OUTSIDE THE DOG MUSEUM
I would rather shape my soul than furnish it.
I'D JUST BITTEN THE hand that fed me when God called, again. Shaking her left hand, Claire picked up the receiver with her right. After asking who it was, she held it out to me, rolling her eyes. "It's God again." Her little joke. The Sultan's name was Mohammed, and he was more or less God to the million and a half citizens of the Republic of Saru, somewhere in the Persian Gulf.
"Hello, sir. The answer is still no."
"Have you seen the Mercedes-Benz building on Sunset Boulevard? This is a building I like very much."
"Sure, Joe Fontanilla designed it. He's with the Nadel Partnership. Call him up."
"He was not in Time magazine."
"Your Highness, the only reason you want me to work for you is because I was on the cover of that magazine. I don't think that's the best reason for choosing someone to do a billion-dollar project."
"'It was announced last week that American Harry Radcliffe was awarded this year's Pritzker Prize, architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize.'"
"You're reading from the article again."
"I also liked the coffeepot you designed. Come over to my hotel, Harry, and I'll give you a car."
"You already gave me a car last week, sir. I can only drive one at a time. Anyway, the answer would still be no. I don't design museums."
"Your friend Fanny Neville is here."
My other friend, Claire Stansfield, stood with her long, naked back to me, looking out her glass doors down onto Los Angeles, way below.
Claire here, Fanny at the Sultan's. The salt and pepper on my life those days.
"How did that happen?" I tried to keep the word "that" noncommittal so Claire wouldn't get suspicious.
"I asked your friend Fanny if she would like to do an interview with me."
Fanny Neville likes two things: power and imagination. She prefers both, but will take one if the other's unavailable. I was the imagination in her life those days. We'd met in New York a couple of years before when she interviewed me for Art in America. I give good interviews, or did before I went off my rocker and had to drop out of life for a while.
I was back in it now, but wasn't doing much besides commuting between these two impressive women, who both said it was time I got off my ass and did something.
"Could I talk to him?"
"Him? You mean Fanny? With pleasure."
There was a pause and then she came on the line. "Hello. Are you at Claire's?"
"That always makes me feel cozy. Do you talk to her in this same voice when you call from my house?"
"You're an asshole, Harry. How come you didn't tell me the Sultan wants you to build his museum?"
"Because I already said I wouldn't."
"But you took the car he gave you?"
"Sure, why not? It was a gift."
"A forty-thousand-dollar gift?"
"He just offered me another."
"I heard." She "hmph'd" like a disgruntled old woman. "Are you coming to my house for dinner?"
Claire turned around, the sunshine from behind lighting her outline so brightly that I could barely make out her nakedness. Walking toward me, she did something with her foot, and the telephone line went dead. It took a moment to realize she'd pulled out the cord.
"Talk to her on your own fucking time, Harry."
BEFORE GOING OVER TO visit Fanny and the Sultan, I drove to my favorite car wash in West Hollywood. It's run by a bunch of fags who do everything beautifully and with style.
I've done some of my best thinking in car washes. Those few minutes under the mad flood and yellow brushes do things to some outlying but valuable part of my brain so that I usually emerge from those false storms wired and full of ideas. Are you familiar with the Andromeda Center in Birmingham, England? The one that brought me so much notoriety a decade ago? Born in a car wash. I remember "fixing" on the swishing arc of the windshield wiper blades on my car and, just before the hoses stopped, having the first inspiration for those juxtaposed arcs that are the heart of that justly famous building.
Sitting in the Hollywood car wash, watching my new Lotus get spritzed from all sides, I was a famous man with nothing to do. I was twice divorced; once even from an anorectic fashion victim whose sole creative act in life was to spell her name with two d's. Anddrea. She liked to fuck in the morning and complain the rest of the day. We were married too long and then she left me for a much nicer man.
I am not a nice man. I expect others to be nice to me, but feel nocompulsion to return the favor. Luckily enough, important people have called me a genius throughout my adult life so that I've been able to get away with an inordinate amount of rudeness, indifference, and plain bad manners. If you're ever given one wish, wish the world thinks you're a genius. Geniuses are allowed to do anything. Picasso was a big prick, Beethoven never emptied his chamber pot, and Frank Lloyd Wright stole as much money from his clients and sponsors as any good thief. But it was all okay finally because they were "geniuses." Maybe they were, and I am too, but I'll tell you something: Genius is a boat that sails itself. All you have to do is get in and it does the rest, i.e., I didn't spend months and years thinking up the shapes and forms of my most renowned buildings. They came out of nowhere and my only job was to funnel them onto pieces of paper. I'm not being modest. The ideas come like breezes through a window and all you do is capture them. Braque said this: "One's styleit is in a way one's inability to do otherwise ... . Your physical constitution practically determines the shape of the brushmarks." He was right. Bullshit on all that artistic suffering, "agonizing" over the empty page, canvas ... . Anyone who agonizes over their work isn't a genius. Anyone who agonizes for a living is an idiot.
Halfway through the second rinse (my favorite part came nextthe dry off, when curtains of brown rags descended and slid sensuously across every surface of the car), everything stopped. My beautiful new blue Lotus (compliments of the Sultan) sat there dripping water, going nowhere. Checking the rearview mirror, I saw the car behind me was stopped too. The driver and I made eye contact. He shrugged.
Trapped in a gay car wash!
A few moments twiddling my fingers on the steering wheel, then I watched a couple of workers run by close on the right and out the other end. Another glance in the rearview mirror, the guy behind shrugging again. I got out of the car and, looking toward the exit,saw some kind of large commotion going on up there. I walked toward it.
"What kinda car is dat?"
"Fuck the car, Leslie, the guy's dead!"
A brown car (I remember thinking it was the same color as the drying rags) sat a few feet from the exit. Four or five people stood around, looking inside. The driver's door was open and the manager of the place was hunched down next to it. He looked at me and asked if I was a doctorthe guy inside had had a heart attack or something, and was dead. Immediately I said yes because I wanted to see. Going over, I knelt down next to the manager.
Despite having just been cleaned, the car still smelled of loaded ashtrays and wet old things. A middle-aged man sat slumped over the steering wheel. Remembering my television shows, I made like a doctor and put a hand on his throat to feel for a pulse. Nothing there under jowls and whiskery skin. "He's gone. Did you call an ambulance?"
The manager nodded and we stood up together.
"How do you think it happened, Doctor?"
"Heart attack, probably. But best to let the ambulance men figure it out."
"What a way to go, huh? Okay, Leslie and Kareem, give me a hand pushing this car out of here so we can let the rest of these people through. Thanks, Doctor. Sorry to inconvenience you."
"No problem." I turned to go back to my car.
"Excuse me?" I looked at him.
"I mean I run this place and all, right? But I was thinking how humiliating it'd be to know that you'd die in a car washespecially if you were famous! Imagine how your obituary would read: 'Graham Gibson, renowned actor, was found dead in The Eiffel Towel Car Wash, Thursday, after having apparently suffered a massive heart attack.'" He looked at me and grimaced. "Washed to death!"
"I know what you mean."
An enormous understatement. Some people fantasize their names on magazine covers, others on bronze plaques mounted on the sides of buildings. I did too, until some of those things happened to me. Then I started imagining what my obituary would say. I once read that the man who did the obituaries for the New York Times wrote them before people died (if they were well-known) and only polished them with final details after the person croaked. That was understandable and I could see the logic to it, but the "polish" part was disturbing. Okay, you live a long and illustrious life, full of genuine accomplishments and praise. But then what happens? You finish, looking like a big dope if you're unfortunate enough to die choking on a bottle cap, or a tree branch hits you on the head and puts you down for the count. Tennessee Williams with the bottle cap, Odon Von Horvath with the tree. I know nothing about Odon except he was a writer and that's how he diedhit on the head by a branch while walking down a street in Paris. I could too easily imagine someone saying, "I know nothing about Harry Radcliffe except he was an architect who died of a heart attack in a car wash." The Eiffel Towel Car Wash, no less.
Walking back to the car, I reminded myself of the fact that I hadn't been doing anything with my days recently, so if it had been me keeled over in that brown car, my whole life would have looked pretty pointless.
"What happened up there?" The man in the car behind mine was out and standing now.
"A guy had a heart attack and died."
"Here?" He shook his head and smiled. I knew what he was thinking and it made me even more depressed: It was funny. People would grin if you said you were at the car wash today and someone died while on his final rinse. They'd smile the same way as this man, and thenthere'd be one of those half-funny, half-fearful discussions at the dinner table about good and bad ways of dying.
Venasque used to say down deep we all know we're kind of silly and thus spend too much of our lives either trying to cover it up or disprove itmostly to ourselves. "But then when it comes to dying," he would say, "you know you might end up looking more ridiculous than ever. Even though you're dead and won't be around to see people's reactions, you're still afraid to look bad. Why do you think people like expensive coffins and funerals so much? So we can try being impressive, right into the ground."
FIVE MINUTES LATER, PULLING up at a stoplight on Sunset Boulevard, I looked to my left, and who was sitting in the car next to mine? Markus Hebenstreit! Architecture critic for the L.A. Eye, Hebenstreit was my most vicious and long-standing enemy/critic. He'd probably written more bad things about my work than anyone else. The more famous I became, the more Hebenstreit frothed and spread his verbal rabies wherever he could.
He turned slowly and looked at me with great Hoch Deutsch disdain. When I registered on him, his contempt turned into beady-eyed hatred. "Hello, Radcliffe. Coming back from your weekly shock treatment?"
"A new billion-dollar project, Markus! Man wants me to build him a billion-dollar museum. Do it however I want, just so long as it's an original Harry Radcliffe.
"Just think, Markus, no matter what you write, there'll always be someone who wants me to build them billion-dollar buildings!
"So suck on that a while, you Nazi fuck!"
Before he could say anything, I slapped the Lotus into gear and peeled out, feeling gloriously like an eighteen-year-old.
RUMOR HAD IT THE Sultan of Saru owned the Westwood Muse Hotel, which explained why he and his entourage invariably stayed there when they came to Los Angeles five or six times a year. It was designed and built in the 1930s by a student of Peter Behrens and looked sort of like the jazzy factories Behrens designed for AEG in Germany. I liked the place because it was quirky, but couldn't understand why the Sultan would buy it when he could have so easily afforded any real estate within a ten-mile radius of the Beverly Hills Hotel.
When I pulled up in front, an extremely tall black woman dressed in a dove-gray shirt and slacks stepped forward and opened my door. As usual, I looked up at her in pure appreciation. She was exquisite.
"Hello, Harry. Has he invited you again?"
She nodded and took my place in the car. The two complemented each other perfectly; the machine should have been hers on the basis of looks and stature alone. But it wasn't. Lucia was only another beautiful failure in California, parking cars.
"He still wants you to build his museum?"
"And you don't want to do it?" Her long brown hands sat lightly on the steering wheel. She smiled up at me and that smile was a killer.
I thought about answering her, but asked instead, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Not sure whether I was being serious or not, she cocked her head to one side and said, "'When I grow up'? An actress. Why?"
"You'd like that carved on your tombstone? 'Lucia Armstrong, actress'?"
"That would make me very happy. What about you, Harry? What do you want written, 'Harry Radcliffe, celebrated architect'?"
"Naah, that's too banal. Maybe 'The Man Who Built the Dog Museum.'" Said like that, the idea suddenly tickled the hell out of me. Walking up the gravel path, I turned to say something else to Lucia but she was already pulling away. I shouted to the back of my blue car, "That'd be a damned good epitaph!"
Was it because of the dead man in the car wash? Being able to throw the power of "a billion dollars" in Hebenstreit's face? Or simply envisioning (and liking) the words "The Man Who Built the Dog Museum" on my gravestone that did it? Whatever the reason, walking in the front door of the Westwood Muse Hotel, I knew I would design the Sultan's museum for him, although I had been saying no for months.
What I had to do next was get him to think he was not just lucky, but blessed to have me and, consequently, fork over the money I'd need both for myself and the project. A lot more money than even he'd imagined.
WHAT ARE YOUR EARLIEST memories?"
Was the first question Fanny Neville asked me, the day we met and did our interview years before. I hadn't even had the chance to sit back down after letting her in.
Without thinking, I said, "Seeing Sputnik and Rocket Monroe at the Luxor Baths in New York."
"How old were you?"
"Three, I think."
"Who were Sputnik and Rocket Monroe?"
MY FATHER, DESALLES "SONNY" Radcliffe, came from Basile, Louisiana. He knew how to catch snapping turtles, charm women, and make money. He often said the three things had a lot in common and that was why he was so successful.
With his curveball Southern accent, he'd say, "The say-crit to catching a snapping turtle, Harry, is to stick your foot down into that soft mud and feel around really gently.
"Now, once in a while one of them monsters is in there and'll grab hold of that foot. Hold still den! This is where the patience comes in. He's thinking what to do with it. That turtle can't decide 'cause he's mud-dumb. So you just take a deep breath and wait. I know you're dying to pull it out and run like a motherfuck, but don't. Hold still, boy, and you'll be all right. Women and money're the same: They clamp on ya and want to pull you down, but just wait 'em out and those jaws'll loosen up."
Pop liked someone watching TV with him at night. That was usually me from the very earliest because my mother had no patience for the tube.
He liked wrestling because he said it relaxed him. Channel Five from Uline Arena or Commack on Long Island.
I REMEMBER SITTING ON my father's lap and he'd say, 'That's Sweet Daddy Siki, Harry.'Or Bobo Brazil, Johnny Valentine, Fuzzy Cupid. Because I was young, and those names sounded so fairy taleish, I remembered them. Sputnik and Rocket Monroe were two bad guys with long black hair and white streaks painted down the middle of their manes so they both looked like skunks."
Fanny sat forward and pointed her eyeglasses at me. "That's where you got the names for your collection?"
"You named furniture after professional wrestlers?"
"Yes, but then Philippe Starck stole the idea and named his stuff after characters from some science fiction novel.
"Look, everyone takes design too seriously. I thought by giving my work names, ridiculous names, it'd put things in perspective. A personwho pays five thousand dollars for a chair doesn't have much perspective."
She slid the glasses back on for the fourth time. Her face was oval and thin with large dark lips that sat in a fixed rosebud pout. The square black Clark Kent glasses made her look like she was trying too hard to appear serious.
"Then why do you charge five thousand dollars for a chair that you call 'Bobo Brazil,' Mr. Radcliffe?"
"Do your homework, Ms. Neville. I don't charge anything for the furniture I designthe company does. And they aren't charging for the chair or lamp, they're charging for my name. Anyway, I come cheapKnoll charges ten grand for a Richard Meier chair."
"Don't you feel immoral being involved in that when you know so many people are suffering in the world?"
"Don't you feel immoral writing for a magazine that's only bought by pseudo-intellectuals and rich people who don't give a shit about the poor?"
