INTRODUCTION : MY LIFE, MY WORK.
Self-portrait on a yellow background with cigarette:
“What are you? Who am I? Those are the questions that constantly persecute and torment…For the Ego is the great veiled mystery of the world…”A quest for self-knowledge which Max Beckmann, a German painter, never stopped developing through 200 self-portraits painted during his 50 years of career, and which I can’t unfortunately leave aside.
Who am I? This is a significant existential question. To begin with, I was born on the 10th of July, just like the well-known Bernard Buffet and Camille Pisaro to my father’s delight, a Parisian art dealer. The absolute beauty, the Sublime: here is how could be summed up my father’s reason for living and ultimate goal in life. He was keen on repeating to me: “Only the Sublime can help us in daily life”. This was the perception of a French painting specialist which he was doggedly applying, not only in his work, but also in his private life. What surrounded him was meant to be a reason for the deepest elation, for the soul development.
“Elevating, ravishing, elating, darling, always remember Nicolas Boileau’s renowned expression. Never content yourself with an ordinary conception of normality” he had much moralized me the day when he came to fetch me at the Magic Bowling on Pico Boulevard.
I had tried to justify my short distraction by explaining the celebration of one of my classmates’ birthday but that was not enough.
“What kind of pleasure is that when spending hours trying to knock over some miserable wooden skittles by taking ridiculous postures in a shortening-filled ambiance? I don’t understand. This is really the height of social mediocrity. What about your friend’s parents, don’t you find them appalling with ordinariness? Her father with his eyes as empty as African ground waters, and her mother, who felt like she had to invite me to gaze at her ‘fantastic’ Chinese copy of Sunflowers. Blair, darling, tell me that you understand what I’m explaining to you?!”
I had only quietly acquiesced and had immediately reopened the conversation on one of his favourite themes: Is Art useful? Intellectual mediocrity was forbidden to me. So, at the age of nine, I was already able to ask my way in four different languages like Mandarin or Hebrew, and I knew how to write my name in Japanese and in Arabic. Many times over I had been indignant because I would have liked a progenitor without any unpredictable demand, any taste for the absolute; a kind of father like in Dostoyevsky’ books, an alcoholic and failed musician without any illusion about life realities, a father who accepts my playing bowling and who does not ask me to recite three pages of the handbook dedicated to the main French pictorial movements. Most of the time, and in particular with my classmates, I tried not to flaunt my knowledge which was nearly bulky, even if it was always displeasing to hear that Saratoga was a Western brand of sparkling drink or that the Pan-Americanism was the name of the last trendy hat. Days of great depression, and in particular when my father persisted in taking me to useless retrospective (Vincent Currin, a modern artist or an unaccomplished genius ?) I continuously mulled over this quotation by Beckmann at the end of his life:
“It is the quest of our self that drives us along the eternal and never-ending journey we must all make.”
The artist’s mother:
Devastation: A metaphor brought in by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan so as to point out the relationship which links a daughter to her mother, and which could undoubtedly apply to the relationships I had with my own mother, a frail and disturbed human being whose mood was as fluctuating as public opinion polls during presidential elections. The slightest vexation and the tiniest inconvenience were likely to provoke unpredictable, even nearly neurotic reactions on this born-and-bred Californian. You could easily be convinced by counting the number of times she got married. The first time was with a particular Edward, my father. Their eyes had met on a foggy morning on the deck of the Sea Serenade liner.My father had never held the representatives of the American Civilization dear to his heart because he considered them uncultivated and deeply debauched. However, he had accepted to go on this cruise, which led him to the seas lining the Hawaii Islands, with the only aim of keeping company to one of his most faithful clients. With that crushing sense of humour which characterized him well, my father had posed as a Pentecost medium the first three days of his maritime journey: he kept repeating to anyone who’d care to listen that he was able to get in contact with dead people.He even revealed to a group of wealthy retired people from North Dakota that Elvis Presley was still alive, being a manager in a petrol station in the North of France, somewhere between Vesoul and Belfort.This little game kept him busy until his eyes met Karen’s and his feverish heart throbbed widely like a bolting horse. Alas, this nautical love at first sight did not last long. Indeed, my progenitor quickly grew tired of his mermaid and her several whims. They only stayed together for better or worse, for nine short years, just enough to conceive me and to realize that this union did not allow them to reach a satisfying personal fulfilment. After some celibacy time, which Karen described as reasonable, she resumed her hunt and set her heart on an Austrian painter whose name was Klaus. I had nicknamed him the “damned artist”. Just like a modern Amadeo Modigliani, Klaus, a repentant ex-alcoholic who was always broke, living in a very sober way as he only owned a few clothes and his art equipment. This hobo, always on the move, used to live independently and without any material restraint, only guided by the truth of his art. Several periods followed each other in his artistic production. From my modest point of view, the most edifying painting of his primitive tendency was the very soberly entitled Saturated surfaces. A series of bifacial Palaeolithic items on a black background which aim was to point out the denial of historical time by a return on the primitive period. “An almost grotesque canvas”, was the only comment my father made about it. Then came the cubist quite analytic tendency, marked by a really essential work of art, Sinful woman and pain of childbirth. Here’s what John Golding said: “Cubism is an absolutely original pictorial language, a totally new approach to the world, and a conceptualised aesthetic theory.” Indeed, Klaus’ painting turned out to be a concept that only the artist himself could be in a position to comprehend it, as it was not comprehensible for us, mere mortals. Abstract art was the last tendency of this artistic session, with the Dialectic painting. A black square on a white background which did not aim at representing the tangible world or any visual reality, but only mere shapes and colours. Bewildered, I had attended to the interview Klaus had agreed to give at the very posh review of contemporary art: Art in California, in order to stand up for his canvas:
“Mister Schulzer, could you explain to our faithful readers the deep meaning of your last work?” The journalist had asked while nonchalantly moistening her lips.
“Well, mentioning nothingness means revoking existence and the other way round. The Nothingness is the non-existence, which is the non-being. It is about a state of inexistence, of course.”
Klaus had then made a short break during which he had stared at the ceiling, as if confused sentences had been prompted to him from beyond.
“Let’s be more precise” he had suddenly said “and let’s refer to the neoplatonician analysis of Nothingness, more generally called the Nothingness of Transcendence. It is an interpretation of Nothingness based upon intervals of human existence. This fundamental principle is the negation of transcendence, the cause of itself and the principle of all, it is a creative energy.”
In a state of shock over the mystic-philosophical ranting of the master, the blond journalist had only nodded, just before slipping away as quickly as she could, even if she had short legs. Over this five-year relationship, I met Klaus around twenty times at home. He spent nearly all his time locked in his workshop in the basement, either painting, or complaining that nobody understood his art, as he was a sad and misunderstood visionary. Luckily, Klaus was a serene painter; there were no useless mutilations because of a sudden vexation, or not any compulsive need to urinate on his canvas to give them a smoother impression. Karen and him got separated on the day of my fourteenth birthday, when he decided to try his luck in Central Europe. My mother let him go the same way you get rid of an old-fashioned toy, or a pet that would have become too bulky. Her artistic period was over.Finally, to end in a stylish way this chapter dedicated to men passing through my loving mother’s life, to those transient male presences, I will dedicate here a few lines about the young Justin, a twenty-year-old beautiful young man, his chest as glistening as a polished stone in the sun.Justin had succeeded to captivate my mother, one evening of drinking session in Las Vegas, thanks to a strip teaser act, dressed like a naughty police officer with alluring hips. Love at first sight was immediate, as Karen had always been fond of men with uniforms. A few hours later, surely under the influence of alcohol and other illegal substances, the two lovers found themselves dressed up like Elvis and Priscilla Presley, getting married in one of the numerous chapels of the worldwide capital of gambling. Justin only left me with few precise memories of his being with us. It took him two years to fall for one of our closest neighbour, Angela Carter, seventy years old, and a third lifting quite imperfect. But these insignificant details had not repulsed our young Julien Sorel, who, eager to move in with his new Madame de Renal , had packed his luggage as quickly as a serviceman who was granted a leave. When the young Justin left, Karen faced two very different periods. The first one was a period of compulsive shopping on her favourite TV shopping channel. My mother spent the six next months glued to her TV screen as if she was hypnotized by Jay O’Brian, the famous front man who, just like the snake Kaa in the Jungle Book, seemed to have caught Karen in his net, by whispering to her in a languorous voice:
“Trust in me, just in me
Shut your eyes and trust in me
You can sleep safe and sound
Knowing I am around
Slip into silent slumber
Sail on a silver mist
Slowly and surely your senses
Will cease to resist”
The consequence was that, every week, very useless electric appliances landed at home. The kitchen area was the first to be affected. Here’s, in order, what we received: a convenient mural scales, a traditional steriliser, a fruit-pitter, a precision egg-cutter and a useful apple-peeler. Then she decided to strike at the do-it-yourself area. She purchased a case with 57 sockets, a radial saw, and a professional workbench. The house only knew a few days break before the second phase began: the hardcore sex one. So Karen got laid with every one who made the mistake of entering the house: from the Jehovah’s Witness who looked lunatic, to the sales representative with starched shirts, including our postman with an uncertain daily hygiene. Then, just like a battlefield after a defeat, the crazy screams and tears made way to an apparent quietness nearly frightening. Karen had seemed to have come to her senses. Until this fateful October evening, I had convinced myself that those matrimonial failures had succeeded in deterring from yielding again to Cupid’s sharp arrows, but I was greatly mistaking, as I was about to find it out.
