excerpt > Lou Mathews > California
This is the Sunset Strip House of Blues and if you know the joint you know what a feat it is to be sitting, because there are only a few quasi-chairs.
There is a herd of stools with no backs, but that’s not sitting. Basically, at the House of Blues they like you to be standing, which is another way of saying they like you to be young.
There are six quasi-chairs in the back of the show room, six tall stools with backs. H o B chairs. They back up against a narrow table that the idlers behind us use as a rail to lean against. We old guys congregate there, clutching our drinks because that table is really too narrow to set a drink on and if you did, it would be behind you so you couldn’t always see it, and unattended drinks, even brown ones like mine, tend to vanish within this young and agile crowd.
When a chair opens up there’s usually a lot of fast fiftyish shuffling, which tonight is appropriate because tonight is reggae night. Everett Blender is on stage, keeping up that slow churning beat so that when a chair opens up and the old guys bob and lunge toward it, it looks like they’re appropriately dancing. Everett Blender is very black and not very tall and not very good, but he has a kind of staff, a tall stick like an upside-down L that has horny spikes, or spikey horns, on the L part. And the stick, which he uses to direct and clear space with, is impressive, and so is his band and the two jellyworm chick singers who are not only not intimidated by the staff, but don’t pay attention at all to Everett Blender.
Toots and the Maytals are up next and that’s who most of us are waiting for, but because the band and the undulant backups are so good we’ll put up with Everett Blender. Mostly you can’t understand a word he says or sings except for Jah and Jamaica and Good Spirit and Selassie which are repeated with every song, either in the song or in the introduction, with thrusts of the stick.
Rastafarians aren’t any sillier than Mormons, theologically, but their music is better. I won’t listen to ten seconds of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and I’ll sit through an evening of Everett Blender because of that beat. Also their dope is better and the contact high floating back from this choogling crowd almost makes sense of it all. I know Everett thinks or hopes that we come to listen because of Jah, but we don’t. It’s like a cult of really good barbers who also just happen to believe that the earth is flat and assume you’re there to hear about the flatness of the earth and incidentally get a haircut. In the middle of all this there is an odd lull. A bodybuilderlooking guy in front of us with porcupine dreadlocks has lit an enormous spliff and waved it like incense for all of us.
Nobody pays him any attention, this after a waitress called Security’s attention to a frontwards baseball-cap-guy who lit up a Lucky Strike and held it cupped, waving it in his hand between sneaked puffs. They threw him out and then the lull set in and the chair to the right of me opened up and the chair to the left of me opened up and no one rushed to fill them. Into the middle of all this walks a guy, real old guy, maybe fifty-eight, who looks familiar, kind of a potato-shaped head and pale peeled-potato face, jowly with a veiny potato nose. Everything else about him is black, atonal black coiled hair, black stubble, black eyes, black pants, black shirt and an Italian black leather jacket that looks like scalloped armor. The jacket creaks expensively as he walks and even more as he sits to my left, boosting up and bumping down on the tall chair. I ignore him until I realize he is inclining himself in my direction. Slowly I turn to face him. It’s a really familiar face, now about three inches from my own. He doesn’t hold out his hand or anything, but he’s clearly introducing himself.
“Hey,” he says. “I’m Not Oliver Stone.” There’s a pause as he reels his face back. “I just want to make that clear.”
“What?” I say, a little reflexively.
“Because of what’s going to happen,” Not Oliver Stone says.
“Because of what always happens. Sooner or later someone is going to ask you to confirm or deny, and now that I’ve told you, you can say, ‘No, he’s Not Oliver Stone.’”
“I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone like that,” I tell him, again a little reflexively.
“Well, you might have to because it always happens,” he says. And it pretty much does happen the way he said it would. Inside a minute he’s surrounded by three teenage blondes who all have the same two-dimensional face, except for the smartest, skinniest one who has a nose and might be more like thirty. She’s dragged a stool with her and wedged it next to Not Oliver Stone. The other two dance around, flit off for conferences and return. I can’t make out the conversation but Not Oliver is enjoying himself, almost reclining. Eventually there is a pause and she repeats herself and I can hear her
say, “So what do you do?”
Not Oliver Stone looks at her significantly and then, significantly, he turns away. He turns to me. “So,” he says to me, “what do you do?”
I am pretty certain by now that he might be Oliver Stone, but this being L.A. and most particularly the Sunset Strip, I can’t really be sure. He could be pretending to be pretending that he was who he said he wasn’t.
Well, fuck it. This might be my only chance to get my drink refilled. “I do Government work,” I say.
Not Oliver Stone nods sagely. “You work for the Government,” he says. His eyebrows ripple and strain like wooly bear caterpillars stuck on flypaper. “Ahh, in what aspect would that be? Of Government.”
