Drive

Is that what happened to Frank Green? He got mad one day, blew his top and drove his car straight at the kid? Wheeler for one would never believe it of his old friend. Frank wasn’t an angry man, more likely to talk you to death with his troubles than run you over with them. A world-class kvetcher, a wry, humorous, lamenting Oy-sayer. Even when the two of them first met in rehab Frank never suffered from fits of uncontrollable rage like some of the others, Wheeler included. We called Frank Mr Hollywood because he was a screenwriter, executive producer and all-around dealmaker but he was no Sammy Glick. He had serious credentials (Yale; Phd from Stamford) beneath the showbiz gloss, so that what was underneath showed through in patches, like those pictures that turn out to be painted over an earlier, superior work. Not everybody bought Frank’s Hollywood bravado. There were murmurings he was a fake, that he wasn’t really clean and sober especially when it turned out he was taking painkillers for a bad back. He admitted doing coke and Percodan (the latter had been his drug of choice washed down with a brandy-champagne cocktail), but so did everyone in Hollywood in those years

Was the booze his problem or was it pills, and what about the cocaine? If he was a cokehead or a speed freak, then didn’t he belong with the dopers rather than sharing in the drunks club?

Wheeler smiled to himself as he remembered how fiercely such points were debated in recovery- as fiercely as medieval philosophers debated how many angels could fit on a pin. And to think all this happened 20 years ago, practically the Middle Ages where an individual life is concerned. Since then, Wheeler had left America and returned to live in Europe coming back to LA only for visits. For his part, Frank Green travelled to London most years. The two friends found opportunities to meet, as well as email and Skype, though communication dried up after the business with the car and the kid. Now Frank had had a heart attack and lay in Cedars Sinai. Angela, Frank’s wife, phoned Wheeler with the news and he took the next flight over.

It was New Year’s Eve. In the lobby of the small, boutique hotel young women with skirts around their midriffs and long hair cascading down their backs were complaining vociferously about something or other. “Hot, damaged American women” Frank used to call them Wheeler recalled with a smile. His room was a tiny, luxurious box with burnished woods, fine linen, soft lights in strange twisted shapes. But he had to squat on the bed, there was nowhere to sit; the lights were wrongly positioned and too dim to read by. He craved a shower but when he entered the “wet room”, by sidling sideway through a doorless slit and both the shower and the tap over the basin were controlled by dials like the dials on a high-security safe. Neither Wheeler nor the night manager he summoned could crack the combination to release more than a trickle of ice-cold water. The hotel was full: nothing could be done until morning. May death in all its myriad forms find the designers of hotel rooms, he thought examining his face in the mirror. He looked flat, drained from the flight, an old geezer’s mask stretched at both ends, the hair (at least he still had hair) receding from the forehead, the jowls sagging below his jaw. And in between? A mild, pale, inward, contemplative, watchful look, given to melancholy- one of the things he needed to be watchful about.

Outside was the suburban night hush of Beverly Hills and the dark thin trunks of palm trees, black lines against the blue-black sky. A police car passed with its electronic stutter. Wheeler tried and failed to fall asleep. After an 11-hour plane trip plus the 8-hour time difference he found himself wide awake at one in the morning local time. His long legs twisted underneath him, he rested his narrow torso on his arms: his knuckles pressed into the mattress kept him upright. Making the best of things, he ordered coffee from room service and used the time to think about his friend of two decades.

Frank was a very different physical type from Wheeler. Well-set, medium height, slightly round-shouldered. When standing still, he listed to the right due to an injury suffered playing pickup basketball (hence the painkillers). Many ex-drunks and addicts fling themselves into strenuous exercise, often with unfortunate results- students of the subject will recall The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia who died lifting weights while coming off heroin. It’s also true that Frank had grown up with the old Greenwich Village notion of hip as someone who dug Joyce and Sartre while listening to Miles and Monk, who could read Kierkegaard but still get down with the brothers, the lifestyle Norman Mailer tried to make into a full-blown philosophy with his The White Negro. But this was LA and Frank was in his fifties by then. He was crazy to think he could keep up with the superfit black hustlers who hang out at Venice Beach.

His overlarge head and strikingly handsome face with light blue eyes, dark brows and the thick black hair he pushed back over his head in waves. As a boy, out with his mother, he’d been the sort of child strangers stopped in the street to ooh and aah over. As an adult, he was a Jew who could pass for a WASP, the way Kirk Douglas did on screen. Frank’s looks plus his PhD brain aroused certain expectations for which, those same looks conveyed, he could not be held responsible. The last time they met, Wheeler noted Frank’s fabled looks were going. His face was eroded- ruined really. Deep pouches underscored his mildly exophthalmic eyes and two curved lines ran from the sides of his nose to his mouth like a wishbone. On good days he looked like a chip off the old block, the block being Mount Rushmore. On a bad day, he looked like Dracula.

Frank’s grandparents had been refugees from the pogroms in Russia and in Poland respectively. “Green” was an American immigration officer’s substitute for Grotowski. Nor was “Frank” his real name either. His father, the owner of a limousine service in New York, had named his son Fabrice after one of his best clients, Fabrice de Motherlant, a Texas oilman. Fabrice Grotowski? Frank Green? Growing up with two false names a man might need a few pills to get by, in Wheeler’s opinion.

Following his spell in rehab, Frank tried to resume his position in the movie hierarchy but he found doors that had always been open were closed against him. His timing was off. Hollywood was going through one of its moral purges (Wheeler here applied to Hollywood what a French historian once said of Britain- “nothing is more ridiculous than the British public in one of their periodic fits of morality”). An accident on a famous director’s set had killed two extras, and, though nothing was ever proved, there were rumours that everyone involved was high at the time. Congress threatened hearings into drug use in the movie business. Studio chiefs gave speeches proclaiming zero tolerance. These panjandrums were users themselves, of course, but that didn’t matter. Only some scapegoats were required. A few grips, known to be dealing flagrantly, got fired off TV shows. A handful of mid-level executives important enough to point to, but not famous or successful enough to be untouchable, were dispatched into exile. Frank was one of the unlucky ones. After three months looking for work, Wheeler asked him,

“Any joy?”

“X”, Frank named a female TV star, “is starting her own production company. We’re talking about me running it for her.”

“Your people are talking to her people.”

“No. We’re in touch directly man to man, or rather man to lesbian.”

He sounded glum. In Hollywood only a handful of top names- the Tom Cruises, the Spielbergs, the Jerry Bruckheimers-negotiated their contracts directly. Everyone else had agents, managers, lawyers operating on their behalf. For Frank to be running his own career meant he no longer had a career to run. This was the kind of information he had relayed to Wheeler in rehab in between discussing their spiritual paths and relationships to a higher power.

