کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 4

زندگی در چند بخش

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I especially loved acting for my dad. He was a big man in my eyes—barrel-chested with striking black hair that gave way to distinguished salt and pepper before he turned forty. He always seemed so tall to me, but as he aged, I realized that he was just shy of five feet nine at his high-water mark.

My dad wanted to be a star. No doubt. No compromise. Nothing else would do. He wanted the home run. But there were bills to pay. When he wasn’t working as an actor, my dad wrote scripts and did some directing and dabbled in businesses. Over his lifetime there were a lot of businesses. He started a company that offered a video assist to help golfers perfect their swing. He opened a recreational trampoline center and then a bar and coffee shop. He had plans for a catamaran cargo ship company. He ran a magazine for Hollywood tourists called Star’s Homes. At one point, he operated a tour of Liberace’s gilded house.

The man did not lack for ideas. He approached each venture with vigor, but seldom found success. He had more ambitions and brainchildren than business acumen. His failures mounted and ate at him. And yet he never gave up. That was instructive. He kept at it.

His was the typical actor’s life—uncertain employment, a little kismet, lots of hard luck. As a child, I never really felt the difference when the family was flush or flat broke. But my parents sure did. We got a brand new car one year. A while later, we sold it, and got an old car. A little elbow grease and it’s just like new! Another year, my parents (really, my dad) decided to go to the great expense of installing a built-in swimming pool in the backyard. Everyone in the neighborhood came to our house that summer, and we laughed and swam until our fingers were shriveled and our bloodshot eyes cried uncle, and then we beached ourselves bellies-down on the warm concrete and recovered.

The following summer my mother told us that we wouldn’t be able to swim because we couldn’t afford the chemicals. As a result, our pool turned a murky green, like a pond somewhere in the deep woods.

My dad did have some moderate success as an actor. He was featured in several TV shows, a handful of films. He cowrote the script for The Crawling Hand, a movie about an astronaut whose dead hand goes on a rampage targeting beachgoing teenagers. He also cowrote The Corpse Grinders, a trash flick that was part of a triple-feature release (which also included The Embalmers and The Undertaker and His Grisly Pals) still fondly recalled by drive-in purists.

He acted in an incredibly fake and delightfully cheesy movie called Beginning of the End, a low-budget sci-fi film made in the late fifties by the great Bert I. Gordon—aka “Mr. B.I.G.”—who specialized in “giant” movies that he made by superimposing images onto his films. For this one, Gordon filmed real grasshoppers, then unconvincingly superimposed them onto the action. You know the classic story: an invasion of angry, voraciously hungry, giant man-eating grasshoppers created at an experimental farm in Illinois.

Joe Cranston plays a soldier stationed as a lookout on top of a skyscraper. Grasshoppers are attacking the city. Don’t they always? You never see them descending on a field of wheat. When my dad reports to his superiors over the two-way radio, he is still peering through his binoculars. “Eastern sector clear,” he says. Just then, the quivering antennae of a giant grasshopper appear behind him. Cut back to headquarters: the officers are listening to Dad’s report, his voice emanating through the speaker on the wall, “No sign of them here.” Then a bloodcurdling scream. “Noooo!” Dad was a goner. Great stuff.

If my dad was featured in a show or movie on TV, neighbors would drop by the next day to report how they felt about his work. “I liked the production value, but all the actors were turkeys.” “The beginning was great . . . but the end was a fiasco.”

That was my first brush with celebrity. And critics. There was always a but. Everyone felt entitled to voice his or her opinion. As an actor, you were fair game.

My dad didn’t seem to lack for confidence. And yet the endless stream of buts got to him. When things went south, he griped and fumed and resented others he felt were unworthy of their success. He was better than that actor. He worked harder than this other guy. So much of the world made him mad. You never knew what was going to set him off.

I remember riding in the front seat of my dad’s car with my brother late one afternoon, and a guy driving a hot rod cut him off. Dad slammed on the brakes and straight-armed my brother and me to keep us from flying through the window. We were in the rusted car that had replaced our new one. My dad gave chase, honking, and at a stoplight he pulled up alongside the spiffy car and rolled down his window and started yelling. The man said, “What are you going to do about it, old man?” This guy was young—much younger than my dad. “Pull around the corner,” my dad said, “and I’ll show you what I’m going to do about it.”

