Hillel’s habit when it was hot was to sit in shorts, shirtless, on the terrace, in front of his laptop, wearing sunglasses and working in the shade of a big ficus, a tree he wouldn’t much have liked if not for the shade. This was because of the pods. They were about the size of blueberries but as hard as mahogany and they would fall to the Spanish tile now and then and sometimes into the keys of his laptop, causing the machine to write things like “d” or “c” or “v,” and sometimes two letters at once, as in “pl,” or sometimes numbers, such as “9.” When Hillel tried to fish the pods out he was forced to type many more unnecessary letters, like “mmmmk” and “sdeews.” Then he had to erase these letters, since he didn’t need them. He’d noticed that the pods raining down came with hotter weather and he’d been told by his gardener, Max, that the tree shed its pods most on the hottest days. It was October and this year brought the same heat in October as it brought in August and September. About what you’d expect, though somehow every year you’d hear the word “October” and expect something different. The calendar had fooled you again. Apparently turning its pages meant nothing. Hillel’s idea was that October ought to be renamed in Southern California. They ought to call it September. Being naturally skeptical when it came to things Max said – the gardener had once told him that ladybugs were a form of weevil – Hillel kept a plastic bucket out on the terrace. This would collect falling pods but, not being a very big bucket, didn’t collect very many over the course of the day. At the end of the afternoon, Hillel would count the pods. He kept a running tab. This he compared with daytime temperatures and discovered Max was no idiot.
From the terrace Hillel could see the sky over downtown was a pale blue, turning to a sort of ocher where it met the sunlit buildings. From one of the buildings a beam shot out, the sun’s reflection thrown out into the haze. It was as bright as the beam from a lighthouse casting out into fog. A eucalyptus in the canyon down below brushed against the thick air. He could almost see the breeze itself, moving through the tree’s branches. In the distance, on the hillside of Mount Hollywood, north of the dome of the observatory, a row of palm trees stood swaying against the almost white sky.
Hillel was drinking scotch. The ice had nearly melted, but there were two rounded cubes left. Beautiful rounded cubes of ice. He touched the glass to his forehead, then sat and sipped and stared into the hills across the canyon. He’d read that the Comanches had twenty-six separate words for the colors of horses and he wondered if a similar nomenclature might be invented to describe the various colors of the hills, from the pale to the bright browns to the tans to the nearly dry grasses to the less dry grasses to the green grasses after the winter rains, to the sage in summer as against the sage in winter. He also wondered if there might not be a great number of more specific words for the sorts of idiocy you found in Los Angeles. There ought to be names for the specific shades of idiocy, but there were not. Descriptions, yes, but not boiled down into single words.
Julius had gone in the month of October. Julius had gone on the ides of October. Julius had taken Max with him – the cat, not the gardener; but named Max because he had a mustache like the gardener – and Julius had taken the month of October with him, so that when the month returned, as it had twice now since Julius had gone, Hillel couldn’t think of the month without Julius or Julius without the month. He’d never written, never called, Julius hadn’t. He might have gone back to college as he’d always threatened he would but had Julius ever been to college in the first place? He hadn’t been able to answer some very basic questions about his classes at UC Santa Cruz. This was a question Hillel might propose for October: had Julius Herrera ever so much as set foot on the campus of UC Santa Cruz? Julius was deeply tanned in summer and artificially tanned in winter, so that after their first and only winter together, Hillel had called him Orange Julius. But Julius had not liked the name. What a beautiful flat stomach Julius had, even for a boy of twenty-four. He wrote poetry, did Julius. He began to sing his poems after Hillel told him the Greeks had sung theirs. “What you need,” Hillel told him, “is a lyre.” “Honey,” said Julius, “I live with a liar.” Julius would sit on the terrace and sing his poems full of ghost rhymes. They were not good poems but Hillel loved them nonetheless. Julius had been a great lover of the thesaurus. A great lover. Of the thesaurus. But Hillel had tried to drum into him the principle that you must not use a word you find in the thesaurus unless you are already familiar with the word. The thesaurus must only be used as a reminder.
