A Way of Life, Like Any Other
By Darcy O'Brien
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1977 Darcy O'Brien
All rights reserved.
I WOULD not change the beginning for anything. I had an electric car, a starched white nanny, a pony, a bed modeled after that of Napoleon's son, and I was baptized by the Archbishop of the diocese. I wore hats and sucked on a little pipe. I was the darling of the ranch, pleasing everyone. One day I was sunning myself in the patio, lying out on the yellow and blue tiles, contemplating the geraniums and sniffing the hot, clean air. A bee came up and stung me on my bare fanny. The response to my screams was wonderful. Servants everywhere, my mother giving orders. Don Enrique applied an old Indian remedy and my father took me down to the beach house to let the salt water do its work. Oh what a world it was! Was there ever so pampered an ass as mine?
When my father was away on location, I would go to the tack room where Don Enrique sat polishing the saddles and the bridles and the boots and get him to tell me more stories about my father, how he became an honorary Apache and shot crocodiles on the Amazon, how he was good to his horses and courted my mother making Wrong Romance. My father said that Don Enrique's stories were true and wasn't I lucky having such a wise old man around. Then he would tell me more stories and I would go to sleep on his big shoulder with my arms around him.
By the age of five, I could amuse my parents and their friends after dinner, when they would sit before the great eucalyptus fire drinking café diablo. Three or four cars would arrive every weekend, and it was a long drive back to Los Angeles, so people would usually stay the night. When conversation livened, my father would send the mariachis away, and I would lie back for a while, absorbing everything and making occasional comments such as "Is that so?" or "I hadn't realized that before" until everyone would forget what I was and begin addressing remarks to me:
"They were over budget by a million and a half after two weeks."
"Is that so?"
"Helen Hayes never got through a second act without dropping half her lines."
"I hadn't realized that before."
"You don't know what hell is until you've been a woman directed by Jack Ford."
"I'd never have guessed that."
"Louis Calhern's first wife was a great human being."
"I'll bet she must have been."
Then Mother would call on me to recite "The Bishop Orders his Tomb" or "To a Skylark," depending on the company, and I would go off to bed to applause. One night Charles Laughton asked me would I agree to participate in an experiment with him. He had a theory about Shakespeare, that the rhythms and the music were so perfect and so evocative of sense, that even a child, ignorant of Elizabethan vocabulary, could convey the meaning. He asked me would I read aloud a passage of his choosing. I offered my cooperation, and Laughton called for the plays, which Mother brought, drawing attention to an inscription to her from S. N. Behrman. Laughton let the book fall open, and I found myself working through a speech of Mercurio's, mouthing the syllables and imitating what I took to be good Shakespearean acting style. So attentive was my audience, that I became over-conscious of the sound of my voice, and since I could understand at most one word out of four, I began to fear that the experiment would fail on my account, bringing ridicule to Laughton and earning me his enmity. With a quick movement of my hips I caused the bottoms of my pajamas to fall to the floor, diverting attention from the text, affording the guests mirth, and gaining me a special good-night embrace from Mother and Dad.
These were the Malibu days, the Casa Fiesta days, when I ambled with the ungulates in the chaparral, heard visiting priests celebrate mass in the private chapel to Our Lady of Guadalupe, played with the toys my parents brought me from their travels, the stuffed baby condor from the Andes, the tiny samovar, the voodoo doll, the tortoise shell I used to bathe my puppy in. Whenever they returned from these trips, they had newspaper clippings to show me, so I could see them being received by the Governor of Macao or the Mayor of Panama City. They would bring back some personal memento for me, like a photograph of the Chief of Police of Marseilles, signed: "C'est avec de sincères regrets que nous apprenons la disparition d'un honorable citoyen de notre ville, ton père, un des plus grands film-stars du monde." I was too young to accompany them but not too young to appreciate the significance of it all. I often went with my father to rodeos and rode behind him on my pony in the parade and stood beside him when he presented trophies to the winners. There were great banquets afterwards, with steaks so big they drooped over the plates. In San Luis Obispo my father made a speech saying that I was only seven but could already outride half the hands on his ranch. This was untrue, but it earned me a lot of slaps on the back from the cowboys.
One Christmas my father was off making a picture and my mother said she was bored and would take me to New York. She often talked about New York and how much better it was than California, and she said it was time I got out of the provinces and learned a little sophistication. She said I would need proper clothes for the East, so in Beverly Hills she bought me a gray tweed suit and a camel's hair coat. I looked so elegant. I spent hours on the Super Chief scrutinizing myself in the mirror and straightening my tie for my entrance into the dining car, and by the time we boarded the 20th Century Limited I felt wholly sophisticated. Mother called me Little Lord Fauntleroy.
In New York I listened to the radio through most of the days and nights, and it seemed to me I could have accomplished this as well in California, but Mother had many old friends from her years on the stage to see, and she could not be dragging me about everywhere; but perhaps it was my fault that I did not do more, because when she took me to matinees I was insufficiently appreciative, falling asleep at the Philharmonic concert in Carnegie Hall and being too free with my opinion of Giselle, which I called stupid. Mother said she worried what would become of a boy so insensitive to culture, but it was to be said for me that I cut a good figure and was well-spoken. At the hotel, when I was not listening to the radio, I watched snow falling for the first time, dropped little snowballs gathered from the windowsill on passersby below, and ordered supplies from room service as often as I thought seemly.