"Touché. What were you doing at the Luxor Baths?"
"I was with my father, who was a Turkish bath nut. He believed you could do anything you wanteddrink a bottle of brandy or carouse all night, so long as you went to a Turkish bath the next day and sweated out your transgressions."
"Transgressions?" She smiled for the first time.
"I believe in words of more than one syllable."
"You like language?"
"I believe in it. It's the only glue that holds us together."
"What about your occupation? Doesn't the human community depend on its physical structures?"
"Yes, but it can't build them unless it can explain what kind it wants. Even when you're only making grass huts."
"What do you think of your work, Mr. Radcliffe?"
Without missing a beat or feeling the least bit guilty, I stole from Jean Cocteau once again. This time replacing only one word"architect" for "writer." "'I believe that each of my works is capable of making the reputation of a single architect.'"
"You don't believe in modesty."
It was my turn to sit forward. "Who do you think is better than me?"
I waved him away. "He makes cemeteries."
"They design airplanes, not buildings."
"Honestly, don't you think anyone is better than you?"
I thought for a moment. "No."
"Do you mind if I quote you?"
As obnoxiously as possible, I slid into my father's Basile, Louisiana, drawl. "Aww now, Fenny, do you really think that's going to hurt me? Every interview I give, they quote that. Know what happens? I get more commissions! People like hiring a man who's sure of himself. Most particularly when you're responsible for a few hundred million dollars!"
Which was true. While talking to Fanny Neville that first time years ago, I was also thinking about the three projects on my desk: the Aachen, Germany, airport, the Rutgers University Arts Center in New Jersey, and the house I was building in Santa Barbara for Bronze Sydney and me.
Footnote: Bronze Sydney was my second wife. Bronwyn Sydney Davis. Bronze Sydney. We started out as partners, then married, but quickly realized we functioned better together as professional colleagues. A calm divorce followed. We are still partners and friends.
Both the Aachen and Rutgers projects came about because I'd assured specific people I was the best. That self-confidence, along with my plans and proposals, convinced them. I don't think the designsalone would have done it, although they were very significant and appropriate.
Ask anyone about the high point of their life. Odds are, whatever they say, it'll have something to do with being busy. I felt comfortable answering Fanny's question so bluntly because at that time I was a hurricane named H. Radcliffe, Important American Architect. I did feel like one of those tropical storms that builds in the Gulf of Mexico and scares everyone when the weather man says ominously, "Hurricane Harry is still biding its time out there, just growing bigger. But batten down those hatches, folks. This one is going to be a doozy!" I was a doozy, and getting bigger all the time because of the buildings we were putting up. There was fame, money by the pound, jobs designing anything I wanted. Bronze Sydney and I were working too hard, but loving the full-tilt feel of our lives. When we went to bed at night, we were still so wired that we'd often fuck for hours just to ground some of the electricity, angst, excitement, anticipation ... that'd built up in both of us over the day.
Then the storm hit, all right, but me, not the mainland.
MONTHS LATER, AFTER I'D won the Pritzker Prize (the second-youngest recipient in its history, let me add), the real honor came when I was invited to participate in the seven hundred fiftieth anniversary of the City of Berlin. As part of the celebration, the city fathers had intelligently decided to ask prominent architects from around the world to design new buildings with which to give that fearful, nervous city a face-lift.
A late twentieth-century city perched like a crucial and formidable lighthouse on the edge of communism. I thought it was as noble and utopian as we were ever going to get.
They asked me to design a section of the Berlin Technical University. Within an hour of the request, I knew what to do: What couldbe more appropriate for a technical university than a robot, seven stories high? I kept a collection of toy robots on my desk, and friends knew if they ever saw an interesting one to pick it up for me.
After spending the better part of two days with the door closed, all calls held, and the desk lamp tipped to illuminate the various figures, I began sketching a building that looked like a mixture of Russian constructivist collage, the sexy robot girl in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, and a "Masters of the Universe" doll. It was brainy, but not exceptional. I needed more stimulus.
There's a store in Los Angeles on Melrose Avenue that sells nothing but rubber spiders, Japanese robots, horror movie masks ... . Your typically overpriced, chic kitsch paradise where the pile of rubber dog shit you bought as a kid for forty-nine cents now costs seven dollars. Truth be told, I'd spent much time and money at that place when searching around for ideas for a new building. A thirty- or forty-dollar bagful of glow-in-the-dark werewolf fangs, little green-rubber-car pencil erasers, get-the-ball-in-the-hole puzzles ... spread out together in front of me usually helped, for some unique reason. Mallarmé got his inspiration from looking at the ocean. Harry Radcliffe got his from a fake fly in a fake ice cube.
The owners of the store gave me the heartiest of hellos whenever I came in. I think they were nice people, but I'd spent so much money there in the past that I could never tell if they were really nice or only money-nice. Money-nice lasts as long as you're a good customer.
"We just got something I think you'll like very much." The man went to the back of the store and waved me over to him. I walked back as he was reaching down into a box on the floor.
"Look at these." He held out two handfuls of vividly colored little buildings, each about four or five inches long. I picked one up and gave a tickled yelp. "It's the Sphinx!"
"Right. And here's the Empire State Building, Sydney OperaHouse, Buckingham Palace ... all the famous buildings of the world as pencil sharpeners! Aren't they great? We just got them this week from Taiwan. Don't they look like pieces of bubble gum?"
I reached into the full box and rooted around for samples of each. A cobalt blue Leaning Tower of Pisa, vermilion Statue of Liberty (was that a building?), green Roman Colosseum. There were a surprising number of different ones. Taking a few to the front of the store where there was more light, I held them up and looked carefully at the detail. Superb.
I bought two hundred and fifty.
There was no screech of tires, screams, or thunderous crash when my mind went flying over the cliff into madness, as I gather is true in many cases. Besides, we've all seen too many bad movies where characters scratch their faces or make hyena sounds to indicate they've gone nuts.
Not me. One minute I was famous, successful, self-assured Harry Radcliffe in the trick store, looking for inspiration in a favorite spot. The next, I was quietly but very seriously mad, walking out of that shop with two hundred and fifty yellow pencil sharpeners. I don't know how other people go insane, but my way was at least novel.
Melrose Avenue is not a good place to lose your mind. The stores on the street are full of lunatic desires and are only too happy to let you have them if you can pay. I could.
Anyone want a gray African parrot named Noodle Koofty? I named him on the ride back to Santa Barbara. He sat silently in a giant black cage in the back of my Mercedes station wagon, surrounded by objects I can only cringe at when I think of them now: three colorful garden dwarves about three feet high, each holding a gold hitching ring; five Conway Twitty albums that cost twenty dollars each because they were "classics"; three identical Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs albums, "classics" as well, twenty-five dollars apiece; a box of bathroom tiles with a revolting peach motif; a wall-size poster of a chacmababoon in the same pose as Rodin's The Thinker ... other things too, but you get the drift.
My car was so loaded down in back that one might have thought I was transporting bags of cement. But all I was carrying was the alarming evidence of my dementia.
Why did it happen? How did I end up driving a station wagon full of plastic garden dwarves and Conway Twitty albums when I was at the height of my success? Believe me, I've thought about it since I recovered, and that's a long time. The standard explanations could be used to good effectI was overworked, there was too much pressure to succeed, my marriage with Sydney was beginning to hiss and spit ominously at its seams ... .
Or none of the above.
After Venasque introduced me to the journals of Cocteau, I came across a passage which touched me deeply.
"Then I realized that my dream life was as full of memories as my real life, that it was a real life, denser, richer in episodes and in details of all kinds, more precise, in fact, and that it was difficult for me to locate my memories in one world or the other, that they were superimposed, combined, and creating a double life for me, twice as huge and twice as long as my own."
When I showed that to Venasque, he patted my shoulder.
"Exactly. That should answer your questions, Harry. You needed to go nuts! Most people do it either to hide, or because they can't cope. But you did it because no matter how much you thought you were doing things right, you weren't. And something inside knew it.
"Look at it this way: Your dream side decided you and it needed a vacation from your awake side, so it bought the tickets and packed bags for both of you. And off you guys went, leaving your awake side at home."
It was nice of the old man to call them my "dream" and "awake" sides when we both knew he meant Crazy Harry/Sane Harry. Yetwhat he said makes more and more sense the further removed I am from that turbulent time of my life. Some people do need to go crazy. To live fully in your "dream life" a while is like putting all the weight on your left foot when your right is exhausted. I wasn't crazy very long, but in certain specific ways those months adrift in "Lu-Lu Land" gave me two of the most important things in my life: a fuller, more balanced vision, and the indispensable Venasque.
I'm moving too fast. Rerun the tape to where Noodle Koofty and I and our inanimate friends in the back of my Mercedes station wagon are tooling up the Pacific Coast Highway, some of us mad and some of us still, all of us enjoying the sunset over my first day in bedlam.
Suddenly the thought of all the magnificent things I'd bought overcame me. I had to share my enthusiasm with someone, so I pulled off the road at a phone booth to call Bronze Sydney.
Later, she said I sounded like a public-address system announcing departing trains. What I took to be wild enthusiasm, according to her, came out sounding half-dead: "Just described what you'd done in this dead monotone," she said. "I-went-to-the-trick-store. I-bought-yellow-pencil-sharpeners. I-am-very-happy ... like that."
"I sounded that creepy?"
"Yes. I thought you were doing one of your funny voices."
"What was I like when I got home?"
"Very pleasant and friendly. Back to your old self. Remember, the really bad things didn't start immediately."
Sydney liked the parrot and thought the other objets were a part of some labyrinthine plan I was cooking up. She was used to me arriving with whoopie cushions, joybuzzers, or boxes of toy soldiers which I'd take into my study and play with or stare at until the message I needed from them arrived. To her full credit, the woman didn't even bat an eye the time I spent a quiet evening at home gluing animal crackers together.
One image that's remained is of my wife's back as she carried two of the garden dwarves under her arms into our house. She was wearing a black dress and bright orange stockings. The colors reminded me of Halloween.
After we ferried all of the new goodies into my room, Sydney went back to her book. While I, hands on hips like a pirate-ship captain, surveyed the lay of the land.
My "desk" is a round Danhauser dining table, perpetually overloaded with stuff. That night for the first time in recent history, I removed this stuff from the table. After placing it in careful piles on the floor, I set to work building the world.
In no time I had all two hundred and fifty pencil sharpeners arranged across the mahogany table. But that was uninteresting, so I took one of the dwarves and plunked him down in the middle, a giant alien-invader centerpiece.
Some hours later I reemerged into the light and land of the sane to ask if there was anything to eat. Both of us hated to cook. As a result, meals at the Radcliffe home were either vile, bizarre, or not at all. I was informed there was a bucket of fried chicken in the kitchen.
Mrs. Radcliffe later said she started suspecting something strange was up when, minutes later, she saw me come out of the kitchen wearing a full-length apron and carrying a long barbecue fork in each hand.
"How do you want your chicken? Well-done?"
"What do you mean?"
"How do you want it cooked?"
"Harry, that's Kentucky Fried Chicken. It already is cooked."
I smiled enigmatically and returned to the kitchen.
Ten minutes later the smoky tang of barbecue drifted into the room. She found me out on the patio, flipping chicken pieces on the grill.
"What are you doing?"
"How do you want yours cooked?"
She looked carefully at me. I remember that. She looked for so long that I finally got embarrassed and went back to my chicken flipping.
"How're you feeling, Harry?"
"Good. A little tired. I haven't eaten much today."
"Then why don't you go lie down awhile? I'll finish here and bring it to you when it's ready. Okay?"
"You don't have to do that, Syd. They're almost done." I pointed to what was once a chicken wing but was now only a smoking lump of black.
"Okay." She went to the nearest phone and called our doctor/ friend/neighbor, Bill Rosenberg.
I WAS ALL RIGHT for a while after that. Bill said I was overworked and suggested that I take these pills and go up to San Francisco for a few days' rest, which we did. We stayed at the Mark Hopkins, ate red pasta at Ghirardelli Square, stood outside the old Fillmore West and talked about Janis Joplin ... a nice tripromantic and restful.
There are several American cities to choose from if, in secret, you really wish you were living in Europe: San Francisco, New Orleans, Seattle. Their buildings are quirky and original, bakeries make things like baguettes and Dinkelbrot, and there are long harbor views from the smallest windows.
And bridges. How I love bridges. There is a stern precision and authority to them that you see almost nowhere else in architecture. Unlike buildings, they are there to serve only one purpose. Form limited to function in the most succinct way. Design it wrong, you're headlines.
After we'd made three trips to the Golden Gate Bridge, where I stared at it like Moses at the burning bush, my wife reasonably asked what was going on.
"I need toothpicks!"
Sydney's mistake was not having me committed then. Or outside the supermarket where I bought thirty boxes of toothpicks and seven tubes of glue. Or back at the hotel where, tongue outside my mouth, I began the toothpick bridge.
Enough was enough! Sure, she was used to me buying plaster lawn dwarves and Sam the Sham records, but hadn't I already cooked the cooked chicken? Covered a table with yellow pencil sharpeners?
Know what Cocteau says about situations like this? "It is easy to behave well in disaster. That is when a good education shows. The hard thing is to behave well in good fortune, that is the proof of real spirit."
Now look, you know by now I already had my head up like a panicky spaniel, sniffing the ripe air madly. But the madness was my problem. Sydney's was to see that cocked head of mine, gleaming eyes, robot voice back on my tongue ... .
Later, she said there was nothing uncommon about what I was doing, but I disagree. Do you know where your children are tonight? Do you know where your mate's sanity is tonight? I am sure if Bronwyn Sydney had gone as demonstrably mad as I did those days, I would not have sat there and watched television while she crawled on the floor, making something that looked like a spiderweb spun by an arachnid on LSD.
The ex-Mrs. Radcliffe disagrees. That is one of the reasons why we share an office now but no longer a life.
Anyway, back home in Santa Barbara it became all too apparent that I was hanging-ten way out over the edge of the real world and something had to be done.
If you're rich or famous, they don't come with butterfly nets orgiant syringes full of sedatives to subdue you till they can get you to a padded cell. In my case, during the infrequent moments of clarity that whizzed through my mind like hummingbirds, I remember being asked by serious types if I felt "all right." But hell, I felt greatthe view from my window was interesting!
At this point Sydney did something truly inspired and for which I will be forever indebted. Every doctor I saw said something different about what was wrong with me. Overwork and stress were the preferred villains, although my favorite came from one German with porcupine hair who said I was suffering a kreislauf collapse.
But the only thing I sincerely regret about that time was that no one photographed what I created with teapots, yellow pencil sharpeners, a Chinese wok, a black bird cage (and bird), rubber bands ... in the space of about a week on our living room floor.
