A showbiz journo goes Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole and ends up at a hellacious party. 3,477 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As I lay down, I remembered thinking that I would only close my eyes for a moment. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how intensely I stared, I couldn’t see my way through the thicket of branches and leaves to the clearing that surely waited beyond. I couldn’t even be sure how long I’d been out here crawling up the cliff face after leaving my hotel in Beverly Hills — five minutes? five hours? — wandering aimlessly through these dark woods frustrated, disoriented and suddenly very tired. I, the infamous entertainment journalist Frederick M. Barclay, was about to sit down with the even more infamous studio head Nero in his secluded Bel Air lair to discuss the state of the art. I’d been told that Tony Billings would arrange it. If only I could find him.
Then I found a face staring down at me.
“Jack,” he said, reaching down and taking my hand. “Jack Dante.”
“Of course I recognize you,” I said, as he pulled me to my feet. “You’re one of the greatest living British filmmakers.”
“Am I still alive? I question that,” he said. “I question it every day. More and more, I wander around this city like a ghost.”
“I’m Fred Barclay, the writer,” I said. “I was on my way to the Nero party. I must have gotten lost. How did you find me?”
“I just came in here to shoot up and heard all the moaning. What are you on, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Not a thing,” I said. “I had a few glasses of white wine, but that was earlier.”
“Don’t worry, I got your back. Just try to keep your head straight.”
He led me through the woods. A short time later, we emerged onto a quiet lane that we followed to an imposing iron gate. On the brick wall adjacent to the gate was the gilded inscription, “There are things known, and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” And then, right next to it, spray painted in red: “You know where you are. You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die! In the jungle. Welcome to the jungle.”
“Ominous,” I said. “How do we enter?”
He pushed, and the huge gate swung inward. Dante smiled, then proceeded through. The gate opened onto a vast lawn filled with marble sculptures of the nude neo-classical variety, also elaborate topiary, a Japanese water feature and a surprisingly anxious assortment of would-be revelers.
On the crest of the hill, set behind a half-ring of water at the back of the property, was the infamous mansion.
“I hadn’t thought it would be so easy to get in,” I confided.
“We’re not there yet,” said Dante. “See that raft?”
On the bank of the moat (there was no better word), near the madding revelers, was a full size Venetian gondola. The gondolier, an exceptionally tall African-American in full cap-scarf regalia, stood at the bow, resting against his pole.
“Stick with me and keep your mouth shut,” said Dante, as we proceeded toward the house.
We moved through the throng of partygoers and for the first time got close enough to see their faces. I was struck by the expressions of melancholy and desperation. Although they were uniformly poised and good looking, nattily attired in their laconic Tinseltown night finery, there was something of the face-pressed-against-the-window look about them. As if they had given up all hope.
Dante addressed the gondolier: “Caron, my man,” he said, extending his hand. The gondolier warily gave Dante a solid bro shake, his eyes going up and down the list.
“It’s kinda tricky, so I’ll spell it out for you—K. A. H. N.,” said Dante, rapping me on the chest with the back of his hand. “Lot of people think it’s CONN or COHN or CAAN. Nobody gets it right.”
“Mr. Kahn plus one,” he said, at last flashing a big smile. “Welcome aboard.”
Dante and I took our seats in the gondola, and a moment later, we were gliding across the water.
“I use that name whenever I’m on this side of the pond. Sal Kahn is like a skeleton key to every velvet rope shindig in town. Khan’s notorious for getting his name on all the lists and never showing up. Unless you do business with him, you probably have no idea what he looks like. These gatekeepers have no clue.”
“I’m surprised a director of your stature has trouble with gatekeepers,” I said.
“Nobody recognizes me in the states."
I had no recollection of reaching the other side of the pond. When I woke up, I was lying on an abundant black velour divan with the brim of my hat pulled down over my eyes. In my state of semi-conscious limbo, I watched Dante work the room. It was adorned with a multitude of black Velvet Elvis paintings, and Dante was moving from group to group, shaking hands, slapping backs, making introductions and telling loud stories.
My recent arousal and transition from a recumbent to a seated position caused nary a raised eyebrow, as one group after another swirled gaily around my leaden form, seemingly oblivious to my unfortunate predicament. So it was with a welcome lack of self-consciousness that I finally rose to my feet and unobtrusively joined Dante and his circle of acquaintances, who ranged in age from early 20s to middle age and who were all strangely familiar, like youthful photographs of dead relatives.