On Christmas Eve we went to dinner at Lüchow's restaurant with an old friend of Mother's called Mr. Johnny Standfast.
"The Germans have the best Christmases," Mother said. "I never feel it's really Christmas unless I'm at Lüchow's."
Mr. Standfast asked me what I was going to be when I grew up.
"He'll be an actor over my dead body," said Mother.
"I think I'll be a diplomat," I said. I had read about Cordell Hull in the newspaper.
"You'd make a charming diplomat, dear."
"I could use a diplomat," said Mr. Standfast. "I could use a diplomat right now. I could use a diplomat tomorrow morning. How'd you like to be my diplomat?"
"I never thought of that," I said.
The dinner was the best thing in New York. I said I wished we could eat at Lüchow's every night.
"He's a terrible little snob," Mother said.
"Is he?" said Mr. Standfast.
I praised my mother's appearance. She was beautiful in a navy blue suit with a white collar, her red hair swept up into a pompadour. Mr. Standfast said Mother was the most beautiful woman on Broadway.
"That's all finished," she said. "To hell with it." She gave me a glass of wine because I was so grown-up in my suit. I liked the wine but it did something peculiar to my eyes.
"You both look very far away," I said.
When we reached Casa Fiesta my father had returned from location. He wanted to celebrate our reunion with a horseback ride up to Santa Barbara.
"Just like the old padres," he said. "El Camino Real. We'll take Don Enrique along and he'll cook Mexican breakfasts on the open fire. Huevos rancheros. Muy bueno. "
"I'm exhausted," Mother said. "I wasn't able to sleep at all on the train. I think I've a migraine coming on. Besides, you know I detest sleeping on the ground. You go. Big he-man stuff, no, thank you very much. And do take the child, we haven't been apart for a month."
"Do you want me to call Doc Skaletar?" my father asked.
"I'm perfectly capable of calling him myself."
So my father, Don Enrique, and I set off from Malibu, over the tops of the hills above the sea. From his hat to his boots my father was all in black, just as in his pictures. His horse Tom was black and his saddle black with silver trimmings, his name engraved in silver across the cantleboard. He was a big, powerful man but Tom was big and powerful too and they moved together as one, my father sitting straight with chin out, gazing back and forth across the hills and the sea. He broke the trail, with me second and Don Enrique behind, leading a mule loaded with provisions. We were an outlaw band, we were hunting for gold, we were running down the killers, we were the only survivors of a savage ambush.
We sweated under clear skies, and when we felt like it we turned down to the sea, swam in the icy water and lay on the beach. My father showed me how to get a jump on a wave, swim a few strokes, pull your arms in flat under your body and ride to shore. At night we ate Don Enrique's good food and the two men told stories, and when the sun woke me in the morning breakfast was already cooking. I drank coffee with a lot of milk in it and leapt on my pony feeling like a million dollars.
About noon on the fourth day we rode into Santa Barbara, checked into the Biltmore, and took hot showers. The manager of the hotel had worked as a bit player in a couple of my father's pictures.
"Amigos! This is a great honor and a great pleasure! And the señora, I am sure she is well?"
My father assured the manager that she was well and that she would be sorry not to have seen him, and he introduced me. The manager said it was a great honor to have me as his guest and was I going to be a great cowboy like my father?
"I might try," I said.
"He's a better man than I am," said my father. "You should see him ride the waves. He'll be an Olympic champ. But whatever he wants is okay with me. I believe in giving a boy his head."
The manager and Don Enrique agreed with this.
We had a huge lunch of cold crab on the terrace overlooking the sea, watching the fishing boats and talking of what a swell ride it had been. The men drank lots of Mexican beer.
"This is the life," my father said.
My father telephoned the ranch and we took a siesta. Then the big green Lincoln arrived and two trucks for the horses and the mule. My father told the driver to put the top down and drive fast. We sang songs all the way to Casa Fiesta.
But as the hare, whom hounds and horns pursue, pants to the place from which at first she flew, so life turned round on Mother and Dad, and stripped them of their goods and pleasures. It was not the war that did it, but by the end of the war everything had changed. I lived in a house in Los Angeles with my mother.
One night I was awakened by cries from her bedroom. I went in to find her weeping and unclothed, clinging to the bedpost like Christ awaiting the scourge.
"My little man," she said to me, "my poor dear little man. Come, see what has happened to me."
She displayed her wrists, criss-crossed with razor cuts, the blood dried.
"You see," she said, "what desperate condition I am in. Save me. Sauve moi! Comme je suis douloureuse! Mais, I couldn't do it to you, my poor darling. Comme tu esjeune! Too jeune to bear it. I couldn't let you see me like that, with blood soaking the damask and in my hair and in pools on the parquet. You can thank me for that, my darling, I love you too much, like a mother."
I thanked her and asked would she like a glass of water.
"Water? Water? But I've taken so many pills, I shan't be with you much longer. You had better call the doctor."
