A little levity from the files of Old Hollywood courtesy of my old man… and this time you can believe every word of it.
Serenity Now*, the halfway house down the road from Olive View hospital in the Westwood district of LA housed twenty men, including Pop, who had just been released from the psych ward after a second attempt on his own life. The drop off the ladder would have snapped his neck but the cross beam was weaker than the force of his weight on the rope, so the game continued. (* Fake name)
He had graduated from the bin a hero, having accidentally drawn a seeming catatonic out of her stalled awareness by sketching her portrait. Passing the time with pencils, charcoal and oil sticks, Pop zeroed in on this patient, a young woman, twenty if a day, the perfect model under the circumstances, who sat motionless for hours in her corner of the rec room, staring at the floor a foot beyond the hem of her hospital gown.
Her colorless skin and the darkened ridges around her eyes made soft pencils the obvious choice; there was no hue to play with, only the cut-outs of her features against the off white of her skin.
When completed Pop facetiously turned the pad around to show her the finished result, a courtesy he thought she was owed even though she was apparently oblivious to her surroundings. To his astonishment she looked up, her eyes powered on, the first light anyone had seen beyond the glassy shine of the fluorescent lights. She smiled at Pop and took a second, longer look at the sketch. It was lifelike enough, an academic sturdiness expected of a textbook illustrator but hardly a Louvre bound masterpiece. He had stacked her hands, upturned in her lap at the bottom to anchor the composition even though she kept her arms pulled inside the short sleeves of her gown. The hands gave the figure an air of selflessness rather than of complete victimhood. He had given her a butterfly beret to part her hair on the right as her gaze was always to the left and he wanted to break the formless jumble of her matted black hair. He was doing what he could to get the young lady to appear as more than a goth girl too bereft of life as to even try to end it.
She looked up at Pop and smiled again, this time the line of her lips stretched wide and thin. For a moment he thought she looked ravenous and might bare blood stained fangs. But her face regressed to a mid point between lust and sleep mode, what might pass for normal in a psychiatric hospital, and she crawled over to get a closer look as her fellow inmates and startled staff looked on, stunned to silence and frozen in mid step.
Pop was as perplexed as anyone but held it in; he felt like a cameo walk-on in her epic drama of resurrection, his performance scrutinized by a full house of mesmerized patrons. Not sure what to do and not wanting to break this new spell, he showed her his pencils and calmly spoke to her about the technical uses of various crosshatches and smears that graphite can provide while she caressed his arm and beamed as if the grand justice of love had been revealed personally by Zeus Himself, her illness reduced in His glory to ashes. She extended her right index finger and traced the contour of the butterfly Pop had nested in her hair.
When he told me this story years from when it happened, he remarked at the hoary metaphor of emergence and the butterfly she was so enamored of. Because he wasn’t addicted to the conspiracy candy of your messenger, I passed on offering up the possibility that he had inadvertently awakened an MKUltra sleeper agent; the urban legends of that program included the symbol of the butterfly as a trigger mechanism. It was far from certain, and it was his miracle, so I left that alone, agreeing that the fates are hack writers and traffic in clichés so lame they can hide the truth in plain sight.
No way Pop would know how to demonstrate the emotional restoration his redemptive powers possessed as he was by then the most irascible of materialists, née atheists, one could hope to shun. By comparison he made the Dawkins set look like possessed nuns collectively bleeding the holy discharge of the virgin mother. Still, he subconsciously parlayed this miracle of the female half length to restate his mission, which, as always, was to get out, get employed and find a wife who this time would get the successful, sober spouse and show biz go-getter, not the crash and burn dipsomaniac with an ever renewable well spring of unresolved resentments- That plan being the classic demonstration of true madness: repeating the same process ad infinitum, hoping for a different result.
Armed with an adequate set of kitchen skills, Pop was assigned to cook for his Serenity Now brothers. Fried potatoes was his staple side dish to go with a variety of stews loaded with surprises: bacon, pork sausage, marinated tomatoes, sautéed carrots; savories sufficient to get this menagerie of mad men in remission to eat at regular intervals for the first time in so long they could not recall their voided bowels being so content.
In short order, Dennis Hopper of the Movies, in one of his mentally disassembled phases, was assigned a bed, bunking as Pop’s roommate. Deemed worthy enough to have been once married to minor aristocratic stock, Hopper’s practical skills had long since expired, so he was assigned kitchen duties under Pop’s direction where it was decided his helplessness could do the least amount of damage. Hopper was between periods of lucidity largely assured, but had rehabbed sufficiently to handle dorm life.
“Everything starts with olive oil and a warm skillet,” Pop said, deciding to measure a tablespoon rather than eye a splash straight from the bottle, his Leatherneck senses tingling that a complete novice should learn to use the basic tools of the trade.
“Cool,” said Hopper. His head bobbed as he studied every detail, watching Pop’s hands, the sequence of screw top bottle cap, spoon and pour.
He was a smart guy,” Pop said, “He was a quick study, had the pastas down in nothing flat, said he hadn’t even burned toast before but within a couple of days followed everything I had done like an autistic savant.”
“Keeps with his rep as a scary/fun kook,” I said, trying to recall if I had actually seen one of his movies all the way through.
Alas, this culinary idle was short lived. Pop returned one morning to his room after his break of dawn jog to find Hopper naked and desperately looking for something that could be used as a weapon.
