Nihilists in Eden
John Hutnick’s larger-than-life character jumps off the page as he goes from designing cars for Toyota to homeless in Santa Barbara after a wild foray in Buenos Aires. The author picks him up, white Stetson cowboy hat and all, dusts him off, and they’re off to the races once again.
From The Book
NIHILISTS IN EDEN
John G. Hutnick was a larger than life character, having been the golden boy of car design for General Motors and Toyota, tried to start his own car company and failed, and then drank his life away while hustling the women who walked down State Street, the central avenue of Santa Barbara, California after he got sick of paying rent, checked his expensive car design equipment into a storage rental and started sleeping on friends’ sofas until he wore them out and ended up sleeping on the terrace of Charles Schwab, Inc., sipping vodka from a plastic water bottle while dodging the security guard at three a.m.
“I’m a good drunk,” he explained to me, another Santa Barbara misanthrope. I met him at a local boys and girls club where he was making a hundred bucks for drawing cars for the boys. He ignored them to hustle me. After all, I was a woman. I nodded my blond head sagely as he explained some of his past. “I grew up in the eight-mile of Detroit where my dad worked in one of the GM factories. He taught me how to rebuild old cars and motorcycles. “
John grinned his stellar grin. Six feet tall, graying, a bit thin but muscular, he looked pretty good for all the drinking and street sleeping he’d done. He had good shoulders and a nice chest that tapered down into long, skinny legs. I was no longer skinny. I’d been twenty pounds heavier than a cat in my younger years, that is to say, slightly built. Now I was pretty robust, but my weight was equally distributed because I was a swimmer – a good one, both in and out of water.
I looked at the young boys, perhaps nine and ten years old, waiting for him to draw cars. The drawing board they had provided for John was blank. “I think they want you to draw a car.”
John laughed. He looked at the boys and drew a couple of 1967 Chevies with a magic marker on the board in front of him. The kids looked at them and said, “That’s cool. Can you draw some more?”
John smiled at them and drew another car. “I used to race motorcycles on ice with no brakes,” he said, ignoring the boys. I tilted my head toward him.
“How can you race motorcycles on ice without brakes without killing yourself?”
“You wear a steel boot to brake yourself. Some of my friends didn’t make it. I’ve had people die right next to me. I don’t even know why I’m alive.” He grinned his infectious, pearly-toothed, devil-in-a-white Stetson cowboy hat grin.
I thought about this last statement for a second. “I almost died in Morocco a few times.”
I had lived there for five years while married to a Frenchman. We’d been in the coup d’etat at King Hassan II’s summer palace in which one hundred people were randomly gunned down, but not King Hassan II, the target of the coup.
John kept talking. The boys gawked at him. “I fell off a boat in the harbor once when I was drunk and broke my arm.” He pulled up his sleeve to show me the scar. “This is where the bone poked through.”
“Where the bone poked through?” I raised a skeptical eyebrow. There was a hideous scar running down his left arm.
“Yeah. I just pushed it back in with my finger.” John laughed, taking pleasure in recounting one of his too numerous to count adventures.
“Dead drunk.” I added.
John grinned. “Had had a few shots that night.”
“You almost died!”
“That’s what the ER nurse said.”
I didn’t laugh. “Jesus, how did you survive?”
“I don’t know. They patched me up in the Emergency Room…said I’d lost about a third of my body’s blood…”
“You hemorrhage when you lose that much blood.” I turned my head and looked away. Always ripe for adventure, I nonetheless was beginning to see red alert flags. This guy had no sense of self-preservation whatsoever. And I’d offered him a ride home. Just my luck.
John kept smiling. He was having a good time. I gave him the once over and edged away. He was a bit thin for my taste, although I loved wild, feral guys. Maniacs. Anyone who didn’t bore me. I was no slouch myself, having survived the palace coup d’etat in Morocco, where my fast-driving, water-ski expert French husband had an antiques shop. He was born in Algiers in the lap of luxury; his grandparents had immigrated from Spain; they amassed an enviable fortune made mostly in Algiers. I’found out about the pie noir or black foot experience, The Battle of Algiers, how his billionaire family and the rest of the French in Algeria were given twenty-four hours and two suitcases to leave Algeria by General DeGaulle. Forever. One of his aunts had committed suicide over it. Algiers was a city beloved by the French – and the Algerians. I wrote NEVER MARRY IN MOROCCO about my experience abroad and gained some literary recognition, but not as much as I had hoped for. I was as ambitious as John, only I had a house. Independent, no kids, no attachments to speak of – we had this in common. I rented rooms in my house and taught part time at Adult Ed to make ends meet. That was before I decided to make a horror movie.
“It’s getting a bit late. I…um…I’ve got to go.” I edged away from him.
Undeterred, John kept smiling. “Catch ya’ later,” he said.
“Yeah, later,” I turned tail and walked to my car. I’d had enough for one night.
I didn’t give him a second thought until about a year later when he and Mikey Rea were sitting on benches opposite The Northstar Café while I was having lunch on the sidewalk portion of the café. We recognized each other and smiled.
A woman walked by. John belted out, “Kiss me my darling; come hold me tight,” in a deep baritone voice. He could sing all right. He didn’t have an inhibited or unbroken bone in his body.
I laughed. This guy was a riot. He loved a good time at any cost. No holds barred. Not too many people in Santa Barbara measured up. I’d been feeling a bit suffocated by the creeping gentrification in this once hippie, surfer, nature-lovers’ town.
“What’re you up to?” I asked.
Mikey passed him a water bottle; John took a swig and passed it back. He grinned. “We’re just enjoying the local flora and fauna.”
“The local belles of the ball?”
Mikey stepped forward. He had tousled curly hair and a charming little boy aspect to his square shoulders and well shaped legs, which stuck out of ragged pants. There were some scars cross-stitched on them. John looked more respectable in skinny blue jeans and a Calvin Klein sweat-shirt. He had very thin legs. I had no idea how thin.
