Despite Lakedema’s admonitions and her insistence that she and Isaac could not leave me, at least not while I was alive, I did not see either of them the next day. As much as I wanted to feel like things were back to normal, nothing felt the same. I kept looking over my shoulder or staring for several minutes at whatever I was holding in my hand.
I was moving slowly and at times I felt the need to observe my steps, watching my feet land and confirming contact with the ground.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” asked Morey.
I shrugged and mumbled, didn’t really answer because everything I might say was so far from the truth I knew I wouldn’t get away with it and Morey would ask another question.
“Forgot my fucking phone,” I said.
It was a long day on what was for the set decorators a complicated location shoot. After a few hours, I fell into the routine of the job and for a few minutes here and there I did forget about Max, the blue lady, and the giant tiger.
Morey did not forget that I had shrugged him off. He waited until the day was winding down.
“You gonna tell me or what?” he asked.
I stuck to the truth. “I don’t know what to tell you, Morey.”
“What? It’s a woman?”
“There’s a woman involved.”
“Well that’s a damn slippery answer. Sounds like a woman and she’s got a man and he’s not you.”
“Yeah? Well, damn the luck. But that ain’t it. I know you, Squid.”
Morey gave me the nickname, Squid, not long after I came to work for him because I could do many things at once. Most people just called it multi-tasking. Morey, who would focus on one thing at a time until his eyes burned a hole through it, called me Squid instead.
“Morey, look, when I tell you I don’t know what to tell you, that’s the truth.”
“Alright. Whatever it is, what are you going to do about it? You know, if nobody is going to die you might be twisting those panties of yours for no good reason.”
Morey was working the needle, pushing me to spill. This is how he cared and I knew he wouldn’t let it go.
“I’m not sure I can do anything about it. I don’t think I’m the right person.”
I was sitting on a sofa, or what Morey called a sofa. I called it a couch and this was a couch in a driveway. All around us an outdoor location set was being torn down. Morey and I were there to protect the “precious bits,” set decoration that couldn’t easily be replaced, at least in our minds. For most people, any cast iron skillet would do. For Morey and me, if the movie was set in 1955, it had to be a vintage Griswold or Wagner skillet, even if the camera never rested on it for even a moment.
It was hot, one of those Los Angeles nights designed to remind the inhabitants that they were living in a desert near the sea and it was, underneath all the asphalt and glass, a precarious existence.
“The ocean is a lie,” I said, and was surprised to hear the words. What was I talking about? It was something my dad used to say. It meant that you could die of thirst on the ocean. It meant that things were not always what they seemed.
“That it is,” said Morey, his voice measured. Morey had known my father.
Something is happening, I thought.
“Something is always happening,” said Morey, and I thought maybe I had spoken. He had joined me on the couch and I felt like the world was slipping away under his laser gaze. People moved around us, crew who knew better than to touch our things but had jobs to do nevertheless, lifting and dropping and boxing.
One man, without a shirt, worked not far behind Morey, coiling cable. On his back was the most remarkable tattoo. It was the face of a demon, or maybe the devil himself, complete with horns and reddish skin. The face had a Chuck Conners jawline. The most fascinating thing about the face were the eyes, which were cast upward and slightly off to the right, so it didn’t look as if the creature was looking toward heaven, it somehow managed to give the impression that he was looking back at the man who wore the tattoo.
I tried to imagine having a demon on my back, watching my every move. Why would anyone get such a tattoo? As if hearing my question, the man stopped what he was doing and looked back over his shoulder and directly into my eyes. That was disconcerting. Then the eyes of the demon on his back rolled forward and looked at me as well.
Don’t shit your pants John.
“You remember when we met, Squid?” asked Morey. His voice sent both Grip and demon eyes back to their work.
“Sure,” I squeaked. “I remember.” I tried to force my eyes onto Morey but couldn’t.
“You know why I helped get you a job?”
“You knew my dad,” I said. I’d heard the story a few times.
“Yeah, well, that’s true but that’s not why I did it.”
I finally stopped starring at the tattoo, waiting for the eyes to move again, and looked at Morey.
“There’s a little more to the story,” he said.
“Jesus, Morey, you’re not going to tell me you’re actually my father are you?”
“Shut up, Squid. Here’s the thing. You know how I think about things, right? You know how I think about this business?”
“You mean just say the lines?”
If I had ever met a true artist, it was Morey, and yet I had met few people with less patience for the process of an actor’s art. For Morey, art was first a decision and then work. Make your choice, and then do the work. He had no room for actors who thrashed about searching for the character or fretting over delivery of their lines, or directors who liked to can a ton of takes.
“Just say the line,” he would whisper as an actor dragged himself and the crew through some undefined process. “Make a choice, say the line, cut, print,”
“Yeah, Morey, I know what you think because you’re not shy about it.”
