Elegy for Western Time
When she was nineteen, Mary moved from Cleveland to Los Angeles where she was to train as a typist. One day in her third month of study—it was April, raining—she ducked into a teal-tiled luncheonette near MacArthur Park for coffee. As soon as the cup was placed in front of her a man’s deep voice began to boom the events of the world from a yellow vinyl radio in the far corner. The voice stayed with her, kept her in the luncheonette until its three o’clock closing, followed her home to the efficiency off Wilshire she shared with Doreen, a machinist’s secretary who went out nights with the machinist’s son and came back mornings with a bruised neck.
On weekdays Mary typed and memorized shorthand and practiced her speed on chapters from Revelations and at night she ate fried eggs and beans on toast or goulash and on weekends she rode the Santa Monica Air Line to the beach. After two months she still could not shake the man’s voice. She left typing school and enrolled in a new broadcasting program at the University of Southern California. There she met Don, who’d been in circus films as a child and was then a gaffer on the Universal lot and drove a convertible and would become her husband. Fifteen years later she was a teacher and he was a director of B-movies and they had two children whom they took on summer vacations to Lake Havasu City, Mary or her son Charles driving the Buick while her husband flew his pleasure plane low above them on the highway. It took so long to get out of California. It felt almost impossible to leave the state, those mouthfuls of white cloud crammed into their eyes as Don glided above them, so close they could hear his laugh.
They divorced when the kids were grown. Mary kept the house in the Hills and Don moved to Costa Rica. She got a facelift and a second husband who left her, after five beautiful years, for a fat woman from his own country. In her late seventies Mary moved into a condominium in Ventura, far now from the city where she had heard the man’s voice, and began to receive care from a series of women who had been born in Jalisco and traveled across the border as girls. In the evenings when the cow shit wafted strong from Oxnard, Mary sat with one of them in her white-carpeted living room and remembered what they had said about California when she was a girl in Ohio, that it was America’s Mediterranean, rich with grapes and flowers and hills worked by Mexican people who loved to take care of you.
California State Route 138 is called Pearblossom Highway from Palmdale to its west junction with State Route 18, just past the site of the socialist commune Llano del Rio, which lasted about as long as the First World War, until 1918, when the inescapable sun convinced members of the colony to decamp for Louisiana, leaving behind stone chimneys and foundations in the brush. Out in the high desert, light white and thick as a line grows fires and art named for the highway, not even the word but the abbreviation, H-W-Y: a beloved 1966 David Hockney photomontage, a less beloved 2012 film described as having a “dusty, no-hope atmosphere.”
I drove Pearblossom Highway to Llano one day in February 2013 with my husband, who wanted to see what was left of the commune. That morning we’d visited an outlet mall in Ontario, bought him a pair of lake blue pants and a thin gray t-shirt. In the ruins he bent his leg like a flamingo, an acolyte of the sun, and asked me to take his picture. I squinted, sweating through the underarms of my buttondown and the soles of my inappropriate Oxford shoes. I was happy, our silver car gleaming behind me. All those years we drove across the back-broken landscape, in and out of Western profusions, horizons cut like teeth against the sky. It was the most comfortable I’d ever felt with him, sitting in the car with something on the stereo or not, both of us facing forward like figures in that overwrought Antoine de Saint-Exupéry quotation, landscape unfolding around us, folding us in. We got in our car and drove home.
Los Angeles, where we lived, is a confusion of grimy botanical abundance. The traffic is famous, but what struck me when I moved there from New York in 2009 was the fauna. Everywhere exotic plants sing out of broken concrete, housing the hummingbirds that I at first took for monstrous insects. In Hollywood, where I spent all but one of my seven years in the city, one can walk up from the heat-beaten landscape of diminished expectations that is the tourist section of Hollywood Boulevard to a dreamy hill district of pseudo-Moorish mansions. The Theosophists, whose motto was “Work Out Your Own Salvation,” built these in the early twentieth century, after acquiring ten acres of the former Charles Hastings ranch in 1912. They spent the next twelve years populating their land with spaces for meditation and clean living before, distressed by the urbanization of Hollywood, they left their houses to the first generation of movie stars and took off for Ojai, where they dwell still in the pink moment. On untold afternoons into evenings I fled the thick yellow unhappiness of my arid apartment to get lost in the streets these dreamers left behind, their edifices clothed in the violet that comes at dusk, the turning sky promising stars.
But nobody walks in LA. Better to drive: up Mulholland, where I could wing hairpin turns around low-slung complexes. To the Observatory, where my husband and I used to go after sunset when we were first together, toting coffee and donuts from a place on Hillhurst. To Laurel Canyon Boulevard, where one day in my last spring in the city I drove in a haze, up and up into the sky, as if my car were impelled by a lead dangling from one of the omnipresent helicopters of which I had become obscurely fond. Seeking quaint removal I went to the deli up in the Canyon, but inside a man followed me through the aisles until my sandwich was ready. With it I went outside to sit beneath the bougainvillea and eat and he emerged with more questions—did I think this place was cute—and I got back in my car and wound it further up and around, panting, stuffing the sandwich into my face with one hand, until the houses and landscaping broke on the right side of my car and I pulled into a turnout to blink at the city.
