When my father and I were still on speaking terms he told me something I’ve never forgotten. Now that we don’t speak and he doesn’t have a chance to give me new advice, I return to the old phrases, roll them around in my mind, the only sentences I have now to remember his voice by.
“As soon as you try to make something last forever, you’ve already killed it,” he told me.
He didn’t elaborate further on that, but I knew why he’d said it without his having to explain. I’ve always been the life of the party, a social butterfly, but there was starting to be a desperation in it. If you see people at midnight, you eventually see them at dawn, and sometimes they tell you things you don’t ask to hear, steer you out of sleep to tell you their problems, and my roles as confidant and bon vivant were starting to conflict. Instead of drinking to have fun, I was drinking to forget the things other people told me when they were drinking. And my father sensed that I was running from something, trying to make the party last forever, and he was at least trying to show me a way around the wall before I ran into it headlong.
It’s the way of walls not to care whether you run into them or not. This one was no different. After a couple of nights in a row waking up on the beach in Santa Monica, no memory of how I got there, and a couple of times getting burned bailing people out of jail who skipped town and never looked back, I decided I’d straighten up, be the guy who left halfway through the party instead of being the last out the door. Let people tell me their problems while I was sober enough to tell them when I had to go. The only person this didn’t apply to was Armand Hammer. At first glance you’d think he’d be the first one I’d send on his way. A golden boy, rich, hard-drinking. A guy with a million ways to treat his problems. No need for someone like me. And yet I wanted to help him, was drawn to him. Plenty of rich guys drank to forget their failures. Hammer drank to forget his successes. He’d built up trust with me that I didn’t see him extend to too many people. At first, perhaps, it was my ego that drew me to listen to him, flatter myself that he told me things he didn’t tell anyone else. By the time my ego was satisfied, it was too late. I was drawn in, drawn to his mix of honesty and self-effacing humor. And then, eventually and yet too soon, it was too late for anyone to be drawn to him at all.
My family are all in real estate in southern California, which sounded a lot more exciting back when people were fighting for water rights and streetcars still deposited you at the ocean and departed in a whirl of sand. We’re Italian originally, which is probably what drew my grandfather to southern California. If he had to give up the sun and the Italian coast and ripe fruit on the branch, he might as well find sun and beaches and fruit in America and kid himself that he couldn’t tell the difference.
I never met my grandfather, but from the way my father talked about him and refused to tell me how certain family stories ended, I suspected I had inherited his stubborn streak and interest in unconventional careers. I never officially finished college, just took a class or two here and there, and my family objected a bit as a formality but never pushed too hard. They’d never been academic, and they were managing just fine. I’d been drafted to go overseas and fight in a war in countries I couldn’t even pronounce, but during basic training I injured my leg and was sent packing back to Los Angeles. When I got back I found that military life, life outside Los Angeles period, no longer had enough zest for me after the life and death considerations of the military. If I wasn’t physically able to lead that life, maybe I could pretend to, convince my mind for at least a few hours a day that I was engaged in something more worthwhile than selling a prefabricated ranch home to a returning GI. So I informed my family I was getting into the movie business. They knew there was really no grounds for them to criticize me, considering the haphazard way my parents had made a living before the real estate market took off, so they grumbled perfunctorily and made an agreement with me: if I hadn’t made it big in acting by age twenty-five, I’d come back to the family business. I was twenty-two. I agreed at once.
At the time the studios would find you an apartment, sometimes in a building they owned, and deduct the rent from the salary agreed on in your contract. This put you in the curious position of hoping they’d give you the smallest, cheapest space they had. When another contract player suggested we split a space together on Melrose, I was completely willing. It would save me from being robbed by the studio, and by splitting the space we could both save money even beyond that. As I was preparing to move in, one of his films found great popular success and he was moved onto one of the studio’s nicest properties at their expense. They also agreed to pay his half of the rent to me directly, and so I ended up alone in a two bedroom apartment near Paramount, paying forty a month for an apartment worth three times that. My only care in the world was worrying I’d get lonely in that big space with no one to talk to.
