My parents had the best intentions, but took up the unfortunate habit of burying me once or twice a week.
The father of the household was a devout writer of political plays. The plays suffered though, because he was apolitical and never contemporary. In secret he desired to live in the fifties, where he imagined himself taller and blacklisted. As the mother of the household once explained to me on a carousel, blurts of courageous courtroom speeches surfaced from some of his more fantastic dreams. He would awake, apparently, vitalized and with a nerve for intercourse. I can’t think of anything he wanted more than to be blacklisted, except maybe selling a script.
As I understand it, he’d switched to the screenplay by the time I was born, focusing his talents on the adaptation of the Greek myth for the modern purpose. It was the film industry that led him to my bedside each night to see me to sleep. And why not utilize the demographic gold (male, aged 8-12) he had living under his own roof to pitch storylines to? A youngish boy will accept almost anything with open ears so long as certain expectations are rewarded. And yet, in these same youngish boys, a short-tempered resistance to anything pregnant with a fairytale has been known to develop, after which point it becomes difficult for them to accept Hippolytus as a senator’s son, or Artemis as a bra-less, disillusioned butch. My father told me I was growing up too fast. I promise you he meant it. By the time puberty started in on me he was weaning off Hellenism (but only weaning) and embracing the cerebral thriller. Bedtime, as producers say, “wasn’t working for us.”
Youngish boy pulls covers over his head in hopes father might stop.
“Remember it’s a puzzle, not a mystery. That’s an important distinction we’re making, ” the father says. “Think back to the beginning. The killer left an abundance of evidence.”
“No!” the boy screeches from beneath the covers.
“Hey, remember, he left all that evidence, and all those clues that were wrong, except for one special clue that was the right one. It was to trick the detective. Too much information instead of not enough. That’s important isn’t it?”
Out of air, the boy’s face rises from the covers.
“So does the killer want detective Perseus Black to find him?” he says.
“No. Of course not.”
“Oh…then how come he would leave the one clue always that’s the real one?”
“That’s because…it’s a game, and killers play games.”
The father turns off lights, walks to doorway. Complete darkness for twenty-five seconds, then: “I think that, yes, deep down, the killer wants to be caught.”
Door shuts hard, not quite slammed.
Bedtime tuck-ins become malicious after the age of twelve, ten for girls. I brought this to my father’s attention one night, citing his storyline as evidence against him. What he was doing to me, I stated, was exactly what Perseus Black’s father had done to him when he was a child. “And look what happened to him, remember what happens to him?” He had become a pitiless detective. “Isn’t it obvious,” I thrust opened my chest, “his father was a really bad criminal all the time. Think of that one scene where he’s standing in the empty ball field with Perseus, it’s not even like they were playing baseball or anything, they were just standing there without gloves, watching all those cars drive by. Remember what he said to him?” At this point I was standing on the bed in a manner similar to, but not completely alike, a brazen male cockatoo hot for a fight. “He told him how to spot the ‘fellas’ cars right, because when they don’t have the sirens on, you can’t see the difference at night. And all he talks about in the middle of the baseball diamond is how the ‘fellas’ cars have the high beams in the middle, and the normal cars have them on the outside, and that’s how to always look out for them if you’re robbing someone or something. And when you’re leaving you never drive the exact same as the speed limit since only criminals do that. That’s how Perseus finds the criminals, isn’t it, when he’s older, since he can only think about criminals all the time and likes them.” This was flowing from me and humiliating him. “He catches them, but he doesn’t get them in trouble, does he, even if he knows they’re bad, since he likes them so much. Remember, he hugs that one. Perseus was checking to see if he had a gun, but he was really hugging him, and he almost kisses the back of his neck. He tries. To kiss him. That’s why he has to work alone”, and live alone, and eat alone, and God willing die alone.
Amusing enough for a premise. The only endearing part of the script, however, was its ending. Since the killer has no motive other than complete randomness, deducing his identity becomes completely random as well. To catch him would be a triumph of probability, not inspection. The detective too, you’ll see, has lost his identity. For display, a little patch of script I inherited in lieu of a pocket watch:
PERSEUS BLACK (V.O.)
Three identities we are confined to inhabit. The innocent. The detective. The murderer. Freedom is the realization that they’re interchangeable.
In the end the detective picks a name at random out of the phonebook. What does he plan to do to this person? We are left uncertain, but certainly unsettled—we are left, in fact, with a demand for a close-up.
SCREEN FILLS WITH THE BLINDING YELLOW OF FLIPPING PHONEBOOK PAGES.
PERSEUS BLACK (V.O.)
