Not Non-Fiction


Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 4 of 4)

““You’’re not a couple?”” I regret the question as soon as it leaves my mouth. There hasn’’t been any sign of romance between them, but I chalked that up to the age of their relationship. Kelley smiled reassuringly at me.

““Michael is a rube.”” She slaps her hand on his thigh and leaves it there for a moment. ““Like any rube he doesn’’t touch what he isn’’t willing to pay for.””

Michael’’s expression doesn’t change throughout this cryptic statement, so I assume they’’ve been over this subject before. Still there seems to be a certain disquiet in the air, so I try to shift the conversation by asking how they met. Even though they worked the Boulevard at the same time they never noticed each other. Instead they met at a stage production of The Rocky Horror Show, as it turned out, not in Los Angeles, but a small production put on by a community theater group in a church in Pasadena. By pure coincidence they both attended the same afternoon matinee, which was mainly attended by older people, so perhaps it wasn’’t such a strange coincidence that they were the only ones who came dressed up: Kelly as Riff Raff, and Michael, on a dare from some friends, as Magenta. They may not have become lovers, but they became instant friends, and embarked on conquering Hollywood. The Rocky Horror connection, it turned out, went even deeper. Both had been fans of Tim Curry since childhood, his portrayal of Long John Silver making an odd impression on both of them when they saw Muppet Treasure Island. Seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show a few years later Michael was been impressed by Curry’’s range. Kelley was intrigued by the way simple makeup and costume could transform the short, swarthy pirate into pale, lean Dr. Frank N. Furter.

In the morning I get to see Kelley and Michael transformed again. Adjoining stools and a brightly lit makeup table have been placed in an area behind their TV. Michael, a tight skullcap pulled over his hair, is dressed as Spyral, sans coat. He sits down and pulls a sheet up over his front. Kelley sits opposite him and opens a black case with metal trim. She takes out small canisters of yellow and blue makeup and begins carefully applying and mixing. His skin begins to turn green.

““Why do you mix the colors on his skin instead of using green makeup?”” I ask.

Kelly continues applying, but explains, ““Skin isn’’t all one even tone. This allows me to add subtle shade differences.”” She then takes out a canister of white and blends it into Michael’s cheeks and forehead, which lightens those areas and makes his eyes appear darker. The horns are applied, as is the pointed chin. Kelley then stands and covers his head with the silver mane that reaches to his shoulders. The whole process takes over an hour. She then turns to the makeup table and begins the transformation into Mordella. She tucks her hair under a skullcap, applies heavy white makeup, lipstick, and the scar. I notice her false eyelashes are attached to false eyelids. Karloff wore similar false eyelids as Frankenstein’’s monster, but Mordella’’s, —or Kelley’’s, —are thinner, giving her a sinister, haunted look, rather than the shambling creature’s dazed stare. The whole process takes less than twenty minutes. Before she excuses herself to change I ask if her makeup is simpler out of deference to Michael.

““No.”” Kelley looks over at him as he puts on his jacket and slips contacts into his eyes. “”Makeup is my passion. I love making up others, even when it’s become routine. We both get what we want.””

We part ways at the Boulevard. I resume my post at the coffee shop, where the baristas are starting to know me by name. I watch Kelley and Michael continue working over the tourists. I also take advantage of a mid-morning lull to walk up the street and talk to some of the other costumed characters. I try to talk to Spider-Man, since I was a fan as a kid, but he seems to be doing an homage to his appearances on The Electric Company and remains mute. I ask if I can take a picture with him. He nods vigorously, and we put our heads together for a selfie. I reach into my pocket and offer him a five, but he waves it away. Then he slides his hands down his legs. It never occurred to me that Spider-Man has no pockets. Where did Peter Parker keep his camera?

Thor is more chatty.

“”Nine months. That’s how long I’’ve been doing this. So I’’m green. Still learning.””

““What do you like about it?””

