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California

by Sean Bernard


Summer evenings we gather in newly restored craftsmans, extended ranch houses, post-and-lintels built in the sixties, these are our homes, we have money and mortgage now, children who swim in carefully-fenced backyard pools, we grill chicken and fish, corn on cob. We sip wine and eat cheese and grapes and speak of life and weather, sometimes we bring out the guitar, strum a few chords and laugh, waiting for the air to cool, the sun to set, the kids to bed down.

Then we look at each other, wondering if it’s time, if we’re ready. Always, we are.

We go with slick refilled glasses of wine into the living room, we sit on sofas and chairs, on the floor like children. The lights dim. A screen is pulled. Tape flaps, a fan whirs, a soundtrack clears its throat, and we watch film from an old projector. The projector reminds us of moments we’ve seen in movies, a nostalgia for a time we never knew.

None of the clips we watch have made the Internet. At work, when we vaguely mention their existence to colleagues, we draw blank stares. No one else knows of them. The clips pull us here—partially—because they are so rare, they are private, only ours. And it’s also that our lives are so ordinary, we’re not disappointed in this exactly, just cheerfully resigned.

The clips are something else entirely, new, unexpected. Nothing about them has been explained. They are mailed to us intermittently. No return address. We recognize people in them we don’t know personally. We feel they are moving us somewhere, propelling to a climax we cannot guess. And we sit forward in our seats, hungrily, waiting for the next clip to begin.

 

The footage is especially grainy in #4, the sound cluttered, immediately we hear the whine of the diesel VW Westphalia. The public television show host is on the road again, we see, precisely what the voiceover says as the clip begins, The public television host is on the road again, ho-hum, always on the road, hum of engine, hum of road, rectilinear agricultural fields, irrigation canals, mountains, deserts, etc., etc., look at him, the host, so solemn, so distracted.

The camera zooms in on his face. His chin and jaw are strong. His white flat-top seems gray in the footage. There are wrinkles deep around his eyes, like an old surfer from quieter days.

He stares out a window, chin on fist. The voice says, The host ruminates over a recurrent nightmare: empty deserts, the vast central valley with nothing but oil derricks and bones and him standing alone in denim shorts and boots and a white muslin shirt, sunglasses missing and microphone in hand, but not a soul to speak to. It’s a nightmare a mind could get lost in.

On the screen, audibly, the host sighs.

What could it all mean? asks the voice. Does emptiness forespeak of great miseries?

The host laughs shortly, ha!, and turns from the window. He looks directly at the camera, at us, and it is this moment that always disarms us—that he knows he’s being filmed.

He smiles. What does he see? Who is behind the hand-held camera? Why is he smiling?

The camera pulls away as he looks down and taps his hiking-booted feet against the bus’s floorboards. The host smiles, the voice exclaims, Floorboards, he thinks! Such an antiquated word! Were cars truly once fitted with floorboards, actual pieces of wood that somehow did not cause fires? combustion? is there an auto museum in this state with an auto museum docent who can say if once cars had floorboards do auto museums have docents? attendants? a pit crew? there is the Internet of course, but we don’t use the Internet, we use real people, That Is Who I Am, thinks the host happily, He Who Speaks to Folks, this is how we learn about the world thinks the host how we experience life here in the western Americas, here on the road, and yes! there is indeed one of course the auto museum on museum row in downtown Los Angeles, what a fool, The film flaps, the clip is over.

 

#23 begins with the host sitting forward on a brown leather sofa. On the wall behind him hangs a mirror. There is reflection of neither camera nor crew, a crack in logic that disturbs us.

“But how was it done? An f/x program? How much money was spent on this, really?”

This is what Don always wants to know. The strangeness worries him greatly.

Hush, we tell Don. He sighs, sits back, sighs again, frustrated.

In the clip, the host leans over a clear glass coffee table set upon iron claw feet.

On one side of the table is an enormous mound of walnuts, still in shell.

