Winter 2004, Volume 21.2
Arthur Winfield Knight
Arthur Winfield Knight's latest novel Blue Skies Falling (Forge Books 2001) deals with a film director whose wife is dying. The protagonist, Sam Bonner, is a not-too-fictionalized Sam Peckinpah, the legendary cinematic storyteller and movie director of the 1960s and 70s. Recently, Knight completed a novel set against the making of The Misfits.
I like to drive into the copper colored hills at dusk, past the huge letters that spell out HOLLYWOOD, as if people would be lost if the name weren't there to remind them where they are. Many of them are lost anyway. You can see old men and women sitting on their faded stucco porches, watching the sun go down, their feet stretched out before them in the burnt-sienna sunlight. The rich are getting ready to have cocktails in Beverly Hills or Brentwood, but there are no cocktails for the poor. No dinners at the Villa Capri. The poor drink cheap wine or unsweetened iced tea out of old jelly glasses, their hands shaking. They might have dinner once a week at some flyblown Italian restaurant where the sidewalks out front are cracked and huge dandelions grow out of the concrete. There are a few cheap hotels where nobody but people named Smith and Jones sign the register, and there are some cheap apartment houses for aspiring actresses, but most of them have faces like stale beer by the time they have been here a year. The lucky ones make it back to wherever they came from. Hollywood almost looks beautiful from the observatory at Griffith Park as the sky deepens, turning ocher, but it's an illusion.
I'm hitting a hundred when I come down the hill from the Palisades to the Coast Highway on my motorcycle, leaning over the handlebars, a ghost rider. I know the cops won't be able to spot me. I'm invisible. I pass rows of Edward Hopper diners with no customers and forlorn Signal and Shell stations that have been shut for hours, their signs creaking in the wind and salt air. Giant birdlike machines pump oil out of the dark earth, moving rhythmically, their iron beaks rising and falling, as if they were prehistoric creatures keeping time to their own deaths. The lights in most of the cottages along the ocean have been out for hours. The waves wash huge pieces of rotting kelp onto the beach in the rusty moonlight. I like it because it's so lonely.
Burl had bought a four-door Packard convertible when he'd come to Los Angeles. He liked to chauffeur his friends around the city at night because you could see the fires burning. The evenings were long and smoky, and you could see people sitting on their porches, drinking beer, while they watched the flames spread across the low hills. Burl said it reminded him of the South when he was a kid.
The stars were almost invisible due to the smoke and light pollution, but Burl thought Southern California was great. He said, "Stars, who needs `em? We got enough goddamn stars down here." Then he'd laugh so hard the convertible would shake. The sky glowed through the smog, like a diffused aurora borealis.
The idea that the city might go up in flames at any minute broke down the usual social barriers that summer. People actually seemed to like each other. They waved and smiled everywhere we went.
Burl would take his guitar or bagpipes to the Smoke House or to Don the Beachcomber's, ordering drinks for everyone, then he'd play a few songs and talk about the places he'd been when he'd started out as a folksinger. He'd had to thumb his way across America in the early days, but he made it sound wonderful, whether he was hitchhiking through the Smoky Mountains in the rain or standing next to a huge field of sunflowers in the hundred degree heat in Kansas or playing "Good Night, Irene" on a guitar with one string missing while an old black guy who shined shoes sang about taking morphine so he could die in New Orleans.
Burl said, "Let me tell you, boys, I didn't have a nickel between me and nightfall most of the time, but it always worked out all right. Pretty Boy Floyd bought me a piece of apple pie one night in Oklahoma, and he gave me ten dollars. I'd have written a song about him, but some other fellow beat me to it." Burl strummed a few bars of "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd" and said, "It's a damn nice little song, even if I didn't write it." Then he took a huge swallow of beer and ate another cheeseburger. I saw him eat ten of them one night. Everyone loved him.