I have visions of it being a cross between the 1939 New York World's Fair, one of the lost cities of the Incas, and most disturbing of all, perhaps the most visionary work I have ever done. The pisser is, I remember nothing about it except how much fun it was to do. Sydney says it was only a drooler's maze of nonsense, bad Gaudi and our largest kitchen utensils. I'm not so sure. When I asked why she didn't at least take pictures, she said, "Harry, dear, it was bad enough living with you. You looked like the guy in a science fiction movie who sees the monster first. That was enough for me. I wasn't in the mood to get out a camera. We weren't on vacation!"
I certainly was. While in Pakistan a few years ago on a project, I twice saw naked men walking down the street in Islamabad. Nobody paid any attention. It was explained that the insane there are considered "touched by God," so they are left alone.
I wish they'd left me alone. On the other side of the world, Sydney was told the best thing would be for me to spend a few months in an exclusive home with a bunch of other "exhausted and confused" souls who could afford the thousands of dollars a week it cost to residethere. Personally, I was happy as a clam at home, building my city on our living room floor.
But my good and open-minded wife didn't do what the "experts" suggested, bless her.
At that time there was a notorious show on the radio in Los Angeles that both of us loved. It was called "Off the Wall," and the title puts it all in a nutshell.
Five nights a week the host interviewed various screwballs, zealots, and 100 percent looney tunes from the area. My favorite segment was the one where a group from Pasadena was on, claiming to be the lost tribe of Israel.
Once, after we'd made love and were in the midst of that slow parachuting to earth that follows, I turned on the radio in time for "Off the Wall." The host, Ingram York, was interviewing a man who spoke with a European accent.
"Have you actually taught people to fly, Mr. Venasque? Or are we speaking metaphorically now?"
"You ever thought about how many times you've heard 'Chopsticks' played wrong? Probably the world's simplest piece to plunk out on a piano, but people get it wrong every other time. Then they laugh, like, who cares if I played this dumb thing wrong? It's the same with what we know about ourselves, Ingram. 'We shelter an angel within us. We must be the guardian of that angel.'
"Sure, I've taught people to fly. But that's only because they had it in them already. They'd just been playing their own personal 'Chopsticks' wrong all along and accepting it."
"Could you teach me?"
"No." There was a pause before Venasque continued. "Because you don't have it in you."
"What would you do if I came to you for help?"
"Cook you lunch and watch how you ate it."
Sydney and I looked at each other and both slid closer to the radio so we could hear this guy better.
"How would eating my lunch tell you anything?"
"What you like tells me something. How you want it cooked tells me something. The way you eat it.
"People look for wonder and for themselves in the wrong places, Ingram. In church, or when you're dying, when a child's being born ... But those things are too strong. When life expands like that, when we're overpowered by a moment or an event, the small things go away. Whether you believe me or not, I'm saying the most important facts are in those small things."
This "Venasque" went on talking like that, and more than anything else, Sydney and I were charmed by him. He mentioned being the child of a circus family in France, his pets, and how much he enjoyed watching television and cooking. Yet very little about his "magical powers," although he clearly came across as both a learned and canny man. We liked him. He sounded like the perfect next-door neighbor.
So, after I'd seen all the doctors, and their unanimous verdict was to pack the celebrated architect off to a madhouse, Sydney contacted the producer of "Off the Wall" and asked for Venasque's telephone number.
The first time I saw my savior, I was playing with my toys. Imagine a very large living room with an ocean view that leaves you breathless. Imagine me on the floor of that room with my Heavenly City set up and ever-expanding. By then I'd assembled a bunch of scale models of famous buildingsRichard Rogers's Lloyd's of London, the Secession Museum in Vienna, the Brandenburger Tor, and set them down among the other chaos there.
Suddenly light fell across the room. The front door had opened and there were hellos. When I looked up, this big hairy gray pig cameoinking and trotting into the room. Right past me, crushing and scattering buildings, pencil sharpeners, the wok ... right over to the sandwich I'd been eating. It was on a table exactly level with the pig's mouth. One "shloooop!" and my lunch was gone.
"What was it, Connie, a peanut butter?" Were the first words I heard Venasque say.
"Hey, what's going on here?" he said next, walking into the room, hands on hips. "You got enough buildings, Harry. We gotta get you a clarinet."
HE AND THE PIG (a "Vietnamese pig") and a dog moved into our guest house out back. Poor Bronze Sydney: a mad husband, a shaman, a pig, and a bull terrier named Big Top all under her roof.
Big Top and Connie the pig were inseparable. They spent much of their time in the kitchen hoping something edible would happen. Which often did because Venasque took over all the cookingone of the few pluses for my wife. The meals he created! Even in my wonkoed condition I realized what he was serving us was Mozart to the tongue. It came out later that he and his wife (long gone) had for years owned a very successful diner in L.A.
That first afternoon after talking to me for a few minutes, he wrote out a grocery list and asked Sydney to go to the store immediately for those things. When she returned, he made us "a real lunch" and then went out to the car for his bags. The animals naturally followed close behind. I asked Sydney if he was going to stay with us. She said she guessed so.
For the next two days, he sat with me on the floor and together we slowly took my city apart. Once in a while he would ask me what something was. I'd say "a fork" or "ballpoint pen" and he'd nod as if just learning the word for the first time.
"You were crazy then, Harry. I held up an orange once and you said it was a book. I almost kissed you. What you knew about theworld and how you saw it was unique and specific. Never in a million years would I have seen a book in that orange, but you did. I kept an orange on my dresser for a while to see if I'd ever be lucky enough to see the book in it."
"You sound like R. D. Laing in The Politics of Experience, Venasque: Only the nuts are sane. Very 1960s stuff."
"Wonder doesn't fit in a book, Harry. It's too big."
I HAVEN'T DESCRIBED HIM yet, have I? I always assume the people I know well are just as familiar in strangers' minds as they are in my own.
He was a round old man. Short white hair, a large, always smoothly shaven face that looked its most comfortable listening or considering. He had green eyes but once told me the color had changed as he grew older. He wore overalls a lot because he didn't like belts or suspenders. Overalls and running shoes. He loved running shoes and must have owned twenty pairs.
When the Heavenly City was dismantled and put back in its rightful drawers (or garbage can), and the living room floor was visible again, the old man took me outside.
We sat by the swimming pool and ate M&M's chocolate candies, which were the animals' favorite snack. Venasque said nothing; only spilled M&M's into his hand from the jumbo-size bag and doled them out to the three of us. I was content to sit there, look at the still blue water and enjoy the sun on my legs. The only noise was the snuffling of the pig and dog as they ate their shares.
The old man got up and walked two steps to the water. Once there, he turned the bag upside down and shook it over the pool. The candy flew out like buckshot across the surface, plink-plopping into the water like the beginning of a rain shower. Since I'd taken a Valium just before leaving the house, this strange act didn't bother me a bit.
"Come on, Harry, get up. We're going for a swim."
We were already in our bathing suits, so Venasque took my arm and led me to the shallow end of the pool. The animals preceded us and, fearlessly walking down the steps into the water, floated out together. A white head, a hairy gray one.
I felt the first cold stab of water on my left foot. The pig was in the middle of the pool, shoveling up M&M's with an open mouth.
"Connie, leave those candies alone!"
He kept hold of my arm and moved us out. We kept bumping into candy buttons, which were already beginning to lose their color, in bright, unraveling swirls, to the pool's chlorine.
"Okay, here." Venasque stopped us and put his hand over my face. Through the heavy velvet curtain of Valium and madness, I felt something extraordinarily vital and new open inside me.
"We're going down now, Harry, and we'll stay down awhile. Don't get scared, 'cause you'll be able to breathe. Let's go."
We settled like stones at the bottom of the pool. He pointed to the surface. Besides the wavering shimmer of the bright world on the other side of the water, I could see the many dark dots of M&M's that had survived Connie's mouth.
"Look at those candies, Harry. Arrange them in your head. Look for a connection and tell me what you see." His words were clear and distinct, as if we were sitting by the pool and not in it.
What I saw was music. Music I could instantly read although I didn't know how to read music then. The dark brown M&M's were notes on the wavering "note paper" of the surface and it was all instantly, completely recognizable. Sublime music that made the greatest sense. Venasque later said it wasn't music, it was me, "written properly."
"That really sounds 1960s! Who arranged it like that, while we were at the bottom of that pool?"
"Don't always be a wiseguy, Harry. It's like a plaid jacket that goesgood with some outfits, but with others it looks like shit. You want to ask an important question, ask it. Don't always hide behind a plaid jacket."
"Sorry. Who wrote the music on the water?"
"I'm sorry, Venasque, but I don't believe in God."
"Then who do you think spread them over the water like that, Mantovani?"
"You, Venasque. You're the closest to a God I've ever gotten, although I used to think a great building was God. You know, stand near the Treasury in Petra, or Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower, and that's as immortal or in touch with the Almighty as we will ever get."
He shook his head as if I was a slow fool. "Someone said, 'It is easier for an imagination to conjure architecture than human beings.' Know why that is, Harry? Because buildings only go up so high. No matter how big they are, they stop somewhere. God doesn't stop. Neither do human beings, given the right direction. Immortality doesn't mean a hundred or two hundred floors. It means forever."
ONCE VENASQUE DETERMINED I wasn't seriously insane, he drove me into Santa Barbara to buy a clarinet. "Serious crazies are very industrious, Harry. They cut their own roads and then drive up and down them, alone, all day long. You only took a detour to see what the countryside was like off the main turnpike."
Never in my life had I had any desire to play a musical instrument. In college I dreamt of being in a rock group, but that was only because of the girls that came with the occupation. Other than that, I was content to listen to music as background while working or for a mood boost when I was feeling sexy or depressed.
Venasque said the twentieth century generally doesn't like quiet, and that's why there is so much annoying or useless noise (and music) surrounding us constantly.
"Some centuries are happy being quiet and looking at the sky. Ours spends all its time trying like crazy to fill that sky up!
"There's no silence left: a minute when you can think or be still awhile. How about places like elevators or the 'hold' line on a telephone: Elevators used to give you those few precious moments when you could stop in between floors and think about what you were going to say or about what'd just happened in your life. Now you walk into a little box full of 'Strangers in the Night.'
"It also ruins the whole idea of music, which is something you should pay attention to, not resent or ignore while you're waiting for your call to go through!
"I'm going to teach you to read and play music, Harry, both so you'll learn more about yourself, and as something to focus on when you start losing it again."
"Will I lose it again?"
"Only if you want. Other people can't help it. You have the luxury of choosing if you want to be crazy or not."
A FEW MONTHS LATER Venasque and I saw the film The Karate Kid on television. What ant shit. The sagacious old man from the mysterious East who can both chop a board in half and guide a teenager down the Yellow Brick Road of enlightenment via aphorisms and apothegms that sound pretty good, until you realize ten minutes later you could have thought them up yourself.
However, Venasque liked it, as he did most things on TV. I have never met a person who liked television more, which certainly wasn't in keeping with what I'd learned about the man in the time we'd been together.
"What's the matter with a movie about a kid finding his center, Harry? So what if it's a little 'Hollywood'? That's what we watch movies for."
"But you, of all people, know how that process really works. Doesn'tit piss you off to see enlightenment served like fast food? Pull up to the drive-in window and order some nirvana, with fries, to go?"
"Close your eyes, Harry. It's time to travel again. I want to show you something."
"Traveling" was Venasque's term for the way he made one return to their past. He'd tell me to close my eyes and moments later, I'd be back in some obscure moment or corner of my life, experiencing things I hadn't thought about in twenty years.
THERE IS AN ART to falling down, you know."
I continued looking at the camera, afraid to let my eyes click over to him as he got up off the floor. His assistant stood nearby, but obviously knew he wanted to get up alone; to achieve the small victory of rising after the large defeat of falling down for the third time since I'd entered his studio with my father.
Robert Layne-Dyer was the first homosexual I had ever recognized, if that is the correct word. Since I was only eight, I had no idea what was "with" him, other than his gestures were more theatrical than what I was accustomed to in other men, and his speech was overly precise, his voice too sweet. I knew my father's Southern accent and elbows on the dinner table. I was used to my dad's friends, who talked about money and women, politics and other things, with the same appreciative deep-chested chuckles and rumbling growls of indignation or anger.
Layne-Dyer was a flit. That is not a nice word to use these days because it's like calling a woman a "bimbo," but let's face it, there are flits and bimbos in this world. However, the flit who had me posing for him was one of the most famous photographers in the world. Thus he was allowed, back in those dark Republican days of the 1950s, to wave his homosexuality like a mile-long banner at the world. When I think now how much courage it must have taken for a man to behave like that in 1957, it's awe-inspiring.
My father, who even then was rich and influential, had decided it was time I had my picture taken. A devoted and voracious reader of magazines, he leafed through Mother's Vogue and Harper's Bazaar almost as carefully as she did. On the basis of photographs he'd seen there, he chose Layne-Dyer to immortalize me.
After due inquiry and negotiation, Dad and I arrived one July morning at the door of an attractive brownstone house in Gramercy Park. On the cab ride over, I was told the photographer was probably a "fag," but that I shouldn't let it bother me.
"What's a fag, Dad?"
"A guy, backward."
"'Guy' backward is 'yug.' 'Fag' is 'gaf.'"
"You'll see what I mean when we get there."
What I saw was a very sick man. He answered the door and, smiling, shook hands with both of us. But there was so little light left in him. He reminded me of a lantern with only a very small flame inside.
He was about thirty-five, middle height and build, with a blond wave of hair sweeping down over his forehead like a comma. His eyes were green and large but rather sunken in his face, diminishing their size until you looked carefully. Which of course I did because I kept looking for the "fag" in him. He was also the first person who ever called me "Mr. Harry."
"So, the Radcliffes have arrived. How are you, Mr. Harry?"
"Fine, Mr. Layne. I mean Mr. Dyer."
"You can call me either. Or Bob, if that's more comfortable."
Then he fell down.
Just boom! No warning, no tripping or flailing of armsone moment up with us, the next down on the floor in a heap. Naturally I laughed. I thought he was doing it for mea crazy kid's joke. Maybe that's what Dad meant when he said fags were guys backwards.
My father gave me a jab in the ribs that hurt so much I cried out.
Layne-Dyer looked up from the floor at him. "It's okay. He doesn't understand. I fall a lot. It's a brain tumor and it makes me do some strange things."
I looked at my father for explanations. We were pals and he was usually straight with me, but this time he gave a small head shake that meant "wait till later." So I turned back to the photographer and waited for what he'd do next.
"Let's go in and get you set up." He pushed himself slowly off the floor and led the way into the house.
To this day I remember the way his place was furnished: Dark "Mission" furniture, pieces of ornamental glass everywhereSteuben, Lalique, Tiffanythat caught and turned light into beautiful, intricate performances for anyone interested.