“As I was telling Fred here earlier,” Dante said, working me seamlessly into the conversation. “you gotta keep hustling. You never know when your time will come. It could be tomorrow. It could be twenty years. In this business there are second acts galore. Third acts. Fourth acts. Even after you kick the bucket, they’ll bring your ass back from the dead.”
“Has anyone seen Tony Billings?” I said.
“Earlier,” said a buxom red-haired woman in her 50s.
“He went that way,” said the silver haired gent with over-large teeth, nodding toward a doorway across the room.
“You know him?” said a red-headed boy-man of indeterminate age.
“We have a bit of a history together,” I said.
“To eternal youth,” said Dante.
The group raised their glasses to us as Dante and I walked away.
“They were all vaguely familiar,” I said. “But I couldn’t quite place them.”
“Former child actors,” said Dante. “Doomed from the start.”
We walked down a short spiral staircase then around the corner, ducking our heads as we entered the room, which was brightly lit and done almost entirely in red, from the padded leather walls to the low hanging plaster ceiling to the hardwood floor. In the near corner of the room. A Karaoke machine played the music from the Madonna song Papa Don’t Preach, while a young Japanese female dressed in a Catholic school girls’ uniform of black and white check skirt and white Oxford shirt, sang the lyrics in an exuberant chirpy voice, kicking her bare legs into the air and shaking her petite derriere to the beat. I recognized the girl as an actress from a popular TV show.
Dante and I held back for a few minutes to get the lay of the room. The entire time we stood there, nobody moved, nobody talked. Even though they were arranged together in a group, the onlookers appeared to be going in different directions. The room could have been a busy street corner near Shinjuku Station.
As we made our way across the room toward the far door, we walked over their frozen shadows like engrams from Hiroshima. I could feel the heat of the blast half a world and half a century away. It felt like empty space.
“However this turns out, I want you to know how much I admire your work,” I told Dante. “I was disconsolate when I heard the news about the abortion of the Walkabout remake.”
“Stillborn is more like it. Picture was dead on the vine. We spent years in development, took a crew all the way down to the Outback. For what? So the bean counters could turn it into a bloody cartoon?”
“I rather liked some of the embellishments, I admit.”
“It was a remake of Walkabout. Walk. Get it? By the time we started shooting, it was Tony fucking Billings and his Aborigine sidekick riding around the Outback in a fucking vintage muscle car looking for an undetonated nuclear bomb from World War II.”
“I understand the schoolgirl from the original was replaced by twin prostitutes,” I said.
“It was a fucking joke,” muttered Dante, shaking his head.
I looked around. “This isn’t my scene,” I said. “Besides, it doesn’t sound like anyone’s seen Tony.”
“I heard we just missed him,” said Dante.
“From whom?” I said, quickly scanning the statue-like faces.
“I heard,” said Dante. “I got my sources. He was just here.”
“What happened to him?”
“He already made his way inside.”
“Then let’s blow this joint,” I said.
“Sure, sure,” said Dante. “But it’s gonna be tricky.”
He nodded toward the huge sumo wrestler seated in front of the exit.
“Somehow we’ve gotta get Tiny away from the door.”
Against the far wall, next to the sumo wrestler, was a table with all manner of hors d’oeuvres — smoked eel and flying fish roe sushi, various unrecognizable pickled vegetables, some gelatinous morsels wrapped in seaweed — and several bottles of artisanal American whiskey.
We hung around the table, snacking on the hors d’oeuvres and drinking liberally of the whiskey.
“What’s the plan?” I said.
“Eventually he’ll have to get up to use the bathroom,” said Dante.
“The man looks like he has a bladder the size of a zeppelin,” I said.
“You got a better idea?” said Dante.
Suddenly, the room began to shake violently. Chandeliers swayed. Whiskey bottles and crystal glasses leaped from the buffet table and crashed to the floor, followed by a cascade of ice cubes, bouncing on the hard wood. I had to crouch to keep my balance, as wave after wave of solid matter rolled under my feet.
The girl abruptly stopped singing, raised her hands to either side of her face and shrieked: “Godzilla! Godzilla!”
