Hip Cities and Lost Souls
On a clear night, one could hear the cheering crowds of Dodger stadium here, echoed again and again from the cup of hills in which the rich people's houses were contained. Perhaps it was some trick of sound like this for which the lake got its name. But Lance could hear nothing now but his own heart beat and the occasional mis-shift of gears as he drove.
He'd been to this part of town before, though not to Dale's, wandering once into the park itself by bus, though the first time he'd come mistakenly by cab, looking for hippies, drawing curious glances from the local residents and nervous reaction from the cab driver who said it wasn't safe. All cab drivers said as much when tourists wandered out of the traditional sight-seeing lanes, where real people mingled in some non-glitter fashion.
But here, dangers did lurk. Bodies of unwanted babies often turned up in the park at night, as did spurned lovers. One such report had hit the newspapers recently. Pieces of body found in a cardboard box. And around the park, a thick haze of less than successful humanity settled in like fog. It reminded Lance of the South Bronx, where Yankee Stadium had been built.
Sad. Human. Real.
Echo Lake Road marked the slum line. On one side, spray can slogans of local chicano street gangs divided the neighborhood into turfs. On the other, and up past the dilapidated concrete building that had once been a dreamed teen center, sprawled and twisted streets rose into the hills again. Not overly wealthy people, but guarded and climbing, wanting to live in other places like Laurel Canyon, Beverly Hills or Venice, but lacked real wealth or fame.
Free Press wrote about these people, calling them closet liberals who didn't parade the streets in fancy cars or clothes, but invited others over to show off mirrored walls or thick carpets, smoking dope socially, listening to rock & roll as some form of avant garde art. Big Pink seemed to be their speed (God knew if any ever heard of Hendrix, Zeppelin or Pink Floyd). Often, they invited the old San Francisco Beat Culture people with local or private poetry readings. Which explained much about Dale who sponged off their generosity or dealt them their dope.
Still, Dale didn't fit. Even with his own place lower down in the hills, on the south side of the park where the poorer people lived, he seemed out of place. For a man who claimed to be a mover, he seemed to have put down deep roots here, as if he had decided to die here.
In the old days, westward settlers had called the place Red Gulch, the last crease in the valley between Hollywood and Downtown.
"I could live here," Lance mumbled, drawing a curious look from Mike and the still-disguised Marie.
"Could you?" Mike asked with a laugh, pealing bits of loose vinyl from the dashboard like sunburned skin.
"People say rents are cheap," Lance said.
"If you can get a pad," Mike said. "From what I remember, people tend to pass them onto friends. But you wouldn't survive in a place like this. Too many cops and junkies. It's all going to hell."
Lance nodded and turned the van south off Sunset Boulevard, down into the crease itself, with banks of houses now clear as dawn spread through the hills.
Dale's place looked like a cave, house imbedded into the side of a hill, a two-storied wreck of a building with a garage on street level. A long broken set of concrete stairs climbed up the hill along one side of the driveway. An old rusted Ford faced down among the trees, as if someone had tried to drive over the hill from the other side. The house paint pealed, with wood rotting away beneath in a silent betrayal of time.
The hard thump of a rock & roll back-beat vibrated the ground as they climbed from the van.
"It's party time," Mike mumbled in mock cheer. Marie's eyes sparkled as she glanced up the stairs. No lights, however, showed through the windows as if curtains had been carefully drawn across the inside. Lance climbed the stairs ahead of the others, yet by the time he reached the door, he could barely think for the noise-- the volume like a earthquake rumbling out from the other side. He knocked. But no one could have heard anything with the music so loud.
"Well?" Mike asked, a little breathless for the climb. Lance shrugged.
"No one answers."
Mike turned the door handle. No one had bothered to lock it. "Shall we?" he asked, motioning to Lance, who looked at the door with second thoughts, wondering what kind of sick scene he would find inside, to what extreme Dale's freaks had taken their party-habits without someone like Lance to curb their appetites. He would have just as soon as slept with the hippies in front of Free Press Bob's place or danced to the mindless chants of the Hari Krishnas. Those things seemed purer to him. And he'd ceased wanting to think or feel or worry about the past and its consequences. There was no future or past, just the pulsing present, like a deep pain he couldn't cure.