I started for the telephone.
"No," she said, "no, wait. Sweetheart, don't you know I take sleeping pills every night? Don't you know what I've been through? Poor baby, how could you know? But you must know. Don't call the doctor yet. If you will stay with me, I won't need the doctor. Stay with me and hear my sad story. It is the sad story of a woman."
I helped her into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She had never looked worse, yet she was often so bad that I was uncertain how to act in the present drama. She had lost much of her beauty. Her puffed face was reticulated with frantic capillaries. She kept a bottle close, secreting it behind the salad oil or deep in the folds of her sarong. She sucked on sen-sen and sprayed herself with strong perfume.
"All my life," she began, "I have been looking for the perfect man, the perfect love. Is there anything wrong with that? Thank God I'm romantic. I love Roman churches in the winter light, the great ball of lapis lazuli. And all the little cafés. I journeyed up the Nile. I worshipped at Abu Simbel, I have ridden on camelback through the blowing sands of the Sahara. I have stood in the frozen streets of Leningrad wishing on polar stars, rapt before the glories of the Hermitage. Yes, I was disillusioned when they used the same rag to clean the toilet they wiped the tea glasses out with for the samovar on the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I could live with disillusionment, I knew they did that before the Bolsheviks, the Russians have a cruel history, cruelest on the earth, you must read Anna Karenina, darling, but I have never found the perfect man."
I told her that I would always love her. She said that meant more to her than anything in the world. I told her that my father loved her too.
"Your father is a fool, darling, and an idiot. I believed in him once. Oh my God, how I believed in him! He was glamorous. Always the finest tailors. Look at him now, those ridiculous old suits he wears. Hasn't he any pride left? Do you know that he used to put on white cotton gloves and run his fingers over the top of the refrigerator to see that Gerda and Walter, they were the best damned couple we ever had, cleaned it properly? It was the sack for them if they didn't, that was the kind of man he was. Look at him now."
I resisted speaking ill of my father to her, it seemed a kind of betrayal. But it always made her feel better.
"He's degenerated, all right," I said.
"He certainly has."
"He's not the man he was."
"You're so mature for your age."
"I don't know what's happened to him."
"Who would want to stay with that?"
"I can't imagine."
"You're very understanding."
"What could you be expected to do?"
"God only knows. I reached a point."
"When did it start happening?"
"There was always a suspicion. But I tried to look for the best. The time he got himself all mosquito-bitten stripped to the waist watching the men put in electricity at the ranch, he looked like such a moron puffed up covered with Calamine lotion, I could have spit in his face. He knew he knew nothing about electricity. He had to pretend. And in South America, the pilots were fabulous, how they maneuvered through the Andes, higher than birds dared fly, it was such a thrill, but your father didn't know the first thing about crocodile hunting, all he wanted was the publicity photographs. The hotel in Rio was crawling with Jewish refugees, but the food was first-rate. I always had suspicions. He has very little hair on his body, did you ever notice that? But he was a wonderful lover in the beginning, I don't think he ever had another woman in his whole life.
"You'll be a man soon. You always were more of a man than your father, God forgive me for saying so, but you reach a point where truth is the most important thing. Hold me, my little man, are my feet growing cold? Always searching, but I have never found the perfect one."
She raised herself onto her knees, arms flung out.
"Oh God in heaven, God of prayer wheels and the priests in their lovely saffron robes, God of Inca artifacts, God of Bedouins eating figs in tents, God of the Pope in ostrich feathers, Sun God, Moon God, Rain God, God of the seven seas and the lakes with fishes in them, the great whale, the soft rabbit, and I include the snakes and the prairie dogs, God help me find the perfect man. My feet are growing cold, darling. Feel my feet."
They were indeed cold, stiff, and had bad color. I telephoned the doctor as Mother passed from consciousness. The doctor sank a needle into her buttock, shielding me with his body from the sight. She recovered, and no word of the events of that night ever passed between us; and I did not tell my father. But I gave her a bunch of violets, and this note: "Dear Mother. Please don't die. The bad times will pass. I love you."
At school I had my own life, which I enjoyed, and I took a certain pride in what help and comfort I could give my mother. I felt that she was coming through a rough passage but that she would make it one day, perhaps by finding her perfect man. Often we would have long talks as she sat in the bathtub, soaping herself and letting water from a sponge fall over her body. Her belly was big now and her breasts droopy, but I was able to imagine her former self and to see how an older man might find her attractive still. The hair on her parts was such a bright red that I had difficulty keeping my eyes from it, but we managed to converse in a lively and civilized way, and there was something about the small, steamy room and the pleasant informality of it all that made possible an intimacy not otherwise easily arrived at. We talked of the joys and sorrows of her life, her hatred of her mother, to whom she had not spoken since the divorce, her favorite composer, Chopin, and of my father, against whom she remained very bitter. We planned dinner parties, the guests, the food and what wine should be served with it. As she toweled and powdered herself, I cleaned out the bathtub, and she would say,
"I wonder how many mothers and sons can talk to each other this way. We're very fortunate." (Continues...)
Excerpted from A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien. Copyright © 1977 Darcy O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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