He grins. ““Beats the hell outta working. Plus I talk to people. And the ladies love the muscles.”” He flexes a heavily padded arm. ““Check out these guns. Come on. Give ‘‘em a squeeze.””

My fingers sink into inches of foam rubber. He nods.

““Nice, huh?””

““So what do you do when you’’re not doing this?””

““I’’m a comedian. My agent got me doing this, told me to do it for a couple of months so I could loosen up, get used to dealing with strangers. I had a bad time with hecklers.””

He tells me he’’s kept doing it, and plans to keep doing it, possibly even investing in some other costumes because it’’s fun and it’s a wealth of material. It gives his comedy an odd angle it lacked before. He tells me I should come see him at a place called The Chuckle Wagon on Sepulveda.

I cross the street and head back toward the coffee shop. It appears trouble is brewing near Kelley and Michael. A man dressed in a plain white t-shirt and jeans, shoeless, is carrying a sheet with what appear to be streaks of blue and red spray paint. ““Whoo!”” he cries. He stops and ties the sheet around his neck, spreading it out like a cape. I briefly wonder if I should scrap journalistic objectivity and go offer to help, but I think maybe Kelley and Michael are used to this sort of thing. Then, stopping several cars, the man crosses the street in the middle of the block and joins me.

Up close he’’s young, blonde, not bad looking. He’’s clean-shaven, and too clean to have been on the streets long. He pulls out a prescription pill bottle and inhales deeply from it, then offers it to me.

““You want some?””

It’’s full of what look like dead wasps.

““No, thank you, I’m trying to cut down.””

He nods gravely, bows, then runs down the street. “”Whoo!””

It’’s time for a latte.

In the evening, after dinner (Michael’’s own tuna casserole), I can’’t sleep. I sit up on the couch to do some work by the light of their aquarium where neon tetras and black mollies dart back and forth. I’m so engrossed in the tap tap tap of the keys that I don’’t hear Kelley come into the room. She glides into my field of vision, her pale robe wrapped tightly around her up to her throat. She looks ethereal, moving through the semi-darkness.

““Working late?””

I nod.

She sits down next to me. I wait for her to say something else, but she doesn’’t. The buzz from the wine has worn off and my head is achy, but I think now might be the time to ask something that’s been preying on my mind.

““The other night, when you said Michael couldn’’t touch what he hadn’’t paid for–” Nervously I glance over at her. Have we had enough time to establish this level of trust? I plunge ahead. “”Are there others who have paid?”” I have a speech on the tip of my tongue, that I’’m only angling for information, that for my story I want a fuller background picture, something, perhaps, that could contrast her success with the cliché tragedies of Hollywood Boulevard. It never gets out.

““Don’’t make me into something I’’m not.””

Kelley reaches over and closes my laptop.


Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 3 of 4)

As the sun sets we head home. There will be more foot traffic in the evening, but, Kelley and Michael explain, most of the evening tourists are going to the theaters, and it’’s harder to get good pictures at night. Their apartment is two blocks from the Boulevard, in a former hotel I’’m sure appeared in Nathanael West’’s “The Day Of The Locust”. The building was converted into apartments in the seventies, and, based on the threadbare forest gold carpeting and avocado-colored walls hasn’’t been touched since. Still I wonder how they pay the rent on a spot so close to Hollywood Boulevard. It’’s cheaper than I’’d think, they tell me, since the Boulevard and its surrounding blocks quickly degenerate into seediness. Just beyond the Walk Of Fame there’s an entirely different breed of characters—. Most are homeless drug addicts —who, while held at bay during the day, become much more active at night.

As we climb the stairs to their apartment Michael explains that working the Boulevard isn’’t their main source of income. He has the cliché part time restaurant job, as well as occasional commercial work. Kelley gets regular makeup gigs. Most of her jobs are small, but a good one can pay the same as more than six months of working the Boulevard. And, they apologize, dinner will be leftover lasagna.