Some of his more famous photographs were on the walls: Fellini and Giulietta Masina eating a picnic lunch together on the set of La Strada; Tour de France bicycle racers steaming in a tight pack together down a Paris street with the Eiffel Tower looming behind them like a monstrous metal golem.
"Did you take that picture?"
"It's President Eisenhower!"
"Right. He let me come to the White House to do it."
"You were in the White House?"
"Yes. A couple of times."
I didn't know who Fellini was, and anyone could race a bicycle, but to be invited to President Eisenhower's house to take a picture meant you were big stuff, in my book. I followed Bob closely to his studio.
Later I read in Layne-Dyer's autobiography that he hated being called anything other than "Robert." But "Bob" is a pair of soft familiar jeans to an eight-year-old boy, rather than "Robert," which isthe black wool suit you're forced to wear on Sunday to church, or the name of a distant cousin you instantly hate on meeting for the first time.
"What kind of picture are you going to take of me?"
"Come on in and I'll show you."
The studio was unremarkable. There were lights and reflectors around, but nothing challenging, nothing promising besides many cameras that said only matters were more formal in here, watch your step a little more. But I was eight, and having my picture taken by someone famous seemed only right: a combination of what was due me because I was Harry Radcliffe, third-grader, and because my father, a rich and nice man, wanted it. At eight you're dead serious about what the world owes you: Civilization starts in your own room and moves out from there.
"Sit here, Harry."
A pretty assistant named Karla started moving around the room, setting up cameras and tripods. She smiled at me sometimes.
"What do you want to be when you grow up, Harry?"
Looking to see if Karla was watching, I said confidently, "Mayor of New York."
Layne-Dyer ran both hands through his hair and said to no one in particular, "Humble fellow, isn't he?"
Which made my father laugh. I didn't know what the word meant, but if Dad laughed then it must be okay.
"Look at me, Harry. Good. Now look over there, at the picture of the dog on the wall."
"What kind of dog is that?"
"Don't talk for a minute, Boss. Let me get this right and then we'll chat."
I tried to watch what he was doing out of the corner of my eye, but couldn't make my eyeball go back that far. I started to turn.
"Don't move! Don't move!" FLASH. FLASH. FLASH. "Great, Harry. Now you can turn. It's a Great Vendean Griffon." FLASH. FLASH.
"The dog on the wall."
"Oh. Are you finished taking my picture now?"
"Not yet. A little while longer."
Halfway through the session he collapsed again.
"There's an art to falling down, you know. When you go like I do, with no warning, just plotz, you learn after a few times to watch and take as much with you as you can before you hit. The design on the drapes, whatever you can grab with your eye, a hand ... Don't go empty-handed, don't just go down scared. Do you understand what I'm talking about, Harry?"
"No, sir. Not really"
"That's okay. Look at me."
The dying have a quality that even a child senses. Not because they are already removed, but because even young hearts sense their inability to stay longer. Behind the looks of sickness or fear is also the look of the long-distance traveler, bags on the floor, eyes tired but nervous for any change that may come. They are the ones going on the twenty-hour flights, and although we don't envy their coming discomfort or time-zone skips, tomorrow they will be therea place that both terrifies and thrills us. We peek at the ticket they hold, the inconceivably far destination written there, impossible yet monstrously alluring. What will it smell like for them tomorrow? What is it like to sleep there?
"Are you sick?"
Karla stopped walking across the room and looked away. My father started to say something, but Bob cut him off.
"Yes, Harry. That's what makes me fall down."
"Something's wrong with your feet?"
"No, my head. It's called a brain tumor. Like a bump inside there that makes you do odd things. And ends up killing you."
I am convinced he didn't say it to spook or scare me. Only because it was the truth. Now I was entirely impressed by him.
"You're going to die?"
"That's weird. What does it feel like?"
The camera flashgun in his hand went off, making us all jump. "Like that."
When we'd shivered back to earth, he put the flashgun on a table and gestured with his head. "Come with me a minute, Harry. I want to show you something."
All three of us would have followed at that moment if he'd asked. I looked at my father to see if it was okay to go, but couldn't catch his eye because he was watching Layne-Dyer so intently.
"Come on, Harry, we'll be back soon."
He took my hand and led me farther back into the studio, through a large woody kitchen with silver pots of different sizes hanging from the walls like drops of frozen mercury, a big bunch of red onions and one of ivory garlic.
"Does your wife like to cook?"
"I like to cook, Harry. What's your favorite food?"
"Spare ribs, I guess," I said disapprovingly. Men weren't supposed to cook. I was not happy with his disclosure, but he was dying and that was thrilling. At my age I'd heard a lot about death and even seen my grandfather in his coffin looking rested. But being near a death actually taking place was something else. Years later in a biology class, I watched a snake devour a live mouse bit by wriggling bit. That is what it was like to be with Layne-Dyer that single day, knowing something was killing him even as we stood there looking at his red onions.
"Come on." We left the kitchen and came to one last room that was quite dark and empty but for something that made me gasp: a house. A house the size of a sofa. From the first moment, it was clear this was no rinky-dink girl's dollhouse full of pink curtains and little fringed Barbie beds. This was big serious stuff.
"Wow! What's that?" I didn't wait for an answer before going over.
"Have a look before I tell you."
I was a kid who loved to talk unless something was so fascinating that it shut me up without my knowing it, or stunned me into silence, or so glutted me with its presence that I'd lose all appetite for talking.
The photographer's house did it. Later, when I studied architecture and learned all the formal terms, I realized the house was postmodern long before the term ever existed. Its lines, columns, and color combinations predated the work of Michael Graves and Hans Hollein by at least a decade.
But eight-year-olds aren't silenced by postmodernism. They are silenced by wonder, the orange flame and thunder crack of the miraculous right in front of them. What was, then, so completely absorbing about Layne-Dyer's model? The perfect details, at first. Carved brass doorknobs the size of corn kernels, stained or bottle glass in most windows, a copper weather vane shaped like the dog in the photograph in the other room. The more complete something is, the more it reassures us. Time was spent here, someone's world stopped for a whilehours? days?while they worked to get it right. Their result tells us it is possible to do things till the end, till wenot God, not fatedecide it is finished.
I couldn't stop touching the house, and everything I touched was beautifully or solidly made. The only odd part was that on one side of the building a portion of the roof had been removed and one of the upstairs rooms seemed to be under construction. It looked like a cutaway diagram in a do-it-yourself repair magazine.
After the initial delight passed and I'd run my hands over it like a blind man, pausing everywhere for little detours and hidden wonders, a second level of awareness set in. It eventually struck me that things actually went on in this house: Homework was finished, bread was baked, checks written, dogs ran across wooden floors when a doorbell rang.
I watched "Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" on television and had seen shows where doll's houses were malevolent, dangerous things full of toys from hell, or worse. But despite the very strong sense of motion and real life around Layne-Dyer's model, I felt no danger; didn't feel frightened or threatened by it.
"I'll show you something." Coming around me, he went to the section where the roof had been taken off and put his hand down into the exposed room. When it reappeared, it was holding a bed the size of a small loaf of bread.
"Did you ever eat a bed?" He broke off a piece of it and put it in his mouth.
"Cool! Can I have some?"
"You can try, but I don't think you'll be able to eat it."
"Oh yeah? Give me some!" I took the piece he offered and put it in my mouth. It tasted like salty plaster. It tasted like a model.
"Yecch!" I spit and spit to get it all out. Bob smiled and continued to chew and then swallow his piece.
"Listen to me, Harry. You can't eat it because it's not your house. Sooner or later in everyone's life a moment comes when their house appears like this. Sometimes it's when you're young, sometimes when you're sick like me. But most peoples' problem is they can't see the house, so they die confused. They say they want to understand what it's all about, but given the chance, given the house, they either look away or get scared and blind. Because when the house is there and you know it, you don't have any more excuses, Boss."
Once again I was baffled by what he was saying, but the tone ofhis voice was so intense that it seemed imperative I at least try to understand what he was so passionate about.
"I'm scared at what you're saying. I don't get what you mean."
He nodded, stopped, nodded again. "I'm telling you this now, Harry, so maybe you'll remember it later on. No one ever told me.
"Everyone has a house inside them. It defines who they are. A specific style and form, a certain number of rooms. You think about it all your lifewhat does mine really look like? How many floors are there? What is the view from the different windows? ... But only once do you get a chance to actually see it. If you miss that chance, or avoid it 'cause it scares you, then it goes away and you'll never see it again."
"Where is this house?"
He pointed to his head and mine. "In here. If you recognize it when it comes, then it'll stay. But accepting it and making it stay is only the first part. Then you've got to try understanding it. You've got to take it apart and understand every piece. Why it's there, why it's made like that ... most of all, how each piece fits in the whole."
I sort of got it. I asked the right question. "What happens when you understand?"
He held up a finger, as if I'd made a good point. "It lets you eat it."
"Like you just did?"
"Exactly. It lets you take it back inside. Here, look where the roof is gone. It's the only section of the house I've been able to understand so far. The only part I've been allowed to eat." He broke off another piece and popped it into his mouth. "The fuck of the thing is, I don't have enough time now to do it. You can't imagine how long it takes. How many hours you sit there and look or try to work it out ... but nothing happens. It's so exciting and frustrating at the same time."
Whatever he'd said after "fuck" didn't go anywhere in my head because he'd said that word! Even my father didn't say it and he was a pretty big curser. I'd said it once and gotten the biggest smack of mylife. Whenever I'd heard it since, it was like someone flashing an illegal weapon at me or a pack of dirty playing cards. You were dying to look, but knew it'd get you in a hell of a lot of trouble if you did.
"Fuck." You don't hear that much when you're an eight-year-old. It's an adult's word, forbidden and dirty and owning a dangerous gleam of its own. You don't really know what it means, but use it, and you sure get fast results.
The whole wonder and awe of Layne-Dyer's model housewhat it was, what he said it wasfell from the horizon the moment this big orange "FUCK" roared up. The magic of death, the magic of great mysteries, lost to the magic of one dirty word.
A short time later both Karla and my father began calling us from the other room. Bob put his arm around my shoulder and asked again if I understood everything he had said. Lying, I nodded in a way I thought was intelligent and mature, but my mind was on other things.
The photo session ended soon after, which was just as well because I couldn't wait to get home.
When I was safely in my room and had locked the door, I ran for the bathroom. Locked in there too, I turned on the overhead light and said the word to myself over and over again. Loud, soft, as a plea, an order. I made faces around the word, gestures, I did everything. Hearing it from Layne-Dyer had set something loose in me and I couldn't let that thing go until I had exhausted its every possibility. Fuck.
WHEN I OPENED MY eyes, I saw Big Top lying on my foot. Venasque was looking at me and eating from a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips.
"That was a dream I had twenty years ago, Venasque. The only thing true about it was I went to Layne-Dyer as a kid to have my picture taken and he fell down once."
"How old were you when you had the dream?"
"I don't know, graduate school, as I remember."
"Why do you think you had it then?"
"Cause I was thinking a lot about houses then. I was studying to be an architect!"
"Harry, don't be a dope. Before, you were saying things like Karate Kid are bad because they water down important issues. That's true, but here you were having a ...
"Listen to me carefully. Sometimes dreams turn into soldiers. They'll fight your battles and defend your land, but you've got to take good care of them. Feed and protect them, give them the attention they deserve. Forget or ignore a dream that size and the soldier dies. That one especially. You've got to write that thing down as much as you remember and study it till you realize how important it is. And for God's sake, keep it protected. You're going to need it again, believe me.
"Karate Kid is nonsense, but you were given a gift of real enlightenment, Harry, and you forgot it, till now. Wrote it off like it happened because you were eating hot peppers before you went to bed."
BESIDES THE "TRAVELING" AND clarinet lessons, Venasque had me do autogenic training to drag my flapping kite of a heartbeat back to earth, as well as create a new quiet room in the house of my life. It would be both easy and false to lie and say our time together was full of miraculous events, profound aphorisms, and enlightenment every step of the way. But being healed and helped by Venasque didn't work like that. There was magic, times when my jaw dropped open and troops of cold-footed lizards ran up my spine. But the norm was quiet talk and laughter, always. I am convinced the great teachers do two things that outweigh everything elsethey explain clearly, and they exude an almost palpable feeling of benevolence.
A shaman, teacher ... must be fundamentally and at all timesbenevolent. None of this half-devil, half-angel stuff, which is a very modern, convenient conceit that misses the point. The point is that while the teaching methods these men sometimes employ are odd and unorthodox and even horrifying, ultimately they know something about us that we ourselves don't knowthey have faculties functioning in their brains that don't function in ours. And most important, behind all their strange behavior is the benevolent intent to bring us to our spiritual senses.
Since my time with Venasque I have met or read books about other so-called shamans. But these characters aren't the real thing. They are simply mischievous, intuitive, supersmart little opportunists who pass for spiritual teachers because they have psychic abilities. But psychic powers are a dime a dozen. Someone made the point somewhere that we must learn to distinguish between the occult and the religious, between magic and true spirituality. The two do sometimes come togethersaints do have magical powers, sure. But they don't exploit these powers, and more important, they consider them only by-products of their real concern, which is spiritual development.
Let me tell you one last Venasque story. When I was well again and he was preparing to return to his home in Los Angeles, he still hadn't mentioned his fee. So I asked. He told me the normal charge was five thousand dollars, but because I was a famous architect, he'd rather I design a new kitchen for his house. The one he had was both old and too full of sad memories of the happy days he'd spent there together with his wife.
"Now it's your turn to figure me out, Harry. Decide what kind of environment I should have."
"Is this part of my therapy?"
"No. I need a new kitchen and it'll be a good way for you to get started again. Something small and tasty!"
I went down to L.A. with him to look at his house, but wasn't impressed by what I saw. The place itself was postwar, pseudo-Spanish, but the greater cause for concern was the interior: ghetto-chic, shag-rug hell. Too many colors, too many patterns, too many different textures of furniture that didn't go together at all. It looked like a schizophrenic from Tahiti lived there, or someone wildly enthusiastic for variety, but color-blind down to the difference between blue and yellow.
Worse, with great pride Venasque said his wife had decorated the house and he hadn't changed a thing since she died.
The kitchen was no different. The touching thing was it looked and felt like the favorite, most lived-in room of his whole house. It was easy to envision the two old people in there, one leaning up against the fridge while the other bustled around, getting their meal ready. I could understand why he wanted me to change its too-familiar face.
"How do you want it, Venasque? Sexy? Mediterranean?"
"What's a sexy kitchen?"
"White. Silver. Sleek."
"Sounds like an operating room. I don't take out tonsils here, Harry. Make me something nice and alive."
I'd designed buildings that, even on paper, shamed every other structure in the neighborhood both in look and stature. Houses, skyscrapers, factories ... the gamut. But coming up with a dumb twelve-foot kitchen for the old man was a real pisser. I wanted to give him my very best in return for all he'd done. When I told him that, he patted my face and said, "Just make sure to leave room for the microwave."