I worried about this right up until someone stopped me on the sidewalk one day.
“Which way to Van Nuys?” he pleaded, leaning against a car that looked like it had overheated ten degrees ago.
I pointed to the Hollywood Hills, where the sign for the Hollywoodland development that my family was helping to sell glistened in the afternoon sun. And after I told him, I realized this was my place now. I was no longer passing through. I had roots, and an orientation, and was the one people were now coming to for answers.
Thus as the honeysuckle began to give a languid fragrance to the canyons behind me, I went from being someone people talked at to people someone talked to .
This came in very handy when I began to learn in earnest how to work in the movies. I wanted to act, wanted to be in front of the camera, but I soon learned that with such a new art form I would also have to fill in other jobs while I wasn’t in a shot. I learned to crank film through the cameras, aim lights, even adjust costumes and makeup. People must have noticed I was at ease in California, had an air of permanence in a place where everyone seemed to be passing through. And I began to take pride in being able to do anything on the set. Instead of a person people talked at and never listened to, I became someone people asked hard questions of and paid close attention to. It wasn’t a role I minded at all.
The area of Los Angeles where I lived sounded incredible when described to anyone who did not live in Los Angeles. If I told strangers in other towns that I had a bungalow near the studio, they pictured gleaming marble surfaces and a chauffeured car to pick me up in the mornings. The reality was a tiny wood-frame house that had been rudely divided into four unequal parts, the second smallest of which belonged to me. It sat to the west of Paramount, at the mouth of Laurel Canyon, and at the quiet hours of the night when coyotes and strange rustling in the underbrush kept me awake, I felt like I was the last defense of civilization before the arid wilderness beyond.
Except now, with film money pouring into Los Angeles and cranes everywhere trying to make spaces people could live in, there wasn’t just arid wilderness beyond anymore. Earth-moving machinery had installed the Mulholland Highway earlier that year and mansions started to spring up after it like mushrooms after rain. Now they dotted the canyon at night like a socialite’s broken string of pearls. At the top of the small hill nearest to my tiny apartment, someone seemed to be reconstructing the palace of Versailles. So many machines came and went from the property for the first few months that I thought the highway itself was still being built. Then one day the silence, roaring in that way that only comes after days of sustained noise, returned and I went onto my back porch to look up at the completed work. It was a gaudy, rambling split-level ranch home with odd classical accents like out-of-place pillars and columns. At night, very expensive and delicate spotlights illuminated an outdoor pool. Palm trees lined the driveway, fully mature, showing the owner had money to buy them in the prime of their lives rather than wait for anything to mature around him.
For the first few weeks I just watched the houses on the hills glitter after dark, like a second layer of stars. The summer heat had just bared its teeth, setting everyone’s nerves on edge, when I drove up the canyon to have dinner with my second cousin once removed, Timothée Chalamet. He and a companion, Ansel Elgort, were living in a new mansion built straight out of a catalog and moved into without seeing it first. Timothée was my second cousin once removed. I’d known Ansel in college and knew that he and Timmy traveled and lived together, using the excuse that since Ansel was a well-known bandleader he needed an assistant. Anyone who knew the two of them well knew this was a cover story and their true relationship was much closer. I’d seen it myself when I’d stayed with them in New Orleans for a couple of nights on a cross-country trip. Back then, I thought I’d never seen anyone happier.
Ansel had always been successful at whatever he attempted to do. In college, he had been athletic, popular, down-to-earth but only as far as it endeared him to people higher up the ladder than he was. After graduating he casually announced that instead of going into the bond market he was going to “learn music” and then shocked everyone by doing just that. He learned the ins and outs of so many instruments that he was leading his own band by the age of twenty-five. He took Timmy everywhere with him: Paris, Budapest, Milan, New York. At night I would look at my threadbare carpeting and suitcase without a single luggage label on it and wonder how one even began to dream of doing something like that.