While they’’re stripping off their daywear I make a dash to a corner market for a baguette, some bagged salad and an Italian dressing, and three bottles of what, based on the price, I believe is a good Pinot Grigio. In California the corner markets have a better wine selection than some Midwestern liquor stores. Back at the apartment I’’m shocked when Kelley emerges from her room. Her hair, now brown instead of shiny black, hangs loose, barely reaching her shoulders. Her skin is remarkably tanned. Dressed in blue jeans and a loose white t-shirt, she examines the wine, clicking her tongue in disapproval. If my journalistic plan is to ply them with alcohol she says I should have gotten something better. And cheaper. “We’’ve got some good stuff,” says Michael, emerging from the bathroom in a cloud of steam. His transformation is even more shocking than Kelley’’s: his hair is light brown and curly, the horns are gone, his eyes are a soft brown, his skin is a healthy pink, and his chin has shrunk considerably. He looks almost formal in khaki slacks and a blood red button-down shirt. I offer to help him put dinner together, but he ushers me out, telling me to relax. I join Kelley on the couch.

““Tell me about Mordella,”” I ask. ““Why did you choose her, and what’s the fascination?””

““I think it’’s easier to understand if you see her in action.”” Kelley pulls out a DVD.

““How did you get that if it’s never been released in any home format?””

““It sometimes plays on slow Tuesdays in October at one of the legacy theaters. That’’s how I first found it.”” For a bootleg it’’s surprisingly good quality. ““I made it myself. It was easy. I was the only one there.”” She laughs, then adds, ““I could have brought in a wide-angle lens, camera, and tripod and they probably wouldn’’t have cared.””

She then fast-forwards to Mordella’’s first appearance, stretched out on a table in a room with mysterious symbols painted on the walls. As she opens her eyes and sits up Lugosi sounds remarkably like Victor Frankenstein, shouting, ““She’’s alive! She’’s alive!” The camera, though, is fixed too far away. Clearly this isn’t James Whale’s work. ”

I can definitely see that Mordella was an inspiration, but Kelley has made some changes as well. She’’s kept the long black hair done in an elaborate topknot, and the strangely heavy eyebrows and long eyelashes. But in addition to trading in Mordella’’s simple black gown—, which could have been an inspiration for Vampira, or even Morticia Addams, —for something more intricate she’’s taken the forehead scar and curved it into a gruesome smile.

““I can see the appeal,”” I say.

““Oh, you have no idea.”” Kelley pauses the movie. ““She’’s a total badass. Bela Lugosi was still a big star then. This was before the morphine, before Ed Wood. Even at the time this was low budget schlock, and no one’’s sure why Lugosi did it. Maybe they blew the whole budget on him, and he’’s only in a couple of scenes. Lugosi got top billing,”” Kelley goes on, ““but Mordella’’s the one who really moves the plot along.”” She then begins to fast forward again, summarizing the plot as the scenes flick by. Lugosi plays Dr. Hieronymus. He’’s been able to prolong his own life artificially, but was unable to save his wife—, Mordella, of course, —a century earlier. Now he’’s finally managed to raise her from the dead, but she’’s changed. She’’s no longer quite human. He loses control of her. Shortly after he revives her Lugosi’’s Dr. Hieronymus inexplicably disappears and Mordella becomes the focus. She pursues young handsome men and drains the life from them by placing her hand to their chests. The police become suspicious, and a young detective begins following her. She lures him into a jazz club, then an alley where, instead of touching his chest, she places a hand to his forehead and he becomes her servant. Still fearing the police she makes him drive her out of town. As they’’re passing a farmhouse he begins to shake off her control. She puts her hand to his chest, draining him, and the car goes off the road. Another car, carrying a young couple, comes by and stops. The young man gets out and offers to help. Mordella advances on him, but the young woman steps between them. She and Mordella begin to fight. Kelly holds up the remote again, allowing the final few minutes to play normally. Mordella picks up the young woman and throws her into a well. There’’s a scream and a splash. The young man, on the ground now, backs away as Mordella holds out her hand to him. Then the young woman’’s voice comes from the well, shouting, ““I know who you are!”” Mordella cackles, turns into a giant black bird, then flies off toward the moon.

