Dear World: I am leaving because I’m bored.
— from actor George Sanders’ suicide note
There is a line in the film All About Eve that makes me howl with laughter. No, it’s not the famous seat-belt line. It’s when Addison Dewitt, portrayed with such icky precision by the masterful British actor George Sanders confronts Eve Harrington in a hotel room after she’s trampled on the souls of all those who have befriended her, in her ruthless climb to the top; most especially her benefactress, Margo Channing (Bette Davis at the height of her powers).
DeWitt says something that infuriates Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter at her scene-chewing best), or maybe she’s just pretending to be infuriated, as she whirls over to the door and basically tells DeWitt to let the doorknob hit him where the good Lord split him. DeWitt smiles and with all the charm of a rattlesnake says, “You’re too short for that gesture.” Ah, George Sanders: viciousness with class. George Sanders has a lifetime pass to my heart. He was married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, the Hungarian H-bomb, enough to make any man commit suicide, which is what George Sanders did, poor baby.
I was meditating on George Sanders over a large glass of whiskey at Bridgewater’s Bar and Grille. It was the anniversary of my mother’s suicide and I was depressed. I was also angry as hell, because my tenure had been denied and I was asked to resign from a second rate university that was little more than a glorified vocational training school and this, this crummy watering hole in the middle of a train station, was the scene of my fall from grace.
It was on a Wednesday: Dan Fesman, professor of comparative literature, was sitting at one of the tables with his teaching assistant. It was no secret he was conjugating her verbs as an extra-curricular activity. His voice held weight within the committee that was evaluating my bid for tenure, and he had used this as leverage to try to blackmail me into sleeping with him. When I refused, and outed him through formal channels as a sexual harasser, the university closed ranks around him and made my life a living hell. So, on that Wednesday night when I spied him, with his little piece of heaven, I was ready for him.
As I sat at the bar Fesman, being true to the slimy thing he is, approached me on his way to the men’s room. He leaned in close and whispered that if I had only played the game things would have turned out so much better for me. Even as a child I was never good at playing games; I let him know in no uncertain terms. He adjusted his tie and strolled off towards the men’s room, him and his Men’s Warehouse suits. It was a shame he looked so much like Robert Taylor in Johnny Eager; I would have slept with him without the blackmail. Just goes to show you how insecure Professor Fesman is, the asshole.
I was thinking about how much of an asshole he truly was when I tripped him, as he walked past me. He fell flat on his face and broke his nose. There was blood everywhere. His little TA was crying as she held a wad of napkins to his face. I was laughing so hard, I cried, too.
Recalling the joy of hearing Professor Fesman screaming, “My nose is broken!” did nothing to set aside my depression. I had been drinking too much and thinking too little. On my way home, the streets were wet with rain, the headlights made reflecting pools out of puddles and sinister shadows loomed in the angles between tall buildings — all classic visual signatures of film noir. I ought to know, I wrote the book on it, a book called Rebels, Dames and Misfits about the heroes and heroines of film noir, required reading for the class I taught.
Sitting in the back of that cab I felt like Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground. I wanted the cab driver to drive me all night, drive me into a new life. I was tired, so very tired. That was what was written on the crumpled piece of paper found in my mother’s hand: “I’m just so very tired.”
The cab pulled up to the door of my little rented house on my little dreary street and all I could think of was, Bette Davis curling her lip and spitting out, “What a dump.” I paid the cabbie, unlocked the door and walked into the darkness. I had run out of husbands, or was it that I simply could not stomach the idea of a fourth, despite the fact that I hated sleeping alone?
I found the light switch, which only served to illuminate the detritus of a lifetime. The crap I convinced myself I couldn’t live without: a faux Louis XIV chaise lounge upholstered in red brocade and framed in gold, once a prop in the movie Dangerous Liaisons; stacks of Women’s Wear Daily magazines, way too heavy to throw out; shelves and shelves of books; a Turkish rug which I probably hadn’t vacuumed since I bought it — things once meaningful, now meaningless.
The best thing I could do for mankind would be to burn the goddamned house to the ground with me in it. Hadn’t I always wanted to be cremated? Then I remembered: I really, really didn’t like pain and I was very, very drunk.