The artist workshop:
When my parents made up their mind to get separated because of irreconcilable disagreements, my father, before going back to his native country, France, did not forget to shelter permanently my mother and I from need. One of his last presents was an imposing white villa, just in the heart of the Santa Monica hills. Just like a real aesthete, an art lover, he had settled on a neo-Greek mansion built in the thirties. “A dream of harmony, balance and proportion” according to my father. With its ostentatious façade and a pompous alignment of Doric pilasters and circular pediments, the house, which was crowned with a cupola and a finial, looked like a Greek temple. We were from then on the goddesses of this place of worship. This modest 800-square-metres dwelling, overlooking the Santa Monica bay, was situated in one of the biggest residential parks whose access was highly secured and in which one could enter with badges and fingerprints. But, as soon as my father left, like a politician willing to establish his mark on the State organization, my mother decided to redecorate the entire mansion in a Californian way. In her devastating rage, she first decided to strike at the park, which was originally a large stony area full of cactus, agapes and aloes. The mechanical din of backhoe loaders dragged me out of bed on the morning of the massacre. She had decreed that she wanted to make a clean sweep for her new overflow pool, last whim aiming at filling a deep feeling of loneliness. So, Karen, without consulting me, made everything disappear within a few hours. The swimming pool was installed two days later. This particular swimming-pool, whose model was called Neptune, was made of marble from Carrara, surrounded by a spectacular Greco-Roman portico covered with old-looking mosaics. The coup de grâce happened when she installed reproductions of antique statues along the central alley: a lonely Psyche echoed back a vindictive Nemesis or a wounded Artemis. Then, it was the turn of the house itself to undergo a complete lifting. In order to bring this delicate remodelling operation into fruition, my mother called one of the most famous interior designers of the coast, Pamela Springfield. Her fame was not to be proved, as she had been asked the total renovation of Donald Trump’s flat on the very prestigious Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Pamela had hastened to show us the pictures which had been published in the international newspapers.The flat in question, which occupied three levels in the Trump Tower, a huge glass and steel phallus erected opposite Central Park, could be described as a tangle of golden mouldings, baroque mirrors and tasteless furniture.
“Pamela, this is just awesome. The landscape of antique ruins in the stairs is deeply moving” my mother was filled with enthusiasm. “I can’t wait to see the result!”
“Karen, with your inherent taste for furnishing, I am pretty sure that we will achieve great things together” had answered Pamela with a charming tone. “As far as your home is concerned, I can see an abounding decoration, arabesques, cherubs, wooden chests, and chairs with backs, oh yes, I can see the Italian Renaissance.”
A hint of Renaissance, which resulted, during the next weeks, in marble polychromy, trompe-l’oeil paintings, stucco from floor to ceiling and extreme colours on walls. Once this ‘large-scale construction projects’ over, it took me many months to chase out of my mind this unpleasant impression that I was living at The Medicis between Piero “The Gouty” and Lorenzo “The Magnificent”, all of this on a Florentine conspiracy background.
However, I kept, until my departure from Utah, a special attachment for this place, last present from my father just before our paths never met again, except for very brief school vacations.
CHAPITRE I – JUDGEMENT DAY
(Jerome Bosch, painting on wood, 1504)
Lying on my bed, with my hands joined on my body, I had the same posture as a recumbent statue on a gravestone. I had been remembering for the ten last minutes the same anxious gestures so that I could make sure I was not being delirious.
But soon, I had to face the truth. Even though I closed my eyes, I stopped breathing or I re-opened them a few seconds later, my immediate environment remained hopelessly unchanged. On my right, the alarm-clock still showed 10 p.m. and 58 seconds and my huge dog, lounging on the carpet, was still staring at me with that discreet look which could be compared to a nurse watching over a mentally ill patient capable of a sudden hysteria. Jumping out of my bed, with my anguish stuck to my body, I lit a cigarette. But that night, nothing could calm my despair down, not even that smell of warm tobacco so familiar to me. I began to pace up and down my bedroom along the walls, like a prisoner in a narrow cell. The disastrous split, the key event where fate crystallises itself: that was what had just crossed my short existence. This moment was like suspended, timeless, changing dramatically the running of time, like this rainy day in September 1939 when Hitler decided to invade Poland. Almost without knowing it, my mother had just disrupted all my plans, my hopes, my future, ruining my seventeen-year peaceful life, full of mindlessness and happy memories. It was October, Sunday the 12th. It was 11 p.m. on the West-American coast and my life was about to shift into absolute horror. While rare curls of smoke were still escaping from the cigarette butt I had in my hand, I tried to remember, as neatly as possible, the last decisive events. I had been caught in a trap as soon as Karen went back from her last business trip in Florida, three weeks earlier. She had come home changed, or completely transformed I should say. “Never quite the same, nor completely another” . To begin with, she changed physically. Karen had given up her long hair with an expensive Californian highlighting. Instead, she had her hair cut in a bob, in a very classic way, too sober for her. Overnight, and without any explanation, daily sessions on a sun bed had ceased, and the maternal skin had gradually regained a pigment more adequate with the “Caucasian” style. Finally, “Botox” parties regularly organized at home had been replaced by very different meetings, which were dedicated to organic cosmetics made with honey soup, zucchinis juice and other slimy vegetables.
Thus, within a few days, my mother, who was the exact copy of Donatella Versace had become Hillary Clinton’s in her phase post the Lewinsky scandal. In the same way, a very distinct disturbance had happened in my mother’s dressing-room. Karen who used to like plunging neckline and dresses slit until the fifth vertebra had donated nearly all her tempting clothes to our Mexican native cleaning woman Consuela, affectionately rechristened Frida, because of her thick black eyebrows. To finish with, the high maternal authority found it necessary to inform me she was about to sell to Bradley Walsh, her main partner, the whole amount of her parts in the estate agencies network specialized in very expensive possessions which they had been managing for more than fifteen years in Santa Monica. In spite of this sudden metamorphosis, I had succeeded to avoid any extreme panic. Very soon, I had understood Karen was the Gemini archetype, under the perfidious influence of Mercury. A complex personality, unduly scattering and getting distracted; a nervous, emotional, anxious and sometimes capricious constitution. I had learnt, throughout the years, not to take offence to her chronic mood swings, to silently bear her drawn-out experiments of her real Self. My attention had bit by bit eased off, and I had not felt the wind shifting, that sudden tropical depression that had just devastated everything in its way. The pendulum clock in the dining-room brought me back to reality. It was midnight. To calm down, I opened the window and let fresh air invade my room. The city lights were flickering with far. Santa Monica in the night, a landscape usually so soothing for me I thought.
“Tonight everything is vain anyway”, I screamed when closing the window.
