Read an Excerpt
By Steve Erickson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Steve Erickson
All rights reserved.
On Vikar's shaved head is tattooed the right and left lobes of his brain. One lobe is occupied by an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and the other by Montgomery Clift, their faces barely apart, lips barely apart, in each other's arms on a terrace, the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her.
This is the summer of 1969, two days after Vikar's twenty-fourth birthday, when everyone's hair is long and no one shaves his head unless he's a Buddhist monk, and no one has tattoos unless he's a biker or in a circus.
He's been in Los Angeles an hour. He's just gotten off a six-day bus trip from Philadelphia, riding day and night, and eating a French dip sandwich at Philippe's a few blocks up from Olvera Street, the oldest road in the city.
There in Philippe's, a hippie nods at Vikar's head and says, "Dig it, man. My favorite movie."
Vikar nods. "I believe it's a very good movie."
"Love that scene at the end, man. There at the Planetarium."
Vikar stands and in one motion brings the food tray flying up, roast beef and au jus spraying the restaurant—
—and brings the tray crashing down on the blasphemer across the table from him. He manages to catch the napkin floating down like a parachute, in time to wipe his mouth.
Oh, mother, he thinks. "A Place in the Sun, George Stevens," he says to the fallen man, pointing at his own head, "NOT Rebel Without a Cause," and strides out.
Tattooed under Vikar's left eye is a red teardrop.
Is it possible he's traveled three thousand miles to the Movie Capital of the World only to find people who don't know the difference between Montgomery Clift and James Dean, who don't know the difference between Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood? A few blocks north of Philippe's, the city starts to run out and Vikar turns back. He asks a girl with straight blond hair in a diaphanous granny dress where Hollywood is. Soon he notices that all the girls in Los Angeles have straight blond hair and diaphanous granny dresses.
She gives him a ride, staring at his head. She seems odd to him; he wants her to watch the road. I believe perhaps she's been taking illicit narcotics, he thinks to himself.
"Uh," she finally starts to say, and he can see it right there in her eyes: James Dean, Natalie Wood ... What will he do? She's driving and, besides, she's a girl. You can't smash a girl over the head with a food tray.
"Montgomery Clift," he heads off her blunder, "Elizabeth Taylor."
"Elizabeth Taylor," she nods. "I've heard of her ..." pondering it a moment. "Far out."
He realizes she has no idea who Montgomery Clift is. "You can let me off here," he says, and she drops him where Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards fork, at a small theater—
—where he goes to the movies.
A silent European film from the late twenties, it's the worst print Vikar has seen—less a movie than a patchwork of celluloid—but he's spellbound. In the late Middle Ages a young woman, identified in the credits only as "Mlle Falconetti," is interrogated and hounded by a room of monks. The woman doesn't give a performance, as such; Vikar has never seen acting that seemed less to be acting. It's more an inhabitation. The movie is shot completely in close-ups, including the unbearable ending, when the young woman is burned at the stake.
Afterward, he makes his way farther west along Sunset before cutting up to Hollywood Boulevard. Where once was the Moulin Rouge nightclub at the corner of Vine is now a psychedelic club called the Kaleidoscope. Vikar really has no idea what a psychedelic club is. Along Hollywood Boulevard are shabby old jewelry shops, used bookstores, souvenir stands, porn theaters. He's startled there are no movie stars walking down the street. Still hungry from having sacrificed his French dip sandwich at Philippe's, he orders a chicken pot pie at Musso & Frank, where Billy Wilder used to lunch with Raymond Chandler while they were writing Double Indemnity, both drinking heavily because they couldn't stand each other.
He spends a few minutes looking at the footprints outside the Chinese Theatre. He can find neither Elizabeth Taylor nor Montgomery Clift. At the box office he buys a ticket and goes inside to watch the movie.
As Vikar traveled on what seemed an endless bus to Hollywood, the Traveler hurtles through space toward infinity. Dimensions fall away from the Traveler faster and faster until, by the end of the movie, he's an old man in a white room where a black monolith appears to him at the moment of death. He becomes an embryonic, perhaps divine Starchild. Vikar has come to Los Angeles as a kind of starchild as well, a product of no parentage he acknowledges, vestiges of an earlier childhood falling away from him like dimensions. Vikar tells himself, I've found a place where God does not kill children but is a Child Himself.
He's now seen two movies, one of the Middle Ages and one of the future, in his first seven hours in Los Angeles. Vikar crosses Hollywood Boulevard to the Roosevelt Hotel, built by Louis B. Mayer, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in the year the movies discovered sound.
Vikar walks through the Roosevelt lobby, which has a statue of Charlie Chaplin. With its stone arches and palm fronds, it's slightly seedy; the first Academy Awards were held here forty years before. At the front desk, he asks for room 928.