“It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West,” Rachel Kushner writes in The Flamethrowers. On days when I had fled my home into sunlight whose intensity assaulted and comforted me, I convinced myself that this was what I was doing, that I had had a plan all along.
David had no kind of life growing up in Little Mountain, South Carolina, but when he was nineteen he knocked up Faith who was older and just come to the trailer park from Conway down on the coast, and after that things were good awhile. It turned out twins, a girl and a boy they named Geraldine and Kyle, but everybody called them Fuzzy and Teeth. Faith was pretty with the weight from the babies, and there was good work at a factory sealing cellophane bags, and his mother was happy to be a grandma. Nights she came over from the rented shack by the bus station where David had known only unhappiness, and Faith’s father, a Spanish-looking man from Gulf Mississippi, set up the grill, and they had wings and pork chops in the gravel in front of the trailer with Christmas lights strung up all around. David had put them up for the first holiday and never had the energy to take them down, which at first Faith had been on his ass about, but by April the nights were warm and all the little lights were like the stars they never saw. At his feet the babies burbling and throwing handfuls of rock at each other, a cold one in his hand, his father-in-law’s look of hypnotized concentration over the flames as he turned the meat with tongs. Some nights his mother brought a pot of boiled peanuts.
It was good, but David was always tired. Around his tenth hour at the factory a red spike of pain drove up into the arches of his feet, and it was impossible to smile at Fuzzy or Teeth when they came up on him at home. One night David was leaving work and Fred, who everybody called Jumps, touched his shoulder, saying, you’re tired, man, you’re wore out, and I want to help you. Everything went quick after that, Faith’s father hitching up the trailer and taking Faith and the babies away, the floor supervisor telling David not to come back to work, Jumps pulling up one night in a Datsun, saying, my brother, let us go and chase the golden dream.
In Hollywood they lived the first year by the reservoir. Jumps had a decent tent and the weather was always good, not fuck-humid like South Carolina, and David hooked up with Lara, a pretty girl with rich parents. They were back in the trees and even when rangers found them they just told them they couldn’t be there, and David knew this to be because he had a divinely ordained power, a demon who kept him impervious on his sacred mission. It had a purple tail and clicking eyes and would never show itself to David, only edge around behind him. It was the demon’s idea that David stop wearing a shirt and go about in only the black blazer and pants he’d found on Cherokee Avenue, and it was the demon that kept them in tina and Fritos. At night it wrapped its tail around the perimeter of the tent and David wrapped his arms around Lara and they were safe.
But then Lara’s parents came for her with private security one silvered dawn, and the bastards cut the tent to make their point. David and Jumps were on the street, doing as they could, until Jumps got picked up for possession and David, running, leapt from an overpass and cracked his orbital plate. In its soft hiss his demon told David that pain was the price of freedom. After that David told everyone who passed the intersection of Franklin and Argyle about the beauty of his demon’s love, a topic so capacious that twenty years of his life passed in its service.
And then one night when the smoke and food had been scarce for weeks a woman with a black ponytail walked by and his demon told David to use it to pull her to the ground, to smear her face like a Hollywood sunset. What is your name, the woman cried, and the demon hissed her voice out, but the woman cried again and again as he hit her, what is your name? And David told her, Kyle, and began to speak the gospel of his demon, and the woman said, Kyle, that is my father’s name, what a wonderful name, Kyle, and David, ashamed, walked away. When the police found him it turned out the woman had been an actress from television.
In her kitchen in Columbia, Fuzzy saw her father’s face on the TV, just recognizable from the three photographs her mother had given her at Teeth’s funeral, and she picked up the phone.
Around the time I turned thirty the speed of ordinary decay accelerated. This was not a mortality crisis, although I was having one of those, too. The unkindness of a clear-eyed assessment of my life forced me away from it, toward dissociative abstract thoughts about how I was an animal, an organism really, a piece of biology on a timer counting down to death, which tended to come on just as my husband and I got stoned for our nightly four or five hours of restorative television binge. A ritual I had once so cherished—that I had, in fact, designed, in an attempt to drink less alcohol—became water torture wearing me into shellshock. One night, I asked my husband quite seriously if he thought I might be manifesting the symptoms of multiple sclerosis. He rolled his eyes. “No,” he said, “but you ask me that about once a week.”
The things I had bought to supply my home were falling apart, revealing the failure of another childish faith, that I could stock my way to salvation. Quotidian objects in my home had always seemed both timeless and disposable; it was never home, exactly, just an apartment I was living in on my way to somewhere else, something I had been doing for ten years at that point. At eighteen I had left home armed with oversized plastic bins stuffed with things I’d never use, scrunchies, desk organizers, a sewing kit, a collection that had grown as it was trundled between successive apartments on both coasts. Now everything was crumbling. The white and blue box of paraffin petrifying in the kitchen cabinet, the sunscreen and vitamins and jarred condiments long past their expiration dates, the pressboard furniture fraying or simply dematerializing. We got meal moths, silvery wriggling larvae inching pathetically across the spice shelves, wispy flat triangular adults without an iota of survival instinct fluttering dumbly into our eyes whenever we moved, and the first purge began. Out went couscous I’d purchased in the first year of my doctorate, jars of sumac and paprika and onion powder with newly mobile contents, bags of flour and cornstarch and brown sugar. Everything had to be washed, absolutely everything, now. I pulled it all out of the cabinets and stuck it in reusable grocery bags on the opposite wall to get it out of the exterminator’s way, worrying it wasn’t far enough from his spray, that the poison would hurt us, no matter how many times he assured me otherwise.