The only thing I could concentrate on was Karen’s speech two hours earlier in the living room.
“Blair, would you listen to me a few seconds? I have to tell you something urgent” she had declared like a bad tragic actress.
“Hum, let me guess. Wall Street has just plummeted despite recent rising exchanges.”
“Not really” she had answered, without daring looking at me. “Let’s say that this is a piece of news that concerns more directly your life and mine too.”
“You’re about to tell me that we will leave very quickly, to live in a Tibetan Cloister where I will have to shave my head to show my renunciation to any form of consumerist capitalism.”
“No, that’s not the point. Sit down, Blair.”
Karen had started a garbled and contradictory speech aiming at showing me that I was deprived of family bearings. Moreover, because of her numerous divorces, my image of the head of the household had been truncated, and she advised me that I needed a quick image of authority and discipline. I had remained voiceless a few seconds, not knowing what to answer to this little speech, greatly inspired by the Treaty on Parental Psychology that I had found on her night table a few days earlier (Family breakdown, when the young suffers) by the child psychiatrist Otto Van Dourth:
“The results of longitudinal studies clearly demonstrate that parental divorce has a negative influence on the developmental trajectory of the child which is reflected by the early onset of certain behaviors such as initiation into sexual activity, pregnancy at the adolescence and parenthood outside marriage.”
“Which subliminal message are you trying to convey?” I had suddenly interrupted.
She had stared at me right in my eyes, just like an insurgent facing his firing squad.
“Honey, I’ve met the man of my life, the one, it’s for good this time, and we got married three weeks ago in the Temple in Orlando.”
“Again!” I sighed. “And what will he be this time? A Bengal tiger trainer or a young dropout rebelling against mass society?”
“Jacob is a really nice person. You’ll see.”
I had gazed at her for a long time, like you stare at an abstract canvas, full of doubt and uncertainty.
“And when will Mr Campbell grace us with his presence at home?”
“That’s where the change is: he is not the one who comes, but we are moving houses.”
“You must be kidding!” I had answered with a feverish voice.
“No, I’m not… And if you want to know everything about it, we are leaving Santa Monica in two weeks. We move to Utah to live with Jacob and his familly”
My bedroom was now completely dark. In a slow gesture, I lit my bedside light. Within fifteen days, I would have left everything and headed for Utah, I thought while stroking Kaiser. Like Europe, a Phoenician princess dragged away from her family only to satisfy Zeus, I was forced by my mother to go into exile in an almost desert state, the paradise of fly-fishing lovers.I could already picture myself wearing rubber thigh boots in a river and handling the rod and reel fishing.This only vision was enough to immerse me into an uncontrollable anxiety. Alessandro Turchi ’s painting, “The Death of Anthony and Cleopatra”, and the fatal end chosen by the Egyptian sovereign to avoid the humiliation because of defeat, suddenly appeared in my troubled mind. I pounced on my computer and tried to find information, hand shaking, on any poisonous snake bite; but the prospect of dying in long suffering, even if it concerned a sublime death, did not triumph over my grievous thoughts.I was about to have another anxiety attack - crowded with hairy bikers and sandy deserts - when I reminded my mother’s last words: “(….)You”ll see, darling, Mormons are very friendly people.”The word ‘Mormon’ did not bring up anything special to me, except an old episode from South Park, making unashamedly fun of the fundaments of this very conservative Christian religion. Eager to know more about this religious movement to which my mother had just converted, by marrying one of its representatives, I decided to make quick searches. Hundreds of websites were dedicated to this theme. So I clicked on one of them and started my reading. Three hours later, my face contorted by raging tears, I finally made a break.An extremely religious community believing in a pre-mortal life with God, practicing baptism for the death, waiting for an imminent Apocalypse and practicing in some states, plural marriage, that’s to say polygamy: here’s what predicted a very promising year. I let myself fell onto the bed, arms crossed, and waited, motionless, for the little blue pills found in the medicine cabinet to definitely knock me out. I could not handle more. The piercing sound of the alarm-clock brought me, a few hours later, back to my sad reality. Like Lazarus dumbstruck by his sudden resurrection, I stayed long minutes, dazed, catching on that my sufferings had not stopped. I was still alive. It was Monday, October the 13th and I was about to start my penultimate week of classes under the Californian sun. My reflection in the mirror nearly frightened me. After many cries, heavy purple rings had appeared under my eyes, and made me look like a skeleton suddenly stepping out of his tomb. My brown hair, such as wild streamers on a New Year’s Eve, flopped down in a very messy way on my frail shoulders. My lips, while I touched them lightly, seemed to have grown bigger as if I had some collagen badly injected in my lips. This morning, I was far from looking a healthy Californian girl, happy to live under the sun. Anyway, I’ve never been a sporty girl sun-tanned with smooth legs, a sand gazelle with a glittery hair. Unfortunatly, my skin was white, nearly translucent and turned red anytime a beam of sunlight fell upon my body. Gravy meals prepared by Consuela and a total lack of physical activity accounted for the rounded forms taking shape on my body recently. An unhealthy lifestyle, about which Karen was often complaining.I took mechanically the first clothes at hand; a silky green dress bought last year in a Parisian second-hand clothes store, a pair of Spartan shoes and the necessary item on that sad morning, huge sunglasses. My hair flippantly knotted, I went down the stairs very quickly so as to avoid any inconvenient encounter. My car, an Aston Martin V8 coupe, a present from my father for my 17th birthday, was quietly waiting for me in the garage. I switched on the radio and started up in a fury. On the road, the ecru stole around my neck started to undulate because of the air which was rushing through the window pane. I looked like Tamara Lempicka behind the steering wheel of her green Bugatti, one of the canvases in my father’s Parisian office. Fifteen minutes later, as I was getting close to the high school, I felt like having a lump in my throat when I thought of my imminent departure. The school I was attending was the perfect architectural exemplification of the Spanish colonisation heritage. It was composed of three corpuses, adobe-style, and bleached white, pierced by a series of archways, and with roofs edged with red tiles. The whole thing was U-shaped, and a sculptural fountain was rising in the middle of the square yard. A 13.55 acres park, jealously looked after by an armada of gardeners wearing orange overalls, was surrounding the whole place, like a vegetal battlement aiming to protect the faint-hearted young people from the ugliness of the surrounding world. Protected from the outside chaos, my schoolmates and I were evolving at the top of the Olympus mount, where only the representatives of an upper and prevailing social class were admitted. At the heart of this recreated Eden, physical perfection was a criterion of acceptance. Very few unsightly young people were accepted to Olympic High. Here, absolute beauty had a name: Chuck Fontaine. Chuck, better known as Apollo, this God of Love with a unique beauty, charmer of young mortals, was one of my best friends. When he was born, on a beautiful morning of September 1991, this tall boy with an impeccable musculature had received a gift. If he was not able to paint with his toes or neither to cure serious illnesses by placing his hands on heads, he could make average girls hysterical, just by being around them. Chuck made most of the girls from the high school dream, thanks to his Siberian husky look and his blond lock; he smiled at girls as if he was delivering favours. As an embodiment of the Californian virility, his name had just to be pronounced, and any striplings was plunged into a state close to cosmic state, breathless at the very thought of standing in the same room as him, or brushing against his locker. This young Narcissus spent his time taking care of his dream body and he had the most beautiful suntan of the town. On his free days, he was sprawling on an air mattress in the swimming pool, dressed in a tight-fitting bathing suit and soaked with coconut oil. Even if he was not witty enough – Chuck really thought that Picasso and Gauguin were brands of tyres from the old continent – he was endowed with kindness and humour at any time.
On that morning, while I was watching the endless back and forth of luxury fully-equipped cars on the high school car park, Chuck came close to me, with a large smile on his face:
“Campbell, you’re not looking good today. Don’t tell me you have trouble getting over Saturday night great party? I don’t even know how I managed to come back home” he said, shaking his head, delighted.
I shrugged my shoulders, unable to say at least a word.
“I heard that Chris spewed on the bed of Donna’s parents. A real massacre! So, she threw him out at 3 a.m. and he spent the night on the beach.”