Pier and I went into a small bar in Lone Pine when we came down from the mountain. The bar smelled of cigarettes and beer and bleach, and Hank Williams was singing about lost highways on the jukebox. A huge Indian woman was eating a large pizza at a booth next to the front window, pieces of cheese stuck to her dark skin. Her chin glowed from the grease. A woman in her 70s danced by herself in the center of the room. She held a cigarette in one hand and a glass of beer in the other, and the beer sloshed onto the wooden floor as she moved in the soft waxen light that filtered through the open door. She was humming something and smiling. An empty plastic pitcher was on the bar in front of the stool where the old woman had been sitting. An ancient wanted poster with Jesse James' picture was thumbtacked to the back wall, and a sign taped to the smoky mirror behind the bar proclaimed
JESUS LOVES YOU
Everyone Else Thinks
You're An Asshole.
I told Pier, "The person who wrote that must have had me in mind." Then I laughed, watching the old woman dance.
Pier brought home dozens of stray dogs and cats, acting on whim, impulse, but her sister brooded over the smallest decisions. What should she wear to the grocery store? To the studio? Marisa was playing Anna Magnani's daughter in The Rose Tattoo when we met. She worried about everything, and I wondered how twins could be so different. Perhaps second borns, even by twenty minutes, were cautious. Afraid to leave the womb.
Marisa told me, "Pier sings nursery rhymes to her dolls and stuffed animals, rocking them. Sucking on lollipops. She may be worldly in some ways, but she's as mature as a ten year old. In Italy, she painted red lips on trees so she could practice kissing. She spends too much time dreaming."
Marisa would never walk along the beach on a rainy afternoon, never kiss in theaters, never go horseback riding by moonlight, never stop for a hamburger at a drive-in restaurant, even if she was hungry, never opt for the unfamiliar. All she knew was work. Mrs. Angeli said Marisa was the dependable one in the family, but I never heard her laugh.
The Burning Cow
We saw a burning cow run through a field alongside the highway shortly after we left Lone Pine. The cow's udders swung and blazed against a caramelized sky. Pier asked, "Who'd set a cow on fire? Who could be so cruel? What does it mean?" I'd never heard her ask so many questions, but neither of us had ever seen a burning cow. We watched its legs collapse. Then it fell to the earth with a huge thud, and its feet caught in some barbed wire. The cow mooed terribly, and we could smell its burning flesh when we got out of the car. I felt Pier tremble as I held her. "We've got to do something," she said, "the poor creature is suffering." But we just stood there helplessly.
He spotted me instantly. I got out of the Porsche, taking off my helmet and waving, then I lit a cigarette. I was five car lengths ahead of the guy behind me when I crossed the finish line, but Jack Warner had forbidden me to race while I was shooting Rebel, and Irving knew it. He'd been working on the script for three months, but he had quit because he was tired of arguing with the director. Nick wanted to create an American opera, and Irving didn't. Nick said all the action should take place in a day and a night. It was supposed to be mythic. Poetic. Nick waved his arms, talking about it. Irving thought the film should have a harder edge. He'd come to Hollywood after he'd written a best selling novel about juvenile delinquency. The movie was titled The City Across the River, and it had made Tony Curtis a star.
I watched Irving come toward me. He was five or six inches shorter than me, and his crew-cut hair was beginning to gray. He crossed the Tarmac as if he'd step on anyone who got in his way. He looked like he ought to have a swagger stick, like Colonel Bogey. Irving had called Jack Warner a stink bug, and it had become a joke around the studio. Someone would say stink bug, and people would start laughing. Warner thought we were all white niggers, and he ran the studio like a plantation.
It was close to a hundred degrees in Palm Springs. Everyone was sweating, but Irving was wearing a three piece Brooks Brothers suit with a paisley tie. The heat didn't seem to bother him. I don't think he ever sweat. He said, "Good show, old man," and shook my hand. He always called me old man, even though he was my father's age. Irving was a Brooklyn Jew, but he might have been a British colonial. Arch Oboler should have cast him in Bwana Devil.
I was wearing a white jump suit, like most of the drivers, and I could feel the sweat gathering under my arms. "I hope you won't tell Warner I raced today," I said. I didn't want to listen to one of Jack's monologues. Didn't want to hear how I'd failed him and the studio.
