Presented for your approval - or disapproval, doesn't matter to me now - are two vintage short stories of mine originally published in a short-lived, long-defunct Bay Area literary tabloid called The Rooster and The Raven. Both pieces reveal a very young, ambitious, sensitive, and romantic dreamer at work. Obviously the early influence of J.D. Salinger is apparent, but I think even by then (circa age 27) I had developed my own unique voice, focusing on my recurring themes of loneliness and romantic obsession. Coffee Shop Goddess is my ode to the '80s, set in L.A. and San Francisco, where I spent that decade, peppered with a lot of recognizable pop cultural references, so it's an effective time capsule, both personally and generally speaking. The Emancipation of Anne Frank is inspired largely by my own childhood, though I only spent a brief time of it in New York City, the setting of this story. As you can see, I've changed a lot since I wrote these stories. I've lost my innocence. I'm not sure that's a good thing, as a person, or as an artist. In any case, I'm happy to share them again after all these years, since they preserve a precious part of me that I'll never recover.
COFFEE SHOP GODDESS
by Will Viharo
Originally published in The Rooster and The Raven, 1990
I called her Lightbulbs, since she always having bright ideas. She used to hang out with the Cool Ones at Daddy-O's Diner. Her skin was as soft-looking and creamy as the stuff she poured into every cup of coffee she drank during the late night/early morning get-togethers of residents of the Who's-Who – musicians, poets, struggling writers like myself who all lived in this dilapidated building off Wilshire in Westwood.
Lightbulbs was also as sweet as the full container of sugar she used in her sixteen or so cups of coffee. She didn't always engage in the punk rock counter culture debates of her chain-smoking cronies; mostly, she sat quietly drawing in her private draft pad. She was an artist.
When I first met her, back in the Spring of '82, she was already working on her masterpiece, a series of erotic flower paintings tentatively titled “Floral Fixation.” I fell in lust with her almost immediately, like everyone else, and gradually, as I got to know her better, fell in love with her, like everyone else.
L.A. 1982. Teenage Enema Nurses and Rock Lobsters ruled the airwaves. Lightbulbs was Neon New Wave before it became Old Ripple. While living in the Who's Who she ran the rainbow gamut of hair colors, from green to pink to purple to platinum. She finally settled for blonde after seeing some old photos of Marilyn Monroe in a memorabilia shop on Hollywood Boulevard. By that time she had already burned-out on Debbie Harry and Blondie, Roxy Music, David Bowie, all the New Wave dinosaurs. By the time I met her, in the depth of her Marilyn phase (she was a sophisticated nineteen, world-weary but emotionally immature), she was your basic nightclubber, a fan of all the local bands. My heart broke every time I walked down the hall and saw some leather-clad, stringy-haired, bleary-eyed punker emerging from her room the morning after a surreal gig she'd attended. She loved to dance, she loved to draw, she loved sex. She seemed unattainable as a lover but all too accessible as a pal, so at the time I took what I could get.
Clad in a pink robe, open all the way down, she as kissing Tarantula, a musician who lived in the Who's Who, when I happened past. Tarantula and I bumped into each other as he turned to leave. I excused myself and tried to keep my eyes off of Lightbulbs' creamy cleavage. She noticed me noticing her though, and, with mock modesty, closed her robe. Tarantula was obviously stoned and barely acknowledged me. As he stumbled down the hall back to his own room, Lightbulbs and I stood awkwardly in her doorway, trying to think of something to say. “How about some breakfast?” I blurted finally. She said sure, let me throw something on, which turned out to be a leopard skin halter top, black matador pants, and pumps, plus her trademark cat-eye glasses. Lightbulbs was near-sighted, her only physical flaw, as far as I could tell at the time.
In truth, Daddy-O's Diner was really Ship's Coffee Shop, on Wilshire Boulevard, across from the graveyard where Marilyn Monroe is buried. But Lightbulbs had dubbed it Daddy-O's Diner since that sounded “more '50s.” As we walked to Daddy-O's that morning – unusually bright and crisp and cool for L.A., maybe 65 degrees and mostly overcast – Lightbulbs had on her Walkman, so I couldn't really talk to her.
When we got to the coffee shop, I bought a Times from a box out front and Lightbulbs stopped the tape. It was a continuous recording of her favorite song at the moment, “Fade to Grey,” by some Eurotech group called Visage.
We snagged one of the smaller booths and ordered right away. “I love this place,” she said. “Reminds me of a rocket ship, like the one in Forbidden Planet. You ever see that movie?”
“No,” I said. I ordered a fried egg sandwich and coffee from Dorothy, our favorite waitress. She was a legend at the Who's Who, old and feisty and wisecracking. She's dead now, from an aneurysm. Ship's is gone now, too. But in my mind, there're still there forever. That whole time and place was really an era, though none of us knew it at the time, except when the Who's Who was torn down to make way for an office building and everyone scattered in different directions, we all knew it was the end of something special.
But, in my head, my conversation that complacent morning at Daddy-O's lives on.
“Guess who came into work the other day?” she teased me as she put on her makeup with the aid of a tiny mirror. Lightbulbs was working at the time in a beauty salon in Century City.
“I give up. Who?”
“Burt Ward. Can you believe it? I got his autograph.”
“Who? Who's that?”
“Robin! On Batman? Don't you know anything?”