First I thought Adolf Loos. Venasque would like the Loos style, wouldn't he? Clean simplicity that went right to the heart of the matter. I showed him pictures but he shook his head. "I'd get cold in ahouse like that, Harry. The man forgot to use his heart." Out went the king of twentieth-century Viennese architecture. Ditto Gaudi was "too crooked," and Frank Gehry's work looked like "the fence around the schoolyard."
And what did the shaman think of Harry Radcliffe's work?
"Some of the buildings are beautiful, but others look like a lightbulb that's been left on during the day, or a telephone ringing in an empty apartment."
Besides being hurt, I had no idea what he was talking aboutlightbulb? Empty apartment? Later I discovered the line came from Cocteau's journals, literally word for word. But that was no help in deciphering what he meant. Only later, when I was in Saru and looking at the proposed site for the dog museum, did it come clear: You can always fill space with form, but it's like filling an empty room with light, i.e., what good does it do if the light has no real purpose? Or there's no one to hear the phone's message? He never said it, but I'm sure Venasque thought I'd clevered my way to prominence while, along the way, forgetting (or consciously neglecting) to use what I was best at, rather than what I was capable of.
Naturally that was an even greater incentive to design a kitchen that would knock his eyes out. I showed him the work of architects as diverse as Bruce Goff, Richard Meier, and even Daniel Liebes-kind. I showed him buildings, furniture, kitchen utensils. Anything to get even the smallest feeling for what he wanted, but he was of little help.
"I don't know what I want, Harry. I want a kitchen where I can cook a good meal and where the animals and me'll feel comfortable just sitting around, relaxing."
So I sat down with my pens and paper and designed a kitchen. Black and white tiles, bird's-eye maple, German stainless appliances. A few original bits and a few surprises. I liked it. Venasque did not.
"This is nothing, Harry. This is for anyone. I want a kitchen that's mine. Venasque cooks herenot Betty Crocker or Julia Child. This drawing is Harry Radcliffe, Mr. Famous Architect's kitchen. But this isn't your place, remember, it's mine!"
He rarely became angry, but this time he glared at the drawing. I was ashamed although I honestly believed the plans had been done with him foremost in my mind.
"Give me a thousand dollars, Harry. I want you to write me a check right now."
Without a thought, I wrote the check and handed it over. He looked at it, shook his head, put it in his pocket. "Every time you draw something that's not mine, I want another thousand dollars. Do you understand? Maybe that's the only way to get you to learn."
"Venasque, I'm telling you, I did that design"
"Shut up! Shut up and go back to work! You're not crazy anymore. You don't have any excuses. Just remember, a thousand dollars each time you design for yourself and not for me!"
I worked like a paranoid student preparing for the final examination. I thought kitchens most of the day and did more drawings than I had for the forty-floor Andromeda Center in Birmingham. Only when I was sure I had it this time did I dare go to the old man and nervously hand over what I thought was surely it this time.
I gave him seven drawings, which immediately resulted in handing him seven checks for a thousand dollars. Once, when writing the sixth, I thought to myself not only was he getting a free kitchen, but two thousand bucks more than his previously stated fee. As I wrote my name on the check, Venasque said, "Lucky I have such a rich and famous architect to sponge off, huh, Harry?" Which was the first time I realized he could read my mind. I was embarrassed, but not surprised.
His reaction to my seventh idea was novel. We were out on hispatio, the pig and dog sitting at our feet. He took the drawing, looked at it for perhaps a second, then put it down on the ground between the animals.
"What do you think of this one, guys?"
The pig sniffed the paper loudly and put her head down again. The bull terrier got up, moved a bit over, and calmly pissed on my drawing. Pissed and pissed until urine ran off the expensive paper onto the concrete.
"What the fuck do you want from me, Venasque? I'm giving you a hundred percent! I can't help it if you don't like them! Can I help it if you don't understand architecture?"
"You can go crazy again, Harry, but stop being an asshole so much. You make me tired."
I got up and started away on angry feet. "I'm not wrong about this, Venasque. I'm giving you a hundred percent. I don't care how much you know. You're just not seeing that."
"Go make me another thousand-dollar drawing." He flicked a dismissive hand at me, leaned down and petted the pig.
We didn't speak for two days, although I didn't come out of my room much, doing drawing after drawing in a rage of "I'll show that fucker!" But what came of my creative fury? Very little. What I realized later was he probably goaded me into that anger to see if I could get mad without going mad.
He set meals out on the dining tablealways sandwiches, always deliciousand stayed away, except for the occasional meeting in the hall where he'd either wink or ignore me completelyboth of which were infuriating.
How I struggled to get it right; how I yearned for his approval. Our real fathers are not always the ones who give us the final, necessary approval. If we're lucky, we're able to recognize and work toward the right one. If not, confusion and dissatisfaction sit like dust on the rooms of our lives.
I was lucky, but that didn't make it easier. The calmer and more normal Venasque acted, the more paranoid I got. What did he know that he wasn't telling me? What was so wrong with my drawings that he put them down to be pissed on?
Nothing. Nothing was wrong with them.
I could spend a lot of time describing how I came to that correct conclusion, but there's so much more of this story to tell that it's time to move on, even if it's in the middle of a long and rich Venasque story. He would forgive me the abridgement. In another context, he once said, "The future is hungry, Harry. It's waiting with its big tongue out and a knife and fork like the giant in 'Jack and the Beanstalk.' Fe Fi Fo Fum! I smell the life of Harry Radcliffe! Then spoink! He spears and eats you."
"What am I supposed to do about that? Talk him out of it?"
"No. Learn to be eaten. Then learn to see in the dark as you go down his big throat. Some parts in there are boring and you can skip 'em, but most are interesting."
So I'll cut to halfway down the giant's throat and tell about how I stood up from the desk, took the first drawing I'd done (seven thousand dollars ago), and walked into the living room where the old man and his animals were watching "Miami Vice." I went up next to the couch and shoved the picture at him.
"This is it, Venasque. You were wrong before. This is the one."
Without looking, he put out a hand and casually took the paper from me. He glanced at it and handed it back.
"Good. Tell me what materials you need and I'll order them."
"Wait a minute! Did you look at this? It's the first drawing I did. The one you said was shit."
"Right. Now it's good. I like it."
"Why now and not then?"
He looked at me for the first time. "Because when you first showed it to me, you wanted my approval. This time you thought itthrough and know for sure it's the right one. You have your own approval and that's enough. I accept it now. I like it. Let me see the end of this show and then we'll talk."
"And what about my seven thousand bucks?"
"I bought a new Mitsubishi entertainment center with it. Big wide-screen TV, beautiful wood cabinets ... top of the line. You should see it."
SO WE BUILT HIS kitchen and I returned to sanity.
In the months that followed, Venasque died of a stroke, Bronze Sydney and I divorced, then I got involved almost simultaneously with Claire Stansfield and Fanny Neville.
Claire was tall and fragile-looking. A living breeze. Air with brown hair. Like a figure in a Pre-Raphaelite painting, she often appeared on the verge of either levitating or drowning in the complexities of life.
Fanny was pure Antaeusbound to the earthshort and intense, a chain-smoking, eat-with-her-fingers realist who'd fooled (or frightened) a lot of people into thinking she was very tough.
But I don't really want to talk about either woman now because although they are a large part of my story, it's not this part. So excuse me, girls, if I only make introductions here, then open a trapdoor and disappear you both until the next act.
Suffice it to say I met them and was intrigued enough to end up commuting back and forth from one to the other like a crosstown bus.
The most profound effect this semi-demi-madness (and the subsequent events) had on me was a yawning indifference to my job. Our firm was in the midst of several important projects when I went on my self-imposed vacation to deep left field. And although my recovery was quick, on returning to the office I looked at these projects as if they were advertisements for lawn furniture with a seahorse motif.
I just wanted to hang around. Shrug. Drink beer, watch lots of daytime television, watch my divorce happen ... . Shrug.
Before, I had been driven both by a hundred-megaton ego and a will to succeed that knew no limit. Now ... shrug.
Look at it this way: Have you ever noticed how difficult it is for fat people to put on their coats? One first assumes that's because the person is so damned big they simply can't find or maneuver themselves into the armholes.
But seen from another angle, maybe it's because the coat can't handle their demands. Until I needed Venasque, life had been a too-small coat I was always stretching to fit myself into.
After he'd helped me, I realized one day how easy it had become for me to put on this same "coat." That in itself was okay, but as I grew increasingly more apathetic, the thing grew (or I shrunk) until it was almost too big and heavy for me to even carry, much less put on and wear. Does that mean I was suicidal? No, because potential suicides strike me as being full of desperation, and that emotion took far too much effort.
When Venasque died, I inherited Big Top the bull terrier and the two of us lived alone for a while in the Santa Barbara house. But that was too beautiful and lonely, so I moved us down to L.A., where I met a few times a week with Bronze Sydney, who was holding the fort of our business until I either returned or drifted away, never to be heard from again. The rest of the time I spent with Fanny or Claire, walked the dog, saw few people, and one day came across a little poem by Emily Dickinson which stuck in my mind.
My life had stooda loaded gun In cornerstill a day The owner passedidentified and carried me away.
The Sultan was wearing skis.
I always wanted to begin my memoirs with some unbearably pompous line like "My mother told me the night I was born, there was an eclipse (tornado, red scarf of cloud across the moon ...) which meant fate was up to no good." Or "There was a time in my life when I only loved beautiful women with bad teeth." Memoirs written in a gloomy Swiss hotel by an old fart who's the only one in town amused or interested by his memories.
Now, whether this constitutes a memoir or not, I must begin with "The Sultan was wearing skis" because that's really where I began, notwithstanding a four-decade history, a family, a shaman, various experiences and fame that had already marked me.
The Sultan of Saru was standing in front of a full-length mirror wearing a kaffiyeh on his head, a yellow, purple and black ski suit like you see on the slopes of St. Moritz, and fire engine red boots and skis on his feet. We're talking about a hotel room in Los Angeles in the middle of eighty-degree weather, mind you. Out of the corner of my eye I saw sweet little Fanny Neville sitting on one of the many couches in the room.
I crossed to her and sitting down, purposely bumped her with my ass to let her know who was boss.
"I didn't know you were a skier, sir."
"I am a very good skier, Harry, There are very wonderful mountains in Saru." He turned to some of the other men in the room who were sitting around with nervous smiles. Professional smilers. "The only problem with our mountains is they are inhabited by our enemy these days."
The smilers didn't know how to react to thattheir uncertain lips flapped up and down like wash on a line in the wind until the Boss opened his mouth and laughed loudly. He was quite a sight, guffawing in that ski get-up. I looked around the room like I'd landed on another planet. Fanny pinched my leg.
"Ah, Harry, I'm a funny man. A funny, funny man. We have our enemies, of course. Led by a madman named Cthulu who's sure he should rule. But he is a speck of dust on my pants. What is unfortunate, however, is that our people can no longer ski in their own mountains because this Cthulu and his men have interrupted our ski trade for the time being. A terrible shame. However, after this trouble is cleared up, I envision Saru one day as the Kitzbiihl of the Mideast.
"In the meantime, we spend part of each winter in the beautiful mountain town of Zell am See, Austria. Superb skiing and a very lovely lake. Do you know it? About an hour from Salzburg? You must come and visit when we're there. Last year we bought some land."
Knowing the Sultan's vocabulary, I envisioned "some land" as being two or three thousand acres, if not an entire mountain.
"I'm not a skier, Your Highness."
"What do you do for exercise, Harry?"
"Stumble and fall into a coma."
Fanny creased with laughter, but the Sultan and his smilers didn't move a lip for about ten seconds. Then out of courtesy, he smiled a millimeter. Thus cued, the boys gave me a millimeter too.
Good old Fanny laughed so hard she started coughing. I decided not to tell her the line was Oscar Levant's and not my own. With wit, I'm always happy to take credit where it's not due.
"Harry, what can we do to convince you to design this museum? You are my only choice for architect."
"Sir, since you originally asked, I've been doing a little research. According to Muslim law, aren't dogs 'haram'?"
The temperature in the room dropped several hundred degrees.
"Yes, Harry. That's true."
Fanny knelt over and pretending to cough some more, whispered, "What's haram?"
"According to the Prophet, there is something in their spittle and breath that is detrimental to man's spirit."
"Then how can you even consider building a dog museum in your country?"
"I believe it is my responsibility." He smiled. "Because my life has been saved by dogs on three separate occasions. One time perhaps is coincidental, but when you are shielded from death three times by something as small and unimportant as a dog, Harry, then there must be very large forces working. Do you understand?"
"Can you tell us about the three times?"
"No, because I must give it to the people of Saru first. My story will be told in one part of the museum. Afterwards the world can know, if it is interested. That is a major reason why I want this place built."
"But won't you get in trouble with the fundamentalists over there?"
"Yes. That is a difficulty."
Ski outfit notwithstanding, the Sultan of Saru was one of the most dignified people I had ever encountered. He said this last small sentence with so much cool and grace that it sent a shiver of admiration through my heart.
To rule today in the Mideast is tantamount to a lifelong sentence. Cynicism toward politicians aside, it astounds me how these people withstand years of bullet-proof cars, bodyguards, no moment when you can swim in the open sea or eat pizza without someone nearby holding a gun or carefully watching your every move.
"I'm not a political man, Your Highness. Plus, the idea of designing a building that could be the death of us all isn't great incentive."
Fanny piped in, "Oh come on, Harry. You built the Jarrold Theatre in Belfast. Said every night you heard something blow up there. What's the difference?"
"The difference, dollink, is that too many people don't like dogs in Saru. Remember haram. They do like theater in Northern Ireland. The chances of survival there were greater."
"What did you call me?"
Then the earthquake hit.
Around an 8.3 on the Richter scale, I first noticed it when Fanny's head started bobbing up and down like one of those dolls on springs on the back deck of a car. It took a moment to realize she wasn't fooling around.
I looked from her to the Sultan, but the room was moving in big bobs and waves and everyone was in funny motion. Later I learned Saru is famous for earthquakes, so these men knew what was happening much sooner than Fanny and I. The Sultan bent over and pulled his feet from the boots. Then he fell down when the hotel literally leaned to one side.
Fanny and I were knocked off the couch. I'd just enough time to grab her before we started rolling again. The sound of screeching, twisting metal and exploding glass was the world.
I barely heard the others shouting in Arabic. Someone grabbed the back of my shirt. The Sultan.
"Out to the hall, Harry! Get away from the windows!" He dragged me backward by the shirt. I held Fanny in a headlock. I saw he was barefoot. The barefoot Sultan in a ski suit in a California earthquake. I started laughing. He wasn't laughing. The door was open and we staggered out.