Mike pushed open the door and walked in, Marie at his elbow, following, leaving little choice for Lance. But whatever he had previous thought of Dale, changed instantly. Beatnik, rebel, aging hippie? A troll was more fitting, or a mountain king, sojourner and savior. The gates to his Eden parted with a gust of wind, curtains fluttering into a misty black-lighted world.
Incense and pot smoke did as much for his eyes and breathing as the music did for his ears. All of it seemed to mingle and add to his ever present pain. Most of the color came in the blazing day glow after-images of posters pasted to the walls. Flat black walls painted to emphasize those images. Love! Peace! Tune-in! All the usual diatribe Lance had seen in poster shops along the Boulevard, but here, in this context, seemed more religious than a church. Like icons to some vague faith. Eerie Pink Floyd music shifted into Santana then into The Stones. But the squirming naked bodies on the floor seemed to notice none of it, nor acknowledge the presence of three unauthorized visitors to their heaven.
Love-making involving twenty or thirty people, as graphic and pornographic as the photo-sessions Sarah had attended during their previous stay in Hollywood, a ring which seemed immune to such petty obstructions as furniture. A few low tables seemed to fill whatever needs such people had. And a few large pillows. Wall to wall carpet kept splinters from inappropriate places.
Hookahs, water-pipes. Mirrors. Drugs. Drugs. Drugs.
Mike pressed his mouth to Lance's ear. "Can you see Dale?"
Lance looked, but between the smoke and darkness, all the bodies looked the same. Even the differences between boy and girl seemed small, let alone the finer distinctions of personality. Yet, he saw no thrashing wild man in their midst, and sensed the lack of him here. If the man had been crazy back in McCadden, he would be twice that here.
"He'll be near the source of music," Lance yelled. "Maybe in the other room."
He jabbed a finger towards the double wide arch way open at the other side of the room. A heavy black curtain hung across the opening like a door. The music flowed through it.
Mike nodded then started around the circle of love, clutching Marie's hand. Lance followed them like a lost child, staring down into the fray, avoiding the hand or two that popped up to ensnare them. A face in the crowd offering silent invitations.
Come make love with us, their eyes said. He-she-it slithering closer. Lance shook his head, hurrying after Mike and Marie who had pushed on through the curtain.
The far room looked worse, people stuffed into it at every slant and angle, as if their being on this side of the curtain signified greater importance. Indeed, some of the faces in this mass of squirming flesh seemed familiar, street-important people now flocking to the side of the Party King. The Stereo blared from one corner, speakers as big as Lance, set up like a shrine. A different sense captivated this crowd as it concentrated less in the orgy aspect of the scene as it the vibes, rocking back and forth to the sounds as the volume assaulted them, hands raised, eyes closed, mouths silently mouthing the lyrics to each passing experience. Dale sat in a huge wooden chair, arms resting on its arms as if on a throne, looking every bit the Love King with his head rolling madly upon his shoulders. He howled and his voice managed somehow to rise above the music in pitched accents.
Yeah, baby! Groovy, Momma!
It took a moment for Lance to realize the women at Dale's feet, each performing bits of sexual magic as he reacted, naked women with their fingers on his exposed and elevated penis, or their mouths, or their breasts, rubbing and kissing what appeared to be the Love King's staff.
One of these was Sarah.
She looked bad. Her hair stringy and unwashed, and her expression deeply drugged-- strung out on pot, acid, smack or God knew what, rolling her head to the movement of the rod above her. Her eyes opening and closing at intervals as if she needed to locate it repeatedly. A blank, lost expression showed in those eyes as she blinked. On and off. On and off. She could have been a traffic light. Or one of the thousand neon Martini glass signs of San Francisco. Advertising something broken inside of her. Something that would never be the same again.
