Sometimes I think that if everyone was dead around me I might be able to hear what my own mind is screaming.
It was ten minutes before the start of the meeting. I was sitting in the corner, at a right angle to the speaker’s podium, far enough away so I could be anonymous and not be noticed. The daily Point Dume (pronounced DOOM) Malibu AA meeting has about fifty chairs. It is held in a converted grammar school classroom that once contained local ten-year-olds but now goes by the title Community Center, Room 5.
The noon meetings almost always have several dozen attendees.
Most of the people who attend are locals—rich and jobless or rich and shaking one out. Some are addicts. There are also a good number of court-card alkies who, like me, were sentenced by the judge to come here for their DUIs. The swank recovery homes in Malibu bus in another dozen or so of their seventy-grand-a-month clients.
I’d met the secretary of the meeting several times before. Albert’s a former alkie/dope fiend advertising guy who’d been in a few rehabs himself but now had five years of recovery and apparently considers himself to be some kind of AA guru hotshot. These days Albert is a counselor at The Dume Treatment Center a couple of miles away in Ramirez Canyon. He wears a tie and jacket when he does his meeting secretary act.
Albert is a pretentious asshole. His fifty-year-old face reveals a recent jowl-tuck and he smiles too much with perfect capped teeth and always seems to pay particular attention to the newcomer girls half his age and never misses an opportunity to introduce himself and pass along a few worn-out snot-filled one-liners about recovery while he ogles their tits and takes down their phone number to later make what in AA people term, “a support call.” Somehow Albert is less gregarious with the one or two transient, shit-in-your-pants locals and guys like me: the ones trying to get through the day without drinking or blowing their brains out.
* * *
A pretty girl in her twenties, dressed in dangly earrings and cutoff jeans and a short white top that exposed her tummy, came walking down the aisle toward my row in the corner, holding a Styrofoam cup filled with the meeting’s free coffee. She was about to sit down in a seat in the row in front of me when she paused to get my attention.
“Hi,” she says, holding out her hand for me to shake, “My name’s Meggie. I’ve seen you here a few times. You’re here a lot, right? Like almost every day. I saw you take a one-year birthday cake a couple of weeks ago at the Saturday night meeting.”
“JD,” I said back, shaking the hand with the red nail polish. “Yeah, I’m here a lot.”
“Congratulations on your one-year cake, JD. I mean that’s pretty amazing. It made me think that if you can do it then I can do it too.”
“One day at a time, right?” says I, parroting a recovery puke one liner.
“I’ll have forty-five days tomorrow.”
“Hey, good for you,” my yap says, wanting to sound positive, like I gave a rat’s ass whether Meggie drinks again or smokes more crack, or not.
“Claude, my boyfriend, has ten days. He’s French. He’s a film composer. He’s pretty squirrely right now and he sort-of refuses to get a sponsor. Hey, would you do me a favor and talk to him, JD? Claude won’t listen to me but he might listen to you.”
“Sure. After the meeting. Whatever.”
Then Meggie gives me her twenty-peso grin. “Thanks JD,” she says. “You’re a real sweetie.”
Then, down the aisle, comes Meggie’s old man Claude, a short, long-haired Frenchy, wearing an expensive sports jacket, jeans, and T‑shirt. Malibu casual. He’s carrying his coffee cup in one hand and two big, free, chocolate doughnuts in the other.
Claude plants his dapper forty-five-year-old Froggy ass in the chair next to Meggie.
Next to Claude are three girls in their twenties, all wearing hoodies. They’re giggling and acting like morons—pointing at the nearby celebrity people in other seats and whispering. Spoiled Malibu brats.
After over a year off booze I am still disgusted by most people, especially the has-been actors and ex-rock stars who live nearby in their five-million-dollar châteaus above the cliff overlooking Point Dume.
