(Excerpted from Break His Bones, a work in progress.)
AT NOON I DROVE the pick-up across the parking lot at the Colony Market in Malibu and pulled up under the big eucalyptus trees back where the trash bins are. I went through my cardboard food box, pulled out a can of vegetarian beans, the can opener and the plastic spoon and ate lunch leaning against the truck bed. The sky was very blue and a breeze was blowing off the ocean across the asphalt. When I finished eating I got in the cab and went to sleep with the door half open so my legs could hang out.
Then my friend Val was laughing and snapping pictures with a little camera. "You look like an old walrus in there," he was saying. "You look like something that washed up on the sand and a couple kids are taking you home to show mommy. Oh boy, let me get another shot of this."
"This makes you happy?"
"I'm going to send some of these shots to Mrs. Smith. Marie'll be interested in seeing what her son does in Malibu when she thinks he's working."
We decided to drive up Latigo Canyon where Val was going to photograph a house he's designed and built. I'd worked on it a little too. It was a beautiful, sunny, breezy day.
"I got your paper the other day," Val said. "You must be crazy to print stuff like that."
I knew what he was going to say. "What do you mean?" I said.
"A paper that says the holocaust didn't happen? Are you trying to kid me?"
"I didn't write that the holocaust didn't happen."
"You wrote that the Nazis didn't have gas chambers. That's what the holocaust was. The gas chambers."
"I wrote about how some of the evidence used to support the gas chamber stories doesn't hold up. Some of it. It's only history, you know. You've heard about the gas chambers so many times for so many years you don't know any more what the stories are."
"You want to know what I know?"
" What do you know?"
"I know what the Jews are going to say. You better get ready for a little action."
"Is that right?"
"You better start doing push-ups every morning, get yourself a Doberman, someone to take care of you."
I didn't say anything.
"When the Jews find out what you're putting in that paper they're going to send a couple goons around to fix your head for you. Have you thought about that?"
"Not really, huh? You better start thinking about it. They'll fix your head first, then they'll straighten out that paper for you too. You're messing with the Jews now, sucker. You're in big trouble. You're not messing with your ordinary American. You're in the big-time now."
I didn't say anything.
"You know what Joe told me? I was up on the job yesterday and he had a copy of your paper. He was laughing his ass off. He told me to tell you its time you got your affairs in order because you've got about thirty days. He was laughing about it. Thirty days, he said. What does Joe care?"
"Joe doesn't really care."
"Joe says you're gonna get offed. He thinks it's damn funny too."
I didn't say anything.
"I think it's pretty funny myself."
I didn't say anything. The clean bright afternoon air blew in through the cab across my arms and face.
"Putting stuff against the holocaust in that rag of yours? Stuff the Jews don't approve of? Who are you trying to kid? You think you're printing the truth? Is that what you think? What the hell does the truth matter? You'll find out the truth some night when you least expect it. That'll be the night some big Jewish Defense League goon shows up to adjust your head for you."
"You sound like you're looking forward to it."
"I am. I think your head needs an adjustment. I'd like to be there when they do it for you. Looking down through a little hole in the ceiling in that tenement in Hollywood where you live. I'd like to observe their technique. I hear they know how to make professional-caliber head adjustments."
"The JDL gets a lot of headlines in this town. They don't make much real trouble."
"You keep on bird-dogging that gas chamber business, you're going to find out what real trouble is. Listen to old Joe. Joe says you've got thirty days."
"Listen to this one. I got up at four this morning and drove around inspecting my newsracks. I only have six racks. I put them out to get a quick reaction to something I'm doing. This is the first time people have vandalized the racks. They slashed the plastic bubbles with knives. They stuffed chewing gum and cardboard in the coin slots. They smashed off the coin boxes with rocks and hammers. They even went to the trouble to pry apart the metal case frames and twist them out of shape. They did a real job on me."
"What the hell did you expect? Did you think the Jews were going to let you get away with that shit?"
"How do you know it was Jews? Sincere gentile liberals might have got into the act."
Val laughed. "Yeah, it was probably the liberals."
"This one rack, I put it at the rear entrance to the Holiday Inn in Hollywood. Stop laughing and listen to this. A lot of Germans stay there and I was curious to see what reaction Germans would have to seeing a paper that was questioning some of the gas chamber stories. This morning, that's where I went first. Someone had used quarter slugs to open the rack, then they unscrewed the plastic bubble from its frame and stole the papers and the bubble too. A real professional job. Inside the empty rack there was a note with a beer can sitting on it. I put the note in my pocket, got back in the pick-up in case somebody was watching and drove over to Hollywood Boulevard and parked where there was some light. The note said: `You Nazi asshole, if I catch you putting this anti-Semitic paper in this rack again I'll cut off your balls and feed them to my poodle."