Fury rose in Lance. The kind of anger he hadn't felt since Saigon, since seeing people he'd help save stabbed or blown up in the street during recovery, as if his saving them had given him possession. The enemy destroyed his people and he resented it. And mingled with the fury came a strange desire, to join her, and kill her, to fuck her to death the way Dale certainly would. But it faded, the way all such feeling had in the past, leaving behind the residue of pain and horror at his own thoughts. Pity replaced the fury, then a deeper shame.
This was his generation's claim to fame. This was the thing they meant by free love. It disgusted him.
Mike read some of this from Lance's face and gripped his arm to steady him, to keep him from bolting to the street-- or more logically for another person, at Dale's throat.
By this time, the King of Love had taken note of them, his expression puzzled by their odd shape among his subjects, and how they seemed to flaunt their clothed bodies despite his rules for nakedness.
"Who are you and what do you want?" the man exploded, the music suddenly dampened into a more listenable volume. Dale's broad face wrinkled in his attempt to see, eyes squinting to catch sight of their dull faces among the dayglo war paint of his followers.
"It's us, Dale," Mike said, announcing their names as if in a real court. Dale's outrage vanished instantly.
"Welcome!" he boomed. "I didn't think you'd come. Dig my scene. The coolest isn't it?"
He rose and stepped over the bodies of the naked women, taking Mike's and Lance's hand in his.
"We came to ask a favor," Mike said.
"Anything, friends. What is it?"
"We want to leave something in your garage."
"Dope?" Dale asked hopefully.
Mike shook his head. "Furniture. Lance got tossed from his apartment."
Dale's gaze shifted with stoned sympathy. "Man, that's a bummer. I've been evicted a time or two." Then, the expression brightened. "Say! You can live with me. There's plenty of room, dope and women. Take your pick."
"He can't," Mike said, his sharp glance warning Lance not to react, to stay still and let him handle things. "I need him for a while. Maybe he can come back later. We're here to get the stuff unloaded."
Dale's disappointment faded into disinterest as he waved his kingly hand at them and told them to do what they wanted.
"Thanks," Mike said and dragged Lance out.
But Lance looked back, hoping to catch a gleam from Sarah's eye. None came. She didn't even look up. Too stoned, maybe. Or still angry about his putting her party people out.
Mike didn't stop until they had passed through the outer room and into the clear outdoor air. Marie looked stunned and yet not without a gleam of her own and a curious backward look towards the people squirming just inside. Mike leaned against the door frame as the musical volume returned to its earthquake proportions, rocking the house and the earth beneath it. He studied Lance's face.
"Take it easy, boy," he said softly. Though a puzzled note danced in his own voice.
"I'm all right," Lance lied. He couldn't tell how he felt-- a vague tingling dancing over his skin like the result of an electric shock. It would have been no surprise to find his hair standing on end, or the follicles suddenly white. Emptiness seemed to predominate him, with his insides echoing the noise without. Fear seemed to tint it somehow, but he couldn't define that fear or its cause.
"You don't look all right," Mike said with a laugh and a sideward glance at Marie. "But something isn't right here. Parties like this aren't small time things, and from what I saw, he had one big load of dope in there. This town's supposed to be dry. Which makes me wonder where he got his?"
"It can't be the stuff we had," Lance said. "These people have been partying for a while."
"I know," Mike said, staring back at the door. Something sad showed in his eyes, a weariness of spirit Lance had seen in Vietnam, privates to generals sickened by the stretched-out nature of the war. Their patriotism had worn thin after so many lies. But for Mike, it seemed, the driving force had finally evaporated, his rage lost somewhere on the distant road.
"Come on," Mike mumbled finally. "We won't bother unloading the van, we'll just park it in the garage." He glanced up. "A little drizzle won't hurt us under the trees."
"But I thought we were going to..."
Mike stopped half way down the steps, Marie clinging to his arm like a shadow. "You thought what?"