“Do you believe in God? I mean, do you think that Man isn’t the master of his own destiny?” That was the only thing I could say.
Instead of answering my question, he burst into laughter.
“I really feel you’re in a bad mood Campbell. What’s the connection between God and the fact that we haven’t sobered up yet?”
Even before I had the time to answer him, I heard a lascivious voice coming from behind my back.
Kay Summers, the Cheerleaders captain, came up to us in a well-studied way, as if she was miming one of her alluring choreography, and gazed at him with a conquering look. Cheerleaders was the gathering of neurotic girls, who, on behalf of practicing sport, spent most of their time screaming with a piercing voice in order to attract football male players in their beds; They had always scared me to the highest degree. The will to belong to this elite corps, was, for most of girls of my generation, the ultimate quest. The chosen girls, who were not much, were touched by grace, thus embodying God’s image on Earth. I suddenly remembered a recent survey entitled “Cheerleaders, 15 years later, behind the scenes” and published by the very reliable National Enquirer. Out of a hundred women who, at different periods, had shared this title so desired, 30 % did not have any secure professional situation, 60 % of them had divorced and 10 % had fallen into acute depression. The journalist who wrote this article put forward a certain number of arguments to this social sinking: chronic inability to face daily issues, problems to socialize, birth trauma… But I knew for certain, deep inside, the reason of those sudden failures: the congenital fatuity of those poor girls. I had been lucky enough to prepare, the year before, a talk on marine protozoa with Kay, for the class of natural science. In order to study this unicellular animal the best way, I had put some hay in water until an opaque layer appeared on the surface. Once the concoction ready, I had invited Kay at home so that we could observe under the microscope those tiny beings invisible to the eyes, and put into words our conclusions on their breeding and spreading.
“But, what’s this stench? Is it your bedpan?” She had shrieked when seeing the bucket full of the hay infusion.
“This stench, as you say, Kay, is our research basis.”
“There’s no way I can fiddle with this stagnating water. I have a tournament in two weeks, and I’d like not to catch the myxomatosis or malaria because of those disgusting things. The very smell of it turns my stomach. »
“Research on cellular biology is fundamental, you see. Protozoans and also Trypanosomes are directly responsible for the death of thousands of people in Sub-Saharan Africa due to the sleeping sickness caused by tsetse flies.”
On these last words, Kay had smiled pathetically, just like a ten-year-old girl who’s explained for the first time the mysteries of sexual reproduction. I had remained paralysed at the sight of that empty look comparable to a dead fish’s.
“You must know that people really suffer before dying” I had insisted.
“So what? What do you want me to do with it? Soaking my hands in this stagnant water won’t help saving African orphans. I’m not Mother Teresa! ”
I had stared with consternation at my bedtime reading of the moment: “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None.”
“After this Zarathustra returned again into the mountains to the solitude of his cave, and withdrew himself from men, waiting like a sower who has scattered his seed.”
Kay’s irritating voice brought me back to Olympic High car park.
“Saturday night was pretty cool. I’m really looking forward to the next party” she declared while winking fixedly at Chuck.
“Well, we can do that” answered Chuck, running his hand through his hair with a considered gesture.
I left the two lovebirds in the middle of a love display and went after Sally. Next to the common room, I met Julia Sullivan, busy powdering her nose in front of her locker. I nodded to her without stopping. Her father and Karen had had a brief love affair during my tenth summer, and I had never been grateful enough to God for putting an end to two months of fervor, thanks to a shady story of Country Club membership. Julia’s family owned more than half of the Century City buildings, which had given Mr Sullivan the opportunity to hit the headlines of Fortune Magazine two years in a row. For me, Julia was the symbol of that golden and idle youth I did not want to be compared with. It was an elite that, in order to fill the emptiness of a disappointing and unattractive life, used to take part into three different activities:
- An inopportune use of their unlimited « black card ».
- The ingestion of many narcotics leading to frequent detox diets.
- And finally, a regular practise of any sexual relationships.
As far as the third activity is concerned, I had cooked up a very personal theory in order to justify my young classmates’ permanent state of excitement. According to me, the reason was that 300 days per year, there was an oppressive heat in this part of the world, which simulated excessively the production of pheromones on young adults like us. Just like a cult celebrating Ra – God of the regenerative sun – each night the city resembled Sodom and Gomorrah , from the Great Babylonia, City of all vices. Fortunately, I could bear quite normally those long and muggy days, without feeling like having sex with the gardener behind a boxwood row or with the driver on the limousine quarterdeck. I finally came upon Sally, chatting with Mister Füller, our reputable History teacher.
“I think that I do not have a very high level. Everything is confused in my head: The Bay of Pigs, Pearl Harbor… Wouldn’t it be possible to plan a few hours of private lessons with you, for a deeper knowledge of these themes?” Sally was asking him in a cunning way.
“I’ll think it over, miss” he answered before running away like a hare at gunpoint, as soon as he noticed my presence.
“Is it already the new moon?” I sighed regretfully.
“Tonight at precisely 10.04 pm.”
“And what are our themes this time?”
“The teaching staff and in particular Mr Füller.”
Sally had been my best friend since the second year of primary school, since the disastrous day of September 1994 when I had got back her snack which had fallen into Ernesto Ravier’s clutches, aka the Big Ernesto. Despite a quite hostile family environment, my friend’s psychic stability was relatively stable, except for some periods in the year when she radically transformed herself. Depending on the position of the moon, my friend had very special fads. So, last May, during ascendant moon, Sally had decided to have sex with any married man in her surroundings. Picky as she was, she had created a list in alphabetical order, picking her father’s friends and business acquaintances. Her perfect body and notably her new pair of boobs– a present from her mother for good scholar results – had largely contributed to the fulfilment of her mission.
“I really need him; do you hear me, Blair?” she said while rubbing her hands, greedily.
“Yes, I understood, Sally, but are you really sure to desire the sight of him totally naked? I mean, we are talking about a guy who is the crossbreeding between an Obit and a garden gnome.”
“I know… but if you look at him attentively, behind this wavy hair and this delicate black moustache, there is a man, a real one, the kind we can’t find anymore.”
“All that I can see is a little man, his face covered with thick black hair and who spends his time trying to free things between his teeth with his tongue.”
“Don’t be so negative… So, apart from that, what’s up on that nice Monday morning?”
“Let me think. Oh, yes, I know! My mother had the good idea to get married again, and I’m leaving Santa Monica fifteen days from now and moving to Utah, in a radical Mormon family.”
“I can see you watched too many silly TV series on the cable!” she said just before spraying her neck with perfume.
“You see, sweetie, the thing is : if I had found this idea on a nightmare scenario, I would have added a sudden climate change or a mortal germ warfare to decimate the whole population; but I’m really leaving this place to settle in the heart of Utah, at some Eucharist’s lovers.”
Sally stared at me with anguish, gazing blankly ahead, flabbergasted.
“But this is out of the question!” She screamed with a threatening voice. “I won’t let you go. We’re going to find a solution. My father is the best lawyer of the coast. I’m sure he’ll find a legal ploy to make you stay here, like a wedding with a political refugee or something like that.”
“I’m ready for any solutions; marry an Ecuadorian loving coffee, or a Colombian chased by nasty drug dealers, anything to avoid Utah and its empty rocky areas.”
“I thought that my parents – and in particular my mother – was first when it comes to senselessness; but I can see that she’s not even close!”
