Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Babylon Revisited

You head south on the PCH, comfortably ahead of the start-and-stop go-home traffic.  The day is a comfortable overcast, but that means little to the surfers, who will be out in any weather.  Your destination is quite close to one of the iconic surfer landmarks, Rincon Point, a gentle sweep of a south-facing inlet.

You make good time through the lower depths of Santa Barbara, into the first outlier, the village of Summerland, then past the leisurely curve of the Padaro Road offramp, moving steadily toward Santa Claus, wondering in passing, why anyone ever goes there, wondering with greater specificity why you go there when you find yourself there.


After another mile, the beginnings of the Carpinteria offramp until, at length, you're past those and moving over to the right lane, taking the downward tilt of road toward the Bates Road turnoff.  A quick right at the first road, and you're soon at the gate to Rincon Point homes.  You punch in the code, oh-five-oh, wait while it dials, then a familiar voice answers.

In a brief moment, the motorized gate reminds you of a tall person at a patisserie, standing to brush croissant crumbs from his chest and lap.  The gate seems to lurch, then begins to roll open.  

You drive through, onto a street with the engaging Spanish name of Puesta del Sol.  A few hundred yards down the road and you pull into a parking area, parking directly in back of a sign that reads THOU SHALT NOT PARK HERE.

You flip the gate latch, then become set on by two dogs, a cast-eyed Aussie Shepherd, and an imperious Pomeranian, who take on about you as though you were a door-to-door salesman or someone up to no good.  This continues for less than a minute before they realize they know you.  This is the home of one of your oldest and dearest friends.

The last time you saw him, it was here, in the living room, where the Hospice nurses had set a hospital bed.  He was sipping through a straw a weakened version of one of his favorite drinks, rum and Diet Coke.  Some eight or ten hours after you'd last seen him here, his wife called you to tell you not to bother to come because he'd ventured on, most likely in his sleep.

Over the years, you'd spent a good deal of time here, were familiar with the arrangements of books in the shelves, the seemingly formless manner in which all kinds of framed drawings, watercolors, oils, and shrewdly executed trompes l'oeil hung.  Nearly every available space was covered with a bevy of items your friend had carved in what he'd begun to call his whittling period, sometimes given whimsical paint jobs, other times more a camouflage, still other times as though they, too, were trompes l'oeil.

Much of your friend's life could be said to be a trompe l'ceil; he was the very incarnation of a trick of the eye himself, a man owned by his work.  Ah, his work.  Dozens of books. Novels, memoirs, and any number of titles whose content meant to show readers how they could, if they listened with care, write things as charming, insightful, and humorous. Dozens of stunning charcoal sketches.  Countless oil portraits, and, when the mood struck him, the practiced hand of a watercolorist who knew the important issue relating to watercolor:  get it down fast, get it down right the first time.

You have not been here since February 11, 2013.  Neither has he, but in the sense you experienced today, you'd been here many times, and of a certainty, he was here today, his presence manifest in his drawings, carvings, paintings, and the mischievous sense of humor resident in all the objects of art created by him, sprinkled about the house.

He had yet another talent, one you hear referred to as people skills from time to time.  In his living room or den or even in his work room, you managed to meet many of the writers and performers you grew up reading and admiring, the width of this smorgasbord scale exemplified by writers Julia Child and William Styron, by  Bob Kane, the creator of Batman and Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts.

Because of him, you were on first-name basis with persons you might never have met, only read or watched in their performances.  Budd Schulberg.  John Hersey.  Eudora Welty.  Gore Vidal, and the opportunity to spend time with Elmore Leonard, whom you'd met while working for his paperback reprint publisher, Dell.

Most important of all, the spoken and unspoken during moments where lunch at least twice a week and more if you were editing one of his many books.  The conversations, wild and wide as they ranged, were counterpoint to the silences two friends share.  Often, in those silences, you saw something of his at work you could aspire to bring into your own life.  A favorite joke-by-exaggeration of his was to ask, when watching some complex form of behavior, "But how does [it or that] know what do do?"

It is a simplicity to say that if he wished to know how a thing were accomplished, he'd take it apart, examine the components, they try to restore it.  His name, because you have not mentioned it here, was Barnaby Conrad.  Two and a half years without him in your life have caused the perspective to come into play you need to have in your toolkit when dealing with grief.

The business of you being impressed by his curiosity must have sunk in; on the occasions when he appears in your dreams, he seems to be asking, "How do they do that?"

Considering the forty years of your friendship, two and a half years without sucks, but in addition to the memories, you have the gift of curiosity, the wonderment of how a story or behavior or condition reached the stage it was in when you first encountered it.

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