The memory has the luster of a dream.
In it, I stand holding my father's hand on a mountain at dusk. Beyond and below in every direction stretches the sparkling city where we've newly arrived: Los Angeles. Domed Griffith Park Observatory rises above us. My dad wears wing-tipped shoes, a handsome silk suit. The outline of his upturned magisterial jaw far above mine is backlit by the dying sky. Nearby sits a brand new blue Buick Roadmaster, in which my mother, dressed in a tweed suit, is doing her lipstick in the car mirror.
Dad's arm, sweeping upwards, seems to cradle the sunshot heavens as if they are a spray of flowers, embracing multitudes. Looking up into that oracular bowl of sky and clouds and emergent stars, which in memory is either the planetarium ceiling or the sky itself, clutching in my four-year-old fist a tiny crate of candy oranges to send to relatives back East, I sense heaven and earth to be conspirators, deeply in league about the excellent nature of things--as in the music-drenched climax of some feature-length cartoon.
Violet tints of dusk merging into dark. Spotlights scanning the foothills from below. Planes buzzing beyond. Smell of orange blossoms, sage. From some radio, "See the pyramids along the Nile . . ."
Then, a crack of lightning. Suddenly it begins to rain. People run for their cars.
She isn't in the Buick. I notice an empty bottle of Gordon's gin on the seat. Drenched, we run around the parking lot calling for her.
"Senor." A man has found her, off the asphalt, a few feet down the mountain slope.
"Philip, my nylons," she calls up from the little ravine by the observatory where she'd fallen. Legs splayed, skirt up, garter belt showing, one black high heel pointed to the roiling sky. Fresh red lipstick smeared, confusion sketched across her eyes.
I look up and see my father's face, burning with rage.
This earthly paradise is infested . . .
Welcome Home, Stranger
The tan, featureless halls of LAX funnel passengers toward passport control. An orange-haired woman in a shortsleeved blue shirt inserts my passport into a machine and waits for the computer entry to pop up. She embosses a fresh stamp over the blue, red and black collage of wanderings. "Welcome home," she says, smiling. "Next!"
I lug my shoulder satchel past suitcases tumbling onto aluminum carousels, feeling a little like a piece of luggage myself: tagged with overlapping destinations, waiting to be grabbed by its rightful owner. A customs officer takes my declaration form, searches my eyes. "Has anyone you don't know given you mail or packages to deliver?" "What was the purpose of your visit to Mexico?"
I exit the terminal into tepid, sea-level air at dusk. In the taxi line I dredge my Mexico keys from my pocket and drop them into my shoulder bag, replacing them with the ones to the little cottage in Venice. In a parallel gesture I reach in my wallet and replace peso bills with greenbacks. The bicultural switcheroo: I can do it blindfolded.
From the back of the cab running north on Sepulveda Boulevard, I look up into the silver belly of a departing jet, close my eyes against the shattering roar, feel the wind shudder the cab.
Strange, how it's always the same. The closer I get to home the more displaced I feel.
The call had come only hours after I'd arrived back in Mexico. Nell's weary voice: "Your father fell again."
Abruptly the 1,500-mile trip began to play itself in reverse. I hurried back up Calle Flor in the soft, mile-high evening air, along the darkening cobbled streets, past the parish church. At Viajes Vert'z, Malinda was just closing up but in deference to my emergencia turned the computer back on and snagged an Aeromexico cancellation the next afternoon out of Le-n. I drifted back through the plaza among the roaming toy and balloon vendors, the milling teenagers making the Sunday night paseo beneath the clangor of church bells, the Atotonilco marching band pumping out its sloppy, spirited Beatles medley in the pavilion.
Four days before, my family had gathered, as we did every April, at the suburban Los Angeles home where my father has lived since 1954. Dad had taken in the birthday proceedings from his wheelchair at the head of the table in a silly paper hat, mugged for the Polaroids. He'd managed to snuff out a couple of cakwe candles, even croaked the lead-in to an old dirty joke whose punch line we all knew. Ninety four years old. A festive day. Now, this.
Does the true vigil begin at last, the one we've been dress rehearsing all these years?