I hadn’t had a chance yet to ask Timmy what brought them to Los Angeles. I knew he loved New York best out of all the places they’d visited, had bugged Ansel for years to buy a little apartment there for them to settle into, but the traveling continued until they washed up here like something unidentified on a beach that couldn’t even tell you what part of the world it belonged in. Timmy had told me on the phone that they were staying in Los Angeles for the long term, but I knew that Ansel’s hunger would never change, never die out, and as long as it existed it would doom the two of them to roam the world following it.
The night was heavy, humid, and I thought later that I had noticed a foreboding note in the air. But of course I would think that, later. I drove over at the appointed time and pulled up in front of the perfectly respectable villa, styled like every building in Italy you’ve already forgotten. Their property ran down a hillside of scrub into the canyon itself, and from the back porch you could see all the way past the valley into downtown, where lights from the newest office buildings were fighting to be seen. There was a porch covered in ivy, also clearly bought rather than grown as the mansion hadn’t been there long enough even for the front yard to be covered over with grass. Ansel was standing on the porch, referring to some sheet music in his hand and waving an invisible baton.
He hadn’t changed a bit. He was thirty now, but he’d always looked twenty-five, and he was finally at an age where that was an advantage. His wavy brown hair was swept back with pomade and he wore expensive yet casual clothes, a matching linen shirt and pants in a cream color that advertised his ability to pay exorbitant cleaning bills. His smiles never seemed to reach his eyes, except on rare occasions that were usually tinged with cruelty. Ansel was always someone whom I hoped would look right through me. I feared his anger but wouldn’t be able to pretend I craved his praise, if he deigned to give it. Careless boredom: that was what I hoped to arouse in him.
When he spoke there was music in it, and it added to his persuasive abilities. People usually didn’t notice, and if they noticed they didn’t mind, but there were a few who had noticed and felt taken advantage of, and kept closer eyes on Ansel after that. I can’t say I blamed them.
Ansel’s casual privilege caused some people to dislike him and others to long for his company in hopes that it might rub off on them. I had played football briefly while Ansel was quarterback and I think he respected me in the manner of people who try to avoid having a history. He respected me for never crossing his many arbitrary boundaries, even over the course of many years, and that certainly wasn’t something I wanted to throw away.
I closed my car door and approached the porch. Ansel smiled widely at me, but as usual it didn’t touch his eyes.
“You wouldn’t believe the steal we got on the house,” he was saying.
I looked at the house, and believed it was a steal. It was cheaply manufactured but made to appear luxurious. I saw moldings that wouldn’t last twenty years and cheap materials that were going to mold or mildew in the heat within ten summers.
“The land’s where the value really is,” he said, and then seemed to realize how that sounded to someone whose family sold houses. “Anyway, come on in. Let’s drink something on ice.”
The foyer was small and tasteful. Every available surface was covered in terracotta. A small wrought-iron table displayed some abstract objet d’art of highly polished brass. Ansel strode past it all, leading me to the back of the house and a room with a patio that overlooked an expensively maintained garden of non-native plants. The room also had a terracotta floor, tiled in the same pattern as the patio, and a huge door to the patio stood open to the wind. Sand and grit from outside found their way in, giving the room the air of a liminal space, a space where distinctions like indoors and out, or decision and regret, bled into each other with no sense of consequences.
In the corner of the room furthest from the open window stood a black grand piano, showing signs of use in the way of ridiculously expensive objects owned by the mind-bogglingly wealthy. Beside it was a fainting couch covered in emerald green satin. A young woman sat upon it, and a young man was at the piano bench. He played absentmindedly, simply, but with a skill that promised thrilling talent when his mind was fully devoted to the task. The young woman had a sketchbook open on her lap and a pencil flew across the page as she stared out the patio door into the canyon.
I did not know her yet, but I instantly wanted to. Her gaze was fierce, intense, as she feathered her pencil against the sketch paper in an effort to recreate a shrub that sat beyond the patio. I imagined what it would be like to have that gaze fixed upon you for any reason and was instantly enthralled and terrified at the idea. I felt as if I needed her permission to be there although I knew that the house clearly belonged to Ansel and Timothée.