They turned the corner and parked behind some stores. Stay here, my dad instructed my brother and me. We were terrified, clutching each other. My dad got out of the car. The other man got out of his car. He was tall and well built. Much taller than my dad. But my dad marched right over to him and punched him in the face. The guy hit his car and fell to the ground, his nose a bloody mess.

My dad came back to the car and got in. “Don’t mention this to your mother. It’ll just make her worry.” Kim and I twisted around to peer out the rear window as we drove away. The man was holding his face. His face was covered in blood. My father had done that. That was my father. The fighter.

The violence wasn’t reserved to random motorists. My father and my mother fought, too—careening, blistering fights that occasionally left us children cowering in our rooms, out of the line of fire.

Things were already shaky by the time my dad took over the lease of the Corbin Bowl, a bar and coffee shop attached to a bowling alley on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana. The occasional appearances on TV weren’t enough to sustain a family, and so he had a vision for the bar: something cool and sophisticated with nightclub singers. The coffee shop would bustle during the daytime while the club ruled the night.

It didn’t turn out like that. My grandmother manned the cash register. My mother worked as a fry cook and waitress. Kim and I bussed tables and washed dishes after school. Even my five-year-old sister did her part, bringing water to the tables. My dad managed the bar, but he was often away. Maybe at an audition. Maybe at a clandestine rendezvous.

My brother and I were aware of the fragility of the situation, if not the fine details. We waited in knotted anxiety for our dad’s reappearances and the inevitable fights that ensued.

We looked for respite whenever we could get it. The movies were our favorite escape. We went to the coffee shop nearly every day after school, and at 3:00 p.m., if we’d done our homework, we went next door to the Corbin Theater to catch an afternoon screening before we had to be back to the coffee shop to help with the evening business.

Our favorite flick was Cat Ballou, a Western spoof about a prim schoolmarm who sets out to avenge the death of her father and becomes a notorious outlaw. Lee Marvin had two roles—the legendary gunfighter Kid Shelleen and gunslinger Tim Strawn. It tickled us to recognize the same actor in two roles. Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye played a kind of a Greek chorus and crooned “The Ballad of Cat Ballou.” My brother and I both had wild crushes on Jane Fonda. She was tough and beautiful. We went to see that movie every day as long as it played. We knew every word, every micro facial expression, every gesture. We’d go home and take a bath, and before bed we’d act out the scenes, playing different characters, singing the songs at the top of our lungs: Cat Ballou, Cat Ball-ou-ou-ou. She’s mean and evil through and through.

Over two years we saw all kinds of movies at the Corbin. The Glass Bottom Boat. Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. The Graduate. I was eleven. Too young for The Graduate. But I loved it. I related to Dustin Hoffman’s character, his confusion. He was trying to figure things out. That’s how I felt, too. I was just starting puberty, just starting to awaken to the allure of girls, and I was enchanted and nervously excited by the idea that an older woman could seduce you, would want to seduce you. Dustin Hoffman’s character watching in awe as Anne Bancroft pulls her stockings onto her beautiful legs? The taboo image stayed with me wherever I went. Until that movie, I thought there was some kind of law that you had to be with someone your age for the parts to fit.

• • •

Corbin Bowl was a dud. My dad had to bow out after a couple years; he was crushed. My parents grew even further apart.

There was a period of weaning off. He started to show up at home less and less. And then not at all.

Two years later, we went to a courthouse with my mom. She wore her best dress and a lot of makeup. Despite her coiffure and pretty façade, her mood was tense and downbeat. I think she told us she was the witness to someone’s divorce. I don’t remember exactly when we learned it was hers. Sometime later.

We saw my father in the cold marble courthouse hallway under the fluorescent lights. We hadn’t seen him in two years. I remember his dress shoes and then his face close to ours when he knelt down to say hello. And then moments later, in a blur of violence, he slugged a guy. Boom. Man down. Blood splattered.

“Jimmy! Jimmy!”

It turned out Jimmy was the husband of the woman my dad stole and would soon marry. Her name was Cindy. It all happened so quickly. Maybe it took two minutes. Two minutes. And then my dad was gone. I wouldn’t see him again for a decade.

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