This same night forty years ago my mother had locked herself in the bathroom and swallowed a handful of pills. What had she been thinking, I wondered? It was so long ago, and I still wondered. When I thought about my mother’s death, I always thought about George Sanders as Addison Dewitt, because he reminded me of my mother. Raymond T. Pickles saved me from certain disaster that night, when I was at the crossroad: forced to resign, tenure-less and husband-less, thinking about suicide — my mother’s, George Sanders’ and possibly my own. I didn’t want to return to California. My daughter and her husband would have welcomed me back with open arms, as would my third husband Nick Ravelli. California held so much for me, but it also held so much against me. Nashville was calling, and Pickles needed me to go to London. Writers never have any money. His publisher had refused any more advances because of some typically prurient Pickles activity, which had left his publisher less than confident in Raymond’s promises.
I was to bankroll this adventure and Pickles would repay me “in-kind.” This was arts-grant-speak for not in money but something of equal value; to me there is nothing of equal value to cold hard cash, but this was classic Pickles. I was always a sucker and willing accomplice for whatever half-baked schemes he had in mind; however, I had made other plans which had sprung from questions I had about my mother’s death.
My father, T. Laurence Lake the sculptor, had been an indulgent, supportive, kind and loving man, but on the subject of Catherine Bannister-Lake he was always acidic and now unintelligible, reduced to almost Brussels sprout status because of a stroke. So, I decided to use my unforeseen free time to track down my older brother, TL Jr., in hopes of getting a few questions answered. I was determined, and not even Pickles could talk me out of it.
I would rendezvous with Pickles at the Camden Locke Hotel, because it was cheap and central to everything in Camdentown, where Pickles’ publisher was.
“Perfection, sugar, but let me warn you, you will not like Nashville no matter how much you like country music. You will not be able to get a decent latte to save your life. Remember you heard it from me.” I hate to admit this, but Pickles was generally right about fashion, men and food. I had toyed with the idea of living in Nashville, thought better of it, and thank God I did because it was a schizoid city now, bouncing back and forth between two cultural identities. There was the Nashville of legend with the Confederate flag flapping in the wind, pulled pork, Jack Daniel’s, NASCAR and the Country Music Hall of Fame (where I got a really cool laminated copy of a 21-year-old Elvis’ driver’s license).
Then there were the refugees from 5th Avenue, with cell phones glued to their ears, ordering watery Cosmopolitans before they ran off to see Kanye West at the Ryman Auditorium, original home of the Grand Ole Opry. I liked the old Nashville better.
It was 102 degrees Fahrenheit when I visited TL Jr. in the gated community outside of Nashville where he lived with his wife of ten years, Mary Constable. Mary had been a country singer once, fairly well known, but a drug habit had cut her career short and been responsible for a fight that resulted in the business end of a stiletto heel blinding her in one eye.
She and TL Jr. didn’t have any children. They had one of those mysterious relationships that worked but it was anybody’s guess why. TL Jr. is about six foot two, thin with long hands and long fingers. He has fierce grey eyes with yellow flecks in them and his complexion is the color of walnuts, like mine. If you took a picture of Frederick Douglass, the former slave, abolitionist and writer when he was a young man, put it beside a picture of my father when he was young man and a recent picture of TL Jr. you’d be hard pressed to tell who’s who.
It was TL Jr. who broke down the bathroom door and found my mother. He was seventeen at the time. I don’t think he ever got over it. None of us has, really. The day after I arrived in Nashville, TL Jr. took me to a Mexican restaurant on Vanderbilt’s campus.
My brother TL Jr. is a man of few words. Most of the talking I did with him on the phone was to ask if he was still on the line. He had not changed. He was as taciturn as ever, at first.
Later I would come to realize how much he hated our father and how much he loved our mother. It never occurred to me that all that stoic silence was the mask of a shy, sensitive man who was deeply hurt and hurting. I knew very little about what he did for a living. I knew he did research in cell and developmental biology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. I only knew that because I Googled him.
TL Jr. might not be the happiest of men, but he had made his peace with life. I wanted some of that. He looked up from his burrito and broke the silence:
“Mary asked me if you’d come out to poker night tomorrow. I told her everything you feel shows on your face.”
“Is she any better?”
“She’s dying and that’s all I’m saying on the subject.”
We continued eating our super burritos and drinking our Coronas in silence. I felt sad. I wasn’t close to Mary, but I did like her. She’d had a rough life and now this. I stared at TL for the longest trying to figure out how to let him know how sorry I was. He raised his left eyebrow and gave me that “don’t even go there” look, and I backed off. I was not, however, going to back off of the subject of Catherine Bannister Lawrence, our mother.
“TL, why do you think Mom killed herself?”
“You just can’t leave it alone, can you? Always, picking at a scab until it starts to bleed.”
“I just think you know something you’re not telling me.”
