barcelona review #15

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by Greg ChandlerSharon Tate ,original photo: Roman Polanski

Karl sat on his bed, his favorite paperbacks spread between his legs. Suicidal Hollywood, Vol. 1 & 2; Big Foot: Living Legend?; Hippies Haight: Flower Children and the Occult; Subs on the Sea Floor; and The Ghosts of Benedict Canyon. Their lurid covers and sensationalistic stories, frail yellowed pages and mildewy odor helped take Karl's mind off the day's incident.
       He finished a chapter in Suicidal Hollywood about the son of Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, kicked off his ragged tennis shoes, and tuned in Dr. Irene Greene, AM 1020 on his night stand radio. She was at the part in her show where she repeats the evening's mantra again and again: "You can't love others until you love yourself." Every night at least one psycho phoned in, usually with tales of self-inflicted abuse. Karl squirmed when they described burning themselves with cigarettes, cutting their faces and genitals with razor blades, or sticking their fingers in a garbage disposal. Occasionally, Dr. Irene herself was the target of verbal abuse; though usually by the end of the call, a testament to her talent, she had the caller pacified. Karl took notes on her methods for dealing with violent people. Psychology seemed easy coming from Dr. Irene, but for some reason he just wasn't getting it. On his way home from school Karl used some of her soothing words and common sense on Ted Rochelle and Ron Butler but they beat him up anyway.
       The first caller was a forty-seven year old mother of four. Like the typical caller, she seemed sane at first, then gradually became unglued. "Irene, Ronald Reagan tried to rape me last night. Very few people know that he owns illegal slot machines here in L.A. and I've lost close to a billion dollars in them." Her voice grew shrill and high-pitched like a child's. "Miss Freddy was on her way over to my house but her car got washed away in a flood. Miss Freddy was my daddy's secretary, my daddy probably had over three thousand Miss Freddys, and she told Ronald Reagan where I'm hiding." Dr. Irene cut to a commercial.
       Finally starting to relax after such an anxiety filled day, Karl switched off the radio and went to get a glass of iced tea. From the kitchen he watched his mother sleeping in her usual spot on the couch, the TV news blaring. He stood there in a daze, twisting a curly lock of brown hair between his fingers, and remembered his father would be home from work any minute. Fortunately, it would only be for two days. Karl's dad was fire chief.
       Karl returned to his room. Sitting at his desk, he painted the inside of a small gift box peacock blue. The lemon wedge in his tea burned his busted lip so he threw it out the window. Karl's bedroom was large, with maps of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and Beverly Hills on the walls. A sliding glass door opened onto an overgrown half-acre backyard thick with fruit trees, ivy and bamboo. Rats ate the avocados, loquats and guavas. Dogs trespassed under the fence to eat the avocados as well, large seeds and all, which they later pooped on the neat and tidy front lawn. Uncontrolled growth in the backyard had eclipsed the drab ranch-style house for as long as Karl could remember. Over the years, Karl watched the jungle swallow three birdbaths, a greenhouse, the trash incinerator, a mini-bike motor and most of his childhood toys.
       Looking out there reminded Karl he was due to make an offering to the hollow tree in the jungle's furthest corner. The hollow tree was a secret spot Karl visited for hours at a time, a grotto in Mauritania, a secret cave in Bhutan.
       Inspired, Karl cut illustrations out of the dictionary to paste inside the gift box. He chose periscope, locust, the Seven Hills of Rome, and abacus. Rifling through his desk drawers, his stock of interesting things, he selected a piece of green wire and ten red sequins. These he fashioned into a chandelier which he hung inside the diorama. In need of a centerpiece, he plunged his arm in the fish aquarium where he kept a collection of treasure chests, pearl divers, coral, sunken ships, and porcelain mermaids riding giant squid and octopi. He selected a plastic treasure chest overflowing diamonds and rubies, dried it with a sock, and glued it inside the box. Around it he set tiny trees of white coral and a few bits of neon orange gravel. To guard the treasure a rubber wise man from an old nativity. Pleased with his creation, he set it on a high bookshelf until he could deliver it to the tree when his parents were asleep.
       Diorama complete, Karl settled into his pillows to resume the Sharon Tate chapter in The Ghosts of Benedict Canyon. Three paragraphs deep, he heard a commotion at the front door, followed by silence. He froze. For five minutes his eyes locked on the words Cielo Drive. No slamming, no shouting. He peered underneath his door; no one in the kitchen. The TV got louder. Karl heard a special news bulletin: "Out of control wild fires burn million dollar homes in Malibu Canyon...." Over the din of the helicopter broadcast, his father started in on his mother. Karl flipped the lights and jumped into bed.
       "Wake up." The light flashed on. "You're never asleep at this hour," his father barked, standing at the foot of the bed. Sweat beaded on the man's brow, drops of beer clung to his red mustache. Karl never looked his father in the eye, he couldn't.
       Focusing on his father's belt buckle, he held the blanket under his chin.
       "Your goddamned principal called me today at the fire was very embarrassing."
       Karl felt his throat constrict. "Mr. Osterman called?"
       "I understand you like making a real fruitcake fag show of yourself in front of the kids at school."
       "No...Why would I do that?...I'm sorry, I didn't do anything."
       "You're always sorry, fine, but do you have to constantly embarrass and humiliate your mother and me? Has that ever occurred to you? Have we ever entered your thoughts when you're doing your fag show for the whole school?"
       "Dad, I swear I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't do a fag show, that's not what happened. The proctor, she hates me, she's always trying to get me in trouble. She thinks I'm too smart."
       "Look, I know Mr. Osterman pretty well, the man has a doctorate in education, I think he knows a thing or two. He says you've got problems. My solution is simple: when you're eighteen you can leave my house, you can flitter away and debase yourself any way you choose. That's your business."
       Karl yanked his eyebrows. "Dad."
       "But while you're living under my roof you're going to behave like a normal boy."
       "And don't go running to your mom because she's as disgusted as I am," he added, leaving as abruptly as he came in.
       Karl rose and turned out the light. Why had he made such a fool of himself at school? He'd been in a wonderful giggly mood having fun at lunch with his girlfriends. He should have known...but they got carried away dancing circles around the mean proctor singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop." At first he didn't think he was doing anything out of the ordinary, until the proctor started to yell with disgust, though not at the girls. She sent him to the principal's office. The principal said very little. "Do yourself a favor, Clonus, nip the sissy bit in the bud as fast as you can, otherwise the rest of your life will be a living hell."