In the hall one of his men lay crushed under a gigantic fallen support beam. He must have died seconds before because his teeth were still chattering. That small fatal clicking sound was alone for a moment, then the roar of the outside world fell on us again.
How long does a big earthquake last? Thirty seconds? But it ain't over when you think it's over. Like a cow, the skin of the earth may stop twitching a moment against us flies, but not for long.
On the floor in the hall, all our arms entwined in a pathetic attempt at protection, we looked up as one when things stopped. Looking suspiciously at each other with hope and dread, as if one of us were about to start the whole thing again, our heads raised more and more as the cease-fire held.
"I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto."
"Are you all right, Fan?"
"I think you broke my neck, but besides that, I'm just ducky." She started to get up but the Sultan grabbed her arm and jerked her back down.
"Don't move! This is not over."
It wasn't. The aftershocks came fast and just as viciously. We rode that floor like Ahab clinging to the side of Moby Dick.
"When does it fucking stop?" Fanny moaned as things shook and rolled on from bad to worse.
"Go to the doorway! We must be in a doorway. The floor's too dangerous!"
His voice sounded sure and scared; perfect in that instant to convince me to move. Also he was rightdoorways do offer the most protection in a quake because that's where the supports of a building are centered.
Scuttering over on our knees, I saw the bottoms of the royal bare feet were sliced and bleeding. Turning around as another aftershock rose and rolled, I went to the dead servant and jerked off his shoes.
"Take these!" I stuck out my left hand, loafers dangling.
At the other end of the hall a window crashed and something blew in. I saw a dark blur at tremendous speed coming my way. Dropping the shoes, I knew, knew, it would hit me.
Before I could move, the Sultan shouted something like "Kou-carry!" or "Kou-karies!" and a black telephone insulator fell dead out of the air at my feet.
The earth screamed, but the Sultan of Saru and I looked across a million miles and a million years of silence:
You just did magic.
That's rightand saved your ass.
That was all that passed between us then in lieu of the fact our world was still doing the cha cha cha. Did Fanny see his miracle? No. Did anyone else see him save me? No, because his other smilers were running around, trying to find us a way out of there before the Westwood Muse Hotel decided to give up the ghost and collapse.
A smiler I later knew as Djebeli came staggering toward us, waving. He said something loud in Arabic. The Sultan got to his feet and pulled Fanny with him. "There is a staircase that's still all right!"
By the time we reached the stairwell, the tremors had stopped again.
"Hurry. It still might not be over."
In retrospect, running down a hotel staircase in the middle of an earthquake isn't the world's dandiest idea, but you're doing something then and that's worth everything. Moving, not lying on the floor scared shitless and hoping to God it'll stop.
The stairwell looked okaya few broken concrete stairs, a steel banister bowed and gracefully bent like a silver swan's neckbut all essentially navigable. We took the plunge without a second's pause.
Fanny Neville has a magnificent head. Now that's love, huh? Racing down the cracked steps of hell into guaranteed more hell at ground level, I marveled even then at her terrific head in front of me. It's a big one for someone so small, but you don't really notice that at first. First you see the seal black hair combed and sprayed tight to the head, natural plum lips, the big little-girl eyes
"Stop! Don't move!"
Fanny, Djebeli, and I all froze on command. I was still thinking about her head, so it took a moment to realize we'd halted.
"Come on, let's go!"
Leading our pack, the Sultan turned and looked at me. "Something bad's in here, Harry. Earthquakes come from the anger of the dead. They bring dangerous things out of the earth with them. I can feel" He put up a hand as if to silence himself.
But not me. "Screw the dead! Let's go while we can." I moved down the steps and reached for Fanny.
A floor below the door opened and a couple came slowly out onto the landing. The man looked up at us.
"Can we use these stairs?"
Pulling Fanny along, I started down. "I don't know, man, but I ain't stopping to think about it!"
"Harry, please don't move. There are jinn!"
In my state I thought he was talking about the people on the stairsthe fact they were both wearing jeans. "It's okay, sir, they're very popular. Let's just get the fuck out of here!"
The man was still holding the door open and a dog came out. A dog I knew well, having fed him that morning before leaving my apartment: Big Top.
He looked at me with his normal expressionless stare, then gestured with his head to follow him. The kind of casual, flick-of-the-chin-toward-one-shoulder, Humphrey Bogart head toss, real cool.
"Can you get us out of here, Big?"
He looked at me stonily, turned around and went back through the door. I started after him.
Fanny squeezed my hand. "What're you doing, Harry? You're not going back in?"
"It is a verz! Follow it, Harry, it's a verz."
The man on the landing and his girlfriend started down the stairs. "I'm not following no dog. C'mon, Gail."
I was already moving, but had to ask over my shoulder. "What's a verz?"
The Sultan and Djebeli were close behind. "A guardian. A guide."
"How can you tell?"
"It speaks with its eyes. Hurry!"
Whether Big Top was a verz or not, I knew he was full of magic. I'd seen it before. That's why I asked for his help. He was the shaman's dog. I'll tell you about it later.
As the door swung shut, there was a thunderous boom from somewhere immediately above. Big Top trotted blithely down the hall followed by four not-blithe people.
Everything was chaosa sofa lay split almost in half out in the corridor, a chandelier scattered in hundreds of diamonds and glittery slivers over the brown couch and floor. The Sultan yelped. I remembered his bare feet.
Big Top took a left. Incredibly, rock music started playing nearby. A song called "Sundays in the Sky" that was too familiara hit I'd heard so often that I wanted to wring its neck. But here in the middle of disaster, it sounded wonderful and reassuringan angel's voice singing, hold on, you will get through this.
Then there was another bodya child's. Black and green and pink sweatshirt. United Colors of Benetton. Water sprayed down one of the halls, steam shot furiously from behind a door on another. Big Top went fast, then slow, never looking one way or the other. No uncertainty. There was also no time to think if we should be doing this: We needed a verz to get us out of there and onto the street.
Like being slapped very hard and in shocked, frozen silence taking moments to realize what's happened, the world outside finally began to howl its disbelief and pain. First the sound of what must have been an air-raid siren calling its all clear. Then the smaller,insect-shrill cries of moving sirens: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars. Even six stories up in the hotel, their wavering wails came from every direction.
On the fourth floor Big Top led us into a room with its door ajar. Inside, everything was in perfect order except the doors to the balcony, which were both open. Curtains flapped wildly in and out of the room.
The dog went to these doors and stood by them, tail wagging. Why there? Why had he stopped?
The Sultan went over and hesitantly walked out onto the balcony.
"There is a tree here! We can climb down on it. It is very big!"
"Why? Why not use the stairs?"
Djebeli pointed at Big Top. "The verz. He knows something we don't. Come."
Outside, the branches of our lifesaver tree waved cheerfully. A moment later they were gone with a crash. The Sultan jumped back, shouting in Arabic. The dog started barking.
"Fuck itI think we just lost our way out of here." Fanny turned and started for the door.
Big Top, who was normally sweet on Fanny Neville, ran from the balcony and, blocking the door, started snarling and snapping at her. He looked vicious, prehistoric.
"Big, get out of here!"
The whack-whack of a rotor came up louder and louder, drowning out even the dog. What more could happen?
Djebeli ran to the balcony, saw whatever it was, and yelled, "It's Khaled! We're saved!"
You forget titles and who you're suffering with in the middle of an earthquake. Luckily in our case it was a Sultanand Sultans have money and power and loving subjects. They also have devoted minions who go looking for them in helicopters when they're in trouble.
Khaled swooped down the side of the Westwood Muse Hotel in a gold-and-black chopper that looked like a high-tech bug from heaven. I later learned the Sultan himself was a professional helicopter pilot and always had one on call wherever he went. The first thing I saw of this one was the garish seal of Saru on its weaving tail.
The cockpit dipped into view and a pilot with sunglasses and a million-dollar smile waved gayly at us.
"How come he's so happy?"
The Sultan waved back. "He is always happy when there's trouble. Stand backhe is going to shoot."
I looked out the door and the guy was aiming some kind of bizarre-looking rifle at us. Over the "wopping" of the blades there was a bang and something shot through the balcony doors: a beautiful thick rope. His Majesty, the Sultan of Saru, grabbed it and insisted Fanny and I go out first. I didn't argue.
When I was fifteen and about as full of shit as one could be, my father shipped me off to an Outward Bound survival school for a few weeks one summer to humble me a little. We climbed mountains, fought forest fires, once even rescued a woman who'd fallen into a glacial crevasse. It was a tough, interesting experience that gave me some important perspective. But what's remained most has been the banal realization you can never really say you know another until you've seen them under fire. One fat guy there was everyone's friend in base camp, but poisoned down into a cowardly, selfish, dangerous SOB when we were hanging off the side of an obsidian cliff or walking through a forest of burning treetops.
The converse of that is how remarkably the Sultan behaved the day of the earthquake. On the ground again, he sent Khaled off in the helicopter to help wherever he could. And after finding a pair of shoes, the ruler of one and a half million people joined diggers outside the hotel trying to save those trapped beneath rubble. We did this too, of course, but he not only jumped right in, he jumped-right-in: Whena hole of any size was opened, he was the first to go in burrowing for life below. Time and again I'd hear a shout and, looking up, see only the bright pants of his ski suit leaping into a pile of smoking rock as if it were something soft.
Hours later, when we had a chance to sit down and eat some Red Cross sandwiches, I noticed that his borrowed shoesa pair of white canvas sneakerswere blood red almost to their tops. I nudged Fanny and pointed at them. She nodded and said in a quiet, loving murmur, "He's been working the whole time with those cut-up feet. The man is my hero." Which summed it up perfectly.
He saw us looking at those poor feet and, grinning sheepishly, held one up for our inspection. "Next time I will wear some shoes to the earthquake, huh?"
"We were just saying how impressed we are by what you did today."
He shrugged and slowly unwrapped a piece of chewing gum I offered him.
"The only thing we can do is try to give life back some of the justice it loses sometimes. Is trying to save people's lives right? I don't know. All I can say is our intentions are good. I read about a man who said, 'God's memory is failing and that's why there are so many tragedies and terrible things like this today happening in life: God doesn't remember the justice or goodness He gave the world in the beginning. So it's Man's job to try and put it back.'" He put the gum in his mouth, but took it out again and pointed it at us. "I do not agree with this. It's a fool's line. But I liked the idea about putting justice back into life. It's like our lives are dolls that have gotten rips in them and have lost some of their ..." He snapped his fingers, looking for the right word. " ... their ..."
"Yes, 'stuffing.' God gave us these dolls in the beginning, but if they begin to lose their stuffing, we must find the right materials tofill them again. Is this Juicy Fruit? Aah! I like Juicy Fruit gumit's so sweet."
"But we didn't make earthquakes! Auschwitz, okay, but what did man have to do with what happened today?"
"Now you're talking with a monkey's tongue, Fanny. Man is responsible for everything. Why do you think we control the planet? Why do all the other animals worship us? Everything in life is our workAuschwitz, earthquakes. Good things too! We just do not want to recognize and accept the fact it is all our doing.
"Listen, I will tell you a funny story. A woman I know went into a restaurant here where you get the food yourself. She got her meal and put it down on the table but forgot to buy a drink, so she took some coins and left her tray to get one. When she returned, a very fat black man was sitting at her table eating her meal! Sitting there with a smile on his face, eating her food!
"Now she sits down very angry, pulls her tray back across the table and starts eating her food. But this crazy man will not stop. Still smiling, he reaches over and takes her soup. Then he takes the salad! She is driven so crazy by this, she must suddenly go to the bathroom badly.
"When she comes back from the bathroom, thank God the man is gone, but so is her tray of food and handbag too! Now he's stolen her money! She runs to the cashier and says, 'Did you see the big black man go? He ate my lunch and stole my bag!' The cashier says, 'We'll call the police. Where were you sitting?' 'Right over there!' the woman responds. She turns around and points to her table. Only what she sees makes her scream: One table in front of where she was sitting with this bad black man is a tray full of food and her handbag on the seat."
Hooting with laughter, Fanny turned to me and said, "Thewoman sat at the wrong table! She ate the black guy's lunch, not vice versa."
"And he let her! He was very friendly and smiled the whole time she was stealing his food.
"This woman acts like Mankind, Fanny: He always wants to blame himself on others. That's why there is a devil. We created him because he is convenient. And then sometimes when we really have no one else, we put the fault on God. But God is like this black manHe smiles at us when we eat His lunch, but doesn't stop us from doing it."
HOW CLAIRE STANSFIELD COULD eat! Hard to believe looking at her in the hospital, barely able to take a straw in her swollen, ripped mouth.
Since this is my story, I get to digress one last time and bring in this last major cast member. It won't take longI'll just tell about the first time we met, six months before the earthquake.
She was the friend of a friend who gave me her number and said we'd like each other. Over the phone she sounded strong and calm. She had a high reedy voice; sometimes she lisped a word. It was Sunday afternoon. When I asked what she was doing, she said, "Only watching the rain on the window." Rainy days made her feel like a little girl again.
"How come? Listen, Claire, what are you doing? I mean right now? Would you like to go out?"
Of course! Not "Wellll, I don't know" or "Let me check my Filofax" or some other coy syrup you'd have to stir and stir until it dissolved into "all right." Of course. Superb.
We met at Café Bunny because rain was still blitzing down and the place was halfway between our apartments. We'd recognize eachother because I'd been told she had a great head and looked like a Burne-Jones painting. As you can tell, I love women's heads. Fanny has a great one, even in an earthquake. Claire too. But she said if I missed her head, she was wearing a sweatshirt that said "Big Stuff" on itthe name of her design store. Before hanging up, she also said she was nervous about meeting Harry Radcliffe. I said I was nervous about meeting a great head.
"Hi, Harry? Will you think I'm awful if I order lunch right away? I haven't eaten all day." Hers was a great head but rather than being beautiful, what I liked most was she had a true face: square chin, long straight mouth, green eyes as direct and no-nonsense as a bridge.
We started off talking about our mutual friend, Claire's store, my buildings. She ordered Wiener schnitzel and a stein of beer. She cut giant golden pieces that looked like breaded continents. Despite chewing each one slowly, the whole thing was gone before I'd finished my coffee and cheesecake.
"I'm still hungry. What else should I eat?"
"Stay with the friedsfried mushrooms?"
She ordered a plate of mushrooms, a large radicchio salad, another beer, a slice of chocolate cake heavy enough to sink a ship.
I wasn't feeling particularly sexy in those days right after my divorce, but watching Claire Stansfield eat, the question wandered my mind, if she was this voracious about food, what was she like in bed?
"What are you thinking about?" Her voice crept slowly out through the hive of bandages.
Holding her hand, I squeezed it gently. "About the first time we methow much food you ate. I wondered if you'd be as good in bed as you were at the table."
"But I wouldn't let you touch me for a long time."
