Charlie Christianstein enjoyed shocking and one-upping his rivals at the other studios and so he had built his palace of a house not in the traditional places of great wealth, Bel Air or Beverly Hills, but up on a mountaintop in a huge old ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, set among steep hills and live oaks and shrub jays and mountain lions and coyotes and roadrunners, up above the fire-ravaged ridges and the little nests of human habitation. One by one these wizened ranches had been bought up by the Very Wealthy, of whom Charlie was certainly most prominent. Mitchell, who prided himself on living what his ravaged values called a modest existence, was saddened not by how wealthy Charlie had become – he knew himself to be far wealthier – but by how abjectly the man liked to display his riches. He had never thought that he and Charlie and his old art department buddies and the writers and the earnest directors and actors he and Rosie used to know would so absolutely buy into the old Hollywood dream. But they had, it was true, all of them, rich and poor alike.
The house that Charlie Christianstein built was a wonder, everyone said. Because Charlie liked to be out on the cutting edge, as he himself said, the house was constructed of materials not supposed to be proper but which had recently come to be hugely fashionable. His architect – famous guy, in the crowd somewhere. Hi, how are you Warren, have you met Chevy? – had built it of of wire and shards of glass, of plywood and of unfinished concrete and it was wrapped and crisscrossed with thick bands of chain-link fence. It had one wall composed entirely of skip-loaders and another of what seemed to be cardboard boxes and set above it were huge billowing sails of ribbed plastic and garden hose. Walls veered out, oblivious of gravity, sweeping like the wings of birds. The house looked like a huge stack of department-store gift boxes teetering precariously, finished off with a last-minute stop at the hardware store.
“It’s modular,” brightly announced the current Mrs. Christianstein, a nice girl named Pryce, who seemed altogether charmed to see them. “It used to be ‘Weatherstain,’ you know, the old Ben Lloyd estate? We tore the original place – Hi! How are you! – down because it was so old. It was a tear-down. That was when Charlie couldn’t stand anything old.” She laughed to herself for reasons she obviously knew best.
“New house, new wife, new studio,” grinned Charlie. “Same old product, though.” He greeted Chester warily, glad to see him, a reminder of the old days when there was some sense of decency in this town, when everything wasn’t so dog-eat-dog, good old Chet. How’s that leg? He icily ignored Mitchell once past the grandness of his welcome. He latched onto Chester and Jim Rook and nervously introduced them around, darting glances full of smiling dislike toward Mitchell.
“Mitch’s brother Chet, he fell right into the damn mushroom
and destroyed it. He’s the Giant Beaver Man, you know.”
“Oh, sure. You’re the one who had made the right decision when he went back to the old home town – up in Oregon, isn’t it?”
“Prycie, I simply love your house!”
“It’s modular. Hi, Goldie!”
“Washington State, actually.”
“Well, hi! How are you?”
“Mitch, hi. I hear JacManII is your greatest.”
“I’m quitting the business, so thanks, but I don’t care what you think about movies.”
“Do you mean to tell me this is the Jim Rook?”
“You’re Mitchell’s brother? You’re so big!”
“Run that by me again, Mitch?”
“Hi! How are you?”
“I don’t really follow sports, but I can’t tell you how much you’ve meant to my boys.”
The Jim Rook graciously accepted the attention of Charlie Christianstein, the most powerful man in Hollywood, of MitchellHoneyacre, the most famous director in Hollywood and of all their important friends, the most famous friends in the known world, and carefully shepherded Rosie Everlasting – the newly greatest love of his life in the known world, a woman herself famous to the point of absurdity – into the heart of the party. It was as if she were the Queen of Sheba and Rook the Roman come to fetch her, to catch her, to parade and display her. Rosie liked the
feeling. As well, she got the distinct impression that Charlie was not only coming on to her but was willing to ante up a good part in some movie in order to sleep with her. This amazed her. The new wife was so young. She was beginning to be aware of the fact that Mitchell was telling everyone he talked to that he was quitting the business, but Mitchell was like that. Addled. There were rumors throughout the business lately of Mitchell’s odd moods and precarious mental states. It was getting to be industry gossip.
Chester noticed that Jim Rook, as well as Mitchell and Rosie and 150 and probably himself were jacked up and bright-eyed from the cocaine, thinking fast, on top of things. They made up a knot of bright alertness, they virtually shimmered into the party. This behavior from Mitchell was strange in itself because Mitchell was not a drug person, never had been, even in the old days when Rosie’s musician life had necessitated the consumption of at least cocaine and marijuana as if breathing air. Mitchell never cared about any of it. He barely even drank for years, but now Chester noticed that he was gratefully downing alcohol as it was shuttled to him by the white-jacketed human drink trays who careened through the thickness of the welcoming crowd, trays of slim glasses sailing above their heads.