Indeed, Sally’s parents divorce, five years before, had disrupted the family’s plans: her father had been taken in for questioning while he was, in the middle of the night, on the Holiday Inn car park, with his young public accountant. As far as Linda - Sally’s mother - was concerned, she always seemed to be the worthiest case of psychoanalytic. Constantly dosed up with sedatives, moaning, depressive and paranoiac, she kept repeating to her daughter that men maintained women under a state of constant subjection, and that the only logic determining their daily behaviour was their own satisfaction. Throughout the years, Linda had developed a visceral hatred towards men. Besides, the family cat, nicknamed Norbert the pervert, had nearly been castrated during the last school vacations. Overwrought, six months ago, Sally’s mother had finally started a psychotherapy group under the guidance of a famous psychoanalyst, Herbert Wustenberg. Dance movement therapy by primitive expression allowed, according to Linda, to make a total exorcism of a body in a trance. Once a month, the small group used to perform in the Santa Monica Place hall, one of the biggest shopping centers of the city. And there, whereas most of the passersby wandered quietly along the shopping alleys, Herbert, wearing a striped pullover, white trousers and a little moustache, started with his sidekicks a choreography worth of the greatest modern dance ballet to the tune of Cocaine Computer. Essentially made of depressive people in their forties or young ones lacking landmarks, the amateurs’ troop alternated modern dances and scenes of pure trance.
“Utah!” Sally had resumed, shaking her head. “And why not Norway or Finland?”
“At least, in Norway, I could have committed suicide in flowing into the iced water of Fjords; but in Utah, except from lying under the hoofs of a draft horse, I do not see how I could put an end to my suffering.”
After the classes, Sally sat in my car without speaking. She remained focused on her cell phone all the way and only asked me to let her in front of the mall. I decided, rather than going home and feeling sorry for myself like an unknown artist, to head for Palisades Park, which, thanks to its nonchalant palm trees and its coloured beds of flowers, evoked the English Promenade in Nice, South of France. I walked along the white sandy beach and stopped in front of Santa Monica Pier, a magical place with its picturesque merry-go-round, its solar power Ferris wheel and its old wooden pontoons. So many places filled with memories, images in relation with my childhood, I soon had to get rid of. Once on the pier, I sat down on one of the benches facing the ocean and closed my eyes. The only noise that remained was the one of waves on the shore.
CHAPITRE II-THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT
(Annibale Carrachi, oil on canvas, 1603)
October the 30th – 9.30 am: Exodus day.
Just like Moses ready to guide the Hebrew people on the paths of Palestine, Karen, without pilgrim’s stick, was about to, on this Thursday morning, make both of us carry out a slow and painful way through the wringer. A 770 miles, or two days and a half trek was necessary to get to this middle of nowhere, a place I was obliged to go into exile and where any social life could not be considered for a seventeen-year-old girl. Our trek had been organized in its minor details. We had to leave Santa Monica before 11 o’clock so as to pass Pasadena, San Bernardino, Victorville, Lenwood and Barstow for a stopover; then, in the afternoon, visit Mojave National Preserve and finally sleep in Las Vegas. On Friday, we were supposed to have reached the South of Utah where we would visit Bryce Canyon National Park, then sleep in the little town of Kanab. On Saturday afternoon, we should reach Nephi, our last destination. My mother had wanted the trek to be done by car, giving as a pretext that we could observe the landscapes together. But I secretly suspected her of, during those long hours in the car, wishing to reassure me of this sudden change.
“Think, honey, that, thanks to me, you may come through a dreadful and cruel death” she heckled, while I finished putting my bags in the boot.
I did not point out her remark, as I was already nervously exhausted by the impending two days of intense contact with my mother.
“The Big One, honey, the Big One . We never know. It could be this year, and while all our acquaintances die in suffer, you and I will happily be safe in Utah.”
“If I had to choose, I think I’d prefer a cruel death” I answered with a terse tone.
My mother’s Hummer became our only means of transport to drive on the Utah craggy roads, as my Aston Martin had been sold at a valueless price to our closest neighbour. In order to start from scratch, in the last two weeks, Karen had parted from everything that could remind her of her former life. Even the Australian parakeets and the Florida sea turtles had been entrusted to the careful Consuela. As for me, I had been authorized to bring the only stuff that had survived to that massacre, which were my wardrobe full of clothes - most of all being unsuitable for Western harsh winters – and 326 books, among them five volumes consecrated to the divinatory occult, offered by Sally’s mother the day before I left. I had also succeeded to save my dog from my mother’s clutches, Kaiser, a six-year Venetian brownish and strawberry-blonde pit-bull; a survivor from the underground fights of Los Angeles red-light districts from which he had kept numerous scars along his spinal column. Kaiser was the only one to keep me company during Karen’s several absences, to bring me affection every time I felt the need. As Kaiser was part and parcel of my life, I had not hesitated to use any cunning of psychological pressure to be sure my dog would be part of that journey: incessant cries, high-pitched screams, nocturnal yells, deep silence, I even went into spasms on the kitchen tiles. This method of mental torture had finally succeeded, and Kaiser had been given his ticket to Utah. On that morning, Consuela was there to lock the house for good before the arrival of new householders. Stealthily, while I was fastening by seat belt, the old woman drew on my forehead the sign of the cross, and slipped into my right hand a bracelet decorated with an amulet showing Saint Monica’s face, the City’s protector. In her native language, (“Vaya con Dios”), she prayed God to help us have a safe journey and a nice new life. My eyes lingered on the garden gates, on the lawn. The shutters were already closed. I could not see anything inside anymore. When the car finally pulled away and went down the central alley, I thought of an extract from “Jane Eyre ”:
“I believe it was a lovely summer morning (.....) but I look neither to rising sun nor smiling sky, nor wakening nature (....) He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road but of the block and the axe-edge; of the disservement of bone and vein, of the grave gaping at the end.”
Many images came back to me, while Ben, the park security agent, scanned for the last time our access badges: my exciting drive to the commercial center with Sally, the generous drinks parties on the beach. What would I become without my best friend beside me? She had promised, between two sobs, before my departure, to come and visit me at the beginning of the following year, swearing that we would not let the miles separate us. My mother suddenly made me come down to Earth by switching on the radio. As soon as I heard the first notes of “Folson Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash, I knew perfectly well the journey would only be punctuated with nasal voices of Country music stars my mother was fond of. My feeling turned out to be true a few seconds later when Johnny Cash gave way to Dolly Parton and her famous 9 to 5. I let out a sigh of despair while the Hummer ventured into the highway. The landscape was unfolding before my eyes without my paying attention to it. My mother, with a travel book on her knees, was visibly delighted to provide me with information and comical anecdotes about every little town we were supposed to go through. The lesson soon started. So I learnt that San Bernardino, vast commuter town along Road 66, had been founded by Mormons back in 1851, and built like Salt Lake City, capital of Utah. San Bernardino was at the heart of an agricultural region well-known for its wines. Then, one hour later, it was Victorville’s turn, known for its famous Route 66 museum, but also for being the host of several westerns. Finally, it was Barstow’s turn, a stopover in the desert, close to numerous ghost-towns from the Rush of Gold period. But the most interesting was to come, just like Karen announced, with a slight excitement in her voice, while we arrived next to the Mojave National Preserve, first stopover of our cultural journey. The road entering the Preserve was well-maintained; tar quickly made way to clay, but the path remained perfectly suitable for motor vehicles. I was pleased to see a nice cloud of dust behind the car, just like in westerns. We first stopped to the very rural information center.
“Welcome to desert solitude young lady, said a confident voice behind me while I was glancing through a leaflet introducing the main phases of the visit.
Turning around, I found myself face to face with a ranger whose badge on his kaki shirt was indicating Bo. Wearing very short bermudas, pilot glasses and an imitation suede hat, Bo the ranger radiated a mysterious force, a captivating magnetism which could not leave me unconcerned. Even the elder woman hidden behind the postcards display shelf had interrupted her searches to peep at Bo and his excessively muscular legs. Karen came closer to me, as if bewitched by his warm and sensual voice. With a gesture reflecting a natural authority, he asked his audience to gather around him and started a long tirade on the story of the park.
Singing sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, Joshua tree forests, and carpets of wildflowers are all found here.” Bo commented, smiling.