Mikey smiled and paced about like a panther in a cage. He carried himself with a natural grace. His brown eyes sparkled.
I watched this well-built young man pace about the sidewalk and my heart skipped a beat or two. Even at my age, a sexy young man rallied my spirits. The square cut of his manly shoulders was a studly calling card. His ragged clothes announced homelessness, but I was a soft touch plus I didn’t really give a damn about people’s origins or bank accounts. Suze Orman would not have approved of my lack of commitment to my savings account.
“Why don’t you join me?”
Mikey stepped forward and with an almost formal bow, said, “Milady, you don’t know how much this means to us. We’re starving.” My heart went out to them; after all, it’s not everyday a middle-aged though youthful-looking woman gets called milady.
“You mean on the inside of the railing?” asked John. He grinned a big, infectious grin, revealing perfect teeth set in his chiseled face.
“Sure.” I grinned back and motioned to a couple of chairs on the inside of the wrought iron railing that separated the customers from the passersby and the bench sitters, who were usually homeless.
John and Mikey exchanged looks. They smiled and walked over to where I was sitting. John sat down and crossed his long, thin legs. He leaned way back in his chair. His nonchalance emanated from his posture to that irrepressible grin.
“I can sit on one side or the other. I’m used to doing both sides,” he said.
I laughed. Something felt good inside of me. It was the meeting of kindred spirits.
“Would you like to order a sandwich?”
“Would we! We haven’t eaten in three days!”
I took them into the café, ragged and unwashed. They stood out like scarecrows among the other well-groomed customers. Heads turned.
“What do you want?” asked the woman behind the counter.
John and Mikey scanned the menu on the wall.
“Roast beef,” said John with his best Hutnick smile, something that had become a trademark from his days as a cover boy on car trade magazines.
“Truly, if it isn’t too much to ask,” said Mikey with a boyish, sweet smile and deferential look.
I noticed his missing tooth. I wondered if we were skipping Dickens’ Victorian times and going straight to the Middle Ages. “These men deserve better than this,” ran through my mind.
Mikey’s curly hair framed his sun-tanned face like a greasy halo.
The clerk rang up the sale without batting an eyelash. I whipped out my Nature Conservancy credit card and paid.
“Nice tree frog,” remarked the clerk, looking at my credit card.
“Too bad they’re almost extinct.”
The clerk nodded.
John, Mikey and I went back outside and sat down.
Just then Andorra walked by. She was a friend from the Poetry Zone, a local poetry venue that I had emceed for several years. Off and on homeless with a fourteen-year-old son, she received money from the government for her schizophrenia. I knew it, and felt sympathetic. She and her son had been homeless for many years until she qualified as a certified nutcase at which point the government gave them a Title XIII apartment.
“Whoa! What are you doing with these guys?” asked Andorra, giving her best look of disapproval while dressed in flamboyant hippie style clothes. Silver jewelry sprouted from all her fingers, neck and ears. “You’re supposed to be producing a movie, not hanging out with drunks.”
She knew I had written a screenplay and was casting it. Andorra had acted as an extra in several Bollywood productions while she was in India, or so she said. I believed her.
“What’s it to you?” I laughed at her pretentious attitude.
“Hey, sista’, I know it’s none of my business, but these guys are alcoholics.” Andorra raised a disapproving eyebrow. Her wrinkled skin sagged over most of her face. She’d seen a lot of sun, weed and too much of the seamier side of the world.
“So? You smoke pot.”
“I get medicinal marijuana; it’s good for me! Alcohol is the devil’s drink!”
“Yeah, yeah.” Andorra could be a pain.
“Whatever,” she said and sauntered on after giving Mikey and John a furious look.
“What’s with her?” asked John.
“Oh, she’s just a pothead who hates boozers. She’s one of the local crazies, one of the many.”
They laughed. John motioned to Mikey who passed him the water bottle filled with vodka.
“Live and let live,” I said. “Most people have a vice or two by the time they’re fifty.” I looked at Mikey. “You’re starting early.”
“Yeah, well, my wife and kids left…” Mikey started to tear up. “I’ve almost died a couple of times. “The train hit me and knocked me a hundred feet.” He showed her the scars on his leg. “I don’t know why I even survived.”
John toyed with his food.
“Why aren’t you eating?” I asked, surprised since he said he was starving.
“Watching my waistline,” he answered with a grin.
“You don’t have a waistline. You’re thin.”
“I’m not really hungry now.”
Mikey wolfed his sandwich down.
I didn’t know what to make of them except that they were amusing, the kind of people I liked. I chose my friends for their vitality and free-spirited love of adventure, not their bank account or social standing.
Andorra came back and started yelling.
“Those guys are fuckin’ drunks!”
Her face contorted into a thousand scowling wrinkles; she looked terrible.
“Are you going to put them in your movie?” Andorra, along with most of my friends, knew I was making a film.
“Maybe,” I said to taunt her. She was starting to get on my nerves.
She was wearing a sarong-like dress that had come loose at one shoulder. It looked like it was insecurely attached, but then so was her brain.
Andorra continued screaming. Her dress continued slipping. One of her breasts flopped out.
I tossed her a sweater to cover her breast.
A policeman, who had been taking in the whole scene, stepped forward. He was wearing a gun in his holster. He motioned for me to stop.
When she saw the policeman, Andorra gave her best performance, screaming and calling out for help, which, indeed, she needed as her dress slid to the sidewalk. She was naked except for some torn panties.
The officer took a step backwards. “Put on your dress,” he ordered.
“No way I have to follow your orders!” she said. Her breasts sagged miserably.
I looked at him. “Maybe I can help her.”
“Look, miss,” said the officer as he cuffed Andorra and escorted her to another policeman’s car, “you don’t want any part of this.”
I looked at Andorra, struggling to free her nearly naked self from the officers. One of them threw a blanket over her to cover her nudity.
John and Mikey looked on in amusement.