“I’m quitting the business,” he said generally. “Something big is going to happen and I don’t want to be here, doing what I’m doing, when it does. I want to be up north where I belong, doing something important. Ecology, you know.” A pause, “Giant beavers, you know.”
People didn’t take him seriously, of course. He was dressed in jeans and a shirt and a stupid promotional baseball cap (it said “Kill Some Monsters” on it) and everyone else was dressed up for a formal party, at least by Hollywood standards, which are not exactly the standards of much of anywhere else on earth. Mitchell was applauded by his glamorous admirers as he lurched into the cavernous main room of the house, whose many inhabitants applauded him as well. 150’s appearance at his side caused quite a sensation given the appearance of Rosie Everlasting and the two kids just behind them. Word was out that the new “Jack Manosaurus” picture was going to be great. People were excited by it, although it did not yet exist.
“Something big is going to happen,” Mitchell would say again and again. “I’m getting the hell out of here. That’s what the giant beavers say.”
Jim Rook rose to the occasion at this party. He had somehow taken on an attitude of stature and dignity. His tuxedo looked expensive and graceful and European to Chester, unlike his own which was from Mitchell’s wardrobe and was therefore much too small. Mitchell had pointed out that not only was it too small, but that Mrs. Quanito was going to have to slit one leg and one arm to get it on him. Still, Chester had insisted on wearing it, slit though it was. He wanted, he said, to look as good as his date and Karen Mae was flattered when he said that although he did look slightly odd once it was on him. Unlike Chester, Jim Rook had assumed the role of the modest prince and he looked the part, in spite of his limp and his huge hands with their many victorious rings and his split and battered face and his black straight hair laced with gray. Another of his personalities had lurched to the fore, that of the kindly and forebearing despot, a great man content to wait for the attention that was his due. He was no longer the howling crazy person of the daylight hours. He towered regally above the guests. He did not feel up Pryce Christianstein’s (Prycie, her friends called her, not without irony) rear end, even though it seemed to desire his immediate attention due to the magnificently exposed quality of its pert self and the tightness and smallnessof the golden skirt but barely wrapped around it. Chester tried to look Jim Rook off the target, but he need not have feared.
“Honeyacre, I swear to God I’ve never seen so many moviestars in my life,” the big man bent over and whispered in Chester’s ear, as if they were two kids. “I’d like to fuck a couple of these babes in the ass while they sucked on each other’s tits.”
“What did he say?” asked Karen Mae.
“He’s never seen so many movie stars in his life,” answered Chester.
Jim Rook shook hands firmly with Prycie Christianstein and in answer to her question, politely told her how tall he was, to the quarter-inch, and only briefly gave Chester a sideways, this-is-one-of-the-babes-I-was-talking-about kind of glance. He seemed, as well, to have perfected a kind of gracious acceptance of each celebrity as it made its way through the thickening crowd to say hello and tell him how much he had meant to it or its children.
Even foreigners somehow knew who Jim Rook was. He shook hands warmly with Thomas Trust Davies, a man who, by all accounts, had once been thought to have a shot at being the best English – which was to say the very best – actor in the world, until Mitchell Honeyacre had entered his life, until “Jack Manosaurus” had either ruined or enlarged it. Since he was not quite sure, in spite of his immense fame and wealth from the first movie, of either his ruination or his enlargement, a charming air of indecision hung about Thomas Trust Davies which did him some credit. He had got along in Hollywood much better than he might ever have expected, and this both interested and repelled him.
“I often fucking feel that way, my friend,” he said to Jim Rook, who had become so respectable as to politely ask the little guy if he felt bad being so far from home. “In fact, you won’t probably fucking believe this, Jimmy boy, but I often think of myself as that sort of Old Brit who would spend his life out among the Fuzzie-Wuzzies of the Old Queen’s Empire – sorry dearest, no offense at all, you’re a big one, ain’t you? – to find his way back home at the end of his life, to sit on some lilac-draped porch overlooking the fuckin’ cultivated landscape of the putrid Emerald Isle and edge into a genteel death with a tartan tucked about the old thighs. Inside, one’s fucking guts churn still with the roaring memories, the flash of serpentine daggers, jewels set against the breasts of the dark-eyed women of the Khyroub Pass, all that kind of shit.”
Women simply fell over dead when Thomas Trust Davies talked like that. Jim Rook liked it too, you could tell.