The credits roll.

I’’m stunned by the abruptness and bizarreness of the ending, which makes Kelley chuckle.

““So that’s it,”” she says.

Kelley has researched the film as much as she can, but information is limited. Mordella was played by Ilinca Tarus. Little is known about her, and this is her only recorded film appearance. She was married to the director, who is also a mysterious character. This was his first film for an upstart studio that folded shortly after its release. Both disappeared before it even premiered. They are believed to have moved back to their native Romania, but no one’’s sure. There are also rumors they went to Mexico. The only other member of the cast and crew Kelley has been able to locate is the young man from the final scene. He made a career playing small parts, and died shortly after playing a store clerk in John Carpenter’’s They Live.

I’’m still trying to make sense of the ending when Michael calls to us from the table. ““Children,”” he says, ““time for din-din, or I won’’t bring you breakfast!””

Dinner is quiet at first. The sudden intimacy of dining in their home and realization we’’re still strangers turns Kelley and Michael reticent. And they’’ve been so forthcoming so far I don’’t want to risk prying too much too soon. I throw out what I hope isn’’t too personal a question about where they’re from, since no one in Los Angeles is from there. Michael and I are delighted to learn we’’re both from the same small town in eastern Kansas. We even went to rival high schools, albeit more than a decade apart. When I mention Penny Annie’’s, the candy and sandwich shop in the heart of downtown, Michael declares the need for a toast. He runs to the kitchen and returns with a bottle of tequila and three shot glasses. He fills one for himself and me, but Kelley only gets about a tablespoon. We all tilt our glasses back, and after the burn has passed I ask her if she doesn’’t like tequila.

““Oh, I love it,”” she says. “”I just don’t like who it makes me.””

She then tells me she’’s never been farther east than her home town of Needles, on the Arizona border. ““If the universe had a colon blockage,”” she says, “”it would be Needles.”” Her dream is to be able to afford a trip to New York, but only by car. And even then she says she wants to get their by the most circuitous route possible, stopping at every roadside attraction on the way. ““I want to see snow, and the Grand Ole Opry.””

I start to ask about this odd juxtaposition when Michael yells ““Pudding! We have pudding!”” He runs to the kitchen again and, in moments, I hear an electric beater going.

Kelley smirks. ““He’’s not much of a cook, but he’s quite the showoff.””

After dinner we move back to the living room. As the evening goes on and the wine goes down our conversation turns more to the personal. Being young adults their thoughts easily shift to their love lives, or rather the lack of love in their lives.

Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 2 of 4)

When they began working together Kelley and Michael decided to do something different.

At first they ask me to guess who they are, then, watching me struggle, admit that Michael is his own invented character, while Kelley has adapted her look for a character in a film too obscure for me to have ever seen. Michael, I thought immediately, must be some sort of super-villain, with his green-hued skin and curling silver horns. “”Close!”” he smiles. In fact he is Spyral, a character from a comic he wrote (but never illustrated since he couldn’’t draw—and couldn’’t find anyone who could to his satisfaction—–he says he wanted “the look of ‘The Watchmen’, but in black and white”) when he was a teenager. Spyral is a morally ambivalent character. A former scientist and victim of a freak lab accident, he has the makings of the archetypal mad scientist, but instead his real priority is mere survival as his body mutates. Sometimes this means breaking into labs or creating his own temporary laboratory in abandoned warehouses where he conducts less than ethical research, but, having never considered himself a part of the world to begin with, he’’s not motivated by revenge. And occasionally his research may have potential benefits for humanity, but that, Michael is quick to tell me, is an accident—“, like Silly Putty”. This backstory also explains Spyral’’s tatty outfit, consisting of a ragged black overcoat, a black t-shirt fading to gray, and black jeans that have been ripped apart at the knee and sewn back together with orange and green thread. His eyes are also, thanks to contacts, orange and green.