“What would Robin want in a hair salon?”
“He wanted to use our bathroom, but it's for customers only, but I let him use it anyway. And you know who else I saw? In Neiman-Marcus? Ann-Margret. I was going to go up to her and tell her Viva Las Vegas used to be my favorite movie when I was a kid, but I figured I'd skip it. What does she care, right? So what's up with you, Gumshoe? How come you never talk to me?”
Everyone called me Gumshoe because I was always reading detective novels. I used to argue with this other writer at the Who's Who, a poet called Vomit Comet (he also wrote lyrics for a band in the building), about whether Raymond Chandler or Charles Bukowski was the great LA bard. We both compromised and settled on John Fante.
“What do you mean, how come I never talk to you?” I said. “We're talking now.”
“Yea, but never before. Not really. You never go to any clubs, do you?”
“Nah, I'm not into crowds.”
“Neither am I.”
“So why do you go, then? Why hang out with all those types if you're not one of them?”
“What types? You mean my friends? Those types you mean?”
“Don't get mad. Ever hear of Judy Holliday? You remind me of her.”
“Why, is she a ditz with tits?”
“Um...yeah, but that's not what I meant. So you like movies a lot, huh?”
Our food arrived. Lightbulbs had coffee and eggs with ketchup. It looked like some biological accident, but she scarfed it up with relish.
“What makes you think I like movies?” she said.
“That's all you ever talk about.”
“Well, what else is there? Besides music and sex. Hey, you see Cat People yet? It's my new favorite. The music's really cool, too. You should see it, really. Aren't you a writer or something?”
“Yea, or something.”
"Where are you from?"
"Where are you from?"
“Oh, yea? No shit. I'm from Kansas.”
“No, you're not.”
“How did you know?”
“You don't fit the farm girl image.”
“I don't know, must be the way you snap your gum.”
“You should know, Gummy.”
“Please don't call me Gummy. Gumshoe I can barely take, but Gummy...”
“I'm from up north. Seattle, then San Francisco. In case you care, that is.”
“So where are your folks? Down here?” I asked, leafing through the Calendar section of the paper.
She shrugged nonchalantly, lighting a new cigarette. “I lost touch with them already. My mother's up by Frisco last I heard. My old man might as well be dead. They're both artists. Anything good playing?”
I was scanning the movie listings. “A Marilyn Monroe double feature at the Nuart.”
“Oh, yea? Let's go, I've never actually seen one of her movies.”
“You gotta be kiddin'.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Forget it. Yea, we can see those tonight.”
“Isn't the Nuart right across from Dolores' on Santa Monica?”
“Yea, come to think of it. You like Dolores'?”
“Yea, it's sorta cool. Kinda dark. You ever been to Zucky's in Santa Monica?”
“Sure, whenever I'm down there. I like it.”
“It's all right. How about Norm's on Pico? Or Ben Frank's on Sunset?”
“What're you, Miss Coffee Shop of 1982?”
“That's me, baby. Better believe it.”
Later that night, after Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry a Millionaire, we went to Dolores' and had coffee and mud pie.
“So did you like those flicks?” I asked her. She was sort of quiet all evening, I supposed out of awe for her idol. From our breakfast conversation I discovered we had a few things I common - a fondness for cloudy days, late night B movies on Channel 5 – but I knew she had a thing for musicians, of which the Who's Who had an overabundance. Also, I feared that beneath her hip, liberal exterior she was just another gold-digger. In a town like this, young, nubile girls like Lightbulbs had all the angles covered. I was wrong, though. I was only 22 at the time, and paranoid about being a waiter in a Venice cafe who scribbled autobiographical sketches by moonlight. I didn't think a girl like Lightbulbs would want a guy like me any more than one of those leggy sorority bimbos at UCLA would. Again, I was wrong, and glad of it.
“Yea, they were cool,” she said softly. A teardrop fell into her empty coffee cup.
“Um...are you okay? Just devastated about Marilyn being dead or...what?”
“I was thinking about my father.”
“Yea? How come?”
“I don't know...let's just drop it.”
“Drop it? Drop what? What did we pick up?”
“My father...You remind me of him, a little.”
“Not good, really. I hated him.”
“But that's not why you remind me of him.” The waitress brought us more coffee, and shot me a look that accused me of disturbing the young lady's evening. I let it pass. I put my hand on Lightbulbs' hand, and her fingers curled around mine. Her hand was warm and moist, and I grew excited in a very un-platonic way. I wasn't feeling very fraternal toward her. Or I didn't think I was, by my definition.
“He raped me,” she sort of whispered into her coffee cup.
“What?” Which was a stupid thing to say, because I heard her and didn't want her to have to repeat it, but I was too stunned and inexperienced to react accordingly. She was really wailing now, and I was torn between sympathy and morbid fascination, wanting every detail of the encounter while simultaneously fighting repulsion and an urge to throw up.
“I don't want to talk about it,” she said, and I said sure and let it go. She added one more thing, though, before lapsing into silence: “Now you know why I am the way I am.”
We didn't have a date for a long time after that night. She sort of avoided me, for some reason, like I'd gotten too close and she decided to back off. I lost a lot of sleep during that period. I was sloppy and lazy at work and nearly got fired. I wrote something called “Lightbulbs' Lament,” a sort of prose poem I half-planned to give to her but tore up at the last minute. I saw more Saturday and Sunday morning one-night stands leaving her room, and I felt crushed. She always smiled at me before closing the door.