Firstly, I was listening, attentive to his speech on the Preserve. Far less popular than a park or a national monument, it was a natural reserve aiming to preserve a biotope.When it was question of the geographical situation of the park, (the Preserve was at the Nevada border and encompassed a varied landscape of about 1.6 million acres, ranging in elevation from around 900 feet at Soda Lake to almost 8000 feet at Clark Mountain) I noticed Bo’s hands, until then immersed in his pockets, had migrated to the bottom of his neck and were performing small rotary movements, showing his excessive hairiness. A few minutes later, whereas he was talking about climate (despite a poor wetness, more than 700 vegetable species grew there), I noticed that his fingers had discreetly slipped towards his chest. They suddenly came to a standstill when one of the visitors, the very copy of the retired person fond of cryptic crosswords, felt the need to ask a useless question about the different geological formations in the park. Far from being confused, Bo made a slight smile and provided him with an answer illustrated by one of the numerous postcards hung on the entrance wall. Feverish, staring at his chest, I watched out for a slightest gesture from Bo. The transition from fauna to flora brought my hope back when his left hand ventured very slowly on his bulging stomach. I watched him touching lightly his shirt, as hypnotized, until the repeated calls from Karen pulled me out of my passive contemplation.
“Let’s go Blair, said Karen, I want to see the Joshua trees.
“ But Bo hasn’t finished his explanations yet.
“I don’t care, I want to see the Joshua trees.Jacob told me I had to see it.
Back to the Hummer and as we had been told, Karen and I headed towards Cima Dome, a broad sloping upland dome, the erosional remnant of granite plutons that formed deep under the Earth's surface 180 - 80 million years ago when the Farallon Plate was being subducted beneath the North American Plate. Its sides seemed to be nestled under a Joshua tree forest.
“So that’s your tree? I asked Karen. A repulsive plant with erected branches?
“Yes.It is said that the Joshua tree was named by early Mormon settlers because the tree's unique shape reminded them of a Biblical story in which Joshua reaches his hands up to the sky in prayer” said Karen with emotion.
“Great!” I replied in a soft voice.
It did not take us long to reach the area around Hole-in-the-Wall, an exceptional geological formation, mark of the intense volcanic activity the park had known for 900,000 years. One of the blasts had covered an area of 232 square miles with ashes and rock fragments. Gas bubbles emanating from molten lava had left outgrowths on the granite, which had appeared progressively, while time was wearing down rocks. Elements had also dug a very narrow canyon, where one could go down, clinging to rings fixed in the rock. At the end of it, there was a long path going round the North massif.Further on, there was a section of rock, white, on the slope of a cliff: it was a tuff again. Lava flows had come to clot on it, and the last flow formed a bar at the top of the hill. On the left, the road headed to Kelso, a small hamlet with only six or seven houses. A superb two-floor structure with dark green door frames had been given pride in the heart of this hamlet. It was the former railway station, built in 1924 by the Union Pacific Railroad, and it had been renovated to become the primary Visitor Center for Mojave Preserve.
“How hot, I complained.
“ Now, let’s go to see the Kelso Dunes whose highest dune is around 650 feet high”, answered Karen, excited.
“I am suffocating”.
“You see Blair, the Kelso Dunes are notable for the phenomenon known as singing sand”.
“I can’t breathe anymore”.
Karen merely pushed up the car air conditioning system and handed me a coloured leaflet. According to the brochure, those dunes had a peculiarity: we could hear them groan. When there was an avalanche of sand, grains made a thud while separating, a noise which could be compared to a plane breaking the sound barrier or to a drum roll. Karen ventured on a graded dirt road and parked the car near a gravel track that led past the dunes. I opened my car door with a slow movement and wait in silence to ear the famous singing sound. I pricked up my ears, and could hear nothing but the plaintive song of a buzzard brought by the hot breeze of the desert. At the south of the dunes, the road did not offer any other interest than the beauty of the desert, a threatening and isolated landscape, like Eugène Fromentin ’s painting “The Land of Thirst”, depicting a shipwreck in the sand, I had seen at the Orsay Museum with my father the year before.
“Well, no song today for the Dunes”, I said in a mocking tone.
No answer. My mother stared at the large sand dunes complex hypnotized by the tiny rose quartz grains giving the dunes a soft, rosy glow. Dropped in the middle of the road a curious wooden signpost drew my attention. It was indicating Zzyzx.
“What a strange name for a place lost in the middle of nowhere”, Karen suddenly wondered.
The village was located on a peninsula jutting into a lake bed. Nothing here except a desert studies center.
“Yes, indeed. I think we should go. I am so hungry”.
My stomach was rumbling. We said good bye to the Preserve and took the road for Baker, the last town in California on the Interstate 15.The Hummer brought us very quickly to our supplying point. Located in the heart of an uneven area, where scattered cactuses echoed the rocky plains, Baker was like a useless petrol-station town, a simple lay-by on the highway, a stopover at the junction of Los Angeles, the Death Valley and Las Vegas roads. Baker stood for 910 inhabitants, three hotels, two petrol-stations and a few restaurants. It had the World's Largest Thermometer, symbolic of the record high temperature in the US: 134 degrees Fahrenheit in 1913. The restaurant, named Jay’s, was located in the only main street of the town: Baker Boulevard. A diner proper to Far West where cow-boys in passing used to come. The travel book guaranteed a large room and copious meals. When the waitress - a red-haired girl ruminating her chewing gum like a cow - asked us to choose our table, I immediately chose the outside terrace. Once we had looked through the menu, I chose a fish filet whereas Karen indulged in some meat served with vegetables. Since we had lef the Preserve, I had remained silent and had decided to do so during the lunch; my anger remained silent. My head leaning on my elbow, I contented myself with swallowing my meal, making sure to squeak my cutlery on my plate, shearing my catfish with a restrained violence. We spent our lunch break in absolute silence. Karen finally cracked up just before the dessert.
“Please, Blair, stop behaving like that. I’m all aware of the sacrifice I am imposing to you, but I hope that you’ll understand, some day, that I acted in your interest” she let go, her eyes lost in her fruits salad.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. You’re telling me you’re dragging me off to this religious community with uncertain practises for my own good! But, tell me, what will happen if this fourth marriage doesn’t work? Did you even think about it? Let me remind you that we do not have any shelter!”
“This marriage will work; I have never been so sure of my own feelings. Jacob succeeded to make my doubts disappear; his affection is sincere and I know he loves me for who I am and not for what I own or what I don’t.”
“If you say so… and does my father know about this prospective captivity?”
“Yes, I called him to explain the situation. He sounded really pleased and even assured that those months spent in Utah would build up a great life experience for you.”
“I’m not surprised…” I mumbled in a whisper.
Karen’s answers definitely took away my appetite. I let my lime sorbet decompose in the heat of the day. We took back the road in the late afternoon so that we could be in Las Vegas in the early evening. The journey under a very hot sun seemed to me never-ending. Only a series of arid landscapes, rocky formations and deeply embanked gorges. Wide-open and deserted spaces were the exact words to describe this trek into the wild. Then, like a haven of light in the middle of the desert, the areas of the world capital of gambling finally appeared on the horizon. We were about to leave the state of California for good and get into the Nevada. The frontier between the two states was marked by a signpost dropped in the heart of the desert. I said goodbye to the Golden State for the last time, the only state in the USA to have been governed by a former Austrian bodybuilder who had been famous in Hollywood.
“Vegas, at last”, said Karen taking off her glasses.
My mother choosing Vegas as a stopover for the night reflected exactly the strange paradox in her. Only Karen could make me spend my day both visiting an almost desert place and the opulence of a city that never sleeps. Wishing to know more about that sulphurous city, I took the guide book left by Karen on the back seat. Several pages dealt with it. According to the legend, Vegas was only a dusty crossroads with a house for gambling until the day when a gangster, Ben Siegel, got out from his car, on a very hot day, and built his prestigious casino: the Flamingo. Propelled into modernity in 1902, thanks to the railway connecting Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, Vegas experienced a dazzling development in the twenties, helped by federal work programmes. Nowadays, ten of the eleven biggest hotels of the world were in Las Vegas. In Sin city, the only perversion authorized was gambling. I put the book down and waited for the car to be parked, impatient. Karen, for that last stopover before Utah, thought big, very big, I noticed when she stopped the Hummer in front of the main tower of the Bellagio, and gave the keys to the car valet, with a nervous gesture.
“Welcome to the Bellagio Miss”, greeted me the porter when I entered the lobby.