“It doesn’t get better than this,” laughed John.
“I wish she had a better body,” said Mikey.
“Jeez,” I said as the police car drove away with a howling Andorra in it. “It doesn’t get any worse than this.”
John turned just as another homeless fellow walked by.
“Hey, Steve!” They hi-fived.
Steve looked at their sandwiches.
“Hey, man, how’d you score lunch?”
With a broad sweep of his hand, John indicated me. “We found a woman with a heart of gold.”
“No, shit!” said Steve. “Oh, sorry, m’am.” Steve tipped his well-worn hat. “That’s uncommonly nice of you.”
“I’m a born sucker.”
I looked at the heavy duty plastic bag slung over his shoulder.
“I collect cans…make thirty bucks a day. I pay my way.”
He grinned a gap-toothed smile.
With an elegant tip of his hat, Steve moved on. “Thanks for helping us out.”
I nodded, turning in my chair to look at John and Mikey. They smiled at me like two fallen angels.
“How’d you get in this predicament?”
They started to laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
John pushed himself further from the table.
“He’s on Google. Designed the 1979 Toyota Celica,” said Mikey.
“After working for GM. And meeting Barbara.”
The tale unfolded.
“Born in Detroit. Old man worked for the car factories. Taught me how to put an old motorcycle together when I was fourteen. That’s when I got kicked out of the Catholic church and almost out of my house. I could put most any car together by the time I was nineteen and in college, against the family tradition. College, that is. That’s when GM tapped me.”
John motioned for Mikey to pass him the plastic bottle. He took a swig.
“They wanted someone who knew how to build cars, not just do equations on paper. I was their man.”
I’ve worked for GM, Toyota…old man Toyoda bowed to me. He spells it with a “d.”
“Toyo-da,” he said, emphasizing the D.
I listened, trying to gather my wits.
“Why did he bow to you?”
“I’d just designed the Celica ’79 with a team of seven other engineers: four Japanese and three other Americans. He was visiting from Japan and they wanted someone to make a speech. Twenty minutes before I was to go on, they told me they wanted me to make it.” John talked nonstop; he loved to talk plus he was toasted from the vodka the water bottle contained. Actually, he was almost always pretty toasted these days. “I gave the speech, everyone clapped, and Toyoda bowed to me.”
“What are you doing starving to death in the streets?”
He and Mikey laughed.
“It’s a long story…”
They all started talking at once.
“I’ve got stories, too,” I said, thinking of my adventures abroad and as a loose cannon, controlled neither by convention or inhibitions, my marriage to a Frenchman in Morocco who was fond of driving through the streets of Madrid standing up through his sunroof, guiding his tiny Fiat with his knees and waving at the astonished passersby. Manolo usually followed him, doing the same thing. I’d yelled, “Franco es un cabron!” Franco is a cuckold. Those days passed like a long smooth sip of fine French wine.
“But I’ve always kept a roof over my head…I’ve had a novel published.”
“Will you marry me?” asked John, going down on one knee.
I giggled. “Not today.”
“I designed cars for GM, Toyota, Clenet, had my own business…” John caught sight of an attractive woman walking past them. “Kiss me my darling…” he belted in his best baritone.
The woman looked startled. She walked away at a brisk pace.
“And I’ve had some great babes.”
“I know where you can get some free food,” I said.
“First there was Barbara…we met at the Schooner Inn.”
“That’s where I spent a month with my second husband.” I loved that dive!”
“She was looking in this long mirror in front of the bar where we were having drinks…she was at one end and I was at the other.” John was talking about Barbara again.
“We got married two months later!” I said, interrupting him.
John was oblivious to my attempts at conversation. “We kept looking in the mirror; our eyes met. I thought she was a hooker! “He chuckled. “She told me she was staying at the Schooner – what was I SUPPOSED to think? When we got there it turned out she was a teacher looking for work.”
I was getting tired of his incessant prattle.
“Now she’s the head of the school board in Orange County.”
“There’s free food in front of the library.”
Mikey was all ears. “Let’s go! I’m still hungry.”
“So Barbara, well, she sort of polished me, and I polished her.”
I listened, but I had other things to do; I was producing my first movie. I had written Demon Head and gotten together a group of nonprofessional actors plus an old Victorian house for them to film it in. Wolf, another State Street regular, ended up playing the reclusive, scary guy. It turned out that he had done time in the pen, but I didn’t know that yet.
“Where’s the free food?” boomed John in his best stentorian voice. He could’ve sung in the opera.
“On the lawn in front of the library,” I said, always resourceful, especially in the company of fun-loving, still good-looking men. John and Mikey had classic good looks.
“Let’s go,” said John.
The three of them set off at a fast clip for the Santa Barbara Public Library, eagerly exchanging information as they walked.
Mikey had been a drummer for an underground band. Then he married and started a health food store in Oregon. When his marriage went on the rocks, so did he. He couldn’t handle it. He had two kids he adored. He’d been drinking heavily ever since.
When they whipped past a tony eatery called Barclay and Baer’s, I saw some leftover bread and butter pats on a table. I grabbed them, tossing them to John and Mikey.
“That’s the ticket,” laughed John.
“Thank you very much, “said Mikey with a little formal bow.
“John grinned. “Got any money for vodka?”
I stopped smiling. This was stepping over my limits. Sandwiches, banter, yes…vodka, no.
“Hey, I just bought you sandwiches.”
Mikey gave her his best soulful look.
“It’s not that we’re drunks.”
“So what is it?”
“We black out – pass out if we don’t have a certain blood alcohol level.”
“And then what happens?”
John grinned his best Hutnick, golden boy grin. “We crack out heads on the sidewalk and the paramedics come and scrape us off. Costs the city a fortune to patch us up.”
I took a step back.
“No, vodka,” said John.
“Can’t you quit?”
Even for adventurous, broad-minded, anything-for-laughs moi, this was too much. Way too much.
