Chapter 6/ 2007
The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
The crack of dawn drive to the next gig takes, at tops, a half-hour, straight down Sunset Boulevard, my red 69 Chevy Malibu flying down the Strip the way my fingers once flew over the keyboard. I listen to Chet Baker and barrel over glistening black tar, past sidewalks, newspaper stands and parking meters covered in a fine mist before reaching my destination, the ominous green lushness of Bel Air. My patient is a eighty year-old movie producer, recovering at his ex-wife’s home from open heart surgery. I worked on the Cardiac Rehab floor at Cedars-Sinai in the days when coronary artery bypass grafts were the new thing. I can do this one in my sleep. The heat of summer stills my gut. This job is going to work out. I can start writing again.
At seven thirty in the AM, I stand with the producer’s wife on a thick lawn, whose grass is as green as my urologist’s teeth were white, the shimmering blue of her pool teases us from a few feet away. Our eyes are shielded from the snickering sun by the thick lenses of our sunglasses, hers Chanel, mine Ray-ban. Our bodies are hidden from the always deserted streets of Bel Air by a thick white stucco wall. We silently look at the threatening outline of her sprawling home, whose unwieldiness is given a palatable form by the clear blue sky.
“My eldest left for London the other day. I miss her already,” the wife says. “All my girls have been there before. When they studied world history in high school, I took them to Europe so they could see where it took place.”
The wife digs her bare big toe into the soft ground, the bone white of her skin against the grass making me forget the youthful figures enfolded into the chocolate walls of Century City. A pale steam rises off of the pool. The wife has not yet applied her makeup, my tabloid eyes spotting the face-lift lines behind her ears. The wife is a decade younger than her ex, a few hours with a good colorist and she would easily pass for mid-fifties, even in the harshest light offered up by the City of the Angels.
“The girls loved Washington D.C. We went there during junior high school for American history.”
“Tell me about your home,” I say. “It’s wonderful.”
“It was designed in the shape of a yacht. I added my offices on to the stern. If you look carefully, you can see that the through line hasn’t been broken. My architect was a genius.”
The walls on the side of the house facing us are floor to ceiling glass. The morning air is hot and heavy on our backs. The housekeepers have pushed open the living room’s incredibly heavy sliding glass wall. Like the table with no boundaries I sat at when I first moved to Los Angeles, this house is opened up and free. I can breathe it into my lungs with the heavy air.
I cough. None of what my eyes have seen in the last hour has anything to do with my life.
The case runs as smoothly as the antique watches my patient collects but never wears. Routine is valued. The days are the same. The producer wakes up at eight. I bring him fresh water and the “Los Angeles Times.” I shower him, wash his hair, help him step into the freshly starched underwear and pressed slacks I have laid out for him the night before. I put his Lacoste shirt on, comb what is left of his hair, guide his gnarled toes into his UGG slippers. I hand him his ivory toothbrush and, a few moments later, a splash of mouthwash in a heavy Baccarat Crystal glass. I follow from behind as he walks. At nine, he eats a light breakfast. I give him his pills. As he brings each pill to his chapped thin lips, he asks me what it is for. He does this whenever I give him a pill. Every time. He is a lucky man to have a patient nurse. We take short walks. He sits and reads until lunch. A nap in the afternoon. I sit at his bedside in case he wakes up to pee. Dinner and then into bed at six. He watches the news until I leave.
At first, he wants me close by. He will not say why. We sit for hours in the still heavy air of the living room. I read “Tony Kushner in Conversation” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” He reads detective novels. Every fifteen minutes, this big time Hollywood hitter looks at me. If I smile, he turns away.
“It’s good that you read books,” he says. Not many like us left.”
I smile. Nod my head. I continue reading.
“Look at my two boys,” his wife says as she walks past us to her the shimmering blue of her pool.
The producer’s seven year-old grandson arrives at noon for his swimming lesson. His instructor waits obediently for him at the pool. The instructor has no body fat. His skin is solid bronze. I’m good. I do not look at him, not even when his fingers adjust the crotch of his bathing suit whenever the producer and I walk past him. I keep my eyes on the producer. That is what I am being paid for. The family, Jewish on the producer’s side but decked out in high Presbyterian duds, takes over the living room. They talk and laugh, sing the praises of their golden boy, who dives into the pool like a dolphin. As the boy swims across the cool blue water, the instructor’s eyes watch the producer’s wife as she talks with her daughter. The instructor is never invited to sit where I sit, with the family.
Not seeing it spread out against the white carpet, I step on a towel laid out for the golden boy to stand on when he runs in from the pool.
“Watch where the fuck you’re walking, asshole,” the producer says.
