Lou Rowan

for Michael Sheldon

I lived in my father's mansion, and dined with my grandmother the princess. Before leaving my father mixed Grandmere a pitcher of martinis; her highball poured, we faced off across the card table between the bar and the television. We sat at a tasteful distance from the tiny screen in the mahogany console, while Andre the Hungarian butler served us.

Living with my mother in Newport Beach, I received clear guidance on social distinctions. Uncle Ben, the saintly black headwaiter at the Yacht Club, brought us joy with his Easter egg hunts in the sand. His death freed our parents, deterring crime waves, to sack the black and hispanic staff. We believed in this roundup. Distinctions between white and other, native and foreign, rich and poor, normal and weird were natural.

But my Pasadena grandmother's range and nuance of social judgments came at me like a hornet-swarm. She quoted conversations with Il Duce and Fritz Kreisler; she judged the competence of Wallenstein and Lert to conduct the symphony. She might as well have embarked from a flying saucer before descending slowly on my father's arm past the glassy-eyed elk's head above the long carved-wood banister. I confused Il Duce with a douche-bag. Was she using all these foreigners as an introduction to some revolting sex-talk?

Grandmere's breath reeked from the gin and the cigarettes she fitted serially into a long ivory holder. She smoked Parliaments, suggesting European customs. It was a relief when she lit up; the smoke smelled better than she did. Lotions glistened coldly on her pale skin, wrinkled like the grain of polished wood. Her black-gray hair, her dark clothing, punctuated by jewels that clacked and twinkled, rendered her my image of death, and dinner a smelly horror-movie or monster-comic. I thought old ladies should efface their bodies with cologne and drab dresses, should be warm and lumpy.

I mentioned my affection for my mother. Grandmere was indignant, "Your father never should have married her. I told him not to. I don't know why he didn't listen. Unlike some young men, he always listens to me. Her girdles were too loose; she didn't know how to rouge and never wore a hat. Her vulgar father Brann, that ad man from Indiana, God help us, boasting of his wealth and horses and his mousy little chit of a wife. ÎMy little woman Mabel.' Pfui! I'll wager he was bedding every floozy in sight. He would call me Îhoney.' No one calls me honey. You're wrong. We should never have been tainted by that dreck. Your poor father."

She'd leave the mansion late mornings with Andre in her bottle-green limousine. She brandished her cigarette-holder at a rakish angle like Roosevelt, but her dark tiara and her angry features resembled something under glass in a natural history museum. My father explained she was going to Mass, adding to my repugnance: she was my first live Catholic. 

Andre pinched my cheeks and called me a "a gude gude gude bo-ee." I left a series caricatures of him as "Androol the Villain" in the long pantry where his fat wife peeled potatoes and apples before beginning serious preparations for dinner. The uproar from my father demanding a formal apology taught me my first political lesson: even California aristocrats must target scorn for inferiors with precision

Now Andre could delay picking me up for my after-school appointments with the eye therapist. I waited in embarrassment and envy watching my new classmates' normal families gathering them into station wagons with hugs and smiles. When Andre finally pulled up the empty street in the green limo, he assailed me righteously with the sickening confection of his calculated dotings. One of my eyes was "weaker" than the other, so I looked into machines, played ping-pong with the technician wearing my eyepatch, and did awkward things with fingers and pencils designed to strengthen my right eye-muscles-or so I reasoned since I'd no idea why I was there, except that my squinting was a bad thing.

Weekends the staff was away somewhere with Grandmere, and I'd wander the mansion. I read bestsellers in the library, skimming for dirty scenes. I explored the ten-room attic and servants quarters on the third floor: the storage closets and wood trunks full of veils, gowns, swords, tailcoats, uniforms, army ribbons and medals. I didn't know where my father was. My grandmother was a princess because her late second husband Domenico was the "prince assistant" of the Vatican. That sounded impressive to me, but puzzled my new friends, worrying me that the mansion was ruining my social status. Once I disturbed a snake sunning itself on the hot dusty floor. It must have traveled the slate roof from the oak tree or slithered up the thick ivy covering the brick walls. I'd lean out my bedroom window and tear the hard stalks from their fine roots, upsetting Jimmy, the Greek gardener, as his head materialized abruptly at my bedroom or bathroom window, discoursing from his ladder about the diminished grandeur of the garden-another servant enlisting me in causes I couldn't understand.