So is Kelley, I naively ask, part of Spiral’’s world? Is she one of the “companions” he depends upon? With her pale skin, heavy lidded eyes, and a prominent scar across her forehead she looks like a victim of a lab accident herself. She quickly corrects me. “”Have you ever seen a 1936 Bela Lugosi film called ‘The Demon Bride’?”” I shake my head, but quickly try to recoup any credibility I may have lost by adding that I do own a DVD of ‘Bela Lugosi Meets A Brooklyn Gorilla’. Kelley explains that ‘The Demon Bride’ is extremely rare in spite of its star. “A few prints exist, but there are no copies you can buy in any format.” She tells me she’’s based on the film’s character “Mordella”. “Except for the costume.” Apparently the cinematic Mordella doesn’’t wear a nicely cut jacket, waistcoat, and tapered trousers, all from the same fabric with an elegant black-on-black paisley design.

They both insist that their present characters were born out of unwillingness to compromise. But compromise what, exactly? Even before I ask, though, I already know the answer. When Kelley and Michael say they don’’t want to compromise they mean they don’’t want to be someone they are not. They want to be themselves, even if that does mean applying enough makeup and costuming that they look like someone else. I start to ask Kelley why she chose Mordella, but there are tourists coming, and I feel the need for a latte.

Around noon Kelley and Michael invite me to join them for lunch. Or rather they ask if I’’ll get them lunch from a nearby fast food place, with the offer of further information about their backgrounds. I tell them I’’ll pick up the tab if they’’d like something better, but Michael chuckles and says, “We’’re putting you to enough trouble as it is.” Since they’’ve also invited me to stay with them that’’s more than an exaggeration, but I decide not to argue. Kelley wants a fish sandwich and a sweetened iced tea. Michael requests one of the “signature” salads, saying, ““I have to watch my girlish figure.”” His instructions for how he wants it prepared are so elaborate they take up more than two pages in my notebook and I have to repeat them back. Twice, because he keeps making changes. Maybe I’’ve been enlisted as courier because Michael’’s been banned. But shortly after I’’ve ordered they join me at one of the place’s concrete tables covered by a metal umbrella.

Lunch is brief. I don’’t want to keep them, but there is time for a question that’s been pressing on my mind: have they ever been noticed by anyone in the industry? ““A couple of times,”” Kelley says. ““Once an indie film director—–no name dropping, but even then he was too big to call himself ‘indie’ anymore—–stopped and talked to us. I gave him my card and he said he’’d call if he had a job for me. You know how that goes.””

She hands me her card. It’’s simple— black and white, no embossing. The lower right-hand corner gives a number, an email address, and a website. In the middle is her name and, below that, “Makeup Artist. Design, Application.” I’’m surprised. I thought everyone on the Boulevard was aspiring to work in front of the camera, not behind it. I want to ask about their ambitions, but they’’ve finished and are popping breath mints. Kelley opens her bag and begins applying touch-ups to Michael. Then, taking out a hand mirror, she dabs at her own face with a sponge. She then carefully reapplies her lipstick, which, for the first time, I notice isn’’t black as it appears from a distance. It’’s iridescent, and shimmers purple or turquoise as it turns.