Hillel sipped his scotch and dribbled some drops onto his bare chest and lowered his chin and rubbed his hand through the thick white hair that ran all the way to his belly and the drops flew into the air and evaporated before they hit the Spanish tile. His phone rang and he looked at it. He didn’t recognize the number but he suspected it was the reporter from the The Miami Herald who was supposed to call that afternoon. He’d looked her up online, not with any thought in particular, but he liked to put a face to the voice. She was somewhere in the neighborhood of forty, with a good many teeth, quite a few of them straight, with eyes like cartoon dots. She wore her hair in a bun. She also wore, for reasons never revealed in her bio, bangs. Her name sounded like something out of Die Walküre, but you couldn’t blame a woman for her name. What do you mean you can’t, Hillel thought, of course you can.
“‘Lo,” said Hillel.
“Mr. Himmelfarb? This is Leticia Beckenbauer, from The Miami Herald.” Pause. “Hello, Mr. Himmelfarb?”
“Did I need to say something just then?”
“Oh. No. Sorry. I thought maybe I’d lost you.”
“I could breathe more heavily.”
“Mr. Himmelfarb, I wondered if we might talk about Fata Morgana. It’s out in paperback next month.”
“All right.” Hillel sipped his scotch.
Then they talked about Fata Morgana and he said the kinds of things reporters liked to hear. He pretended to open up and she pretended to believe he was opening up. Then, roughly ten minutes into a conversation Hillel was enjoying about as much as a trip to the surgical orthodontist, Leticia Beckenbauer said, “Though you’re Jewish yourself, you’ve been accused by some reviewers of having a solely negative view of Judaism. Joe Hirsch in The New York Times notes that almost all the characters in your books are Jewish but that most of them take a very skeptical attitude toward their co-religionists.”
“Is that what Joe Hirsch calls them, co-religionists?”
“Shall I read you the review?”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“You haven’t read it?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean I want you to read it to me.”
“He says your characters sometimes border on a kind of Jewish anti-Semitism.”
“Was that a question?”
“I guess I’m asking if you would admit there’s anything to that?”
“No,” said Hillel. “I’m a great believer in the Mosaic Law. I read the Torah and the Talmud every day. Just a little, mind you. I don’t want to use it all up at once. I wear a prayer shawl to Dodger’s games and sit shiva even when it’s not necessary. I figure, if I’m already sitting and depressed, well, why not?”
“Mr. Himmelfarb, I get the impression you’d rather not talk about this. I just felt I had to ask. It comes up in reviews. I hope you’re not offended by the question.”
“No. I’m just wondering when we’re going to get around to the writing part of the writing.”
“Well, subject matter is part of the writing, isn’t it?”
“Ms. Beckonbeer, is it true they have a cockroach the size of your hand in Florida and they call it a Palmetto bug? I don’t mean your particular hand, of course, I just mean an average person’s hand.”
“Well, yes, we have those. Why do you ask?”
“Because I could write just as well about Palmetto bugs as about anything else.”
“You’re not comparing Judaism to Palmetto bugs?”
“No. Did it sound like I was comparing Judaism to Palmetto bugs? Much as I’d like to give you a scoop for The Miami Globe…”
“Much as I’d like to give you a scoop for the Harold, I don’t believe I said exactly that. I don’t believe I said approximately that either. Of course, the more time goes by the less sure I am about what I just said.”
There was a pause. Leticia Beckenbauer cleared her throat. Hillel picked up his scotch again and drank and the ice made a tinkling sound.
“Mr. Himmelfarb, do you find it hard all these years later to live up to expectations people still have for someone who started his career as a kind of literary child prodigy?” Pause. “Mr. Himmelfarb?”
But Hillel had put the phone down. He’d noticed a bright bird that had appeared in the ficus tree. It sang a strange and slightly obnoxious song and appeared briefly like a flash of light, but then hopped and disappeared behind a cluster of bright and dark green ficus leaves. Still, the song continued just as the voice of Ms. Beckenbauer still radiated like tiny pellets of sound from the earpiece of the phone, making a strange vibrating zzzzzzz against the metal table, as if she were a hoarse fairy trapped inside a tin can.