* * *

Apart from the television, all was quiet again. In bed, Karl read about Sharon Tate's ghost. It was an especially fascinating story since Karl thought he knew everything about her from Helter Skelter, The Family, and a Los Angeles Times he'd bought at a garage sale for three dollars, it's headline: "FILM STAR, 4 OTHERS DEAD IN BLOOD ORGY--Sharon Tate Victim In 'Ritual' Murders." One fantasy: sarcastic repartee with Gibby, Voytek, Sharon and Jay, over a poolside lunch of tabbouleh and casaba. In another fantasy, he and the Manson Family dune buggy through Death Valley in search of the infamous "bottomless pit." When Karl gets his driver's license his first destination will be Cielo Drive, thirty minutes west.
       Karl sipped iced tea as he slowly read The Ghosts of Benedict Canyon, absorbed in a story about a wardrobe assistant at Paramount who found a box packed with beautiful, expensive clothes. After admiring the clothes the woman discovered, much to her surprise, the name SHARON TATE stenciled on the inside of the lid. She took the box home with her to Hermosa Beach, where over a light supper alone, she couldn't stop thinking about the clothes: "Did these fabulous Cardin dresses and Pucci pantsuits once belong to the one and only Sharon Tate? Although I never met Sharon, her death ten years earlier had really affected me, to such a point where I didn't trust a soul for a long time. Sharon had everything going for her until those evil monsters took it all away. It really was the end of the Sixties. For some reason the clothes brought back a lot of bittersweet memories. I just couldn't rest until I knew the truth. I had decided to check film stills at the studio Monday morning to see if she'd worn them in any of her films. Also, the clothes smelled faintly of Me by Helena Rubinstein, a tuberose and lime blossom perfume I'd worn in the sixties. If Sharon Tate wore Me, then it would be safe to say these clothes really were hers. On top of all these emotions I couldn't stop thinking it was wrong of me not to send the clothes to Roman Polanski.
       "Later on that night after Police Woman, my sister, a highly successful script supervisor, called from Tennessee where she was working on the set of a Carol Lynley Movie of the Week. Complaining of debilitating insomnia, she was afraid of being fired if she didn't get some sleep. Her idea was that I make a tape-recording of the soothing Pacific surf and send it to her. Like me, my sister lives at the beach so she's used to falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves.
       "So I went out on the deck of my beach house, set a tape recorder in the butterfly chair and pressed RECORD. The next morning I listened to the tape. Crashing waves, the surf's ebb and flow, it was very calming. But then, literally out of nowhere, a woman's voice became audible, a distant whisper twirling in the surf. I rewound the tape, raised the volume, held it to my ear. Without a doubt-and I still have the tape to prove it-the voice said, 'Keep the clothes...keep the clothes...this is Sharon...keep the clothes.'"
       Chills raced up and down Karl's body, sending him under his bed in search of a cassette.
       "Hiding something under there?" his mother asked, poking her head in.
       Karl sat up. The bags under his mother's eyes were darker, heavier than usual. "No, I'm getting a tape."
       "Well, your dad's gone to the fires in Malibu so you better fix yourself something."
       "Are you mad at me, too?" Karl asked, hoping she'd mention his swollen lip.
