"West of West or A Unified Theory of Tiki Bars" by Benjamin Schrier
You may be surprised to learn it is still possible to send and receive telegrams. 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 presumed.
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
environmental 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 toxic-tort jury verdicts in recent California history; but he’d never been anyone’s in adventure, not even himself.
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 AND PRETTY GOOD ITALIAN.
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. It may have been 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, and 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 a 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 home 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. Several days later, 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 lost several years later in one of the last native raids on Claire’s compound. Many of those who saw it before it was stolen noted Dampier’s striking depiction of Claire’s eyes. Large and condescending, one was dark brown, and the other bright 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’s 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. 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 drinks and 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 Wednesday 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.
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. Down Virgil the plants got wilder as the paint on the houses started to peel. Here and there a porch sagged.
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 stuck between two bungalows. 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. It feels intentional. 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 put 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.
808 is the area code for Hawai‘i. So it could be that. But tiki bars aren’t from Hawai‘i. They are Polynesianism, not Polynesian. That is why I love them. That is why I frequent them. They allude to my childhood but do not describe it. They are the smell of a lemon but not its taste.
Which is not to say my childhood was bitter. Only it seemed like I was watching it from far away, with the sound turned down. Like when you’re walking down the street at night and see a movie playing through someone’s window. Especially after my father died. He was going to be king. My grandfather had been coughing a lot, and the men who worked on the property said it wouldn’t be long. They talked in front of me like I wasn’t there. But my father slipped and hit his head on the sink before my grandfather died. That was almost 30 years ago. Now my sister reigns on Mehameha, 50 miles west of Ka‘ula Rock in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
My father would stand on a stool when he used the mirror in the bathroom where he died. He was too short, and the sink was too high. The bathroom was in the great house we called the Palace. He spent hours in front of that mirror, searching his blue eyes for traces of brown, like a doctor scanning an x-ray for cancer shadows. He searched my eyes too. First the blue one, for impurities. Then the brown one, for traces of blue.
He would lecture us on Punnett squares. Usually on holidays and anniversaries and other times he was overcome with love for his family. He would point to his eyes and say, see? Blue. Little b, little b. Then point to my mother’s and say the same thing. Then point to my right eye, the brown one, and say, big B. Once I heard him ask her who was he, which I didn’t understand the question at the time.
Much later, after he died and my grandfather kicked us off the island, my mother would tell me stories about Viner Claire, the first King of Mehameha, who had one brown eye and one blue eye, just like me. She didn’t know about the portrait, but for years she’d taken care of my great-grandfather after he started forgetting minor details like his surname and was relegated to the big wicker chair on the back porch.
He passed on to my mother the family lore he could remember. About Viner and his eyes, and how others in the family had the same eyes, Viner’s grandson, and distant cousins from what he called cadet branches of the family, but no one for many years until me. My father and grandfather didn’t believe the stories because there weren’t any photographs of anyone with the eyes. There was one photograph of Viner’s grandson as an old man, a group shot, in black-and-white, and maybe he had the eyes and maybe he didn’t, his face was shadowed by his straw hat and the cluster of vertiginous palm trees on the front lawn where the picture was taken.
When I say king, I just mean what we call the head of my family. We’ve done that since Viner and his men took the island from Kamehameha I and later paid Kamehameha III for it to stop the raids. It isn’t a kingdom. Not really. It is part of Hawai‘i, which is part of America. Except we really do run the island. The Claires do. They make all the laws, like the one banning tourists. About a thousand people live there. The whole thing is only slightly more ridiculous than Monaco and Liechtenstein.
My father didn’t think so. He would sometimes say a prince does not do this or that such thing. Like when he’d ask Mango to make him another drink and Mango would say make it yourself. Mango was my father’s best friend and essentially his retainer. He wasn’t Native Hawaiian but he’d tried to give himself the nickname Manō when he and my father were at boarding school on O‘ahu. Manō means shark in Hawaiian. He was on the swim team and pretty fast. But he had one of those faces people don’t like, weak-chinned and cynical, and besides he was cruel to animals. So everyone started calling him Mango, which is basically the opposite of a shark. My father started it. He treated Mango much like Mango treated animals.
We shouldn’t be too hard on my father though. He was a dipsomaniac. I learned in medical school that alcoholism is a disease. Any time something’s wrong with someone, they have a disease, and it isn’t their fault, is what I learned in medical school. The night he lost his balance and killed himself he’d had countless Mai Tais. We later learned Mango had in fact counted them. Approximately. When at the funeral it occurred to my mother to ask Mango how much my father had drunk, Mango opened and closed his hand three times and said like 15.