He said to the bird in the tree that he couldn’t see, “At the age of nine he had already acquired that passionate alcoholism which was to have so great an influence in the molding of his character and on the trend of his thought. Otherwise he does not seem to have shown in childhood any exceptional promise.”
“Mr. Himmelfarb?” said the tiny voice.
“Beerbohm, Ms. Beckenbauer,” said Hillel. “Beerbohm.”
A pod dropped from the ficus and bounced off the top of Hillel’s head. He touched the spot where the pod had fallen and found it lodged there. With his thumb and forefinger he sent it sailing out into the canyon, where it made a sorrowful plinking sound on the street below. A pale breeze was blowing from the direction of the past, as all breezes blow. They have to start somewhere, Hillel reasoned, but it’s never where you are. It’s in some other place and some other time. Then they make their way to you. They bring the past with them but only when they meet the leaves of trees do they shake off the past. A breeze on its own is a lonely thing, like a boy standing in a field who can barely whistle. But a breeze that meets the leaves of a tree is shaken, just like the leaves of the tree are shaken, and in the shaking the past comes loose. This was Hillel’s theory. It was meant to explain a common phenomenon: namely that strange hypnotic nostalgia that blows through human beings, that feeling the leaves are in cahoots with the breeze to remind you you’re passing through time in the same way the breeze is passing through the leaves.
A piece of paper that Hillel had written a note on lay on the little table on the terrace next to the laptop. A small stone, found on the sand in Santa Barbara and rubbed by the sea to a speckled ovoid like the egg of a grouse, had been delivered by the universe to Hillel two years before for the purpose of holding certain parts of reality in place and this same stone sat on the edge of the paper, holding that little bit of the world down when the warm breeze came and the stone, subject to the vibrations from Ms. Beckenbauer’s voice against the metal table, lost its grip. That very second the notepaper made a run for it and managed to hitch itself to the breeze from the past and was carried with it toward the future, which was to the north, judging by the direction the notepaper flew. It passed over Hillel’s shoulder and he watched the paper lift into the air, then saw the breeze had lost interest or that the page was too heavy to be carried any farther into the future, and it fluttered down toward the road a good sixty feet below.
“Son of a bitch,” said Hillel.
Said Ms. Beckenbauer from her perch on the table, “I guess I’ve lost you.”
Hillel watched as the note settled into the dirt at the side of the road below, near a prickly pear cactus whose violet fruit was rotting just as nature had predisposed it to do around this time of year. He couldn’t remember what the note said, which made it doubly important that he get hold of it. True, he was very likely drunk, but there was only one way down to the street and it involved driving.
Hillel Himmelfarb jumped into the tiny Alfa that sat in the driveway and drove down the hill, winding along roads paved too many times over the bulging roots of trees. This took him down to the little village built by the developers in the 20s that was supposed to give residents the impression they lived somewhere in Spain that had a Texaco station. The gas station had disappeared in the late 50s, turned into a small realty annex of the bigger realty company on the other side of the market that stood between the two realties. From the realty sandwich Hillel drove up again into the hills on the other side of the canyon, up to a long, flat, winding road that took him past the crowd of tourists bunched up on a small dirt plain where they could take pictures of themselves holding up the Hollywood sign. He did not like tourists but you were not supposed to like them. You were allowed to dislike them a great deal, if not to do them actual bodily harm. At the very least you were allowed to be rude to them without bothering your conscience. And let’s be honest, only an idiot would pretend to hold up the Hollywood sign while someone else took their photograph. Either it never occurred to them that anyone had ever done this before or it never occurred to them that it mattered whether anyone had ever done it before. It mattered to Hillel. If the things he did were just copies of things everyone else was doing then he was doing the wrong things. But the few times he’d thought about it he couldn’t think of any reason why he should particularly care whether anyone was doing or had ever done the things he was doing. This was a hard pill to swallow though because the only thing that separated him from everyone else, he thought, was not being exactly like everyone else. And here they all were: everyone else, standing on a little mound of dirt taking pictures of each other holding up the Hollywood sign. If you wanted to, you had license to yell at them to get out of your goddamned way or lean on the horn, but he didn’t do either. He sat behind a Chevy rental that had stopped in the middle of the road to take its own picture. A stick emerged from the driver’s side with phone at the end of it. Maybe