“I hear you, pal,” he said, admiringly.
There certainly were a whole lot of movie stars, that was for sure, thought Chester. In the crush of the entranceway, Rosie spied the Super-International Mega-Star Amber Bernstein, who was known to have screwed up royally by jilting Mitchell Honeyacre for some young actor.
“Amby!” Rosie called, waving both her beautiful arms in the air.
“Roastie!” yelled Amber Bernstein, lunging through the crowd toward her friend.
Amber Bernstein was very beautiful in the way of women who had spent most of their late youth and middle years fussing over tanned bodies, spending large amounts of money to control the inevitable wear and tear on their carriages and skins and formerly much-admired deposits of girlish fat. Amber Bernstein had made a whole lot of money in the Seventies of the old century and had, in fact, nearly won an Academy Award. Now, however, she was trying to market her rock-solid appeal to women of her own rapidly advancing age and type. These women to whom she might appeal were imagined by her business managers and advertising consultants to be women who had once wanted to take a chance, who might once have wanted to sniff cocaine with the Rolling Stones and wear little princess dresses hiked up under their breasts, women who would have liked to have been in the company of European or Arabic men who drove fast little cars, men who might have wanted to lock up the slim young bellies of these girls with thin gold chains, as they had, for all the world to see, Amber Bernstein’s.
(If. If that job hadn’t fallen through at the Squilimuk Mark-Mart. If that damn son-of-a-bitch hadn’t walked out. If the kids had been a little younger, or a little older, or if there had been no kids at all. If that weight gain from the pregnancy hadn’t moved in to stay. If Mom hadn’t got so sick.)
Amber Bernstein was the living epitome of the girls who had once taken chances, the girls of 007, the girls with tiny guns in their brassieres, the girls of speed and danger. And the customers of Amber Bernstein – all those many hope-to-take-a-chance-someday real women of Albuquerque or Danbury or Salem or Monterey or Muscle Shoals or Tonopah or Monroe or Rockingham or Rockford, women who might not have done anything spectacularly whacky up to this point in their lives – now could have all the rewards of daring by purchasing cosmetics and breast enhancement products recommended and manufactured by Amber Bernstein herself, a living queen among the most beautiful women in the world, women who had taken a chance in life, who at one time long ago had publicly abandoned their brassieres and changed their behaviors and walked the big screens of the world full of emancipation in their high boots and short skirts.
Rosie always thought of Amber Bernstein as the greatest of the women of Warhol and Twiggy and Swinging London. She was older than Rosie, in other words and she’d screwed up badly by kicking Mitchell Honeyacre right in the balls in front of the Tabloid Nation. Mitchell hated her now, Amber confided, and she was sorry, but this kid she had fallen in love with was just so cute.
It was not often mentioned, but often inferred, especially as she grew older, that the immense size of Amber Bernstein’s breasts might have been the beginning of her fame and popularity, but that her talent, her career, her craft was out-swelling (wink, nod) even the two world-renowned glands that sat up on her chest. The girl could act, in other words. She was the real thing. However, age is the enemy of nothing more than actors and these days Amber Bernstein might be found on odd channels of the television at all hours of a sleepless night, exhibiting a natural and cultivated amazement at the wonders that the secrets of Professional Hollywood Breast Enhancement Artists might actually work upon the everyday breasts of everyday women at everyday prices, especially if they wished to call now. The products were very natural, very safe and guaranteed to either make one’s breasts smaller or larger depending upon careful, even scientific, application.
Amber Bernstein had jilted Mitchell Honeyacre hard. When she saw him, when he kissed her coldly on both cheeks and kept talking to someone else about how he was quitting the business and leaving “this town” on the advice of giant beavers, when she saw that he was with the little whore 150 who was reputed to be nastier than even Madonna these days, she felt bad. But only for a moment. She had invested quite a bit of her own money in Amber Bernstein Breast Statement Enterprises and was looking out upon her future as an old sailor might finally long for shore.
Amber Bernstein and Rosie had been friends forever and between them there was much kissing and holding of each other at arm’s length and shrieking at slimness or the imagined lack of it. They were, Chester thought, two fabulous and beautiful creatures. Rosie was particularly happy, because she felt that she was much younger than Amber Bernstein and a whole lot hipper and that Amber had really fucked up by jilting Rosie’s ex, which left a distinction between them worth its weight in gold. At least Rosie had gotten paid off, and damn well too.