Sure enough, a few weeks later the deal fell through.

“Officially the word is I’m too much of a heavy-hitter, too experienced, too powerful a piece of manpower. She wouldn’t be able to hold her own against me.”

“I see. A form of being overqualified for the job. And unofficially?”

“Unofficially, she hired her girlfriend.”

Wheeler encouraged his friend. “Someone in your position, with your contacts and your track record is bound to get something sooner or later,” I was trying to be supportive but I also believed this to be true.

“In the meantime I’ve got to get it up every day to do the business,” Frank said.

“It’s hard.”

“I used to have the balls for anything when I was younger. Steel cojones. But since I gave up drinking and drugging, it’s like I can hardly drag myself out of bed.”

“ One thought one was a certain person and then one finds one is not that person.”

“Now I know how my old man felt when they made him give up driving.”

Wheeler had heard this story before. No one could be Frank’s friend without becoming privy to large chunks of Green-Grotowski family history. At 93, his pork pie hat with its jaunty red-and-purple band jammed low on his shrunken head, Green senior drove his Cadillac around his Florida retirement town. The Cadillac was as big as a boat. Green senior sat so low on the bench seat it looked as if his hat was driving the car. Other drivers, drawing abreast of him at traffic lights, were startled when they glanced across and even more startled when this mild-looking senior citizen snarled, “prick!” or “schmuck” at them. After a lifetime spent schmoozing his clients, Green snr. had a lot of repressed rage stored up Now he’d retired, he had no inhibitions about expressing it. Inevitably, the day came that he lost control of the Caddy, mounted the sidewalk and drove straight through the plate glass window of Fulton’s Bedding Store (‘Get Ready for The Big Sleep with Fulton’s’), in the process running over and breaking multiple bones in the foot of a Cuban-American widow, also elderly, on her way to supplement her Social Security check by cleaning other people’s apartments.

Even after the accident, Frank’s father fought to keep on driving. As the eldest son, Frank took it on himself to call the police: they were the only ones who could make Green senior surrender his keys and his license.

“How did the cops feel about it?” Wheeler asked him. “Something different for them.”

“Oh, they’re used to it in Florida,” Frank said. “They weren’t fazed. One of them told me he was grateful the old man gave up before they were forced to draw their guns.”

“It must have been a weird scene. Did your father blame you?”

Frank shrugged. “What else is new? He blames me for everything anyway.”

They were having dinner at Frank’s house while his wife was out for the evening. Angela wasn’t keen on her husband’s new sober friends. To her, having one alcoholic/addict around the place in the shape of her husband was already one too many.

Wheeler watched while Frank slapped two steaks on the griddle and steamed some Basmati rice. Deftly, Frank ground twists of pepper over the smoking, sizzling meat, drained the rice, then flipped and then plated the steaks on top of it. An expansive, expressive sort whose energies often overflowed his physical boundaries- he touched, squeezed, hugged and kissed enthusiastically, men and women alike- his movements in a kitchen were neat, precise, accomplished, professional. He had learned to cook by working an after-school job in a Manhattan restaurant where his father provided limo service. The job was Frank’s own choice- and this in the years before it became acceptable for American men to be interested in food or to know how to cook it.

“You’re wasted in Hollywood,” Wheeler said appreciatively as they ate the results.

“That’s what a lot of people seem to think,” Frank said. He was trying to stay cheerful. But the pouches under his eyes were dark smudges. “I was doing great when I was a drunk. Never better. I get sober and my career goes straight down the toilet. How about those jokes?”

“It doesn’t seem fair.”

“Also, I don’t know about you but whatever happened to flirting, that spark between men and women that oils the wheels and spices up the day? “

“I don’t know. We got old maybe.”

“I’ve always operated that way but now-.”

The kink in the thick hair and the WASP good looks with a darker, unsafe edge, again like Kirk Douglas, but the danger was missing. Frank looked lugubrious, hangdog.

Here a fresh thought occurred to Wheeler. Frank’s incident with his car and the kid resembled the senior Green’s accident in Florida. A family resemblance one might say. His father had winged a fellow citizen while Frank Green, teaching filmmaking at a private college in LA, was supposed to have driven deliberately at one of his students. He hadn’t touched them kid, just scared him, but it was enough to have Frank fired for professional misconduct. Frank didn’t like to talk about that night, though he claimed to Wheeler he had always been in full control. There was never any danger to the kid. The whole thing was a plot by the school to get rid of him. Wakeful in his five-star cell, Walker now pondered the pros and cons of this. Relations between fathers and sons are complicated, as we know, and the relationship of the Greens senior and junior was especially fraught. If Frank’s foot slipped on the gas pedal that night, was it a Freudian slip?

Frank claimed to have forgiven his father for his childhood traumas but Wheeler reckoned there was a lot to forgive. Old man Green worked long hours at his business. Afterwards, he played poker with cronies or hung out in nightclubs. “He only came home to beat the shit out of us” Frank told Wheeler, “us” meaning Frank and his older brother Elijah. As the youngest and prettiest brother, Frank took the brunt of the beatings. “Elijah couldn’t protect me. The old man had biceps like boulders and a neck like a tree trunk. Down below he was not so impressive. His body tapered off into a V shape. His legs were matchsticks.” During the war, Green senior had joined the Navy. Postcards and occasional letters arrived from him ostensibly on active service in the Pacific. Only towards the end of hostilities did it emerge that he’d spent his time at Brooklyn Navy Yard and was living a couple of miles away in Fort Greene with a mistress, a nightclub singer named Helen. “Mother put on her coat and hat and took the D train to Atlantic Avenue and brought him back. He couldn’t refuse her. Her name was on the papers for the scrap metal business he ran in those days. She could have wiped him out.”

Years later, after Frank produced his first film, his father fell seriously ill with peritonitis. For a time, the doctors feared he wouldn’t pull through. Frank pressured the film company, pushed for an early release, clipped advance reviews from Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, and brought them to the hospital to show his old man. Pop, tubes in his arms, sweat on his bald pate, a plastic hospital bracelet enclosing the black hairs on his wrist, only glanced at them and pushed them aside. He beckoned to Frank to lean close. “You may have made a movie,” he croaked. “But you’re still a schmuck.”

So much womanising, domestic violence, melodrama, self-indulgence of all sorts. Also such charm and such crude energies, often misdirected, all of them released, encouraged into their fullest expression in the New World. Speaking about his parents Frank mentioned Freud along with other historical and philosophical factors. In America, the Jewish genius for memory and blood-ties became the “family tragedy” of psychoanalysis. Frank said Freud, who hated America, calling it a “giant mistake”, nevertheless had his greatest success here. American optimism faced off against European nihilism in the postwar era and won a clear victory. On his father’s affair with Helen, Frank said that the US had not only welcomed the poor and huddled refugees but its abundance made even their fantasies and excesses come true. A secret second life at Brooklyn Navy Yard with a nightclub singer was the emotional (sexual) equivalent of the cocktails and beefsteaks, the Madras jackets, the V8 engines, the autographed golf clubs and the color televisions with their latticework cabinets and screens on which the pigments bled like poster paints.