The young man at the piano was, of course, Timothée. He trailed his fingers along the piano keys, still somehow managing to pick out a semblance of a melody when a lesser player would have created chaos, and smiled lopsidedly at me before rising from the piano bench.
“Oh, no way! You made it!” he exclaimed, beaming at me, and I suddenly remembered that his smile had a way of erasing anything else in the room. There were people who weren’t fond of that either, people who implied he used to to blind its subjects to what might be going on in the shadows. I didn’t know enough yet to know if I blamed those people or not. Timmy murmured under his breath that the girl with the sketchpad was named Ronan. He giggled breathlessly at nothing and it combined with his smile to make me even less sure of what I’d come there for. Whether or not he was using these things to banish shadows, I was grateful for the sun while it lasted.
Miss Ronan met my eye, seeming to notice for the first time that I was in the room, and returned to her sketching. I wondered if it was my imagination or if she began to draw with more vigor after meeting my gaze. When I moved toward her as if to glance at what she was sketching, she shifted as if to capture a different angle on the foliage outside. Her new position obscured her sketchbook from my eyes, clearly not by accident.
Timmy had crossed the room to enfold me in a hug, all angular limbs dusted with an inviting softness. It made you want to trust him until the moment the words of your secret had left your mouth. Then it started to seem like you might turn that softness sideways and find a blade lurking. When I pulled away I could finally see Timmy’s beaming face up close, that smile that everyone always mistook for the sun at first. Some people made that mistake forever. A sun never cares what it shines on, though, and the intent behind Timmy’s beams of happiness meant they were forever reflected, never generated within. You had to get close to him, very close, to see that, and it was only by the accident of family that I ever saw it. Otherwise I’d be like everyone else, standing at a distance from him and believing it was him instead of my own heart that kept me warm.
I told Timmy I had been in New Orleans recently to look at some properties for my family and that he was still remembered fondly by many of the musicians and bartenders serving up my inevitable evening entertainments.
“No, not for me? Are you sure it’s me they’re remembering?” He clapped me on the shoulder in a joking way, but there was desperation instead of mirth behind it.
“They dimmed the lights on Bourbon Street for a full minute when I told them you were staying out here forever. There was a silent parade through the city at midnight.”
“Ansel! Tomorrow! We must go back, there’s nothing like those buildings, having cocktails on those wrought-iron porches!” He pivoted suddenly to say, “oh, and we must show you the baby!”
“He’s sleeping. Have we ever--we’ve had him three years now, have you even seen him?”
“I’m afraid not. Been dying to.”
“Yes, you have to! Right away--”
Ansel loomed behind me suddenly. I realized I had forgotten how tall he was.
“What’s your line of work, NIck?”
“I’m in the pictures.”
“You could do better,” he said, patronizing.
His tone made me resolve never to take his side in an argument again.
“You should see my contract,” I replied airily. “Once they recognize talent, they know how to treat you.”
“Well, I’ll have to check out one of your pictures at the Egyptian sometime,” Ansel tossed off, but his eyes locked on Timothée as he said, “assuming we don’t leave Los Angeles.’’
In response to that Miss Ronan suddenly murmured: “And why would you do a thing like that?” The presence of her voice alone surprised me, as well as the way we all heard it, instantly, despite it being barely louder than a whisper. Her ability to command attention was apparently total and unending, no matter what else was going on in the room. She glanced up from the sketchbook and registered a mild but unaffected surprise that everyone in the room was now looking at her. She laid the sketchbook aside while meeting each of our eyes in turn, unfolded her bare feet from under her, and joined us in the center of the room.
“My wrists are sore, that’s quite enough sketching for today,” she complained. “Any longer and I’d run out of details.”
“It’s not my fault,” Timmy replied, “I asked you hours ago to get out of this canyon and go to Hollywood with me.”
“No, thank you,” said Miss Ronan to a servant who had appeared silently from somewhere with a tray of champagne flutes. “I’ve got a match later this evening.”
