Twenty Installments! Dear god, and we’re only a third of the way through… buckle up buttercup!
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I will break you into pieces
Hold you up for all the world to see
Yeah, what makes you think
You are better than me”
- Like a California King, Everclear.
XIII – RINGING
In the fall of 1988, I had been in LA for almost two years. My “career” was dragging ass. The entertainment world had not bowed before me when I entered LA. I was learning the cold hard truth on a daily basis that becoming a writer in Hollywood… even on the shittiest, low budget, forgettable projects, was made up of a lot of very long hours, and an immense amount of very hard work.
It also entailed… at the time… waiting for the phone to ring. In this era, pre-email, you’d spend days on end at times… staring at the goddamn phone… just willing that fucker to ring. For the call to come in that would be from “this producer” or “that director” leading to actual work on a project that paid cold, hard cash. Because of this fact, I… unlike my current disposition towards telephones… would answer whenever it rang. Usually before the first ring had finished.
This place and state of mind was the backdrop when I got an unexpected phone call from a cousin of mine. The two of us weren’t particularly close… in fact I only tolerated him when forced to by my mother at family gatherings… so it was completely out of the normal functioning order of the universe for him to call. The sense that something “wasn’t quite right” by him calling me only increased in breadth and intensity over the course of the call.
“Mayhem, Incorporated. If you’ve got trouble spots in your life, we can rub ‘em out.”
There was a long pause. A pause that stretched out for so long, I’d almost wondered if anyone was on the other side of the line. Finally, the puzzled, confused voice of my cousin came out of the receiver. “Jaaaack?”
His inbred twang was instantly recognizable, and I instantly found myself wishing I had let the machine get it. Both in order that I could avoid talking to him, and in order that I would have the taped amusement of his befuddled, backward-ass dialogue to play for the amusement of my friends the next time they came over to get stoned.
“Yes, Rick, it’s Jack. You called me… the question all of America now awaits with tense, baited breath is… why”
More silence. Obviously the receiver on his end was not strong enough to pick up the hollow whistling of the air rushing through the vacant space in his cranium where a brain would normally reside. Finally, some response “Ummm, what?”
“Dude… you called. I answered. Tell me why you called. That’s usually basic phone protocol.”
Using short, simple words, I’d evidentially jogged loose whatever idea or reasoning had lead to the call in the first place “Um, so hey Jack… how’s it going, man?”
“Rick… no offense, but really, the last thing in the world I have time for is playing ‘catch up’ with you. I have a lot going on right now, and I’m really busy, so…” He jumped in… interrupted me, actually… and began his spiel. “THAT is what I want to talk to you about, Jack… I’ve been hearing things…”
Despite myself, the interruption and the direction of the conversation had me intrigued and, against my better judgement… like knowing you really shouldn’t poke at a tiger in a cage at the zoo… I took the bait “Hearing things? What, like voices? You do know that they have a whole slew of medications that you can take for that these days. Just like most forms of VD.”
(I figured he’d be more receptive if I put it in terms he was familiar with and could easily understand.)
“Naw, man… not ‘hearin thing’ hearin things… People’ve been talking. Saying stuff.”
There were a million clever counters to that, but I let them lay on the shelf, dusty and unused. I waited. Waited. Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. “They’ve ‘been talkin’… and?”
He hemmed and hawed, as if he had something akin to manners and decorum. As if he didn’t quite know how to broach some terrible subject with me. “Well, there’s a lot of talk… people have been saying you’re… well… you’re getting into some weird stuff. That you been doin’ some weird shit, man.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this. I had indeed been getting ‘into some weird shit’ in my first two years in LA. Stuff that would be considered ‘crazy’ by even the more adventurous inhabitants of the valley. The problem I faced was… without more information from my backwoods cousin… I had no idea precisely what the ‘weird shit’ I’d gotten into that he was talking about. He could have been referring to:
A.) My introduction to, and excessive consumption of, LSD. Having taken 50 hits of acid over a 18 month span would qualify as “weird shit”
B.) My introduction to, and significant consumption of, cocaine. Having become friends with a dealer who, by reputation had the ‘cleanest, purest coke in LA’, and who frequently gave me free 8-balls because I “rocked” would perhaps qualify.
C.) My introduction to, and participation in, the Los Angeles Underground Club scene. Attending places like Scream (on the “tame” end of the scale), and Club Fuck (on the oh-dear-sweet-baby-jesus-what-are-those-five-people-doing end of the scale) would… even on the most pedestrian and placid of nights… definitely qualify.