Lance shrugged. He didn't see a point in camping out here, a suffering witness to Sarah's frenzy. But where else could they go? He felt weary, too. The more human kind of exhaustion. And a deeper horror which no sleep would cure. He wanted to beg a downer from Dale just to erase the pain, or dig up one of the junkies from his McCadden bathroom for a shot in the arm. To erase it all the way soldiers had at night in Nam, when CIA shipments of Heroin from Laos had made things easy to forget.
Drifting, man, one soldier described the feeling for Lance. You just drift away.
"Are you coming?" Mike asked.
Lance nodded and stumbled down the stairs to the van.
"No!" Bobo said too sharply, the volume of his voice rising above the chatter of the crowd, turning heads towards them from the other tables-- each startled out of the same two a.m. bleary-eyed expression. "I'm not going to do it!"
Dan shushed him. The grey and wrinkled faces looked hostile, their gazes locked in a perpetual generation war. Not just against the hippies who had invaded and taken over their town, but the changes in the world that had evaporated a whole life style. The Ontra Cafeteria was old Hollywood, movie capital Hollywood, and these poor fools came here to relive it, barring the doors and closing their ears against rock music and screaming police car sirens.
He envied them sometimes, and came here often to sit in the corner and watch them-- the old generals of the film industry acting out their lives like parts, pretending life had never changed. He also came here for the relief against Big Brother's police net and the electronic ears listening at every other establishment along the boulevard.
Here, they were safe from that. What reason would the cops have and what would they hear? The sound of the belled machines and click of issuing meal tickets? Or perhaps the turning pages of newspapers and Variety magazines, and the whispered chatter of old actors parading from table to table as if still in their prime. Dan had listened often to the tales they told, the scandals and scorn of old Hollywood, the successes and failures of people remembered only here.
Maybe his listening said something about himself, about his being cast out from the Wall Street world. He was certainly no movie buff. But the authenticity of it thrilled him in a way he couldn't quite explain.
But neither Dan or Bobo were welcomed guests and their interruption brought anger to the grey faces, the stares resenting the intrusion of street costumes to their set. Too flamboyant. Not in touch with the scenes these people sought to portray.
"You'll do what I say," Dan said in a low, barely controlled voice, his rage written across his face in red, wrinkled skin. His patience running out with his former partner. "You don't have any more choices. First, you and me are going to take a stroll over to the Selma to see what's happening there, then you're going to take me to the other stash."
"And if I don't?"
Dan grinned, lips drawn back like a snarl. "Then, I'll give you over to Billy Night Rider and let him do what he wants."
Bobo's pink face paled. "You wouldn't do that!" he said. "You're not that cruel."
"To save my own hide, I would and will," Dan said. "And it isn't as if you haven't given me cause. Now finish your coffee and..."
Something odd moved from the other end of the room, an out-of-place smear of darkness caught in the corner of Dan's eye like shade-- moving along the food counters and cafe tables with the stark deliberation of a hunter. He turned his head slowly, but could get no clear look, the lights too dim there. But he made out the Spanish hat.
"Hey, what's with you?" Bobo asked, noting Dan's sudden stiffness.
"Take it easy, boy," Dan said, pushing the words out through clenched teeth. "But your friend is back."
"What?" Bobo said and went to turn, but Dan's hand grabbed hold of his arm, keeping him facing in on the table.
"Where?" asked Bobo.
Dan's finger flickered up from his fist indicating the direction. Bobo leaned forward and slyly glanced over, stiffening as he did.
"That son of a bitch!" he said, blood rushing to his pudgy face as anger did to his eyes. "What the fuck does he want now? He's got his dope."
"Why don't we find out?" Dan asked.
Both men pushed up from the table at once, not quickly enough to alarm their observer, but swiftly, separating immediately. Dan went straight towards the front door, Bobo towards part of the counter farthest from the figure. Then, as if by prearranged signal, both turned at once and moved in on the floating spanish hat.
The figure started, hat twisting one way then the next in a series of confused and impotent motions allowing Bobo and Dan precious added steps. The sudden and startling movement alarmed people seated at the tables as well, the break in the slow, deliberate step making them look up.
None of this was in the script, Dan thought sadly, and no one here made unscripted scenes. He eased the pistol from his belt, moving closer, letting the figure under the hat see it.
