Monday, May 14, 2012

Consequences Revisited


In a tad under eight years ago, a drug-addled homeless person and former Marine worked his way into a murderous rage on the outer fringes of Beverly Hills.  He somehow gained admission to the home of a screenwriter, Robert Lees, killed Lees, decapitated him, then went tromping out the backdoor of the Lees home, scaled the fence of the neighboring house, encountered the owner of the Stanley Avenue house on the telephone, stabbed him fatally, then fled the scene.

As John Donne put it in his poem, “The death of any man diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”  Fair enough.  You’d taken to reading the names of American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan with that particular shrug of horror at news of a life so needlessly lost in so needless a cause.  You tell yourself you were experiencing a kind of cultural or perhaps existential grief.

You’re pretty sure you’d never met the screenwriter, although there is high probability you’d seen some of the results of his television work.  Difficult to attach much to the news of his death, which you’d learned about only yesterday in a coincidence so well suited to the electronic age and world of the electronic age adjuncts, social networks.

Los Angeles and environs being what they are, there is a chance Robert Lees never knew his backdoor neighbor, who was Morley Engelson, M.D., whom you indeed knew, especially by his less formal name, Buzzy.

At one time, you and Buzzy were approaching the off-handed informality of pre-teens and, later, of early teens, the kind of informality that happens between cousins or does not.  Whenever you appeared at the home of your mother’s oldest brother, you were given cordial greeting and, when appropriate, invitations to dine were offered in ways you had no thought to question.  When you did arrive, the assumption was taken for granted that you and Buzzy had some specific plan or the more casual “hanging out” plan.  He had an older sister with whom you were on comfortable terms which might have been more comfortable yet had you not been prejudiced by an event over which neither you nor she had any hand or control.

At one time, Los Angeles was well served by a dairy run by the matriarch of a pioneer family, the Rindges, whose holdings included an original Spanish land grant in the Malibu area.  The matriarch was named Rhoda.  The dairy took her name, spelled it backwards, whereupon it became Adohr Dairy.  As a shrewd and memorable advertising campaign, the Adohr Dairy published photos of Adohr-a-ble Babies, of which Morley/Buzzy’s sister, Barbara, was one.  Your attitude at the time speaks volumes for you.  Years after the fact, perhaps fueled by your mother having preserved a copy of the advertisement, you nourished the belief that Barbara had been unduly influenced by this event.
As such family things go, you saw Buzzy from time to time when you were both at UCLA.  You were aware of him having been accepted at the University of Chicago Medical School, aware of having been impressed by this fact.  Some time after completion of his residency, he called you, wishing to become your family doctor.  You were pleased to accept, and for a time, your office visits led to coffee or lunch in the restaurant in his building and attempts on both your parts to see if there was connective tissue beyond family connective tissue that could be interpreted as friend connective tissue.

You were aware that he’d remarried, had heard glowing accounts of his wife from your mother, but events took you away from Los Angeles.  There were some hilarious connections with Buzzy’s father, who did his best to lure your father into accepting a full-time position with his clothing store.  As such things go, Buzzy was at neither funeral for your parents nor were you present at the funerals of his.

Somewhere in flight in your mind, in particular since you’d promised your late wife to keep her adult ed classes going, you’d think of family members alive and dead, reminding yourself, as family numbers began to dwindle, that somewhere in Los Angeles, you had Buzzy, who had owner’s shares of race horses, and Barbara, who’d married a man named Hugo.  You’d count these two cousins and the daughter of your mother’s youngest brother, wondering if you’d ever hear more, much less meet.

You have another pair of cousins, second cousins, children of the son of your mother’s older sister.  You get some news of them through your youngest niece, including a recent photograph of the gravesite of this cousin, who is interred in Tahiti.

 Memoir, you have come to recognize, is you, or the individual writer in context with family and with others, friends, perhaps, or associates.  You have more memories of he whom you will now call The Tahiti cousin than he whom you still think of as Buzzy.  As a simple descriptor, you and the Tahiti cousin were more mischievous, frequently at one prank or another to the point of having to stuff handkerchiefs in your mouths to keep from betraying your capers with laughter.

You found out about Buzzy yesterday in an accidental meeting on Facebook with his ex wife, the result of you hitting the wrong link.  Suddenly, you are one cousin less, which is an enormous inflation of the occasional thought you gave to him.

Exchanging notes with his ex wife, you had a mental image of one of the after-office visits with Buzzy, something, you seem to recall had to do with you having a constantly dripping nose and Buzzy whipping out his prescription book with a flourish and writing, Sudafed, and some of the prescription shorthand so favored by doctors.  Whereupon Buzzy described a project he was hoping to assemble for his wife, wondering if you could help him locate a craftsperson who could make a hand-made booklet.  You could, and did, writing her name and phone number on one of the three-by-five index cards you’d begun to carry at the time.

Buzzy did not tend to stay too long with his wives.  In reminiscing briefly with her, you spoke of remembering the leather booklet.  Dale was vibrant with the connection, telling you it was a scant three feet from her as she wrote to you.

The drug-addled ex-Marine is in maximum-security prison serving two life sentences with no hope of parole.  In a gruesome and grotesque sense, he gave you back a missing cousin a month short of eight years ago, when he killed Buzzy.

Earlier this morning, when you were having coffee with a former student, she reminded you of something you’d said that influenced her decision to set her career on hold and write.

All about you, persons are saying things, doing things, not saying things, not doing things that have downstream consequences.  The remarkable Canadian writer, Jeanette Winterson, wrote a memoir about her homophobic stepmother, her memories of events and their consequences hitting you like cold splashes of water to the face.  She gave you a picture of consequences that made her.  She is the third writer in recent years you’ve seen needing to relieve herself of that burden of consequences.  Louise Erdrich and Joan Didion are the other two.

Consequences define us.  Thus defined, we act or do not act, speak or do not speak, write or do not write.  Julian Barnes has captured this phenomenon with great skill in The Sense of an Ending.  It is fiction, but of course so much of the consequences and pivotal events in your life are fiction in the sense of their being your interpretations.

What consequence, real or imagined, was Kevin Lee Graff attacking when he killed a screen writer, decapitated him, then, not satisfied with that, strode across a yard, found Buzzy, and killed him?


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