D.) My introduction to, and hanging around with (but not participating in) the world of hardcore body modification. Full body tattooing, Genital piercing, subcutaneous implants, scarification, suspension, bloodletting? Yeah, definitely qualifies.
E.) The recent job I had taken to supplement my patchy TV and Film-related income as a copywriter at a gay male porn magazine. (As the only straight male employee) That factoid would, without a shadow of a doubt, qualify as ‘weird shit’ that I’d gotten involved in.
The dilemma I faced, was… how do I address the “issue” my redneck cousin is raising without revealing other sordid details of my life that I would prefer not be making the rounds in the gossip circles of Lewiston and Clarkston. I had no idea which “sin” he was referring to, and I was cautious enough… cagey enough… even at a few months shy of 20 years of age… to not just go blabbing information or confessions unless it was dragged, kicking, screaming, and having expended a full clip of bullets, from me.
“Rick… dude, I have no idea what you’re talking about. ‘Weird’ to the residents of the Valley is the fact that I moved here in the first place. You’re going to have to be a little more specific than that.”
I knew whatever he was getting at had to be bad by the sheer level of uncomfortable coughing, stalling, and clearing of throat that Rick was engaging in. I was now morbidly curious… what the hell could I have done that was so appalling… so completely wrong… that it would make my cousin… a man-boy known more for his prowess at power-belching than his skills at proper post-labor day fashion ettique… so completely, obviously, unsettled. More to the point, I was wondering what information had leaked back to the Valley that now had me labeled as a Southern California bogeyman on a level with Richard Ramirez and Charles Manson. “Well… ummm, it’s… that you’re… you know… hanging around with some… umm… some… uh… weird people.”
I gritted my teeth. Counted to ten. Lit a cig. Sucked in deep. Exhaled. Spoke. “Rick… Specifics. What. “Weird”. People. What the fuck are you talking about?!?”
I heard him across the line taking in a massive lung-full of air, breathing in like he was expected to blow out all of the candles burning on the world’s biggest birthday cake. He holds it for the briefest of moments, before unleashing the specifics in a torrent of words so crammed together one could easily mistake it for German. “Man the rumorgoingaround is that you’reinLA studyingtobe a SatanistHighPriest.”
I sat there for a moment, trying to mentally decipher what he had just said. Trying to detangle the rush of words into a comprehensible sentence. Then, after I had managed to do just that, spending another few minutes being sure that what I thought I heard couldn’t possibly be what I actually heard. “Rick… did… did… you just ask me… if I was a Satanist?!”
The relief of having gotten the words out evidentially blew any concerns about manners and propriety my cousin might have had in the line of questioning right out of the water. “Well… studying to be a Satanist High Priest, actually. You know… like a devil-master-in training?”
My cousin kept trying to interrupt my hysterical laughter. To this day I couldn’t tell you whether I was laughing more at the idea of me being a devil worshiper, or at my cousin’s colorful description of the strata and levels of power and hierarchy within the Satanic ranks. It took a good ten minutes before my laughter was overtaken by a hellish bout of smoker’s cough, giving my cousin his opportunity to interject. “Wait… so… so… you’re not a Satanist? It’s not true?” Only the continuing grasp of the coughing fit kept me from launching into a new round of laughter. I managed to hack out that he needed wait for a moment, and he waited. Coughing and laughing, I got a glass of water, and returned to the phone. “Rick… thanks for the mid-day comedy. No, I’m not a Satanist… you have to believe in God in order to believe in the devil, much less worship him. Jesus Christ…”
His relief was blindly obvious. “You’re not?! Oh mannn, I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that. I’ll be sure and tell everyone that you’re not…” It was my turn to interrupt. “No. No, don’t.”
Relief rapidly changed and transformed into confusion. “Wait… what?!? You don’t want me to say anything? I… Man, why?!?”
I lit another cig. Sucked the smoke in deep. Exhaled. “Don’t say anything to anyone about this. Let them think I’m a Satanist High Priest… hell man, if they ask, just nod your head.”
His confusion ran even deeper “But… why, man?!”
“Because, if they think that… if I have to come back there for any reason… then the fucker’s will be afraid of me, and they’ll stay the hell out of my way.”
All of this flashes, unexpected, like mercury running fast and toxic towards the storm drain, in the second that I pass the street where he used to live. The place he might still live. I don’t know.
My Mom is dead.
There’s no one left living to make me feel guilty about not finding out.
These flashes pull my lips into a sick, sad smile, and I drive down Riverside Drive. Heading towards the bridge and Lewiston and the Hospital and my dying father.
Flick of the thumb, flint struck by spinning wheel, fire and air inhaled once again.