Wednesday, August 29, 2012

James Ellroy, #2: "Viva la causa!"

"He said, 'Do you love me?' She said, 'I'll think about it.'"

-James Ellroy


Turns out? She'd been banging a professor of ours the whole time, this kooky old married guy with a daughter closer to her age than she was to his. I'd seen an email I wasn't supposed to see—or, perhaps, an email that she meant for me to stumble across—and it all sorta came tumbling down. After her seventeen calls to me all went unanswered, she showed up on my porch at half-past-midnight, sobbing, crying out for me to let her in to explain. I paced the ten-foot stretch of kitchen linoleum in my tiny little house, the one that six months prior was to have played loving home to what was supposed to have been my marriage, and I didn't get the door.

Not until I heard her voice catch. It sounded authentic, so I unlatched the deadbolt and cracked the door open. She looked like she had just crawled out of a puddle; hair disheveled, makeup runny, pajamas hastily hanging from limbs like toilet paper from tree branches. Consider how much pride she took (and communicated) in her appearance, I buckled and stepped aside, gesturing to my small kitchen table.

I didn't say anything at first. I got a diet Dr. Pepper from the fridge, offered her one—she declined—and sat down at an adjacent seat, but all I could think about was Ward Littell.

James Ellroy's most celebrated novels feature three antithetical protagonists whose paths and allegiances criss-cross like an LA County freeway map. American Tabloid, which I was about 2/3 through, has three: Big Pete Bondurant, ex-cop turned Howard Hughes henchman turned anti-Communist CIA adjunct; Kemper Boyd, silver-tongued southern FBI gentleman who becomes a sycophant to the Kennedys before they see through his obsessive adoration; and Ward Littell, a defrocked former Jesuit seminarian who became an FBI lawyer before alcohol destroyed his life, made his wife leave him, his colleagues disown him, his daughter loathe him, and his will depart from him.

Ward was beaten down. Bad men had taken advantage of his compassion and destroyed his credibility, leaving him flailing in the wind, looking for anything to ratchet him down. He had been tailing some left-wing subversives, eventually becoming drinking buddies with one. The two men discuss Marx and Trotsky over rye whiskey and draft beer at their regular corner pub, and Ward is converted from a flawed belief system to one of justice and decency.

And in my kitchen, I stared at the can of soda in front of me, while the whiskey on top of the refrigerator taunted me.

She talked for what was literally hours—innumerable apologies, appeals to my romanticism, claiming that the married man she'd been sleeping with was more or less single so it wasn't that big of a deal, etc.—before she threw out what I think she thought to be a trump card. And I'll never forget the specific words:

"I don't even know if the church is true anymore."

Referring, of course, to the Mormon church, the faith of our respective upbringings, the organization in which I'd struggled for air, only to breach the water and find myself surviving, even thriving from outside of what had at one point been such a comfort. And she knew of my struggles with it—the conversation we'd had not four hours earlier was all about the intellectual honesty of epistemological agnosticism—but as an excuse to do something objectively crappy to not just one person (me), not just two people (me and his wife), but three people (me, his wife, and their daughter)? This was trying to digest drywall screws. So she tossed the bomb on the table and waited to see if I'd light the fuse.

I didn't think the church was true—I still don't think it is—but it was obvious pandering, and if anything made me flail away, kicking and screaming, from my politically conservative background, it was pandering, and I, in the most calm and pointed manner possible, exploded, turning into an emotional sniper.

No stone went unturned. I reminded her that he was married (and admittedly living in the same house as his wife), she was a closer age to a babysitter for his daughter than a forbidden liaison, that he cared about her so little that he kept her so very well-hidden, etc. I kept going, pounding on vulnerabilities and weakness that I knew was there, stopping only when she burst back into tears.

Once she resumed crying, I looked at the clock. Almost 4 AM. She asked if she could stay the night. "Yes," I said. We climbed into bed, she wrapped herself around me like a baby blanket, and we both stayed churchmouse-quiet until the morning.

And I haven't slept soundly next to another person since.

I woke up to her trying to sneak out. "Me staying was a mistake," she said as I wiped sleep from my eyes. "I shouldn't have stayed." I nodded. "Just don't say anything about him that'll hurt him."

I laughed like ipecac and closed my eyes. "Don't worry," I said, "I'll make sure his stellar reputation stays intact."

Two nights later, having gotten literally zero hours of sleep since, I got a text from my nine-months-pregnant sister, who told me that the baby was coming the next morning. I acknowledged and went for a run at the gym. I came home and wrote something for the new niece who would soon grace this world and bring with her a goodness unheralded in this life or any other.

Then Boobie was born, and everything was going to be okay, just like it was in every non-Ellroy book I had read before then.


More to come.

1 comment:

Meg said...

Damn. So good this is coming out. :)