“Come all ye losers don’t you know you’re the children of life?
Follow me now and we can burn down the pillars of time ”
- High On Fire, Hung, Drawn and Quartered
When I woke up I realized I was still in Palm Springs. The ceiling fan was the first clue. Plus I was wrapped up under the heavy quilted bedspread my Dads always favored. Even in a place that reaches 120+ degrees these guys still insist on Arctic ready covers.
My Dad’s house has a specific smell too. The Freon scent from the constantly working central air, mixed with cabinets of antique curios and furniture from musty estate sales houses, combined with a coffee maker always on and sometimes burned and my real Dad having to smoke outside that, still, somehow manages to leak through closed patio doors makes for a familiar yet totally unfamiliar smell. I don’t own many antiques. I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. And my old life back in San Francisco only required the occasional use of a fan. Still, this was home #2 so to speak.
The carpeting is strange too, almost like the floor covering you find in offices. Utilitarian I think they call it. They used to have a small dog, a skiperdee, Lily, but she died a few years back so the non-shaggy “carpet” that helped her move around easily and didn’t leave any traces of that soft black fur she had is a curious addition. My eyes still thick with sleep crust squints a bit as I twist the dark brown bamboo looking stick to open the sun shadowing blinds. These things make the room almost pitch black when in operation. Many a day I have taken a nap, usually from the heat or after a few afternoon cocktails, and have woken up thinking it was midnight; only to discover it was barely dinner time. I guess when you’re retired gay men living in the desert you want very little reminder that the sun bleaches out almost anything it burns on. Even Edwardian bureaus and relics from elegant pomposity past.
The room I was staying in is my Dad’s room. My real dad. He was married once, back in the early 70s, to my mom, obviously, when being an out of the closet homosexual wasn’t so revered an accepted as it is now. He came out to me when I was 13, which freaked me out to no degree but then when I got involved with community theater and realized almost everyone is gay in one way or another I relaxed and just let it be. He is my Dad for craps sake. How many Star Wars toys and video game systems did this guy get me for Christmas and birthdays? C’mon.
His room is actually separate from the rest of the house which is nice. First off, it is filled with posters and artifacts from B-movies of the 50s and 60s. Images of bridge eating dinosaurs from movies like Reptilicus and 3-D glasses with the words House Of Wax on them fill the counter tops and walls of his room. Plus his tiny personal stereo is always equipped with CDs of new wave classics so many a night, after many a beer, I have put on the headphones and blasted away one hit wonders like The Vapors, Wall of Voodoo, Bow Wow Wow, Icicle Works, etc. It’s almost a room that I would have if I were gay, retired and living in Palm Springs. Which is odd to think about.
Second, his room is way down the hall, a few clicks from Dad #2's room, next to the bathroom with patio accessibility. Dad 2 has a finely decorated yet kind of sterile room with the only item of quirky flair is a large cardboard cutout of Joe Montana, a longtime object of lust for him, standing proud and toothy behind the door. The separate rooms came a while back, actually when they moved into this place from their old humongous pad in Monterey, CA, as they both snore and have completely different sleeping patterns. My Dad gets up at like 5 am, everyday, has some coffee, smokes, reads the paper, then goes back to bed at around 7 or 8 only to get up a few hours later. Dad 2, who has sleep apnea, that horrible “are you dead from not breathing?” snoring, gets up at 7 am sharp and stays awake only to complain that he’s tired for most of the day. They are complete opposites that have found and need each other. Plus my Dad is a skinny little short guy who was a wild artist actor hippie married once and had a kid. Dad 2 stretches over 6 ½ feet and practiced medicine and was a socialite and medical board member for years. Never been married, always been outspoken about his sexuality. They are two in-proportioned peas in a happy pod of two different worlds.
Eventually I emerged from the room and headed for the kitchen. A check from the ornate and supposedly owned by W. Randolph Hearst grandfather clock said it’s just past 10 am. I could hear the TV babbling on in the den and smell the coffee, half charred, but always a welcome treat.
“Good morning ” my dad yells from across the room. I hear canned laughter so I know he’s wither watching Will and Grace or Becker. “Nice of you to join us.”
My Dad actually buys decent coffee. He used to be a specific Folgers with that flavor crystals crap drinker but after Oprah praised the taste and company of Peet’s Coffee he’s been hooked. Funny thing is I actually worked as a barista for Peet’s many years ago, right after I had quit doing film production. It was honestly an awesome job and I always brought bags of the stuff when I visited back then. “It’s too strong” he would say. Now look at him.
I joined my Dad in the tight quarters known as the TV room. It’s equipped with two expensive leather recliners, a TV the size of most multi-plex movie screens, surround sound and, of course, antique lamps and tables. Something that I have adopted from my Dad’s home life is the use of ambient light. These guys live in almost relative darkness, using amber lights and hidden light sources to make the house look even more like a show room at night. That or an old movie house which is what my dad is going for. As you sit on one of the recliners you are treated to a widescreen TV that is so immense and close the foot rest that pops out and up could almost hit it. I sit in Dad 2's chair and am treated to, I knew it, Will and Grace with Debra Messing near enough that her boobs actually look sort of big.