"Move an inch, mother fucker," Dan hissed, "And I'll blow your fucking head off."
The words, despite his best effort to utter them softly, carried into the room, sending a chill of alarm across the grey-headed faces. The stranger's head rose, light falling on the face beneath the hall.
"Chris?" Dan said, the shock putting him off guard. She leaped at him, but not before Bobo bounced on her, taking her down to the floor.
"Let off me!" the woman howled and kicked, yet couldn't free herself of Bobo's military grip on her neck.
"I'll break it if you don't stop fighting me," Bobo said, and looked up sharply at Dan. "You know this bitch?"
"She's Mike's ex-wife. She came into town with us."
"Then why's she bothering us?" Bobo asked.
"Ask her," Dan grumbled. "I'm as confused at you are."
"Well?" Bobo asked, yanking back on the woman's neck.
She grunted and growled. "All right. All right. I was looking for Mike."
"Sure you were, baby," Bobo said, snapping hard on her neck.
"No, really!" she protested. "I saw you all earlier in the van and tried to catch up with you. Then the van went one way and you two the other. I never figured he would stick with the van, it being so obvious and all."
"Which doesn't explain what you were doing following me before," Bobo said, his pudgy face taunt and his eyes lit with rage.
"Take it easy there, boy," Dan said. "You don't want to kill her."
"Before?" Chris grunted. "What are you talking about?"
He tightened his grip. "To the Selma Hotel, bitch. Don't play stupid with me. I saw you."
"Dan," Chris moaned. "Get this son of bitch off my back. He's obviously mistaken me for someone else."
"Maybe I have, maybe I haven't," Bobo said. "But I'm not letting up an inch till I know for sure. That was a friend of mine you killed and my dope you stole."
"Our dope," Dan put in.
"I didn't kill anybody and didn't steal any dope," Chris said. "Now get off me before we all wind up at the Wilcox station in a cell."
"She's got a point," Dan said, glancing around. The old actors had risen from their seats and backed away from them with horrified fascination, as if some scene from a classic film murder went on before their eyes. "Someone's bound to have called the fuzz."
"Okay," Bobo said, rising, dragging Chris up by the hair. "Then let's go find some place where we can ring the truth out of her."
But already the sirens sounded, rising like a wail from the street outside, blue and red police lights stroking the glass face of the restaurant.
"Too late," Dan mumbled, feeling a bit giddy about everything, as if he had ingested mushrooms or smoked a powerful joint-- disconnected with the world and the people in it. Life had suddenly shifted into insanity, and an odd terrible carelessness came over him. Nothing seemed to matter. Not the cops charging towards the doors or even the men from Denver hunting him.
He had placed so much hope in that drive to Denver, as if he could reverse the fortunes of his disease with single deal. He had spoken to no one about those dreams, but money bought a lot of things, and the more money spent the more dreams could come true. Like paying off his ex-wife, like making peace with her. L.A. wasn't that much different from New York. Maybe she would come out and try again...
"Dan, damn it!" Bobo said, shaking him. "Are you listening to me?"
"Yeah, of course."
"Then let's get out. There must be a back door somewhere." Bobo grabbed one of the cafeteria workers with his free hand. "You got another exit?" he asked.
The worker pointed weakly towards the kitchen. Bobo tossed him away, then dragged Chris in that direction. Dan pulled up the rear with his pistol drawn, shuffling backwards as he watched the front door. He felt like a goddamn bank robber. Maybe Dillinger. Only they weren't pulling out of the place with much more than the price of a meal.
The kitchen was dark and dirty and crowded with trays of sitting food. The help scattered before them, knocking things over as they ran.
The back door, as Bobo called it, didn't go outside, but connected with a long hallway, part of the theater complex next door. Here the crowds thickened, moving with props and costumes to a midnight performance for a taped TV special. Cables for the cameras ran down one side like large tentacles, as tech people, make-up specialists, and bit part actors stepped over and around them.