“Don’t you ever talk to me that way,” I say. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
No one moves. I am the only one in the room who is not holding his breath. All eyes stare at me. The instructor smells the tension. He waves the golden boy out of the pool.
“OK, OK. Just watch where you’re going,” the producer mumbles.
“We’re out of here,” his daughter says. “I’ve told you repeatedly not to talk like that in front of my son.”
In a moment quicker than the golden boy’s dive into the pool, it is, once again, the big macher and I in the living room. We read. Only now, the producer returns my smile every quarter-hour.
“Tony is enchanting, such a brilliant mind,” the wife whispers as she walks toward the swimming instructor.
The next week, I read “Seriously Funny, the Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”
“The housekeeper is off tomorrow,” the producer says. “Do you think you can make my bed?”
“No worries, I can handle it.”
“You’re sure now?”
He is not kidding.
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
Having set the water to the exact temperature he requests, I stand with the producer in the shower, the circumference of its grey tiled walls larger than my living room. And I have a large living room. Having tamed the full length of the coiled silver shower hose, I wet my patient down, soap him up, rinse him off. A bottle of Kiehl’s shampoo falls off the shelf and hits his big toe.
“What the fuck are you doing? Goddamn you,” he says.
I laugh. And laugh. I can not stop.
“What’s so fucking funny?”
“I’m cleaning out your asshole because you can’t reach it. You obviously haven’t reached it in years. That’s funny. All of this is funny.”
I towel him dry. Neither of us talks.
“You should be able to get your pants on yourself by now,” I tell him.
I make the bed. He dresses. I keep an eye on him. Just in case.
“You look sharp this morning, sir,” I say.
“Bed looks good, kid. How’d you figure out how to do that?”
“I make my bed every morning, sir.”
“Let’s go eat.”
“Please join us for lunch this afternoon,” the wife says. “We can discuss the comedians you’re reading about.”
The producer, his wife and I begin to eat lunch together every afternoon. The housekeeper, a thin Mexican man in a handed down Lacoste shirt, slides plates of chicken, pasta, fish, fresh fruit and steamed vegetables in front of us. He works silently, no one ever looks at him, the haunted expression on his face, of what could have been, never changing. We eat, while a few feet from the glass topped table we sit at, the housekeeper, whose eyes never appear to focus, washes dishes and rearranges the provisions on the shelves of the sub zero refrigerator. I talk about Mort Sahl with the wife. The producer never once talks during our lunches.
“Enough already,” the producer says when he is finished eating. “Sahl was a fucking loser.”
I am eating in a way that I have never known before. Each meal and snack is planned out as an adventure, not a necessity, there is never a thought of cost, the only concern being to delight the palate, the holiness of each movable feast always served by the invisible housekeeper. I make rent money within the first two weeks of every month. I start making monthly payments of eight hundred dollars to Citibank. Slowly, as if returning to a lover whose youth spurned me, my hands work their way over my keyboard. As long as I can write, life at the new tables I find myself sitting at is worth waking up to.
The producer’s youngest daughter arrives with her boyfriend. She is a size zero with skin whiter than her mother’s. At 3 PM on a broiling Los Angeles summer afternoon, the daughter is wearing a Prada dress and open toed sandals, her smooth arms embracing a Birkin bag and a vintage Dior clutch purse. The boyfriend is dark, sullen, stubbly. Distressed jeans and a tight Armani shirt cover his compact body. I read about Lenny Bruce. Father and daughter strategize about her job at Paramount.
Boyfriend leaves to change for the pool.
“He’s good for you,” the producer says.
“You think?” the daughter purrs.
She extends her arm out towards her right, then slowly positions it slightly behind her, the empty glass in her hand hanging in the heavy air. The housekeeper refills it with iced tea, poured from a pitcher he keeps in the fridge in case unexpected guests arrive. Not one of us can hear the housekeeper’s feet moving over the blinding white carpet.
“He’s wonderful,” the wife says. “Much more suitable than the last one.”
“He doesn’t even make sixty-thousand a year…how could I be serious about someone like that?” the daughter asks.
“I’m talking about the housekeeper,” the wife says.
I get up and move to the door.
“Stay Jake, I want you here,” the producer says.
“You guys need some alone time. I’ll sit in the next room.”
I sit on a brown corduroy couch. I watch the boyfriend as he gazes into the deep blue of the pool. My eyes move down to my book. I read a page and look back to the pool. The boyfriend stares straight at me. He smiles.
“What do you have planned for your days off?” the wife asks as she walks into the room.
My fingers mime typing.
“You’re a writer?”
“I just had my first story published.”