“Sweet Jesus,” the wrestler said, in a voice that was surprisingly soft and sweet for a man of his not inconsiderable size, and not at all Japanese sounding. He dove for cover under the hors d’oeuvres table. The next thing I remember seeing, as I looked up, were Dante’s legs as he stepped over me and into the next room.
“Come on, pull yourself together, Barclay,” I heard him say as he sauntered nonchalantly into the room. “This is where it’s really happening.”
Bodies in jumbles, on love seats, on the floor — everybody in the room was laughing as they tried to pick themselves back up.
“Had to be a 7.0,” said record exec Gordon Lane.
“6.7, 6.8 tops,” said Ira Newberg, the VP of production over at Reliant.
“What happened to my drink?” said stand-up comic Hugh Doyle, on hands and knees feeling blindly around the floor.
“You should be more concerned about your eyeglasses,” said veteran publicist Shelley Lang, as she kicked them halfway across the room.
“Here it is,” said Doyle, as he lowered his head and began lapping at the puddle of whiskey on the floor.
Dante and I were seated in a pair of leather easy chairs in front of the blazing orange artificial fire. I held a cigar in one hand, while slowly swirling a snifter of Grand Marnier in the other. We came into a small but sumptuously decorated theater with a low ceiling and a collection of Victorian style chairs and divans arranged around a modest dais. The guests lounged about smoking, drinking and chatting idly while the magician — I am assuming he was a magician because he wore the requisite black suit and tall hat — and his female assistant rolled a large cabinet of sorts into the center of the stage. We arrived just in time as the magician appeared ready to begin the performance.
As soon as we entered, Dante broke away to schmooze the producers Bax and Nick, going through the elaborate ballet of his patented junkball pitch, intended to confuse the target. He employed various forms of misdirection, allowing the saleable idea to just sort of float by, past the flailing defense mechanisms that automatically deploy in these instances, and lodge in the unconscious with the result that the individual barely even realizes they’ve been pitched at all. The producers were themselves in the process of schmoozing a couple of blue-haired cocktail waitresses whom they had backed up against the glass wall of an aquarium filled with huge goggle-eyed Black Moors.
As the magician pronounced his magical incantation, waving his wand at the box and shooting his fingers out like a lightning bolt, I overheard snatches of conversation from a nearby table:
“Nothing is forever. Why should art be any different?” said theater actor Alex Blondell.
“I’ll tell you what’s forever,” said glam rock guitarist Slim Coker. “Those handprints on Hollywood Boulevard. It’d take a nuclear war to get rid of those things.”
“They’re going to discover them in a million years under the rubble and think we walked on our hands. They’ll say, ‘Hey, I guess that’s why they didn’t make it,’” said international financier Wayne Chang.
“Hand prints all over the sidewalk, that’ll be the only thing left,” said Slim, as he bounced a pair of dice off the cocktail waitress’s back.
I went behind the curtain and passed through a narrow doorway, heretofore concealed, that led to a long hallway lit by two rows of Tiffany lamps that hung upside down from the ceiling, which was so low that I had to stoop slightly as I walked. I followed a distinguished gentleman in a white suit until he turned the corner. When I reached the next leg of the hallway, the man was nowhere to be seen.
There were doors all up and down the hall. I tried each in succession, but they were all locked. Next to one was a small end table upon which sat a crystal decanter, but unfortunately no glasses. Having developed a powerful thirst, I picked up the decanter and took a sip. It wasn’t until I’d slaked my thirst that I realized there was a ‘Mr. Yuck’ sticker on it. I also noticed an assortment of sponges and rags under the table.
“Who stores cleaning solvents in Christofle crystal decanters?” I wondered aloud.
“The super-rich,” said the voice.
I turned to find the man in the white suit, only this time instead of Colonel Sanders, it was Mr. Rourke from the old TV show Fantasy Island.
“It actually tasted quite good, reminiscent of a 1978 Chateau Lefite,” I said.
“All of the master’s cleaning fluids are of an excellent vintage.”
“I’m just looking for someone.”
“You just missed him,” said the man in white, walking back up the hall and disappearing around the corner.