Resuming his tour d’horizon of his friend’s life, Wheeler now considered another Green relative (was he preparing to deliver Frank’s eulogy? According to Angela, things might well be that bad). Frank’s father wasn’t the only male influence when Frank was growing up. . His cousin Herschel Schneider was also an important figure. Where Green senior distrusted everyone and wanted nothing to do with the wider world- government, the IRS, the banks, institutions of all kinds were all to be avoided if possible or otherwise feared and outsmarted- Herschel was outgoing, political, and activist in his interests. He had Jewish New York’s commitment to social progress in an acute form, like an illness. Hershey’s long-suffering wife Rose said that if you opened up her husband you would find engraved on his heart not her name or his children’s names but the word “Reform”. A shambling bearlike man with a protruding stomach, in winter Herschel wrapped himself in a long belted raincoat, down near his ankles and with the collar turned up like a spy or a movie private eye. In summer, he wore a straw fedora and garishly coloured shirts over sagging shorts, thick hiking socks and sandals. He walked at great speed, the tails of the shirts lifting over his pinkish-white sea creature’s belly covered in long black hairs.

Herschel worked for a charity that brought over refugees from the DP camps in Europe When Frank was 9 years old, his cousin took him down to the West Side piers where the liners docked. Buses waited to transport the new immigrants to a reception center in the Bronx once Herschel checked off their names on his clipboard. The spidery, covered, articulated gangway, like an adult version of Frank’s erector set, the ship’s sides as sheer as a cliff, the cacophonous noise and bustle of the wharves, the chill wind blowing in off the Hudson- all were new to Frank. As the refugees filed down the metal bridge, one man began shouting, pushing and shoving his way to the front of the line. “He demanded to see the person in charge. When Hershey said that was him, the man insisted he deal with “us” first before everyone else. By “us” he meant the German Jews like himself- the others were from Hungary or Poland or wherever. Herschel couldn’t believe it. After all that had happened, these guys still thought they were German. They still thought that made them special.” (Wheeler’s take on this- why should the Jews be any different? By 1947, within two years of being tortured in Gestapo dens, the French were torturing Algerians in their turn “We are doing, in these cases, just what we condemned the Germans for doing,” Camus lectured his countrymen at the time).

That finished Cousin Herschel with the DPs- and with Europe as a whole. He decided the real work that needed to be done was here at home in America. Looking around for an underprivileged group to champion, he had no problem making his choice. These were the years when Jews and blacks became allies in the early Civil Rights movement. Herschel began disappearing on mysterious errands to the South. By the time of the famous marches and sit-ins, he was a senior trainer in the Movement, teaching non-violent techniques to the flood of volunteers. He advised Martin Luther King and helped to set up SNCC. He was a friend of Bayard Rustin whom he admired for saying “never mind Black Studies. Let them learn maths and english.” But at the moment of triumph the blacks took up Black Power and turned against their white allies. Once again rejected by those he sought to save, Herschel decided it was time for the Jews to save themselves. He became a Zionist, traded his straw hat, the floral shirts and the shorts for a straggling beard, a short-sleeved white shirt buttoned to the neck and shapeless black pants, and moved rapidly to the political and religious right. By the 1980s, he had joined Chabad. By the 1990s, he was too extreme even for them. He broke away and formed his own organisation with fifty or so followers whose main activity, once a year, was to gather at 125th Street station and march through Harlem in paramilitary uniforms brandishing the Israeli flag.

In the end, Frank rejected both of his male role models. He was not interested in business like his father and Cousin Herschel’s example was more like a cautionary tale as far as politics were concerned (“ a cautionary encyclopaedia”, Frank said). Art was Frank’s chosen way out, art in the all-American form of moviemaking. In the 1960s, when Frank was in college, Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Godard, Wadja were transforming filmmaking into a serious art form. Europe had the history and the experience but America (read Hollywood) had the creative and financial muscle to move things to a new level. Applying auteur techniques to American subjects, Coppola produced his Godfather saga, Scorsese his Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, and so on. Working as a driver for his father during the vacations, Frank hit up his passengers for the money to make his first short. The short became Frank’s calling card that he hustled around the small industrial film companies that then had offices in Manhattan. He got work shooting public service commercials appealing for blood donors, telling people how to keep electrical appliances safe from children, warning them to check the tyre pressure on their cars before taking a trip.

“Sure I was ambitious, and a creative life was also kind of therapy in my case, but isn’t it the same for everyone starting out? Nobody’s motives are pure through and through. And this was the Sixties, remember. There was a knock-down drag-out conflict going on between the generations. I wasn’t some hippie or antiwar bomber- I knew some of those guys at college but I was never one of them. I did what my family expected at Yale, then Stanford, got the grades, did the grind. After that, I figured it was my turn and if Pop didn’t like it, too bad.”

In rehab, Frank had to admit he saw elements of his father’s character in himself. He too had been reckless with women and with money in his life. At times he spent lavishly and at other times he was unable to pay his bills. True, the elder Green had never been an alcoholic or an addict. Was this the weakness the old man had seen in Frank and tried to beat out of him ( and succeeded only in beating in) ? Or was it just an occupational hazard of a life in showbusiness? “Did I ever tell you about my rock bottom?” Frank asked Wheeler. “I was in a Vegas hotel room with two hookers and a shitload of cocaine. Around 3 o clock in the morning, I realised I was the only one who hadn’t had an orgasm.”

Now Frank lay in a hospital bed where his companions were nurses not hookers, the drugs were all legal and, whatever he was feeling- Wheeler didn’t even want to imagine it- could have nothing to do with pleasure.

*******

There were other things Wheeler did need to imagine about his friend, especially what happened after Wheeler left LA and the two men no longer saw each other regularly. Fortunately as a veteran journalist, now superannuated, Wheeler had skills that were relevant to the task. For many years, through asking questions, conducting interviews, and then filtering the results through his own experience, it had been his job to arrive at the truth of the stories he covered. Every day, around the globe, multi-million-dollar observatories and state of the art telescopes are trained on the great outer reality. This is the truth of our time, this scientific-technologico Leviathan. What hope is there that the individual mind might apprehend this same reality from within and have something valuable to say about it, as it had done in the pre-scientific world? Wheeler’s answer- a faint hope indeed, yet something did come through, in his opinion. Repeating the same exercise scores, and then hundreds of times, tuned the mind like tuning a radio. Some signals penetrated our imperfect, not to say anachronistic instrument. Hardly the music of the spheres but a few chords, harmonic snatches. Intimations merely but still intimations. The intimation that events might mean something. That the individual who acted (or the individual who didn’t act) might create something other than the apparent consequences of his action- an imprint, a shadow. That events might multiply these shadows the same way cells reproduce and cast off new cells so that humanity, having descended from spirit into matter, is now directly, which is to say consciously, involved in moving in the opposite direction, translating matter back on to a higher plane.

