Read an Excerpt
Danny got off the truck at dusk. It was an organic vegetable truck headed for a health food store in Laurel Canyon, and it dropped him at Sunset and Beverly Glen, where he took one step, slipped on the freshly-watered parkway grass, and took a world-class header. His duffel bag rolled back into the street where a car immediately ran over it and scattered its contents—his shirts, his socks, his size 44 Jockey-brand briefs—across Sunset Boulevard. Two teenagers zipping past in a Firebird convertible applauded.
Yes, the big fella was back in town.
It took him about thirty minutes to chase down his things and re-stow them. Then he brushed himself off, pulled his duffel over his shoulder, waddled over to the Bel Air Gate, and stuck out his thumb. Nobody picked him up. A lot of cars passed him on their way up the canyon. New, shiny cars. Porsches. Maseratis. Excaliburs. But nobody stopped. He sighed and started hoofing it.
The first thing Danny noticed was the smog. He could already feel it in his chest and his eyes. The second thing he noticed was how many new houses had been built on lots that he’d never thought were lots. Just little slivers of dirt and brush beside the road. Now they were great big fancy homes with Grecian columns and fountains and basketball hoops.
He trudged, thumb out. His workshirt stuck to him, and his torn, patched jeans were giving off the unmistakable aroma of manure from the truck. A long, black Cadillac passed him by. So did a Jaguar. Its driver honked at him to get out of the way. Instead of a toot its horn blatted out the opening bar of “If I Were A Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof.
He made the climb in an hour. The floodlights were on in front. Abe was on his hands and knees in the wide driveway, scrubbing the white cement with a brush. A bucket and gallon jug of industrial cleanser were beside him on the pavement. Abe’s glasses, which hung around his neck on a chain, banged against his chest with each vigorous stroke of the brush.
Scrub-thwack. Scrub-thwack. Scrub-thwack.
His hair was grayer, his sideburns longer. His green paisley sportcoat was draped over the squared rear fin of the new black Cadillac that sat in the three-car garage. Abe hadn’t gone in the house yet. It was his dream house, the one he’d built when they finally made it. He wouldn’t go inside it if he found grease spots in its driveway.
Panting, Danny watched him from the curb and realized his father was one of the people who hadn’t picked him up on his way up the canyon. “Hi Pop,” he said quietly.
“Ya believe it?!” barked Abe, red-faced, not looking up from his scrubbing. “I told the stupid sonuvabitch to park in the street!”
“Which stupid sonuvabitch?” asked Danny, a little surprised that Abe seemed to be taking no notice that his only son hadn’t been around for the past four years.
“Aw, that goddamned pool man. Left his goddamned truck in the driveway and now I’ve got grease spots all over the goddamned place. Schmuck! Grab the hose, kiddo.”
Danny put down his duffel bag and fetched the hose, which had a chrome, trigger-activated power nozzle. Abe cradled his chin with the palm of his hand, then slowly and painfully pushed his head and neck to an erect position. Abe’s back was dissolving. It kept him permanently stooped. Once there had been talk of surgery. But Abe refused it. Groaning, he struggled to his feet and moved out of the way. Danny shot the suds down to the curb.
“There you go, Pop. Good as new.”
Abe shook his head, dissatisfied. “I’m gonna fire that schmuck. Ya believe it? Fourth one in three months.”
Danny coiled the hose back up. “Is a pool man absolutely necessary?”
“Who else is gonna do it? Show me the list of candidates. You’re gone. Poof. No card. Nothing …”
Danny cleared his throat. “Yeah, I—”
“And I,” Abe broke in, “sure as hell didn’t come this far to hang over the edge of the pool with a goddamned net in my hand and take a chance of my back freezing up and falling in and drowning! You home for good or what?”
“Came back for a wedding.”
“Mouse Stern. Remember him?”
“Sharp kid, sure. Old man was a doctor.”
“He’s marrying Wendy Waldman.”
“Your Wendy Waldman?”
“She’s not mine anymore.”
Abe retrieved the bucket and cleanser and brush. There was more strain in his face than Danny remembered.
“Everything okay, Pop?”
“What would be wrong?”
“You seem kind of tense.”
“Anything in particular?”
Danny nodded. Some things didn’t change.