Finally, after about a month of being politely ignored, I got up the courage to knock on her door and ask her out. It was mid-afternoon, but apparently I'd woken her up. She invited me in anyway. The shades were pulled down over the window, and the room was a disaster of dirty laundry and misplaced knickknacks. I saw some guy's underwear and a used condom and pretended I didn't. Odd art prints adorned the walls, by people I'd never heard of, but I had a feeling that was more due to my ignorance than their obscurity. Pop art postcards lined the walls as well. She slept on a futon with rumpled sheets. The room was stuffy despite a fan that was on full blast, and smelled vaguely of sex, perfume, and mildew.
“Ever been to Junior's?” I asked her, referring to an overpriced Jewish Deli on Westwood near Pico.
“Um, sure, once. Why?”
“Wanna go? My treat?”
“Well...yea. Why not?”
“It's still early. I just went to sleep about two hours ago.”
“Sorry if I woke you. Maybe I should come back later...”
“No! Don't leave. I'll...throw something on and be right with you.”
She was entering her Bauhaus period and all her wardrobe was slowly fading to black, like a lot of the Who's Who. I was getting sick of living there, to be honest, but it was cheap and even though I had a tough time sleeping at night with all the noise I knew I'd miss it if I left. It was just too unique in ways I can't begin to describe. It was like a cross between Graceland and the House of Dracula, but not really either in the final analysis.
I could hear Billy Idol singing “White Wedding” on her Walkman from where I stood, which was about a foot away as we walked down to Junior's. She didn't look at me the whole time, but I knew I could corner her in Junior's.
I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with fries and coffee and she ordered corned beef on rye with coffee.
“I like it here. It's cozy,” she beamed at me. The caffeine was bringing her back to me.
“So how have you been, Gummy?”
I let that pass. “Peachy. How about you? I missed you, sort of.”
“Why? We saw each other every day almost ever since...” She sort of drifted off.
“Since that night you told me about your old man.”
“I don't want to talk about it.”
“Well, I do. At least how it affects us.”
“Us. Not the United States. You and me. We. Us.”
“Gummy, don't get the wrong idea. I like you but - “
“As a friend.”
“So why are you playing games?'
“C'mon, cut the crap, Lightbulbs. Don't get cute.”
She laughed at my hard-boiled jargon, even though that wasn't really my intention. I'd just read Mickey Spillane and was feeling touch and corny. “Lightbulbs?”
“Yea, that's what people call you behind your back. Didn't you know? I thought of it, actually.”
“Is that supposed to be a sexist comment on my tits?”
“Not really. Well, maybe. Anyway, you're avoiding the issue - ”
“Wanna go see Blade Runner tonight? It just opened at the Village Theater, or the one across from it, what's it called - “
“I think so. Let's go see it. It sounds cool.”
“I guess.” I was a little soured on sci-fi at the time, ever since The Road Warrior came out and all the dudes at the Who's Who began dressing and acting like Mad Max. Also, the more time I spent with Lightbulbs, the better the chances of her opening up to me.
She loved Blade Runner, and wondered why the world – or at least L.A. - couldn't always look the way it did in the film, dark and rainy and neon-lit. We went to Ship's, I mean Daddy-O's for coffee and cream pie afterward. Then she got this bright idea.
“Let's go visit Marilyn!”
We jumped over the fence to the Westwood Mortuary and found the wall casket bearing the proper plaque. There were roses in a little vase hanging next to the grave. They were fresh.
“Probably from Joe DiMaggio,” Lightbulbs whispered, hushed by reverence.
Impulsively I took the roses out and gave them to Lightbulbs, kissing her on the cheek. She started to cry, and I held her. Her wet cheek glistened in the moonlight.
I walked her back to the Who's Who and to her door. She led me inside by the hand and began removing my clothes. I responded naturally, and before I realized it we were naked and caressing on her futon.
Before I actually entered her, she whispered in my ear, “I have to be able to trust you. You're not like the others.” We climaxed at the same time.
“You never did tell me why I remind you of your father,” I said later in the dark. But she had fallen asleep, or pretended to. I lay awake most of the night.
Word got out around the Who's Who that Lightbulbs was entertaining the same guest night after night in her room, and the general mood was on of shock and outrage. Promiscuity was one of the Who's Who's staples, along with drunkenness, recklessness, heavy drug use, and overall decadence and debauchery – all in an aesthetic context, of course. Everyone was a rebel without a cause, however. Except Lightbulbs and me. We simply insulated ourselves from the outside world.
In our coffee shop conversations I avoided anything heavy for fear of turning her off again. We talked a lot bout art, especially her ongoing project, “Floral Fixation,” in which orchids looked suspiciously like female genitalia, and other flowers had penises for “stems.” I thought it would be a hit exhibit at any local gallery. Lightbulbs agreed. She was already thinking New York. This made me nervous. I didn't like the idea of her moving away, but I didn't tell her. I'd already learned that sometimes distance is appealing, at least to neurotic women. I was already half in love with Lightbulbs, but to say she wasn't neurotic would be like saying she wasn't sexy. Apparently the two go together by nature, at least in L.A.