       "No, I'm not mad, do whatever you want, I'm too tired to get worked up about anything." She paused, her eyes looked desolate and dull. "You want to play with little figurines and dolls, fine. Just try to keep this stuff from your father because I'm the one who gets in trouble."
       Karl thought of a snapshot of his mother taken in 1966. She sits at the top of a water slide, joyful smile, long blond hair falling over tan shoulders, ample bosom, daisy- print bikini. Held to the refrigerator with a fire hat magnet, it was everyone's favorite picture of her, and an image Karl had seen ten times a day for most of his life. Now and then, Karl peeked under his door and saw his mother eating ice cream, staring at the picture.
       "Another million dollar home is up in flames! And we have reason to believe it's the home of former Rifleman star, Chuck Connors."
       Certain his mother was preoccupied with the devastation, Karl crept out the backdoor with his tape recorder in one hand, diorama in the other. A red candlestick poked out of his front pocket, The Ghosts of Benedict Canyon out his back. Getting to the hollow tree wasn't easy, which kept it inaccessible to parents. First Karl braved the prickly, waist-high weeds of Spanish Sahara, formerly his sandbox. He emerged from Spanish Sahara into denser, darker territory, the jungle Bandundo, where fruit rats scurried from avocado to avocado.
       It was a very dark night. The smell of fire was in the air. Karl was on edge. A branch scratched his sore cheek; he tore it from the tree and snapped it into tiny pieces. Something thumped in the ivy behind him. He turned and saw a rat splayed over a half-devoured avocado.
       Just before the wall at the end of the property, Karl reached his hollow scrub oak. He lit the candle. Inside the trunk, on four shelves made of wood scraps and rusty nails, were two dozen little worlds. Karl deposited his offering at the left end of the top shelf next to a diorama of space aliens made of green buttons and match sticks and planets made of broken glass and chewing gum. He set the candle on one of the tree's knots. He squatted in the ivy, tried to imagine the voice of Sharon Tate, her laugh, words she may have liked: green grapes, groovy, Sapperstein, love house, Richard Paul Polanski. Karl placed the tape recorder inside the tree. He moved his hands in circles over his head, whispering, "Sharon, Sharon, Sharon. Speak to me through this tape recorder. Talk to me, Sharon, give me a sign. The tape will run all night. Please, Sharon, come to me. Speak to me. Sharon...Sharon...Sharon." He pushed RECORD.
       To guide her, he left the book and candle. He started back for the house. Pausing in the kitchen, he saw his mother on the couch sipping wine, her eyes still glued to the television fire, a heap of smoldering cigarette butts in the ashtray, a cushion on her lap.

© 1999 Greg Chandler

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author's express permission. Please see our conditions of use.
Author bio:Greg

Greg Chandler recently moved back to Los Angeles after a six-year odyssey in New York, during which time he received an MFA from Columbia University. He is presently working on completing a novel.  More of his work can be found on-line in The Wag (Nov./Dec. 1999).


navigation:                     barcelona review #15             November  1999 to January 2000
-Fiction Ian Wild - The Woman Who Swallowed The Book of Kells
Gotzy - Gotzy's Story
Greg Chandler - The Ghost of Sharon Tate
Alice Mullen - Glo-bug
Javier Marķas - Fewer Scruples
-Essay Barbara Lefcowitz -Swans, Tricksters, The Letter 'S'
-Quiz Samuel Beckett- win a book
Answers to last issue's Nabokov quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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