"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.
808 is the area code for Hawai‘i. So it’s probably 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. Then 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 took to giving us lectures 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 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 it 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 even more ridiculous than Monaco or 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. 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 Singapore Sling 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, but the drinks 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. Likely 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 they had squandered the mystery 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.
That’s our theory, at least. 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 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.