I went shopping with her on Melrose Avenue. I even went with her to the godforsaken Valley to visit her little friends, fellow would-be artists with names like Pill-O (yes, she took pills and slept a lot) and Soap Oprah, who of course was addicted to daytime dramas. I was with her as summer became fall and then winter, and 1982 faded into 1983. LA gets all its seasons in one day usually, and we both pined for greener, lusher conditions in which to be poor and in love. As far as I know she didn't cheat on me, and of course I was faithful to her, since I'm single-minded by nature. She fell in love with Annie Lennox of Eurythmics and proclaimed “Sweet Dreams” her new anthem. We both kept dreaming, oblivious to the future.
1984 found her dressing in purple around the clock, thanks to Prince. I was a Bruce man myself. Our relationship seemed solid enough for most of that year. I sold a few stories to some of the smaller magazines, and she sold a few paintings on Venice Beach. Our relationship was so stable it was almost boring. But I was happy, and I thought she was, too.
Many of her club-going buddies had moved out of the Who's Who into Silverlake or Hollywood, and she lost touch with most of the party crowd. The Who's Who was pretty tame by its own standards when the eviction notices came.
We'd been living together in my room for most of the previous year by that time. Now I wondered how this would affect us. Around this time she met some sleazy art dealer on the beach who owned a small gallery in Beverly Hills and who was interested in her. Or her work. Both, as it turned out.
His name is Simon, but I called him Slimon. Slimon actually wore open shirts and gold medallions. Subtlety was not his forte. He was around forty, and owned a Ferrari with a car phone. He was so obvious I couldn't believe Lightbulbs would even talk shop with him. But he really wanted “Floral Fixation” to find a proper venue, and in Bev Hills he could jack up the prices and make a fortune, enough to quit her current job as a salesgirl in a Westwood boutique. I was working at an Old World restaurant right near her, hating every miserable moment of the humiliation that is part of the job description. Being a waiter was not my forte. My employers figured this out right before the eviction notices came and they fired me.
It didn't take a first-class wiseguy to figure out things were rapidly falling apart.
What else could go wrong? But as I was knocking on wood, Lightbulbs was getting knocked up. By either me or Slimon, she didn't know which.
“Why?” I whispered in our dark room, the night before we had to move out with no place to go.
“He reminded me of my father,” she said tearfully. Her show was scheduled for the next month, and Slimon invited us to stay with him in his Pacific Palisades home. He had a beautiful guest house, he said.
“Where would I sleep?” I asked.
“I'm sorry,” she sobbed. “I guess it wasn't a good idea. Letting him fuck me, I mean.”
“How could you be seduced by a scumbag like that? It's not like you're hard up. You really are a gold-digger after all.”
She slapped me and left with a bag of her belongings.
The next day I took the money the owners of the Who's Who had given all the evictees to move with and took a train to San Francisco, winding up in a residential hotel in North Beach.
1985 San Francisco. Madonna and Miami Vice. Cafe latte and croissants instead of coffee and grilled cheese sandwiches. Cafes instead of coffee shops. Unlike L.A., San Fran wasn't trying to imitate the heartland of America, but European caffe society. It took a while to get used to, and I missed Lightbulbs so much I couldn't even write. The weather was nicer here, though, and I knew she'd love the fog. But I had no way of getting in touch with her. I'd left too impulsively and was so hurt I never bothered to get a phone number or address from her or leave one with a mutual friend for her to contact me. Of course I didn't even know my destination that day, I was so disoriented. She'd betrayed me. She'd sold out. And I'd take her back in a New York minute.
Was she in New York? I lay awake in my little hotel room fantasizing about Slimon and her and the baby (which I imagined resembled the mutant infant in David Lynch's Eraserhead) moving to SoHo or Greenwich Village and living it up. Once “Floral Fixation” caught on, however, she'd dump Slimon and move on. Maybe then she'd miss me and find a way to get in touch. Impossible. My hotel room didn't even have a phone. I was vanishing in Frisco's fog.
After a series of odd jobs I lucked out with a job at City Lights bookstore. Someone had died or something and I walked in at just the right moment. I got into jazz and blues and saw old movies at revival theaters. Most of the time I was alone. Sometimes I'd make a friend in Vesuvio next to City Lights and forget my loneliness for a few hours, but nothing or nobody could replace Lightbulbs in my heart. She wouldn't go out.
I tried everything, including playing Phil Collins' “I Don't Care Anymore” approximately eight hundreds times in a row on my portable blaster. With my earphones on. Didn't work, and I've been a little hard of hearing ever since.
I wandered down to the Bay all the time, Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, usually at twilight when it was at its most ethereal. I looked at Alcatraz and knew how the inmates must have felt.
I tried working on a novel about a prostitute, but sour grapes make for bitter wine. Lightbulbs was no good as a muse unless I knew she loved me. Now I wasn't sure anymore. Maybe I'd just been an experiment in security, emotionally speaking, but when Slimon came along with the big bucks and hot connections Lightbulbs blew a fuse. She'd been screwed into a more lucrative socket, and shone brighter than ever.
“Why should I be selfish?” I asked myself. Slimon had more to offer, and could afford a family, too. Even Lightbulbs must have had maternal instincts. Maybe that's why she was attracted to me. But as it turned out, I was just another moth blinded by her light.