Abe’s ’57 Plymouth with the tail fins, plaid upholstery, and pushbutton transmission was in the garage next to the Cadillac. So was a smaller car, under a bright blue tarp.
“Is that my MG?” Danny asked.
His sixteenth birthday present. British racing green. Fully equipped—wire wheels, AM-FM radio, Chevron card.
“Of course,” Abe replied. “Think we’d sell it?”
“No, no. Does it still run?”
“Of course. Think we’d let it die?” Abe grabbed his coat, softened a little. “C’mon inside, kiddo. We’ll surprise mom, like the old days. I’ll call out I’m home. You’ll walk in the door instead of me. Okay?”
They went up the flagstone steps to the giant redwood double doors. Other than the doors, the front of the house was all glass. A row of hibiscus and pyracantha shielded the living room from the street.
Abe kept the remote control unit for the garage door on a little stand in the entry hall. He pointed it at the garage and pushed the button. The door jumped and lowered slowly. Abe watched it go down, a contented smile on his face.
Coco heard them from the kitchen and came skittering across the polished slate floor to greet them. She was a dinky toy poodle, dark brown and very excitable. She didn’t recognize Danny and began to yap at him. He picked her up, hoping to get her to stop. He hadn’t wanted them to get a poodle. He’d voted for a big, solid retriever you could name Butch or Rex and wrassle with. Ev, however, feared that such a dog might hear the call of the wild one night and devour a member of the Levine family. Coco quieted down but began to squirm in his arms, her breathing rapid and shallow, her eyes glassy. She wanted to be put down. He obliged.
“Ev!” Abe called out. “I’m home!”
“I’m in the kitchen!” she called back.
Abe winked at Danny, gave him a shove.
The kitchen, breakfast area, and den were all sort of one big room separated by waist-high counters and facing the pool. There were sliding glass doors in the den and breakfast area.
Cronkite was giving the Vietnam fatality scoreboard update. America: 9, North Vietnam: 26,875. Another victorious week. At this rate they would kill over eleven million North Vietnamese by the year 1980. The war would still be going strong then. Nixon would still be president. Danny would be over thirty.
Ev wore an apron over her dress and plush blue slippers Danny gave her for Chanuka when he was in junior high. Her hands were buried in a large Pyrex bowl filled with raw hamburger meat, egg, and oatmeal. Meat loaf. Danny’s stomach growled. He hadn’t eaten for a whole day, except for those four Baby Ruths in Kettleman City.
“Take a piece of cheese, Abe,” she said, not looking up. “I’m running late.”
Danny cut himself a generous slab of Longhorn cheddar and flopped down in one of the club chairs clumped around the breakfast table. He forgot that the casters rolled on the slate floor and had to brake himself with his heels or he would have rolled right out the sliding glass door into the pool and sunk to the bottom and drowned.
“Did you talk to Irv about his proposal?” Ev asked, still not looking up.
Danny bit into his cheese. “Which proposal is that, Mom?”
Ev froze. Her eyes widened. She looked up, saw him there. Then she clutched at her chest and fainted. She landed with a thud.
“You been taking your estrogen, Ev?” Abe asked her after he and Danny carried her upstairs and waved ammonia under her nose.
“Yes,” she said.
“What about your iron?”
She had more lines in her face. Her red curls had gray in them now. How odd that the two of them had aged so much, reflected Danny. He was the one who’d been out there experiencing and growing.
Abe’s heating pad was waiting for him on his side of the bed. A copy of the collected essays of Henry David Thoreau was on his nightstand. Ev was still reading The Source by James Michener.
“Goddamned hysterectomy,” said Abe. “That’s what it is. Never used to have problems.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it. I’ve told you a million times not to play your tricks on me.”
“Just teasing ya. Can’t I tease ya anymore?”
“You never could. Twenty-five years I’ve been telling you.”
She held her arms out to Danny. He leaned down and hugged her. She hugged him back.
“Are you home for good, sweetheart?”
“Mouse Stern is getting married,” Abe answered.
“And guess who? Wendy Waldman.”
“His Wendy Waldman?”
“She’s not his anymore.”
The three of them sat in silence on the bed, not quite ready to move on to some of the tougher questions, like, say, where the hell he’d been, and was he finally ready to take his spot.