But this was going too far. Wheeler caught sight of himself in the hotel room’s dark mirror. A long pale face, excessively pale, the eye sockets situated high up, the full lips, always between expressions, the neck like a stalk scrawny and thinned by age, mottled like a tree trunk. A cartoon look, heightened by jet lag and inadequate lighting. And wide awake at 3 and 4am. There were still a couple of hours before the deli around the corner would open, when he could eat breakfast before he drove his rental car over to the hospital. He should close his eyes and try to rest at least. But right now he was busy contemplating his friend’s history, piecing it together from what Frank and others had told him over the years, not so much a feat of imagination really as of reconstruction..

He hadn’t meant to imply that facts weren’t interesting. The facts were often interesting. Very interesting in Frank’s case.

Frank’s second wife, Angela, was Italian, not a glossy jet-set Italian but from a humble petit bourgeois background in Naples. When Frank met her, on location in Rome, she was working as a makeup girl at Cinecitta. Though both parties were married at the time, Frank wielded his producer’s skills- he really was invincible in those days- to extricate them from their commitments while ensuring that no one suffered overmuch and the exes kept sufficient pride for everyone to remain friends. Transplanted to LA, Angela traded in her European fear of poverty for an American sense of entitlement. She ate at all the hot new restaurants, spent a thousand dollars on a handbag she used once or twice before donating it to a charity auction, flew off to vacation in the Caribbean or back in Italy- not to Naples any more but on Capri or Pantalleria off Sicily. In those days it would have been easy to mistake her for a trophy wife with her long legs, wasp waist and bony clavicles. But Angela’s features were also mildly irregular, out of joint. Was one eye bigger than the other? Was the nose exactly in the centre of the face, or did the mouth tilt upwards to the right? The distortion was minimal, a Picasso afterimage. Look again and she looked just fine.

To Wheeler, the effect was charming and reflected an inner condition rather than an outer one. After Frank’s career collapsed, Angela wailed “I have no life” which Wheeler interpreted to mean, “I have no lifestyle.” It was easy to make fun of Angela but her fears were real, and rapidly escalated to panic. The devastation of postwar Naples was in her genes, after all but so were her survival instincts. Well into her middle age, Angela was called on to play the Sophia Loren role, the peasant matriarch, going to bat for the family (and hadn’t the great Loren also let herself be saved by a movie producer in real life? Carlo Ponti was not as handsome as Frank but he was a whole lot richer). In L.A., she’d played with selling real estate as a hobby or sideline when Frank was at the studio. Now she went to work full-time. She would support her errant husband but, unlike her mother in law, she wouldn’t keep her mouth shut while doing so.

There were ugly late-night scenes between husband and wife. Meeting Frank for coffee some mornings, Wheeler found him washed-out, drained, haggard- his Dracula look. By observing him on those mornings an actor could have learned how to play Frank in extreme old age. He shuffled, his shoulders rounded and his head bent, as if to protect himself from blows, whether from fate or from Angela, though she was never physically violent. Instead, she kept him up until 2 and 3 am “telling me I’m a worthless putz and no real man. A real man provides for his woman and I can’t even do that much blah blah blah. I said, Angela for pity’s sake let me get some sleep. How am I supposed to get out there and make our nut if I’m up every single night with you this way? But she won’t listen. I’ve never known her so bad, completely out of control.”

In public, everything was fine between the Greens. Wheeler was able to observe this for himself since Angela had long since lifted her veto on recovering drunks and addicts. Once she decided to include you among her intimates, she was hospitable and attentive to excess. Like Frank, she was a toucher. Over lunch, she put her face close to Wheeler’s and moved her chair so that her thigh was almost touching his. There was nothing sexual in these attentions, which were merely the overflow of her insecurities, taking a dependent form with Wheeler rather than the critical form they were taking with Frank. “Oh Frank,” she said whenever her husband opened his mouth, “Bram doesn’t want to hear about our problems. It’s such bad manners to burden your friends, you really shouldn’t. And really it’s so unimportant.” She turned her lamplight eyes on Wheeler. “Like I’m always telling him, we are so lucky compared with other people. We have our health. We have a place to live. We have lovely food. What more can anyone want? Really! I ask you? And look at him. Is that a picture of a happy man? Cheer up darling, it may never happen.”

She cupped her hands as if hailing her husband across the table where he sat slumped, deflated. Wheeler wanted to throw him a lifeline but Anglea’s hand on his arm restrained him with a squeeze. She wasn’t finished. “Do you know he’s become so forgetful since he stopped working”- “stopped working” was her way of putting it- “ you know you have, Frank. I practically have to tie your shoes before you leave the house or you’d go out with the laces untied.” Frank grinned but his face was very white around the eyes. “Unmanned”was the word that came to Wheeler’s mind. Yet what alternative did his friend have? He couldn’t haul off and sock Angela in the jaw or grind a grapefruit in her kisser like James Cagney in The Public Enemy. If you loved someone you had to let them go on- and on. Or you walked out, got a divorce, put yourself through the whole soap opera. “ I couldn’t take another breakup.,” Frank confided. “My heart wouldn’t stand it let alone my wallet. And then to be alone at my age or, even worse, to start again. Grotesque.” He had no option but to take what the second Mrs Green dished out, accept her insecure craziness as payback for his own alcoholic craziness in times past. “I was on a crazy high; now Angela’s on a crazy low,” he said. Shame we couldn’t have worked the timing out better between us.”

Not so long ago, hundreds of men and tons of equipment had deployed at Frank’s say-so while he hopped company jets to distant locations to resolve disputes between the star and the director and charged suites in top hotels (along with the hookers and the cocaine) to the production budgets. Now he sat in restaurants while Angela passed him banknotes or her credit card under the table to pay the check.