Here, a group of Chinese tourists was captivated by the phenomenal glass sculpture hangig from ceiling made up of glass-coloured and hand-blown flowers. A real artificial kingdom, I thought. A place devoted to ersatz and gimcrack. Everything was fake here from the statues to the fountains. Kaiser’s continuous barks in the middle of the large hall dragged me away from my reflexion.As soon as I got into the elevator next to Karen, the doors closed in front of me. My lake view room was spacious with elegant furnitures. Bottle of Champagne, a king size bed and fresh flowers everywhere. I had the feeling to be here for a honeymoon.
“Ladies, our two suites will assure you a ringside seat to attend the nice water-jets show” commented the floor housekeeper, winding back the shutters up in my bedroom. “More than 1000 water-jets accomplish every day, with classical music in the background, a superb aquatic ballet above the Bellagio Lake, from which they gush out with a height of 240 feet.”
“How romantic this is!” said Karen. “What a pity my husband is not here to attend this show! Bellagio is a great place for couples”
I stared at the mini-bar, desesperate. As soon as the floor housekeeper and Karen closed the door, I rushed to the bathroom to enjoy some peace and quiet. Nearly as large as the bedroom itself, the bathroom, made of marble from Italy, was composed of a huge bath with a seawater spa treatment, and a relaxing-jet shower. A flat screen, just like a work of art, was hung above the bath. Taking off my clothes, I decided to run a warm bath.
“Karen and I need a break if we want to enjoy our stay here”, I stated in a firm tone to Kaiser. “No more blame from my part. I declare a ceasefire”.
With this resolution in mind, I showed up at 8 p.m at the Picasso entrance, one of the fifth restaurants of the hotel, where a table had been booked for us. The head-waiter was called Jean-Philippe, as he told us while pulling up courteously Karen’s chair. He said, in perfect French, that the restaurant room had been entirely decorated with originals from the Spanish master himself. A medley of meals followed each other all along the service. The dinner took place in a quiet ambiance but the ringing of my mother’s mobile went shattering this peacefulness. I knew it was him, even before she answered. The man because of whom misfortune had happened to me. The origin of evil. I quickly got up from my chair and went away, as I did not want to hear this conversation. The blissful smile my mother had on her face when she picked up her phone aroused in me a deep feeling of hatred, but it allowed no doubt to linger concerning her feelings for her new husband. At Charles’s suggestion, the head desk-clerk, I went for a visit of The Strip, this long boulevard stretching from the city center to the South, towards Los Angeles. That was where the biggest, most recent and often most eccentric hotel-casinos were, Charles had explained while speaking on the phone at the same time. Indeed, in only fifteen minutes, I passed along an Egyptian phoenix, a Polynesian paradise and even a medieval castle where a lot of tourists were massing in front of a horse tournament with armoured knights and circus games. On the way back, I stopped before a reproduction of the Paris Opera and the Eiffel Tower.
“Great, the Eiffel Tower!” A tall and brown-haired guy exclaimed before taking out his camera. “No need to travel, we have everything here!”
“Hey, Matt! Look over-there, this is Venice!” said the ginger-haired boy with him. “We’ll chase after girls in gondolas!”
My father – I thought, laughing – would certainly be saddened to see so much excessiveness and bad taste. The image of downmarket tourists raving about twinkling reproductions of emblematic monuments of the old Europe would surely provoke anger and incomprehension. I departed from this kingdom of kitsch and neon light, and dived, a few feet further, into the Caesars Palace shopping mall which brought together restaurants and stores in a background inspired from the Ancient Rome. I took a bow in front of Poseidon’s statue, which was dominating a circular monument provided with a 227,000 liters aquarium, and then I centered my attention on the changing sky casted on the gallery ceiling. This little ad-lib walk made me feel better. I walked back to the Bellagio and was now in good spirits. When I arrived, Kaiser was quietly waiting for me in my bed, with his four legs up. A feeling of intense exaltation could be read on his face, certainly due to the pink satin sheets. I slipped next to him into the bed and got carried away by the weariness of the journey. When the room service gently knocked on my door the next morning, at 8 a.m, I took me a few minutes to wake up and remember why I was in this suite. I quickly came to my senses and slipped on casual clothes, in preparation for the endless hours on the road we were about to face. A pair of raw jeans and a white cotton tank top would be alright. Knotting my hair in a shaggy bun, I left my bedroom, steady and decided. Kaiser followed me, staggering in the hotel corridors, with his mouth still wrinkled and his lips creased. For breakfast, while Karen let me know about her eagerness to discover Bryce Canyon, I casted a nostalgic glance around me, all aware that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy once again such a display of wealth, even artificial, for a long period. Once on the car park, and before adjusting the driver seat in the Hummer, I took out of my handbag the CD I had scrupulously recorded in preparation for the numerous miles to come. After accepting five uninterrupted hours of country music the day before, I wanted to take revenge. A subtle subliminal message was hidden behind each track I had chosen:
• “Should I stay or should I go” ( The Clash);
• “Wake me up before you go go” (Wham);
• “Leave Home” ( The Ramones);
• “Liberty or Death” ( Grave Digger);
• “I love Death” (Dodger).
When the car went into the highway, the hit “Highway to Hell” (AC/DC) reverberated through the passenger cell. Two main steps were planned on that Friday: in the early afternoon, a visit of the Bryce Canyon National Park, then a stopover into a little village called Kanab. This day was to be crucial. We were about to enter a hostile territory: Utah, the Mormon country. While the landscape unfolded before my eyes and the weather became stormy, I tried to remember some extracts from articles I had read about Utah, my new adoptive state. An important detail had struck me: the constant fluctuations of temperatures between California and Utah. It had given me the impression to move into the Arctic Circle with Inuit and humpback whales. Except from that, I had learnt that guided by the prophet Brigham Young and fleeing the religious persecutions, Mormon pioneers settled in Utah and founded Salt Lake City, the capital, on July the 24th, 1847. When they arrived in the area, members of the Latter Saint Days church felt a spiritual attachment to this place which became their promise land. A promise land for Mormon pioneers but a land of desolation for me, I thought while the clouds lined the sky.
“Look Blair, this is Brice Canyon Park”, said Karen in front of the entrance sign.
I saw her taking out of the glove compartment two books: the first one seemed to be exclusively dedicated to Bryce Canyon Park, and the second one, with dog-eared pages, was full of mysterious notes taken by Karen. According to the information my mother had followed before we came, driving seemed to be the best way to visit Bryce Canyon Park. It would take us at least half a day to catch a glimpse on the circle theater. We accessed the park from Cedar City, up west. A stop at the inevitable visitor center was obvious, in order to pick up leaflets and maps, and to watch a short video consecrated to the man who gave his name to the park: Ebenezer Bryce, a sturdy carpenter who left Salt Lake City with a group of Mormon pioneers to settle in the area. An historic photograph of Ebenezer and his wife, Mary, decorated the main entrance of the visitor center.
“Didn’t seem to be a very funny guy this Ebenezer”, I said to Kaiser. “Not the kind to get a bottle of beer to relax after a long day's work”.
“Blair, come on, let’s go, please”, said Karen in a hurried tone. “Look at the sky”.
Opaque clouds were growing in a storm grey sky.Back behind the steering wheel, heading for Scenic drive – where a signpost tour served the main spots of the park – my eyes roved the sheer cliffs where erosion had carved colorful Claron limestone into thousands of spires, fins, arches and mazes, called "hoodoos," forming a series of horseshoe-shaped amphitheaters. A spectacular city of rocks, where hundreds of peaks rose towards the sky, and which color shades – pink, orange, and red – were varying all day long. In Bryce, nature had performed a masterpiece, an enchanted landscape of shiny rocks forming columns, towers, tiers.
“It’s magical” said Karen.
“Yes, indeed!” I agreed in a low voice.