Then again, I enjoyed people without limits, people who had more verve and imagination than money or common sense, who said, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” I was one of them. “Screw money,” I’d say. Then I’d collect my rents and teach my classes. But I was a rebel through and through. I particularly disliked snobs.
I’d worked as an Adult Ed teacher part-time plus sold real estate until I acquired my own home and bought a condo on the side. I was the quintessential maverick. No one could pin me down. I wrote incessantly: novels, screenplays, letters-to-the-editor. I never gave up. I was annoying because no boss could hound me into working full time on his or her terms. Since experienced English As a Second Language teachers were in demand, I still kept my jobs. Ta da!
“I’m going to write a letter-to-the-editor about you two,” she said. “This is too reminiscent of Nazi Germany – the landed gentry eating sandwiches and drinking lattes at a sidewalk café while their fellow citizens look on – starving. It reminds me of a film that Albert Johnson, the first black English teacher at Berkeley and my best friend, showed me, where the Nazis played a cruel game with famished Jews. They’d eat a meal of steaming sauerkraut and sausages in front of them and then make them run for their lives in the woods while they chased them.
John and Mikey nodded their approval.
“And put the name of my rock band in it.”
“What was it?”
Mikey beamed with pride. We won the award for best underground band in 1993.
She left them standing in the food line. Mikey had already started chatting with some of the recipients. I noticed an agreeable natural sweetness to his nature, something that always appealed to me in a man. The macho attitude I could do without. Yet these two were clearly masculine, two men down on their luck and fighting the machine in their own crazy way.
I drove home, went into my sunny, spacious living room and propped myself up on my sofa, staring out the window at the distant mountains. Clouds drifted by. Life seemed serene. But life was fragile, precarious – you could die in a nanosecond, especially if you were drunk or stoned. The lesson I’d just learned about the rearrangement of atoms and photons in a split second overwhelmed me. Death had always seemed like a remote event that happened to grandparents. I didn’t have any children and would never be a grandparent. I’d held on to my youth and kept the demons at bay.
Andorra had called from the Psych ward the day after she paraded on State Street in her birthday suit. “Hey, sista’, come get me.”
I demurred. “Then go see Jeremy for me. He’s all alone in the apartment with no hot water. Neighbors tried to gas me, so I had to disconnect the hot water…”
I shook my head in despair that this poor kid had a mother in the Psych ward, but I still wouldn’t budge. Andorra kept talking and crying; after a few more verbal exchanges, I agreed to take her home. No further comment.
The next day my much younger boyfriend came over to announce that his ex-wife had just tested positive for pregnancy. “You can be the grandmother,” he said with a whimsical smile.
I gave him a furious look. “I’ll find a new boyfriend.”
After he left, I cried for a while. Then I started to fix dinner for an international student EF paid to have me supply a room, breakfast and dinner for. Bed and breakfast for rich kids.
I looked in the mirror as I passed through the bathroom. At age fifty-five, my hair remained blond and my figure sleek though filled out. I could hardly believe it when the woman in the fitting room at Nordstrom’s lingerie told me I was a size D. All of a sudden, I had big boobs. I had to go to the beauty parlor to keep my hair blond, but what good Frenchwoman wouldn’t? After my marriage to Pierre, I’d internalized some of the French values. Staying blond and retaining one’s femininity were among them. My friends said I was ageless. I didn’t care what anyone said.
The next week as I drank coffee and ate a sandwich at the Northstar café, laughing as John and Mikey talked of getting kicked in the back by the security guard at three in the morning on the terrace of Charles Schwab, my heart went out to them again. John had acquired a new white cowboy hat. That combined with his blue-eyed boy from Detroit swagger, mostly bravado but occasionally backed up with his fists, won me over. They said that the police hounded them. The cops knew they had open containers with vodka on them although they did their best to hide them. But every time the cops turned their backs John had to take a swig.
“Just to keep from blacking out,” he’d say.
I nodded sagely.
John was particularly famous with the police because they’d Googled him and found out he was a famous car designer and Daytona Beach pit man about twenty years ago. That’s when he went to work for Clenet, a French firm that designed celebrity cars in Santa Barbara. And he’d met Barbara plus a few other infamous babes.
When Clenet went under, John stayed on to enjoy the casual beach style atmosphere plus he had a girlfriend who seemed more serious than the others. She reminded him of his mother, who he loved as much as he’d hated his father and two brothers. This particular girlfriend dumped him after he pretty much raised her three sons. John started tilting the bottle more frequently after that.
Right now two policemen were circling him. John put on his best bravura act. He stuck out his hand in front of them and said, “Go ahead; cuff me. Take me to the gray bar hotel. Waste the taxpayers’ money.”
They’d shuffled around him, having a little fun of their own. Since there was no probable cause plus they secretly admired him, they eventually left with averted heads, their black and white car streaming away from the human detritus.
I watched with a mixture of detached amusement and compassion. I knew John hadn’t eaten in days, didn’t have a dime in his pocket and needed a break from his rough street life.
“Ya’ wanna stay at my house tonight?”
Fast as a whip, John went down on his knees in front of her. “Do I? You don’t know how bad I do.” He paused. “Will you marry me?”
I chortled, almost choking on my sandwich. “Nah, that won’t be necessary.”
I gave him directions to her five-bedroom home that I shared with all kinds of students; they paid me well, plus they were good company. I fished in my purse and gave him a buck for the bus. The relief on John’s normally nonchalant face was palpable. He’d suffered much too long.
“Ill be there at eight,” he said.
Then he headed down State Street with Mikey to do a run, which consisted of buying the cheapest half-pint of vodka they could find at the liquor store. I wondered what was in store, or if he’d even make it to her house that night. He’d been there once for a New Year’s Eve party, but I wondered if his memory would serve him what with so many pints of vodka washing out the bridges of recollection.