I am forty-four years old, what in AA they call a re-tread because I have been in and out of sobriety twice over the last few years. When I am at an AA meeting I try to act like a concerned participant when I meet people, but I’m not. It’s just that—an act. I don’t belong in Malibu and I don’t like Malibu AA. My dead father, James (Jimmy) Fiorella, wrote movies for forty years in Los Angeles as a contract screenwriter. He was a transplant from the Little Italy section of New York City and moved West to Los Angeles trying to become a newspaper columnist. A few years later, by mistake and by accident, he got into writing screenplays. Pop’s street name as a kid in lower Manhattan was Jimmy Flowers. In Hollywood he became a script doctor, re-writing movies that had already been re-written and further ruined. Pops almost always never got a screen credit and didn’t want it. He hated every minute of it. He moved us here to Point Dume thirty-five years ago when the place was a desolate, wind-blown plateau above the Pacific Ocean. Malibu was not pronounced Malibooooo in those days; it wasn’t dripping with glitz and two hundred thousand dollar sports cars and big names. As a kid I could stand on our roof and not see another house for miles. Pop wanted to live as far away from the movie business as possible, so he picked Point Dume because no one lived there. Jimmy Fiorella had contempt for the film industry but he always cashed the large biweekly pay checks.
As it turned out, the joke was eventually on my dad because, somehow, with the passing of time, people like Barbara Streisand and Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn and Bob Dylan and Cher and Nick Nolte and Anthony Hopkins and Lewis Gossett and Robert Downey Jr. and Julia Roberts and a hundred other glitzy Hollywood transplants began to build their palazzos nearby. Jimmy had never wanted to be a trendsetter. In the years before his death, as he witnessed Malibu becoming Maliboooo and Point Dume becoming Point Glitz, his new dream was to cash out, sell everything, and evacuate his family to the Abruzzo mountains in central Italy. On his deathbed he held my hand and mumbled to me in Italian: “You’re a good kid, JD. I love you. You’ll figure things out someday.”
* * *
Nothing important in my life has changed since I returned here to my mom’s house three months ago, eight years after my old man’s death. I arrived with all that I owned in three green plastic garbage bags, my mind still carving more of me up and killing more of me off every day.
The last, and hopefully final, shitstorm started eighteen months ago. Battling a perpetual headache, I’d gone on a three-week drunk, had a fight or two, and supposedly, underline supposedly, tried to off myself. During this time I had failed to show up at my Marina del Rey business, a high-end car rental agency that supplies the over-rich population of Los Angeles with Hummers and Ferraris and Dodge Vipers by the hour and by the day. A good business too—until I blew it.
My serious drinking and the headaches began five years ago, after an incident in an apartment in the East Bronx when I was a detective. From that day to this I still have the headaches. The booze was the only thing that ever helped control them. But now I don’t have the booze—just the headaches. They’re less severe but they’re not gone.
I don’t remember much about the binge that caused me to lose my rental car business but it resulted in me, thanks to a clause in my partnership contract, having to pay the tab by signing over ownership of my company to my two acting, shit-for-brains minor partners. After I got arrested these guys called our mutual attorney and, in a conference call, decided it was time to clean my clock, financially.
Knowing they had me by the short hairs I played dead and rolled over. In the end, I sold my 51 percent in LA Dream Machine, the company I had started, for pennies on the dollar and came away with $30,000 for a business that should have netted me at least three hundred grand.
I hadn’t had thirty K in cash in my pocket, free and clear, in quite some time so I decided on a road trip and ended up back in New York City, where I’d lived before coming to LA, to see my son, Jimmy.
Once there I made a few strategic and spontaneous investments: mainly hookers and cocaine and limo rides, and then a suite at The Pierre Hotel. But I did show up for my eight-year-old kid and we had a good time.
A few days after me and my kid Jimmy began renewing our relationship, I discovered that my ex-wife, a splashy, spiked-heeled Hamptons brat, who used to be Kathy but is now Kassandra, was having trouble with her newest live-in boyfriend, and my kid Jimmy was acting depressed.
When I began to dig for answers he finally let me know that his mom’s new bed pal Cedric enjoyed slapping him around after a few drinks in the evening. So, one morning before breakfast, after an all-nighter at some downtown clubs, I dropped by in the limo to deal with Cedric the asshole one-on-one.
That pre-oatmeal visit and the Assault and B&E charge that came with it resulted in a Permanent Restraining Order and landed me in a Croodmoor nuthouse lock-down and eventually a six-month recovery bit.
Jack Kerouac once wrote that, “…the only people for me are the mad ones…who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn burn burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
That’s crap, but thanks Jack. For the last few years I’d tried to be one of Jack’s people. In my spare time I’d written stories about that kind of life and even tried to live it my way, but then I discovered the truth about that shit: these hip, creative folks most always, like Kerouac, wind up in the bughouse or with a mouthful of broken teeth and a jar of Xanax. Or worse. They wind up dead.