We find our enemies…
(pages stop flipping)
They find us too.
My father comes from a long line of unrequited storytellers (somewhere down the line there was a pastor). I never told him how much I liked the ending. It didn’t matter. The script was never read seriously: the idiot had written a preface, principia-like in its formality, calling for the film to be shot in black and white. In black and white, so that the best part of the script, the gory brightness of the flipping phonebook, was deadened, and a few film students (aged 30-65) could snap their fingers and uncurl their little rotten toes at the end. I will now place my father alongside the most tragic of artists, right next to the dancer who can move with all the grace of God but is cursed with a hideous cracking in the joints and drives his audience further and further away with each revolting pivot. I should have told him how much I liked the ending. I think so. It’s the only thing of his I have ever treasured.
He argued with my mother the night that I confronted him with my montage. I can remember the type of roof beams we had. I can remember the mussel shells that encrusted the walkway alongside the house (a lovely walkway that should have been expanded to circum-garnish the entire property) but, for all the nooks and crannies of memory, I can’t place my mother in anything but clicking white heels and a lemon dress.
Every weekend the up-and-coming of Los Angeles attended our residence to get fed, pampered, and to spend time with the mother and father they wished they hadn’t abandoned for an acting career or smeared in a sprawling essay called “Daddy’s Little Girl”, “My Favorite Couple,” or “At Home in Livingston,” which you’ll find behind the doormat Gay Realism. My mother especially enjoyed anyone in their prime, and prided herself on being able to stay awake and speak foreign film with the best of them.
My parents thrived on these parties. The only requirement of these parties was that all guests dress in fifties nostalgia. The first time I awoke to the smell of leather and cigarettes I must have been six, and remember the distinct impression of coming-to in a western. I was lying on my back just prior to sunrise, the most clichéd of painted horizons with a cactus off in the distance, suffocating desert air, and a cowboy hat, very heavy, covering my entire body. I was under coats, leather ones. Sitting up, the layers slipped off the bed. The worst was when, throughout the course of a night, I would get so covered in the guest’s attire that people would wander into my room and talk about insightful children’s books completely unaware that the whole time there lay a compacted young sheriff who had he screamed would have firmly recast any belief in the transplanting power of imagination and caused, perhaps, one out of two budding memoirists to shit their pants in mercy.
It was a methodical system, deserving of geological survey.
The film people came first, at ten for drinks, depositing this foundation of muddy leathers. Then, around eleven, my mother’s friends would arrive; notice the middle stratum of angora and carcoat, its more delicate composition, slight fragrance. The stragglers (musicians, writers) slunk in around two, already drunk and possibly not invited, for which I call to your attention the dusty dead surface of bristly French tweed and beret-miscellanea.
I hated those leathers. They smelled. But it was a social gesture. Our house was easily filled with people, to the point that some of these people were squeezed out its rear and into the backyard. Coatrooms near front doors are needed to ensure that guests and their accoutrements can arrive and depart smoothly. My room was the closest to the front door. As a man forsaken by gaudy spacing I’ve accepted that much.
There were two guests in regular attendance at my parent’s parties that I remember: a silver-haired James Dean and a black Elvis. I remember them well, the black Elvis because he scraped slivers of wax from every candle he ever came across with his fingernail, and the silver-haired James Dean because he occasionally slept with my mother. My father was against impersonations of this kind with all of his heart, and yes he had a heart to begin with. He cared about the credence of the fantasy, not the whimsy. He hated the silver-haired James Dean first and foremost for this reason, and only secondly because he occasionally slept with my mother.
Costume parties are trying to achieve something different than period parties. A costume party caters to the desires of the individual. Impersonations follow naturally. A period party, on the other hand, is sustained by the commitment of the group.
The very idea behind a costume party was absurd to my father and I share his view of its absurdity. One looks around at any moment and sees the flaw. I imagine my father, back against the wall, peering into the crowd. “All these people are dead,” he might have said to himself.
My mother was the champion of the costume party. Her contraband, snuck in through the back door, I’m sure, mingled more-or-less unnoticed at first. But, as they began to make up the greater majority of guests, the celebrity presence became irreversible. Even my father’s friends were forced to join the movement. If they hadn’t they would have been labeled tired, late, or worst of all, archaic.
My father’s hamartia was his refusal to accept these amendments. For all the Ritas and Lucys that gestated and survived in our house until the time they stammered out into the night like drunken ghosts of stardom my father would not, not in any way, allow his wife to become one of them. She was asked to peel back all but the sparest indicators of fashion, leaving her to make the best of some shoes, a dress, maybe earrings.