The room held the silence only a hospital room knows; the silencein waiting for things to return to normal, the silence of the body's betrayal versus secret hope.
"I was afraid you'd grow tired of me and my fears and leave." She shifted slightly under the covers, groaning once when turning her head toward me. "But you only sort-of left, didn't you, Harry? With Fanny."
"Let's not talk about it now."
"All right. Tell me more about the first day we met. I want to hear your side of it. Keep holding my hand too, please."
"You were wearing those big clunky shoes and that black coat you bought in Budapest. You know how much I love women in clunky shoes."
Her hand was cool and dry in mine. Normally they were warm, often the slightest bit sweaty. She had only one hand now. What was left of the other lay hidden in a swirl of bandages and pain across the bed. When the earthquake came, Claire was riding her motorcycle down Sunset Boulevard and was thrown off, straight into the back of a truck. At the last moment she put up a hand to protect her face. It worked. But the hand caught on something.
"Harry, what do you think are the sexual fantasies of the blind?"
"Smells. Different kinds of touch. Didn't you ever make love blindfolded?"
"No. Is it exciting?"
"Funny. Strange. We'll do it some time." I wondered when we would make love again. How she would feel about doing it without the hand? Without the hand.
"Why'd you ask?"
"I was looking at your nose and thinking how big and nice it is. I wondered what it'd be like to know only through touch or if you could know something as completely with only touch or sight or smell. Now my right hand'll have to do all the touching for me.
"What are you going to do now, Harry? What's been going on? You never tell me anything, especially since I've been in here. Sometimes you're as slippery as a pack of new playing cards."
"I'm going to wait till you get out of here, for one thing."
"That'll be a while. And don't use me as an excuse not to be doing something."
I smiled like a fool caught. Talking to Claire was often like sliding my cold feet into a warm place. She was trusting but perceptive. I had been using her misfortune, in part, as a further excuse not to make a decision I'd been avoiding: The Sultan had asked me to come to Saru and at least look at the site where he wanted to build his dog museumno strings attached. He'd pay a handsome fee but far more important, after our earthquake together, it was nigh impossible to say no.
So I told Claire the whole story for the first time. I'd not done it before because she'd had enough to suffer through and I couldn't imagine that hearing my tale of glorious escape was good for her in those first days without her left hand. As usual when I'd finished spouting, what she said surprised me.
"I was in Saru once."
"What? Why didn't you ever tell me?"
"I was saving it as a surprise. I stopped off there on my way to visit my sister, Slammy, in Jordan a couple of years ago."
"What's it like?"
"The cities are very modern. A lot of Palestinians fled there after the 1967 war with Israel and built them up. I stayed in Bazz'af, the capital. The rest of the country is desert."
"Buzz Off? The capital of Saru is really named 'Buzz Off'?"
She chuckled. "No, it's pronounced bats-hof. Sort of rhymes with hats off.
"You know what I liked most about it? There are these desert castles in Saru that date back to the Crusades and before. You take a bus a couple of hours out of Bazz'af and in the middle of nowhere arethese ruins that aren't so ruined because the dry desert air has preserved them so well."
"Are you all right, Claire? You don't have to talk if it makes you tired."
"I've been quiet for days and I like talking about that trip. Let me tell some more. There's a major road that runs literally across all of Europe through Turkey and into the Middle East. Trucks start in Sweden or Northern Germany and drive right across the whole continent in just a few days. On Monday they're in Rotterdam and by the end of the week they're on the Saudi border! Isn't that romantic? It's like the old pony express.
"Anyway, one of these castles was right off that road, just before the Jordanian border. We were there on New Year's Eve and decided to stay because part of the place had been converted into a rest house. Nothing ritzy, but some rooms to sleep in and a restaurant. Ours looked out onto the road about half a mile away across the flat desert. We watched the sun go down and those trailer trucks, barreling on toward the border in big flying puffs of smoke and sand. Where were they going? Jordan? Saudi Arabia? Iraq? Every one of those countries was nearby. Someone at the castle told us that when the Iran-Iraq war was on, a truck a minute passed down the road carrying supplies to Iraq. One a minute, Harry!
"About seven o'clock that night, we began to smell these delicious waves of lamb grilling out behind the restaurant. Both my sister and I had our boyfriends with us out there in the Saruvian desert ... . We felt so adventurous and sexy. The rest house was comfortable, we'd seen some real wonders that day ... . God, we were happy.
"Things smelled so good, we went right down to eat. There was no one else in the restaurant but us, but the interesting thing was this one big table over in the corner of the room. It was set for about twenty people, but set so that all the chairs and settings were on the same sideof the tableno one would face anyone else. Odd, huh? But even odder was that at every place there was an unopened quart bottle of Johnnie Walker scotch. A whole bottle!"
"But Saru's Muslim. Where'd the booze come from?"
She gave my hand a small squeeze. "I'll tell you. Could I have another drink of water, please?"
I took the plastic bottle with the integrated straw off the bedside table and held it to her mouth. Her swollen, cut lips sucked hard. Pimps punish whores by slicing their lips with a knife because lips don't heal in a smooth line; mouths are ruined by the cut. Claire's mouth was ruined. She pulled her head back to signal she'd had enough water.
"The guy who ran the restaurant came over to our table to see if everything was okay. I asked about the bottles and he looked at his watch. 'The drivers will be here soon. Tonight they celebrate. The whiskey is theirs.'
"That's all he'd say, but fifteen minutes later, we heard the first truck coming. What a sound! Slammy went to the window and called us over. They were rendezvousing for their New Year's party out there in the middle of the desert!
"The four of us stood at the window letting our dinner get cold watching them pull into the big lot in front of the place. There were real Nordic blondes, redheads, Arabs wearing kaffiyehs and thick black moustaches. But you know what they all had in common, Harry? They were the fiercest-looking bunch of men I have ever seen in my life. No matter what they were wearing or what color they were, they all looked like gladiators."
"Wait a minute." I started up from my seat, undoing my hand from Claire's before she could say anything. I had to get out of the room as fast as I could. I was afraid I'd throw up. I was scared shitless.
"Harry, what's the matter?"
Her question raced me to the door.
Outside, a startled nurse glared accusingly as I ran for the drinking fountain down the hall. The water was so cold it stung my lips. I slurped it down as fast as I could. Then I put my hand in and smeared it across my face, neck, the back of my neck.
I was there. I climbed out of one of those trucks. I saw this woman looking at me out of a window and wondered if I'd get to fuck her that night. Why not? New Year's Eve everybody got loose.
We'd been on the road forty hours. There'd been trouble and delays the whole trip. We were running a half day late. I remembered everything: the acid stale smell of the cigarette the Bulgarian border guard was smoking as he looked over our papers; the ratcheting of bugs by the side of the road in Turkey when we stopped to piss; the warm sun on the back of my neck there after the cool in the truck.
I was this man. I remembered everything. His name was Heinrich Mis. I'd never seen him before in my life.
This ... immersion happened once before with Venasque when the shaman was still alive. We were sitting in a diner in Silver Lake having breakfast when a man came in and sat down a few stools from us at the counter. Just a guy in overalls. Venasque and I were talking about something. When I looked up and saw the man, I ... went away. Went away into his life and in an instant, knew everything that he was. Completely. His name was Randy. He was a union metal worker. He was a son of a bitch.
"Come. Come on. Come back!" Venasque, a hand on my arm, was calling me like he would a naughty puppy on the other side of the room. I looked at him flat stoned. He got me up and out of there and into the parking lot. Leaning on a white car. All the energy I had in the world was gone. When I came around, I looked at the old man. He was smiling.
"What the fuck was that?"
"Sometimes you meet up with your future, Harry. Usually it's a person, but sometimes it's a place or a thing. What you gotta do now is figure out where that guy fits into yours. It could be very important."
"But I was him, Venasque! I was him!"
"You are your future, Harry. It's in you every minute you're alive. You just saw part of it for the first time. Now figure out where that guy belongs in it."
But I didn't get a chance to do that because three days later Randy was dead: the first man ever killed on a Harry Radcliffe project. Fell off the top floor of the almost-completed Gröbchen Building in Pasadena.
Poor sweet Claire was very concerned when I returned to her room a few minutes later, looking ill. I said it must have been something I ate for lunch but she wasn't fooled.
"Don't lie, Harry. Is it because of how I look?"
"No, honey, I saw a lot worse in Vietnam. No, it was ... How much energy do you have? Tell the truth."
Her smile, what there was of it, calmed me. "It doesn't take energy to listen. Are you finally going to reveal one of the Radcliffe secrets?"
"Sort of. Remember what you were talking about before, that rest house in Saru? I have to tell you this. It's disturbing, but I must tell you."
Her good hand lay palm down at her side. She turned it over and wiggled the fingers. "Hold my hand and tell me. But I want to say something first: I talk to you all the time when you're not here. We have long conversations. I know you better than you think, Harry. We can have a happy ending if you want. I just don't know if you want happy endings. Artists are kidsthey only want to eat junk food. Candy bars of muddle and unhappiness. They give you a charge, but only for a few minutes.
"I don't know if you love your silly confused life now or what.I haven't been able to figure that part out yet." She winked. "But I willin our next conversation when you aren't here. Now, what were you going to say?"
"Do you love me?" I asked, trying to sound naughty and cute. But our eyes locked and her answer came out serious as religion.
"More than you know. More than you deserve."
"I don't know what I'm doing these days. You're right, but I can't imagine you and I undone."
"Well, then what about you and Fanny?"
"When I was a kid, my mother and I were walking down the street one day and saw two dogs screwing. They were really going at it. I knew what was up, but naturally asked Mom what they were doing, just to hear her answer. She said, 'The dog underneath is hurt. The one on top is pushing it to the hospital.'"
"What does that have to do with my question?"
"'Cause I don't know whether you're asking or telling me: You want the truth, or an answer to that?"
Claire was silent. "I don't know. I keep wondering whether I love you for what you are, or what I think you could be with a little tinkering on my part. Maybe you're simply not a monogamous person anymore. I am. What do I do then? I don't want to hear that. Maybe you'll want Fanny and me both for the rest of your life. Would she put up with that?"
"I think so, yes."
"Not me. Let's change the subject. My heart's beginning to get a stomachache. Tell me what you were going to before. No wait a minute, there's one last thing. I just remembered it. 'The evil of another person can be averted: There is no escape from one's own.' Go on."
"What do you mean? How does that apply? Are you saying I'm evil?"
"No. Take out the word 'evil' and put in 'confusion.' But maybe there is some evil in there too." She closed her eyes.
CLAIRE'S REACTION TO MY story about being at the Saru rest house with her was disconcerting, to say the least: She smiled and patted her good hand on the bed as if applauding, because she'd experienced the same precognition or voodoo empathy or whateveryouwanttocallit throughout her life!
"Doesn't it scare you?"
"It used to. Now it helps me see better. Like those people who die and come back. The one thing they have in common is, afterwards, none of them is afraid to die anymore because they've experienced what's coming and it's wonderful. When I've traveled out and seen myself from different perspectives, it makes me less afraid. And makes me feel better about myself generally. Compared to most people, I'm better. More thoughtful, kinder ... things like that.
"I'm glad you were there, that you know what it was like. I remember that truck driver. He was so young. I could tell he was interested because he kept looking at me. But he'd never have done anythinghe was so shy and unsure of himself. He sat with the drivers and drank his scotch, then put his head down on the table and passed out! He was still there when we went up to bed."
BANANAS ARE THE ONLY democratic food: Everyone looks ridiculous eating them.
Bronze Sydney, Big Top, Dr. Bill Rosenberg from next door, and I were all standing around the ruin of my Santa Barbara house, eating bananas. I'd peeled Big Top's for him.
"Bill, is that cologne you're wearing or an insult?"
"You're just pissed off because your house looks like a miniature golf course."
"We've got insurance."
Sydney looked at me surprised. "You're not going to rebuild, are you?"
"Naah. You don't want to live here anymore and neither do I."
Bill ate the rest of his banana and threw the peel into what was once my garden. "But your apartment in L.A.'s screwed up too. Where are you going to live?" He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. "Are you two going to start living together again?"
As one, both Sydney and I said, "No!"
"Harry's going to the Mideast for a few weeks."
"I'll decide what to do when I get back. I may not take a place at all if I accept the job. It's a big project. They'll need me on-site for a while."
"What's the deal?"
I finished my banana and threw the peel after the other. "A dog museum in Saru."
Big Top wagged his tail slowly.
"A dog museum? You going to take the dog with you as technical advisor?" Bill snorted.
"Actually, he is going with me. They're going to make a statue of him for the front gates."
"Because he's a verz."
"That says a lot, Harry."
Sydney looked at me. "Are you really going to take him?"
"Absolutely. He's already had the necessary shots."
"Who wants a dog museum in Saru? Isn't that where they're having all that trouble with the Muslim fundamentalists? There was a thing on TV the other night. I'd steer clear of that Casbah, Harry. Unless you want a rhino-horn scimitar up your ass." Adventurous Bill took another banana from the bunch Sydney was holding and unpeeled it. We watched with interest.
It was going to be another beautiful day in Santa Barbara. The only thing marring it was the landscape immediately in front of us:the ex-Radcliffe homestead, which looked like ground zero after a slight nuclear attack.
Rosenberg called immediately after the earthquake to tell us there wasn't much left of our house. This was the first time we'd been able to come up and survey the damage. Yet it wasn't damage so much as total destruction and disappearance. In fact, I was shocked more by what wasn't there than what was. Okay, sure, the earth opened its big mouth and swallowed up this and that, crunched other things in its teeth down to nothing. I could accept those rationalizations, but almost nothing was left on the site of what had once been a large and detailed house. Not that Harry Radcliffe designs were all meant to survive the full volume of God's wrath, but this whole motherfucker was gone!
"It's like a flying saucer came, vacuumed it up, and took it back to Saturn."
"How do you feel, Harry?"
I looked at Sydney and squinted because the morning sun was directly over her shoulder. "Raped. It was a beautiful house. Fit perfectly on this hill and added nice human color to the landscape. I feel raped." I wanted to say something more but my voice lost all of its appetite to talk.
"Why do you think my house wasn't touched, Syd?"
"Luck of the draw, Bill."
I grabbed Sydney's arm and pulled her close, like a lifesaver on the vast sea that was suddenly roiling all around me. "They're the only real I know, Syd. The only ones I knew how to do well."
She nodded. Kept nodding.
"What do I do when they disappear like this?"
"You can build it again, Harry."
"But it's not the same! It's like cloning someone from one of their hairs. We can use the old plans, sure, build it exactly the same. Butit's not the same! This one's dead. It's gone. Put up a stone over it."
I started down the hill to the car. At the point where the ocean shows again after a thick stand of pine trees that perfume the dry California air with crisp northern smells, I turned and shouted back, "You know what the difference between tragedy and comedy is? Tragedy keeps reminding us how limited life is. Comedy says there are no limits."
