James Brown




Winter is the season of the arsonist in Southern California. The manzanita and chaparral are dry and brittle and the Santa Ana winds have begun to blow. They move at gale force. They cross the arid Mojave and whip through the canyons of the San Bernardino Mountains, through the live oak and the pines, the ponderosa, the sugar and coulter, white fir and incense cedar. I know these names because I live in these mountains, eighty miles east of the sprawl of Los Angeles, and I worry when the winds come. I worry about the possibility of fire. I know he's out there, the arsonist. I know he's waiting, like me, for a day very much like this.

I've seen the Santa Anas uproot trees. I've seen them strip roofing from houses and shatter windows. I've seen them topple big rigs, and once, along the same freeway I'm traveling now, I saw a stop sign flying through the sky. I keep a firm hold on the wheel. The winds hit in sharp gusts and can blow you clean over the line. You have to be ready. You have to hang on tight and keep your eyes on the road.

Traffic moves slowly, carefully. No one's taking any chances, making abrupt lane changes, cutting you off, or tailgating. I would like to believe that it's courtesy that dictates our caution, our good manners, except that this is Southern California; I grew up here and I know better. Danger or its potential sometimes brings out the best in us, and I wonder, as I reach to turn on the radio, if it might not be a good thing if the Santa Anas blew every day all year round.

From time to time I find myself having to drive into Los Angeles on business, and just the thought of it always fills me with a sense of anxiety. The city has changed and grown immensely since I've known it as a child and sometimes even the most familiar streets, streets I grew up on, seem barely recognizable. Gated communities have replaced the bungalows and tract homes and the signs in the windows of the shops and stores are in Vietnamese, Korean, Spanish, occasionally Arabic. Where corner markets once stood now you'll find mini-malls; and Hollywood landmarks, places like Schwab's and Pandora's Box and the old Brown Derby restaurant, have got in the way of the bulldozer. There are more freeways, too, bigger and wider ones, but the traffic has never been worse.

It isn't the unfamiliar that makes me anxious, though. It isn't the traffic or the crowds or the evolving landscape of architecture and ethnicity. I am a fiction writer who doesn't make enough money at it not to have to do something else to earn a living, and what Hollywood holds out is the promise, the chance for me to tell stories full time. Trouble is, I'm not very good at telling stories that pay better, and that's what this is about. It's what it has always been about: my driving into Hollywood to talk to producers and executives who like my work but want me to write something more commercial. In this case that less commercial work is my last novel and the screenplay I wrote based on it, a screenplay commissioned by Universal and Steven Spielberg's company, both of whom passed on it when I was done. "I don't know why you ever bothered to write this," an executive tells me, after she finishes reading my script. "It's no movie. It's too real." Now the rights are mine and my agent, who doesn't feel the same way as the executive, is sending the script to other executives and producers in Hollywood. As a sample, he calls it. The idea is not so much to sell the script as it is to sell myself as a script writer. Already I'm looking forward to the end of the day.

The Santa Anas die down as I approach Los Angeles and I ease up on the wheel. I take a deep breath. But I know it's only temporary, this calm. I know better than to let myself relax. That thing called the L.A. River borders the last stretch of the freeway into Burbank, and I look out on it, the dirty water, moving sluggishly through the narrow concrete channel that contains it. Over the rush of the cars I try to imagine it as I was told it used to be, a real river, filled with trout and salmon and lined with sycamores and willows instead of chainlink and barbed wire. But I'm not successful. I think about my brother. I think about my sister. We are children down by that river on a day very much like this with the wind blowing lightly and the smell of fire in the air. I'm nine years old, the youngest, and we're passing a bottle around, a bottle I've stolen from a grocery store nearby. My sister points to the sky.

"Look. Look," she says. "Snow."

Only they're ashes. Ashes are falling. Ashes are everywhere, and in the sunlight they appear white, almost translucent. My head is spinning and I laugh. My brother laughs. I can hear us all laughing as we look to the sky, opening our mouths, catching ashes, like snowflakes, until our tongues turn black.

In the rearview mirror I check to see if my eyes are clear. They are, and they should be. I've gone without a drink or a drug for four days because I want to look my best for today and I like to think I do. I'm clean shaven. My hair is freshly cut and neatly combed and I have on my best oxford and a brand new pair of Levis. But for some reason my heart is beating faster than it should and every now and then I can't seem to catch my breath. It's nerves. I'm under pressure. I see today's meetings as an opportunity and I'm keenly aware that the older I get the less frequently these opportunities will come my way. It's been six years between novels and now with a new one out, and a new agent working hard to set up these meetings, there is renewed interest in my writing. But that interest is always fleeting. I think about stopping at a liquor store but decide against it. Only alcoholics, I tell myself, drink before noon.