Her response, a penetrating one, was to sleep with the most distinguished celebrity under our roof. As virile and attractive as the late James Dean was, I can assure you that the silver-haired James Dean was the opposite. He was dry and limp looking, possibly the only one there older than my father. She wasn’t actually sleeping with a younger man, but in these circles irony counts for most.
One night I peeked an eye through a silk shawl. The silver-haired James Dean was looking down at me. Or was he interested in the pile of coats on the bed that shifted in anger when he gave the globe on my dresser a spin as if it were not mine and his. I don’t think he could have seen me under there though. He probably didn’t know. My mother walked in shortly after him in a bright gown, fluffed outward, from her hips to the ground, with modest stiffness. She giggled into his chest. If it had been a cold night there might have been something woolen to restrict my eyes. The silver-haired James Dean flips the gown up above her head, where it sticks in its chalice shape, and spins his inverted bride in roving couplets. The silver-haired James Dean continues to look at me. I listen for a while, then fall asleep, rather enchanted by their dancing.
If I were an intellectual I would say that my parents were involved in the Commedia Dell’Arte. Since I wouldn’t be allowed on the grasses of any university even if I camouflaged myself as an artist and wore dark sunglasses in the spirit of self-reflection, I will say that my parents were clowns, and met at a school for clowns. They came away from this school with a variety of masks, not degrees, to station to their walls. Show masks, not for wearing. When I was eighteen my father put one on.
My mother had been in a series of commercials where she got to ride in an old-fashioned stagecoach on the freeway. My father had been trying to write for television. His greatest stride was an episode of a medical drama about a drunkard with kidney stones who is banished from the community for his accumulated acts of depravity only to be welcomed back when it is learned that, instead of stones, the drunkard passes perfect pearls through his urethra. A producer friend had folded it in half, nailed down the setting, and gotten it in as a subplot.
By this time the parties were less frequent but more intense. Too much to take sanely. I was in the living room, trying to talk to a woman that I was attracted to. She was dressed as an obscure celebrity whom I couldn’t possibly recognize. She kept telling me to come back when I’d figured out who she was. “Go to the kitchen,” she said, “and nobody tell him.” Still, I returned repeatedly to interrupt her conversation, to the point that she wasn’t having fun with it anymore.
My mother was showing the silver-haired James Dean the masks. Plaster masks, peeling in places, lustful, open-mouthed, with noses protruding. The silver haired James Dean tried one on and mimed being a mime. Tilting his head like a raven, his eyes contacted mine from behind the warty beak.
When I came back from the kitchen the mask was back on the wall and two sets of feet seen going up the stairs. I started talking to the attractive woman again. “Now you’re not even guessing,” she said. The man she was with asked me if I would go up to bed if they told me. I said I slept downstairs. She told the man not to be mean. “We’ll give you one more chance,” she said. I didn’t answer; my father, making his way through the room with this exuberant determination, had distracted me. He took the mask that had been placed back crookedly and pulled it over his face, turned up the stairs, waist, legs, feet, disappearing. “This will give it away,” the man and the woman were still talking. “She was a dancer first, then a stage actress.” “Well actually she studied both.” “But actually she studied both.” “It starts with an H.” I wasn’t listening. A stomping noise coming from upstairs, too slight to be noticed by anyone who hadn’t ran the length of the house a thousand times. My mother and the silver-haired James Dean trampled down, unsure who was leading the way but both in a rush to get to the bottom. They took a discursive path through the living room, trying embarrassingly to dodge hi’s and hellos as they went for the door. On her way out someone asked my mother what was wrong. “Nothing,” she said. My mother leaned in to inspect a pin on the woman’s lapel. "Great," she said as she was bustled out the door.
This wasn’t enough to disrupt completely the ambient chatter, which went on uninterrupted, until, suddenly, a hushing wave swept through the room. My father, taking his time down the stairs, stepped out into the living room, where a shocked audience immediately congealed around him. He was still wearing the mask, and with its deranged grin on his face, threw his arms out and up, turning in a circle so everyone could see him. The mask had a peeling lesion between the mouth and beak, a poorly sutured cut, it seemed, tortuously placed there by a mad creator so that it was forever being pulled apart by the implacable grin. It was simultaneously a look of laughter and pain on the mask. His body assumed the mask’s look, demonstrated elatedly in the erect penis protruding from inside his slim-cut fifties slacks. He bowed deeply, and at its release, I half expected to see a slew of pearls come trickling down the stairs behind him.
Miles Strucker received his BA from The New School in 2009. He currently lives in Seattle, where he is finishing his first novel Pangaea.