Mango carried a Colt Python revolver tucked into his waistband and sometimes slept on a cot in the hallway outside my parents’ bedroom. By all accounts he is now as devoted to my sister as he was to my father. My sister is nine years older than I am. She is the first Queen of Mehameha. Before her it was all kings. There was a rule. Bully for her, I’d say, except she was the one who got my father the books on Punnett squares and taught him all about big B, little b.
I ordered another drink. This time I got a Navy Grog instead of a Mai Tai. I don’t like Mai Tais, but I always get one when I go to a tiki bar for the first time. If they can’t make a Mai Tai, they can’t make anything. It is the original tiki drink. It is the ultimate tiki drink. It was invented by Donn Beach in 1933 or Victor Bergeron in 1944, depending on whom you ask. I’m a Beach man myself. I can’t speak for my father.
I looked around 808. It was like a diorama of a tiki bar someone had made for a school project. There were Hawai‘i license plates on the wall that said things like ALOHA and LUAU. The license plates were rusted, but only the rusted parts looked old. I gathered it had been done chemically and on purpose. Behind the bar they used fresh-squeezed fruit juice and small-batch rum for the drinks, but they weren’t very good. They were too worthy. There’s nothing wrong with Bacardi or Appleton.
Still, I was glad to be there. I was glad to be at any tiki bar. Probably my love for them is the result of some deep psychological wound inflicted on me by my family, but I’ll deal with that when I eventually crack up. I said that once to a girl I was dating. You should really talk to someone, she said. I thought I was, I thought.
Anyway they are pretty interesting, tiki bars. You must admit. If you think about them and why they’re popular. And why they started in California. I have a theory about that actually. I developed it one night at the Ti with my friend Shane, who was a certified regular with his mug behind the bar. He was trying to drink every $18 drink on the menu in one sitting and I was spotting him, you could say. The notes Shane took in his Moleskine about our theory are unsurprisingly pretty hard to follow but basically it’s all about the American Dream.
The American Dream. A couple of years before independence, the royal Governor of Virginia wrote that Americans “for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled,” and that, “if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.”
Yes. That is it. Insatiability. The opposite of freedom. More of a nightmare than a dream. To sleepwalk through life, stumbling westward, on your feet or in your mind, toward a paradise that can’t possibly exist, because if you got there, it wouldn’t be paradise. Paradise is somewhere farther west than where you are.
Less than a century later, the American Dream became the California Dream. Geographically it had been inevitable. Topographically too. Here was a boundless manifold land where gold didn’t have to be quarried but lay unsuspecting in the riverbeds. Where the trees were taller than any tower and older than any church. Those who had for so long felt themselves above nature were once again humbled by it. At sunrise and sunset curious fogs and mists refracted the light and expanded the color spectrum.
There was a problem with this new paradise. It was the same problem with every paradise. Americans from Virginia and New York and Ohio remade it in the image of the places from which they had come. They flooded the valleys and grew in them alien crops. They burrowed through the hills and set on them streetcars in perpetual motion. Soon everything was familiar and thus not paradise. When they realized the mystery had been deposed they were filled with loathing, for themselves and their neighbors, and looked to the west for the next paradise to call into and out of existence.
This time, there was nowhere to march. There is nothing original to say about the Pacific, so I won’t try. It is very large. Hawai‘i is 2,500 miles from California. The rest of Polynesia is farther. It isn’t easy to get there now; then it was almost impossible.
But they heard about it. From writers who had in turn heard about it from sailors, some of whom had been there. They dreamed about what they had heard. And from these triple-distilled dreams they built little monuments to running out of paradise.
Tiki bars answer the question they pose. If you could never reach paradise, or you could reach it and destroy it, which would you choose? The former, they say. It is better to long for something you’ll never have than miss something you had but lost. This is not controversial. Read any romance novel.
That’s our theory, at least. Shane and my. So I was happy to be at 808. I think I’m addicted to this kind of sadness. Even if the bartender felt compelled to tell me the orgeat in my drink was locally sourced from a distillery in Ventura.
I picked up my drink and walked over to one of the booths. Each booth was its own little grass hut. I sat down with my back to the wall. I could see pretty much everything from there. Behind the bar the rows of rum bottles were like caramel stalagmites. I liked looking at them and thinking about the bourbon casks in Barbados and Jamaica where the rum had bided its time. Soaking with itself the whiskey from the toasted oak and being soaked back in turn. Stay in a place for a while and you’ll lose some of yourself to it; what you’ve lost will be filled in by the place.