Everything, I tell myself, is under control.

My first meeting is at Disney Studios in Burbank and I arrive early enough to smoke a couple of cigarettes and try to collect myself. There are no sound stages at this end of the lot, and except for a gardener gathering up his hoses, I am alone on a path that divides two generations: on the one side are the older offices, the Hollywood bungalows with stucco exteriors and terra cotta roofs and well-manicured lawns; on the other are the multi-storied buildings made of steel and glass. And at the end of this pathway are the executive offices where I soon find myself, on the third floor, seated across the room from a woman maybe twenty-two, twenty-three at the most. I wonder how she came into her position so young and the only scenarios I come up with have to do with her mother or father or some very good friend. This is just like me, though, to think in the negative, and because I'm aware of it I'm able to check myself. I don't know this woman. I shouldn't prejudge. I'm here for a job, if not today or next week then maybe it'll happen for me a year or two down the line, and I need to remember that. I need to keep an open mind.

For a while it's small talk. I tell her about my drive from the San Bernardino Mountains, the wind and the traffic. She tells me about how bad it used to be when she worked for a law firm in downtown L.A. "Now," she says, "I could walk to my job." Her office looks as if she's in the process of moving into it, or out, I can't tell which. There's a stack of pictures, big framed pictures propped against the couch and it's either because she's taken them down or because she hasn't hung them yet. Same with the bookcases. They're empty and there are boxes and boxes of screenplays all over the place that need to be unpacked or hauled away.

"I enjoyed your script," she says. "But I wouldn't exactly call it Disney material. I mean it's pretty fucking dark."

She seems relaxed and confident and I wonder if at her age I showed that confidence, or if I've ever had it to show. Certainly I don't now. I look through the window behind her. Outside I can see the tops of the trees swaying in the wind and it occurs to me, though I immediately push the thought out of my mind, that maybe I don't belong here. On her desk is a bag of peanuts and every now and then, as we continue to talk, she reaches for one, cracks it open with her teeth, and drops the shell on the carpet.

"Are you working on anything new?"

"Another script," I say.

"What about?" she says, popping a peanut into her mouth.

I'm lying. I'm not working on another script, at least not putting words to paper, but then that's what this is all about. To pitch. To sell what you haven't written and probably never will unless you're paid first. I think my idea is commercial.

"It starts out in the desert," I say. "You see this man all by himself in the middle of nowhere. It's toward nightfall and at first you can't tell what he's doing. But he's got a long steel pole and he's jabbing it into the ground. The camera pulls back and we see hundreds of holes all over the desert floor. He's been doing it all day."

"And why's he doing this?"

She asks the question but I'm not so sure that she's interested in the answer. This does little for my confidence.

"He's searching for his daughter," I say. "Checking for soft spots in the ground."

The producer shifts in her seat.

"That's a real cheery opening," she says.

I smile awkwardly. I clear my throat, I push on.

"The next thing we see is a parade of news vans following a sheriff's car into the desert. The killer's in the backseat. Pull over, he says. He points out the window with his cuffs on and that's when we cut away, to the same scene, only now we're watching it on TV. It's a videotape, and the killer's face is frozen on the screen." I pause, waiting for her response, but she just cracks open another peanut and pops it into her mouth. "The father, the guy we saw in the beginning, we're in his living room now. He's slouched in an old lounge chair staring at the TV and all around him are empty beer cans and whiskey bottles and half-eaten plates of food. The poor bastard's been playing the same scene over and over. Hasn't moved from that chair in days."

I pause again for her reaction and she gives me a strange look, as if I might be a little over the edge myself for having thought it up. And in a way, I suppose, she may be right.

"Christ, don't you write anything light?"

"You want light, I got light."

But that's as far as I get.

"To tell you the truth," she says, "we're really not taking on new projects now anyway. But I have a script that could use some work. Maybe you'd like to take a look at it."

Of course I would. What I want is a chance, any sort of chance, and in this case it's a shot at a rewrite of someone else's screenplay, an adaptation of a novel called Going Blind, about a college music professor who's slowly losing his sight and tries to hide the fact from his friends and family and colleagues for as long as he can. He can't face what's happening to him, can't admit to the truth, and I think I can understand that. I think it's something I can work on, even with the changes she wants, which are to set the story in high school instead of college and make him a football coach instead of a music professor. My first reaction is that it strains credibility, to make him a football coach. But it's possible, I suppose. Anything is possible when there's money involved, and before I leave her office I'm already working on it, trying to imagine different scenes, different predicaments, trying to imagine myself as a man going blind.