Dan shoved his pistol back into his belt. No one seemed to notice three more strange faces among the maddening movement, though some disturbance sounded from the open kitchen door as they charged away from it.
"Which way out?" Bobo asked, grabbing one of the attendants rushing by. The man shrugged and pointed. Dan, Bobo and Chris barged in that direction, through a set of propped-open double doors into the scalding lights of a stage. Camera-men dollied back and around, like children on tricycles. Actors moved and talked, as the open side of the stage showed the blank face of an empty studio audience. The odd hour part of some retake for later editing.
"Hey!" someone yelled. But Bobo plunged ahead into the brightness, dragging his captive with him. Behind them, at the door through which they'd just come, blue uniforms appeared in mass, bumping into each other as they came to an abrupt halt like Keystone comedy act.
The cameras whirred around them as actors leaped aside, losing the thread of their thoughts. Voices beyond the lights moaned, canned laughter rising uproariously from hidden speakers as if it all was part of the show. On the far side, Bobo plunged through another door and down a series of steps, passed shocked faces of the support staff.
"Just where the hell are we going?" Dan asked, when they paused, the three of them breathless. His side ached, and he felt the urge to join in the audience laughter, the giddiness spreading in him like a growing high.
"Out," Bobo said and shoved open the metal door under the red exit sign. Warm, moist air greeted them with the stagnant atmosphere of light night-early morning L.A. They had come out onto a short and narrow street stuffed with trash cans and abandoned props. It was one of the many block-long side streets that provided services to buildings fronting Hollywood or Vine. The round Capital Records building loomed over the roofs like a mindless robot, its bright face blinking on and off.
"Where to now?" Dan asked. Behind them, inside the building, sounds of pursuit rose, searching for them in the corners and under the rugs. He felt foolish running any more. He wanted to stop and let it all wash over him, putting an end to running and hiding. The anger that had sustained him since Denver had faded, leaving a wearier version of his old practical self.
The simple life was all he wanted. To wander. To Grub. To make love. No more. Wealth was for suckers, like Bobo, Billy Night Rider, Gil, and their ilk. It destroyed people, ruining their lives for honest experience. Look what it had done to Lance.
"We have to get off the street," Bobo said, still clutching Chris. She looked less hostile, as if the prospect of meeting the police pleased her less than Bobo's rough treatment.
"You've got to get off the street, not me, buster!" she said, twisting free from his grip with a quick motion of her own. He tried to retake her, but a bowie knife appeared out from under her cloak. "Back off or you'll pick your liver up from the gutter. I don't like being manhandled. Dig?"
"Will both of you quit it," Dan said, finding himself scared again, as the temporary giddiness passed, blood rising up with the basic instinct for survival. "Put the knife away, Chris. Bobo's upset. His friend is dead and our shipment of dope is missing."
"Well, I didn't do it," she snapped, making no move to replace the blade. "Now why don't you two go your own way. I've got to go find Mike. Do you mind telling me where he went?"
"He's in the middle of something," Dan said, knowing that Mike would not want Chris in the popping up there.
"Damn you," she snarled. "I'll find him myself."
She turned towards the lights of Vine. Bobo moved to follow, but Dan stopped him. "Let her go."
"But she is the one, Dan," Bobo said. "I swear it."
"Or someone dressed like her. The town's full of costumes tonight, remember? That Goddamn Mexican celebration has everyone in town looking alike. Let just get out of here before the cops figure out where we've gone."
Bobo looked confused, shaking himself like an old dog trying to shed the rain.
"What about your friend's place?" Dan suggested. "Over at the Selma. You said you left the dope with him. It might be a good place to look for clues."
"Maybe," Bobo said.
"And then we can go pick up the dope Denver gave you."
"How many goddamn times do I have to tell you, Dan. I don't have that dope any more."
"I'll settle for the cash."
"I don't have that either," Bobo mumbled. But his face looked flushed under the blinking lights and he wouldn't look Dan in the eye. And for the first time, Dan was able to read the lie there, as if the whole nightmare had ripped off the last of the man's masks.
"Come on," Dan said, taking his arm.