Ansel chuckled and looked fondly at Miss Ronan.
“Amazing!” he murmured, taking a glass in each hand to prevent any champagne going to waste. “The way you keep up this lifestyle of yours, it’s impressive.”
Immediately I wondered what “lifestyle” Ansel referred to and considered Miss Ronan for a long instant to see if I could work it out. Looking at her for a long instant was not unpleasant. She was tall, imposing, blonde, with icy eyes that somehow warmed when they caught on a person, and made you feel that she might be intimidating to everyone except you. She was regarding me as well, and I realized she had been for the whole of the long instant that I’d been analyzing her. The prospect of being analyzed by her was, also, not unpleasant. I realized she looked familiar.
“You live in Hollywood. By the studios.” Her tone was curious yet vaguely dismissive of Hollywood as a place and an idea. “I know someone who lives near you. In the canyon.”
“I’ve just moved there. I don’t know anyone yet.”
“You must know Mr. Hammer.”
“Hammer?” asked Timmy. I hadn’t even realized he was listening. “Not Armand?”
At that moment dinner was announced, and I was relieved not to have to explain the earth-moving machinery and constant noise that confirmed Mr. Hammer as my neighbor. Ansel slung an arm casually around my shoulder and guided me with a lightness of step learned from sweeping patrons off their feet during his band’s interludes.
Dinner was served on the patio overlooking the canyon. Miss Ronan and Timmy led the way, heads together, giggling. The table had been set with candles that flickered in the hot breeze off the canyon and reproduced on the table the tableau of tiny lights we could see in the city beyond.
“Really? Candles?” Timmy asked disdainfully. He reached two slender fingers out and snuffed each one with a single gesture. “It’s a hundred degrees outside and it will be the longest day of the year soon.” He looked hopefully at Ansel, then at Miss Ronan when he didn’t seem to find the agreement he sought. “We should all do something special for the longest day of the year!”
“Yes, let’s. Let’s make plans,” Miss Ronan said absently. She had already chosen a chair and was sitting down, staring over the canyon, attention clearly elsewhere.
“Plans! Where should we start?” Timmy turned to me, linked his arm through mine conspiratorially. “You’re always making plans, Nick. Where do they start?”
I had opened my mouth to answer when my eye was caught by a dark spot on Timmy’s neck, barely visible in the dusk now that he had extinguished the candles. He followed my gaze and realized what it meant that I was seeing what I was seeing.
“I’m so clumsy,” he joked, punching me lightly on the shoulder.
He rubbed the spot with one hand, only making us more certain of what we’d seen.
“Sometimes I just fall into things, sometimes it’s because I’m pushed, but that’s what happens when you’re with someone who doesn’t like things in his way, eh--” Timmy turned to Ansel, made a goofy expression, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“I never push,” Ansel said sullenly. “Don’t say it that way.”
“Pushed,” Timmy insisted, his face neutral now that he knew his joke had failed.
Sometimes he and Miss Ronan would finish each other’s sentences during dinner, and sometimes their eyes met over the pasta course and it seemed like an entire conversation would take place that Ansel and I couldn’t hear. It felt as though Timmy and Miss Ronan were the hosts who had invited Ansel and I for dinner. They seemed to look at each other as the only permanent things in peripatetic lives. Their open affection and casual banter was refreshing after a hundred real estate dinners where everyone present viewed the event as a transaction and yet no one would ever feel the freedom to say so.
“Timmy, you make me feel like a Philistine,” I giggled to him after we’d opened a second bottle of wine. “Always with the perfect piano playing and artists everywhere. Aren’t you interested in anything terrible or boring?”
When I said it I was thinking rather drunkenly of the film work my less-talented actor friends were doing, or perhaps fiction in magazines that paid by the word. I was not expecting it to be taken up by Ansel.
“Terrible things! Look at nationalism, why don’t you? We’ve just gotten out of one world war. If we’re not careful all this nonsense in Europe will cause another.” Ansel sat forward violently and the carefree atmosphere of the dinner was shattered.