“Felicia, I know a shit load of things. I’m a smart man, respected in my field; knowing something and being able to change that something are two different things. What I’m saying is: what I know is not going to make a difference. I got to go to work. Let me know if you’re coming to poker night. I’ll pick you up at the motel.”
With that, TL Jr. got up, threw some money on the table, even though he had already paid for our meals, kissed me on the forehead and left. As I stuffed the money into my purse I realized that this was the longest conversation I had ever had with my brother in my life. What I couldn’t figure was whether he had been talking about our mother or his wife.
Well, I had kicked the sleeping dog and he was wide awake and growling, like my stomach. I lay in one of two double beds in my motel room at the Days Inn, wishing I had gone to poker night. I had come here for answers and all I got for my trouble were more questions. I finally fell into a stress-induced sleep and dreamt a strange dream about a man I was destined to meet a week later. The man who would change my life forever: The Actor.
I’m in the kitchen of a small restaurant. Judging by the clothes, furnishings and utensils it’s the 1950s. Amid the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, where meals are being prepared and waiters whirl in and out through swinging doors, my father sits quietly at a table in the corner. He looks dignified in his tuxedo, but older and more worn out than in life. The table where my father sits happens to be near a little cubbyhole that houses the dish-washing station. Even though it’s steamy hot in the kitchen, the green chiffon dress I’m wearing is cool against my skin. My hair is bobbed, it feels foreign. This is me, but inside someone else’s body.
I ask one of the prep staff: “Where’s Pop’s meal? He has to go back on in twenty minutes.” As another waiter rushes out with another order, I see a shiny black grand piano through the swinging door.
There’s a commotion between the busboy and the dishwasher. The chef quells it before it gets out of control. Still irritated, the dishwasher, who has his back to us, shouts that my father and I should get out of the kitchen and that he’s sick of “that old man.”
“That old man was famous before you were born,” I shout back. Then the dishwasher whirls around and stares at me with such hate I almost lose my balance. He’s a skinny blond kid about 25 or so, with deep-set blue eyes that are full of anger and pain. He’s twitching like he’s high on something or needs to get high on something. His eyes are wild and red-rimmed. He hasn’t shaved. His blond hair, damp with sweat, is plastered to his head. The dirty, threadbare white shirt he wears, sleeves rolled up, collar unbuttoned at the neck, is rendered transparent by perspiration. His food-encrusted black pants are shiny from dirty dishwater. He looks crazed and dangerous. As he moves slowly towards me, I gather my father up, saying, “Come on, Pop, let’s go. You’ll eat out front tonight.” Just then, the maître d’ comes in wanting to know what the shouting is about, says the customers can hear it.
When he sees the state of the dishwasher, the maître d’ takes my father out into the club with instructions for one of the waiters to bring Pop his meal. The maître d’ and Pop disappear through the door and all at once the dishwasher’s in my face. He’s trembling like an exposed nerve end. He’s so close I can feel the heat of his breath. I can’t tell if he wants to hurt me or he wants me to help him. “What do you know about it? Huh?” he asks through clenched teeth. He reaches inside his pants pocket for something.
He moves closer but loses his balance, trips and falls onto the chair where my Pop had been sitting. He begins to cry. He gestures to me like he wants me to come to him, as if he has something to tell me. I hear voices all around: “Don’t go near him”, “What’s the matter with him, anyway?” “The kid’s got rabies or something.”
Despite the chorus of protests I move towards him, compelled by pity. As I lean forward, he grabs a cake knife with a pale green glass handle from the counter and points it at me. There is a collective gasp in the little kitchen. I see the chef circling behind the dishwasher.
“It’s all right,” I say holding out my hand, “Everything’s going to be OK. You can give it to me.” He calms down and hands it over. Then, in an instant, he’s a wild man again screaming: “You were never there when I needed you”. That’s when I realize he’s delirious with some kind of fever and has superimposed some hurtful person from the past onto me, but why me? He’s sobbing now.
The chef, who has managed to circle behind him, begins to close in. The maître d’ bursts in again, angry about the noise. It’s at this instant the dishwasher pulls out a pearl-handled revolver from his pants pocket. Someone shouts: “He’s got a gun!”
The dishwasher jerks to his left and then to his right waving the gun unsteadily as people duck and pans and dishes clatter and crash to the floor. The dishwasher calms down for a moment, shakes his head like a wet dog then raises the gun as if he is going to give it to me like the cake knife; there is a flash of white light and then everything goes black.
I woke up terrified. I didn’t like this. I didn’t want to know what it meant, because I didn’t like the way it made me feel. I didn’t like being shot in my own goddamned dream.