Hillel would have to honk, depending on how long the stick took to take the Chevy’s picture, but then the honk would bounce back like an echo and force you to see yourself through their eyes, through the eyes of everyone else. And you did not want to see what they saw. Then the Chevy withdrew its stick and moved on and Hillel was driving down the hill again. He went through a little suburb nestled in a narrow canyon, then along the rusty chain-link fence that bordered the reservoir, past the pines and eucalyptus and all the plants and trees he ought to know the names of and didn’t, then winding again up through narrow streets down to Honeysuckle Road, and from there all the way back up into the hills along a street whose curves were so tight he had to watch for traffic coming around the bends in the reflections of parked cars, which were nearly wholly unreliable if the car happened to need a wash. There had used to be mirrors on a lot of the corners – those bright cyclopean things staring down at a tight curve – but all that stood at most of them now were rusty disks. Maybe there’d been a reflection shortage he hadn’t heard about. He drove like a lunatic, as if he’d dropped a diamond down the canyon. He nearly hit a squirrel who panicked when he saw Hillel coming and finally decided to let go of his acorn and remain three-dimensional. For reasons he would later come to think had to do with karma or fate or something that made equally little sense, Hillel felt, as he tore through the hills, as though he’d lost a ticket to another world and if he didn’t get it back, the liner would sail without him.
In this way, in about twenty minutes, he’d made it down to the street under his terrace where the breeze had deposited his note.
When he found the piece of paper and unfolded it, it read, “Gldn-Thrtd [illegible] Hills,” and under this, “abt [illegible] mst kill [illegible] memry of love.” He didn’t have any strong opinion about having written the note – though he must have, since it was in his handwriting and showed his impatience with vowels – or exactly what it meant or when he might have written it, but it must have been something worth writing down or he’d never have written it. He looked up from the impenetrable note to his house jutting out of the hillside, his house clinging to the sharp hill like a stork to the prow of a ship. In the last fifteen years he’d maybe looked at it from here twice and neither of those times had he noticed how temporary it looked hanging out over what amounted to a cliff. A dozen or so poles and crossbeams held up the terrace and a good part of the house. Underneath, sagebrush had grown, died, and left vegetable corpses hugging the rocks and hard dirt like skeletons. On two of the crossbeams stood owls. At first Hillel thought they might be natural, living things, though probably sleeping. But would a living owl put up with another owl so close? If you ever saw an owl – which anyway was a rare and spiritually mysterious event, which, according to Hegel, always took place just past dusk – you weren’t likely to see another owl anywhere nearby. On the other hand, owls still went around flying through the moon shadows in the twilit sky, so either owls were immortal or at some point owls were getting together with other owls. Of course, no matter what you might say or think about owls, it came to Hillel after a moment, these weren’t owls. They were pieces of plastic that looked like owls. He’d paid Max to put the two fakes under the house ten years ago. It had been Max’s solution to the problem posed by pigeons roosting under there and crows squabbling over the shade. The plastic owls had scared off the pigeons, yes. Pigeons were dumb and easily duped. The crows were smarter, though. Implausibly smart. And the plastic owls had left the crows unmoved. At least highly skeptical. They’d never left and Hillel still heard them now and then screeching at each other under his feet as he sat on the terrace. This was usually followed by the thrashing sound of the humiliated loser of some squabble taking wing across the canyon. Crows’ eyes, he’d noticed once as one of them sat on the railing on the terrace and laughed at him, were blue, not black. The bird had said, “You know what, pal? I can drop a rock from a couple hundred feet up and swoop down and catch it before it hits the ground.” “Yeah,” Hillel had told the crow, “but I’ve got a shotgun in the closet.” “Tough guy, huh,” said the crow and laughed, “I’ll be halfway to Azusa before you can get it.” From this little exchange, Hillel had learned two things: 1) crows were basically small-time hoods, and 2) crows had blue eyes. He liked to tell people this because most people didn’t know crows had blue eyes and because he liked telling people things that led, conversationally speaking, nowhere. Maybe they thought he was a little crazy when he told them he talked to birds, but the thing about the blue eyes they could check. There were no crows now though as he looked up into the dark under the house, only the two phony owls in the shadows. And something else. Something in the near dark at the top of the hill where the house finally met firm ground. Something animate. Something big. Something with a will. Something breathing. Something crouched. Something looking back.
