Six months in Los Angeles, and I’m still alone in my place. But not too depressed. No longer mourning the loss. Ready for the present, perhaps, if not my future. Let well enough alone. If it’s well. If it’s enough. I sit at a good though monotonous job at Technetronics, Inc., assembling micro-components for the guidance system of what must be the latest model cruise missile.
We’ve all been cleared to work here, some forty men and women on this line. At 08:00, we file from the locker room into our places, wearing gauze surgical masks and caps, covered up by sterile white jumpsuits, our feet shod in canvas booties. The badges over our hearts show our names and our polaroid portraits, both profile and full mug. This room in the plant is sterile: sealed, air-conditioned, bathed in soft, gray-white fluorescence, and permeated by Muzak— cocktail-hour dance tunes, slowed-down old jazz standards— a flattened-out, tinkly noise played at the one low volume that wears away the day and fills the night and sleep with its tinny, discreet jangle. Nauseating. We sit at the long bench, working with tiny bits of gold wire and hundreds of minuscule chips under stereomicroscopes. This little brain we’re assembling will guide a stubby-winged missile a thousand miles— skimming over hill and dale, streaking along just above the surface of the earth, darting through valleys and touching treetops, up, down, up, winding in and out at a tall man’s eyelevel until it sees its target, plunges abruptly down to detonate a small, strategic mini-holocaust, and obliterates a city somewhere.
During lunchtime, we get to chatting, more or less. My coworkers are more or less like me: young to middle-aged, all from somewhere else, too. We talk movies, tv, the sports page— sex, religion, and politics are no-no’s. At 17:30 there is the slamming of car doors and the roaring of exhausts as we file out and head for the Freeway. And then the long evening— each in his or her own unit, alone for all you know. Turning the key confirms the solitude. But the pay’s very good, the job more or less assured— it’s a fresh subcontract and Technetronics, Inc., is in on the ground floor of this new development in weaponry. So not to complain, I adjure myself. Maybe someday soon I’ll return to the stud¬ies abandoned in despair after the breakdown. I know that this time I have got ahold of things. Damned if I ever let go again.
About 16:00 this afternoon the fellow to my left, Peter Fuerst, says to me, “Kingsley, how about coming to our party tonight. Most of our bench will be there.”
Well…, I say.
And Sally Johns, the girl to my right, with a pair of hips if ever I saw hips, even in her full, loose, white jumpsuit, says, “Come on, Kingsley, give it a try. You bring your wine, and I’ll bring mine.”
Her luminous blue eye winks at me above her white mask. I’m persuaded.
It’s Friday. April again. It’s even rained this week, Los Angeles is clear, washed, glistening— there’s snow on the peak of Mt. Baldy to the East, and the many different kinds of green foliage that fill this city are fresh and tender. Life may be possible, who knows? I do need something more for myself.
A shabby stucco cottage in Venice, gabled and low, with a Midwest sort of front porch and some splintery rattan furniture on it. A half-dozen cats prowl about or sprawl, lazily cleaning themselves. It’s on Rose Avenue, a few doors from the Pioneer Bakery. The street’s lined with decrepit houses just like it, all with fenced, hopeful patches of front lawn. Bougainvillea vines, rose and hibiscus bushes mask their peeling age, and the cool evening air is tainted with the night blooming jasmine— a sharp scent that mixes pleasantly with the delicate yeasty odors of bread baking in the nearby plant. A few blocks to the West, beyond the flat, broad beach, the Pacific lies calm and gray, not a boat or ship anywhere in sight. It’s nearly 22:00 when I open the front door, and the party’s underway. I straighten my tie and step in. The usual scene. Outside, the quiet of late evening; inside, hi-fi cramming the small rooms with thunder and screeching. I set my jug of mountain red on a side table with the rest of the booze offerings. People are dancing, or talking mouth to ear. I have the feeling I have come to the wrong party, not a soul in the place do I recognize.
Or else I’m not as well as I have believed myself to be. By 23:00 I’m slouched on a beanbag in a corner, an observer, sipping at my 7th glass of wine. Plenty of action, yes; but it baffles me. I’m sure I must know these folks from Technetronics, Inc., by name or face or form? Yet somehow they are all strangers now. One tells me he’s a movie director, up for an Oscar. Another is a State Senator down for the tax hearings next week. Another’s on the Gover¬nor’s Special Commission for Environmental Protection, Toxic Wastes Committee. That gal’s a well-known sculptor in epoxy resins, getting into advanced laser holography. Another, a little Chinese, is a minimal conceptualist— she shows me the razor marks on her wrists, a famous artwork she created the other year in the elevator of the County Museum. The tall black girl is a ceramist— lingams and yonis and omphaloids three meters high. I have spoken to a familiar-looking man from my own bench who tells me he’s a psychotherapist specializing in addicted call girls. There is a pair of Sufi dancers in orange pantaloons and gauze blouses, their heads in blue turbans, and a pale, married couple of Sikhs in white, wearing tall white headdresses and drinking only Perrier. I have poured my wine out to a woman who’s the bestselling author of Gothic romances in paperback, she’s just passed the ten-million mark. Peter Fuerst himself has red hair now, not mousy brown. Sally’s cropped black head is hidden in a long, silky, synthetic blonde mane, its tresses compressed by a band of sparkling rhinestones, hanging below her backside — I know those hips — and the rest of her full body hardly covered— shiny platinum patches on the large nipples of her heavy and free-swinging breasts…and she’s not Sally now either…she’s Salome Head, Coptic belly-dancer from Alexandria, Egypt. Mark, who assembles to the left of Peter Fuerst all day long, is introduced to me as a stockbroker— he’s offering me a new issue of preferred stock in a valve-factory— a steal now at seven dollars, shares bound to triple and split within the year…it’s all the new chemical pipeline-building, he says, and diversification too: chips, and more chips. And it is Mark, I think, behind the curly chestnut G.B.S. beard. Though it’s not Mark’s nose propping the heavy frames of his thick, clear glasses.