In therapy at my nutward, my shrink told me that I’d been suffering from a form of PTSD (with headaches) since my years as a New York City private detective. The incident that had taken place resulted in me participating in the deaths of several people. That incident is when the wheels began coming off in my life. Doctor Feldman also diagnosed me as bipolar and alcoholic.
A day or so after that session I went into a week-long emotional slide and the headaches got much worse. One morning I found myself in the chapel, killing time. The chapel was the only place on the grounds where you might get lucky and sneak a smoke, as opposed to going all the way downstairs, checking yourself out at the desk, getting a green slip, then standing in the parking lot in twenty degree weather just to suck on a Marlboro Light for five minutes.
I hadn’t been to church in twenty years, and anyway a chapel isn’t a church, it’s a room with a few pews and quiet vibes. I had considered that a chapel was a church.
As I was sitting there, after my smoke, a stained glass portrait on the center wall caught my attention. Jesus paraphernalia.
And I heard myself say, “Look God, I’m sick of this. I can’t do this any more. I don’t want to drink. I need to clean up. I need your help.”
When I looked up a strange thing began to happen. There was a light coming through the stained glass and it began to get brighter. Then I felt something. I still don’t know what it was but it was clearly something. As a result of seeing that light I haven’t had a drink from that day to this. My boozing just stopped. I don’t even think about a drink anymore. I’m just done—except for the headaches.
Now I live with my mother and attend AA and make every effort not to punch people. The PTSD headaches are still there. The dreams too. It’s almost always the same dream with one or two or three different versions: #1: I see the wounds but the bodies have no faces. #2: I’m buying cigarettes or am at a market somewhere and I pull a bloody hand out of my pocket instead of my wallet. In the hand is my gun. #3: I’m holding my gun with blood all over me. There are two dead girls but they are smiling and talking to each other.
Mom, who is now eighty-seven, and her caretaker-companion Coco, and their half-dozen cats, occupy two of the six bedrooms in the house on Cliffside Drive in Malibu. Coco is a tall, strong woman. She’s only seventy or so. She used to be mom’s neighbor until her husband died of colon cancer. The chemo treatments and other medical expenses lasted for two years and cost the couple every dime they had. Their house on Point Dume, their restaurant, everything. After her husband’s death Coco was tits up—about to be homeless. Mom called her and made her the companion-care taker offer and when her house foreclosed she became mom’s full-time live-in companion.
Because Jimmy Fiorella had left a $500,000 life insurance policy, mom was now more than okay financially. She’s been obsessed with astrology for years and never fails to let me know what new shit planetary aspects are infecting my life.
My bedroom is the small one at the other end of the house.
* * *
My new AA sponsor, Southbay Bill, says that I am what in AA they call a WILL NOT. “A will-not,” as in “will not completely give himself to this simple program.” And in my last evaluation from my free biweekly state-supplied therapist in Santa Monica (who terminated our sessions, she said, because of my anger issues and my use of profanity), I was told that I should be back on medication but I refuse to take any of that shit for the headaches or anything else because it doesn’t help and it makes my brain stupid. And Southbay Bill has told me that he won’t sponsor me unless I’m 100 percent straight and off of everything.
Two weeks ago I got my driver’s license back after a long suspension for my last arrest and DUI in California. My license is restricted but I am now allowed to drive to and from my AA meetings and work—except, of course, I have no job. Old moms gives me fifty bucks a week for gas for her oil-guzzling red Honda shitbox that fires on only three cylinders and emits a cloud of black smoke everywhere it goes.
A few days ago when I began driving again, mom and Coco, concerned that I might get drunk again and wreck the car and on the advice of mom’s attorney, signed the title of her farting old Honda over to me.
As a writer I have three cardboard boxes filled with poems written over the last twenty years, and two published books. One is a book of short stories and the other a collection of a hundred poems, dashed off by a desktop publisher in San Pedro, who chose to call his odd venture into the world of print Goliath Press.
My book of short stories, The Doo-Dah Parade, sold a staggering 350 copies. Four years ago, just after the book was published, my agent—who disappeared quickly—used my PI experience to get me a scriptwriting TV job on a series, L.A. Homicide, where as one of the six staff writer flunkies. I helped on three episodes before I was replaced by the producer. My book of short stories came and went at record speed at the three indie bookstores left in West Los Angeles and earned me a grand total of $152.00. I’d stopped writing completely until very recently.