Chester watched Rosie and Amber Bernstein together and rather automatically wondered if a woman as wonderful as either of these might ever come into his life, for him to hold hands with and have lunch with right out of the refrigerator and read the Sunday paper with. Then he remembered that Karen Mae was his date and, oddly, he felt better for it, in fact suddenly he felt a whole lot better. He looked around but she was gone. He wondered where she was. No one was talking to him and he thought he would look for her. He took a drink from a tray and then another and began to limp through the crowd to find her.
Val had found Karen Mae and her mushrooms. The weather was hot, much hotter than up in Washington, and Karen Mae was afraid that the boletes were slime by now, but when they got them into the huge copper
sinks of Prycie Christianstein’s football-field sized kitchen. (“It’s just a little cuddly Craftsman kitchen!”) they seemed pretty fresh.
They were huge, these boletes. Several women, probably from
Guatamala, Karen Mae thought, exclaimed in Spanish about them. There was even some ribald laughter. The mushrooms did look sexual, thought Karen Mae, wondering where Chester was.
“Would one of you guys go find your Uncle Chester?” she asked of Bela and Bela said she’d be happy to. Corvin just hung with the mushrooms, staring at them.
“Do they get you high, do you think?” he said, snapping his fingers and stretching his wrists out of his cuffs as if so much energy were flowing through him that he was trying to enlarge his gawky body to contain it.
“No,” said Karen Mae, “absolutely not. Hallucinogenic mushrooms are pretty much small, tiny even. They grow in fields, often in dung. These live in a peculiar relationship with a particular kind of tree’s roots.” She could tell by the look on his face that she’d probably lost him.
“Man,” he said, clicking his fingers and stretching his feet, “these things look strict.”
Corvin and Bela got along just fine at this kind of affair. They knew Hollywood quite well, a lot better than Karen Mae, for instance; not so much because they’d spent all their summers in and around it, but because they were forward New York kids and not the slower children of the West Coast. California show business offspring seemed to be able to retard their laconic adolescences virtually forever, tossing their blonde locks in their eyes, largely illiterate and – in Bela and Corvin’s quick judgement – socially retarded. They could talk to anyone in the world because most of their lives they plugged along the slushy streets of the real world, in the wash of sirens and noise and sheer population and activity and bravery that was New York. This Hollywood crowd was almost funny to Corvin. He had known a whole lot of the adults since he was a little kid, and while he probably had them figured out as well as he did most adults, they still struck him as odd. They were addled and out of it, the tough guys from the studio, the denizens of the lot, the accountants and banking and business people, the loud and charming people called “talent.” They all seemed equally eccentric to Corvin. He didn’t feel out of place at all. He felt superior.
Bela, for her part, wondered if the people of darker colors who were serving the drinks and tending the great silver steamtables and ushering the guests and parking the cars were aware of who many of these famous people were, even the ones of their own colors. Did they see these same faces shining from the tabloid racks at every inferior market they went to on their off hours? Or did they have different faces on the tabloids of their check-out lines? They went to markets, she was sure, whose produce was much less fresh and expensive than those studded along the glittering edges of the Valley or Beverly Hills where the guests at this party shopped or – more to the point – had their shopping done for them. Bela made a point of being direct and smiling at the help and thanking them for whatever poo-poo they brought to her on a silver plate as she humored the attentions of the adoring wives of studio executives and agents and actors and even the three funny comedian movie stars who had all appeared wearing the same white suit and who had no choice but to find it pretty damn funny. She could see Thomas Trust Davies talking to some bimbo from TV and she hurt inside. She wanted to slip away and smoke a cigarette somewhere. When she had been ten, there had been nothing better than smoking. Now she was an old woman, hitting thirteen, and she felt she should probably give up cigarettes, but she had so come to love the look on Rosie’s face when she – a lifelong smoker herself – had to confront her daughter about smoking that it somehow made it all worthwhile. It was as if she had acquired a wonderful mirror, a mirror of smoking, to hold up to her mother.
Karen Mae, for her part, noticed that marijuana was being smoked openly in some corners at this party. She, being of the generation that had agonized about the Vietnam war and the rights of everyone and the defeat of homegrown fascism, had proudly smoked pot for most of her adult – that is, academic – life. She preferred, especially now that she had reached what she was sure Edith Wharton would call a “certain age,” not to be seen smoking pot in cigarette form, however. It was just not proper for a woman of her position (her Phd, her MacArthur Grant, her fellowship.) She did not want to be seen by younger colleagues handing a soggy joint around the old after-dig circle during breaks in the endless cleaning and sifting and categorization of fossil finds, sucking communally on some limp thing as if being filmed for an anthropological study. She kept a small amount of very good marijuana in a priceless little Tlingit cedar bentwood box that a field geologist in Montana had given her and had wanted back with quite a lot of hard feelings when they broke up. She kept a clever little Haida stone pipe to smoke it in. She did not share the pipe with anyone, but upon those rare moments when co-workers on digs would, with the hilarious reserve that so often characterizes scholarly people, solemnly hand a joint around, Karen Mae would smoke from her little pipe, passing the communal tube distastefully past her with the ends of two fingers of her left hand and not sucking from it. This behavior, she felt, while it might receive censure both from pot smokers and non-pot smokers, could at the very least only enhance her reputation as an eccentric. That reputation had become increasingly dear to her, especially since it had a great usefulness in obfuscating her precise age. As someone who was known as a great beauty in the closed little world of paleontology, she knew that there was constant speculation among her colleagues and students about her, and since she could not exactly hide her age, she was determined at the least to shroud it under a cloak of eccentricity.