“I do Government work,” I’m running with Jesus now, “but I can’t talk about it.”
Not Oliver Stone nods sagely again but then ruins the whole wisdom-effect thing he had going with a ludicrous wink and simper that turns into a nod toward the stage and Everett Blender.
“Immigration maybe?” his voice is an augmented whisper, some sort of special effect, “would that be the kind of work you do?”
“Immigration?” I say. “That’s kind of insulting. Makes me think that maybe you haven’t been cleared. All I can tell you is that I’m on the scientific end of things.”
He was clearly interested now. He air-elbowed the skinny blonde who was trying to insinuate herself and then hissed away a waitress who was trying to present him with a green drink on a silver plate. “What appellation?” he asked, “N.I.H.? N.E.S.C.? S.C.I.?” The waitress tried to present again, she bobbed upward, clearly she’d worked there a long time, she had those rubbed features, always catching herself on a slurred vowel and recovering, “Man’…man’ger’s compliments. Your gimlet.” She placed the tray under his nose.
A mistake. He sniffed and tipped it over. “I said Ruuskvi Standarte. Pre-Wall. Kremlin reserve. This was negotiated. If you don’t have it, just tell me. I would adjust. But I hate these kinds of surprises. Does Mikhi no longer work here?”
I held out my empty glass, “JD rocks, splash water,” but she was moccasining away, stemmed glass rolling on the silver tray.
Not Oliver refocused on me with real heat. “You’re not N.D.N.A.L., are you?”
“As far as I know,” I said, “that organization does not exist. If tortured I would still deny its existence.”
That was what he wanted to hear. “Tell me your name.”
D. Dale Davis is what it is. I added the D. a few years ago when that all made sense. Like the tattoo. But that’s not what I tell him. I don’t want him to recall the name later or the scripts of mine he’s spurned.
“E. Eddie Edwards,” was what I told him.
“E. Eddie,” Not Oliver Stone said, “you don’t have to confirm or deny, but just tell me where you are in the process. Have you started sampling yet? Are lists being made?”
Why not. “Officially,” I said, “the Administration is against human cloning. They have issued that policy statement.”
Not Oliver gleefully waited for me to finish. He was nearly bouncing. “I knew it. I knew it.”
The listless waitress appeared again but she was up now. She stood well away, proffering her tray and its luminous green drink.
“Ruuskvi Standarte,” she said, “Mikhi guarantees on the life of his dogs.” Her diction was auditionally crisp.
Not Oliver ignored her. He was over-focused on me. He looked like a bloodhound on point.
“Around 1986,” I said, “Defense got a little jealous of Interior. A gas testing site near Camp Pendleton got shut down because of Spifex Catalina, a rare and useless moth. Interior actually curtailed important military operations by claiming a need to protect endangered species or natural resources. We lost a bomb run in Nevada to rhyolite miners. That was humiliating. Some of us in Defense recognized that we had no natural resources, which was the Holy Mother Grail, politically speaking.”
The waitress had listened intently, focusing as closely as Not Oliver. When I paused, she downed the gimlet. “Can I get you guys anything else?” she said. Not Oliver blinked.
I raised a finger, “JDrocksdouble” but she’d already gone abstract, far beyond waitress. She went transcendental wobbly and then gathered. “That’s not Ruuskvi Standarte,” she said, and tottered off.
“When cloning became feasible,” I continued, “that seemed to us to be an area of opportunity. A way into the natural resources pool. We wanted our own area of sympathetic response. It seemed to us that we had that in the gene pool of Great Americans, dead and living.
“How could you not want Albert Einstein on your side in the event of another external threat, rogue state or emerging power.”
“The Post-Dolly syndrome.” Not Oliver was smug now. Clearly he had researchers, about the random level one finds in the movie business. I continued. “What sold Congress were the possibilities, once we explained that, beyond initial cloning, a breeding program could be established. You could bring Einstein back as Albert, or with a twist of the test tube, so to speak, as Alberta. The sizzle we sold them was: Suppose you could approach the next imminent conflict with the offspring of Alberta Einstein and Edmund Teller. Scientific genius without premature humanistic tendencies. Drive, ambition, an appreciation of Realpolitik without waffling.
“We are written into the budget as a single submarine, the USS Bear Bryant. One point eight billion dollars which will never reach New Groton, Connecticut.”
“That would be one ugly baby,” Not Oliver said.
“In more ways than one,” I replied.
The waitress was back, completely furious now and focused, with a full tray of gimlets which she hurled at Not Oliver from ten feet. “You bastard,” she screamed, “you don’t even remember me. Melissa! Melissa!” As the glasses chimed and crashed around us, Security swept in. Onstage, Everett Blender took note of the parting of the crowd and raised his stick and shook it toward us, “All for Jah. All for Selassie.” The biggest Security guy waved a hand to Everett Blender as they dragged the waitress away and set down four new gimlets at Not Oliver’s elbow. Back at her station, Security released her to her peers and they gathered and held her. “Hang in, Tori,” the bartender said. The other waitresses patted and crooned.
