Authors: Christopher Isherwood
Every weekend there are parties. The teenagers are encouraged to go off and dance and pet with each other, even if they haven’t finished their homework; for the grown-ups need desperately to relax, unobserved. And now Mrs Strunk prepares salads with Mrs Garfein in the kitchen, and Mr Strunk gets the barbecue going on the patio, and Mr Garfein, crossing the vacant lot with a tray of bottles and a shaker, announces joyfully, in Marine Corps tones, ‘Martoonies coming up!’
And two, three hours later, after the cocktails and the guffaws, the quite astonishingly dirty stories, the more or less concealed pinching of other wives’ fannies, the steaks and the pie; while The Girls – as Mrs Strunk and the rest will continue to call themselves and each other if they live to be ninety – are washing up, you will hear Mr Strunk and his fellow-husbands laughing and talking on the porch, drinks in hands, with thickened speech. Their
business problems are forgotten, now. And they are proud and glad. For even the least among them is a co-owner of the American utopia, the kingdom of the good life upon earth – crudely aped by the Russians, hated by the Chinese – who are none the less ready to purge and starve themselves for generations, in the hopeless hope of inheriting it. Oh yes, indeed, Mr Strunk and Mr Garfein are proud of their kingdom. But why, then, are their voices like the voices of boys calling to each other as they explore a dark unknown cave, growing ever louder and louder, bolder and bolder? Do they know that they are afraid? No. But they are very afraid.
What are they afraid of?
They are afraid of what they know is somewhere in the darkness around them, of what may at any moment emerge into the undeniable light of their flashlamps, nevermore to be ignored, explained away. The fiend that won’t fit into their statistics, the gorgon that refuses their plastic surgery, the vampire drinking blood with tactless uncultured slurps, the bad-smelling beast that doesn’t use their deodorants, the unspeakable that insists, despite all their shushing, on speaking its name.
Among many other kinds of monster, George says, they are afraid of little me.
Mr Strunk, George supposes, tries to nail him down with a word.
, he doubtless growls. But, since this is after all the year nineteen sixty-two, even he may be expected to add, I don’t give a damn what he does just as long as he stays away from me. Even psychologists disagree as to the conclusions which may be reached about the Mr Strunks of this world, on the basis of such a remark. The fact remains that Mr Strunk himself, to
judge from a photograph of him taken in football uniform at college, used to be what many would call a living doll.
But Mrs Strunk, George feels sure, takes leave to differ gently from her husband; for she is trained in the new tolerance, the technique of annihilation by blandness. Out comes her psychology book – bell and candle are no longer necessary. Reading from it in sweet singsong she proceeds to exorcise the unspeakable out of George. No reason for disgust, she intones, no cause for condemnation. Nothing here that is wilfully vicious. All is due to heredity, early environment (shame on those possessive mothers, those sex-segregated British schools!), arrested development at puberty, and/or glands. Here we have a misfit, debarred forever from the best things of life, to be pitied, not blamed. Some cases, caught young enough,
respond to therapy. As for the rest – ah, it’s so sad; especially when it happens, as let’s face it it does, to truly worthwhile people, people who might have had so much to offer. (Even when they are geniuses in spite of it, their masterpieces are invariably
.) So let us be understanding, shall we, and remember that, after all, there
the Greeks (though that was a bit different, because they were pagans rather than neurotics). Let us even go so far as to say that this kind of relationship can sometimes be almost beautiful – particularly if one of the parties is already dead; or, better yet, both.
How dearly Mrs Strunk would enjoy being sad about Jim! But, aha, she doesn’t know; none of them know. It happened in Ohio, and the L.A. papers didn’t carry the story. George has simply spread it around that Jim’s folks, who are getting along in years, have been trying to
persuade him to come back home and live with them; and that now, as the result of his recent visit to them, he will be remaining in the East indefinitely. Which is the gospel truth. As for the animals, those devilish reminders, George had to get them out of his sight immediately; he couldn’t even bear to think of them being anywhere in the neighbourhood. So, when Mrs Garfein wanted to know if he would sell the mynah bird, he answered that he’d shipped them all back to Jim. A dealer from San Diego took them away.