The rest of the '80s went by in a designer blur. The Micheal Jackson craze died down, Reagan's term finally ended. The Berlin Wall fell. Am earthquake upset a World Series between the Giants and the A's. I barely noticed either.
Then, around Christmas of last year, I was walking down Broadway when I noticed this sign: “XXX LIGHTBULBS LIVE!!!” I couldn't resist. I walked through the red velvet curtain into the cool, decadent darkness of the strip joint and got a table near the stage. I'd never been in one of these dives before – I saw most of the girls without makeup in my hotel anyway – but I had to make sure that sign was only a coincidence.
In the hazy yellow spotlight I saw to my horror it wasn't. Lightbulbs was not only a topless dancer in this very town, she was something of an underground celebrity, judging by the catcalls and whistles from the sailors, bikers, dirtbags, and businessmen around me. At least she wasn't a yuppie, I told myself with strained reassurance.
It took a while to get her to notice me, but when the dancers came down off the stage and began circulating around the tables, I touched Lightbulbs sweaty loin and made eye contact.
She gasped, turned around aimlessly, and ran backstage. Some musclebound jerk with tattoos followed her, and I followed him.
The memory is messy. Both Lightbulbs and I were in a state of shock, and everything seemed surreal. The big guy wound up throwing me out, with her protesting tearfully. I tried to get back in but the bouncer tossed me back into the alley, barely conscious.
As I sat in the alley for the next four hours until dawn broke, all I could think of was how pretty Lightbulbs looked in her natural brown hair.
Around 6am or so, Lightbulbs finally emerged from the side door into the alley where I was still sitting in a daze.
“How about some breakfast?” I asked her. She shrugged and said sure, I know just the place.
We walked through Chinatown into Union Square and caught a 38 bus on Geary and took it all the way to the Cliff House. There was a coffee shop on the cliff called Louis' that afforded a breathtaking view of Seal Rock and the Pacific. We were both exhausted and still in shock so we barely spoke on the way there. I sort of rambled on about how I was doing and what I was doing and so forth. She fell asleep on my shoulder.
In the coffee shop we ordered omelets and coffee. She'd given up smoking a year before, she me to my surprise, though she never was big on artificial vices anyway, one of her good points. Her greenish-grey eyes were still pretty, but tired-looking, and not just from lack of rest. They'd seen a lot during our time apart, but all I could think of was the moment, or how beautiful the fog was rolling in off the ocean, engulfing the coffee shop in a misty shroud. It was like a fantasy come to life. Almost.
“I missed you,” I said simply.
“You must think I'm quite a slut,” she said. She'd barely touched her coffee. “But then I was always a cheap broad, anyway.”
“Don't talk about yourself like that.”
“Well, it's so, ain't it? My idea of a fancy time is sitting in a diner at 3am.”
“So? Mine too, and I'm no punk.”
“I had an abortion, you know.”
“I figured you might. What happened to Slimon?”
“Who cares? After he paid for the abortion, he sort of got bored with me. I never did have my art show.”
She was trying not to cry, unsuccessfully, and once again our waitress gave me penetrating looks. “So I just packed up and moved to Palo Alto and stayed with my mother for a while. Then the men came around again, but different types. No musicians. Students, jocks, preppies. Some wanted to marry me, I couldn't believe it. But I thought of you and what I did to you and figured I didn't deserve any more nice guys. So I came up here and found a job in that club and started hanging out with musicians again. I live in this loft in the Mission with a bunch of dykes. I had a fling with one of them when I decided to give up on men altogether.”
“Really?” This news turned me on, and depressed me simultaneously.
“Yea. It's over now. She moved out. Then...aw, who cares. Who cares, right?” She finally took a sip of her coffee.
I was sort of crying now, too. “No matter what, it's good to see you, Bulbs. Better not cry so much though – you might electrocute yourself.”
She smiled wanly and took my hand in hers. “Good to see you too, Gummy. Or are you Sam Spade now, living in Frisco and all?”
I leaned over and kissed her. At first she didn't respond, but finally we wound up necking in our booth and were asked to cut it out or leave. If we hadn't stopped, we might have wound up making love right there. Instead we went down by the water and found a private spot behind some rocks and made love there, with the foamy waves and gulls and seals drowning out the noise. It was still cold and foggy but we were warm and cozy and didn't notice.
I fell asleep for not more than fifteen minutes. When I woke up, she was gone. For a few panicky minutes I thought maybe she'd drowned herself, but then I pulled myself together and looked all along the local coast until nightfall. No Lightbulbs. She'd vanished again.
As I got back on a 38 bus heading downtown, I noticed a piece of paper had been stuck inside my jacket pocket. It was a note from Lightbulbs. It said simply: “I know this is really melodramatic, but I can't stay with you. I was never raped by my father. I almost wish I had been. He just ignored me and left me and my mother alone when I was small. I kept looking for him in other men and never really found him again. I really did and do care about you Gummy. You came the closest. Maybe too close. But I feel too cheap now after sleeping around with so many guys I didn't care about, looking for Daddy. I don't deserve you. You deserve an angel, not me. Goodbye, and have a nice life. Love always, Lightbulbs.”
I took BART into the Mission and just wandered around hoping I'd bump into her with Fate's help, but I never saw her again.
