The Alhambra Inn and Gardens
On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood where the water and land come together, hands in the pockets of his jeans, looking out at the steady Atlantic. He was twelve years old and tall for his age. The sea-breeze swept back his brown hair, probably too long, from a fine, clear brow. He stood there, filled with the confused and painful emotions he had lived with for the last three months—since the time when his mother had closed their house on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and, in a flurry of furniture, checks, and real-estate agents, rented an apartment on Central Park West. From that apartment they had fled to this quiet resort on New Hampshire’s tiny seacoast. Order and regularity had disappeared from Jack’s world. His life seemed as shifting, as uncontrolled, as the heaving water before him. His mother was moving him through the world, twitching him from place to place; but what moved his mother?
His mother was running, running.
Jack turned around, looking up the empty beach first to the left, then to the right. To the left was Arcadia Funworld, an amusement park that ran all racket and roar from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It stood empty and still now, a heart between beats. The roller coaster was a scaffold against that featureless, overcast sky, the uprights and angled supports like strokes done in charcoal. Down there was his new friend, Speedy Parker, but the boy could not think about Speedy Parker now. To the right was the Alhambra Inn and Gardens, and that was where the boy’s thoughts relentlessly took him. On the day of their arrival Jack had momentarily thought he’d seen a rainbow over its dormered and gambreled roof. A sign of sorts, a promise of better things. But there had been no rainbow. A weathervane spun right-left, left-right, caught in a crosswind. He had got out of their rented car, ignoring his mother’s unspoken desire for him to do something about the luggage, and looked up. Above the spinning brass cock of the weathervane hung only a blank sky.
“Open the trunk and get the bags, sonny boy,” his mother had called to him. “This broken-down old actress wants to check in and hunt down a drink.”
“An elementary martini,” Jack had said.
“‘You’re not so old,’ you were supposed to say.” She was pushing herself effortfully off the carseat.
“You’re not so old.”
She gleamed at him—a glimpse of the old, go-to-hell Lily Cavanaugh (Sawyer), queen of two decades’ worth of B movies. She straightened her back. “It’s going to be okay here, Jacky,” she had said. “Everything’s going to be okay here. This is a good place.”
A seagull drifted over the roof of the hotel, and for a second Jack had the disquieting sensation that the weathervane had taken flight.
“We’ll get away from the phone calls for a while, right?”
“Sure,” Jack had said. She wanted to hide from Uncle Morgan, she wanted no more wrangles with her dead husband’s business partner, she wanted to crawl into bed with an elementary martini and hoist the covers over her head. . . .
Mom, what’s wrong with you?
There was too much death, the world was half-made of death. The gull cried out overhead.
“Andelay, kid, andelay,” his mother had said. “Let’s get into the Great Good Place.”
Then, Jack had thought: At least there’s always Uncle Tommy to help out in case things get really hairy.
But Uncle Tommy was already dead; it was just that the news was still on the other end of a lot of telephone wires.
The Alhambra hung out over the water, a great Victorian pile on gigantic granite blocks which seemed to merge almost seamlessly with the low headland—a jutting collarbone of granite here on the few scant miles of New Hampshire seacoast. The formal gardens on its landward side were barely visible from Jack’s beachfront angle—a dark green flip of hedge, that was all. The brass cock stood against the sky, quartering west by northwest. A plaque in the lobby announced that it was here, in 1838, that the Northern Methodist Conference had held the first of the great New England abolition rallies. Daniel Webster had spoken at fiery, inspired length. According to the plaque, Webster had said: “From this day forward, know that slavery as an American institution has begun to sicken and must soon die in all our states and territorial lands.”
So they had arrived, on that day last week which had ended the turmoil of their months in New York. In Arcadia Beach there were no lawyers employed by Morgan Sloat popping out of cars and waving papers which had to be signed, had to be filed, Mrs. Sawyer. In Arcadia Beach the telephones did not ring out from noon until three in the morning (Uncle Morgan appeared to forget that residents of Central Park West were not on California time). In fact the telephones in Arcadia Beach rang not at all.
On the way into the little resort town, his mother driving with squinty-eyed concentration, Jack had seen only one person on the streets—a mad old man desultorily pushing an empty shopping cart along a sidewalk. Above them was that blank gray sky, an uncomfortable sky. In total contrast to New York, here there was only the steady sound of the wind, hooting up deserted streets that looked much too wide with no traffic to fill them. Here were empty shops with signs in the windows saying OPEN WEEKENDS ONLY or, even worse, SEE YOU IN JUNE! There were a hundred empty parking places on the street before the Alhambra, empty tables in the Arcadia Tea and Jam Shoppe next door.
And shabby-crazy old men pushed shopping carts along deserted streets.
“I spent the happiest three weeks of my life in this funny little place,” Lily told him, driving past the old man (who turned, Jack saw, to look after them with frightened suspicion—he was mouthing something but Jack could not tell what it was) and then swinging the car up the curved drive through the front gardens of the hotel.