My next meeting isn't for a couple of hours, and I'm back in my car with nothing to do. I think about getting something to eat. I think about getting a cup of coffee. But I'm nervous and jittery and what I really want is something to take the edge off. My sister lives nearby in Studio City and ordinarily, whenever I come into L.A., I drop by and have a couple of drinks with her. Do a line. Or two. Or three. Only these aren't ordinary times. She's quit drinking and using since the death of baby Audrey and I don't feel welcome in her home anymore. And it's not because of the liquor or the dope. I want her to be clean and sober. I am proud of my sister and I've told her so. But that doesn't mean I have to follow her example. Because I can take it or leave it. I can quit whenever I want. I fumble for my car keys, start the engine, and drive into Hollywood to kill some time.

The plan is to hit a bookstore or maybe cruise by one of my old neighborhoods and see how it's changed, or maybe how it hasn't. Our mother moved around a lot when we were growing up and it's hard to go anywhere in this city without bumping into someplace we used to live. An old apartment complex. Some shabby house. I went to fourteen different schools before I reached the ninth grade, and one year, I remember, I didn't attend school at all. But I don't stick to my plan. I don't go to a bookstore. I don't drive by the old neighborhood. Instead I make myself a promise: I'll only have one. Just one. I mean it, too. At the time I couldn't mean it more. And of course after the first drink I see no harm in having a second. Or a third. I sit at the far end of the bar, under the Olympia waterfall, and further justify my being here by reading the script to Going Blind. At least, I tell myself, I am being constructive while I drink.

It's good, the way the writer has it, from the point-of-view of a music professor, and the more I read the less I'm able to imagine it differently. A teacher who is going blind could make himself intimately familiar with the physical layout of his classroom and soon learn to move about it with something close to ease. I can buy that. And certainly he could play his instrument, which in this case happens to be the piano. But a blind football coach? What happens when he steps out onto the field? When he has to call a play, or simply throw the ball? The drinks have begun to take effect and I'm able to see things clearly now, for what they really are: the whole idea is fucking ridiculous, and I feel like a fool for ever having gotten my hopes up. That I hoped at all just goes to show how desperate I am, and I hate to think that the producer saw it in me, that desperation, although I'm sure that she did. Then I start to think about how she kept cracking peanuts while we talked and dropping the shells on the carpet and how someone would have to clean them up. I bet it won't be her. In fact I bet she's used to making messes for others to clean up, messes much bigger than peanut shells, and I resent her for it. I resent myself, too, for trying to sell someone a story that I don't believe in and would never write unless I was paid.

So I light another cigarette.

So I order another drink and pretty soon I find myself condemning not only the producer who gave me the script but also the one that I'm scheduled to meet, and never will, because by now I'm too drunk. And by now it's too late. Exactly how long I've been here, I don't know, but when I drink I often lose complete sense of time and this is one of those occasions. Once I drove halfway across the state to visit my in-laws for Christmas, a good five hundred miles, and I barely remember getting into the car. Suddenly it's seven, eight hours later and I'm there, parked in my in-laws' driveway, listening to the engine tick itself cool.

I pick up some change from the bar and head to the pay phone on the wall outside the bathrooms and call my sister. She answers on the second ring.

"Hey, Marilyn," I say.

"Where the hell are you?"

"I'm at a gas station. My fan belt broke."


"No bullshit."

"You should be calling your wife," she says, "not me."

There's a long pause. I twist the phone cord around my hand.

"Just tell her on I'm on my way, okay?"

"I'm sick of lying for you."

"It's no lie," I say.

"Jimmy," she says. "I can hear the fucking music in the background. You better sober up and get your ass home."

My wife's name is Heidi, and I know I should call her, that I owe her that much, but I don't want to hear it. Her cursing. Her screaming. I know I've done wrong. I know there's no excuse for getting drunk when you're supposed to be home with your family and I wish knowing this would stop me from doing it. I wish that's all it took. That I could will it to happen. But it doesn't work that way, it never has, and in my state of mind, at this particular moment, I can't imagine living without it. The alcohol. The dope. I've been drinking and using since I was nine years old and sometimes I think it's the only thing that gives me any real pleasure. I love the feeling, the rush. That numbing of the brain. That deadening of the senses or the heightening of them on speed. I need that drink. That pill, that fix to feel better. I need it, sometimes, just to make it through another day.