# # #
The Ranger was a big man in pine green pants and a gray shirt. He wore a wide leather belt studded with pouches, none of which contained a gun, which struck Hillel as being like a sentence without a period. On the Ranger’s head was a hat not unlike Smokey the Bear’s, but this was for the tautological reason that Smokey the Bear wears a Ranger’s hat. Under the hat, a pair of aviator sunglasses covered what were probably eyes. The Ranger looked like he’d been designed for the uniform and not the other way around. He was standing with Hillel on the terrace. If the fellow could tell Hillel was drunk, he never let on. Of course, it was possible the Ranger had read Hillel’s books and would at some point ask for an autograph, but without eyes it was hard to tell where the conversation with the Ranger was headed. Once you’d told someone your name, you knew right away if they recognized it by the way their beady little eyes moved. They were trying to match the man in front of them to the photograph they’d seen on the backs of the books. Only, in Hillel’s case that was an impossibility. Even when he had still been young and reasonably pretty he’d had a horror of seeing his image on film. He’d hired a man named Ken Russin to play him. Russin had vaguely resembled Hillel but was a few years older, a great deal better-looking, and Simon & Schuster hadn’t liked the idea one bit but Hillel had insisted. Ken Russin was Hillel as Hillel would have liked to have looked. He was an actor who, fortunately, in the nearly thirty years he’d been playing Hillel Himmelfarb on the flyleaf of Hillel’s hardbacks and the backs of his paperbacks, had yet to find a part of any significance in movies. This was fortunate because when the day came that Ken Russin did start to find work in movies – though that possibility was remote now – people would start to wonder why there was a photograph of Ken Russin on the back of Hillel Himmelfarb’s books. Hillel couldn’t see the Ranger’s eyes, though, and so had no idea if his not asking whether Hillel had been drinking was deference due to fame or if Rangers didn’t really give a damn if you were drunk as long as you stayed off the picnic grounds. A white Ford pick-up with a square back with five or six doors where the bay ought to be sat in Hillel’s driveway. He’d expected the police to come, but it was the Rangers who’d shown up. Vastly preferable. He didn’t like dealing with the LAPD. For one thing, if the beast under the terrace had moved on by the time the police got there they might have treated him like a hysteric or a drunk – they certainly would have cared that he’d been drinking – whereas the Ranger was polite and didn’t have the habit the police had of treating everything you said as though you might be, like most of the population, not entirely present.
“I’ve seen a lot of things out here you’d be surprised by,” said the Ranger. “Found a head in the canyon once. Next canyon over. Right down there.” He pointed with his chin. “Human head, just lying there in the dry creek bed.”
“What? Oh, no. No. Turned out the guy had gotten in an argument with his male lover…” – whether the Ranger’s emphasis on the phrase represented some sort of moral condemnation or was just a procedural inflection endorsed by the Park Service, Hillel couldn’t be sure – “…The man had killed the male lover and deposited different parts of him all over the county. They found his hands at Malibu Creek State Park. You know, out by Malibu Lake. Threw the hands in the lake. You know the funny thing about hands, though?”
“I do if you’re going to tell me they float.”
The Ranger chuckled, or at least the lower half of his face did. “You know where they found his private parts? Studio City. Lady’s handbag on sale for Thanksgiving at Bloomingdale’s.”
“I’d have put the hands in the handbag,” said Hillel, “but that’s just me.”
