.
Bartie, in back, said, "It's too soon." Which might, from him, have meant anything: Slow down, we're getting there too soon; Too soon for the three of us to start fighting; or, and here's where I put my money, Too soon to have a good time.
I took a quick look over my shoulder. Barton stared back at me, grinning, a little gap-toothed, a little bucktoothed, which is what he got for sucking his thumb. "They don't have a King of England anymore. Everyone there wears black clothes. I saw it on the Zenith. They are sad because there isn't a king."
Lotte: "Yes, they have been very sad. But now they are going to have a queen, Bartie. The Princess Elizabeth. You can watch her coronation next month on television. No one will be wearing black, I promise you that. Isn't that how things should be? The king is dead. Long live the queen."
"But they waited a year. More than a year. That was February. Next month is June."
Our mother didn't answer. In Barton's mind, she knew, our father was the king-king of Hollywood, king of comedy-and it was a scandal not to mourn him for at least as long as the English had George VI. Instead, she pointed through the windshield. "There it is. Slow down, Richard. We'll go by."
The row of beachfront properties fell away on the left, caught between the highway and the public beaches. I coasted past the Sweet-water turnoff, trying to distinguish one of the sagging shacks from the other. None looked as if it had been painted since before the war: faded pastels, cheek by jowl, like a tray of melting sherbert.
"It's that one!" said Lotte. "See? That's his car."
She meant, I saw, a blue Plymouth coupe parked in front of what looked to be little more than a cabin of créme de menthe. I swung in behind it and turned off the ignition. A dog was barking nearby. A piece of tar paper on the place next door was slapping against the rooftop. And of course there was the thump of the waves on the hidden beach below. I opened my door at the same time René stepped out of the little house and made for us.
"Ah, Lotte, I have been waiting. You are late, just like today the sun. Welcome! Hello, boys! Comment allez-vous? All is well?"
He had, as always, his thin Frenchman's moustache and his thin Frenchman's hair, slicked down with the brilliantine we all could smell when he leaned over the passenger door and gave our mother a Frenchman's double kiss.
"We got a late start, darling," Lotte began, though René had already moved to the rear, where with what I knew was called bonhomie he was kneading Bartie's neck.
"And how is this one, eh? My sailor! My marine!"
Barton's lashes dropped over his eyes, which when open were a startling blue. He smiled. "We brought Sammy," he said.
"I see! Bonjour, monsieur," he said to the dog, patting him once on the head, so that his eyes closed reflexively too. "What a fierce beast. That is why I have put Achille on the rope. You hear him? Barton, what is he saying?"
"I want that spaniel for lunch-" That was my contribution, which I covered with a chuckle.
René laughed aloud, with his head back, so that his short-sleeved shirt, circles of yellow, circles of blue, split over his belly. "Ha! Ha! But no! Ha! Ha! Lotte? You heard? Pour le déjeuner!"
"He didn't ask you," said Barton. A button of flesh, a red-colored welt, rose on his brow. "Why did you answer?"
Lotte slid off the bench cushion to the gravel of the drive. "And you wouldn't believe the traffic. At least, I can't believe it. Norman and I moved out here in 1935. Practically with the covered wagons! There was hardly a car on the road back then. Honestly, you blink once and the population doubles. We were the pioneers."
I got out the driver's door and turned toward where our mother's lover-I hadn't much evidence for that, aside from his diplomatist's kisses and a single embrace that I had spied through the windblown curtains of our living room window-now approached me, his pink hand out. The lids of my own eyes dropped at his touch, so that I found myself staring at the wrinkle-free material of what people were beginning to call Bermuda shorts; his bowed, tanned legs; and the oddly pale and oddly small feet, crisscrossed by the leather straps of his sandals. "Richard," he said, "I feel embarrassment because I am going to show you my latest paintings. I mean, I cannot hide them, eh? They are not in your style. They are more-what do you call it, chérie? More of l'expressionisme."
My mother had leaned back over her side of the Buick, to fish out her beach bag, which was woven from the same washed-out colors, in straw, as the dwellings along the shore. "Darling, why do you apologize? There's certainly no reason for that. Your work is expressive. Did I tell you that Betty is considering the new oils for her gallery? She has the best taste of all my friends."
"What do you mean, pioneers? You and Daddy came out on the Super Chief! With an observation deck, for Christ's sake, Mom. Do you know what the real pioneers, the ones who did have covered wagons, went through?"
"Well, I wasn't suggesting that we were cannibals."
"Why do you have to put yourself-I don't know, at the head of the line."
"Richard-" This was René. "You must not speak with this disrespect toward your mother. I implore you."
"Disrespect? I am just trying to make a point. Have you read Grapes of Wrath? It's a great book. A John Steinbeck novel. The Okies, the people from Oklahoma-do you even know what that is?"
"It is a province of the country. I know that of course."
"A province! Ha! Ha! Ha! Did you hear that, Bartie? I bet he couldn't be a citizen, even if he wanted to. No French guy is going to know who signed the Declaration of Independence."
"Richard, you are always so smart. Do you know that we wouldn't even have our independence if it weren't for the help of France? Lafayette, we are here!"