“I--I agree, to the extent I know anything about it,” I responded, which was true but was also said to placate him, get him to change the subject.
“Ansel is a great reader,” Timmy said dreamily, without a shred of longing for a similar pastime. “He’s always doing it while I play the piano, sometimes I play too loudly, but we work that out, don’t we?” He fluttered his eyelashes a bit at Ansel but Ansel was too worked up now to pay attention to anything else.
“I tell you, we’ve got to do something about debt loads and make those economies viable again or people will start listening to any idiot who tells them he can fix the economy!”
“It’s all terribly complicated,” Timmy murmured under his breath, sipping again from his wine glass.
“In the United Kingdom,” Miss Ronan started, and the Irish accent I’d heard in her words earlier grew more pronounced. Ansel interrupted a final time.
“We’ve just--we’ve got to do something, we in the parts of the world that have the means, or it’s going to go very badly.”
I was struck very nearly with pity for him, for whom everything had always fallen into place, for whom plans just worked out, and who seemed to have his shoulder pressed against something there wasn’t a person or group of people in the world capable of stopping. At that moment the butler disappeared to answer a phone call that we could all hear ringing dimly within.
“Did we tell you about the butler’s eyes?” Timmy asked, his own eyes alight with a mischievous twinkle.
“It’s the only thing that brought me here today,” I joked conspiratorially.
“He used to be a tailor, very fine stitching and embroidery all day long. It ruined his eyes though. He had to turn to being a butler.”
“Tragic,” Miss Ronan interjected.
“Yes, tragic. And he still mixes up wine labels from time to time. But we can’t bear to tell him.”
Timmy sighed then, furrowed his delicate brow as if it were the saddest thing on earth, and his eyes drifted toward the canyon and downtown. Then his face slowly became neutral again, one breath at a time. It was like watching lights go out one by one down a cul-de-sac as each household went to bed for the night.
The butler returned and whispered into Ansel’s ear. A sinister frown swept across Ansel’s handsome features, and he pushed his chair back from the table and strode inside. At this, Timmy seemed to curl into himself, become more subservient, more nervous. His eyes landed on me as if I were some sort of solution and his voice warmed again. On the cul-de-sac within his eyes, a few lights slowly flickered back on.
“Nick, you must come by more often. You’re just such a--you’re a peach. You’re just a peach and I won’t hear otherwise.” He turned to Miss Ronan. “Isn’t he a peach?”
I have never been compared to a peach in my life before or since this moment. But I could feel the effort coming from him, to turn the situation to sunshine through sheer force of will. There was something beneath the words, though, some desperation I felt I could have found the source of if only I’d been on the right frequency. Before I could pursue it, though, he threw his napkin down and followed Ansel into the house.
Miss Ronan and I glanced at each other in the polite way of people who barely know each other and are now forced to speak. I opened my mouth to ask about the weather when her glance turned suspicious and she held a finger to her lips. Voices had arisen within and she was shamelessly attempting to listen. The murmur of voices rose and fell several times, starting to sound almost musical, but never comprising any sounds I could identify, and then it died away completely.
“I live near this Mr. Hammer you mentioned--” I began.
“Shhh. I want to know what they’re saying.”
“Is it important?” I asked. Only part of my innocence was an act. I genuinely had no idea.
“You don’t know?” Miss Ronan’s surprise was genuine. “I assumed everyone who came ‘round here knew.”
“I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Ansel has a woman in the Valley.”
“A woman?” I still wasn’t making the connection.
Miss Ronan nodded.
“It’s rude to phone his home at all but especially at dinner she might leave him in peace. Don’t you think?”
Just as the pieces lined up for me and I realized what she meant, there was a whirl of cream linen and pearl buttons, and Ansel and Timmy returned to the table.
“Sorry, guys, it was just a misunderstanding!” Timmy clapped me on the shoulder while exclaiming this with false bravado.
He had never clapped me on the shoulder before that day.