“I’d love to read it. We so like having you here. You’re a perfect fit. I don’t know what’s inside you, but you keep him in line.”
A half-hour later, the boyfriend enters the room though its sliding glass door. He is wet. His feet leave tiny footprints on the brown hand painted ceramic tiles. He looks down at me as I read.
“Do you need something?” I ask.
“A towel…a towel if you’ve got one.”
I bring him a white bath towel. He turns his back to me. His muscular arms spread out horizontally before me, the small of his back tightens.
“You don’t expect me to towel you dry like I do the old man?” I ask.
He turns around. We lock eyes. He hasn’t shaved in at least a week. Me either.
“You better go find that skinny girl,” I say. “If you need another towel, you come around. I’m here till seven every night.”
Toweled off and dressed, the boyfriend and the daughter say their good-byes a few minutes later.
“Nice seeing you today,” she says to me.
I look up from Lenny, my eyes moving past her to the boyfriend. I stare at him for a moment too long.
“Sorry, I was reading,” I answer. “What did you say?”
The next weekend, I walk to my car to retrieve a biography of George Cukor, a long ago friend of the producer. The father of the golden boy parks his Hummer behind me.
“Nice car. Really cool,” he says. “The old guy likes you. They’re going to ask you to work with him when he goes back to his apartment.”
I am set. A good paying job. With the speed at which I annihilate a heckler, I open the hood and show the golden boy’s father my rebuilt engine. We take our sunglasses off and talk about transmissions and tires.
“It’s a great car. Must be a bitch to maintain,” he says.
“My best friend Mark talked me into buying it before he died.”
“Old cars cost so much to keep up.”
“I could never sell it…it would be like betraying Mark.”
“So many things can break on these babies. How do you manage all the repairs? The maintenance alone must cost a fortune.”
I slam the hood shut. I look into the blue pools of his eyes. They shimmer only for the ugly daughter he married, the one he met back in the days when he was bussing it down Santa Monica Boulevard to his job as a background artiste on “General Hospital.”
“And?” I ask.
He does not answer.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say. “They’re upset about the bombing at the airport in Glasgow. They’ve already called your sister-in-law. She’s fine.”
Golden boy’s father tells me he is here to commiserate about the tanked Friday night box office of a Will Ferrel movie he worked on.
“Guess a lot of things go wrong with those babies too,” I say.
Golden boy’s father laughs. Inspite of the always empty streets, he parks bumper to bumper behind my Malibu every weekend. He never removes his sunglasses in my presence, never mentions the cost of repairs again.
A new night nurse arrives. Overweight, sweaty, his elastic waisted jeans need a good washing. He wants in on the action. Bad. The house, the food, the housekeepers, the original paintings on the walls, the DVDs from the Academy have nothing to do with me. Lucky man that I am, I knew that from day one. The night nurse pants in the heat of the quiet Bel Air evening, his shaking hands would benefit from a twelve step meeting. The morning after the second night he works, the house reeks of garlic.
“I run a catering business on the weekends,” the nurse tells me. “I cooked a feast for him last night. You know, so he’d have something decent to eat.”
“You should finish up your nursing notes,” I respond.
“I’m also involved in marketing a health drink. I’ll bring some tonight.”
“Sign off on the med sheets before you leave.”
The wife rolls her eyes as the nurse walks sleepily to the stucco wall.
“It’s not you,” the wife says the next morning. “He doesn’t want to eat lunch with either of us anymore.”
“He’s getting better,” I tell her.
“I want you to think about taking care of him in his condo. Oh and I finally read your story.”
For the first time since I have been in her home, I hold my breath. Her father was a big time director. Gained Hollywood cred in the 70s for surviving the blacklist. The wife grew up here. She and her ex know everyone, they talk constantly about their friends: writers, actors, show runners, directors and agents, as in literary agents. I could get my book of short stories published. My life would turn the corner. I could be a truly lucky man.
“It shows such skill…and sensitivity. Your longing grabbed me in my throat.”
I don’t know how to work it, the sentiment of which grabs me forcefully in my intestines. I smile. Nod my head. Stare at the floor.
“It’s amazing that you…that you could write something like this. One day, another nurse will be sitting in my living room reading your stories.”
The wife hands me my story back. She tells me she is going for a dip before breakfast. I watch her in her pool. She holds on to a huge inflated yellow duck to keep her afloat. She splashes around. The sun hits the water and makes it shine. She puts her Chanel sunglasses on and splashes some more. Lucky her.
“Nice shirt you have on,” the producer tells the night nurse that evening.
The producer’s whimpering MO is to compliment you on your attire or point out some detail about you which only he notices. If you question him about either a few minutes later, he will have forgotten why he gave you the shout out.