“How’d you sleep?” my dad asked.
“Good. I had some dream that Gary Coleman was my boss and he wanted me to carry a big bag of animal fat across the street to some house that involved Mexican gangs and pornography. I wasn’t wearing any pants, as usual, so I don’t know if I was the star of the movie, like some weird fetish thing involving animal blubber, or I was being jumped into some gang but in a kinky way. Either or it was cool to see Gary Coleman.”
“Uh huh,” he uttered, only half listening as the antics of Jack and Karen were taking precedence. “Well...you always did have bizarre dreams.”
It was true . And voices too. Not bad ones that seem to always say “Kill the president’s dog” but more along the lines of wouldn’t a picnic be good right now...who needs this job...go outside...put on a puppet show...Slayer rules. The “voices” are one of the main reasons I never got into drugs. I couldn’t imagine them being any louder or actually taking shape. Beer always seemed to keep them at bay though.
“How’s the book coming along?” he asks.
“Umm...okay. Good. Actually, no. I hate it. It’s going in a weird direction.”
Again, Jack and Karen, this time with Harry Connick Jr. Something involving white wine spritzers or whatever. My Dad erupts in laughter.
When I moved here a few weeks back I told myself I would try to write an actual book. For years I had been a contributing writer for a dozen or so underground and heavy metal magazines. It started as a fluke, a favor for a friend really who had become an editor for a small magazine based out of Chico, CA that seemingly blossomed during that whole ‘dot com’ boom of the late 90s. I still penned for a few, mainly the big glossy metal mags like Metal Rage, Mosh and Terror Reign, but I wanted to see if I could actually be a “real” writer. I had started an almost fictional tale of my experiences with all of the random jobs I had worked throughout the years. The book, almost 100 pages in, had U-turned into a blathering mockery of not only the English language but of my own life. I didn’t tell him it had been three days since last I opened the file marked “Das Book” and typed. I really didn’t know what I was doing at this point.
As we sat there watching back to back episodes of Will and Grace I sipped strong burnt coffee sifting through the vapid and conservative Palm Spring’s Sun Times listening to my dad laugh and make idle conversation, the phone rang. My dad got up, walked into the kitchen where the cordless phone lay charging and answered. It was a commercial and my dad always muted the commercials, so I could hear him talking.
“Hello?...Oh yes...hello Amanda...how are you?...that’s good, that’s good...uh-huh...oh really?...oh ...oh, okay...well he’s finally awake and sitting right here....hold on.”
My dad walks into the TV room cupping the receiver and boldly mouthing the word “Amanda” as he hands it to me. Amanda was my sort of girlfriend I had left behind in San Francisco. We talked here and there, emailed often enough and sometimes even phone sexed when the mood hit. Things had taken a left turn for me back in San Francisco, my home for almost 10 years, and when the opportunity to stay with my Dad as Dad #2 was off taking care of ailing friends in Nevada, I put stuff in storage and drove all day with my necessities in the back of the truck to hang out with my father and try to become a novelist. I wasn’t sure what I should do next or where I should actually be. But Amanda was always a welcoming voice.
“Hi baby,” she said in that throaty voice of hers. Amanda had actually been propositioned to do phone sex once but her status as an art teacher would be sullied. It was one of her regular customers at the bar she worked at part time, where we met actually, and she thought about it briefly in times of economic crisis. You think an art teacher can keep a large apartment like she had in San Francisco on that salary? Almost every teacher, artist and musician I knew had a second or third job to keep their lifestyle and home in the city. Amanda was no exception.
“Hey darlin’”, I said. “What’s up?’
“Um...look....” Amanda sounded upset. I could hear the sniffles and tears.
“Oh my god. Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. Yeah. I’m fine,: she said weepily. “It’s my dad. He’s...um...”
“Oh no. Is he dead?”, I said with general concern. Her dad had contracted some kind of stomach cancer a while back and was slowly on his way out. During the months that we were dating there had been many a phone call from her sister and mom regarding her dad’s health. I even drove her and picked her up from the airport when she had to fly to Tucson, AZ to visit and help the family once or twice. This didn’t sound good.
“No, he’s not dead. Uh...,” she paused to sob and blow her nose, “not yet.”
My dad shot me a “what’s going on” look and I gave him the ‘just a second’ finger extension before going back to his room to talk in private.
“Oh man,” I said closing the door behind me. “I’m so sorry. What’s going on?”
“Um...,” she said with a hesitancy. I felt as if something was up and something big and bad was about to happen. “Look...I need to go back home and take care of things.”
“Uh, back to San Francisco?” I asked. “Where are you now?”
“No, no, I’m in San Francisco. I’m at the apartment. I took the day off. I need to go to Tucson and help my family. They need me. My mom and sister can’t handle all of the finances and shit and my dad by themselves. They need my help. I need to be there. I’m going to leave next week.”