I tried out the bar, swigging each bottle on the polished-wood table beneath the racing photos. How could Grandmere stomach gin? I gagged until I discovered the sweetness of benedictine and chartreuse. I liked their strangely-shifting colors. Later, at cocktail parties in the library, it was important to debate whether one drank for "the taste" or for "the effect," and I'd confuse the issue by blurting out that I began drinking for the color. Cigarettes were in a music box that played the theme from "The Third Man." When you lifted the lid, the prickly little brass drum revolved and plucked long thin teeth. I felt the tune should haunt me, but the Lucky Strikes were stale, and made me gag again. So I tried cigars, sucking away till they glowed. I slid down the curved banister past the elk with bottle and cigar balanced. I skated the waxed parquet floors in my socks, leaving grey ashes like little animal turds. I knew I'd hide the traces of my exploits from late-arriving grownups, informing them with the enthusiasm they expected that I had spent the weekend doing homework and whizzing happily down lower Orange Grove Avenue on my Flexible Flyer.

Then I was ready for the garage at the far end of the gravel driveway, next to the rutted tennis court on which my father trained me to play bicycle polo, which didn't seem to interest my friends, though they liked swinging the abbreviated mallets. The driveway hurt my stockinged feet, no longer so tough as they had been in Newport, but I knew the carpets and the cool polished wood would sooth them. My father's evenings suddenly resulted in a stepmother, my governess at my mother's home, and there was her shiny new station wagon, a long Ford she called "the white swan." I backed it handily onto the gravel and maneuvered in tight, smooth figure-eights like Icecapades skaters, lightly brushing Jimmy's ornamental hedges. Now for drag racing. I was ready to tromp on the brake when I neared Hillside Road, but wow a geyser of gravel shot high behind me, the car roaring, shaking and drifting in place, the speedometer shooting from zero to sixty in record time. My stationary speedway was so cool it was scary; I craved to make it real by showing it off to a friend, but I didn't know who to call, so I parked the swan and headed inside to light up.

My Uncle Bob from next door interrupted-Tortilla Flat on my lap, cigar smoke wreathing the library, chartreuse on the coffee table. I ran to head him of in the front hall, forgetting to ditch my cigar. Palming the stogie, I jammed my hand into my searsucker bermudas. Bob heard the hurlings of the swan, and wanted to make sure I was OK. He was my eccentric uncle who knew weird artists; my other one, his twin, was my sweet uncle who misquoted the Gospels. If I'd been able to blend and adopt them, they'd have made a pretty good father. I wandered to their houses at odd moments, hoping they'd take me in or take me somewhere. Bob suggested with a wink that I do my experimental driving a little slower, and then criticized Grandmere's artworks with tedious filial passion. Rows of brown spots were spreading over the upper thigh of my bermudas, and the burning pocket singed my facts of life. I rushed to the rows of bottles and tubes in my father's bathroom, and dabbed a sweet-smelling ointment there, but it added a new sting to the pain that whizzed through me like an electric shock.

It was an anxiety to do my homework amidst these distractions. In moods of gushing warm self-pity, I did it badly, so that no one would ever know what I could have been, each intentional mistake a melodrama.

The assignments-my first experience of homework--came from "Saddlebags," our sixth-grade homeroom teacher. Mrs. Saddler was a sweet old lady Grandmere should have emulated. Her colleague Mr. Moses, or "Mose-toes," was gauche enough to share his passion for the blues in Assembly. Our emotional equipment did not register the blues. We giggled, squirmed, mugged and gossiped through the weird sounds from the weird names: Blind Lemon, Leadbelly, Big Bill. Our principal, Appleton Mason III, intervened to quell us and rescue the red-faced Mr. Moses from his good intentions and our restive contempt.

Mr. Moses taught us sex: the boys in his homeroom and the girls in Mrs. Saddler's. We sat back, ready to judge, to pounce. "You don't even know the facts of life, buddy," was a crusher, sex a new weapon as we explored widening grounds for scorn.

Poor Mr. Moses marched safely through the physical facts; and arrived at the Wedding Night: "Some couples just can't wait to do it. They are so driven by desire they cannot refrain from doing it the very first day they are married! We call this behavior ÎThe Wedding Night.'"

Our hands shot up. He called on Lex.

"Mr. Moses, did you?"

And our snorts, giggles and guffaws routed education again.

Mr. Moses was a Democrat, weird to Pasadena gentry united in devotion sound principles and Ike. The morning after Stevenson's dispatch we arrived early to laugh and jeer at Mr. Moses. I headed the pack. Ike was my father's candidate. Dick was my hero. I read his campaign biography and thrilled to his victories over evil. I could never match Dick's exploits: he could change his clothes in three minutes; he could remember hundreds of names and faces. My aunt wrote Dick's campaign song, "We'll Ride with Nixon." I felt secure in the jeering crowd, justified--now I truly belonged in my new school. Mr. Moses grabbed my pointing finger and twisted it, and the crowd behind disappeared. In the silence, pain, his angry face facing mine, I wondered why Moses, this weird little man, didn't know his place, and what happened to my friends.