After three years without a job, scraping by on occasional screenwriting gigs, Frank accompanied Angela to dinner at a Bel Air mansion. Their host was one of her real estate clients, an old movie star from the early 1950s who everybody thought was dead. L.A. is full of these types, the driving dead Wheeler called them because that was where you mostly came across them. Wheeler himself had had Doris Day cut him off at an intersection and once duelled with Cornel Wilde for a spot in a restaurant parking lot. The Bel Air dinner was candlelit and catered by an Oriental couple clad in black silk pyjamas buttoned to the neck, their hair tied back in his-and-hers ponytails. An original Barnett Newman hung on the dining room wall. The conversation was showbiz gossip of the business sort, box office receipts, TV ratings, plus political pronouncements. In the old days, on evenings like these you could have listened to Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne fulminating against the Commies or in the 1980s, it would have been Linda Ronstadt holding forth on the sufferings of indigenous peoples and Reagan’s Central American wars. Nowadays, the politics had moved right and the wars had moved back east .

Over dessert, they talked about food, dishes that had gone out of fashion. When their host confessed his fondness for Crepes Suzette, Frank offered to make him some. Leading the others to the kitchen and evicting the startled Oriental couple, he whipped up a batch of crepes on the spot, with great success.

“That was a pretty neat trick, Frank,” said a fellow guest, drawing near. Steve Lundquist was a Texan, a big man, well over six foot, his round head balanced on flat shoulders like an architectural feature- a ball on a column. The head was conventionally handsome, somewhat bland, the teeth, the hair just so, the tan even, the eyes small and light-reflecting.

“No trick, man. Just eggs and flour and some brandy for the flambe.”

“The way you took us along with you, told us what you were doing every step. Why, I feel I could make the dish myself and I’ve not been inside a kitchen since I was knee high. Seems to me you’re a natural educator. Ever thought of teaching, Frank?”

“Teaching? No. Why?”

“You could be the answer to my prayers.”

Frank laughed but Lundquist meant it literally. The Lundquists were four brothers, who owned a string of private colleges around the South and the West, where they trained students for computers, web design, networking and so forth. Devout evangelicals, they were launching a new venture in L.A.

“It’s a departure for us. I don’t mind telling you we prayed mightily over it but in the end the answer came back from the Big Man-go ahead., “Steve Lundquist said. “We bought The Academy of Culinary Arts down in Culver City. They turn out chefs, maitre d’s, sommeliers, marketing folk, any career in the food industry. I’m going to need all the help over there I can get.”

“And you want me to teach people to cook?”

“Not necessarily. With your Hollywood experience, maybe you do a course about food in the movies, I don’t know. The main thing is to get you on board if you’re interested. We can’t match movie money but I figure we can make it worth your while.”

Frank, recalling this exchange for Wheeler, shook his head. How often was one literally the answer to somebody’s prayers? Naturally he was flattered, though the Christian claptrap worried him. “I agreed to meet with the Academy’s director. He turned out to be a Jew like me. He told me the Lundquist brothers wouldn’t interfere, that they were based in Austin and would only come to LA a couple of times a year to check on progress.” On a daily basis , Frank would have complete freedom to set his own schedule and his own curriculum. “There wasn’t anything else going on so I figured, why not?” Though he only signed up for a couple of classes a week, within a few weeks he was spending all his time at the college. “Turned out I had a knack for the work. The kids liked me. I wasn’t just their teacher; I was their mentor, their cheerleader, their confessor, their Uncle Frank. When you get a response like that, you bust your balls to live up to it and I did do remarkable things for them. Stuff they’d never have gotten from a regular instructor.”

Frank arranged for the top chefs in the city to come in and tell his students what it really took to succeed. He got the UCLA environmental people in to talk about sustainability and had “restaurant angels” explain what it is they look for before they open up their wallets. Through Angela’s contacts, he persuaded a real estate company to donate the use of some empty premises in Westwood where the class had to organise and run a pop-up restaurant.

Soon he began to get involved in administration matters. “Many of our students came from poor backgrounds and needed a lot of support. It was all more work than I wanted, frankly. But I was excited. I thought I could make a difference. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to realise that the place was a scam.”

The Lundquist’s private colleges were diploma mills. The students thought they were being trained to do glamorous jobs like computer animation, recording engineer, film director, sports psychologist, TV news journalist or celebrity chef. Instead they “graduated” with debts they could never repay and qualifications that were worthless. The Lundquists were scamming a Federal loan program aimed at minority students. “They attracted the kids with the fantasy of a glitzy career, applied for the loans on their behalf, did all the paperwork. It was a numbers game pure and simple. So long as they put enough bodies through the system their profits were guaranteed by Uncle Sam. Owning one of these private colleges is better than owning an oil well.”

“Why didn’t you quit?” Wheeler asked.

“By then, I’d fallen in love with the kids and they with me. I thought I could do more good, still give them a decent experience by hanging in there.” Things began to change at the school. The Lundquists introduced a cost-cutting program. Frank, who had access to the books, could see the brothers had loaded their acquisition with millions of dollars worth of debt. “They were squeezing the asset to pay down their loan, pushing for crazy profit margins. We were making 15% but they wanted 25%. They were prepping the place for a flip to a hedge fund or private equity group. I started to understand that no one gives a damn about these colleges as educational establishments. They’re the counters you use to play in the financial casino where the real action is”

Speaking of the Lundquist brothers, Frank quoted Proust who wrote that neurotics were responsible for all human progress. What Proust didn’t say was that sociopaths and psychopaths are responsible for everything else, and they’re the ones who run the world. This new breed, like the Lundquists, were the worst yet. At the same time as they were ripping you off, stripping the very clothes from your back, they claimed to be doing the Lord’s work, and demanded you admire them for their brilliance and probity.

********

Wheeler, squatting on the bed in his Beverly Hills hotel room, now asked himself the journalist’s question, what was the story here? Frank was proving unusually prone to disasters, bad luck, misfortunes of all kind. In late middle age, was he reliving his father’s life in some sort of Oedipal deja vu? The elder Green had ridden a rollercoaster of triumphs and failures. A passionate card-player and sports-handicapper, he was a typical small businessmen (circa 1950s/1960s) half way between downtown with its Damon Runyon hustlers and the suburban country club set. Desperate to break the mould, Frank had veered off into the arts (here Wheeler imagined a sideways leap from a standing start with all the physical, gravitational strains involved). But over time, elements of his father’s character reclaimed him (some elements only. Frank was never a bully). Sons become their fathers and daughters their mothers, this much we know, but Frank didn’t have the courage of his father’s lack of conviction. Green senior could screw up, lose everything, welsh on loans or strand partners high and dry, and still bounce back without a care in the world. Frank couldn’t do those things without suffering moral and emotional damage. To put it another way, the same cycle that repeatedly returned the old man to equilibrium might become a one-way spiral downward for the son.