The young clerk behind the front desk says, "That room's not available." His long hair is tucked into his collar beneath his coat and tie.
"Are you certain?"
"Seventeen years ago," Vikar says, "Montgomery Clift lived in that room."
Vikar restrains the urge to pick up the small bell from the desk and lodge it in the philistine's forehead. For a moment he considers the image of the clerk having a bell for a third eye, like a cyclops. People could walk up and ring it, and every time they did, this infidel would remember Montgomery Clift. "Montgomery Clift," Vikar says, "lived here after making A Place in the Sun, when he was filming From Here to Eternity."
The clerk says, "Hey, man, have you seen Easy Rider? I usually don't go to movies. I'm into the Music."
"The Music." The clerk turns up the radio. There's a song playing about a train to Marrakesh: "All aboard the train," the singer sings. It's horrible; they've forgotten A Place in the Sun for this? Vikar also suspects there's something narcotics-related about the song.
"Montgomery Clift's ghost lives in this hotel," Vikar says.
"No," the clerk answers, "that's that D. W. guy."
"It's in the brochure. He died here or something, busted." He adds, "I don't mean busted like by the cops—I mean broke. His ghost rides up and down the elevators trying to figure out where to go."
"D. W. Griffith?"
"I think that's him," the clerk nods, impressed, "yeah, D. W. Griffin." He looks at the register. "Room 939 is available, that's in the other corner at the other end of the hall, so it's like Room 928 except backward."
"By now," the clerk shrugs, "they may have changed around all the numbers anyway."
"The ninth floor is probably still the ninth floor," says Vikar.
The clerk seems slightly stunned by this. "Yeah," he allows, a sense of revelation sweeping over him, "the ninth floor is probably still the ninth floor." In the register Vikar signs Ike Jerome, which is not an alias. No one, including himself, calls him Vikar yet. He pays cash; the clerk gives him the key and Vikar heads to the elevator. "That was heavy, man," the clerk calls after him, "that thing about the ninth floor."
When Vikar steps in the elevator and pushes the button for the ninth floor, one by one all of the other floors light up too.
At each floor, the door slides open. Vikar feels someone brushing past him, leaning out and peering just long enough to determine it's the wrong floor, before continuing on to the next.
Vikar can't see the Chinese Theatre from the window of room 939, but he can see the Hollywood Hills and the Magic Castle above Franklin Avenue. Houses topple down the hills in adobe and high-tech, some rounded like space ships. Leaning far to the right and staring west toward Laurel Canyon Vikar could also see, if he looked for it, the speck of the house that he'll live in nine years from now. The morning after his first night in the Roosevelt, he walks down the hallway and finds, as the clerk advised, room 928 at the other end, and peers in as the maid makes it up. From its window overlooking Orange Street, Montgomery Clift couldn't see the Chinese Theatre either.
That first night in the Roosevelt, Vikar has the same dream he always has after every movie he sees, the same dream he's had since the first movie he ever saw. In his dream there's a horizontal-shaped rock and someone lying on the rock very still. The side of the rock seems to open, beckoning to Vikar, like a door or chasm.
Vikar stays at the Roosevelt three nights. When he checks out, he asks the clerk where Sunset Boulevard is. The clerk directs him south on Orange. "When you get to Sunset," he says, "see if you can hitch a ride west." He motions with his thumb. "That will be to your right, man."
"I know which direction is west."
"That's where the Music is."
"Thank you," Vikar says, leaving quickly, still inclined to lodge the desk bell in the clerk's head.
He sees phosphorescent cars and vans painted with Cinema-Scopic women with stars in their hair and legs apart and the cosmos coming out of the center of them, bearing travelers and starchildren. At Crescent Heights, Sunset winds down into the Strip's gorge, and Vikar stands as if at the mouth of wonderland, gazing at Schwab's Drugstore ...
... he knows the story about Lana Turner being discovered there isn't true, but he also knows that Harold Arlen wrote "Over the Rainbow" there and that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a heart attack there. Vikar is unclear whether F. Scott Fitzgerald actually died there; he lived somewhere around the block. Actually, he's unclear about F. Scott Fitzgerald, beyond the fact he was a writer whose work included The Women, starring Joan Crawford, although he didn't get a screen credit.
Across the street, on an island in the middle of the intersection, is a club called the Peppermint Lounge. Another kid with long hair points Vikar north, up the boulevard into the canyon. "Check it out," he advises, staring at Vikar's head, "about half way up you'll come on this old fucked-up house where people crash." The hippie adds, in a manner at once conspiratorial and breezy, "Lots of chicks up there who don't wear anything, man."