We did a better job on Mr. Boynton, our seventh-grade homeroom teacher, who suffered a heart attack the summer we were done with him.

Mr. Boynton disembarked from a "strict eastern boarding-school." This credential had a convincing ring to our parents, as if he were an imported car. He called us "lads and lassies," begged us to "buck up." Portly, with close-cropped curly grey-brown hair, he wore dark suits and fine print ties, distinguishing himself from the handful of male teachers in short-sleeved shirts with narrow shiny ties. His complexion was florid and he had networks of green-blue veins on his nose. Accustomed to the power of a "master" in a boarding-school; he was thwarted by our attitude, "Hey, show me something, buddy-"

He'd address the blackboard earnestly while our giggling at the blizzard of spitwads behind him swelled to catcalls or belches loud enough to pull him around. The boys' belches discomfited him. When he pounced, we'd insist righteously it was "a real burp," and apologize unctuously.

Mr. Boynton put me at the front of the class, a target for correction. A few days before Thanksgiving, ready to launch a pedagogic foray, Mr. Boynton gave me a hard stare, and I belched back at him. He roared and rushed at me. He was purple and brown yelling into my face. I saw the popping vessels, felt the hot air of his rage, and I leaned back and away from him to the class, "Ee-yew, bad breath!"

He grabbed me by the neck and launched me straight to the principal's office. Sobbing, I addressed the administrators in Appleton Mason's antechamber,"Mr. Boynton shouldn't have thrown me out for burping: I couldn't help it, it was a real burp!" 

Mr. Mason was impatient. I stared at his meaty mouth as he acted authoritative. We called him Liverlips. To his questions about how or why I could do such a thing and why they should keep me in the school if I was doing those things, I responded repeatedly, "I don't know, Mr. Mason."

And so I went to the brink, Mr. Conant, the guidance counselor. He called himself my pal and mentor: when I was applied to this private school, he had tested my aptitude in his home, to determine whether I could rise from the public-school laxities of Newport. The shaggy white rugs of his living room matched the white couches, white pine cabinetry, cream walls-all setting off the golden harp on a landing. He wore a cream cashmere sweater, tight over his cream shirt, a soft envelope for his soft body. Blond curls fringed his pale baldness. He set me puzzles and codes, and mechanically I solved them with dispatch. He pronounced me very bright, a surprise lost on me. Mrs. Conant she served me milk and "tollhouse" cookies, which tasted like chocolate chips to me. Her buck teeth ruined her charm, and the Melenchrino Strings and Mantovani, wafting from the creamy hi-fi, ruined my appetite.

I sat close to Mr. Conant in his cramped school counseling room. The guidance sequence went: A. how could you when you are so bright, "--I don't know." B. why can't you tell me why, I thought we were pals, "-I don't know.". C. You must talk to me because I'm the only person between you and expulsion, "-I don't know what to say."

He probed deeper, "Louis, if someone does a fart, do you yell out ÎOoh bad smell?'"

He wanted no.

"Well then, why did you say that about Mr. Boynton's breath?"

"I don't know."

"Didn't you realize that was rude?"

"I don't know." 

Which was true, because we cut farts, we didn't "do" them, and because farts were a compex issue. We hadn't the gall to fart on purpose-did we, we'd forego the excruciating pleasure of accusing and humiliating real gassers. But simulated farting was an ecstasy beyond belching: we'd clamp our palms to our armpits and pump out amazing noises. Best of all was a lengthy, high-register poop sounding like a trumpeter blowing through a detached mouthpiece, marshaling us to pinnacles of ecstasy.

Mr. Conant's powers were immense: he summoned my father for a session with Mr. Boynton and himself. He re-impressed on me and my father his strategic position between Appleton Mason III and expulsion. But these thunderbolts of guidance, reinforced by my father's pique at being bothered by this crisis, glanced off me, and I can't understand how I escaped the seventh grade.

I liked Mr. Hamilton, the wiry, white-haired avuncular gym coach: he was the only useful teacher at Polytechnic. He told us with pleasant self-deprecation that he'd hurt his back lifting his car. It was a touching revelation that someone would try to fix his own car. So I exerted myself on the odd things Coach demanded: baseball-throwing contests, distance hopping, shot-putting, extended jumping-jack sessions, climbing ropes to roof of the gym. Once near the top, the rope felt so good between my legs I refused to move. Mr. Hamilton thought my clamped legs and closed eyes signs of fright, "I know you can make it Louis. Come on, son, you're almost there. You can do it."