I have tried talking to these people over the buffet, in the kitchen, even while faking a hootch with Sally, who has pressed her quivering, naked abdomen and buttocks up against me more than once. Yet none of them seems to know me, and we have to get acquainted all over again. Hi there, it’s Kingsley! I’ve said, only to be met with blank looks: “Kingsley who?” It’s finally too much for me, and I have to sit down in my corner to nibble at hardtack and drink my wine in peace.
Towards 24:00, things start to get wild. Not rough, just a little wild. I can guess what is going down soon. Group swinging. Whatever. Sally — Salome Head — crouches in the center of the room, gyrating to the sounds of Ali Baba and his Middle East Assassins— a long album, with six endless, authentic ethnic tracks. The place has been darkened, the lighting undulating blue and purple around the walls and ceiling.
And I don’t feel at all well. I am holding a brimming glass of wine, staring at it as it runs over my cupped hands. I look up, and Sally’s standing over me, her long thick blonde hair brushing the top of my head. Her forehead’s sweat-beaded, the mascara’s sliding down her heavy cheeks, the lids of her big black eyes painted a cobalt blue and powdered with flecks of gold dust. I realize that she must be wearing black contacts. And when she unpins her muslin veil, all embroidered with hearts and roses, and smiles at me, a gold tooth glints in the front of her mouth. Maybe it’s not even Sally? No one here tonight has the same name, or same anything I remember from Technetronics, Inc.
“Come on now, John,” she whispers throatily. “Dance with me, okay, man?”
John? Kingsley here, I say.
She stares at me and replies brusquely, “Kingsley? Never heard of him.” And then she leans over above me, her pendulous breasts powdered white, sweat-streaked, rank, musk reeking from her deep armpits, her heavy, gold-glittered thighs trembling from her exer-tions on the dance floor. She thrusts her hands under my arms as though to lift me from my collapsed, beanbag seat. But I am too heavy, too firmly planted. The heat radiating from her hits me in the face, dizzying me. She grins, full of zany lust. There is a bright zircon-crusted star winking from her bellybutton. “Come on now, John, won’t you join the dance?”
Tell me one thing, I say.
“And what should that be, my darling lover?” she croons, panting.
Just tell me— what gives? That’s Peter over there, isn’t it; and that’s Mark; and this is our bunch from Technetronics, Inc., isn’t it? Silence. Well, isn’t it? I insist.
She lets go of me. Stands back erect, her plump belly, its hollow, starry gash of navel thrust at me, her bangled wrists planted firmly on those hips, their painted talons gripping her thighs in anger. She gazes down at my forehead, not at me. And she speaks in a new voice: acid, mocking. “Look, Kingsley, you better leave L.A.”
“But why?” I ask surprised, and anxious too.
“Because you just ain’t gonna make it here, man.”
“No, man, you ain’t. Because you lack a persona, see?”
My protest is cut short. She digs a sharp nail into my heart, and says, “Man, you got nothing but your own self!”
That’s all I want! I hear myself shout back at her.
Her other hand slices across my Adam’s apple, and she snorts, “That just ain’t enough, man. Never was. Never will be.”
There’s a sudden silence in the room. They haven’t changed the cassette. I can hear the loud, low hum of the amplifier putting out its silent, roaring sound, like the white noise of nothingness. Salome hooks both hands into my belt and heaves me from my seat; she leads me through this congeries of pure strangers, not one of them resembling the disciplined, skilled workers I know during the week at Technetronics, Inc. From their invented vocations and surprising faces, they watch me being yanked along. They stare at me with pity, and contempt. As she thrusts me backwards out the front door into midnight on Rose Avenue, I see their turned heads. They have watched my expulsion and said nothing. She closes the door, slowly hooking up her yashmak again with one hand, leaving visible now only those black-stenciled brows arched over her great, black, blank eyes. The Sufi has already put the Assassins back in the machine and turned them loose. The drums erupt with a wallop, and the door is shut in my face. The Princes of the Earth go on partying without me.
I walk to the car. There’s a damp breeze flowing in from the Pacific a few blocks off. It’s salty and it’s sour. I am chilled in my light suit. I have nothing but myself now. And I am wondering what I can do with it.