Hillel tried to steer the Ranger back to the subject of mountain lions, as it had been determined that this was the beast that had been crouching in the shade of the terrace until twenty minutes before. According to the Ranger, the mountain lion in question wasn’t presently under suspicion of anything worse than loitering and trespassing, held no wants or warrants, and was known to the authorities mainly for vagrancy. His name was Puma 22, mountain lions not technically being lions but pumas. P22, for short. He was a young, vigorous male, age approximately four years, the 22nd mountain lion discovered, captured, tagged and released in the Santa Monica Mountain Range by the Park Service. It was thought he’d probably come to Griffith Park two years before and that he’d probably gotten there by crossing the bridge over the 101 that connected Mulholland Drive and Lakeridge Place. He wore a tracking collar now and his movements were known. He was a bachelor, there being no female counterpart within the boundaries of his estate. This last might explain his perambulations, said the Ranger, though he didn’t use that word. He used the word “wanderings.” But later, when Hillel replayed in his mind the things the Ranger had said – and Hillel was a writer and therefore always replayed in his mind the things people said – he heard the word “perambulations.” Lions, Hillel thought, ought to wander in Latin. Even if they are only pumas.
“What’ll they do with him?” Hillel asked.
“Oh, they’ll take him right back up the hill, just the other side of Mount Lee. That’s his regular territory.”
The replacement of the mountain lion with an equally large area of non-mountain lion had been accomplished without much official fuss (no paperwork had had to be filled out) but not without effort. Another Ranger truck had driven up on the street below the house. Since the LAPD wasn’t directly involved in subduing the animal, no helicopters had been enlisted. No SWAT team. The animal was darted. The Rangers had thought P22 might roll down the hill once he fell asleep, roll into the cactus, but that didn’t happen. He didn’t make a run for it either after they’d darted him. Just lay there and fell asleep. Still, it took three Rangers and two members of the Department of Fish and Wildlife forty-five minutes to get the sleeping lion down the hill on a big rubber sheet. According to the Ranger who’d come to Hillel’s door, the lion had been sedated twelve or thirteen times in the last two years and every time been driven back up to the other side of Mount Lee. It was the Ranger’s theory that P22 had started to like it. Not the shooting, of course, which probably pricked a little. But the drug. It was the Ranger’s theory that P22 might be growing addicted to the sweet drowsiness that went along with his nodding off and the calm that followed coming to. In short, Puma 22 was, at least possibly, a junkie.
# # #
There is a painting by the man they call Le Douanier Rousseau, the “custom’s inspector” Rousseau – since that was his job; painting was his hobby – wherein a lion stands over a sleeping, dark boy in a colorfully striped caftan who holds a staff in his right hand. His left arm, if he has one, is hidden in the folds of a striped blanket that looks much like the caftan. The lion sniffs at his headdress. Above them both, in the dark blue sky over a pea green lake and lilac hills, hangs a full moon. In the desert sand, at the edge of the dune where the boy is lying, a six-stringed lute lies next to him on the same blanket, in the same attitude, its head bent back as if it’s sleeping too. The lute has six strings, but the head has ten pegs and the strings meet the pegs in a strange confusion. It looks as if the instrument hadn’t been thought out very well by the artist. Maybe it hadn’t. Next to the lute lies an orange vase. What it’s doing there Hillel didn’t know. You wouldn’t carry water through the desert in such a vase, it seemed to him. You’d use some sort of leather pouch.
The night after the day Hillel found the lion under the house, the painting appeared to him in a dream. Appeared in full detail. So much so he could count the pegs on the head of the lute and see that while there were ten pegs there were only six strings. In itself, this perfect image of something he must not have seen in such a long time was nothing all that odd. He’d been born with an eidetic memory. Though over the years it had faded. Still, if something left an impression, especially if he’d seen that thing when he was younger, he could recall it with near perfect clarity, as if it were in front of him.
He awoke from his dream and sat a long time trying to remember where he had seen the painting. He could not. When he thought about it, though, he recognized the strange, naïve style of the Douanier Rousseau and he got out of bed and did the obvious thing: he went into the kitchen and poured himself a scotch. After this he went online and searched for the keywords “lion,” “sleeping boy,” and “Rousseau.” The house was quiet. Far in the distance, across the canyon, a bird with a strange and hollow call had decided it was morning. Perhaps it was. Hillel looked through the office window out across the canyon toward the southeast. A bluish-grey eyelid rose faintly over the hill where the observatory stood. It occurred to him he ought not to be drinking since it was his rule not to drink before noon. On the other hand he’d started before sunup, so technically you could count this as an extension of last night’s drinking. Once he’d finished the glass of scotch, an idea came to him. This was to have another scotch. After this the next idea that came to him was not as good as the first but it didn’t seem like such a bad idea after the second scotch.