A flash of blonde hair by the jukebox caught my eye. I’ve read this was the whole point of blonde hair. The Ice Age and scarce males. She turned toward me in what seemed like fast motion and I recognized a woman named Kate with whom I used to be intimate. My hands started shaking again. I no longer looked how I looked when she knew me.
I did not duck, I did not leave 808. In many universes, maybe an infinite number, running into Kate wasn’t happening. I just had the misfortune of being stuck in one where it was. Or so Kate used to say about all such experiences. She was a physicist and worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.
When we were together, I enjoyed telling people Kate worked there. “This is Kate,” I would say. “She works at the JPL, up near Pasadena.” I thought it reflected well on me. Which is funny, because that’s not what I think when I meet a mismatched couple. What is secretly wrong with her? I wonder. He must be certifiable, or have webbed toes. Etc.
Kate saw me and smiled. She had perfect white teeth except one of her bottom incisors was twisted almost completely around. I was relieved to see she wasn’t as good looking as she used to be, although she was still very good looking. What a pair we’d been. She had hair like a bumper crop of Kansas wheat; I had hair like a bumper crop of Kansas wheat. She entered my hut.
“Brother Jonathan!” she said.
"Good old Brother Jonathan. Back in a place like this. You should be ashamed.”
“What kind of place is that?”
“A Hawaiian place! Or a tiki place I mean. You know what happens when you go to tiki places, Brother Jonathan. You get all sentimental and drink gallons of rum. And then you get hungover and worry your abs are disappearing. Your abs aren’t disappearing, are they? Hmm?”
She sat down next to me and squeezed my arm.
“What about you?” I said. “I thought you hated tiki bars.”
“I didn’t know what a tiki bar was before I met you. But yes, now I hate them. He likes them though.”
She squinted down her index finger at a skinny man in a trucker hat who was studying the jukebox catalog. He was maybe 50. Kate was 35. I bet he had a skateboard.
“Or he doesn’t like them, but he lives nearby and hadn’t tried this place, and when we finished dinner he said, let’s not have wine again. Let’s have a tiki drink! And it sounded so exotic when he said it. But now I’ve been stirring this for so long it’s a frappe.”
It looked like a Painkiller. Rum, pineapple juice, orange juice, cream of coconut, fresh nutmeg. Invented by Daphne Henderson at the Soggy Dollar Bar in the British Virgin Islands. I’ve never been there; it is on my list. Kate perched up on her elbows and eyed my drink like I’d offered to trade.
“And what do we have here, hmm? A Mai Tai? I hope to God it’s not a Mai Tai. Bad Brother Jonathan.”
When she hummed like that, when she said hmm, she tilted her head down, raised her eyebrows, and slid her glasses down the bridge of her nose. She was doing Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. The scene where he goes into the rare bookstore and proves it’s a front by asking if they have a Chevalier Audubon 1840. The woman working there says not at the moment. But there’s no such thing as a Chevalier Audubon 1840! Hmmm?
It was an old joke of ours. She’d talk like Humphrey Bogart and I’d talk like Lauren Bacall. Like when I’d been awake for a while drinking coffee and reading and she came downstairs, I’d say so you do get up, I was beginning to think you worked in bed like Marcel Proust. All throaty with my legs crossed and my face in profile. We thought it was outrageously funny at the time. That can happen when you’re having great sex; lots of things seem funny that aren't.
Eventually we got on each other’s nerves. When we were out with other couples and one of them said they were going to the bar, could they get us anything, she’d order for me. To stop me from ordering rum. She thought us unsophisticated, rum and me. She thought me generally unsophisticated. I’m not sure what her interest was. I guess back then I had a body like the Farnese Hercules. I had embraced the substitution of exercise for religion that is a defining feature of Los Angeles and its people.
Kate squeezed my arm again and nodded toward another booth across the room. “Who’s that gal?” she asked. “She’s been staring at us for a while.”
Hunched over the table was an old woman with hair like steel wool. She was drinking an enormous Scorpion Bowl with all four straws. There was a raised concavity in the middle of the bowl and it was on fire. It was full of 151-proof rum. At tiki bars this is known as a volcano.
When she saw us looking back at her the woman let the straws fall out of her mouth and grinned. Her wrinkles proliferated. She scooted out of the booth like a caterpillar and came toward us. She moved carefully, holding her flaming drink in both hands like an offering.