“Don’t you get it, man?” he said, bug-eyed and shaking. “They’ve come to kill your president! Save the nation, block their shots!”
“Uh, who am I protecting?” Pop asked in an even tone, knowing more panic could escalate into violence and he had no desire to put a sleeper hold on a naked movie star.
“Are you kidding me?” Hopper said, his voice rising as his balls retracted up into his windpipe. “I’m JFK! Don’t you watch television?”
He scrambled behind Pop, peeking over each shoulder at the drawn blinds.
The ruckus attracted Gus, the house sergeant-at-arms. He took steps two at a time to the second floor and shouldered his way into the room. He had the position because he was as big as a barn and dancer quick and he smirked when he saw the diminutive Hopper now sheepishly wrap a sheet around his waist, staring at the throw rug that had bunched around Pop’s feet.
“C’mon Dennis,” Gus said, gently reaching for Hopper’s bony arm. Fast as a pistol draw, Hopper slugged Gus in the gut and threw a haymaker that knocked the bull out of the room, snapping the wooden slats of the balcony railing. As this was not a movie, Gus did not fall through and plunge to his death. He was dazed, more surprised than light headed, unable to swipe at Hopper’s ankle as the demonically repossessed imp leapt over the lug and ran down the stairs, hunching up the sheet like a runaway bride. He made it to the front porch and was deciding where the best cover would be when Gus tackled him.
A week later, Hopper was sufficiently coherent and back with Pop in the kitchen, pan searing a salmon steak his people had brought him along with a few other delicacies and a cook book that he and Pop poured through, fantasizing in detail what on the menu of their new restaurant in the Wilshire district would become the signature item.
Pop’s boot camp imprint never left him. Up before the rooster, he would jog along the grassy islands cutting the thoroughfares lengthwise to Los Feliz and back to get his blood circulating. He loved the dawn, claiming the day was fresh out of the rapper, unused yet by the armies of idle existence. The trample of shit scraped shoes and big rig tires hadn’t yet sullied the city and the bakery at Doheny and Melrose always put a buoyant length to his stubby legged stride, the caressing hands of the fresh baked aroma, like the hypnotized cartoon duck whose bill was stroked seductively as he floated towards the axe on the tide of hunger made Pop optimistic for the sober future he was convinced was real, this time.
Back at the house he tapped his brow, greeting Gus who had turned his eyes away from his morning paper and was pointing an ear up towards the second floor rooms. With a shrug Pop flew up the stairs. He’d grab a shower and make the budget matinee at the Bijou; he didn’t care what it was, his day was always built around the cinema, even a single screen release that would be on disk and in the drug store dollar bins before the final credits rolled. He’d worked so many B to Z list grunters that his aesthetic taste buds had been worn down to the sensitivity of a house cat.
“Hoppy,” he said, pounding on the locked door, “cut the crap, we’re going to the movies!”
“No, man, can’t do it!” Came a tremulous voice on the other side. “Get everyone out of here before its too late!”
“Goddammit,” Pop thought, another bolt had been thrown, the fruitcake had derailed again.
By this time, Gus had followed upstairs and he moved Pop aside. They could hear shuffling, like a toy engine circling around a tight track, a wide-eyed kid spinning on his knees to keep the train in view.
“Look out,” Gus said, and slammed his shoulder, back and heel into the door. The bolt gave way, tearing out the metal frame around it and snapped the wooden jamb, a hail of splinters firing into the room.
Undeterred by the break-in, Hopper was shuffling in his stocking feet, tiny sliding steps in a tight counter clockwise circle.
“Get out, maaaannn!!!!!” He did not look up, keeping his eyes on the path he’d laid out in his squirming brain.
Gus took measure of the runt that had floored him a week before. Pop bit his lip, the absurdity barely keeping his own brittle hold on reality from erupting in hysterical laughter and a demotion back to the jacket and the padded walls.
“You don’t get it, man!” Hopper said, breathing heavily, “there’s a guy under the floor and he’s got a blow torch! Don’t stop me or we’ll all fall through and he’ll fry us!”
As he turned, briefly showing his back to Gus, the big man pounced, getting Hopper in a headlock and putting the troubled auteur in a sleeper hold. This scion of Dodge City, real life Kansas, went out peacefully, Gus throwing the bantam over his shoulder and carrying him downstairs.
“Mike, go find Mrs. Crenshaw and have her call the hospital. And call the emergency number for the EMT’s. You know the drill.”
“Right,” Pop said, the taste of seared Salmon recalled with a belch.
About three years later, Pop was settling into the warm hearted narrative of his daily film selection out at the Paso Robles AMC multiplex when an actor, shoulders hunched and disheveled in his line readings, entered screen right and caught Pop’s memory. He could not put his finger on the character buttressing a scene gobbling turn by Gene Hackman, an actor he admired as one of the few who improved every film he was in, but the supporting drunkard, reformed by shame (Yeah, right!), in this tale of white farm kids winning big on the basketball court was a distraction. It wasn’t until the end credits that he realized that the limp, corpse-in-waiting that Gus had carried down to the ambulance was the same man he’d taught to make anything fried taste like food. In a rare spasm of emotion, he welled up, gob smacked that Dennis Hopper had survived and returned to relevancy. What hope, even in more modest doses for us mere mortals, he asked the empty void.