And now, in reply to the questions of Mrs Strunk and the others, George answers that, yes indeed, he has just heard from Jim and that Jim is fine. They ask him less and less often. They are quite incurious, really.
But your book is wrong, Mrs Strunk, says George, when it tells you that Jim is the substitute I found for a real son, a real kid brother, a real husband, a real wife. Jim wasn’t a substitute for anything. And there is no substitute for Jim, if you’ll forgive my saying so, anywhere.
Your exorcism has failed, dear Mrs Strunk, says George, squatting on the toilet and peeping forth from his lair to watch her emptying the dustbag of her vacuum cleaner into the trash-can. The unspeakable is still here; right in your very midst.
Damnation. The phone.
Even with the longest cord the phone company will give you, it won’t reach into the bathroom. George gets himself off the seat and shuffles into the study, like a man in a sack-race.
‘Hello – is that – it
‘I say, I didn’t call too early, did I?’
‘No.’ (Oh dear, she has managed to get him irritated already! Yet how can he reasonably blame her for the discomfort of standing nastily unwiped, with his pants around his ankles? One must admit, though, that Charlotte has a positively clairvoyant knack of picking the wrong moment to call.)
‘Of course I’m sure. I’ve already had breakfast.’
‘I was afraid, if I waited any longer, you’d have gone off to the college. . . . My goodness, I hadn’t noticed it was
late! Oughtn’t you to have started already?’
‘This is the day I have only one class. It doesn’t begin until eleven-thirty. My early days are Mondays and Wednesdays.’ (All this explained in a tone of slightly emphasised patience.)
‘Oh yes – yes, of course! How stupid of me! I
(A silence. George knows she wants to ask him something. But he won’t help her. He is rubbed up the wrong way by her blunderings.
does she imply that she
to know his college schedule? Just more of her possessiveness. And why, if she really thinks she ought to know it, does she get it all mixed up?)
‘Geo —’ (very humbly) ‘would you
be free tonight?’
‘Afraid not. No.’ (One second before speaking, he couldn’t have told you what he was going to answer. It’s the desperation in Charlotte’s voice that decides him. He isn’t in the mood for one of her crises.)
‘Oh – I see. . . . I was afraid you wouldn’t be. It
short notice, I know.’ (She sounds half stunned, very quiet, hopeless. He stands there listening for a sob. None can be heard. His face is puckered into a grimace of guilt and discomfort – the latter caused by his increasing awareness of stickiness and trussed ankles.)
‘I suppose you couldn’t – I mean – I suppose it’s something important?’
‘I’m afraid it is.’ (The grimace of guilt relaxes. He is mad at her now. He won’t be nagged at.)
‘I see. . . . Oh well, never mind.’ (She’s brave, now.) ‘I’ll try you again, may I, in a few days?’
‘Of course.’ (Oh – why not be a little nicer, now she’s been put in her place?) ‘Or I’ll call you.’
‘Well – goodbye, Geo.’
Twenty minutes later, Mrs Strunk, out on her porch watering the hibiscus bushes, watches him back his car out across the bridge. (It is sagging badly, nowadays. She hopes he will have it fixed; one of the children might get hurt.) As he makes the half-turn on to the street, she waves to him. He waves to her.
Poor man, she thinks, living there all alone. He has a kind face.
It is one of the marvels and blessings of the Los Angeles freeway system that you can now get from the beach to San Tomas State College in fifty minutes, give or take
five, instead of the nearly two hours you would have spent, in the slow old days, crawling from stoplight to stoplight clear across the downtown area and out into the suburbs beyond.