As I sat down to have dinner with Amanda that evening, I wondered how to break the news to this elfin, squeaky-clean Swiss student with a degree in design engineering who was studying at EF to get an additional English certificate to help her position herself for the crowded job market, even in Switzerland. EF was one of the many expensive international English schools in the lovely seaside town of Santa Barbara, famed for its natural and architectural beauty. It was also becoming one of the fastest growing stopovers for hobos and soon-to-be homeless in the year 2010.
When I told Amanda John was going to spend ten days in a spare room, recently vacated by some German girls, Amanda stopped eating her ham and potatoes. “Yes, I know John.” She measured her words carefully.
“I took pity on him today. Cindy’s room is free until the Italian girls arrive, so I thought I’d let him stay there. He’s a perfect gentleman.”
Amanda blanched, staring at her Berkeley grad, multilingual, well-traveled, host mother who had written two novels and was about to produce her first indie film.
“I’ve seen him downtown,” she said. She pushed her chair back.
I smiled engagingly. “I know he’s quite the character, but the cops are harassing him, he sleeps in a Volvo or out in the open and needs a break. He used to be a famous car designer…for Toyota and GM.” I hoped the brand names would change the expression on Amada’s alarmed face. I waited for her European largesse to set in. It didn’t.
He never bothers anyone. He’s a perfect gentleman.” I didn’t mention that he’d insulted one of my male tenants the night of the New Year’s Eve party. John got along with women better than men.
Amanda evidently didn’t know how to respond.
“Where will you stay in Hawaii?” I changed the subject.
“At a hotel,” she said. She planned to spend a week in Hawaii with another Swiss woman in Waikiki before returning to Switzerland.
We finished dinner as quickly as possible. Amanda didn’t help with the dishes for the first time. I realized that John was a bit much for a lot of my more conventional students; even her friends from the Poetry Zone disapproved of him because he “was loud.” John had gone to this poetry reading venue with me a couple of times and had even read one of my poems, a first for him. I disliked them for judging him. Judgy sorts. A Navy junior, I’d grown up with them. To hell with them.
I turned the TV to the Ted Turner channel, which I loved for the old-fashioned, forthright morals and humanity, not to mention the innocence of times past. A western was on with Lee Mason and Jeanne Moreau, the French actress. I admired Jeanne Moreau’s petulant mouth and finesse. The horses and landscapes took me back to another era when I sat in her parents’ living room watching Maverick with James Garner, a show I’d loved.
I wondered if John would even show up. I looked at my watch. It was seven-thirty. I wanted some company, some sympathy for I’d just tested positive for lupus according to some blood work I’d had done. Lupus, shupus, I thought. Nonetheless I felt vulnerable; my mortality weighed upon me. Five days later Dr. Elder phoned me to tell me it was a false positive, thank God. No more lupus. Nonetheless, I was still mortal.
At eight o’clock I heard a timid knock at the front door. I stood up and opened it. John filled the doorway with his tall frame, cowboy hat and two bags full of clothes and his drawing materials: colored pencils, oil pastels and paper. He still drew cars while sitting on State Street, sold a 1957 Chevy Bel Aire from time to time for ten bucks, money consumed in a nanosecond. He and his buddies shared what they had, so if anyone had a buck, it disappeared fast. Parts of State Street had become the Pigalle of Edith Piaf’s younger years.
“Come on in.” Then I inhaled. His odor nearly knocked me over. “You need a shower!”
He grinned. “Not tonight. I haven’t slept for three nights. I’m a dead man walking.”
I nodded and showed him the vacant room. “You’ll have to sleep on the floor tonight or you’ll ruin the mattress.” I had an expensive pillow-top mattress in that room, which I needed to keep decent for the next renter.
“Just so there’s no cops, security guards kickin’ me in the back.” He flopped onto the floor. I looked at him. It was cold. I got a blanket and put it over him and gave him a pillow.
“A pillow? You got to be kidding. You know that everyone on State Street holds you in high esteem for what you’ve done for me.”
I smiled, turned out the light, shut the door and went back to my TV show. It felt good to have someone who knew me in the house. The real me. I could’ve landed in the streets if I hadn’t had enough real estate savvy to buy a house when they were relatively cheap – with a loan from my parents, of course.
I felt a bit strange as I sought my sleep that night. John’s presence had altered the chemistry of the house and I knew I was to blame. I hoped the others would accept him. Or at least not move out. I raced motorcycles on ice in my own way.
I awoke the next morning with a shaft of sunlight streaming through the skylight onto my face. It felt warm and reassuring. After stretching and rubbing my eyes, I got up. I splashed some water on my face and then cautiously opened the door. John’s room was next to hers. His door was still shut.
“Poor guy must be exhausted.”
I walked to my sunny kitchen which overlooked the Sierra Nevada foothills. Birds dipped and soared in the distance against an azure blue sky. Their wings caught the sun and reflected a silvery hue. Life seemed so beautiful.
I made breakfast with hot black tea and oatmeal, grateful to be alive and well and lupus-free. My doctor thought I had lupus until it turned out I was a carrier, but didn’t have the disease. I was in good health all things considered. I marveled that I was still blond and unwrinkled, the blond was thanks to Tamara, my trusty hairdresser, who could work miracles with hair dye. I could have been in Paris, waiting for Pierre, my ex- husband to get up and get the morning paper, Le Monde, but this was not the case. I’d divorced him to escape bedroom duties and boredom after five years in the lap of the French bourgeoise.
I read the Los Angeles Times, waiting for John to stir. “He might sleep all day,” I realized. I got up and knocked on his door.
“Yeah, huh? Jus’ a minnit,” came from within.
I did the stretch exercises prescribed by her physical therapist, dressed, checked my e-mail and began to fidget. I heard his door open.
He struggled out, his unkempt hair streaming behind him, not too long, but definitely in need of a haircut. Then the stench hit me. I bolted into his bedroom and gasped. It stank.
He stared at her with a guilty look like a little boy looking at him mom.
“John, you smell like a brewery. Get into the shower!”
