by Laton Carter
Lawn tennis was available too, the weather was always perfect, but indoors they wouldn’t have to yell across such space on first encounter. George knew a little German: Schön meant beautiful, Berg meant mountain. In his sour-then-gentle Austrian accent, Mr. Beautiful Mountain accepted. This is what Americans did? Still, the little white ball with its paddle-to-table syncopations was curiously addictive, and the glasses of grapefruit juice, squeezed from one of the trees in the backyard, were the mark of a congenial host.
Zinnias and acanthus were in bloom. The 78 rpm was finishing the last movement of Mr. Beautiful Mountain’s 2nd String Quartet when George fumbled his glass, emptying its contents over the linen tablecloth. The olfactory hallucinations were getting worse. Chocolate. Now rubber burning. He stood up from his chair, felt the pull of the earth, and collapsed to the rug.
The world was small. In a column of light casting a parallelogram on the wood floor, an ant didn’t need money. Ants only appeared nervous or forgetful, but they knew precisely their role at any moment. This is where humans had missed out. A human brain allowed for magnificent creation, but it came with a price: uncertainty, and a vague unrelenting awareness of death. Now that George had money of his own, was that really the point—that fame made untouchable things touchable? A line of blood spread from his nostril down to his jaw. What did a human really want? Cordoned entrances, flashing bulbs, the open mouths of strangers—none of it compared to a single melody or the diligence of an insect.
Backlit in the afternoon sun, heads hovered over him. Hands reached across his torso, opening and closing apertures of light. From the hallway, thudding back-and-forth, an acceleration of steps. Telephone dial, telephone dial, mock orange. Fingers cradling his head. Easy. There you go. Glass of water. Inside the chamber, a nasal breathing sound. Voices blurring with concern.
The outline of a hanging plant, a Wandering Jew, cast a shadow across Mr. Beautiful Mountain’s face. Who’d named this sprawling configuration? It was indeed wandering—its body spilling over the clay pot, the articulate vines and lobes on the lookout for a new place to settle—just like Mr. Beautiful Mountain. Arnold. He’d wanted New Zealand, not Los Angeles, before the war got too close. But time had run out, and he’d had to come anyway.
For George, the pull had been industry. Movies needed music and George’s mind was full of it. “All the tunesmiths get together in a way that is practically impossible in the East. I’ve seen a great deal of Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern at poker parties and dinners. The feeling around here is very…gemütlich.”
But a mind is not a brain, and tumors travel without sound. In the languid hush of the day sliding under a black wave and then another, his eyelids suffering to stay open, George studied Mr. Beautiful Mountain’s graceless bent nose. His own nose too was bent. There was an inexpressible humor to a nose, a protrusion that couldn’t contain its own charm. The parlor door was ajar. On the other side, speaking in hushed syllables: yes, yes, Gershwin, right now.
George rolled toward the wall. What time was it? He still had his shoes on. In bed, and with shoes. A breeze pushed through the screen and made him blink. He propped up on his elbows. Now he could see the long blooms of the Angel’s trumpet. Windows were honest. Whatever appeared before a window, its glass revealed. Unlike mirrors, windows offered a measure of truth. If only there were more of them, more windows opening onto sloping fields and rows of orchards, and beyond the orchards the wide expanse of the Pacific, and beyond that the beautiful way in which the marine air bathed itself in light.