“Good evening,” she said. “I am Sarkis Harutunian. Although, of course, I am not Sarkis Harutunian.”
I made an elaborate gesture toward the open seat at my right. The woman sat down and gave my hand a vigorous pump. Her hand was small and soft.
“You can call me Arpi,” she said. “Because that is my name.”
“I’m Jonathan,” I said, “which you must already know. And this is Kate.” I paused. “Kate works at the JPL, up near Pasadena.”
“How do you do,” said Kate.
“Ah,” said Arpi, with her eyebrows raised. “So smart. So pretty. That hair.”
She made a motion like she was casting a spell in the general direction of Kate’s face.
“Where’s Sarkis?” I asked.
“He is dead,” said Arpi. “For 12 years he is dead. But our clients want Sarkis the Cambridge man, with his magnifying glass and his tweed suit and his Scottish walking stick. They do not want his widow, who only studied economics at Yerevan State University, a top 1,000 university in the world, according to the latest rankings, and graduated eighth in her class. No.” She waved her hand dismissively and drained the bowl another half-inch. “They must have Sarkis.”
“So you pretend to be him,” I said.
“When a customer calls, I am so sorry, but unfortunately, Mr. Harutunian is traveling internationally to acquire new pieces. This time he is visiting Christie’s in London; the next time he is at China Guardian in Shanghai. When he returns he sends a telegram.”
“And that works?”
“Of course. Our clients, they are old. They like their memories of Sarkis better than Sarkis himself. Every time I talk to them he becomes more impressive. Now he has a Ph.D. from Cambridge. He did not even finish his Master’s.” She shrugged.
Kate was watching Arpi with the same expression she had when she read technical journals. “I’m going to go ahead and drink your drink, here, Jonathan,” she said. “Drink it right up.” She slid my Navy Grog across the table. I hadn’t taken a single sip.
“Do you sell a lot of stuff?” I asked. Arpi snorted.
“Who was it who made Harutunian & Harutunian profitable? Who was it who tripled sales?
Who was it who moved us into fine art? Not Sarkis.” She stuck out her bottom lip and shook her head. “His humble widow.”
“So you’re the other Harutunian,” I said. “In Harutunian & Harutunian.”
“No,” she said. “My son. Killed in the war. Nagorno-Karabakh. Before Sarkis died.”
At the jukebox Kate’s skateboarder had picked an esoteric Beck song. He looked around the bar for approval. Meeting no one’s eye, he put his hands in his pockets and mouthed the words to himself.
“But Dr. Claire,” said Arpi. “We did not come here to talk about Sarkis Harutunian. We came
here to talk about the painting.” The fire from the bowl glinted in her dark eyes, almost black.
“How did you find me?” I asked. It was something I’d always wanted to say.
“My nephew Kirkan, he is very clever,” she said. I remembered vaguely that the name of my librarian in Los Feliz was something like Kirkan. “He makes a list of the books you check out from the library. He reads them. He determines you are looking for the painting.”
“Goodness,” said Kate. “That’s supposed to be private.”
“Not to worry,” said Arpi, with a wave of her hand. “He does this for many people. Maybe someone checks out a book on William Morris. Kirkan gives her the business card of Harutunian & Harutunian. One day she buys from us some nice wallpaper with birds and flowers on it. Kirkan, he gets a percentage.”
She slurped up the last of her drink. Using the straws like chopsticks, she dropped a few pieces of ice into the mouth of the volcano. Still the fire burned.
“But this one,” she said, jabbing the straws at me. “This one for Kirkan is a special project. Kirkan is intrigued. Who is this doctor, who orders all these weird books from other libraries? About Hawai‘i and Dampier. What is he playing at?”
“I used to ask myself the same thing,” said Kate.
“So Kirkan looks into the doctor and learns about the Claires on Mehameha. And he figures out the doctor is searching for this painting of Viner Claire. Why, he does not know. When he tells me about the eyes, I remember. I saw this painting six, seven years ago. A private collection in Malibu. When I saw it I did not know who it was. Neither did the owner. I go back to him, I say I want to buy it. He says not for sale. I say how much. He says not an arm and a leg but both arms and legs and your head. I say okay. He thinks I am crazy. I pay it.”
“Because,” she said. “I know the doctor will pay more. Double or even triple. Maybe all his money.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Family,” she said. “This painting, it is about family. I do not know why it is so important to you. But it is something deep. Dark maybe. The other Claires are on the island. You are here. Kirkan says when you get the books you take them to the back to read, but you stop reading and stare up at the ceiling. With the same eyes from the painting.”
