LOS ANGELES—6-30-1990. It was a radiant Saturday afternoon at the house on Manhattan Place. People were washing cars, vacuuming rooms, listening to music. Mellow spring June sun filled all three stories of it. Niki, the girl from Watsonville who’d come to stewardess school, popped her blond head into the kitchen.
“Some people are here to see you.”
I interrupted whatever important I was doing in the kitchen and braced myself to see a portion of the American public that saw fit to rent a room in Mid-City Los Angeles or for perverse reasons unknown liked to set up appointments with me and tease me with feigned interest in the lodging for rent and leave only empty promises of a deposit.
I put on my best smile and went around the foot of the stairs. What I was seeing took awhile to process. On the doorstep were three familiar, slightly older faces not seen for over two and a half years. My mom, my sister, my dad smiling sheepishly from under the visor of his baseball cap. I could tell dad was proud to see me. Mom cried, of course she cried. She was glad to see me, and now with the vantage of years I also fathom what distress she must have gone through only having the sketchiest idea my whereabouts for some time.
I was beaming. I was so happy to see them, I was smiling inside and out. Why did I cut off with them? Blame a turbid brew of not having achieved the success that I strived for, and the elephant’s instinct to leave the tribe and go away quietly. The fact is I was honestly so happy to see them, and they saw me in this lively house full of sun and young people—wearing a beeper, the very picture of success when the idea of being seen was farthest from my mind, nothing of the dour lonely artist was on view. The moment had been perfectly stage managed by forces unknown.
For my folks to drive into Metro L.A. was highly unusual. There were the smiles; I had them step inside. But even before they would step inside, my mom choked up. She was never one to pull punches with the big stuff. She let out the truth raw and naked.
“Mickey died,” she said. “We just came from his funeral in Taft.”
Mom had my address from a friend who’d recently picked up a movie camera of mine from my parents’ house. My sister was with them and could drive. My aunt had told her not to drive into the city, afraid of what she’d find, but they came all the same. It’s hard for me to imagine the rest of my life if this moment had not happened. Mickey was my cousin, and the closest thing I had to a brother. The shattering event of my cousins’ death would reunite us and start us on the path of reconciliation.
“He died of AIDS,” mom said.
Immediately I remembered a moment—what I could call a premonitory flash—on my previous Thursday off. Crossing Washington Boulevard going toward my car, I was seized by an impulse: I had wheels. I could just get in the Subaru and drive all the way to Taft, yonder Bakersfield, and surprise my Aunt and Uncle. I could even be back in time for work the next day. This was before I had any inkling what had happened, or that my cousin was ill.
When something happens in that web of relations that bind us to the earth, the heart is so often called first. Only later, when the shock had subsided could I ponder how his apartment on Kings Road had a strange air of occupied abandonment the very last time I tried to visit, right after returning from Mexico.
Because his pickup was in the garage, I still suspect he was there, already sick and ashamed.
Grady Miller is a humorist. He lives in Hollywood.