He sat down and glanced at me and Miss Ronan, giving us the once-over. “I thought I heard a turtledove outside. Must have come over from Japan on a freighter. Poor thing doesn’t know it’s no longer in its right place in the world. Isn’t that cute, Ansel?”
“Terribly,” Ansel muttered impatiently. Then to me alone he whispered, “I’d love to show you the basement after dinner. Got a pool table down there, and a room for practicing my music.”
Indoors, the telephone rang again. The pool table was forgotten in the heat of the glare that Timmy sent to Ansel. The next few minutes were a blur of images. The candles were re-lit for some reason. I stared at them to avoid meeting anyone’s gaze. Miss Ronan’s steely exterior was masking an artist’s sensitivity, and I was sure she was noticing the unspoken presence that hovered over the table like a ghost. Rather than be intrigued, as a more truly literary man than myself might have been, my only instinct was to flee.
Ansel did not bring up the basement tour again. He strolled with Miss Ronan back into the interior of the house. I followed Timmy around a dizzying array of verandas and columns to the front of the house where I had entered. Besides the front door was a wicker loveseat, generously upholstered. Timmy flopped onto it gracelessly and I gingerly took the seat beside him.
He ran a hand nervously through his hair, wrapping one curl around his finger and springing it loose as if to test whether the physical reactions he was used to in the world still occurred. I asked about their child, trying to be polite, although I should have known better. The boy had been fathered by Ansel, and the mother was a New Orleans chorus girl whose name I never knew. Timmy and Ansel had taken the child on under the pretense that it belonged to a relative who had died in childbirth, but that didn’t keep a few important eyebrows from being raised about it nonetheless.
“Nick, we’re cousins, but we’ve never been as close as I’d like,” Timmy said, not in answer to anything I’d asked, but out of the blue as if he’d been saving it for that moment.
“I agree. It will be nice to be here in the city with you. Perhaps we’ll see more of each other.”
“I can’t lie to you, Nick, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve tried not to let things make me cynical but it’s getting harder.”
I let the sentence hang there for a moment, thinking he might build on it, but when he didn’t I asked again I returned to the topic of the child. “He must be getting so big now?” It wasn’t really a question, but I hoped it might prompt Timmy to talk.
“The first time I was alone with the boy, we’d had him a few days and Ansel went out to pick up cigarettes. And I just held him and looked at him and could see what he was going to have ahead of him in life, being around people like us. And I just bent to him and whispered ‘cunning saint’. It was like a spell I tried to cast, to make him into that. Because that’s the best thing in the world a man can be. You have to be good, so good, but you can never let anyone know. Or they’ll tear it out of you so fast you barely have a chance to know it was there.” His eyes almost glowed in the twilight with the same passion that was in his voice. He huffed out a cynical laugh. “I wish--there’s so much I wish I hadn’t seen.”
As soon as he stopped speaking, I stopped believing him. I’d known Timmy too long to think he’d ever wish to unsee something. He was and always had been a conduit for experience, and if he stopped being that he’d stop being Timmy altogether. And he confirmed my suspicion when he looked up quizzically, but as if he was quizzing himself, making sure he made the desired impression for the desired amount of time, and then gave a satisfied smirk when he seemed to find the answer he wanted.
Inside, Ansel and MIss Ronan san in a room made of spun sunlight.
They were in the library off the foyer, with giant floor-to-ceiling windows capturing the fading Los Angeles dusk. The bookshelves and desk were all highly polished blonde wood. Ansel and Miss Ronan were at either end of a goldenrod silk couch. She was reading aloud from the morning newspaper in her lilting Irish accent. A small lamp in the corner with a red and yellow cut glass shade was casting a gentle glow over her shoulder.
She looked up to acknowledge our entrance and her glance alone was enough to make us creep in silently so as not to disturb them.
“And those are all the film reviews,” she pronounced, extending one long leg from beneath her and rotating her ankle.
“I’ve got to get to that practice match,” she commented, consulting a diamond-flecked watch on her slender wrist.