As I write this it's 1990, the age of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and rap music. Turtle crap. Except for the materialism, I miss the '80s, all the energy and color. I suppose I equate that decade with Lightbulbs, who for all I know jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. Maybe I'll see her work one day in a gallery. I can't believe I finally saw her again after all those years and then lost her forever. Writing this memoir is also like writing a requiem for an era. Both the past decade and the girl who made it matter to me exist always at least in my dreams, just like Marilyn Monroe. Lightbulbs will never dim.
THE EMANCIPATION OF ANNE FRANK
by Will Viharo
Originally published in The Rooster and The Raven, 1991
I loved her without reason and when I say reason, I mean both senses of the word. I loved her with no reason, and for no particular reason. I don't know why, or how. But it doesn't matter. I guess I was just born with my love for her. All I know for sure is that my love for could destroy me, but her love for me could save me. I really wish with all my heart and soul that she is listening to me now. Wherever you are, Anne...I love you. I always have, and I always will.
It began a long time ago, when I was about seven or eight. I was living in Manhattan with my mother, who was absent most of the time, so I spent much of my time alone. The only exception to my solitude came when my hired Nanny would drag me outdoors to the Bronx Zoo, which I enjoyed the first eight or nine times, but after that it became a senseless obligation, a boring alternative to the sanctity of my indoor daydreaming. My mother, an actress who starred in many off-Broadway productions before her third and most debilitating breakdown, always worried that I would grow up an isolated loner, a prisoner of my own internal fantasy life. But I never thought of myself as a prisoner, really. I thought of myself as a clandestine adventurer.
My favorite sojourns in those days were to the museums off Central Park – the Natural History and the Met. The dark, ancient ambience of both of those places made me feel strangely secure, like I was stepping out of the hectic mainstream of our Armageddon-bound culture and back into the ageless wombs of History, where no modern harm could touch me. In my complacent little cocoon of a world there wasn't any impending fear of global annihilation or Third World oppression; rather, merely the day-to-day traumas of my mother's violently alternating moods and my Nanny's cold indifference seemed horrible enough to warrant escape.
My only other avenue of freedom stemmed from the television, of which I was an avid devotee. Countless late-afternoon hours of my youth were dedicated to the absorption of the animated antics of Speed Racer, Kimba the White Lion, and Astro Boy, as well as to the “realistic” escapades of Ernie and Bert and Kermit the Frog. My mother was hardly ever home except for early in the morning and late at night, so I was never intercepted in my video addiction. My Nanny considered my obsession a godsend, and encouraged it relentlessly. As long as I was left alone, I was in my own private heaven.
The only time I was really even made aware of my mother's existence came whenever I overheard her playing music, generally Chopin, Beethoven, and Gerswhin. But one contemporary song made her personal hit parade over and over again, until I felt as if the needle of the stereo was playing in the grooves of my very own mind. The song was “Those Were the Days.” To this day, that record haunts me, and I haven't actually heard it – externally – in ages.
I was an average but earnest student in the private schools I was sent to. I kept mainly to myself, of course. My best friends in school were books. I raided the library while my pre-adolescent peers wrestled around in the playground and watched the older students competing in the gym. It wasn't that I lacked physical stamina; I was a healthy kid, attributable to my over-abundance of check-ups, but being alone so much just never allowed me a chance to cultivate any sustained interest in sports or the development of machismo. However, I discovered the beauty, allure, mystery, and elusiveness of the opposite sex at a very tender age. When I wasn't in the library, I was falling in love with whatever petite, pretty classmate that happened to share the same breathing space with me. Because of my enduring fascination with the company of girls, I was labeled a sissy by the guys early on, who weren't able to overcome their fears enough to delve into the same beckoning abyss so soon. I was stealing kisses while my would-be buddies were still gagging at the mere mention of Mary Lou or Betty Sue. Their loss, I thought at the time. I was popular with girls because of the pervasive reluctance at that age to engage in co-ed activities. The only time I was ever segregated from my loved ones was when my teacher would snap me back into line. But that was okay. I usually had a crush on my teachers as well, and enjoyed the attention.
My first book completed cover to cover was Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books. After this cherished experience I actually became Mowgli. Not long after this I read Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Son of Tarzan, and instantly graduated from the jungles of India to the wilderness of Africa, and mentally changed my name from Mowgli to Korak.
In The Son of Tarzan, Korak finds a beautiful slave girl named Miriam and rescues her from a libidinous Arab. The two naturally fall in love and inhabit the savage, emerald domain of the elder Tarzan with wild abandon and hot-blooded passion. Even before the facts of sexuality had surfaced in my consciousness, I was suddenly and vicariously aware of my own body's desires. I envied Korak, and dreamed of finding my own olive-skinned, loin-clothed slave girl to rescue and love.
At the Bronx Zoo with my Nanny, I began projecting myself into the past lives of my captive companions. Whenever an adult would inquire about my home life, I politely informed them that I was raised by wolves in Central Park. Invariably the response to this declaration was amusement, a tweak on the cheek or a patronizing pat on the head. But at the time I not only preferred this fictional background, I actually began to believe it myself.