"Jack's a stink bug. You don't tell a stink bug anything. You just step on him," Irving said. Then he strode, stiffly, across the Tarmac toward the stands.
The wind blew the dust across the lettuce fields late each afternoon in Salinas. The men who picked the lettuce wore bandannas as they hunched over, going down one row, then up another. The wind always blew. Biting into their backs. Into their faces. They called lettuce a stoop crop, because you had to bend over to pick it. The sky was the color of a dirty parsnip, but most of them couldn't see the sky.
The dust swirled down on Salinas like dry rain. It seeped between the boards of the bunkhouse where I was staying. Kazan had sent me to there to learn how the people talked. It was easy. They dropped their g's and their vowels had the sharp sounds of consonants, and their conversations never changed. Their backs felt like they were broken, and the goddamn wind was never going to stop blowing. The men wore bib overalls and patched jeans, and the girls had fragile, birdlike bones and worn calico dresses. The drugstores sold out of Ben-Gay every week and the bars were filled each Saturday. Okies and Mexicans, the lettuce pickers, stood around in small groups under a hostile sky. They were always on opposite sides of the street. Only the dust prevailed.
Free Beer Tomorrow
Pier and I stopped at a small bar on the outskirts of Bakersfield. A rusted metal sign promising FREE BEER TOMORROW swung and squeaked in the high wind that blew across the cotton fields on the other side of the road. It was late November, so the cotton had already been picked, but you could still see small, dirty pieces of it clinging to the plants.
Pier and I ran across the road, her skirt billowing around her waist. A trucker stared and honked as he drove by. "I can imagine these old darkies plucking the cotton," Pier said, bending over one of the plants, touching it. I didn't tell her the cotton had been harvested by machines for decades, because she seemed to like the idea of the darkies picking it. I thought she'd seen Gone With The Wind too many times when she was a young girl in Italy.
The bolls were stiff and golden colored, and pieces of cotton burst from the bolls' centers as if they were stars that had exploded. The cotton was a lot more coarse than that you bought in stores. Pier broke the stems off a couple of plants; then we walked back across the road in the dusty sunlight. "Picking cotton made me thirsty," Pier laughed. "I'm ready for a beer, free or not. How about you?" I followed her into the bar.
Pier and I watched the grunions run that summer. They were tiny phosphorescent fish that came in on the waves, riding the surf, so they could lay their eggs on the beach. The ocean was iridescent in the early evening light, and the sand seemed to be on fire. It was legal to catch the grunions when they were on shore.
Pier waded into the ocean, scooping grunions out of the waves, her breasts shimmering. "What'll we do with them? They're so little." They were the size of goldfish.
I shrugged, watching the waves break against her. They were blue and green, but the sea was crimson. "I don't know. I don't know anything about fish."
Pier was wearing a green swimming suit that matched her eyes, and her wet hair sparkled with tiny rainbows. "My mother would know," she said. "She's the greatest cook in the world. She bathes everything in olive oil. She claims that's her secret."
Pier's mother was never going to let me into her kitchen. I couldn't even get past her front door. It was impossible to imagine us exchanging recipes or throwing strands of spaghetti up to the ceiling to see if they'd stick so we'd know they were done. "I don't want to talk about your mother," I said.
We smoked a couple of joints after we ate the picnic lunch Pier had packed. She thought there was something spiritual about Mt. Whitney because it was the tallest peak in America. She said, "I feel closer to God up here." The sky was aqueous. "I can hear His heart beating." I could hear the wind in the pines and some gunshots from the canyons below where they were filming another B western, but I couldn't hear God's heart. I remembered watching Hoppy and Roy ride through those huge piles of rock at Saturday matinees. It was as if I'd been here before, hundreds of times. A bird painted like a shadow against the sky hovered above us, then disappeared in a burst of light. "God's everywhere," Pier exclaimed, "I can feel Him." But she was just giddy from the marijuana and the thin air.