* * *
Claude and Meggie are now holding hands in the row in front of me as the room continues filling up. The girls in the hoodies are still giggling. Claude has finished gobbling down his chocolate doughnut and is now scratching his goatee while scanning the room for the movie stars he knows. I can’t help but notice that Meggie is wearing pink throng panties that come two inches above the top of her jeans in back as she sits in front of me. Frilly panties. Very exceptional.
A couple of minutes later Facelift Albert stands at the podium to begin the meeting. “Hi,” he says, “My name is Albert and I’m an alcoholic.”
“Hi Albert,” the room chimes back.
The former classroom is full now. There is only one open seat in my section, the seat next to me, and here comes down the aisle a tall, fiftyish-looking woman in high heels and designer workout gear. She stops at my row. Scary-looking bitch. All yoga muscle with perfect makeup. But the wrinkled skin on her hands and the liver spots are a dead giveaway that fifty is realistically sixty-five. Maybe older. The pulled face can’t hide what she really is.
I have to stand to let Glenn Close squeeze by me. But when I do, somehow the butt of my Charter Arms .44 snubnose—a remnant of my New York City days, gets hooked on the backrest of my metal chair. The prick then tumbles out, clatters on the seat, and falls to the floor.
I pick the gun up and tuck it back in the rear of my jeans, then sit down again.
Looking up I see that a dozen pairs of eyes are on me. The three girls in the hoodies gawk but Claude’s expression is one of alarm. He grabs Meggie (in the pink thong) by the arm. “Vee must moff from ere,” Claude hisses loudly, still glaring in my direction, “too anozer zeat.”
Meggie snatches up her tote bag, then turns back to me. “That’s pretty scary shit, JD,” she whispers. “A fucking gun at an AA meeting.”
“Yeah, well,” I say, “shit happens. Have a nice day.”
The two of them walk to the back of the filled room and stand near the coffee table for the rest of the meeting.
These days I attribute my black moods and my unpleasant evaluation of all humanity to my long absence from alcohol. Sleeping at night has become impossible because of the headaches and the dreams of blood and massacres, so I mostly busy myself by surfing porn sites, reading every book I can get my hands on, and nodding off when I can. But I am usually awake until the sun comes up.
To tire myself out during the day, after the noon AA meetings I’ve been walking the local beaches. For hours. I have drunk coffee at every Malibu café within fifteen miles and “talked” recovery until I felt the onset of rectal cancer. I am unwillingly familiar with every snot-filled hard-luck story of every celebrity tabloid knucklehead at every AA meeting.
I am not a “winner” in sobriety. I do not kid myself. I now understand that booze is the great equalizer. I am the same as everybody else at the Malibu meetings—in the same fix. Beneath the cologne and Botox they are all holding on to their ass for dear life, just like me. They sit in these meetings with their sunglasses and Malibu Colony tans and whine about their cancelled TV series or getting shafted in their divorce. Their kids hate them and are in jail or have wound up in rehab themselves. These people have what everyone in America thinks they want. If money and fame could “fix it” they’d all be fixed. But they’re not. Not by a long shot. They suck air and shit once a day like everybody else. We’re all the same. They’re just like me. Nowhere.
* * *
At mom’s house that afternoon, with nothing to do, and no present interest for visiting the sex chat rooms, I sat down at Jimmy Fiorella’s old typewriter and began to type. The idea of writing something on pop’s antique machine had suddenly appealed to me and I decided to write like he had written. Before computers. So I began typing.
An hour later I looked at the clock. I had written a new poem.
Lighting a cigarette I leaned back and read what was in the machine and now on the desk in front of me. It wasn’t very good but I decided not to throw out the page. It was a poem for my mom.
Broke again, and carless
and hoping to mooch a few free months in Malibu
I discovered that now there are wild Parrots breeding on
Big, loud, noisy fuckers
breeding in the high trees
following me up the road in the afternoon sun from the highway
chattering their non-sense like an orchestra in warm-up chaos
This time I’m home with all that I own in three plastic bags
along with my laptop and a commitment to attend AA meetings
Old mom opened the door when she saw me
and that night we laughed and talked on endlessly
about Rupert Brooke and Edna Millay and Tennyson
and that jerk T.S. Eliot
And I went off to my room
fat on pesto pasta
but sad for Jimmy Fiorella’s fading ghost
and thanking Jesus or whatever’s out there
that there is one more person left alive
on the plant