Morey stood up. “Well then Squid, the reason I helped you get a job here in la la land was because I saw it in your eyes, you were like me, down deep. I mean, I don’t always see it in how you do things but I have always seen it in your eyes and when it counts you do the right thing the right way. There is a time to leave the adolescent existential crap and pretending to be a slacker at the door and you always do, when it counts anyway.”
“So your advice for me regarding a situation you know nothing about is?”
Morey bent forward slightly and brought his hands together in prayer. “Just say the fucking lines. Make your choice and read the lines.”
He walked away to continue gathering the precious bits. Morey was something of a relic, a throwback to a time before his time, and his status as old school was losing its charm in the business. He was like an aging architect who still draws out plans by hand. Computer generated images had not eliminated too much of the set decorator’s art yet, but 3D printers wouldn’t be so kind and the number of directors willing to pay for minute levels of authenticity was shrinking. The precious bits were becoming too expensive. I knew I couldn’t fight it, though I figured I’d go out in a blaze of glory anyway. When Morey retired I would start up a prop house, maybe even name it “Precious Bits.”
The man with the tattoo was gone too. I walked around the driveway and the yard looking for him, to face my demon, but I couldn’t find him, although another tattoo did catch my eye. High on the arm of a sleeveless teamster was a tattoo of Tony the Tiger.
Despite my encounter with the creepy tattoo, I decided to walk back to my car rather than take the crew van. I was rewarded with the hint of an evening breeze, which could actually be considered wind as I turned a corner into gusts squeezing through the city canyons.
I knew I had not imagined the demon tattoo staring at me. I wanted to believe that the eyes had been looking forward the whole time and my own eyes were the ones playing tricks. When I tried on the disbelief I sounded like a character in a cheap horror movie trying to convince himself there was no such thing as monsters. Although I couldn’t say I had seen a monster exactly, I’d seen enough to know I couldn’t say they didn’t exist.
I also could not convince myself that Max mentioning my father had been arbitrary or something I had inserted into the dream myself. I dreamt about my father regularly, usually about finding him because maybe he somehow survived the crash of airline flight 7641 and had been suffering from amnesia. In my dreams I often found him in Reno, I suppose because the airplane had crashed in the Tahoe National Forrest after taking off from Reno. I knew, just like I knew the tattoo was somehow real, that Max really had mentioned my father and I wanted to know why, more than I wanted to make my wishes at this point.
On cue, a clear and unmistakable roar emerged from the wind, which had begun blowing hard enough to be suspicious, like the odd empty streets around me. I stopped and looked at my surroundings. No people. No cars outside those I kept catching in my peripheral vision as they passed through intersections several block away. The roar echoed from one alley and then another, leaping around me.
I should have taken Lakedema up on her invitation.
I didn’t feel panic, or even fear so much as something almost like relief, the relief you feel when the inevitable finally happens.
The wind was now strong enough that I could lean into it a little. I felt like I was leaning into more than the wind. I was leaning into whatever it was that was supposed to happen to me, and it wasn’t opening a prop house or finding my dad alive and without his memory in Reno. I was leaning into the inevitability that had haunted me all day and maybe longer.
“Lakedema,” I whispered, so softly in the whipping wind I couldn’t hear my own voice.
“I am here, John,” came the words from behind me. Before I could turn, the sky flashed with arc-welding brightness and thunder cracked so loud the sound of it sent me to my knees, covering my ears. “What does it mean when you see the lightning and hear the thunder at the same time?” I asked my father when he taught me to count seconds between the two. “It means,” he said, “it’s time to find another spot.”
As the thunder faded, it was replaced by the roar still bouncing off buildings and shaking the glass storefronts. Lakedema’s hand was on my shoulder as I stood and her touch was soothing. An alley across the street began to glow hot white as if captured lightning was trying to escape. Then Isaac’s silhouette in full giant tiger leap flew out of the alley, landing on the sidewalk in front of us. “Interesting,” his voice said in my head.
The alley continued to glow and started to rattle as if a train were coming. Isaac sat back on his haunches, seeming a little exasperated. I looked at Lakedema who was staring intently at the entrance to the alley. She was wearing a white pinpoint oxford shirt, untucked, and Levi’s, the same thing Morey had been wearing that day. The thought of Morey caused me to turn around and look back from where I had come, as if I would find him standing there a few blocks away so I could wave goodbye.
This thought was all Isaac needed. He came to my side.
“Take hold of the band Isaac wears around his neck,” said Lakedema.
As I came close to Isaac he began to purr. He pressed his head into my shoulder and I sensed he was saying thank you, do not fear, and hold on tight all at the same time. I grabbed his collar, which was an intricate leather weave.
“At least,” I said, “you didn’t ask me to grab his tail.”
Copyright © 2016 by Mike Ferguson