Arriving back at the house on Calle Flor, I considered its likelihood. Since my mother's death seventeen years earlier (from "smoking-related complications," in the Neptune Society death certificate's reductive phrase), Dad had been enacting one of history's longer fades. So many false alarms, few real crises but affairs on chronic alert. All eyes on Dad: just the way he liked it. I'd urged him to move out of the big empty house and up to Santa Barbara where my sister and her family lived but he wouldn't budge. "You're going to have to drag me out of here feet first," he'd say.
The next morning in Mexico I repacked papers, books, laptop. I left a note for my wife Masako, in Puebla shooting photographs for her new book on Mexican tiles. I locked the mesquite doors of the old finca urbana and climbed back into Jorge's minivan. As we raced back across the Guanajuato plain toward the Le-n airport, the radio spinning Mexican ballads and American rock oldies, even the weather seemed to run in reverse, unseasonable rain clouds gathering along the low peaks. Thoughts and feelings rose and dispelled on the air: anticipations, preoccupations, irritations. This comes at a bad time. I have much work to do, a new book. Is the old guy crying wolf again?
But something in Nell's voice had said: this one may be it.
"He thought he was in Chicago," Nell says, greeting me at the front door.
As I step inside onto the beige carpet, the musty smell of arrested life hits me. The front door shuts softly behind. The rush to get here grinds to a tiptoed halt. In the silence, my head pounds with jet noise.
"Angela found him on the bathroom floor. He missed striking his head on the tub by maybe half an inch."
"How did he get to the bathroom?" Dad has been wheelchair-bound for months.
"We don't know," she says. Nell, an old family friend, has been living at the house the last three years. "Somehow he got himself up in the middle of the night and hobbled in there. He must have forgotten he couldn't walk any more."
When he first began to lose sensation in his feet, I urged Dad to exercise, keep the circulation going. But he doesn't much like struggling against physical adversity, preferring being taken care of by others. Angela the Filipina caregiver put it perfectly: "Your father is a worrier, not a warrior."
"When I found him," Nell says, "I asked him where he was. He said, 'In Chicago.' "
Chicago. It doesn't figure. Dad's from Connecticut. He did love to talk about taping an episode of the Jimmy Durante Show in Chicago during his radio days and meeting the Mafia figures the great comedian knew. With the years, as the realities of Dad's past became subsumed into myth--as he became a legend in his own mind, burnishing his bio, striking a line here, adding another there--it had assumed a brazen gloss: Famed Producer and Director of Radio's Golden Age. Had Dad been at some speakeasy in Chicago last night, quaffing bootleg with Durante and Capone, a memory (or invention) sufficient to stir him to walk when medically it says here he can't?
"We had to call in Bob from next door to lift him."
Dad isn't that big but he's dead weight when he goes down; I've lifted him after many a fall. Neighbor Bob, a swing music aficionado who covets Dad's collection of old Okeh 78's (Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, Dorsey, Satchmo), is no spring chicken himself. We're all getting old on Dad's watch.
In the shuttered bedroom, fragrance of medicaments. Angela is tucking in the corners of the bed. Dad has a cotton bandage above his left eye.
"Hi, dad," I say softly.
Pale and reduced, afloat in his king size bed like a shrunken potentate, my father offers up a shiny, mottled hand.
"Welcome home, stranger," he whispers.
Dad has fallen back asleep. I've put in a call to Dr. Smith. Nell has retired to the room that used to be my mother's, Angela to the one forever known as "Tony's room" though I haven't slept there for thirty five years. This beige California ranch-style monument to the American 1950's (Ozzie and Harriett in situ) that had once lodged a family of four is now a place of vigilance, a nursing home serving one client.
Welcome home, stranger. I saw him four days earlier but he's forgotten, as he'll forget this visit. But even when he still had his marbles, Dad loved the comfort of repetition. In fact his life here for the last forty-five years has always seemed to me little more than a series of endless reiterations, in suffocatingly minute detail.
Welcome home, stranger. I'm welcome here, as I'm needed now. But it has never felt like home. And I've always felt like a stranger here.
I get up from the bedside chair and slip out of the room. In the dim hallway I brush past the large painting of my mother: Mom the beauty, in blue robe and pre-war bob, eyes chastely downcast: Madonna of the Lakes. At the request of a painter named Warshawsky she'd posed for the sumptuous, articulated oil now embalmed in the corridor's permanent dusk in its scalloped blond wood frame. According to Dad, the emigre artist had seen in Mom an idealized figure of the virgin. Warshawsky's art studio on La Cienega was just a few doors up from the power pole cops found Mom wrapped around one night a few years later in Dad's Buick Roadmaster. They'd hauled her off to jail and booked her that time--a blessing in disguise, as it had effectively broken one of the last and worst of her terrifying benders.