“It’s the cooking oil I’ve been drinking,” he mumbled.
“Cooking oil? What kind of cooking oil makes you smell like that?”
“Cooking oil with sherry in it.” He grinned his cocky, disarming grin. “I’m one of the only guys on the street who’ll drink it.”
I nodded. “Right. Sherry cooking oil.”
“I can buy it with food stamps.”
I ran to open the window in his room, tossing him a towel in the process.
John disappeared into one of the bathrooms, but the room was so rank that I feared that the students from Italy would pass out when the arrived on Saturday. The blanket he’d slept in had to be washed for starters. I threw it into the washing machine. I dismayed at ever ridding the room of his stench. The man must have been sleeping in a dunghill I guessed from the waft of not exactly Chanel #5 accumulation of dirt, feces, shoe stink: and I only knew the half of it.
And here I was in the middle of producing my first feature film, a scary movie called Childsnatchers that I hoped would finally put me in the money with a more interesting entourage . Real money like Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project had garnered for their producer/writers. I’d written novels, poetry, short stories and screenplays most of my life; I was tired of waiting for someone to decide to produce or publish my work. I decided to do it myself in a rundown old Victorian house a friend of mine owned in the heart of Santa Barbara.
I had calls to make, fake blood and fake fog to buy at the local prop shop not to mention the shotgun with its barrels plugged up that I’d ordered from West Virginia. Sometimes I doubted my own sanity at this point. I probably wasn’t the only one.
I’d been talking up this project for months after visiting one of my former teaching assistants in a house that smelled like rotting carrion. While Robert blissfully watched Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, I stared at an inert, blackened turtle in a blackened aquarium sitting on a blackened rock.
“That turtle is dead!”
Robert glanced at me.
“No, no,” he said in annoyance, “It’s just that the owner never cleans.
I surveyed the piles of newspapers and other debris that lay everywhere. The stuffing protruded from Robert’s chair. This house, four houses down the block from mine, had always piqued my curiosity with its broken chain link fence that stuck out onto a sidewalk frequented by children. The grass in the front yard had given up years ago, but it was the two semi-decomposed cars up on blocks and the half-broken, half-open garage door that crowned the disgrace of the neighborhood. Apparently Jane’s husband had left her when their son was only a year old. She hadn’t lifted a finger except to raise her son and work forty hours a week at the local hospital for the ensuing years. Now that the son was grown and on his own, she went to the Chumash Casino to gamble in her free time. Her house brought property values down around it.
I inhaled the odor of decay in the living room and repeated, “That turtle is dead!”
Robert turned and mildly remonstrated that Jane never had time to clean.
“Oh, every now and then, she’ll start to do something, but it never lasts very long.” He paused. “She was a good mom though. She gave her son a hundred thousand dollars to keep his surfboard business going after the recession in ’08.”
“A hundred thousand dollars?” I stared at him in disbelief.
Robert smiled a smug little smile. He was a slight man in his late fifties who worked as a teaching assistant in the local schools and tutored beautiful Korean woman. He enjoyed both of his jobs, especially as the Koreans respected teachers and older people. He planned to retire in South Korea.
“Her mother died three days before Lehman Brothers went under. She cashed in the stocks and got the money just in time.”
“What luck. Why doesn’t she spend some of it on home repairs?”
“Oh, she’s doing something with one of the bathrooms.”
I shrank back at the thought of Jane’s bathrooms.
I left with an inordinate sense of revulsion. It reminded me of the squalor one of my cousins lived in now that Aunt Edna and Uncle Jimmy had died. A recluse, he lived with a dog, five cats, a one-eyed pigeon and a rabbit that had tunneled through most of the living room rug. Everything clicked into place in my mind. I knew I had another screenplay, only this one would be a scary film. I went home and started writing CHILDSNATCHERS immediately.
John loved my ambition as he, too, had once been a go-getter in the car design industry. He’d been a cover boy on car magazines and made tons of money which he spent on booze, women and trying to start his own car company. He wanted to design the Hutnickmobile. John never said die. He’d raced motorcycles on ice when he was a teenager in Detroit, most anything with wheels on it.
“I think I can make it into a scary teen screamer and maybe luck out and make some money.”
John cocked his now clean-shaven head with the white cowboy hat on.
“You know, I admire you. That’s the way I used to be before I went bust.”
I gave an admiring glance at the high-heeled woman’s shoe he’d mounted on a block with tasteful pin striping since I’d let him move in. “Your shoe sculpture may get you going again. It’s way cool.”
He smiled with a sparkle in his eye. “Hey, I ran into Bettina, the head of the Summer Solstice parade, and she wants to make it into a float. She loves my ass.”
I knew John had had a salaried position for the yearly Summer Solstice, a Santa Barbara tradition since the late seventies when Michael Gonzalez, a mime and dancer, used to walk down the street with his friends to celebrate his birthday dressed in white face. It was mad, often called pagan, revelry in the land of the Puritans, although California couldn’t be considered too Puritanical. Also a gifted painter, when Michael died of AIDS in 1989, the town was saddened. The Solstice had already grown and been embraced as a Santa Barbara tradition, so it continued without him.
“She doesn’t love mine, but that’s another story.”
John turned back to his drawing board and resumed sketching a ’67 Chevy.
I’d started my scary movie venture with my usual mixture of verve, gaming instincts plus the knowledge that if I were to advance any of my scripts in the film industry, I’d likely have to make one myself. Scary movies were the cheapest. I wasn’t rich, but I had a few bucks to spare. Reading about the dearth of women producer/directors in Hollywood only increased my resolve. I started talking up my idea.
While sitting in the Jacuzzi of the local YMCA, I chatted up a couple of young lifeguards who said they wanted to act in it. I had nothing but a bathing suit on and they had no experience, but they looked like fine young men, one was pretty good-looking and the other had long, scraggly hair and a mug that could pass for scary plus they were enthusiastic. That was enough for me.