In the kitchen, she washed and then sliced the big mushrooms into slabs, like sections through a blank white brain. She directed the cooks in the garnishing and marinating and refrigerating of them.
Chester had not found her and by now was outside on the grand terraced porch at the rear of the house, the side that looked out over the great city. Inside the house, through windows whose thick glass had been somehow melted and twisted and turned, as if one were seeing through a glass-blower’s work, he could see Jim Rook quite surrounded by several important figures, chief among whom were Charlie Christianstein and some little person in a sports warmup jacket whose back was to him. They were talking and gesturing and laughing. When the little person turned profile for a second, Chester saw with horror that it was surely Baxter. He clutched at the stone in his pocket and then he breathed very deeply and turned around. His view took in all of distant Los Angeles with Santa Monica and the dark curve of the bay in the foreground. The vast carpet of lights stretched off into the endless distance until it met the darkness of the mountains and the night. The lights shimmered and glinted with mysterious colors that were just on the edge of the intensity of the little neon dots that had launched his vision and he felt suddenly the thrilling lure of the Adjacent and Additional World. He was surprised that he was not panicked but seemed to feel pulled out toward the little lights with some old familiarity. He suspected that he might even welcome being sucked in. For a second he imagined that the many shimmering lights of the great city might form themselves into familiar little lobster-like organisms and act out their myriad stories for him and for a moment he could see that it would happen and he had the sudden wisdom to squeeze the rock in his pocket. His hand was slick against the thing. The little lights did nothing but shimmer, heat seeming to rise off them as the sun showered the foreground with pink. He breathed more easily.
“Hey, big guy.” It was Charlie Christianstein behind him. He started and nearly fell to his death.
They gave each other the old hippie power shake and requisite male hug with only momentary embarrassment, because it was something neither had done earlier. For a moment the expanse of the balcony was empty of anyone but the two men. Above them, the ceiling was studded with the dimly-glowing headlights of the front ends of perhaps two hundred old Cadillac cars from the nineteen-fifties, of every color of the rainbow, every one of which seemed to be headed straight down onto them. It was as if they were cliff-dwellers, the rest of their people still up at the top of the cliff picking corn and just these two old guys left alone among the arching rock cave roofs to talk of old times, about to be struck by falling Cadillacs.
“What a night, can you believe it? It’s barely out of winter and it’s hot as a fucking son of a bitch, for fuck’s sake,” said Charlie. He looked around him and got a cigarette out of his tux pocket and lit it hungrily. The air was hot and dry. Behind them, inside the great addled structure of the house, through the coddled windows laced with the colors of Venice glass, women were undressed by the standards of the Northwest.
“Man, I love it. You guys are so lucky down here,” lied Chester.
“Frankly, Chet, fuckin’ California makes me nervous,” said Charlie. He was gulping down puffs off the cigarette with his back to the windows, as if hiding from Prycie. Chester decided not to be annoyed at being called Chet.
“Listen, Charlie,” he said. “See that guy in there? The little fat guy with the red and black jacket on? The guy you were just talking to? Is that guy named Baxter?”
“What guy? Oh, yeah. Ha.” They peered in the jutting windows and Chester pointed out the fat little man in the Midden Ravens’ warmup jacket.
“Oh, yeah. Ha, ha, ha. That idiot. I think you’re right. Yeah, Baxter, I think that’s his name. That guy is a genius, Chet. That’s the guy who finally has figured out how to do “The Drifter” as a movie, a big movie. I’m not kidding,” he said sarcastically.
“Really,” he said in a choked voice. “How’d that happen?”
“It’s one of those weird fate things,” said Charlie moodily, flicking his cigarette butt out into the air to fall into the lighted pool beneath and land with a hiss on water whose surface was just being kicked up into little waves by gusts of hot wind.