I was on one of those sightseeing trips out to the caves in Arizona with the Native American paintings on the walls, with Alison Gordon, a friend from LA.
Well, I think we got on the wrong bus, because it was full of Second World War veterans each offering hurried salutes, as they filed past us in their garish yellow zoot suits.
We could have made it right there and then, in the semi-darkness of the cave, but I found myself pulling away and making my excuses.
“Something about this cave seems to creep me out,” I said, gazing around open mouthed and I held out my bare arm so she could feel my goose pimples.
Of course we missed the bus back, the veterans waving their sarcastic goodbyes, rubbing mock tears out of their eyes and wah-wah-ing through the open windows as the bus disappeared into a cloud of dust.
I flagged down a fleet side half ton 1973 Chevrolet pick-up truck and asked the driver, Chardeene, a long haired fellow wearing a West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band t-shirt, if he’d be able to take us back to Phoenix. He accepted and told us, as we clambered in, to mind the electric jug that was deposited in the passenger side footwell.
The seats were covered with old beach towels and the air within the cab was thick with marijuana smoke. Chardeene said he was on his way to see The Morris Majors, an underground West Coast pop sensation, who were appearing in Phoenix that night.
Alison was transfixed by the thought of seeing the Major’s bassist, Declan de Ver-a-Tay, in person, he was something of a dreamboat by all reports, who would furl tiny coloured fairy lights over his Hofner Ignition during gigs to add to his appeal, the natty bastard. Alison declared that we had to go.
“Are you crazy,” I remember saying to her, “have you lost your mind?”
Chardeene snapped at me, sneering some rubbish about the Supreme Court, leering around the cab with his swimming eyes, pegging me, with just one look, as one of those ya-hoo-ing ‘let’s keep shipping the lads off to Indochina,’ types.
Realising I had little choice, I quarter-heartedly assented to the trip. It was one of the stages in my life were everyone appeared to be spineless and I put my foot through his electric jug in retribution.
The car hit the kerb in front of the Kino Club as it came to a full stop, and the jolt knocked the radio into life, a jazzy saxophone part and a lyric about Mexico City forcing its way through the crackly static. We got out and I eyed the club’s neon sign, a geisha girl with a parasol doing a Charleston on the wing of a Sopwith Camel and I blushed, my mouth gaping at the freewheeling mix of cultures there.
Alison walked ahead with Chardeene who shepherded her deep into the Kino. The first room appeared to be some kind of boxing club, an oblong shape with four rings crammed in sideways. I broke away to watch the sparing, an older, balding man and a younger man, both jumping from side to side in black plimsolls and yellow shorts with a white stripe down each leg. The younger man had gag squeakers in his gloves, which let out a comedic eek every time he took a punch.
The air conditioner units thudded overhead (squeak) and a man wearing harem pants, sandals and a tie-dyed turtle neck jumper with the words ‘Dress British, Think Yiddish’ stenciled across the front, approached me. He introduced himself as A. Newton Taylor (squeak), “I’m the owner of the joint,” he announced, leaning on the ropes, taking puffs on his stogie (squeak).
“Do you know that broad who came in with Chardeene, just then? ”
“Sure do compadre,” (squeak), I answered.
“You ever get over to Chavez Ravine when you’re in LA,” he asked me, motioning towards the boxers, sprinkling fag ash all over the ring side, “because that’s were all the prize fighters are?”
“Don’t you mean Dodger Stadium?” I said.
And he was struck dumb (squeak), these small town folks sure don’t have a clue.
A. Newton Taylor liked to introduce his acts onto the stage in a verbal torrent of old British music hall slang and he introduced The Morris Majors amid a shower of ‘without further ados’ and ‘ladies and jelly spoons’. The crowd lapped it up, someone even threw a negligée.
I wandered into the main room and Alison was idling by an amp, smoking a cigarette as The Majors chugged through a twangy version of Slip Inside my Gilded Octopus House and I thought about the couple of times we’d been out back home, put on our real good looking clothes and taken on the town.
The music got duller, but the drugs were plentiful and the coloured festoons were soon glinting, their multicoloured beams smearing into the wooden ceiling. Alison looked beautiful in the quarter-light, swaying gently to The Morris Major’s pitiful blend of bland muzak.
I considered the side of her face, while she made dreamy eyes at Declan and I wondered what had made me shy away from her earlier. I turned, distracted by a phrase unusual to these parts, Hudson-Mohawk Dutch slang by the sound of it, I thought that had died out, but hey-ho, and by the time I’d turned back, A. Newton Taylor, the greasy old rooster, was all over her, a trail of black feathers leading from his wilting gilet.
“Hey, Django shit-face,” I shouted, “get off my girl!”
That was pushing it a bit, I know, and Alison seemed to be enjoying being with him, but I bet she was thinking about Declan, or maybe me, yeah, perhaps she was thinking about me.
“I didn’t even know you two were together,” A. Newton Taylor said, shamelessly, clicking his fingers as he spoke, as if he were auditioning for West Side Story.
“We’re not brother, we’re not, but she clearly wasn’t in to you.”