“Wait a second,” I said a little too loudly, “what about your apartment? You’re giving that place up? I mean, you need to give your landlord like at least a month before you...”
“That’s why I’m calling you.” She sniffled and paused. “Um...how are things going in Palm Springs?”
Amanda had that voice indicating something was up. She was a great manipulator. If she couldn’t do it with her deep brown eyes or DD chest her voice could get you to do almost anything. Maybe that’s how we started dating in the first place. I don’t remember.
“Um, okay. I guess. Fine.”
“You and your dad doing okay?”
“Uh...yeah. Fine. Great. No worries.”
“Have you ever thought of moving back here?”
There it was I knew it. Yes I had thought a myriad of times about moving back to San Francisco, picking up where I left off and getting back into that heady kinetic groove that the city insists on. I had also considered Los Angeles, which is where I grew up in Glendale. I had friends in LA, good friends, old college buddies. Of course they were scattered all over the place and rarely saw each other and I knew I’d wind up working at a Tower Records and living in a craphole somewhere in Hollywood but, hey, that was an option. So was Austin, TX. And Hollywood, FL where an old pal had a photography business and said I could go work for him. And Delaware where my mom and her side of the family lived. Or Seattle. Or even Dorset, UK where I could be the road manager and technician for Electric Wizard, one of my favorite metal bands. There were loads of options.
“Yeah,” I said a bit craggy, “of course I have considered moving back. Yeah...uh...”
“Well, I kind of need your help.”
I knew what she was going to ask me, and when she asked if I could “take care of the apartment” a thousand voices piped up and shouted a variety of pros and cons at me. Her place was central, Columbus and Union, overlooking Washington Square park, in the heart of North Beach, just up from Fisherman’s Wharf, near everything, thousands of bars and restaurants just a few steps away. It’s the kind of place most people dream about finding when they first move to the city.
But the apartment was dark and angular and cluttered with almost two decades of her living there. Plus she rented out the small extra room to random art students going to the academy a few blocks away. Sure I had some savings and a tiny unemployment check coming every other week but that was it.
Her place was noisy too. The bedroom window overlooking the main drag of Columbus Ave, a busy street stretching all the way from the wharf to downtown, was also over a popular restaurant too. The racket ranged from a dull din at night to outright madness on some days. It was also very old, so the walls were cracked, although some bad art hung covered some of the damage. Cockroaches made appearances on occasion. Did I mention it was noisy?
On the other hand, it was an option, and the only really solid one I had at the moment. It would be easy to slip back into the San Francisco routine. I know I could get a job right off the bat and get my old gigs back too. Sure. Why not? The important this is I’d be helping a friend out who really needed it.
Still, the city reminded me of...”her”. Not Amanda but the biggest heartbreak I had ever experienced and the main reason for wanting to move away. That would be something I’d have to deal with.
“Yeah, okay,” I said with a deep sigh, a million scattered thoughts, hesitancies and emotions all racing at once. “I’ll do it. Of course I’ll do it. For how long?”
“Oh thank you ” Amanda said with general relief and glee. “I’d say a few months, no more than six at most. If that. First months rent is free. That’s taken care of by my family.”
“Well thank you family.”
“When can you come back?”
“I’m thinking the day after tomorrow.”
“I love you.”
“Yeah. I love you too.”
After I hung up I retreated back to the kitchen where I found my dad outside smoking. I opened the sliding glass door and sat on the already hot lawn chair.
“Is everything alright?” my dad asked nervously under mirror shaded glasses. He liked Amanda, better than...”her” he told me and judging by the conversation knew that something was amiss.
“Her dad is dying,” I said. “She needs to be with her family in Tucson Arizona.”
“Oh no. Poor thing.”
“Yeah”. I sipped my coffee and was about to say something that would get the ball rolling and send me into survival and change mode once again. Even in my man-boy uncertainty and general laziness I was always pretty good at adapting and getting back on my feet. At least to a basic minimum where I could go back to my books, beer and movie watching with the hopes of going on a date now and then. My joy and happiness requires very little but are of high difficulty and maintenance.
“She wants me to move back to San Francisco and take care of her place while she’s gone.”
My dad exhaled a deep drag and nodded. “Is that what you want?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” is said in absolute truth. I didn’t know. But I couldn’t stay with my dad much longer, dad 2 was coming back in a few weeks. I had barely scraped what contacts and options I have in LA. Austin? Seattle? Come on, those were towns I had only visited briefly and liked. Delaware? Are you kidding me? Sure it would be great to see my mom on a regular basis as visits are rare due to finances and my absolute hatred of airplanes. So really, in a way, Amanda’s phone call and request had been a blessing.
“So when do you need to leave? If you leave.”
“Day after tomorrow. And yes,” this was the final decision, there was no turning back now, “I am leaving. It’s what needs to happen.”
“Well alright,” my dad said.
I got up and we hugged. I went inside, put on my shorts, vintage bowling shirt with the name “Earl” on the right breast pocket and laced up my shabby Vans skateboard shoes. I needed to take a long walk.
The voices just wouldn’t shut up!