Lotte beamed at René across the cooling hood of the automobile. Then her smile disappeared. "Oh, no, Barton," she cried. "Not now! Please don't!"
Bartie had donned a pair of dark glasses, wire-rimmed, and now he put a cold corncob pipe in his mouth. "I shall return," he intoned, in a voice deeper than his own.
"Ha, ha! This boy: he makes for us a masquerade?"
"I'm so upset. Oh, René. I don't know what to do. He's had that pipe for a year. And he has a cap too! Barton! Please! He keeps pretending he's that terrible MacArthur."
As if on cue my brother took out a visored cap and placed it over the mop of blond curls that, with his blue eyes, reinforced the romance that he was not from our dark-haired, dark-skinned family, nor from any other line of Jews. He got to his feet and through some kind of trickery-jutting the jaw, sucking in his plump, pink cheeks until they sank in like the septuagenarian's-transformed himself into the great man, the darling of the Republicans, as he drove down Fifth Avenue.
"Old soldiers," he declared, around the pipe-stem, "never die-" Then he threw out his arms, as if to catch the streams of ticker tape, the snowstorm of the confetti, the roaring crowds that were simulated by the cymbal crash of the oncoming sea. But in that instant the dog's leash slipped though his boy's-sized hand; Sam flashed over the side of the Buick and disappeared yipping and yapping down the side of the bluff that separated René's green house from the plum-colored bungalow next door. A howl went up: the beast on the rope!
"Sammy!" cried Bartie.
Lotte: "Stop him! René!"
"I'll get him," I shouted; but I knew, from the torrent of animal growls, the two different pitches of the barks and bays, that I was too late.
René's cabin was indeed supported on stilts, four long iron poles sunk into the sand. Achille, a big German shepherd, black and brown, was tied to one of them. He lunged, gasping from the pressure of his collar, at our little spaniel. Each time he did so, the rope caught him, standing him upright, so that the saliva flew from his mouth. Again and again Sammy, his fur standing on his back, dashed forward, teasing and taunting. The din, in that cavern, was tremendous.
"It's a Nazi dog! A Nazi dog!" Barton was screaming the words. He scooped handfuls of sand and threw them at the crazed Alsatian. The breeze blew them back in his face.
"Richard! Richard!" cried Lotte, from atop the bluff. "Can't you do something? Catch him!"
I tried, hurling myself full-length at the darting dog. But Sammy dodged easily and came at his antagonist from a different angle. Achille turned, rearing, only to have the spaniel run beneath him, nipping at his hocks. After a series of feints I saw, or thought I saw, a method in this madness. Sam kept moving to his left, which meant that each new stand that Achille took tended to wind him clockwise around his iron pillar. It took less than a minute for his tether to be cut by half. His breath was shorter too, coming out in human-like groans. The fierce barking had stopped.
"Don't cry, Bartie," I shouted, glancing back at my brother, whose face was covered by a mask of sand crystals and zigzagging tears. "He's going to win!"
It seemed, for an instant, to be true. The big brute was strangling himself. He breathed now with the hacking, wheezing cough of a smoker.
Barton saw this. He thumped his chest with his balled-up hands. "It's David," he cried. "David and Goliath!"
But this time the giant was the clever one. Sammy came in at five o'clock, like a Spitfire attacking a lumbering German Junker. Achille didn't leap; instead he remained in a crouch close to the ground, and Sammy in amazement tumbled to a halt before the snot-smeared snout. In an instant the Alsatian shot forward and took the spaniel in his open jaws.
Lotte screamed. Bartie cried, "No-o-o-o!" For a heartbeat I thought that Achille, like a python, would swallow him whole.
Then René strode forward. "Assez! La ferme!" Without breaking stride he kicked his dog in the belly, not with the leather toe of his sandal but with the much harder bone of his shin. The shepherd buckled, spitting out his prey, who dragged himself off, whimpering, whining. "Cochon!" cried the Frenchman. He kicked the animal again, this time against the heaving rib cage.
Bartie ran toward his own dog, who stood slick and shaking, like a miniature of a newborn foal. He took him in his arms.
"Don't kick him anymore," I said, fighting tears myself. "Please."
"What? You ask me to spare him? This pig of an animal? It will be as you wish. We will show mercy."
Lotte came down the bluff, stumbling a little. "Is everyone all right? Is anyone bitten?"
"Wasn't Sammy great, Mom?" said Barton. "He's a brave boy!"
"What is this?" asked René, pointing to his nose.
"A nose," I answered.
"Le nez. Oui. And it smells something. Wait. A moment. Ah, it is the crust of the saucisson. Come. Up the stairs, my friends. Our luncheon is burning."
The Frenchman led the way up the wooden planks that served as the back staircase. Bartie followed, holding Sam against his chest. I moved to the first of the unpainted steps. Lotte touched my arm.
"I didn't mean anything," she said. "You and Bartie, you're the real Angelenos. The natives of the land." Then she leaned closer, though her lover, I realized, was still close enough to hear. "You mustn't worry. You know I'd never do anything you didn't approve."
Excerpted from San Remo Drive by Leslie Epstein Copyright © 2003 by Leslie Epstein
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.