The host pilfers the pile. Eventually he thumbs a single nut into his palm, shuts his eyes, and squeezes. The cracking of the shell is audible. He opens his eyes, his palm, and reaches in for the meat, which he sets on the opposite side the table. The shell bits he wipes to the floor.

The voiceover says, The host cracks walnuts just like the Godfather or more to the point, Brando. He never tells anyone of this ability though it is a source of great pride. He cherishes the strength of his hands. It makes him feel of the land. Self-reliant. He could have been an arm-wrestler, he thinks sometimes, and is surprised at his regret in not having been an arm-wrestler.

The host is wincing, eyes squeezed, two hands around a nut.

He looks at his palm, frowning, and suddenly throws the shelled nut across the room.

He is six-feet-four inches, strong as most any man, even at sixty, and when his cameraman of eighteen years (whom he still calls “cameraman”) cuts off his feet or hair in close shots, the host cries, “Least you got my guns, cameraman!” flexing his biceps.

The host, reaching over again, begins cracking walnuts again, one nut at a time.

 

From the start we recognized the host, of course. We have all lived in this state longer than expected—some of us born here—and so we all know the public television show, the ebullient host interviewing this person and that, exploring the magnificent wonders of California. The first clip, marked #2, we thought mailed mistakenly: it shows the host washing his hands in an anonymous white bathroom. The clip is shot through a stall in the bathroom. It is barely twenty seconds long. We watched it and wondered what it meant, ignored it, laughed.

Two days and the second clip, #3, arrived: the host in a Ralph’s grocery store, considering maple syrups, seemingly unaware of the camera, again the clip short, a minute at most.

Then the third, the fourth, and so on. Sometimes two, even three, four in a week.

We don’t yet know what they mean.

After each ends, we go outside and it is cool, even in summer, the ocean breeze only half-warmed by the breath of millions between us and seas, we sip the harder drinks we’ve moved onto, the gins and scotches, or those of us still driving home our simple glasses of tap water. The kids sigh in sleep through screen windows. We barefoot in grass. Somethings like stars resound above the city skies. Wonderings about the host. Does he know? Is he part of it all? The more modern of us imagine that the clips have been found by an enterprising PBS intern, a film student with a taste for the avant-garde, amused by the potential in these odd and casual outtakes.

This is our early innocent theory, when all the clips seem that way, innocent.

“What if he doesn’t know?” Don says. He always worries. “What if it’s a threat?”

We laugh Don off—certainly the clips are a prank by someone’s distant cousin at the public television station. A joke with us. It’s all simple fun, and one of these early nights, drunk, enjoying ourselves, someone brightens and suggests, “Let’s call him! See what he knows!” We applaud the concept. Quick research is done and we find an extension at the television station attributed to the host. Maybe he’s in! It is decided we’ll use a pay phone—Don insists, no cell phones, no home numbers. We think this very hip, very noir. Cynthia, our only smoker, recalls once using a pay phone at a nearby convenience mart. Being a water-drinker, I’m sent as driver.

We don’t speak on the drive, not at first, those balmy winds blowing through my window.

I have the air conditioning on but she doesn’t seem to care.

Finally I ask if she’s lived in California long, if she’s from Los Angeles.

“No one’s from here, everyone knows that.” She seems bored. Smokes without asking.

I ask if she’s excited about making the call.

She shrugs.

I stay in the car while she puts in quarters, dials the number. She speaks into the phone. I lean forward to eavesdrop. She cups the mouthpiece and turns away. Her face, first smiling, shifts to alarm—and I, so late in the night, so excited, imagine that she’s paled in fear. I step from the car, worried, but she’s hanging up, saying into the phone, “Goodbye,” almost breathlessly.

She looks at me steadily. “Wrong number,” she says. She tells everyone else the same.

I’m too nervous to contradict her story, to describe the faces she made.

 

And then sometimes you call, which must cost you effort, pride. I appreciate that, I do.