How she hated California.
Crossing the open living room, I pass the Eames chair, the Exercycle, the Danish Modern coffee table, the tan upholstered settee, the unplayed out-of-tune spinet, the unread Books-of-the-Month, the unregarded Matisse and Picasso prints. Living room merges into dining room, kitchen, den--the low-slung, open-plan house an exemplar of a certain American postwar ideal. The unfiltered Chesterfield and Optima cigar smoke that once clouded these rooms is still embedded in the upholstery, blending with the aromas of Nell's cocker spaniel--and loss' elusive effluvium.
My sister Meg, who'd been ten years old when we moved here, says she always thought of this house as home. I never did. To me it was a place devoid of affect or nourishment, a museum to a life my parents had lived elsewhere in better days. Our family's bright beginnings in California, sunny new land of promise, had ground to a final halt in this muted dwelling, set in a barren subdivision at the time Dad bought it. At seventeen I'd been glad to be gone. If someone had told me then that I'd still be coming here this late in my own life, I think I'd have slit my wrists.
As the lights in his memory began to blink out one by one, then in clusters, Dad would sometimes say to me, "You know, I can't remember living here." It seemed like an odd thing to say until I thought about it. But Dad's real life had happened elsewhere: in Connecticut, in Manhattan, in Hollywood. Here he'd always seemed like an empty man, lost in a haze of passionless gestures and boring habitudes. As a young man I hadn't understood why, nor felt the least compassion toward him about it. Cruelly I'd thought of my father as the perfect exemplar of Eliot's hollow man, or the nowhere man John Lennon sang of.
No, I wasn't about to forgive him anything.
I sit down in the overstuffed den chair beneath the framed poster of the Steinberg New Yorker cartoon in which America beyond Manhattan is rendered as insignificant. Dust motes explode. Family photo albums lie stacked on the table beside the chair. The grandkids when they visit love rummaging through Dad's carefully curated archives of kids and relatives, celebrities and stars and show biz memorabilia, the old black and whites bleeding into color as the family grows, disperses, ages.
Outside the plate glass window, in the shadowy stand of eucalyptus trees bordering the trimmed lawn, birds warble. Angela's television plays softly in her room. Metal walking sticks Dad no longer uses lean against the blond mahogany dining room table. Nell's cocker spaniel, Ruffles, snoozes next to the refrigerator.
Or was it Dad who had the photo albums out?
The top one is open to a black and white publicity still of me at fifteen, bent over a snazzy white pearlescent Ludwig drum kit, flailing away, a cool grin on my face, dressed in a hip one-button-roll suit and Chet Baker hair. A pianist, bass player, and tenor flank me. Inscribed on the television stage scrim behind us is a treble clef with musical notes and the words Spotlight on Youth.
Drums: my first instrument of escape.
On the same table, next to the phone with the extra-large numbers to accommodate Dad's failing eyesight, sits a worn leather-bound address book. During visits home over the decades I've always marveled at the page after page of entries under my name, successively crossed out: Paris, Tangier, Barcelona, Berkeley, Kyoto, New York, San Francisco--spreading from "C" and "D" then commandeering "E" and "F." New pages were inserted to accommodate my tireless, unreadable wanderings, inscribed first in my mother's careful, Parker penmanship then later in Dad's flattened, angular scrawl.
The last entry is the house in Mexico. Inconceivable, that I'd been there only six hours ago.
The phone rings. It's Dr. Smith. I ask her about Dad's fall.
"Another infarction, most likely. Mini-stroke. Afraid there's not much we can do at this point."
"What inning are we in?" I ask Dr. Smith, a lifelong Dodger fan.
A pause. "The ninth," she says.
The street below my father's house winds through pines and eucalyptus to a tiny creek beneath a wooden bridge. Late April air bears the scent of rosemary, honeysuckle, loam. Moonlight diffuses through the treetops. With the passage of years the little wild canyon has thickened with plants, trees, new homes. I stand at the oaken railing watching shallow water flicker over stones on its silvery dance to the sea a half mile away.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Native State by Tony Cohan. Copyright © 2003 by Tony Cohan. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.