In spite of not being recognizable figures Kelley and Michael do a surprising amount of business, averaging about six tourists an hour, although I’’ll later learn this is a third or less of what the established figures get. Perhaps the attention they draw is because their costumes are so unusual. After all it was their unusual look, followed by Kelley’’s husky, ““Hello, stranger,”” and Michael’s slightly cryptic ““Help is wanted, needed, and available,”” that drew my attention in the first place. What’’s their strategy, though, their desired end game? That takes me back to Kelley’s card. Is she offering a live version of her portfolio? Michael, I’’ve learned, is more in line with the others, a hopeful actor. But he has a dream some producer will see potential in Spyral’’s backstory. Summer bonanzas have been made from less in Hollywood, which is why it’s also “Hollyweird”.

Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 1 of 4)

“Avoid stepping on Bela Lugosi

‘Cos he’s liable to turn and bite,

But stand close by Bette Davis

Because hers was such a lonely life.”

-The Kinks, Celluloid Heroes

Most of the characters have been working Hollywood Boulevard for years. This means that the main cluster, the ones who dress like figures who are more than likely coming to a theater near you this summer or next, frequently know each other. It’s not unusual to see Superman and Thor chatting at a coffee shop, with the original Robocop in line behind them, as though their universes had quietly overlapped. Lattes and mochas in hand Superman, Thor, and Robocop will make their way up a few blocks then cross the street to King’s Shanghai Theater, where Spider-Man and a heavily padded Hulk are already posing for tourists.

It’’s Kelly and Michael who interest me, though, both because they’’re unlike anyone else on the Boulevard. They’’ve worked it long enough to see more than two dozen of their fellow players come and go, in addition to fights over everything from territory and copycatting to outright muggings of other costumed crusaders.

The origin of dressing up as famous characters from movies, or taking advantage of a resemblance, aided with makeup, to a living or dead film star and letting tourists have their picture taken with you is obscure. Doubles were used to promote films even in the days when you could see a Chaplin feature for just a nickel. But people who do it regularly, who aren’’t promoting a specific film, are something very new. It’s also a bicoastal phenomenon–—you can find many of the same characters in New York, but Hollywood Boulevard is, if not the epicenter, then the place that has the greatest concentration.

Some collect money. Is it a job, then, or a hobby? For many, Kelley and Michael tell me, it’’s just a hobby. If I come back on Saturday I’’ll meet a Star Wars Storm Trooper who has been doing it just for fun for almost ten years. The ones out here on Wednesday morning, though, are mostly like buskers, hoping strangers who’’ve opened their cameras will also open their wallets when the hat is offered.

“Is there any resentment toward the weekend warriors?” I ask.

““No.”” Kelley’’s answer is decisive. ““If you don’t get along with the other players you don’’t last on the Boulevard.””

““And it looks bad if there’’s bad blood,”” Michael adds. ““A couple of years ago there was a big fight, and it blew up all over the internet. People didn’’t realize it got so much press because it was so rare. We still talk to people who think fights happen all the time, or who think they’’ll get punched if they don’’t pay us for taking a picture.””

I don’’t tell Michael that I’’m familiar with the incident–—or at least one of them. I have a file of stories, starting with a person in a filthy Elmo costume harassing tourists in New York that first piqued my interest in sidewalk characters. The file is thin because such incidents are rare. Because they’’re mildly sensational they get attention, and this explains why even players like Kelley and Michael, who aren’’t shy about offering the hat, insist they’’re not in it for the money. Those who don’’t contribute are still thanked for stopping. What Kelley and Michael, and some of their fellow players, really hope for is to be noticed. That’s why the prime spot is in front of King’’s Shanghai Palace: it’’s the most famous movie theater in the world, home of more premieres than any other. It’’s also the starting point for the hundreds of tourists who make a pilgrimage to Hollywood Boulevard to study the names on the Walk Of Fame, or to look at the hand and footprints of bygone stars and marvel that Douglas Fairbanks could do such fantastic stunts with such little feet. Seeing characters who, mostly, look like they’’ve stepped right off the movie set onto the sidewalk is an added bonus.