Next I came across a handsome young man in front of Gelson’s supermarket with a petition in his hand. The sun shone brightly on his flawless skin that even a girl would have envied.
Always curious, I asked him, “What’s the cause?”
He gave her a dazzling smile replete with dimples and explained it was a petition for same-sex marriage. His chiseled features and tall, slender build plus the petition led me to assume he was gay.
“Of course I’ll sign. Everyone should have the equal right to suffer.”
We laughed as I signed the petition.
“Are you in school? “
“Yes, I go to UCSB. AND I’m an actor! Do you know anyone who’s looking for one?”
I appraised him with mounting enthusiasm. “You betcha! I am. Would you like to be in my movie?”
He grinned from ear to ear. “That would be too cool! What’s it about?”
“It’s about a recluse who takes revenge on the young couple who buy his house after it’s foreclosed on. It’s a psychological thriller – a horror story.”
“Way cool! Can I play the lead?”
“You look a bit young to be a father; the couple has a daughter, but you could play the foreclosure agent. Although you’d be playing against type. You’re way too friendly and likable.”
“I can do it!”
He dug into a pocket and pulled out his card. David Namminga was printed on it in bright pink.
“Nice to meet you, David. Here’s mine.” I handed him a green and red card with a peace sign on it.
“Let’s keep in touch.”
“By all means. And good luck on the same-sex marriage issue,” I added in deference to his sexual preference.
He laughed. “I’m not gay!”
“That doesn’t matter!
We parted feeling a bit euphoric.
“I think I’m going to like making movies,” I mused as I drove out of the parking lot.
I sent an e-mail to one of my lifeguards wannabe actors.
“When can we meet?”
He replied, “Anytime. I just got fired.”
A red flag alert went off in my head. I texted, “Y did U get fired?”
“The fucks I work for got the schedule mixed up and said I didn’t show up. They wouldn’t give me another chance.”
“How many chances is that?
“3. What’s it to U?”
I knew I had to find a more reliable actor for the lead. I instinctively went to the Starbucks on the corner of De La Guerra and State Streets to have lunch. I’d chatted briefly with the young, beefy manager the other day about his existential angst in so many words. Looking at the unrelenting stream of customers demanding custom-made lattes, I understood. I was one of those people who always understood, sometimes to my detriment.
I spotted him today. He had a determined, focused look on his face that said “father” to her. He walked over to me.
“Would you like to play the father in my horror film?”
His eyes lit up. “I’ve taken acting; I love horror!” A warm smile brightened his face. “Yes, I’d love to!”
“Could the counter girl over there be your wife?” I motioned toward an Elizabeth Shue lookalike.
“She’s quick and expressive, why not?” beamed Kellen, which is what his name turned out to be.
Something lit up in me that felt like happiness. I hadn’t felt that sensation in a long time.
“I’ve got to get back,” whispered Kellen.
“No prob. I come here all the time. What’s her name?”
Kellen hurried back to fix more lattes. I hissed over the top of the counter, “Laura!”
The young woman turned and kept smiling her megawatt smile.
“Would you like to be in my movie?”
Laura smiled and nodded. Then she turned to make another latte.
“We can talk later,” I murmured.
I left the store feeling ebullient. Wolf sat nearby on a bench with a Styrofoam cut next to him and a sign that said, “Old, ugly, tatted and untalented.”
I put a buck in it.
His face lit up. “Hey, what are you doing here?”
“Casting central, Starbucks.”
“Yeah, I just found the mother and father leads for the movie working in there.”
He motioned for me to sit down.
“Hey, I love horror…read every Stephen King book there is. I got a B.A. in History, too.”
I noticed people staring at us. Wolf’s worn face and Styrofoam cup next to my stylish jeans, beauty parlor dyed blond-hair and conventional look may have startled them. I smiled to myself. “Good,” I thought. I enjoyed shocking conventional people. “They need to think more,” was my opinion.
“So you know history, too. I love history. Wanted to major in it at Berkeley, but I was already in my senior year and a declared psych major…plus my G.P.A. didn’t warrant the taxpayer footing the bill for a double major…”
“Psychology is always a plus in horror,” said Wolf with enthusiasm.
“Have you read The Shining?”
I looked at the deeply wrinkled man whose eyes protruded from their sockets sitting next to her. I wondered how creepy he really was.
“No, but I tried The Pet Semetery.” I couldn’t get all the way through it, but the concept was cool. I prefer Proust, Gide, Camus…”
“Yeah, I love the French authors…their sly wit, social critique…Marcel Proust wrote some of the funniest social commentary I’ve ever read. And I read him in French.”
“You speak French?”
“What’re you doing here?”
“I got so sick in Morocco that I had to come back. Divorced my French hubby. Gave me $200 in alimony, or shall we call it a tip for seven years of bedroom rights?” Right now I’m talking to you about playing the scary guy in Touch of the Devil.”
Wolf chuckled. “That shouldn’t be too hard. What do I have to do?”
“We’re going to shoot it as realistically and quickly as possible over the space of a few weekends. Half of the Starbucks crew will have parts.”
Wolf snorted. “Starbucks! That’s rich!”
“You’ll play the guy who gets evicted from a foreclosed house and goes back to freak out the couple who buys it.”
“I’m a natural. Been homeless long enough.”
“Where are you staying now?”
I knew that was the local homeless shelter.
“So you’ve got a bed and breakfast.”
“Yep. You might say that.”
“I’ll pay you $500.”
Wolf’s already bulging eyes nearly popped out of his head.
“When can we start?”
“As soon as I find a child actor and get the camera crew together. Hopefully, in a few weeks. I’ve almost finalized the script.”
“You wrote the script?”
“I’ve written ten screenplays and had two novels published. This is my first horror script though. I realized I could make it on the cheap. Since nobody’s buying my scripts, I know I’ve got to make one myself, and horror is a good way to break through.”