Val was laughing and shaking his head.
"And then it said: `After that I'll do something you won't even like.'"
"Now there's a funny Jew," Val said.
"What do you think's funny about that?"
"I'll tell you what's funny. The Jews are going to bust your ass for this one. You better not take any more naps in your truck. You better start scattering rocks in front of the door where you live too."
"Don't you have any feelings about a free press?"
"Hell no. What's a free press to me? I'm an architect. Anyhow, you're the free press man. You're going to take care of it for all of us, right?"
"Sometimes I ask myself, why do I even talk to you?"
"Old Joe, he gives you thirty days."
A couple miles up Latigo Canyon we came across two vultures standing at the side of the road. As I slowed they flapped heavily up off the pavement and started circling just over the telephone wires. I drove ahead about fifty yards, pulled over and we walked back down. At first I thought it was a cat, but it was a fox. White and tan, very pretty in the face, it was the first fox I'd seen in Malibu. Its hindquarters were crushed and a hole was torn open in its flank. The stench was fierce. A line of blackened gut was pulled out of the hole across the fox's face. Overhead the vultures were circling so low we could hear the sound of their wings in the thin blue air.
We walked back to the pick-up and waited but the vultures kept circling. We got inside the cab and closed the doors but they wouldn't light.
I said: "I wonder why they won't come down?"
"Maybe they're finished," Val said. "Maybe they don't want anymore."
"Half the fox is still there. There's still a lot of good stuff there."
"That's the difference between you and those vultures. You think there's a lot of good stuff there. They don't think so."
"You know what this guy said to me this morning?"
"I was at Malibu Lumber picking up some one-by-four for stakes and we got to talking. He's a framer now but he used to be a school teacher. He taught English to junior high school kids."
"That's why he's out framing houses today."
"One thing led to another and I showed him a copy of my paper. He looked through it for a while kind of thoughtfully. Then he said: `It's interesting, but you know you can get yourself killed for this, don't you?'"
"He's right. You're tangling with the Jews now, not your ordinary man in the street. I think old Joe's right. You've got thirty days to get your affairs in order. I want that new Black and Decker saw you bought. You won't need it where you're going. You won't need anything. I'll take the hydro level too. No use letting those Mexicans you work with have that stuff. They can't make them work anyway. Do you still have that six foot wood level trimmed in brass?"
"I'm leaving everything to Mother."
"What the hell is Marie going to do with an electric saw?"
"Mother gets everything."
"Marie's eighty years old and all you've got to leave her is an electric saw? I think she's going to be disappointed. What the hell have you done with your life? Do you ever think about that?"
"You don't always do things with life, Val. Sometimes life does things with you."
At the job site I sat in the warm afternoon sun while Val photographed the house and oak trees and the little stream that runs down the canyon toward the ocean. Then we drove back down to the coast and drank beer in the Cantina Cafe at Broad Beach. Val talked about being raised an Italian Catholic, then we talked about God and how it's difficult to have much respect for Him. I said it's my view that if He couldn't do people right He shouldn't have done them at all and after awhile the talk turned to women.
Val said: "When my old man was in the hospital dying I went back to Chicago to be with him. I noticed two things: the place was run by women, and they were incompetent. When my old man was dying he was in a coma for hours, sometimes for days. Then he'd come around, open his eyes and ask for a glass of water. I'd give him some water and he'd turn his head and go under again. I sat there thirty days, waiting, and when he opened his eyes and asked for water I'd give it to him. After a while I noticed that when he opened his eyes there was never a woman around. Do you think there was?. Not one time. I began to look around then. I watched how those broads worked, how much time they spent on the telephone, how much time they stood around in the halls gabbing. When I really saw how they ran that place I was surprised anyone was still alive up there. Then I started thinking about other situations run by women, the schoolrooms and the homes. Everywhere they've taken over there's chaos. It's the women who have the power in the homes. It's the women who raise the kids, and they run the schools and the hospitals. What's more important than those things? Every place they take over, it falls apart. They've got no sense of organization, no sense about how to do things. Now they want to get into business and government. This country is going to be in one big mess. What are you laughing at?"
"What do you care what I'm laughing at?"
"I'll tell you. If it wasn't for sex, men and women wouldn't even talk to each other."