“We haven’t seen you,” you say. “They miss you.”

Sometimes the patience in your voice irritates me.

“I haven’t been by,” I agree. “You’re very perceptive. You should be a private detective.”

“You’ve been drinking.” You always sound more tired than angry.

“I don’t have to be drunk to be angry,” I say.

“Are you ever going to explain it all to me?” Now your voice is sad.

“I saw her in Whole Foods today,” you say. Sadder.

Maybe I should explain it all, the her, the they, the you, the me. But does any of it matter anymore? All that remains from these stupid pronouns are your voice and its many shades, sad, angry, distant, forlorn, calm, pensive, brusque, bitter, small, and hurt. And hurt.

 

#9 confirms our unspoken suspicions. No more can we pretend it’s all simply a prank.

The clip begins with the host inside a ranch-style home–certainly in the foothills, we agree, above Pasadena, we can tell by the plant-life, the yard, the architecture, the curve of earth, sun. The host sits at a kitchen island. Newspaper spread before him. Coffee mug.

This time the camera is outside the house, looking in.

Inside, a phone rings very lightly, muted. The host picks it up, we hear and read his lips as he gives a (muted) booming Hello. Hello! cries the voice-over.

We see the host’s lips repeat, “Hello!” We see his mouth form the words, “Who’s this?”

The host! says the voice.

In his kitchen, the host frowns, pushes a button, sets the phone down. He looks annoyed.

The phone rings again. He checks the number, sets it back down. Now he is worried.

After a moment, though, he answers it.

Hello? whispers the voice-over. Hello? Hello? Hello?

And we can see, quite clearly, the speaker’s breath against the kitchen window.

 

#24 begins in a darkened house, a camera stepping through fluttering curtains and an open sliding door. The footsteps of the invisible cameraman are barely audible, a faint shuffling on wood floors. The camera enters a room and there’s a lumpen shape in a bed.

A digital clock says it’s three AM.

The phone rings, the camera pulls back.

A hand reaches from the bed, hits a button. The host speaks softly to the phone. “Hello?”

The voice-over says, Go to Silver Lake, swim to the fountain, find the next clue.

And then, as always, darkness.

Our theory is that clip #8 follows #24, at least chronologically. #8 is a long and quiet night sequence, filmed from a car we cannot see. We are following taillights–presumably the host’s–and that is the only visual. The voice-over speaks softly, Los Angeles at night, the 110 freeway, always puts the host in a pensive mood. This is the hidden freeway, curving through hills, past homes where men once raised cows, planted corn and squash, didn’t care about the gleam of Dodger Stadium, Chavez Ravine a canyon named for a hacendado from the nineteenth century, an old husband of a daughter of a son-in-law of a conquistador who killed Indians with muskets and put plow to land and lived by that one word all men in this land once lived by: Build. The host knows this, reflects on this now, during his late night drive. He knows that the landowners died, that the land was parceled, the ranch house fell into disrepair, was razed, the land scooped by up speculators, Broad and Bren, Kaufmann and Argyros, Emmerson, Roski, great place for a ballpark! The history as it always is in this state–vanished. Gone. Amazing.

Amazing. Amazing. The word is his now. Several years ago he interviewed an etymologist who explained the word’s origin. It was unsurprising, after all – maze, labyrinth, to be confused, confounded, caught in a world of unseen connections . . . but still there is a logic to mazes, isn’t there? The spool of thread in the first labyrinth, Ariadne, spider’s web. Amazed. Night brings back memory, how he was taunted once as a child back home in Tennessee squalid Tennessee where to dream to delight to awe was not correct. Smoky Mountains sunset, sad, evocative. He had an old Pentax G10 rigged to a fencepost as tripod and took time-elapsed photos of dying light. He showed the pictures at school. Isn’t it amazing? he whispered. The teacher and the older kids beat him after class. He has admitted this to no one.