And yet Kelley and Michael have staked out territory in front of the less famous King’’s Babylon Theater. Older than the Shanghai, three blocks away, but also built by Samuel King’’s partnership, it’’s an artifact of art nouveau opulence, a beige rectangle framed at the front with bas relief palm trees. It’’s topped with a ziggurat where, according to legend, William Faulkner would sit on moonlit nights with a candle and a bottle of bourbon and punch up scripts. It fell into disrepair in the seventies, but was restored in the late nineties, and now attracts a steady, albeit small, stream of enthusiasts. Does Hollywood keep these monuments out of reverence for an imagined golden era of the silver screen, or will they only stand as long as history is profitable? Either way it’’s comforting, especially when contrasted with the other side of the street. Directly across from the theater is the coffee shop which has become my observation post, and which has a sign proudly boasting new management. On one side of it a sandwich chain is moving in, the traces of the burrito chain that moved out still lingering. On the other side is an empty space for rent, one of the front windows smashed, and the interior littered with wine bottles.

The location Kelley and Michael have staked out is unusual, but even stranger are the looks they’’ve chosen. When they started they, like the rest, dressed as recognizable characters.

““I was Wonder Woman,”” Kelley explains. Her costume was from the campy ‘70’s TV show, since Wonder Woman is one of the few heroes who hasn’’t gotten a big budget makeover yet. ““But I got tired of the leers, the pawing during pictures. Wonder Woman was a hero to me when I was growing up. I liked her. A lot of guys like her too, but for different reasons.” Too many wanted me to kick them in the nuts. Not that I wouldn’t have liked it in some cases…”

Michael was Magneto. Even then he took the odd tack of being a super-villain, “”but only because I thought I couldn’’t pull off the hero look,”” he says with a trace of bitterness. At just five-foot-six he also lacks Ian McKellan’’s stature. And, in spite of the success of the X-Men franchise, he was still the Boulevard player most likely to be asked, “Who are you supposed to be?” Aside from Darth Vader villains occupy a much lower tier than heroes.

When Kelley and Michael began working together they decided to do something different.

My Dinner with Oscar

February 14, 2014

Hey, I’ m sorry you missed the dinner party. You heard Michael was going to bring this guy he met in his English class, right? And then it turns out Michael couldn’t make it, but this guy shows up anyway. Maybe you’ve heard of him. He’s a writer, mostly plays I think, named Oscar Wilde. I wish I’d known he was coming, so I could have told him it wasn’t really going to be formal, since he showed up in a long black coat, wearing a tie and striped gray slacks. I introduced him to everyone and gave him a glass of wine. He took it saying, "Work is the curse of the drinking classes." None of us were sure what to say to that, but I laughed politely and went back to the kitchen to finish dinner. Chaz came in a few minutes later. I could hear him saying hi to everyone in the living room, and then he came to the kitchen, helped himself to a Dos Perros from the fridge, and started telling me about how much he hates his job again.

Chaz followed me to the dining room when I took out the appetizers. When I came in Kelee was saying, "I don’t know what I can do to keep those two from talking about me behind my back."

I was about to ask who they were when Oscar spoke. "The only thing worse than being talked about," he said, "is not being talked about."

We all looked at each other, except Chaz, who chuckled and said, "Oh yeah." He put his fist up to Oscar, who stared, wide-eyed, at it.

"Come on, dude," said Chaz. "Don’t leave me hangin’ here."

Oscar put up his fist and Chaz bumped it. "Right on!"

I excused myself and went back to the kitchen, followed by Chaz, who wanted another beer. Then Simon came in, puffed up . His eyes were blazing.

"Do you know what’s going on in there?"

"Is anyone choking on a canapé?"

"This Oscar guy lit a cigarette."

"Did you tell him to put it out?"

"Yes! He stabbed it out on your incense burner."

"Great. Thanks." I turned up a burner on the stove. "Thanks for stepping up." I handed him the Chardonnay bottle. "Here, does anyone need more wine? Help me out and refresh everyone’s drinks."