Wolf beamed at her. A couple of clean-cut men in business suits walked by. They gave me a stunned look. I started laughing. I was having fun. I said good-bye to Wolf, adding a five-dollar bill to his cup. They’d become fast friends in ten minutes.
I drove to Gelson’s, my heart overflowing with a new sense of purpose. By God, i felt happy despite the recession, despite the war, despite everything. I bought fresh vegetables and fruit. I spotted some bright yellow Van Gogh-reminiscent sunflowers as I walked by the flower stand. I picked out a bunch and added them to my shopping cart.
“All I need is a child actor,” I thought. I could imagine avenues in my life opening up, possibly moving back to my old apartment that I’d loved so much in East Hollywood, a seedy but hip and earthy section of Jollywood, as the denizens called it there. “The people are more alive there,” ran through her mind. “Younger.” Of course Santa Barbara had eponymously been called the land for the newlywed and the nearly dead for decades, referring to its near complete absence of a thriving middle class and available men in particular.
With my customary determination, I began calling the local schools to inquire about their drama classes. Soon I had talked to several junior high school drama teachers, all of whom were excited about my film project and eager to help. I also put an ad on Craigslist for child actors. Soon eager applicants sat before me in my living room.
The first was only four years old. After his mother all but forced him to read the lines I gave him, which was difficult at his tender age, he commented, “You have a hole in your sofa.” His mother blanched. She hushed him.
I smiled. She looked at the French brocade sofa I’d bought at Alpha Thrift store a few years ago for four hundred dollars. I wasn’t rich, but I made ends meet. The sofa was well-worn and comfortable, a plus as I had a bad back from an industrial accident at the age of forty, an age that seemed young to me now. It was good for writing novels and screenplays propped up by cushions with songbirds hopping around on the bushes outside. I loved my house. The little boy’s mother, a Russian immigrant, had grandiose visions of her son becoming a child star.
“I can help him learn his lines,” she said. Her face filled with anxiety.
“I don’t like to read lines,” said her son.
“Of course you do!” she remonstrated.
“No, I don’t. I don’t want to dance anymore, either!”
I remembered him dancing a tiny part in The Nutcracker at the Granada Theater last Christmas. I began to feel sorry for the poor child.
“What do you like to do?” I asked, trying to deflect the angry tone the conversation had taken.
“I like to play,” he said.
“He loves movies and drama, don’t you, Sergei,” interrupted his distraught mother.
“All children like to play; it’s only natural.”
I straightened up and looked the mother in the eye. “I’m terribly sorry, but I realize I’ll need an older child for this part.”
“I assure you, he can do it!” insisted his mother.
“I’ll give you a call, but I don’t think he’s old enough for the part. “He’s only four.”
The stage mother opened her mouth to protest. I stood up and stuck out my right hand. I shook her reluctant hand.
“Thank you so much for coming by. You have a darling son. Now I must go.”
The mother showed no sign of leaving. She settled her heavy form solidly an armchair.
“You must let him be in the movie,” she said.
“He just said that he didn’t want to be in a movie.”
The mother cast a withering look in her small son’s direction. His face clouded over.
“You are making a terrible mistake. You’ll never find anyone as perfect as my son for the part.”
In desperation, I went to the front door and opened it. “Perhaps. Now you have to go, if you please.”
The mother wrenched her heavy body from the chair and took her son’s hand. She marched out of I’s living room onto the front door stoop. Just as I closed the door, she shrieked, “You’ll be sorry!”
Filled with remorse for having put such a small child through such an ordeal, I resolved to interview more mature children.
Disconsolate, I called yet another drama teacher. Could she come to the school to observe an acting class? Were there any stand outs? The teacher had just wrenched her back and classes had been canceled indefinitely. I knitted my fine brow in frustration.
“There is Sommer Fox,” said the teacher.
“Who is she?”
“She’s been in school plays. She’s talented and sings like a lark.”
“How old is she?”
“Ten. Would you like her parents’ phone number?”
The next day, Sommer and her mother Catherine walked into my living room for an audition. Sommer stood straight as a thin young arrow, her waist-length red hair crowned an eager, wide-eyed face. Her mother matched her with alacrity as they took copies of the script I handed them. They made no remarks about the upholstery on the sofa. I listened to Sommer’s pure, young voice as the lines came to life. She was a natural.
“Would you like me to read some more?” she asked when she came to the end.
I smiled at them.
“I’ve been having a hard time finding a child who can act,” I said.
They beamed at me.
“I think I’ve found my child actor,” I said.
Sommer jumped to her feet and clapped her hands. “Do you mean it?!”
“I think you’re right for the role.”
“Sommer has done film work before,” said Catherine.
“It shows. She takes to a script like a duck to water.”
“Thank you,” chirped Sommer.
“Would you like to see her resume?”
“If you brought it with you.”
“She’s worked professionally before.”
“I intend to pay her $500 for her role. Is that enough?”
“Oh, that’s a lot, but we’ll put it toward her college fund.”
“I imagine she’s good at lots of things.”
“Science, softball…singing…” Catherine rattled off Sommer’s many talents.
“I’m sure she’ll be an asset to the film.”
“I’ll do my very best,” said Sommer.
“I hope to start in a couple of weeks. I’ll send you an e-mail.”
I detected an ally in Somer’s mother, dressed in white pants and a colorful tunic, her blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. I sensed a girlish spirit underneath her protective veneer. I knew I’d lucked out.
We parted ways with high hopes.
About The Author
I have recently filmed my first, low budget, independent feature film with nonprofessional actors, which was fraught with unexpected delights and horrors. Never Marry in Morocco, the screenplay, won best screenplay in the Santa Barbara Screenwriters’ Contest in 1997.
NEVER MARRY IN MOROCCO, Fifthian Press, 1996
THE BUSHY DAUGHTERS GO TO WAR AND FIND RUMI, 2007, iUniverse
Touch of the Devil, feature, 2013
Copyright 2011 – 2012, Virginia Dale