“Saoirse’s playing a light tennis match tonight. I don’t know where she finds the energy,” Timmy explained.
“Oh--you’re Saoirse Ronan .”
That was where I had seen her before. She was a fairly well-known tennis player and I had read some articles on her up-and-coming career. There had been other articles, too, the specifics of which I had forgotten now, but which cast some air of retroactive intrigue over her in my mind.
“Good night, Mr. Delli Santi. See you again soon.”
“Very soon! As soon as possible,” Timmy enthused. “Come around often, Nick, and I’ll make sure you two are left alone in the music room, book double dates and forget to show up, that sort of thing--”
“Good night, Pony,” Miss Ronan called from the foyer. “You know, I can still hear you.”
“Her family shouldn’t let her roam the whole country alone, you know,” Ansel muttered after she’d gone.
“And why not?” Timmy asked coldly. “Her family is three people on a windswept corner of the Irish coast. And Nick will look after her on the weekends this summer, won’t you Nick? You’re always such a good influence.”
Ansel and Timmy stared at each other for a moment. Some competition I was not party to passed between them through glances.
“Did you meet her in Los Angeles?” I asked, to break the tension.
“In New York. My family made her acquaintance there and took her in a bit, I guess you could say, when she was in the country alone,” Timmy replied.
“What were you talking about on the porch out there?” Ansel asked suddenly.
“Politics,” Timmy said airily, the lie rolling off his tongue with alarming ease.
“Don’t believe everything you hear,” Ansel murmured, glancing down so that it was hard to say which of us he was addressing.
I said jokingly that I, at least, hadn’t heard anything, and stood to head home. Both of them came to the door and stood framed in it, like a competent yet uninteresting family photo. I was headed to my car when Timmy cried, “Wait! I almost forgot! This is important. We hear you were engaged?”
“Ridiculous. Do I look like I can afford a wedding?”
“But we heard it in three cities, Nick, at the after-parties of Ansel’s concerts. It must be true.”
I knew what he was referring to but I was nowhere near engaged. It was part of the reason the peripatetic, slightly disreputable world of film had appealed to me. It had been a way to get away from the gossip that kept swirling in my social circles and reappearing just when I thought it had been quashed for good. I hadn’t planned to stop seeing Marta because of rumors, but when it became clear she was expecting to rumor me into a marriage my choice had been clear.
Their interest made them seem a bit more approachable, in an unexpected way, but as I drove down the winding canyon road I was still confused. It seemed that the best thing for Timmy was to cut his losses, let Ansel raise the child and play his music and rattle around an empty canyonside mansion, but that didn’t look like a possibility that had crossed Timmy’s mind. Ansel, for his part, seemed to be trying on political engagement like it was one of his stage suits. Clearly some sort of unhappiness was driving his sudden interest in the life of the mind.
The signs of deepening summer in Los Angeles were everywhere as I exited the canyon. Families were cooking outdoors in their yards, sending up a scent of harmless charcoal and smoke that blended with a background smell of a wildfire several miles away. When I reached my house I parked and then strolled the sidewalk, back to the mouth of the canyon, where I could just see the edge of the spot laid bare by all the heavy machinery and workmen of the past weeks. The wind rustled through the trees and made the leaves hum like instruments being tuned. When I turned my head to look up at them I realized I was not alone. A figure stood on the lawn of the new mansion, regarding the stars, hands in his pockets and head thrown back in an attitude of nothing so much as hope . Something told me he had to be the owner of the house, making himself comfortable in this new corner of the universe his money had reserved for him.
I would call to him. Miss Ronan had mentioned him at dinner. I could bring up her name; no one who had once met her could have ever forgotten her. But I didn’t. He suddenly reached his arms out, swept them around him once parallel to the grass, then reached up with one hand into the beam of light that fell onto the lawn from his door. He seemed to try and grasp it, although he had to know how insubstantial it was. I looked off into the distance to see where the light might be falling, what he might want to hold, and when I looked back for Mr. Hammer he was gone.