"That's what you say, isn't it?"
"I may have said that."
"You want another beer?"
"Or what do you want to do?"
"You want to go back and check out those two vultures?"
Val said: "Do you know why the condors are becoming extinct?"
"Because they're dying off?"
"They're dying off, you jerk, but do you know why they're becoming extinct?"
"I don't know. That's the truth."
"I read this on the science page. You want to know why they're becoming extinct?"
"What science page?"
"What the hell do you care what science page? The Times. All right?"
"You going to tell me?"
"The condors are becoming extinct because when a condor needs to take a shit he likes to fly up and stand on one of those high power lines up behind Santa Barbara. Did you know that? You didn't know that, right? This is science. The condor, he stands there on that high power line, he looks around at the mountaintops, he watches those itty bitty hawks flitting around down below and after a while, when the time's right, he eases out one of those long condor goobers. This is no ordinary goober we're talking about. This is no canary, a little spot here, little spot there. This is a condor goober. You understand? Three, four feet long. That thing trails out there in the wind and makes a connection with one of those other high power lines and that's when that condor gets a big surprise. He blasts himself straight out into space. He's nothing but shit and feathers."
"You believe that? You believe that's why the condors are disappearing?"
"I'm telling you. It was on the science page. Can you see it? He blasts himself right off the face of the earth. The Sierra Club knows all about it. They're plenty worried too, but they don't want to talk about it."
"I don't believe that."
"You believe there weren't any gas chambers but you don't want to believe something that was on the science page?"
"I don't want to talk about the gas chambers."
"I'll believe you about the gas chambers when I see it on the science page."
"That's the point. So will I. I'm sick of talking about the gas chambers."
"That's all right. You're going to get your head adjusted for you and afterwards you won't ever think about the gas chambers again."
"You want another beer?"
"I've had enough. I go home drunk, my old lady socks me."
"She shouldn't do that. You have a professional career."
"The other night I got home drunk, I was smoking a two-dollar cigar and she socked me right in the end of it."
"Science is politicized like everything else. No scientist has written anything on the gas chambers one way or the other. Why would that be if it wasn't politics?"
"When you get your head adjusted by some big Jew you can take it to a scientist, have him study it. He can write something for the science page and your friends can read it and find out what went wrong with the way you think."
"That's a good idea."
"All you got to do is stay alive. Joe says you've got thirty days. Maybe you need more time than that."
"I need lots of time."
We walked outside and stood around. There was no traffic and across the highway we could hear the surf smacking on the sand. The cool air blew off the top of the ocean against our faces. To our right the sun was setting behind Point Dume. It was very beautiful. After awhile Val said: "Malibu, right? Beats the hell out of Chicago."
I got in the pick-up and drove down the coast toward Santa Monica. I was pretty drunk but not more than I like to be. The sea in the bay was still and blue and green and the sweep of the cities along the shore toward Palos Verdes was clean and white. The General Telephone building in Santa Monica rose up above everything else and some of its black windows flashed back the fiery light of the setting sun. The mind began to think again about how something is wrong with the gas chamber stories and how nobody wants to talk about it or let anyone else talk about it. I didn't like thinking about it. Thought turned to how I feel when I talk about the gas chambers and my friends get angry with me. Not all my friends are like Val. Most are politicized. Then thought recalled a story I'd read in Time magazine two, maybe three years earlier. It came to me out of the blue. Even in the first instant when it happened I was intrigued by the curious relevance of the little flash of memory. That's how it is with thought, memory and imagination. You never know which way the cat will jump.
The story was about a highwayman in Turkey who waylayed travelers in the countryside, robbed them and if they gave him any nonsense murdered them and threw their bodies in the brush. This highwayman was so successful that others joined him and soon he commanded a band of brigands so large that the Turkish army had to be sent into the field to knock him off. As it happened, he was ambushed and taken prisoner. He was a big old fellow with huge mustachios. There was a photograph of him in the magazine. He was astounded by the number of reporters who were on the scene to question him and take his picture. There were reporters from as far away as Japan and the United States.
"I don't understand," the big old fellow said. "Why am I so famous? Why do these people want to know about me? I am only a simple murderer."
Driving along in the light from the setting sun I was laughing. I felt wonderful. I told myself to keep the story ready. The next time I'm attacked for following out a story line about the gas chambers, no matter where it leads, I'll remember the old Turkish highwayman.
"Hey," I'll say, "take it easy with me. Don't you understand? I'm only a simple writer."
Installed: 5/16/98, 6: 00 PM, PST