“I bought this at the Goodwill,” the nurse says. “You don’t have to buy second hand clothes. You’re worth so much.”
“Am I?” the producer asks.
His wife puts the remote down. She looks at the nurse, then over to me.
“I Googled you and looked you up on IMDb. You made out real good.”
The wife walks me to my car. I know my colleague has crossed the line, but I think it is as funny as the morning the Kiehl’s shampoo assaulted her ex’s big toe.
“He knows that I live alone…how isolated I am here,” the wife says.
The fear in her voice grabs me in my throat. I smile and air kiss her cheeks good-night. She walks slowly back to the door in the stucco wall.
My cell vibrates at Sunset and La Brea.
“Bro, what happened in Bel Air?” the staffing co-ordinator asks. “The guy just told me about the nurse we sent in. He’s really mad.”
I give him the 411.
The next morning the housekeeper is off. I push open the sliding glass wall in the living room. It must weigh a few hundred pounds. I am Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. A sharp twinge of pain like a heated knife moves from my groin to my toes, its heat bounces back and rests in my balls.
“Can I ask you something?” the producer asks.
I have just brought in his water and newspaper.
“Why the fuck did you tell your agency about that asshole nurse?”
“They called and asked me.”
“All I told them was that I didn’t want him back. You opened your fucking mouth and told them all about it. Stay the hell out of my business.”
My balls are throbbing. I feel like I’m going to hurl on to the producer’s three hundred count sheets.
The mail arrives. The bill from the agency on Sunset is due. To the tune of 40K.
“They told me Medicare would cover this shit,” the producer screams.
The pain has eased up, but I can feel the swelling in my right ball. It is early July. Open enrollment for my insurance ended in April. I am stuck for another year with the PPO, the deductibles and the co-pays. It will be, at minimum, four thousand to cover the Outpatient Surgery Center. I will need to work two jobs to cover it.
“I don’t know why they told you that,” I say to the producer.
“Fuck it, I’m not going to pay.”
“Why do you think Medicare would pay for this? It’s not like you’re following the cardiac diet or doing your daily exercises.”
“Because I need it, that’s why. Goddamn it.”
The producer screams all day. He screams as we walk past the swimming instructor. He screams as we walk around the three Mercedes SUVs in the driveway on our way to the door in the stucco wall.
In the bathroom, he screams into his cell: “My lawyer is on this…you won’t get a nickel out of me.”
The pain is throbbing again. I am afraid to go into the bathroom and pee because then I will see and feel how big my balls have grown.
After his nap, the producer takes his cell into the bathroom and slams the door.
“Don’t send this guy here anymore. Today is his last fucking day. I don’t need his help.”
I put the producer in bed after dinner. I ask the gardener, whose demeanor is as affectless as the housekeeper’s, to help me push the glass wall closed. I let him do most of the work.
“Why the fuck are you asking him to help you?” the producer shouts from the bedroom. “That’s not what he’s here for.”
“Why don’t you get some rest?” I answer.
“See you tomorrow,” he says.
“You know you’re not going to see me tomorrow. You know this is my last day.”
Finally, finally he is still.
“Did you think I couldn’t hear you screaming while your were in the bathroom?”
“Do you know that the people you work for charge more than double over what they pay you?”
I smile. Nod my head. Stare at the floor.
“Did you know that? Did you know that?” the producer yells.
I look at him. If he keeps going like this, his bridge work will crack apart and hit me in the face.
“Yes, all the agencies are like that.”
“You let yourself work for people who do that to you? You’re a fool.”
“Yes, I’m a fool. I’m a fool. You’re right. I’m a fool.”
It is the pain and the fear talking. At least, I think it is.
“I didn’t mean to upset him.” I tell the producer’s wife.
We are alone in her office. The sun is setting. We look out at the orange surface of her pool.
“When the agency called me, it sounded like he had told them everything that happened. I didn’t want the nurse harassing you two.”
She smiles. Nods her head. The producer enters.
“You can get out of here now,” he says. “Stop bothering us.”
I look at his wife. She glances at her keyboard, then up to her computer screen. I am no longer her lucky man.
“Let’s get you back to bed,” she says to her ex. “I feel like watching something silly with you tonight.”
I drive home. An hour and a half down Sunset. My balls are killing me. I stop at the boyfriend’s. I can not figure out if I want to cry or have him marvel over the sudden enormity of my balls. He is not home.
I soak in the tub to get the swelling down. I listen to Sinatra CDs. I sing along to “One for My Baby,” the first buzz of Vicodin kicking in. I think about how blue light shimmers off of the pools in Bel Air.
Must be nice to have a rubber duck to hold on to.