No more than five minutes later, Karen opened her door with a decided gesture and went to stand in front of the panoramic view. She remained silent and still for a long moment, facing the immensity she seemed to contemplate as if she was about to find the answers to existential questions of life. Then, opening the book she had in her hands since we arrived, she started reading a short passagE:
“The desert is the environment of revelation, genetically and physiologically alien, sensorily austere, aesthetically abstract, and historically inimical. ... Its forms are bold and suggestive. The mind is beset by light and space, the kinaesthetic novelty of the aridity, high temperature, and wind. The desert sky is encircling, majestic, terrible. In other habitats, the rim of sky above the horizontal is broken or obscured; here, together with the overhead portion, it is infinitely vaster than that of rolling countryside and forest lands. ... To the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual values of retreat, not to escape but to find reality.”
I remained motionless with this hallucinatory vision of my mother quoting Paul Shepard in the heart of a National Park. Her behavior, so odd, on the verge of being understandable, since her remarriage, seemed to have reached its climax right then. The man about to share her life, and as a consequence mine too, seemed to have a quite bewildering influence on Karen’s behavior. As I did not require any particular explanation on this intimate moment of contemplation, I let her make herself comfortable before starting the car up. I drove up to Sunrise, Sunset, Inspiration and Bryce viewpoints in silence. In Bryce point, our final stop in the park, there were at least 100 people crowded onto the tiny overlook point. The wind had risen and was blowing hard on our heads.
“Don’t you think young lady this place is full of magic, inspiration and spectacular beauty? “asked me an old man sitting next to me. “Look at those silent rock sentinels. What do you fell in front of this temple of Eternity? “
I didn’t answer. The only thing I could think of was Santa Monica and the sea. The old man came close to me and stroked Kaiser. Everything about him was old except his look. A strange look, very nervous, who seemed to read inside me.
“Very cloudy today”, he added. “Not a good sign in Paiute Indians legends”.
I caught Kaiser without a word and went down to the car. I felt like my blood was frozen inside my veins. I let Karen drive to get to Kanab. When we left Bryce Canyon, the sun was slowly beginning its way down behind the horizon. The first crepuscular gleams appeared and a starry night soon threw some light on the growing darkness. The way to Kanab seemed to me an endless straight road lined with vast plain areas where miles succeeded each other in a very monotonous way. No car, no sign of anyone in the heart of this black heath, only pierced by the diaphanous reflections of the lunar star. A shrill sound warning me I was soon running out of petrol dragged me out of my thoughts. The orange warning light on the dashboard sent me desperate distress signals. The GPS indicated a gas station in 13 miles. I thought that only a divine intervention could show a fuel pump on this dusty road, but a store window lit by aggressive neon lights soon stood out in the darkness. Like a lighthouse indicating to ships in distress the road to follow by its distant flashes, the little station seemed to be the rallying point for any lost vehicle on this isolated road. This scene, because of the feeling of sadness and weariness it inspired, made me think of a painting by Edward Hopper , “Gas”. On this work, you could see a gas pump attendant wearing a white shirt and a vest, checking his pumps and waiting, hopelessly, for a car to emerge from dusk. Karen stopped the Hummer on the lay-by. There, a huge truck seemed to wait for his driver, called Mitch – like the enamelled plate hung on the inside rear-view mirror said – to emerge from his short sleep and resume driving. When I got closer, I could distinguish, through the curtains of the cabin, a man in his forties lounging in his seat, with a Mets cap glued on his head and Mum forever tattooed on his forearm. A series of photos had been carelessly tacked up on the cabin wall. Next to the very classical picture of the younger child, others represented young blond women striking a quite suggestive pose which promised hours of intense pleasure. Leaving Mitch to his carnal thoughts, I stepped into the store as welcoming as an inspection center between Israel and Palestine. On the shelves, like rotting corpse, was the sad sight of sandwiches with an apathetic aspect. An embarrassing smell of detergent from the central alley finally drew my attention. I sensed that a few hours before, an incident had happened in the store. I got closer to the counter, hoping to pay our due and leave this squalid place as soon as possible.
It took me a long time to identify him clearly. Such as polymorphous reptiles, capable of, through mimicry, fading into their immediate background, he was there, totally still, with his rare hair falling on both sides of his face like stalactites hanging from the walls of a calcareous cavern. His skin was also merged with the dubious shade of the walls. Crouched in the shade of this cash register, he gazed at me with his bulging eyes, as if I was the young Frodo Baggins ready to steal the Ring from him. Gollum was staring at me, with his arms unnaturally long, leant on the counter, his hands busy to count and count again the sales of the day.The regular tinkling of coins echoed in the store. I expected him to pounce on me, screaming hysterically: “My Precious”; but the man remained impassive when I gave him the money, with his emaciated face doggedly concentrated on the bills he quickly put away in his cash register.
I got out from that place, both frightened and relieved, glancing around for a place where I could wash my hands fouled by the ambient grime. A zinc-coated container apparently used as toilets was on the left side of the car park. When I half-opened the door, a smell of stagnating urine came out of this little space. Without managing to find the button switch, I cautiously entered and the lights from a car allowed me to identify, on the fibreglass basin, the residue of the hair from truck drivers in transit. Like Enzo Maiorca, who on August 15th, 1961, in Ognina, Sicily, crossed the line of 164 feet in apnea, I stepped into the threatening darkness, holding my breath, and succeeded to undo the taps and wash my hands in precisely 2 minutes and 23 seconds.
Record smashed. It did not take me more than five minutes to join up with Karen on the car park. As soon as the door was slammed, I started the Hummer like a rocket. This journey through hell came to its end. My watch showed 9.30 p.m when we went past the road sign indicating we had arrived in Kanab. Stuck in the midst of the desert, this little town in the South-West of the state was nicknamed “Utah’s little Hollywood” for it had been the scenery of several westerns. It was surrounded by a wide range of geological landscapes characteristic of the West side of the country: pink coral cliffs, sand dunes and majestic mountains. The Highway 89 winded through the town. Its center was reduced to a few stores and the only distraction was through Mac Dos, Burger Kings and other Donkin Donuts. We had to stay for the night in a hotel called Victorian Charm Inn. The building could easily be spotted: its façade, quite distinguished, in a pompous Victorian style, was different from the other motels in the area.
I went up to bed without kissing my mother. I was anguished and could not stop thinking that the following night, same hour, my everyday life would have totally changed. The very idea of not being able to put faces to my future family names was making me still more anxious. The only information I got was concerning the head of the clan. Jacob was Mormon, non polygamous - very important detail – and a widower, as his wife had died three years before as a result of a long illness. First deputy mayor, that man also held a high position as a bishop within Nephi Mormon church. I already pictured myself wandering in streets of a pseudo Walnut Grove, with that man and his six children, all of them strict and distant, wearing clothes of the last century, spending their day praying and flagellating themselves as soon as an impure thought came to their mind. I fell asleep on that last apocalyptic thought. The next morning I woke up in a sudden burst, around 11 a.m. Sweat beaded my forehead, and the only memory I had of my dream was a frantic chase in the woods. I was escaping the assaults of a man looking like Charles Ingalls, who was trying, with a Bible in his hands, to evangelize me, scanning loudly « The Truth is out there ». Most of dreams had a very precise meaning, I knew it, but I refused to analyze more deeply this insane dream and rushed to the shower. It took me a lot of time to wash and get dressed. My mother knocked at my bedroom door just before noon. During lunch, her elation, close to hysteria, arose in me violent murderous impulses, such as the ones which had influenced young Jack Taylor. This teenager had, two years earlier, been condemned to death penalty for savagely beating his mother to death with a baseball bat. The TV report which had been dedicated to him on NBC recounted precisely his macabre route, yet without providing any explanation for this acting out. Maybe his mother had just announced to him she had remarried a fundamentalist Mormon and that they were moving to Utah.While staring at the few customers attending lunch in the dining room, I couldn't help wondering why I was dogged by the ‘fatum stoïcum’ – according to which actions worked toward an inevitable end. Has it always been written that I would spend my seventeenth year lost in the middle of Utah in a Mormon family? As soon as Karen started twittering before her cup of verbena, I went out to smoke on the stoop of the hotel. The weather was more than dull, on that Saturday morning, and the storm was close. There were lightening here and there. I quickly dragged on my cigarette praying for this outburst of forces of nature not to account for any warning signs.
TO BE CONTINUED......