“Might”, only. It also might not. It had pained Wheeler, while still in London, to hear about his old friend’s troubles. On the phone, Frank recited a lengthening catalogue of money and other worries. Her income couldn’t keep pace with his and Angela’s spending, let alone clear their debts. Angela felt humiliated among their friends who still lived Hollywood lifestyles based on movie business salaries. Sometimes Frank slept on the sofa in his study to avoid her complaints but he woke up at 4am shaking from his nightmares. He suffered a succession of freak accidents. He twisted his neck and couldn’t drive for a month. On another occasion, walking the dog in Runyon Canyon, he tripped over the leash and broke two small bones in his foot. He and Angela planned a romantic weekend in New York to get away from their troubles after Frank found a cut-price package on the internet, but their car broke down on the way to the airport. They missed their flight and had to buy new tickets at the full rate. In Manhattan, a winter storm came through, turning the city into a winter wonderland, but when they went out for a stroll a passing taxi sprayed Angela with snow-slush, ruining her brand-new $300 slacks.

“I tell you, I was glad to get back to the college. Once I closed that classroom door, it was just me and the kids. And they were great- inquisitive, ambitious, full of energy and hopes for the future, the way kids are. I got a better response from them than any I ever got from people at the studios. “

Frank lectured on “Alice Waters, Chez Panisse and the California Revolution” or “Gastropubs: are they a new British invasion?” or “Food on Film: From Tom Jones to Julie and Julia”. He showed clips and had his students improvise new scenes with new dishes.

“I had all L.A.’s minorities in class front of me. Koreans, Latinos, blacks, Chinese, El Salvadorans, Iranians. A real rainbow nation. I kept shuffling them into different teams so they had to work with one another. And food’s the perfect subject for different cultures coming together. I talked about that too, the tradition of sharing food with strangers; disaporas spreading their regional cuisines around the world and how that fits in with global markets and globalisation. People fight over their differences but everybody’s interested in what the next guy’s eating.”

One day, a new student joined Frank’s class. LincolnNebrasksa was a slim, elegant, black youth, light-skinned and loose-jointed. He wore shades and a flat hipster’s cap, the sort worn by old jazzmen. Around the glasses his face assembled in smooth planes, like finely carved wood, the lips slightly darker, shaded, the cheeks concave beneath the cheekbones, the forehead an unfurrowed band of pale mahogany. He kept the hat and the shades on in class. “At first I let it go. I was pleased to have him, he was such an obviously intelligent and cultured boy. For one thing, he spoke proper English, no ghetto slang or quasi-rap lyrics. It was clear he came from an affluent background. His mother was a super-elegant Somalian who had modelled around Europe. His American father was ex-State Department, had worked for the UN, and been head-hunted out to California to run a big private foundation. I thought we could have some fun but Lincoln wouldn’t play. Oh, he showed up for class. He bestowed his physical presence on the rest of us. But that was all. The first day he strolled in with his Ipod stuck in his ears, I told him take it out and put it away and he did so. Then I asked him to take off his shades but he said he had to wear them “for religious reasons”. He belonged to the Black Church of Cosmic Consciousness whose saints included Miles Davis, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson, and no one ever saw them without their shades, right?”

As a put-on this was amusing enough. A couple of weeks later Frank repeated his request as an order. The boy obeyed, but doing everything in slow-motion and with mimed, silent sarcasm. He took off the sunglasses, folded them, put them in his pocket and sat there with his eyes a blank as if to say ‘I’ve taken them off but if it’s a human connection you’re expecting to have with me you can forget about it.’.. From then on every lesson became a battle of wills- would Frank’s will prevail or would Lincoln’s will prevail in the form of dumb insolence? The dynamics of the class changed. Instead of working together, there were two sides, teacher and pupil, forcing the other kids to choose between them.

“And that was his intention?” Wheeler said..

“No question. I’ve been on enough movie sets in my life where the atmosphere changes just like that to know what’s going on,” Frank snapped his fingers, “It’s always because an actor starts behaving badly.”

“What do you do then?”

“You fire his ass. Or if he or she is the star of the picture and you can’t fire him, you fire the director instead.”

“That would be you.”

“That would be me in this case.”

They were talking in London, on Frank’s last trip to Europe. Wheeler’s flat was in the Bloomsbury district, right around the corner from the British Museum. The flat had high ceilings and moulded cornices. Here Wheeler lived amid Victorian grandeur thanks to the British rent control laws while London’s grey skies squatted overhead like a toad. Planes coming in to Heathrow appeared out of the murk and registered briefly on the window pane. The eye picked them up, zeroeing in on something that hadn’t been there a moment before.

Frank said, “At first I figured it for a power struggle, plain and simple, so I tried to change the terms. I turned the class over to him. Told him, Lincoln, you think you can do better, go for it- teach us whatever you like. He was too savvy to take the bait. He said he wasn’t paid to teach, I was, and he was one of the people who paid me.”

“So how did you assess him?”

“At first I saw him as the rebel without a cause type like Marlon Brando in The Wild One: remember when they asked him what are you protesting about and he answered, what have you got? But I was wrong. Today’s kids, they’re not rebels or interested in changing the world the way we were. They just want to get rich- not well off, mind, but super-rich. We’re talking mega- bucks like sports stars and those Wall Street types.”

“If that’s your man’s aim, what’s he doing at a cooking school?”

“My guess is that it’s the only place that would have him and he had to enroll somewhere. That was the deal with his parents. By the time he got to us, he’d been through half the Eastern prep schools. Thrown out of every one though they didn’t always put it that way. No regular college would touch him. His father was on record in his defence- our son the genius, needs special handling, can’t be held to the same standards as the other boys. The usual guff but I’m inclined to agree in part. Not the genius part, of course. But there is something special about Lincoln Nebraska. The question is, is it good special or bad special?”

“You reached your own conclusion.”

“I caught him dealing. I saw the packet change hands and the money but he was too far away. By the time I reached him we were outside, on the sidewalk. When I told him to empty his pockets he laughed in my face. He said it was a public place and I’d no jurisdiction. Challenged me to make a citizen’s arrest and told me if I was wrong, he’d sue me and the school. It may have been a bluff but they wouldn’t have wanted the trouble either way.”

“He counted on that.”

“Maybe. Anyway, I said we had to talk. Lincoln was totally cool. Got out his phone, tapped some buttons, said he could spare me half an hour the following afternoon, for all the world like a busy executive agreeing to accommodate a petitioner. I had to laugh. And I admit I saw something of myself in him, the way I was when I was young, the chutzpah I had in those days.”

No question, then, that Lincoln was somebody but who was he? So far he was all surface and this surface had proved itself immune to surprise: you couldn’t so much as dent him. Nor did he allow you any way in. Frank thought he understood how tough it still must be to grow up black in America. One could imagine the various experiences a young black male in particular went through, even coming from a privileged background like Lincoln’s. Lincoln presented himself as a finished product, polished and opaque. The onus was on you to figure him out. He was under no obligation to help you with the figuring.