The voice quiets but the taillights keep moving, pulling further away, until the clip’s end.

 

“What it is is a meditation on the nature of television, of film,” Don suggests one night. We’ve all had too much to drink. Now we’re frustrated–this week’s clip, #62, is blank. Nothing. Angrily we blame the creators of this absurd virtual chase that never leaves our living rooms. We assign petty motives. “Bored rich kids,” we agree. “Avant-garde assholes,” we say.

But Don has a larger and more complex point; he’s an academic. “Isn’t television after all the great medium of our time? Our country? This state? We live fifteen minutes from Hollywood. We are the image, not the thing itself. We are the gaze and the object. Why trust these clips as real? They are film! Two-dimensional!” Don spills his drink and swears loudly. He’s under pressure. Up for tenure in the fall, struggling to complete his book, to find publisher. Normally we cut him off but tonight we let him ramble. “What do we know about the host? He is like us–like us, he loves television. He remembers moments–moon landing, Watergate, Ali-Frazier, Munich, those transcendent moments offered only by television. Television is one-way immersion without obligation. You sit, you flip a button, you look away, you read the paper, you look up, you mute, you change channel, take piss, heat pizza, wander house, push-up, sit-up, phone call, text. The Internet? You can’t wander from it, it’s too needy. Only television is so accommodating!”

He’s almost shouting. “It wouldn’t work on the Internet! This is film, this is community! Here we are in other worlds–real ones, real people! The world used to be parks! Then it was benches! Then it was sofas at home!” He stares at us, desperate. “I’ve seen gaming chairs in Target, speakers built in and wires for kids to sit in for hours!” He looks madly. “Quick! I need to write!” Someone passes him a pen and napkin, he grasps them, begins jotting furiously.

We pity and loathe Don. I hold Cynthia’s elbow as we walk to our cars. She smiles sadly.

“Now calm down, that was an ocean of gin you drank, cowboy.”

She blows me an air kiss, is gone.

 

You leave voice messages via can-and-string, say they’re worried about me, you are, too.

Stop working.      Take a break.       Come inside.      Dinner’s ready.

But mustn’t we believe that if we can unravel just one thing the maze will come undone?

I dream of walking at night in the dark.

I see a large man ahead of me, saying, Who are you? Why are you following me?

Carter Sullivan and Jack Benny, oh Jack, Your money or your wallet . . . golden silence.

California gold? Television! That clever image, those flashing lights! We are all moths!

I lie awake tonight, thinking of mankind fleeing darkness, flapping at bright screens.

It’s not a lightly thought thought.

The State of California. Been there. Not sure I made it back.

Some days I sit watching re-runs of the host’s television show. How cheery he is! How sated! I know that TV-him isn’t real-him, that he’s a different man with his own fears, his own struggles, I know I need to stop need to let go of Cynthia/her the kids/them you/you so I/me can move on but the words trip me up every time, “move on,” isn’t moving on just moving back? Yielding? A surrender? I’ve never liked this state, it’s always felt uneasy to me, trembly, on the verge of explode, it’s the air, the winds, the fires, tides under ocean, deserts, I don’t know, such foreboding, just a sense is all. You can come to the west what you can do is you can come to this land of grand scale and learn to think in shadows, in shadows men will pan for gold backroom deals buy all the land steal the water forces align, it’s obvious, look around, such tremendous forces after all. Look, that dome, that volcano, that geyser. That beach. That bear. Eagle. Whale. Ronald Reagan. Woolly mammoth. Joshua tree. Death Valley. Donner Party. Neverland Ranch. John Muir. Manson. To think no forces are conspiring would be to be a fool! Sometimes I think I could learn a bit by reading up on Manson but what good would that do? It’d only make me obsessive and it’s bad to obsess over crazies. Obsess over normal things. It’s healthier.

 

On Monday night, in my mailbox, a large yellow envelope. No return address.

I open it inside, lights out, feeling nauseous.

A film canister.

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