As Simon went back Chaz started talking about how in the sixties people who worked in Mission Control at NASA were required to smoke. I handed him a spoon and got him started stirring the risotto. When he excused himself to "drain the dragon" I sprinkled feta over the salmon and called everyone into the dining room.

Dinner was quiet at first. I assumed this was because everyone was a little uncomfortable with a new guy in our midst. Everyone was digging in and seemed to be enjoying the food, so I said, "I hope it’s all right. This is an old recipe but it’s one I’ve never made for a group this big before. I was afraid I might make a mistake adjusting all the amounts for this many servings."

Everyone around the table said how good it was, except Oscar, who said, "Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes." Chaz laughed and gave Oscar another fist bump, but everyone else was silent and glanced around at me. I wasn’t sure whether this was meant as a compliment or not, and didn’t know what to say, so I just quietly said, "Thank you," and let it go.

"This asparagus is delicious," said Lydia.

"I got it at the farmer’s market. I finally gave up on trying to find good asparagus at the grocery store. It’s always thicker than a tree trunk." Kelee looked over at me. "Would you believe my mother only likes the canned kind?"

"I can’t stand people who do not take food seriously," Oscar said. Chaz laughed again and did a fist bump again, spilling a little wine as his arm hit his glass. Everyone else seemed tense . Rose cleared her throat. After a few seconds that dragged like hours we all started eating again. I sat back and let the silence persist. At least everyone was eating, although with the tension in the room every bite was like ashes in my mouth. I started to ask if anyone would like water or something else to drink, but instead turned to Simon.

"Hey, Simon," I said, "don’t you have a gig coming up?"

"Yeah, in two weeks, at the Cannery." Simon looked around at us. "I hope y’all can make it."

"Simon’s trying out some new songs," said Kelee. "They’re really good." Oscar spoke up. "If one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music people don’t talk."

Chaz nearly choked on his wine and reached over and slapped Oscar on the shoulder. Simon stood up. "What is your deal?" He glared down at Oscar, who merely smiled at Chaz. "Really, what the hell is your problem? You talk like you’re." Simon gestured into the air. "Like.I don’t know." I leaned forward. "Simon, it’s okay, really."

"No, it’s not okay." He turned to me. "Dinner was delicious. Really, it was really good. I’m glad you invited us. And I hope you can make it in a couple of weeks, but I can’t take any more of this. I’ve got to go." He moved to the door and Kelee got up with him. I moved after them.

"Thank you, and I’m sorry," said Kelee to me. She looked over at Oscar who had his back to us, and Chaz, who was holding his empty wine glass over his open mouth and sticking out his tongue. "It was nice seeing everyone, and I hope we can try this again."

As I was seeing them out Lydia and Rose got up and came to the door. "I’m sorry," said Lydia. "It’s late, you know, and we’ve both got to get up early tomorrow." She and Rose both thanked me and apologized again before going out into the night.

"Well," I said, returning to the table where Chaz and Oscar were still sitting. "That was interesting. Let me take your plates. Would you guys like some dessert?" I was thinking of the huge bowl of chocolate mousse in the refrigerator, how I’d overestimated the recipe and made too much even for seven people, let alone three.

"Yeah," said Chaz, holding up his plate. "That was interesting, wasn’t it?" "After a good dinner," said Oscar, "one can forgive anyone, even one’s relatives." This time he held up his fist and looked expectantly at Chaz, who let out one of his loud barking laughs and gave him a bump.

When I came back from the kitchen with heaping bowls of mousse the table was empty. They’d left the front door standing open. I went to it and saw both of them out in the street, walking away. Oscar had his arm around Chaz’s shoulder.

"All of us are in the gutter," I heard him say, "but some of us are looking at the stars."

Chaz yelled, "I LOVE THIS GUY!"

I’m sure I’ll hear about that from the neighbors. Hey, when does Chaz’s girlfriend get back?

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