After a dip into Robert Louis Stevenson and a few trips with H.G. Wells, I came across The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. My relatively prodigious reading efforts outside of class assignments had already endeared me to the septuagenarian librarian, and she was always ready with a heartfelt recommendation whenever I showed my eager face in the shadowy, musty room. She wasn't sure if I was quite ready for Anne Frank, I remember, but she told me that it was a book I should discover one day nonetheless. I had expressed interest in Gothic horror – specifically Mary Shelley's Frankenstein – and the librarian strongly urged me to reconsider, citing nightmares as a common by-product of such escapism. She suggested instead The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but in my own precocious fashion I told her that Twain wasn't my style. I left that day with Lewis Carroll's Alice books, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and Anne Frank's Diary.
It rained all weekend, fortunately, so my Nanny was not obliged to take me out. My mother went away for the weekend to the Hamptons to visit some theater friends, I was told. So my Nanny turned on the television and disappeared from my sight, sighing with apparent bliss and relief. Although she had to sleep over instead of going back to Harlem, she had the place to herself, and I was so easy to watch over it was criminal. All I heard of my Nanny as I began reading and watching television was some mumbled chanting, either Far Eastern mysticism or Haitian voodoo incantations. Whatever, I thought. I was lost inside myself before long, oblivious to the storm and the sounds of traffic outside my window.
The two fairy tale books I found entertaining enough, but decidedly lacking in substance. At the time the metaphorical dimensions of those books were lost on me, and I grew bored before completing either of them. With resolute faith I picked up the Diary and immersed myself in the mind and heart of the little girl in the Secret Annex.
At first, I must admit, I had trouble concentrating on the entries, and my attention kept drifting back to the colorful, violent images on the tube. But as I got to know Anne better, a deep-rooted empathy was aroused in me, and I took her plight to heart without fully understanding the whys and wherefores of her predicament. I was still very young, and my lessons in history had been reserved for innocuous patriotism thus far. World War II and the atrocities of the Nazis were as foreign to me as Europe itself. But still, I could get a sense of what poor Anne was going through, and in my mind's eye I saw the Secret Annex where she hid her family as a parallel universe reflecting my own suffocating circumstances.
I related all too keenly with Anne's ennui, her bridled playfulness, her stifled intellect, and her thwarted need for romance. Her interest in film stars touched me as well, and when my mother finally returned from her hiatus I begged her for posters and other memorabilia with which to decorate my room. Hesitantly she complied with my wishes, but she was consistently opposed to any direct involvement in show business, not wishing me to follow in her broken footsteps, and never allowed me to participate in this aspect of her life. I was always told that when I as a young adult I'd be allowed to see her in a performance, but by that time I reached maturity her career was kaput, and not long after she was dead.
So my Nanny was sent to the local cinema shop to buy me anything I requested, but only to a point. Randomly I picked out a Marx Brothers poster and a print of an old movie bill advertising Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. I relished my new “wallpaper” and began to watch old movies on the weekends to feed my newfound interest. Insatiably I devoured black and white images of The Bowery Boys, Jimmy Cagney, and Humphrey Bogart, all the while imagining I was locked away in the Secret Annex with Anne, watching together our stolen little TV set, praying the Nazis wouldn't come pounding in any minute and disrupt our blissful retreat into dreamland.
As I grew older, I also became more withdrawn. Even in prep school I was known as the enigmatic loner, though I had friends in each of the pecking order categories: The Jocks, The Brains, The Nerds, The Hoods, The Clowns, etc. But I never fit into any of these groups, and while I sustained my passion for the opposite sex, suddenly, as puberty gave way to adolescence, I found the agonies of unrequited love.
And yet, I never felt alone. I excelled in my studies since I had no extracurricular activities to divert my energies, and I had become an avid movie buff, spending afternoons within the darkened havens on Forty Second Street in Times Square. The patrons were often unruly and interfered with my consummate enjoyment of the proceedings onscreen, but I never failed to catch the local double feature week in, week out – premieres as well as revivals. My constant spiritual companion was Anne, of course. I was going as much for her as I was for myself.
In my teens I was exposed to the harsh realities of the vibrant, pulsating metropolis engulfing me as well as the horrors that had doomed Anne Frank. I remember seeing Nazis march in Greenwich Village. A riot ensued that nearly swept me into a paddy wagon, but I escaped unscathed. In school I poured over volumes detailing the Holocaust, and my yearning to touch Anne, to hold her and console her, grew more intense, more real, with each passing year.
I'm neither German nor Jewish, so Anne's plight did not hit close to home on any ethnic or political front. Nor was I morally outraged, at least not more than the next guy, or any conscientious human being. I was, plain and simply, in love.
My mother decided to take me to a shrink.
I was fourteen at the time, a happy victim of wet dreams three times a night, but other than that a healthy, normal kid (in the locker rooms at school I noticed all the guys faced their locker, so obviously I wasn't the only pervert with stained undies). When I told the doc about my obsession for Anne, he didn't react with quite the same vehemence as my mother. He didn't consider my love for Anne an emotional aberration, but a harmless childhood fantasy I would outgrow eventually. For the sake of diplomacy on the homefront I concurred, even going as far as to quote Freud and Jung in regards to my case, although of course they were both dead by then and never even knew I existed. I consoled my mother by watching Masterpiece Theater religiously and reconciled myself to her good judgement and worldliness in these matters. I never mentioned Anne to her again, and quit going to the movies so often. Instead, I began to keep a journal.