George feels a kind of patriotism for the freeways. He is proud that they are so fast, that people get lost on them and even sometimes panic and have to bolt for safety down the nearest cutoff. George loves the freeways because he can still cope with them; because the fact that he can cope proves his claim to be a functioning member of society. He can still
(Like everyone with an acute criminal complex, George is hyperconscious of all bylaws, city ordinances, rules and petty regulations. Think of how many Public Enemies have been caught just because they neglected to pay a parking ticket! Never once has he seen his passport stamped at a frontier, his driver’s licence accepted by a post office clerk as evidence of identity, without whispering gleefully to himself,
idiots – fooled them again
He will fool them again this morning, in there, in the midst of the mad metropolitan chariot race – Ben Hur would certainly chicken out – jockeying from lane to lane with the best of them, never dropping below eighty in the fast left lane, never getting rattled when a crazy teenager hangs on to his tail or a woman (it all comes of letting them go first through doorways) cuts in sharply ahead of him. The cops on their motorcycles will detect nothing, yet, to warn them to roar in pursuit flashing their red lights, to signal him off to the side, out of the running, and thence to escort him kindly but ever so firmly to some beautifully ordered nursery-community where Senior Citizens (
, in our Country of the Bland,
has become nearly as dirty a word as kike or nigger) are eased into senility, retaught their childhood games but with a difference; it’s known as
now. Oh, by all means let them screw, if they can still cut the mustard; and, if they can’t, let them indulge without inhibitions in babylike erotic play. Let them get married, even – at eighty, at ninety, at a hundred – who cares? Anything to keep them busy and stop them wandering around blocking the traffic.
There’s always a slightly unpleasant moment when you drive up the ramp which leads on to the freeway and become what’s called
. George has that nerve-crawling sensation which can’t be removed by simply checking the rearview mirror; that, inexplicably, invisibly, he’s about to be hit in the back. And then, next moment, he has merged and is away, out in the clear, climbing the long easy gradient toward the top of the pass and the Valley beyond.
And now, as he drives, it is as if some kind of autohypnosis exerts itself. We see the face relax, the shoulders unhunch themselves, the body ease itself back into the seat. The reflexes are taking over; the left foot comes down with firm even pressure on the clutch-pedal, while the right prudently feeds in gas. The left hand is light on the wheel; the right slips the gearshift with precision into high. The eyes, moving unhurriedly from road to mirror, mirror to road, calmly measure the distances ahead, behind, to the nearest car. . . . After all, this is no mad chariot race – that’s only how it seems to onlookers or nervous novices – it is a river, sweeping in
full flood toward its outlet with a soothing power. There is nothing to fear, as long as you let yourself go with it; indeed, you discover, in the midst of its stream-speed, a sense of indolence and ease.
And now something new starts happening to George. The face is becoming tense again, the muscles bulge slightly at the jaw, the mouth tightens and twitches, the lips are pressed together in a grim line, there is a nervous contraction between the eyebrows. And yet, while all this is going on, the rest of the body remains in a posture of perfect relaxation. More and more, it appears to separate itself, to become a separate entity; an impassive anonymous chauffeur-figure with little will or individuality of its own, the very embodiment of muscular coordination, lack of anxiety, tactful silence, driving its master to work.
And George, like a master who has entrusted the driving of his car to a servant, is now free to direct his attention elsewhere. As they sweep over the crest of the pass, he is becoming less and less aware of externals; the cars all around, the dip of the freeway ahead, the Valley with its homes and gardens opening below, under a long brown smear of smog beyond and above which the big barren mountains rise. He has gone deep down inside himself.
What is he up to?
On the edge of the beach, a huge insolent high-rise which will contain one hundred apartments is growing up within its girders; it will block the view along the coast from the park on the cliffs above. A spokesman for this project says, in answer to objections, well, that’s Progress. And anyhow, he implies, if there are people who are
prepared to pay $450 a month for this view by renting our apartments, why should you park-users (and that includes George) get it for free?