The next day he failed to show. Frank felt riled: big stars, household names, had found him worthy of their attention- to be stood up by a no-name kid was galling. But when the classroom emptied at the end of the session, here came Lincoln edging in against the flow. His close-cropped skull and high cheekbones made him look older than the other students. As always he was impeccably dressed in well-shined penny loafers and charcoal slacks. The cuffs were turned up just so on his freshly laundered midnight-blue shirt.

“Where were you?” Frank demanded as soon as they were alone.

Lincoln smiled faintly. “Something came up,” he said. “I’m here now.”

Letting his anger show was a mistake, Frank realised. There was nothing to be gained from it but the kid was so infuriating, giving you the finger just in the way he sat and looked at you.

The classroom was a drab, windowless box. Places of learning that once tried to ape some classical aesthetic now all look like military briefing rooms or CIA interrogation centers. Frank and the kid squatted under strip lights on moulded plastic chairs. The boy’s impassive features- his knifelike hairline, the large pouches of the ears, the lips that were a darker, purplish shade than the cocoa-brown face- clearly stood for a principle, but that principle might be no more than Lincoln himself, Frank thought, his own ego or collective desires

“Well,” Frank said, “since our time is limited”- two could play the sarcasm game-“ let’s get to it. You and I both know you’re dealing.”

“We do?”

“Do you deny it?”

“Why is it always drugs you people care about so much ?”

“You people? You mean white people?”

Lincoln gave a small smile.

“I meant old people, man. The brothers they is only working the system, supply and demand, free enterprise, all that jazz.”

The drop into ghetto talk, the ghetto accent, was deliberate- meant to shock. Frank, with his years of experience dealing with difficult characters, was not about to let himself be shocked.

“Now Lincoln,” he said,” My generation are the last people to play the heavy parent. You know what they say: if you can remember the Sixties you weren’t there. But the fact remains that society as a whole has gone the other way and chosen to wage a war on drugs. And we can’t be bystanders. We can’t choose to turn a blind eye to what happens on campus.”

Listen to me, Frank thought. “The fact remains...” “can’t be bystanders..”. He couldn’t seem to find the right tone for this conversation. Yet the right tone was clearly crucial.

“Besides,” he ended weakly, “from what I can see, it’s not as if you need the money.”

Lincoln didn’t deign to look at him, though he did switch back from street slang to his usual, educated voice. “A hypothetical,” he said. “Suppose someone starts out in street sales. If he’s half-way smart, as soon as he can, he’ll hire others to do the hustling for him. Then he’s going to look at the wider picture. A market is a market. Once you have a market how many ways can you find to profit from it?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“A million ways. Take the consumers for a start. They’re not always going to have the cash to buy what they need, so you advance them a loan. You become a banker as well as a seller. But that’s just the beginning. You want to hedge against those loans defaulting so you take out some insurance contracts and those contracts maybe are saleable. Then the loans themselves can be bundled for sale to investors. Plus there’s insurance on the second-tier deals. You see where we’re headed with this?”

Frank nodded. “Credit-default swaps, derivatives, the whole bag of tricks. But that’s different from drugs.”

Again the faint amusement came into Lincoln’s face, more a relaxing of the muscles around the jaw than an actual smile.

“Is it? How so? A commodity is a commodity.You think Goldman Sachs or AIG sell real estate? All that matters is the existence of a market. It doesn’t matter what the market is in, only what you can build on top of it; and at every level the bet gets bigger and the returns get bigger too. Sure, you need the underlying asset price to move up but it’s going to do that anyway with all the money flooding into the market. Remember the Bush adminstration guy who wanted to run a lottery on the odds of another 9/11 in order to raise cash for homeland security?

“Privatising security and counter-terror. Everyone was horrified. The idea never got off the ground.”

“Yet looked at logically there was nothing wrong with it. Ever since the end of the Cold War all those physics and maths Phds who used to go into the defense industry are looking for work. You can pick up a mathematical model for anything these days. Top quality work too. The available expertise is phenomenal.”

Frank shook his head. “It sounds like a bunch of Ponzi schemes to me.”

“Of course it is,” Lincoln said. “ Everything’s a Ponzi scheme when you get right down to it. If you come in too late, you lose, but so what? You should have timed it better, been smarter from the off. Many are called but few are chosen, right?”

This was a favourite line of Frank’s that he repeated in his classes. To have it thrown back at him- but at this point the janitor interrupted them, wanting to clean the room. Frank had had enough anyway. As he rehearsed it for Wheeler months later in London, he admitted his interview with Lincoln depressed him deeply. Sitting in that classroom-bunker he had the feeling that everything he’d done in life was wrong. Futile. Based on incorrect premises. “You and I had that feeling before, in rehab, but this time was different. Lincoln’s generation have a different mindset. They’ve absorbed the whole Ayn Rand masters of the universe shtick and made it their own. To them, so long as you want something enough and are single-minded enough, you’re bound to get it. Nothing to do with education or talent or even hard work. American rugged individualism and self-reliance mutated into the Triumph of the Will. Sure it’s a fantasy but...”

“So was our belief in revolution. That was never going to happen either.”

“ I suppose the idea of the likes of Lincoln riding the historical wave was what depressed me most. Thirty years of Reaganite stress on individual responsibility turns out to be no more nor less than a rationale for white-collar crime. But my worries go deeper than that. You know what really bothered me listening to Lincoln? It was like hearing my own worst fears parroted back to me.”

“What fears are we talking about?”

“That art, thought, philosophy, 2000 years of Western culture, all the stuff we learned so painstakingly growing up, is over. Surplus to requirements under modern conditions. Tossed on the scrapheap, fuel for a bonfire of the inanities. Modelling all human transactions as market exchanges creates a pure logic that these kids respond to. Chimes with what they’re getting from their computers and their smartphones. Where are the vital human feelings in this? They’re old school, out of date. The big guys, the guys who run the society, have always known this. Now screens and social media are making it possible for everyone to avoid personal interactions and run their lives through numbers, images, virtual identities and the like.”

Wheeler thought Frank could have, but didn’t, mention research showing how much easier it was to torture and kill people at one remove, from five miles up in a cockpit or thousands of miles distant, pushing buttons like a videogame. After Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (the use of drones) such facts were also relevant.

“I wonder what will become of little Clara, I really do,” Frank said. Clara was his step-granddaughter, whom he loved.

Frank’s face was a pasty color, his outthrust brows and untrimmed eyebrows like a cliff edge covered in moss, holding up his considerable brainpower, while below things sagged, ran down incised channels in the cheeks into the sump of the jowls. Old-style Jewish sentiment, long sunk beneath the showbiz cynicism, welled up in him from time to time nowadays. This may have created the gulleys in his face, a kind of sentimental geography.