He was all ‘yeah, yeah,’ and he was married anyway, to the kind of girl who liked to wear an inordinate amount of woolens and I told him to fuck off back to Chavez Ravine.
A shout went up over the shoddy stoner musak, followed by a chorus of kazoos and slide whistles, which everyone carried around on their person in those days just in case a slapstick situation should develop.
Everyone started to dash outside and Alison followed and grabbed my hand so she wouldn’t leave me behind and we moved with the people, all gabbling away in their Hudson-Mohawk Dutch, until we reached the parking lot and Alison lit a cigarette, and offered me one, can you believe, and I said no thank you very much.
Out of the low hanging desert fog came a military helicopter dangling a cloth Richard Nixon from its left landing skid.
“Their taking it to Pope Paul in Rome for exorcism,” said some stoner in a Bud Cort t-shirt standing next to me, motioning toward the effigy and I nodded ‘yeahhh’, real solemn like, you know, like I gave a shit.
Stitches, the Morris Major’s drummer, had brought his snare drum outside and performed a drum roll as the copter landed on the lot, overturning Chardeene’s truck in the process. A. Newton Taylor approached the door as the rotors slowed, bowing and curtseying, bowing and curtseying and the crowd, several deep in places, performed an impromptu Mexican wave.
I held Alison close and she had her arm around me, but that didn’t mean anything, and then out of the copter appeared a man wearing some fly duds, priestly garb, his purple and gold vestments covered in brass buttons and crumpled up magazine pictures of pin up girls from the 1950s, I could clearly pick out Lili St. Cyr, Bernie Dexter, even poor old Dotty Dandridge. With an inflatable crucifix in one hand, he made the sign of the vinyl record with the other, just a mid-air circle and a finger jab, and then he led us all in this reverent prayer for musical resurrection: ‘We don’t want Jim Morrison, we want The Electric Prunes, we don’t want Jim Morrison, we want the Electric Prunes.”
Once the holy man and his retinue had processed inside, with A. Newton Taylor at the head of the group, the helicopter was up for grabs and I motioned towards Alison that she jump in and we take it for a spin.
“I don’t like the idea of stealing from a consecrated reverend,” Alison yelled over the whirling rotors as they started up.
“He’s not a consecrated reverend,” I said, maniacally flicking switches, “well, he is, but of his own church, recognised by a few bus stop dwelling crackpots, downtown.”
“You don’t understand, you’re an atheist,” Alison said, clicking her seatbelt in place and adjusting her seat.
I clapped the headphones on, pulled the collective and the helicopter began to rise, the cloth Nixon tap dancing into life beneath us.
“I don’t think I’m taking advantage of my life enough to be able to say I’m an atheist,” I shouted over the noise as I began to bank over the low rise rooftops. “I’m the kind of guy who needs the reassurance that he’s got a shot at a second chance,” we took a dramatic dive as I spilled a can of beer on my crotch, “you know, it just takes the pressure out of everything.”
I decided to make for our hotel and then, given that we now had the means, head for home. When Frank, the doorman, appeared running across the car park with our cases, he didn’t even bat an eyelid at the helicopter with the cloth Nixon bobbing about beneath it, he just politely informed me, knowing me to be a New Yorker, born and bred, that Hank Arron had hit the home run that night, which brilliantly rescued a haphazard day.
As we approached the Sierra Nevada, I reached over and started caressing Alison’s thigh, then I thought fuck it and switched on the radio, Quick Silver Messenger Service, fucking primo. I looked down as Los Angeles began to twinkle into view and the cloth Nixon appeared to have its arms wide, with a big grin on its face, like it was embracing the entire city. I was the man who was bringing Richard Nixon back to Los Angeles and he was hugging the city and the city was hugging back.
In LA we landed on top of Don Pedro’s all night delicatessen. I realised too late that the Don had converted his roof into a garden to grow watermelons for his fruit terrine and great big watermelon explosions were soon sending fleshy pink fruit innards shooting upwards in geezers at either side of the copter. The cloth Nixon was covered in an unpleasant fruity gunk and I smiled sheepishly at Alison as slimy pips and assorted bits of goo squeaked down the widescreen.
We went into the shop and Don Pedro offered us spongecake, the coloured icing a papery mixture made from confetti he’d scooped up from outside the registrar’s office in Beverly Hills and then mixed with milk.
“None of that stuff for us, sweetheart,” I told him, “but we’ll have a couple of pieces of your strawberry cheesecake, if there’s any left, ” I said, pointing at the counter, “I know it’s late?”
We ate the cheesecake on Hermosa Beach golf course, as a cold shower of sprinkled water returned us to our senses and then Alison said that she didn’t want to see me anymore. As the sun came up, the golden beams eviscerated, for a moment, the flapping red flag that marked out the ninth hole in front of us. We really exist at the behest of the universe, I thought, and then I thought of Don Pedro failing to put two and two together when he saw the watermelon footprints we’d left behind us. What a sucker, I thought, just wait until he goes up stairs.
Original Short Fiction by Robert Leeming