Mr. Hamilton came upon one of my exiles at Mr. Boynton's door. "Why are you out here, Louis. --Oh. --Well, son, if you acted in class the way you do with me down on the fields and in the gym, you'd be a fine student. I'm truly sad and sorry to see you here." For a few moments his semi-logic held warm appeal.

            And sports might have redeemed me, but for Buzz and Joe, Mr. Hamilton's young, muscular assistants. Joe, square-jawed, wore shades like a motorcycle cop, and mused at length whether he was in better shape than Crazylegs Hirsch of the L.A. Rams. Buzz analyzed the U.S. relay team as if he were the Olympic Movement. He stressed teamwork and cooperation on the handoff, where crucial seconds could be lost, over raw speed and power. Buzz and Joe demonstrated. Letting out a scary grunt, Joe took off, face properly forward, carefully staying in lane. Then Buzz took off, baton palmed in relaxed grip, presented smoothly towards Joe's waiting hand. But Joe accelerated. Knees rising, Buzz got serious, but he couldn't close the gap. They disappeared over the hill separating the field from the school at impressive speed.

            The Nixon family mentored me. "Sexy Lex" Nixon was the coolest guy in the school. I couldn't believe it was me with him weekends and vacations. His mom Adelaide dazzled in bright outfits from Europe, her blond hair aslant across her face like Veronica Lake's, guiding our discussions of the faces, bodies, and sexual temperatures of girls. She suggested tactics for getting Number 1, Number 2, and even 3. She invited the girls over, so we could get them into their bathing-suits by her pool. She smelled like a beauty parlor, medicinal but sweet. Husky-voiced, she shouted and laughed: my siren in a suburb of ladies preserving their goods with demure charm and sanctimony. She had the goods: her husband Alex inherited a timber fortune. Alex explained to us he traveled frequently because absence made his heart grow fonder of Adelaide, alleviating the stresses of being true to one woman.

            Adelaide's wiles always caught me.

            "Who's your best friend after Lex?"

            "I don't know, maybe David Minton."

            "Oh, really?"

            "Well, I like David, but I don't have fun at his house."

            "How could you? His mother is so boring we scramble out of the clubhouse pool when we see her coming in her bathing cap looking like a fat torpedo wedged into her bathing suit. His father is some kind of accountant thing. He looks like a walrus on stilts. They sleep in separate bedrooms, and there's that poor boy alone with those stiffs in that vulgar peach-colored funeral parlor. I'm shocked he hasn't murdered them or run away. . . .How do you like your new stepmother, Lou?"

            "Well, it's weird. She was down there with my mother and sisters, and all of a sudden she's here."

            "Oh, come on Lou; didn't you notice how fast your little blond brother came along? Your Dad had to marry her. He's the biggest ladies man around.

            "Do you get along with your stepmother?"

            "Well it's weird, she and Dad invite me into their bed mornings, and we read the paper. She and I argue over who gets the funnies first; I always lose and Dad has the sports section so I've nothing to do. It's all warm in there and she's in the middle and her legs rub up against mine. She wears a negligee just like the ones in the magazines and I can see her boobs and her fuzz right through it. Her fuzz is dark brown. When she was pregnant one of her boobs fell right out of her bathrobe, and, wow, was it huge!"

            "Hey, Lou, lots of the best European parents display fell-length pictures of their bodies in their kids' playrooms. Their kids don't get sick in the head with curiosity. Alex and I did a photo shoot but I'm just too lumpy and my boobies are too small.

            "Can't you see your dad and stepmother are just teasing? Isn't she closer to your age than your dad's? Look, Lou, I want you to feast your eyes and do whatever you want with your leg. Get into the bed with your jammie top off and your fly open. Then tell me everything that happens."

            Lex came to my mother's many weekends. I have two photos of him and me posing wet on the bulkhead, John Wayne's house across the harbor behind us. My belly's there, but Lex holds a towel across his chest, and talks to the camera. His arms press his sides, swelling his biceps and his pectorals.

            Saturday nights we went to the Lido Cinema. Lex would quiz me about beach babes we might take, but I'd come up short. He talked back to the movies, so we had to change seats frequently. We landed behind a young couple. The boy glanced furtively at the girl. Then his hand appeared, and crept across the back of her seat. Lex grinned at me.

            "Come on buddy, do it," he whispered.

            The arm came to rest on the girl's shoulders.     

            "Now go for Number 2, buddy."

            But they seemed happy where they were.

            "Come on buddy, you're wasting time. Let's have some action!"

            They became edgy. Lex leaned forward, put his face between theirs, and smiled at each.

            "She's cute. Be a man. French her."

            I got ready to move again, to stay ahead of the theatre manager. Lex grabbed their necks and forced their mouths together.

            "Jesus, I can't spend all night on you, buddy. I told you what to do."