There had to be a resolution, Frank said. With the janitor’s arrival, everything had been put on hold. Frank decided not to report Lincoln, as he’d originally intended, which would have set in train the mechanism for the boy’s umpteenth expulsion. Besides, he, Frank, wanted to see what would happen next. Having begun as enmity, like opposing principles, their relationship seemed to be evolving into a sporting rivalry as between two boxers who are equally matched with each party feeling a certain respect for his opponent. That was Frank’s idea anyway. How the kid viewed the matter was unknown: it was one of the things Frank was waiting to find out.

Only nothing happened. During the next few weeks, Lincoln no longer came to class though he was certainly around. Frank saw him from time to time, at a distance. Perhaps he’s afraid of me, Frank thought. Perhaps I’m more forceful than I know. Imagine it as he might, he couldn’t make this thesis stand up. He thought of setting aside his amour propre and tracking Lincoln down, forcing a resumption of their dialogue, but the moment passed. “I had a lot going on at the time. The Lundquists flew in from Austin for a big meeting with the director and myself. We were trying to defend what we were doing while they’d come up with a scheme to sell the building, realise the real estate value and move operations downtown where they could rent cheap space in the old warehouse district. Mentally speaking, I put Lincoln on the back burner.”

There were problems with Angela too. Rather, there was the same problem that waxed and waned. "Her rages were way off the scale. Every other night she’d start up and keep going until 2 or 3 in the morning. I was taking a battering at home and at work.”

Easter came early that year. Friends of theirs were going out of town to Aspen, to ski. Frank decided he and Angela should join them. So what if they couldn’t afford it, it would do them good to get away.

On the night before they left, he worked late at the college, trying to get everything finished. Then drove home along the 10, sitting well back in his seat, regarding the wide expanse of night across the windscreen like the view from inside a spacecraft. He hardly had his foot inside the door when he remembered he’d forgotten Angela’s favourite backpack in his office, and she refused to travel without it: nothing to be done but to drive back to fetch it, a good thirty minutes each direction. Really she was impossible- they had a hundred other backpacks. But she’d reminded him that morning to bring the thing home with him. His penalty was more of this rushing tedium, back on the freeway with its lighted green exit signs, the names of streets spelled out in reflecting buttons, like a giant braille, the headache-inducing dazzle from the contra-flow. He turned down the Culver City off-ramp at last. The surface streets around the Academy were dark and empty, like leaving the open ocean for some backwater. Pools of light formed in the shadow of buildings. Frank threaded his way through the tight spaces in the parking lot. Some students were standing in his spot, joshing and talking. They looked up into his lights and broke away, except for one. “It was Lincoln and he just stood there. The others moved away but he stayed where he was. I had to stop the car. We stayed there, starting at one another. We were only a couple of feet apart. There was no question he knew who I was, even with my lights on him. I beeped my horn. His friends were calling to him to get out of the way. Instead, he put his bag down and started to dance. That hiphop style of dancing. Breakdancing. Popping, shucking, spinning. He had all the moves. It was quite deliberate, a deliberate insult, like fuck you and the horse you rode in on. I decided two could play at that game so I took my foot off the brake pedal and let the car roll forward towards him. Very slowly. There was never any real danger. I had my foot covering the brake the whole time, ready to stop on a dime. I could hear some shouting and I could see someone running out of the corner of my eye, then pounding on the driver’s side window. One of the security guards had seen what was happening and got the wrong impression. He thought I was trying to run the kid down. He was shouting about teachers knowing better, how he was going to report me. I put on the brake and got out of the car to talk to him. I told him not to get so bent out of shape. If anyone was going to report anything, I’d do it myself, which incidentally I did.”

Wheeler hit his mental pause button. Light had grown outside the hotel window and he too felt lightheaded, hollowed out with tiredness, as if his body was something he was carrying around rather than vice versa. It was time to start the day. He hurried through the rest: there was not much more. When Frank returned from his skiing trip, he found a letter from the Lundquists firing him for assaulting a student, bringing the school into disrepute and so on. Frank put the letter in his study drawer and never visited or spoke to anyone at the college again, walking away from two months’ salary and unclaimed expenses.

When Wheeler asked him why he hadn’t fought the decision, his old friend said he could no longer bear to look backwards in his life. A sense of urgency possessed him (possibly his heart attack casting a forward shadow, Wheeler now thought). All past events, up to and including the contretemps with Lincoln, had become like those parts of a rocket that must be detached and jettisoned in order for the capsule to escape gravity and reach orbit. The incident in the parking lot was just an excuse in Frank’s view. He had crossed the Lundquists once too often. He knew they were looking for any chance to get rid of him. “I was expecting it. If not that, something else.”

Was that true? The whole story didn’t ring right to Wheeler, who try as he might couldn’t find a way to make it so. What had really gone on that night? And how did it count in any greater scheme of things? The Cooking Academy, Frank’s Hollywood years, his pill-popping, rehab, Lincoln Nebraska, Angela, Frank Green senior and his gambling and his mistresses, so much emotional turmoil, upheaval, so many crazy scenes, reversals, and reversals of reversals. What did any of this have to do with the Frank he knew, with the person who lay in the hospital possibly dying, or then again possibly not? How could any (all?) of it be said to constitute a life? And if it did, what sense could be made of such a life, what meaning could it possibly have for someone who lived it, let alone for anybody else? Wheeler made a last effort at finding some overall resolution. Suppose all our emotions and craziness are like the homing signals we beam out into the universe. From the inside, it seems to is that the body is a continuous subject and the earth is just a ball of lifeless rock, but seen from the outside things may look very different. Other powers may be involved, powers of which we have only vague indications. What if those powers are interested in us- and our most vivid, intense feelings are what they use to locate us, so that we show up on their spiritual radar like the blobs on an air traffic controller’s scope? Only we are too self-absorbed and out of control to communicate properly. One can hardly expect ordinary people with regular desires, fears, needs, rages etc. to behave like mystics and sages. Absorbed in these sombre but not uncheerful reflections, Wheeler slipped on his loafers and splashed some of the icy hotel water on his face. Downstairs in the lobby, plastic glasses and the rag ends of streamers formed the detritus from last night’s celebrations. There was nobody in reception at that hour. He strolled through the light-washed, deserted streets, looking for some place that was open on New Year’s morning where he could eat eggs over easy with bacon strips, hash browns, wheat toast and coffee before driving over to Cedars Sinai. After a day of airplane food and a sleepless night he was, hediscovered, very hungry.


dwmbygrave@icloud.com. All contents mike bygrave 2014