I continued searching. At last I discovered a tiny door behind a Norman Rockwell-style painting of a Playboy bunny that hung near the floor. I got down on all fours and stuck my head through the opening to have a look around and immediately received a scratch across the bridge of my nose. I retreated back into the hallway, and out leaped a three-legged cat. The painting had merely been an artful way to conceal the closet that contained the cat’s litter box.
“That’s Mr. Glass,” said Mr. White Suit, passing me by on his way down the hall.
I followed him this time, around the corner, staying close at his heels, and saw him pass through a door I’d overlooked before because the entire façade of the door was covered by a full length mirror. I approached, observing my swelling form in the mirror, and became overcome by the realization that I was finally at the heart of it. At last. I gripped the handle and pulled the door open.
At first I was so blinded by the blaze of whiteness inside the room I couldn’t make out where I was, but as my eyes adjusted to the light I realized that it was in fact a bathroom, spacious and well appointed, but not ostentatiously so. The room was done up in white porcelain, white tile floor and glossy white enamel walls.
I spotted Tony Billings right away. He was seated on the side of the tub snorting a line of coke off a lady’s hand mirror. There were only a few other people in the room, a lesser actor named Ray Winter, the drummer from Switch Bitch, as well as a young man I didn’t recognize who had short spikey blond hair and a ferret-like nervous energy that made this tweaked-out Venice Beach surf wigger appear to be constantly nodding with the rapidity of a hummingbird’s wings.
“Hey, you looking for someone?” Tony asked me.
All at once I felt my iron resolve crumble like a house of cards. With my ultimate object right in front of me, within arms’ reach, staring me in the face even, this holy grail of hair, flesh and bone that I had quested after with the single mindedness of a knight errant, biting and clawing my way through every obstacle fortuna laid in my path, I suddenly lost the will to follow through. It was as if I no longer even knew myself, how old I was, where I was from. It was doubtful I could have even answered the question of my own name.
“I’m afraid I may have swallowed some poison,” I said without thinking, the words fairly dribbling from my mouth.
“We’ve all been there, man,” said Winter.
“Just let go,” said Dollar, finishing off a line of blow. “Pray to the porcelain god.”
The surf wigger just nodded, his head humming a thousand beats per minute.
“Yes, of course,” I said, prostrating myself before the toilet bowl. “I have to admit I’d always been curious to see how Nero did his bathrooms. The man has always been somewhat of an enigma.”
“He doesn’t live here,” said Tony, ashing into the toilet bowl.
“I’m sure you’re mistaken,” I said. “I was given this address to meet him."
“It’s a false house,” said Tony, smugly. “He has two identical houses on this property. The one he uses for parties, and the one he actually lives in, on the other side of the hill, facing the valley.”
“A mirror image,” I said.
“That’s why they call it the Janus House,” said Winter. “Everybody knows that.”
“I’d be surprised if he was even at this party,” said Dollar.
“His own mother-fucking party,” said Tony.
“Nero? No way,” said Winter. “Not in a million years.”
“Right now, cat’s probably sitting on top of a mountain, lotus-style,” said Dollar.
“Or meditating in one of those chambers with the energy and shit,” said Tony.
I pulled myself to my feet and staggered toward the door at the far end of the bathroom, swinging it open and hurling myself through it. I heard the door shut behind me. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the dark, but once they had, there was no denying what this place was. Not a room, that much was certain. It should have been so obvious. This is what I had been looking for all along: a magic portal. I had already passed through so many impassable entries, it was time to lift the last veil, take the final plunge. I was no longer even inside the house. I was outside, standing outside the estate, right back where I’d started. Only the grounds were empty of would-be revelers. All was quiet. There wasn’t a single sign of life.
And then I saw it. A white coyote, caught in a rivulet of moonlight that streamed down through the smog shrouded night. A dirty brown jack rabbit hung limply from his mouth. The coyote lowered his head, turned away slowly, and trotted off across the lawn. As usual there were more questions than answers but I was none the less much the wiser. I had been so close, yet so far away. How rarely did life play out as conceived in the mind’s eye? I lurched forward, staggering out over the lawn as fast as my legs would take me, then bounding like a wild animal across the barren heath.
Later that morning, I enjoyed a gigantic three martini brunch at the Peninsula Hotel. I gave the whole sequence of events not another thought until I was summoned by Nero.