What I said was, “Once the budget was in place and the library was established, we swept through the scientific community. Basically, anyone with a Ph.D. is in the bank. Then, since the money was in place and we wanted to justify the new submarine, we started to look at the arts.”
“Because somebody,” Not Oliver resonated (that augmented speech box thing was on again), “needs to entertain those scientists!”
“That’s when we ran into problems,” I said. “Because it turns out that while no congressman would dare opine about science or scientists, even the meekest has an opinion about art and artists.
They started drawing up lists.”
“Everybody’s a critic,” Not Oliver Stone said, not unsadly.
“Oh, don’t worry,” I said, “you made some of the lists. The problem was, there were so many lists, they ended up with an A-List,
B-List, C-List and an In-Case-of-National-Emergency-List.”
“Am I A-List?” The caterpillars were crawling again.
I was enjoying it now. “Kinda B-plus,” I said. “You did really well in Wisconsin.”
His brow unfurrowed. Total Frida Kahlo look. “I am on the DNA B-List?” Too late I understood what the unfurrowed brow meant—he’d gone into studio survivor mode.
Concentration, for him, clearly meant absence of thought, just reaction. It was a gift, the kind that gets movies made. What I expected was that he would ask how much it would cost to move up to A-List.
And then after more lack of thought, how much it would cost to demote a few friends and mentors to B. That wasn’t happening. He went from reactive to smug in a heartbeat. “Thank you for your, uhhhhn, expertise.” There was a slight pause as he tried to remember my name, then gave up. “But the technical advisors from Platoon are now flag-rank and higher. I think I can sort this out.”
I lost it. Couldn’t help it. So unfair. He would be moving up the list, if there was one, by morning. If there wasn’t a list, one would be created and he could take credit and I would be just another Idea Man he’d ripped off before I’d even known that I had an Idea.
“Platoon sucked,” I whispered. “A medieval miracle play. They could have been wearing signs—Good, Evil. So did JFK and Wall Street. The Doors was an abomination!” I was yelling now. The crowd had cratered around us and was leaning in; Not Oliver was clearly enjoying the attention. Even Everett Blender paused. “The only good movie you ever made,” I shouted, “was Salvador and that was only because James Woods took it over and wrote his own dialogue and directed himself!”
The imploded crowd whispered and sizzled but Not Oliver didn’t react except that his eyebrows seemed to have disappeared. I was facing a brow as broad and placid as Orson Welles’ dying Kane.
I hated that unseemly metaphor. If there was anyone who was a non-icon, it was this guy.
What he said was, “Yes.”
“Yes,” he said. “People tell me that a lot…and it may even be true…but of course....” I knew what he was going to say. I despaired.
“But of course,” he said, “I’m Not Oliver Stone.”
He crooked a finger and Security moved in. As they closed on me I could see Everett Blender waving his stick in benediction.
“Ahhhhhh, the Righteous Mon,” Everett sang.
“You fucked up every major theme of my generation,” I wailed.
They pinned my arms and started to duckwalk me away. Not Oliver held up a hand. “Turn him,” he said. “Stand him up.” They held me and stood me up.
“Yesssss,” Not Oliver said, “your brilliant Mr. Woodssss. He went on to quite a career. Diggstown. Ever see that one, hmmmmm?
I’m sure the payment for that performance allowed him to do some worthy play or independent feature.” Worthy was a curse on his lips.
I reeled backwards. Not Oliver dismissed me with a flick of his hand and turned his attention to the stage.
“I got to get me one of those sticks,” he said to the skinny blonde. “Be great on the set.”
They rolled me out like a handtruck, my heels bumping on the steps. As we passed the corner of the back bar, a bristly bartender, big, wrestler-looking guy wearing a t-shirt covered with Cyrillic script came over and nodded at me encouragingly. I was close enough now to read his nametag, MIKHI, and the English translation of his shirt: Georgia on My Mind. Mikhi winked at me and brought a magnumsized bottle out from beneath the bar. More Cyrillic script.
“Ruuskvi Standarte,” Mikhi said, “the real thing and he never get a drop of it. I make sure.”
“Tell him James Woods is on the A-List,” I said.
Mikhi raised a fist for me and his face clenched with some emotion I didn’t recognize.
Enthusiasm? Solidarity? He shook the fist for me. “We do what we can, kidski.”
"Not Oliver Stone" by Lou Mathews appears in California Prose Directory 2016: New Writing from The Golden State, edited by Sarah LaBrie. Learn more about the anthology here.
$18.50 paperback. $12 ebook.
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