Maybe these weren’t different types of decay but the same thing. I was, after all, living in Los Angeles, and I was a writer who often took herself as her subject, and a student on top of it. Why wouldn’t I suspect myself inscrutably sclerotic? Who didn’t want to be Joan Didion?
Explaining what was going on was as easy and difficult as close-reading the endless progression of sunny days. I thought when I first moved to LA that it would be strange to live in a perpetual summer, but it wasn’t; it was wonderful. I had anticipated the sameness of marriage as fantastic, a grounding beyond grounding, the depth I had always wanted, and it was. Then the regularity of climate and company hardened into a routine, and I liked that too—I am the kind of person who performs her shower ablutions in the exact same order every time, shampoo conditioner toothbrushing facewashing rinse—but within that liking it there was no room for not. Outside the palms moved in the winds that were sometimes Santa Anas, and the sunsets were always incredible, and the car inched down the streets stop-and-go no matter the time of day. Once I got past my exams all I had to do was write and the five other jobs I held to keep us afloat. Once we got home from work all my husband and I had to do was feed ourselves and get high and watch television. It was luxurious and fixed. We could go on like that forever, and we did.
Sometimes, when I got stuck on my end of the couch, paralyzed by that sense I was only an organism on a clock, I tried to soothe myself by thinking about mountains moving slow, tectonic plates pressing against one another, the Pando quaking aspen grove living eighty thousand years of golden leaves. Maybe my husband and I could be like those long-lived Western bodies, shadowdancing through the endless hot night on the couch. Maybe in not moving we would yet move.
Before she got to America, when she imagined her English lessons in Los Angeles Min had seen a beach, palm trees, tall blond men in long swim trunks, gleaming restaurants serving perfect hamburgers. But her class met in a low green building in a no-name neighborhood between Boyle Heights and Downtown, equally distant from the ocean and food, and the palms were spindly and bent.
Back in Korea, Park University College had seemed impressive, its slick brochure boasting professors educated at the finest universities and a many-volumed research library serving its diverse international student population. All of these claims were true in a slant way Min was learning to regard as uniquely American. The professors had gone to schools she had heard of, but they were miserable, twitchy people, so obviously poor that she spent most of her time in class trying to determine what terrible ills had befallen them. The library was a collection of the owner’s wife’s favorite Christian homemaker magazines, and every other student was, like her, from Seoul. Min hadn’t known that universities had owners, but the Parks were clear about the fact that they owned Park University College and the low yellow building next door, Park Convalescent Care Home, which, they often reminded their fifty-odd enrollees, had paid for the university. Then what is my tuition for? Min wondered.
She lived in a cavernous apartment complex called the Medici, which her mother had chosen from a list sent with Min’s acceptance letter. Min had thought the letter came a little fast—just ten days after she applied, hardly enough time to evaluate her against the thousands of competitive applicants also highlighted in the brochure—but of course she had never gone to university at all, let alone in America. What did she know? She let her mother make the arrangements.
The Medici was a strange way to live, in such an elaborate but mostly empty space. There were buses that took her to Park University and bridges that spanned the neo-Tuscan buildings. A game room full of moldering Yahtzee and Sorry! sets and a billiards table with an oblong dark moisture stain. The other tenants Min saw were, to a one, Asian like her, and none of them seemed to want to talk. She had little opportunity to practice her English. Mostly she went out to the bridges and looked down at the streets, wondered what it would be like to walk up one of them into the hills that bordered the city or to live in one of the other buildings, the ones whose windows turned gold at dawn and dusk.
When my husband and I were moving out of our first apartment and into our second—I did not know at that time final—I had a recurring dream in which I in some future guise entered our bedroom in the first apartment as we lay asleep, saw our young prostrate bodies intertwined or not in the early morning. Talking about the dream made me cry. “Does everything have to be a painful meditation on time passing?” my husband asked, not unsympathetically.
I keep trying to remember what it was that decayed and made me think time changed when I turned thirty. Yes the paraffin, yes the condiments and vitamins, yes the moths. But there was something else, too, a first observed decay, and I have lost it, as I did my husband. We lasted only a month past the revelation we would be leaving Los Angeles, both of us borne East, he in a plane, I in the car we had used to drive everywhere together. There is an elision here, or perhaps a lie: I did not lose my husband, I asked him to leave. The day I did it, the worst of the life I had then lived, was hot, and sunny, and dry, a perfect day.
Perhaps we were what decayed, my inspiration, but that seems easy, and Western time is never easy. The clock has inverted upon me, and that indomitable sunshine is still coming down, but I am not in it. Where did they go, all of our impossible objects? Somewhere out there I think we’re still driving, in that Western night.