Kate rested her hand on my forearm. She moved her thumb back and forth, tracing and erasing a shallow arc.
“For something like this, a man will pay anything. A woman, maybe not. A woman is too wise. But a man will spend everything on his name.” Arpi smiled at me. “I am correct?”
“You are correct,” I said.
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Kate. “Taking advantage of someone like that.”
Arpi cast another spell at Kate’s face.
“It is always like this with art,” she said. “Why does anyone buy any painting? Maybe it is beautiful. But you can buy a reproduction for a fraction of the price. You buy the original because you want to hang it on your wall and tell your friends the history. This is emotional. This is irrational. It is why there is a market for art. Without this market there is no art. Supply and demand. You must remember my training at Yerevan State University.”
It became difficult for me to keep the room in focus. She really had it. The portrait. There was a high-pitched ringing in my ears. Once when I was playing rugby in college I was in a ruck and someone’s elbow hit my temple. I woke up on top of several bodies. Everyone was very nice about it. They left me alone on the sideline. I walked to a gas station and bought a Coke. I sat on a bench and watched some crows standing on a power line across the street. I had the same ringing in my ears then. A metallic whine. When my tongue found the last few drops of Coke on the lid of the can it tasted like the sound.
“So,” said Arpi, letting her hands fall to the table. “Shall we go see it?”
“Yes,” said Kate. “Come on, Jonathan.” Her voice was gentle. She patted me on the leg and we got up to leave. “What do you know,” she said, looking back over her shoulder as we stepped out into the twilight. “I finished your drink.”
Arpi’s car was parked up the street. It was a sky-blue Cadillac DeVille. It was old but in beautiful shape. The steering wheel was bigger than a speedboat’s. Kate got in front and I got in back. Arpi eased us onto Melrose and then the 101 and we joined the procession of fireflies headed north toward the hills. She drove slowly. The windows were down and we smelled jasmine and charred wood from a chimney or a distant wildfire.
At dusk in LA you can’t tell how much of the light is from the sun setting behind the Santa Monica Mountains and how much is from the neon signs being flicked on at bars and restaurants across the city. We drove past Griffith Observatory, its three domes almost
Moorish. The sky was orange and purple.
We parked at a strip mall in North Hollywood. There was a wine store, and a Chinese restaurant, and a juice bar called Qwench. Palm trees lined the parking lot. They were like old men leaning in to give advice. On the third floor there was a glass door that said HARUTUNIAN & HARUTUNIAN ANTIQUES in stenciled white letters. Arpi unlocked it and we went in.
She moved around the office turning on lamps. Reference works on painting and sculpture overflowed the bookshelves onto the many desks and chairs. Ferns and creepers did too. On the walls there were landscapes of mountains and sepia photographs of families standing outside churches. I saw a dusty magnifying glass on one of the desks and wondered if it had belonged to Sarkis.
Arpi led us through the office to the storeroom in back. The walls were concrete and there
were no windows. Paintings and statuary filled every available space. She took us to the far corner where something tall and wide was covered in canvass. We stood before it. Kate took my hand in hers and put them both in my jacket pocket. Arpi pulled the canvass back.
I know how it will happen. How it would happen if it were a movie. The day is sunny and hot but in the late afternoon the white clouds become flint and then iron. The wind is starting to whip the long leaves of the banana trees. You can hear them soughing on the slopes of the
valley that on three sides surrounds the Palace.
I am standing at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the front veranda. Mango stands above
me at the top. How old he has grown. His hand is resting on his revolver. My sister is there too, in a long white dress behind the front door screen. She presses her hands against it. The screen flattens her fingertips into little discs like the suckers on a tree frog.
I hold up the painting for them to see. I hold it high above my head like a priest holding up the Host to his congregation. They understand. Mango takes his hand off his gun and my sister fades back into the house.
I will take everything from them. I will give it all away. To whom I don’t know. Hawai‘i, I suppose. I will burn the contracts and the deeds and scuttle the sailboats. I will turn the Palace into a museum. Nothing could hurt them more, not even tearing it down. Tourists drifting in and out of their fastness, snapping pictures and speaking of the Claires in the past tense.
There will be a docent. She will lead the tourists through the Palace. She will show them the portrait of Viner Claire, and tell them this story. The last king lives in California. In a different valley, across the ocean, he sits in a tiki bar, stirring his drink and missing the paradise he lost.
Benjamin Schrier is an author from