For that was why they had bundled everything they could not live without into suitcases and satchels and plastic shopping bags, turned the key in the lock on the apartment door (ignoring the shrill ringing of the telephone, which seemed to penetrate that same keyhole and pursue them down the hall); that was why they had filled the trunk and back seat of the rented car with all their overflowing boxes and bags and spent hours crawling north along the Henry Hudson Parkway, then many more hours pounding up I-95—because Lily Cavanaugh Sawyer had once been happy here. In 1968, the year before Jack’s birth, Lily had been nominated for an Academy Award for her role in a picture called Blaze. Blaze was a better movie than most of Lily’s, and in it she had been able to demonstrate a much richer talent than her usual bad-girl roles had revealed. Nobody expected Lily to win, least of all Lily; but for Lily the customary cliché about the real honor being in the nomination was honest truth—she did feel honored, deeply and genuinely, and to celebrate this one moment of real professional recognition, Phil Sawyer had wisely taken her for three weeks to the Alhambra Inn and Gardens, on the other side of the continent, where they had watched the Oscars while drinking champagne in bed. (If Jack had been older, and had he had an occasion to care, he might have done the necessary subtraction and discovered that the Alhambra had been the place of his essential beginning.)
When the Supporting Actress nominations were read, according to family legend, Lily had growled to Phil, “If I win this thing and I’m not there, I’ll do the Monkey on your chest in my stiletto heels.”
But when Ruth Gordon had won, Lily had said, “Sure, she deserves it, she’s a great kid.” And had immediately poked her husband in the middle of the chest and said, “You’d better get me another part like that, you big-shot agent you.”
There had been no more parts like that. Lily’s last role, two years after Phil’s death, had been that of a cynical ex-prostitute in a film called Motorcycle Maniacs.
• • •
It was that period Lily was commemorating now, Jack knew as he hauled the baggage out of the trunk and the back seat. A D’Agostino bag had torn right down through the big D’AG, and a jumble of rolled-up socks, loose photographs, chessmen and the board, and comic books had dribbled over all else in the trunk. Jack managed to get most of this stuff into other bags. Lily was moving slowly up the hotel steps, pulling herself along on the railing like an old lady. “I’ll find the bellhop,” she said without turning around.
Jack straightened up from the bulging bags and looked again at the sky where he was sure he had seen a rainbow. There was no rainbow, only that uncomfortable, shifting sky.
“Come to me,” someone said behind him in a small and perfectly audible voice.
“What?” he asked, turning around. The empty gardens and drive stretched out before him.
“Yes?” his mother said. She looked crickle-backed, leaning over the knob of the great wooden door.
“Mistake,” he said. There had been no voice, no rainbow. He forgot both and looked up at his mother, who was struggling with the vast door. “Hold on, I’ll help,” he called, and trotted up the steps, awkwardly carrying a big suitcase and a straining paper bag filled with sweaters.
Until he met Speedy Parker, Jack had moved through the days at the hotel as unconscious of the passage of time as a sleeping dog. His entire life seemed almost dreamlike to him during these days, full of shadows and inexplicable transitions. Even the terrible news about Uncle Tommy which had come down the telephone wires the night before had not entirely awakened him, as shocking as it had been. If Jack had been a mystic, he might have thought that other forces had taken him over and were manipulating his mother’s life and his own. Jack Sawyer at twelve was a being who required things to do, and the noiseless passivity of these days, after the hubbub of Manhattan, had confused and undone him in some basic way.
Jack had found himself standing on the beach with no recollection of having gone there, no idea of what he was doing there at all. He supposed he was mourning Uncle Tommy, but it was as though his mind had gone to sleep, leaving his body to fend for itself. He could not concentrate long enough to grasp the plots of the sitcoms he and Lily watched at night, much less keep the nuances of fiction in his head.
“You’re tired from all this moving around,” his mother said, dragging deeply on a cigarette and squinting at him through the smoke. “All you have to do, Jack-O, is relax for a little while. This is a good place. Let’s enjoy it as long as we can.”
Bob Newhart, before them in a slightly too-reddish color on the set, bemusedly regarded a shoe he held in his right hand.
“That’s what I’m doing, Jacky.” She smiled at him. “Relaxing and enjoying it.”
He peeked at his watch. Two hours had passed while they sat in front of the television, and he could not remember anything that had preceded this program.
Jack was getting up to go to bed when the phone rang. Good old Uncle Morgan Sloat had found them. Uncle Morgan’s news was never very great, but this was apparently a blockbuster even by Uncle Morgan’s standards. Jack stood in the middle of the room, watching as his mother’s face grew paler, palest. Her hand crept to her throat, where new lines had appeared over the last few months, and pressed lightly. She said barely a word until the end, when she whispered, “Thank you, Morgan,” and hung up. She had turned to Jack then, looking older and sicker than ever.
“Got to be tough now, Jacky, all right?”
He hadn’t felt tough.
She took his hand then and told him.
“Uncle Tommy was killed in a hit-and-run accident this afternoon, Jack.”
He gasped, feeling as if the wind had been torn out of him.
“He was crossing La Cienega Boulevard and a van hit him. There was a witness who said it was black, and that the words WILD CHILD were written on the side, but that was . . . was all.”
Lily began to cry. A moment later, almost surprised, Jack began to cry as well. All of that had happened three days ago, and to Jack it seemed forever.