It's dark out when I finally leave the bar, and the Santa Anas have kicked up again. I'm on Hollywood Boulevard, and even for a week night the streets seem abnormally quiet. Few cars are on the road, and the sidewalks, usually crowded with tourists, are strangely empty. The wind is strong and I lower my head and lean into it as I walk, in the opposite direction from where I parked. At the corner there's an old man waiting for the light to change and I ask him for the time. He doesn't seem to hear me. I repeat the question, only louder. That gets him to glance my way but again he doesn't say anything. Maybe he's scared to be out on these streets at night. Maybe he smells the liquor on me and it offends him. I don't know. When the light changes he steps off the curb, holding his jacket closed against his chest, and hurries across the street.

I walk on.

My legs are heavy and the lights in the windows of the different shops and stores are blurred. For the first time that night I recognize I'm drunk. Too drunk to drive. I need more than coffee to sober up. But I'm in luck. This is Hollywood and whatever you want, whatever you need, is always just around the corner or a little further down the block. Tonight I find it outside a rundown apartment complex on a side street between Vine and Cahuenga. Two Puerto Rican kids are standing on the front steps, and I catch eyes with the smaller one as I walk by. There's a boom box at his feet and the bigger kid is sipping on a can of Old English 800.

"Anything happening?" I say.

"What you looking for?"

"Rock. Crank. Whatever you got."

"You a cop?"

"I look like a cop?"

"Yeah," the smaller one says, "you look like a fucking cop."

"You look like a fucking cop, too," I say.

But I say it in a good way, because I'm in a good mood. Because I know I'm about to score. Besides, it's only protocol: if you're a cop and don't say so when you're asked, that's grounds for entrapment. They know it, I know it, and for fifty dollars they point me to a chink in the apartment wall, just a few feet away, where they've stashed a tiny plastic bag of what proves, surprisingly, to be some very potent dope. For another ten I get a chipped glass pipe that sells new for a couple of bucks but I'm not interested in bargaining. Like Pavlov's dog, my mouth has already gone dry, my heart is beating faster, and I can almost feel it, the rush, without even firing up.

I plan to get high in my car where there's less chance of being seen, and where I'm out of the wind, but it's parked a few blocks away and I can't wait that long. All the stores on Hollywood Boulevard are closed for the night, and I duck into the alcove of a souvenir shop, drop a rock into the pipe and light up. My back is to the street and at first, when I feel a wave of heat pass over me, I think it's on account of the dope, the rush. That it's just powerful stuff. But then it happens again, an even stronger wave along the back of my neck, and that's when I realize that it's coming from behind me. Turning, I see it: the building directly across the street is immersed in fire. And it's a beautiful sight. Flames seep through the edges of the roof and the big storefront windows glow and pulsate like they're breathing. Burning embers dance across the sky. In the powerful Santa Anas the flames grow fast, and in a matter of seconds they've doubled in size. I look around to see if anyone else is watching but the streets are empty. This makes me nervous. I'm the sole witness to what is most likely the work of an arsonist, and I don't want to be anywhere near here when the police and firemen arrive, especially in my condition. Ashes rain from the sky, and I begin to walk.

Everything, I tell myself, is under control.

I don't remember the ride home that night any better than I do the time I drove halfway across the state to visit my in-laws for Christmas. That's the nature of a blackout. But I must've stopped off at liquor store along the way because there's a pint of Canadian Club in my lap. And most of it is empty. It's light out now, and somehow I've managed to navigate my way home. Sixty miles of freeway. Another twenty of windy mountain road. I'm parked in the driveway outside my house, and the windshield is silver with frost. Exactly how long I've been there, I can't say for sure, but when I wake up I'm shivering from the cold and everything is quiet. The branches on the big pines that surround my house are motionless and there's a certain stillness about the air, a certain calm. The Santa Anas have passed finally and now, lightly at first, it begins to snow.

She will threaten to leave me.

She will tell me over and over that I am a horrible man and I will promise repeatedly, as I always do, repeatedly, never to hurt her and our beautiful children again. I will vow never to drink. I will vow never to use. I will vow, from here on out, to be a responsible man. And I will mean all these things. I will mean each and every one.

Faintly I hear the sound of laughter, and on the hillside in the distance I spot my three little boys. They are bundled up in heavy jackets. They're wearing knit caps and bright colored scarves and mittens too big for their hands. The snow falls harder. The snow falls faster, and as I start toward the house I watch them spinning round and round, laughing, their mouths open to the sky.