My friends thought it was a big deal that I was flying out to Los Angeles for a call back on a film. I had the initial audition when the director was in New York. A month later, he called to see if I was still interested. I was. I didn’t have anything else going on. The trip would also give me a chance to visit my father. I hadn’t seen him in years.
“Wish I had your luck,” Jeremy Cohen said. Jeremy was working as a waiter in Tribeca. “I’ve never been called back once, and I’ve been at it longer than you.”
We spoke as I waited in the terminal for my plane. It had been raining for a week, and thunderstorms had delayed the flight. I stared at my boarding pass. I had never flown first class before, and although my name was imprinted on the ticket, I had the uneasy feeling that I had stolen it.
New York had been wet and windy, but when I landed in Los Angeles, the night was warm and clear. I took a taxi to a hotel on Sunset Boulevard. The audition wasn’t until Friday, but the director booked a Wednesday flight, so I’d have time to rest up. After I unpacked, I walked to the far side of my room and pulled back the drapes. Arrays of light flickered in front of entertainment venues, announcing stand-up comedy acts, film premieres, and live rock bands. The sidewalks were crowded with pedestrians moving like a giant wave. Some spilled out onto the avenue, where traffic was at a crawl. I thought about New York. People would be racing across the rainy streets with blown-out umbrellas and dodging sprays of water when cars drove too close to the curb. But New York was a comfort. New York I could handle.
When I awoke, it was late morning. If I were going to see my father, that was the time to do it. He lived in an apartment in Orange County, about forty miles southeast of Los Angeles. I didn’t have a 3,000 mile trip as an excuse. But my father rarely answered his phone, and didn’t have voicemail. Once he had told me that with both his brothers gone, there wasn’t anyone he particularly wanted to talk to. I wondered whether that included me.
After breakfast, I called, but his phone kept ringing. I imagined him sitting by himself, watching TV. After about fifteen rings, I hung up. That’s when I decided to take my chances, and called a car service.
When the taxi arrived at his address, I copied down the driver’s chauffeur license secured to the dashboard, gave the driver sixty dollars, and asked him to wait just in case.
I found my father’s apartment, and swung the metal knocker on the door. I heard a lock snap back, and the door opened.
“Well, I’ll be,” my father said. “Well, I’ll be.” The second time I could see his face perk up despite the fact he wore a pair of dark, oversized sunglasses. We hugged, then I ran out to settle the fare with the driver.
“The glasses are because I had a cataract operation,” my father said when I returned.
I sat on his lumpy couch, and looked around his sparse living room. A worn, pink shag carpet covered the floor. The sofa faced a boxy color television. Besides a rabbit eared antenna, there were a few magazines strewn on top. A wooden wall clock—something you might find in a thrift shop–hung from a nail. Instead of numerals, there were the first twelve letters of the Hebrew alphabet, with the aleph at the twelve o’clock position. The rest were set in clockwise order. This struck me as odd because Hebrew is read from right to left. I told my father about the audition. “That’s great,” he said, retrieving two Cokes from the refrigerator. I peered into the kitchen and noticed a Formica-top kitchen table. There was just enough space so the refrigerator door could open without hitting the chairs.
“So how’s your mother doing?” my father said. He handed me a soda.
“Fairly well,” I said. We both knew “fairly well” meant not so well, so the discussion about my mother stopped there. Then he suggested we get some Kentucky Fried Chicken for lunch to celebrate my audition. I said that was fine, and offered to walk over to the restaurant to order take out.
“Don’t forget my address when you come back. These apartment complexes all look alike. I still get lost sometimes.”
“It’s right up here,” I said, putting my index finger to my temple as I opened the door.
My father was right. It was hard to tell one compound from another. They all had stucco walls, green-tinted swimming pools, and drooping palm trees. A few tiers of walkways bordered the courtyards. The daylight glare washed out any distinguishing details. It occurred to me a locale could be obscured as easily in the noontime sun as in pitch darkness.
When I entered the restaurant, I was surprised to see I was the only customer inside. Then I noticed all the others were lined up in two long rows of cars, ordering from drive-through windows. Southern California, I thought, and shrugged.
“I’m Amy. Welcome to KFC,” a perky counter person said. “How may I help you today?”
I ordered two extra crispy meals. While she was gathering my order, Amy, a high school student most likely, glanced at me over her shoulder, curious to see what a walk-in looked like.
I carried the oversized bag in both hands, cautious about finding my way back. I checked the street signs, and made sure the numbers affixed to the gated entryways were in descending order. My cell phone rang. I struggled to retrieve it from my pocket, then gave up. Whoever it was could wait.
I swung my father’s door clapper. He shouted, “It’s open.”
I entered and headed for the kitchen table, and set the bag down. That’s when I saw an empty birdcage by the window.
“Clarence the cockatoo,” my father said. “He died last week. I loved that bird. That bird could chatter.”
“Sounds like a fun pet,” I said.
“Gave the place some color, too,” my father said. “Yep. Old Clarence.”
We sat at the table, and unpackaged the food. My father is five foot seven, and thin, but he knows how to eat. I pretended to enjoy my food. There was no point in mentioning I was a vegetarian.
You ought to get some decorations,” I said after scanning his blank white walls in the kitchen.
“I keep telling myself that. Never seem to find the time. It’s going to be the first thing I do when I get better.”
My eyes shifted to the refrigerator. There were old photos taped to it. I noticed one was of a battleship.
“That’s my ship,” he said. He leaned towards the refrigerator door. “You can’t see it, but over on the starboard side. That’s where I manned the machine gun.”
In the past, when he spoke about the war, it was always in general terms. I was wary about steering the conversation towards a place that would be hard to visit. I just nodded.
“The things I saw,” he said, sighing.
“Like what?” I said. He didn’t respond, and I couldn’t tell behind his big dark glasses whether he heard me.
“Don’t be late for your appointment,” my father said. I hadn’t told him when the audition was scheduled. “You better call a taxi. This isn’t New York, where you can step outside and hail a cab.”
I called a taxi service and gave the dispatcher my father’s address and the name of my hotel.
“You’re in luck,” a gruff voice responded. “Got a car in your area heading for L.A. Fifteen minutes.”
“The guy said five or ten minutes.”
“Good timing, my father said. “ Now you come and see me when you’re not in a rush. You hear?” He got up and we hugged again. A tear dribbled down my eye.
I bit down on my lip as I waited outside in the motionless air. A taxi turned onto the street, then slowed down. I waved to get the driver’s attention. He stopped. I opened the rear door, and climbed in. The driver had long blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses. The radio deejay mentioned something about the number one Christian rock station.
“I want to go to a good pet shop,” I said leaning over from the rear seat to make sure he heard.
The driver turned towards me. “Pet shop? I got down here….”
“Forget what you got down,” I said, my eyes feeling heavy. ”I need to go to a pet store. Gift for my father. Can you wait while I shop and make it a round trip?”
The driver slowed to a stop, turned around, and looked straight into my eyes.
“Present for the old man, huh?”
“You got it,” I said.
“Why not?” he said. “The boss wants me downtown, but fuck him.” Then he smiled, turned back around, and started driving.
I leaned back and looked through the side window. Each housing complex seemed to replace the previous one. It was like watching telephone poles from a moving train.
I faced forward, and gazed ahead out the windshield. I looked at the hack license on the dashboard. What struck me about the photo was that the driver was smiling as if he was really feeling happy.
“Hey buddy,” I shouted.
“What’s up?” he said.
“You’re the man.”
He looked at me through the rear-view mirror. He grinned and then he winked, as though the two of us were sharing some deep, comforting secret.
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