An hour later, halfway up Laurel Canyon Boulevard, grand stone steps swirl into the trees, to a ruin a little like Gloria Swanson's mansion in Sunset Boulevard. William Holden's role in Sunset Boulevard was written for Montgomery Clift, who turned it down because he was afraid the character of a younger man kept by an older actress was too much like him; at the time Clift was seeing an older actress, one of the rare romantic relationships with a woman he had. Someone at the country store in the belly of the canyon tells Vikar the house is where Harry Houdini lived while trying to become a movie star in the twenties, making movies with titles like The Man From Beyond,Terror Island,The Grim ... The Grim ... The Grim what ...?
The only chick Vikar finds who doesn't wear anything is three years old. Standing in the clearing of what was once the house's great living room, she has dark curls and a preternatural gaze.
She looks at Vikar, the pictures of the man and woman on his head, the tattooed teardrop beneath his left eye. She's undecided whether to laugh or cry. A paternal distress at the vulnerability of the little girl standing alone before him sweeps through Vikar, and he feels a surge of rage at whoever could have abandoned her here. For a few minutes the man and girl study each other there under the cover of the canyon's trees.
Vikar turns to look over his shoulder at the voice behind him.
The most beautiful woman he's ever seen off a movie screen calls to the little girl. With long auburn hair and a tiny perfect cleft in her chin, in the same gossamer dress that all of the young women in Los Angeles wear, she smiles at the tattooed man a cool, almost otherworldly smile he's never seen, its source a secret amusement. At the same time, he's relieved to sense in the woman the same concern for the girl's safety that he feels. The woman's eyes lock his; he smiles back. But she's not smiling at him, rather she's smiling at her power to enchant him—and it's like a stab to his heart for him to realize that he is the reason for her concern, that she would believe for a moment he could hurt a child. When the woman's eyes fix on his and she softly says the girl's name again, it's as if trying not to provoke a wild animal only feet away.
"Zazi." This time the young woman glides slowly to the middle of the ruins to take her daughter and back away from Vikar slowly, clutching the girl to her. Neither the woman nor the girl takes her eyes off him. The woman looks at Vikar a moment longer as if to make certain the spell will hold long enough to get the girl to safety.
Then she turns and carries the child across the boulevard to a house on the opposite corner, the small girl watching Vikar over her mother's shoulder.
Like the wild animal the woman believed he was, Vikar stalks the grounds of the Houdini House in the dark, pounding on the walls, trying to remember. The Grim ...?
Houdini was related to one of the Three Stooges by marriage. I'll bet I'm the only one in this Heretic City who knows that.
Vikar later learns that the Houdini House has secret passages leading to all parts of the canyon, although he never finds one. The house across the boulevard on the corner, where the young woman took her daughter, once belonged to Tom Mix. Now it's occupied by an extended family of hippies led by a musician with a Groucho Marx mustache. Hippies and musicians everywhere ...
... but something has happened, it's become a ghost canyon.
Above the ruins of the house, Vikar sees caves in the hillside. A fire burns in one and he makes his way to it, climbing through the trees. The cave has two entrances, forming a small tunnel. Inside the cave, a young couple huddles around the fire.
Vikar stands in the mouth of the cave. The young man and woman look at Vikar, at his bald illustrated dome, and spring from the fire lurching for the cave's other opening.
Vikar watches them run off the hillside into the night air, then plummet the rest of the way down into the trees and the stone ruins of the house below.
In the August heat, the lights of small houses in the canyon shimmer like stars while the stars in the sky hide in the light and smog of the city, as though outside has turned upside down.
In the tattoo on Vikar's head, Montgomery Clift looks away slightly. It's as if he's not only rapt with Elizabeth Taylor but hiding from everyone the face that would be so disfigured later upon smashing his Chevy into a tree, when it would be Taylor who first reached the site of the crash and held him in her arms.
When Vikar wakes in the cave the next morning, the campfire is out. Standing in the cave's mouth he looks out over the canyon; he sees houses and the small country store below, but not a soul. The canyon is abandoned and still. "Hello?" he calls to the trees.
As the minutes pass, there's not a sign of life for as far as he can see ...
... until in the distance, at the end of the canyon boulevard, a police car appears and then another behind it, and another, stealthily winding their way up through the hills, sirens silent but coming fast, determined in their approach.
Vikar watches the police as they grow nearer. They stop below at the foot of the stone steps that lead up to the house, a dozen cops emptying from four cars and fanning out at Vikar's feet ...
... then one looks up and spots him. Then they all stop to look. They draw their guns and charge the hillside.
Excerpted from Zeroville by Steve Erickson. Copyright © 2007 Steve Erickson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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