I didn't model it precisely on Anne's, but I thought of her every night as I wrote in it, and after a while I even began to write my entires in the form of letters to her. I was very casual about it, informally discussing my problems at school and with my mother, who was looking more and more tired and unhealthy, living on unemployment in between thankless gigs doing commercials and radio spots. My father was a television actor on the coast, and I stumbled upon this revelation quite by accident. He was guest-starring on some cop show as a gangster, and the resemblance to my reflection in the mirror was unmistakable. I checked the credits in the end and mentioned the surname to my mother, since it had been the same as hers long ago, and in fact was written on my birth certificate. (I'd been given her stage name when I was too young to protest.) She sat me down and we had a long talk, after which I cried and wrote about my feelings in an entry to Anne. I remember feeling genuinely grateful that I had someone to turn to, even in an epistolary fashion, since my mother offered little consolation, not wishing to dwell on a subject that obviously caused her much grief and stress.
She died about a year after this revelation. I never bothered to get in touch with my father. I just never felt the need to, and didn't really see the point.
I missed my mother when she died though, mourning more for her lost potential as a thespian than my aborted relationship with her. I poured my anguish into my journal, commiserating with Anne, who also had a shaky relationship with her mother.
The quiet finality of my mother's demise made me realize that Anne was indeed gone from this world, and was not hiding out in Brazil someplace, frozen in time and awaiting my arrival in her life. As I approached eighteen and young manhood, this knowledge dawned on me with increasing clarity, and the subsequent emptiness gnawed away at me like maggots on a corpse.
I had wasted my youth in pursuit of a fantasy, a myth. Anne was dead, and there was no changing that. Moreover, without my mother to turn to, I was lost and alone, afraid to depend on the illusion that had sustained me for so long.
After graduating from high school, I decided to postpone college and, without dipping into the trust fund my mother had been saving since I was an infant, I spent a large portion of my inheritance on a trip to Europe. A year abroad would set me straight, I reasoned.
At first I landed in London, and idled away a week there before crossing over to Paris. I haunted the old stomping grounds of sundry expatriates writers, searching for a clue to their immortality, but their spirits were preserved in books, not in the streets of the living. Almost as soon as I crossed the Atlantic, I was plagued by a disturbing sense of futility, and a vague melancholia clouded the spectacular vistas that I had spent my childhood dreaming about.
But there was one place I had to go before returning to New York and the confines of familiarity: The Secret Annex in Amsterdam. Of course that was my destination all along.
It was March, 1985, the fortieth anniversary of her death in the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. If only she could've remained hidden for three more months, I could've possibly met her in person, since Holland too was liberated by the Allies two months before her death, and one month before her sixteenth birthday, which she never saw. She would've been Sweet Sixteen, and in love with life (her exuberance for the imagined world outside of the Annex remained undiminished right up until the last entry in her Diary, which was discovered amid the rubble by her father, and privately published). Her faith in a better world revealed a naïve joy rather than a stoic tenacity, and it was this unquenchable thirst for truth that inspired me and millions of others throughout the world. As I entered the quaint, cobblestoned Mecca, I felt more in love with her than ever. I was not in Amsterdam as a tourist, but as a long lost lover seeking redemption.
If only she were alive...and yet, it was untimely, tragic demise at the hands of traitors and under the auspices of demons that gave her Diary its everlasting poignancy. She'd always dreamed of being a writer, and posthumously her ambition was realized far beyond the confines of her little girl imagination. Her Diary had taken its place in the annals of Great World Literature. How could she have even hoped that her little journal, her therapeutic escape, her innocent musings would amount to a universal classic studied in classrooms for generations?
There were crowds of people from all over the planet there making the requisite pilgrimage, but I felt a distinct and special kinship with the little girl who had once inhabited this tiny attic. I could feel her spirit move something within me, and I began to cry shamelessly, oblivious to gawking spectators. I don't know how to describe the emotions I experienced as I stood within the Secret Annex, so far from my childhood room in Manhattan, comparatively a palace for a prince. I guess I felt a mixture of joy and sadness, the tangible proximity to Anne's lost life pacifying my longing for her, but the resonant echo of her absence reverberating within my brain and heart. She was gone, gone forever, years before I had even arrived.
I went back to New York and lived out my inheritance. I wrote a play, got rejected, wrote a few more, got rejected, lived in a small, cold room in the Village, and kept writing. I felt dismally alone and isolated, without even a fantasy for a foundation. But still, whenever I wrote, I wrote with Anne in mind, for I wanted to write whatever she might've written had she lived. I also wrote for my mother, who may well have been with Anne by then, silently watching over me, waiting for me to join them.
Dreaming of abrupt emancipation, I'll forego my sanctuary and carve a niche for myself in the real world, even if it like chipping away at granite with a toothpick. Anne would've wanted that, after all.
MORE SHORT FICTION by Will Viharo
A WRONG TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE (1982) and THE IN-BETWEENERS (1987)
LITTLE BLACK BULLETS (1989) and NIGHT NOTES (1990)
A WRONG TURN AT ALBUQUERQUE (1982) and THE IN-BETWEENERS (1987)
LITTLE BLACK BULLETS (1989) and NIGHT NOTES (1990)
PEOPLE BUG ME (2013)
ESCAPE FROM THRILLVILLE (2014)
My short story BEHIND THE BAR is included in this anthology:
My Vic Valentine vignette BRAIN MISTRUST is included in this anthology: