"West of West" by Benjamin Woodside Schrier
You may be surprised to learn it is still possible to send a telegram. I was certainly surprised when, not so long ago, a boy in a cobalt uniform rang my doorbell and handed me an envelope with a telegram inside. His uniform was the same color as the front door and at first this was unsettling. It was as if he’d been stuck inside the door and I’d set him free by popping open the latch. But the weight of the envelope in my hand was reassuring. So were his peaked cap and the shiny buttons on his blouse. They recalled the golden age of railroads, and milk deliveries, and the sort of pudgy, neutered policemen who appeared in movies before the Second World War.
Of course, nefarious characters have also dressed this way. I remembered, from my history books in high school, the photographs of the Gestapo in their immaculate livery. The men smiling with their eyes but not their mouths. Rank for some reason inversely correlated to height. But here in Los Angeles, on a cool summer morning, the dew on the lawn glistening, soon to evaporate, the hooded orioles wheeting and chucking in the palm trees, the boy could only mean well. There could be no tyranny in this city on the edge of the desert, other than the tyranny of drought.
The boy didn’t wait for a tip. He gave a little bow, turned smartly on his heel, and crunched away across the gravel. I opened the envelope carefully, without tearing the flap, and read the message inside:
DEAR DR. CLAIRE GOOD MORNING STOP OR PERHAPS WHEN YOU GET THIS IT WILL BE AFTERNOON OR EVENING STOP I HAVE LEARNED OF YOUR SEARCH FOR A CERTAIN PAINTING STOP I BELIEVE I HAVE WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING FOR STOP MEET ME AT SEVEN O’CLOCK P.M. THIS SATURDAY AT 808 IN EAST HOLLYWOOD STOP WELL I SUPPOSE IT IS ON THE BORDER BETWEEN EAST HOLLYWOOD AND SILVER LAKE STOP YOURS IN ADVENTURE SARKIS HARUTUNIAN M.A. (CANTAB)
I did not know any Sarkis Harutunian. Naturally, for the next few days, I thought of little else besides his message. In idle moments the jumbled letters of his name rose to the surface and arranged themselves in the hot red soup between my ears. Especially his first name. The sibilance interrupted by a voiceless velar stop. It had to be a masculine name. And Armenian, I assumed.
This was confirmed at the Los Feliz branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, where I found a yellowed copy of Kapan’s Encyclopedia of Armenian Names in the back near the potted ferns. Sarkis means shepherd or protector. Harutunian means resurrection. This seemed redundant. We get it, I wanted to tell his parents. Your son is a Christian. Yes, they would have replied. And did you know Armenia was the first Christian country in the world? In the reign of Tiridates III… And so on. Most Armenians you meet will eventually tell you such things. They know their history because so much of it has been lost or taken away.
I couldn’t find any trace of him on the Internet. I read about Sarkis Harutunian the personal injury lawyer in Newport Beach, and Sarkis Harutunian the used Audi salesman in Glendale, and Sarkis Harutunian the fourth-place finisher in his age group at last year’s Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot in Calabasas. I knew right away from their pictures they couldn’t be him. The lawyer may have helped secure one of the largest jury verdicts in Orange County history; but he’d never been anyone’s in adventure, not even his own.
It occurred to me that I might check the phone book. The literal physical one. There’s something about a man who sends a telegram that suggests he may be listed there. The newest edition the library had was almost a decade old, but it didn’t matter. There he was, filling a third of a yellow page:
HARUTUNIAN & HARUTUNIAN: PURVEYORS OF FINE ANTIQUES AND ARTWORK. PAINTINGS, SCULPTURES, STAINED GLASS, ETC. WATCHES TOO. NO ONE IS MORE EXPERT. TRAINED AT THE WORLD FAMOUS CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY IN ENGLAND. SE HABLA ESPAÑOL.
I called the number. It rang until the beep. I’d have to wait until Saturday to meet this man who sold ancient things in a city where classic means the 1950s.
I woke late on the Saturday in question. I hadn’t set an alarm, but I’d left my window open so the robins and finches in the hedge outside would wake me up. There must have been a cat in the garden because when I opened my eyes it was early afternoon and the birds were still quiet. Or it was too hot to sing. The sun was turning the fronds of the palm trees into tinsel. They shifted in the wind, they shimmered. They were made to dance against their will. The light on my bed was refracted and skittish, and the sky was colonial blue.
I couldn’t move. This happens to me on occasion, especially when I haven’t talked to anyone in a while. It is called sleep paralysis. Another doctor at my hospital diagnosed me. The trick is to ignore the sick electric feeling in your neck and concentrate on wiggling your toes. If you can wiggle your toes, you can beat the demon sitting on your chest.
I showered and ate a Bartlett pear, the true name of which is the Williams’ bon chrétien pear. It is the official pear of good Christians. I dressed and walked a few blocks to the library. I wanted to pick up a book I’d ordered from a special collection at the University of Hawai‘i. It was written in the early 1900s by an English missionary named Thaddeus H.C. Dearington-Mead. I never saw his photograph, but I pictured a lanky redhead with skin like new cheese, striding down the beach at Kailua-Kona in leather sandals and a broad-brimmed hat.
Inside the library, a homeless woman was reading an illustrated history of the Westminster Dog Show. A small boy was splayed out on the understuffed couch by the newspaper rack, eating grapes. The librarian was sitting behind the reference desk. He saw me coming and slid my book forward with a respectful nod. He thought I was smart because I ordered strange books about strange places. Places that were not California. He had a ponytail and collected vintage videogame systems. On the wall behind him there was a signed photograph of Andre Agassi from before he got rid of the wig.
It had taken me a long time to track down the book, and my hands were shaking as I carried it away from the counter. I sat down at the small desk behind the stacks to see if Thaddeus had left me any clues. The binding popped like gristle as I ran my finger down the index. I stopped at “Claire, Viner, portrait of,” and turned to the corresponding page:
In 1825, when the English painter Robert Dampier was still quite unknown, he visited Hawai‘i as the expedition artist on the frigate HMS Blonde. The Blonde was bringing back from dank London the bodies of King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu, whose royal blood could not save them from the measles. It was their time; they were called; may God rest their souls.
After the King and Queen had been interred in the coral house at ‘Iolani Palace, Dampier began his celebrated sketches of the Blonde at anchor off Pakala Point. Sketching the ship from a rowboat one morning, he was caught in a squall and blown out to sea. He ran aground on Mehameha, where he found the merchant-prince Viner Claire and his lieutenants ruling over a thousand heathens like Prester John.
Dampier painted everything he saw. It was a period of remarkable, even miraculous, productivity. He considered his portrait of Claire to be his finest work, but it was stolen during one of the last native raids on Claire’s compound. Many of those who saw it before it was lost were struck by Dampier’s depiction of Claire’s eyes. Large and condescending, one was dark brown, and the other light blue.
Now my hands were really shaking. I took out the journal in which I kept a record of my investigation and made an appropriate note. I pressed its leather cover to my nose and lips and considered briefly the cow from which it was made. The library was cool and dark and the only sound was the ticking of an unseen wall clock. I felt a need for sleep so strong it was almost erotic. I suspected the heat was to blame. The peculiar soporific heat. It was one of those days that made you remember LA is at the same latitude as Algiers and Cairo. With heavy eyelids and lust in my throat, I lay my head in my arms and gave in.
The librarian shook me awake when the light streaming through the windows was molten gold and it was snowing motes of dust. I would have a drink before meeting the Armenian. I started down Hillhurst and looked in at the Drawing Room, but the conspiracy theorist who always talked about chemtrails was there.
Across the street at Ye Rustic Inn there was only room to stand. The handsome actor who lived near me was sitting at the bar and my favorite bartender was leaning over the cocktail she’d just poured him. So far as I could tell it was a Boulevardier and from the doorway under the perennial Christmas lights it looked like she was squeezing the rusty bloody drink between her generous breasts. I would not compete with this man and his coordinated face, this man who made millions of dollars grunting and stroking his abdomen and eating junk food on my television screen. The junk food was to show he didn’t care about his abdomen.
I moved on. Past neon liquor stores and Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, where Joseph would tell you his grandfather stormed the beaches of Normandy on a surfboard. I hesitated at Good Luck Bar, but it was too light outside to drink in an opium den.
On Sunset the line for the Tiki Ti was down the block. A solitary torch burned high on a bamboo pole. Mike Sr. and some of the regulars were bouncing. They were almost interchangeable: white-haired, barrel-chested, Hawaiian-shirted. Mike Sr. was sitting on a stool outside the doorway, smoking his cigar and drinking his Tullamore Dew. He never drinks tiki drinks. I was reminded of how, having grown up in a tannery, Ulysses S. Grant refused to eat rare steak.
I used to go there all the time. I’d bring my own mug, an octopus inside a golden diver’s helmet from Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago. They’d fill it up with whatever I ordered. Bringing your own mug is a common practice at tiki bars. One year I drank every drink on the menu. There are about 85. I was hoping Mike Sr. or Mike Jr. would ask if I wanted to keep my mug behind the bar, where the mugs of all true regulars are stored.
It never came to pass. Now, like a computer in the movies, the Ti has become self-aware. It knows how good a bar it is. A certain smugness permeates the conversation and attracts the wrong crowd, especially on weekends. East Coast transplants in beanies and black jeans who think the bar is a joke to be in on, and they’re in on it. The only good night left is Wednesday, when they’re busy working. Despite their manner of dress they all have office jobs. On Wednesdays Ray’s Mistakes are discounted and the whole bar goes silent when Mike Sr. gives a toast to Ray, his father, the founder, who as a young man mixed drinks in the back room at Don the Beachcomber’s, the first tiki bar in the world.
I retraced my steps and started back down Hillhurst. Soon it became Virgil. The odds of anyone naming a street Virgil these days approach zero, even though America is more like Rome than ever before. It is definitely Rome. The only question is late Republic or late Empire.
Down Virgil the plants got wilder as the paint on the houses started to peel. Here and there a porch sagged. The best word to describe the flora in Los Angeles is Jurassic. The giant ferns, the feral succulents, and those El Greco palm trees. They are not from another era but another period. Geologically speaking.
I turned left on Marathon and started up Hyperion. Near the top of the hill I saw a squat brown building with a roof like an upturned nose. There was a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt standing outside. It was a fine shirt, faded red with orange and blue birds of paradise. He rubbed my ID between his fingers like a lucky coin and stamped my hand. The stamp was a hula girl. She took on my skin tone. For some reason, they didn’t have her smiling.
Sitting at the bar, stirring a Mai Tai, I pondered the name. 808 is intriguing. I never found out what it means. The bartender didn’t know, and there was nothing at the back of the menu, where tiki bars often tell their creation myths. The bartender was unconscionably tan. Various possibilities presented themselves as I watched the floater of dark rum ingratiate itself with the rest of my drink.