PUT ON THE SEX Pistols."
I turned around and scowled back at her on the bed, naked, leering at me. She had on a black baseball cap with the word "Fritos" in yellow across the front. She tipped it at me.
"Fanny, my idea of good sex is not fucking to a Sex Pistols album."
"No, you'd fuck to Hotel California if I gave you the chance."
"Those are Bronze Sydney's albums."
"Which you've kept." She accused.
"Why do we have a fight about this every time we go to bed?"
"Because we like music when we do it but hate each other's taste."
"That's true." I took out a Simply Red album and put it on the turntable. When it came on, it hissed and sputtered terribly. "How come all my albums lisp?"
"Because you don't take care of them. I keep telling you to buy a CD machine."
I walked back to the bed, sat down on the end, and took her right foot in my hand. "CD machines and microwave ovens are too late twentieth century for me. I still need a record player where you load records on the spindle and they drop down on top of each other."
"How come you're such a jazzy architect but conservative about things like that?"
I started massaging her foot. "I'm not conservative. I simply believe soup should be heated on a flame and not shot full of radiation. Records should be black and full of scratches. You go to the recordstore and ask the guy for a diamond needle." I put down her foot and picked up the other. She rubbed the free one up my back.
"How come you've been such a pain in the ass lately?"
The massage stopped. I didn't turn around. "How have I been such a pain in the ass lately?"
"Look at me. You survived the earthquake, you're going to crazy Saru for one of the great projects of your career, women love you"
"Ah ha, is that what we're talking about, Fan? All these women who love me? Is that why I'm such a pain in the ass? I just had this same damn conversation with Claire."
"Well I'm not Claire! She's the tall one, remember?" She whipped off the hat and threw it at me. It hit my chin.
I reached down to the floor for my pants. "She wanted to know what's going on between you and me. She has that right."
"And do I have that right? What is going on between you and me?"
"You have a really original way of getting on my nerves, Fanny: accuse and cringe. Point a stiff finger and then whine. Sometimes you have the backbone of a stick of butter.
"Yes, you have the right to know what's going on between us. I've always told you. But now it sounds like you want a life commitment, and that you can't have."
"I didn't say that. I wouldn't want to live with you, Harry. Your car only has room for one person."
"I didn't ask you to live with me. Where's my fucking shirt? You know something? Life just dries up sometimes. Dries up and turns into a brown withered pod."
She grabbed my hair from behind but I wouldn't turn. Seeing that, she came around and squatted in front of me.
"You're so full of shit, Harry. Your life didn't 'dry up.' If anything, you grew up a little and saw that what you were doing was a bunch of baloney.
"You designed all those exquisite buildings, ignoring the fact,beyond some calculations for space, that real live human beings lived inside them! That's why you went nutsfor once you clicked out of the Ptolemaic universe of Harry Radcliffe and realized there were some brighter, more important suns than even you. Know what a couple of those suns are? Responsibility and love. That's right!
"I'll tell you what's making you so nervous these days: You've got the love of two damned good women but you don't know what to do with us. You can't just draw us as a couple of lines and make some estimates. Love is hard work! It breaks your bones. Stop getting dressed. I'm talking to you!"
"Keep talking, Fanny. I'm sure the walls would love to hear your next soliloquy. Come on, dog. Time for a walk."
THE SPIDER CLUB MEETS every Wednesday for dinner at Rachel's Restaurant in Santa Monica. Club membership varies between ten and twenty people depending on who's in town, who's feuding with whom, who's still alive. The only requirement is invitation by another club member who's willing to vouch for the fact you can tell a good story. Over the years there've been celebrities at the "conclaves," but stars don't like sharing a stage so they've had a hard time listening to the others. And generally, it is those others who tell the better stories.
My last night in America was also Claire's first out of the hospital. She insisted we go to the Spider Club meeting, which was a real surprise because she'd only been one other time. But when it was her turn, she'd told a long, very eerie story about the funeral of a close friend some years before.
We were late getting there because she moved slowly and I didn't want her going over any unnecessary bumps. When we walked into the restaurant, the whole club table stood up and gave her a loud round of applause. She sat down next to Wyatt Leonard, alias Finky Linky, infamous kid's TV show hero. I liked Wyatt, but thought his"Finky Linky Show" one of the most overrated programs I'd ever seen. Unlike everyone else, I didn't cry when it went off the air.
When he was in town, Finky was the unofficial president of the club because he'd originally thought it up. After everyone had disgustingly stuffed their faces full of Rachel's Chinese/Hebrew cuisine, he stood up and tapped his glass for silence.
"Fellow Spiders, there are three things tonight that give me immense pleasureseeing you all again and knowing you've survived the earthquake, eating Rachel's food, and hearing that Harry Radcliffe is leaving town for an indefinite period. Just joking, Harry.
"I'm also glad to see that Claire Stansfield is here and has asked to be the first up. Ready, Claire?"
"When I was a girl, I knew only two things for sure: Love was pinkish yellow, and Romaric Jupien was the handsomest boy in the world. I grew up in Winnipeg. Winters there are so cold that the water on the lake freezes in perfect waves. Policemen wear buffalo-skin coats, and the place looks like a town of bandits because so many people go around wearing full face masks to keep the cold off.
"We lived next door to a French family named Jupien who had three children: twin girls, Ninon and Prisca, and a boy, Romaric. He hated his name because he wanted to be as American as possible, so he expected you to call him Mark.
"When this happened, I was eight and he was thirteen. I was at that age where you're discovering love is not just your father's lap or Mom's pulling your jacket tighter before you go out. This love was eight years of innocence and energy and desire that's finally decided to step out of the family and go looking for new ground. It just happened a marvelous older boy lived next door who didn't have the slightest idea I existed, which made it all the more torturous and necessary.
"I watched him from behind curtains, standing in our driveway holding the hose for my father while he washed the car, and like asecret agent of the heart, sitting in Mark's own living room while he watched television and I pretended to play with his sisters. I was so much in love that every time he was out of my sight I forgot what he looked like.
"I was crazy for the Greek myths then and had read them many times. My secret name for Mark was Achilles because he was my Achilles' heel. I was a tomboy, but when it came to him, there was no fist in my glove: I would've gladly put on a dress and given a tea party if it would have pleased him. A thing I remember so well was writing 'Achilles' heel' on my school notebook twenty times in different scripts and colors. I came in from recess one day and found someone had added the letter W in front of every one of them so they all read 'Achilles' Wheel.' I honestly think I would've killed the person if I knew who'd done it. It was as if they'd put that W on Mark's face.
"The strangest thing about my obsession was it seemed every time I looked at him, I saw this pinkish yellow aura emanating from his whole body. He was very masculine and I'm sure if I'd told him he would've had my head, but I couldn't help itif there was Mark, there was the aura.
"My mother loved doing things with the family. She also liked the Jupiens, both because they were nice people and because they were French, which gave them an exotic twist. So we often had cookouts together or went swimming in the summer ... . All of which was fine by me as long as Mark came.
"It's so cold in Winnipeg in the dead of winter that it often doesn't snow much, but one January we had a real Manitoba blizzard that stopped the whole town in its tracks. There was nothing anyone could do but wait for it to end or have snowball fights. My mother decided we should go tobogganing and sent me over to the Jupiens to ask if they wanted to go. I walked across the front yards as slowly asI could, for what if I fell down and he happened to be looking out the window at that very moment? And if he wasn't at the window, what if he opened the door and saw me covered with snow? You have to walk carefully in the beginning of love. The running across fields into your lover's arms can only come later when you're sure they won't laugh if you trip.
"I didn't fall on the way over, which was just as well because Mark opened the door. And he was smiling! I thought, 'Oh God, Oh God, it's for me. He's smiling because it's me.' But as I was about to say something, I saw he had a comic book in his hand and obviously wanted to get back to it.
"'Hi, Claire. Waddya want?'
"His mother called from somewhere asking who it was and he said three words that almost cut me in half: 'It's only Claire, Ma.'
"Luckily Mrs. Jupien came bustling to the door and pulled me into the house. She said something in French to Mark that sounded like a scolding, which only made things worse. What saved my visit from total catastrophe was that he stayed there and didn't leave. He'd probably been cooped up inside the house all day and was glad in his own way to see someone new, even if it was 'only Claire.'
"In a blurt I said my mother wanted to know if they'd like to go tobogganing with us. The two girls came downstairs and instantly took to the idea. So did Mrs. Jupien, but Mark rolled his eyes as if tobogganing was the dumbest idea he'd heard. I wanted to protest and say it wasn't my idea, but by then his mother was ordering them all around, saying bundle up and where's the sled and Mark, go tell your father we're going. With a big fake yawn he turned and went off to find Mr. Jupien while I stood there feeling love and failure in equal amounts.
"Outside the snow was still coming down. Part of me wanted to crawl down into it and hibernate until I was older and beautiful andhe would have to love me. The other part was excitedlike it or not, he was going with us and I would get to be around him for the next few hours, no matter what happened.
"Running back to our house, I kept wondering what I could do to impress him once we got there. Should I show off and try something dangerous? Be adoring and impressed when he did anything? I wanted to be older. I knew when you were older you'd understand how to act around people you loved. The boys I knew who loved me at school did things like punch me in the arm or call me names because they didn't know anything else to do. But I was smart enough to know there was more to it than that. What was it though? How did you show a person you loved them without looking stupid? How did you do it so well that they started to love you back?
"Half an hour later our two families met out on the street and started walking to the sledding hill. It was only midafternoon but already getting dark and the snow somehow made things darker. It was nice but too much. You walked with your head down and your face tight.
"I walked with Prisca and Ninon, who bubbled on about things and people we knew. Mark walked with 'the men' in front and our mothers a few steps behind them. Everyone was loud and there was a lot of laughter. My father told Mr. Jupien a story about a storm he'd once experienced. I'd heard the story many times because it was a favorite of mine, but listening now, it sounded so long and boring and I was embarrassed.
"Normally the walk to the hill took about ten minutes, but the snow and their leisurely pace kept us at it for a half hour. When we got there, I couldn't stand it anymore and strode ahead for the hill with our toboggan. Why not? Everything else had gone wrong. Even more than Mark, all I wanted then was some speed around me and wind splitting across my face and that great safe fear in the heartthat's there when you're doing something like sledding or jumping off the high board into a swimming pool.
"The new snow was light and slippery under my feet and I slipped twice as I began to climb. But by then I almost didn't care because he never liked me and never would like me and to him I was 'only Claire' anyway, so what difference did it make if I looked dumb climbing a hill? I just wanted to get away from them and him and be by myself in the wind and snow and falling dark. Maybe if I was lucky something magical would happenI'd sled off into that dark and never be seen again. Everyone would be broken-hearted and they'd have to bury an empty coffin. Mark would stand by my grave and weep ... .
"'Claire, wait! Wait up!'
"I heard his voice, but couldn't believe he was calling me. So in the first mature move of my life, I kept walking and didn't turn around.
"'Claire! Willya wait up!'
"I heard him coming and stopped where I was, out of breath and my heart pounding like a gong.
"'Jeez, didn't you hear me calling? Come on, let's go down together.'
"How the hell I ever managed to climb the rest of the way to the top of that hill I don't know. I got up there a little after Mark but that was because I was still pulling the toboggan. He might've wanted to go down with me, but he hadn't offered to pull.
"There were a few other people on the hill. Down below we could see our families working their way slowly up and having a good laugh when one of them fell down.
"Mark and I stood there for a few moments watching them come. Then he turned to me and said, 'You know that girl Alayne in the seventh grade? Long blond hair?'
"I didn't know Alayne, but was smart enough to know he was telling me a kind-of secret: that he was interested in the girl and wanted to know more about her without showing his hand. I alsoknew his interest didn't help my cause any. But he'd not only recognized me for really the first time. He'd also taken me into his confidence in a way, and I was thrilled.
"I told him I could ask around if he wanted, but he said no, that was okay.
"Almost as if it had been cued, the snow suddenly stopped. Dingjust like that. Both of us looked around, as if it were somewhere else. But no, it really had stopped.
"Because there was nothing else to do, I put the toboggan down and asked if he was ready to go.
"'Sure. I'll get on behind you.'
"I sat down and then felt Mark Jupien's arms and legs around me. I died and went to heaven. What did I care about Alayne? She wasn't here now, I was, and that was enough. Mark gave a push and off we went.
"That hill, if you went a certain route, was very long and bumpy. We'd gone down it hundreds of times and knew it well, but once in a while if you weren't paying attention or were being silly, you'd hit something and fly off. There was even one of those apocryphal stories we'd all heard again and again each winter, about the boy who, years ago, fell off and cracked his skull open on a rock. Nobody paid much attention to that, but at the same time you were usually careful when you went down this hill.
"I can remember everything about the ride. I could probably tell you where every bump we went over was situated. About halfway through the ride, Mark started singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' very loudly, and even though I didn't know many of the words, I sang along with him.
"Voom! we soared. Past our families, past trees full of snow, dogs jumping around, kids trying to make a snowman ... I remember everything.
"We curved and twisted and then ... BANG!
"Whatever it was we hit must have been sizable because one minute we were singing and the next flying through the air.
"Until we hit.
"God, how we hit! I came down on my bottom and although I was full of padding down there, I must've landed smack on my spine because for a time I was utterly paralyzed with pain. So much pain I couldn't breathe.
"When I began to come around again, I kept hearing Mark ask, 'Are you okay? Claire, are you okay?'
"I wanted to nod and tell him I was, but it hurt too much to do anything but lie there and feel it stabbing through my whole body. I couldn't even open my eyes.
"Claire, are you okay? Claire? Huh?
"Finally, finally I got some of my breath back and felt I would live. I opened my eyes to tell him okay.
"But when I looked up, Mark Jupien was hovering over me, more beautiful than ever, absolutely surrounded by brilliant, shimmering, angelic light.
"At first I thought I'd gotten knocked out and was a little cuckoo. When his 'lights' didn't go away, I thought, It's his aura. Even here, he glows! Wrong again. Seen more clearly, there was no yellowish pink here, his normal colors. These were all blues and reds and silvers moving across the whole sky behind him like some great cosmic light show.
"Was I going crazy? Was Mark Jupien a saint? Or God? Was this how God came to men on earth? Was that why I'd always been able to see an aura around him? I was so in love and in so much pain ... .
"Only when some of both started to subside did I realize that what I was seeing behind him were the northern lights doing their frantic magical dance across the sky. Something we were rather used to, living so far north.
"But if you have never seen them, the only way I can describethem to you is to say, Imagine what I thought those lights were when I opened my eyes and saw them for the first time that day. When I woke from my shock of pain, and for a moment looked up into the face of the boy I adored. I lived a miracle of possibility then that has lifted and will reassure me for the rest of my life."
Copyright © 1992 by Jonathan Carroll