On September 15th, 1981, a boy named Jack Sawyer stood looking out at the steady water as he stood on an unmarked beach before a hotel that looked like a castle in a Sir Walter Scott novel. He wanted to cry but was unable to release his tears. He was surrounded by death, death made up half the world, there were no rainbows. The WILD CHILD van had subtracted Uncle Tommy from the world. Uncle Tommy, dead in L.A., too far from the east coast, where even a kid like Jack knew he really belonged. A man who felt he had to put on a tie before going out to get a roast beef sandwich at Arby’s had no business on the west coast at all.
His father was dead, Uncle Tommy was dead, his mother might be dying. He felt death here, too, at Arcadia Beach, where it spoke through telephones in Uncle Morgan’s voice. It was nothing as cheap or obvious as the melancholy feel of a resort in the offseason, where one kept stumbling over the Ghosts of Summers Past; it seemed to be in the texture of things, a smell on the ocean breeze. He was scared . . . and he had been scared for a long time. Being here, where it was so quiet, had only helped him to realize it—had helped him to realize that maybe Death had driven all the way up I-95 from New York, squinting out through cigarette smoke and asking him to find some bop on the car radio.
He could remember—vaguely—his father telling him that he was born with an old head, but his head didn’t feel old now. Right now, his head felt very young. Scared, he thought. I’m pretty damn scared. This is where the world ends, right?
Seagulls coursed the gray air overhead. The silence was as gray as the air—as deadly as the growing circles under her eyes.
When he had wandered into Funworld and met Lester Speedy Parker after he did not quite know how many days of numbly drifting through time, that passive feeling of being on hold had somehow left him. Lester Parker was a black man with crinkly gray hair and heavy lines cutting through his cheeks. He was utterly unremarkable now despite whatever he had accomplished in his earlier life as a travelling blues musician. Nor had he said anything particularly remarkable. Yet as soon as Jack had walked aimlessly into Funworld’s game arcade and met Speedy’s pale eyes he felt all the fuzziness leave him. He had become himself again. It was as if a magical current had passed directly from the old man into Jack. Speedy had smiled at him and said, “Well, it looks like I got me some company. Little travellin man just walked in.”
It was true, he was not on hold anymore: just an instant before, he had seemed to be wrapped in wet wool and cotton candy, and now he was set free. A silvery nimbus seemed to play about the old man for an instant, a little aureole of light which disappeared as soon as Jack blinked. For the first time Jack saw that the man was holding the handle of a wide heavy push-broom.
“You okay, son?” The handyman put one hand in the small of his back, and stretched backward. “The world just get worse, or did she get better?”
“Uh, better,” Jack said.
“Then you come to the right place, I’d say. What do they call you?”
Little travellin man, Speedy had said that first day, ole Travellin Jack. He had leaned his tall angular body against the Skee-Ball machine and wrapped his arms around the broom-handle as though it were a girl at a dance. The man you see here is Lester Speedy Parker, formerly a travellin man hisself, son, hee hee—oh yeah, Speedy knew the road, he knew all the roads, way back in the old days. Had me a band, Travellin Jack, played the blues. Gittar blues. Made me a few records, too, but I won’t shame you by asking if you ever heard em. Every syllable had its own rhythmic lilt, every phrase its rimshot and backbeat; Speedy Parker carried a broom instead of a guitar, but he was still a musician. Within the first five seconds of talking to Speedy, Jack had known that his jazz-loving father would have relished this man’s company.
He had tagged along behind Speedy for the better part of three or four days, watching him work and helping out when he could. Speedy let him bang in nails, sand down a picket or two that needed paint; these simple tasks done under Speedy’s instructions were the only schooling he was getting, but they made him feel better. Jack now saw his first days in Arcadia Beach as a period of unrelieved wretchedness from which his new friend had rescued him. For Speedy Parker was a friend, that was certain—so certain, in fact, that in it was a quantity of mystery. In the few days since Jack had shaken off his daze (or since Speedy had shaken it off for him by dispelling it with one glance of his light-colored eyes), Speedy Parker had become closer to him than any other friend, with the possible exception of Richard Sloat, whom Jack had known approximately since the cradle. And now, counteracting his terror at losing Uncle Tommy and his fear that his mother was actually dying, he felt the tug of Speedy’s warm wise presence from just down the street.
Again, and uncomfortably, Jack had his old sense of being directed, of being manipulated: as if a long invisible wire had pulled himself and his mother up to this abandoned place by the sea.
They wanted him here, whoever they were.
Or was that just crazy? In his inner vision he saw a bent old man, clearly out of his mind, muttering to himself as he pushed an empty shopping cart down the sidewalk.
A gull screamed in the air, and Jack promised himself that he would make himself talk about some of his feelings with Speedy Parker. Even if Speedy thought he was nuts; even if he laughed at Jack. He would not laugh, Jack secretly knew. They were old friends because one of the things Jack understood about the old custodian was that he could say almost anything to him.
But he was not ready for all that yet. It was all too crazy, and he did not understand it yet himself. Almost reluctantly Jack turned his back on Funworld and trudged across the sand toward the hotel.