He pushed open a window at the side of the house and popped out the screen and poked his head out. Then he stepped through the window and made his way along the narrow strip of cement at the side of the house. Maybe he should have put a shirt on and a pair of pants over his briefs but it didn’t seem particularly important. It wasn’t cold out, especially with scotch warming his throat and belly, and there was a wooden fence along the side of the house so the Pagets next door wouldn’t be able to see him anyway, even if they had been up. The sky was a little brighter in the east. The orange lights in the parking lot of the observatory switched themselves off. The birds of the canyon decided now more democratically that morning had broken. What is it they want, Hillel wondered. Why do they sing this way in the morning? Why do they announce to the world that they’re awake? Why the noise? What other class of animal starts the day by yelling at the top of its lungs? He poked his way through a narrow passage at the side of the terrace – an old rusting table on its side, a faded sun umbrella, a cracked fiberglass chair with three legs – and opened the chain-link gate that stood there. He had a third scotch in his hand and the ice made a pleasant sound against the glass. The cement curved five or six feet down along the hillside and he put his drink down onto the Spanish tile of the terrace and lay himself against the cement and scudded down until he could see under the house where the lion had lain. It was dark but the lion was definitely gone, replaced by air in the shape of a lion, a thing less dangerous but almost equally compelling to Hillel. It was a dark shape, made up partly of morning and partly of dirt and partly of sage, and it seemed important to Hillel at that moment that he himself should mix with those elements so that he might find out something vague but very true about nature and wildness, if not necessarily specifically about mountain lions. He tried to squeeze himself into the small space between the bottom of the terrace and the hillside but that didn’t work. Geometry gives the impression of being more elastic after two-and-a-half glasses of scotch, but truth stays on the side of Archimedes. Hillel said “Goddamnit,” a few times. As a boy he had slept in pajamas and couldn’t remember when this had stopped but it would have been much more convenient at the moment if it hadn’t, because a car passed along the road below and though no one had looked up and seen him in his briefs, they might have. He wasn’t sure he cared, but it was something to consider. He knew he’d have to crawl down the hill a little if he was going to get over to the middle, which was roughly where the lion-shaped emptiness was. God knows how the lion had gotten there. It seemed to Hillel, though, that he had something the lion had not. Namely fingers and an opposable thumb. He tried to hold onto one of the poles that held the house up over the steep hillside but discovered that the pole was much thicker up close than it had looked from the bottom of the hill the previous afternoon. From the bottom of the hill it took up no more than the width of a pinky, whereas up here it didn’t look like he’d be able to get his hands around it. But he found that he could almost extend his leg to the place where the pole sat on top of a plug of cement and that if he could reach it he could hoist himself over to one of the crossbeams. At least, that was how it looked to him before he tried it. After he tried it, it looked much less likely. In fact, if it had worked, he reasoned, he would now have found himself hoisting along one of the crossbeams. But he did not find himself hoisting along one of the crossbeams. He found himself with his legs wrapped around the big pole as he sat on the plug of concrete where it went into the steep side of the hill, straddling it the way King Kong had straddled the top of the Empire State Building. Hillel stared out at the plastic owl closest to him. It stared back calmly, completely unperturbed by Hillel’s presence. Though he hadn’t been able to hoist himself onto the crossbeams, it did occur to him that he was much closer to them now and that if he stood up on the plug of concrete and used the pole to balance himself, he could get to the crossbeams, after which it should be a matter of a small step onto the flat ledge where the emptiness in the shape of the mountain lion lay sleeping. He discovered when he stepped out on the crossbeams that they were L-shaped and hard to hold onto, but he did manage to shimmy along until he had reached the place where the crossbeams did the thing that crossbeams are born and bred to do, that is, where they crossed. He sat at the crux of the X only five or six feet from where the emptiness in the shape of the mountain lion lay and thought that he had accomplished much since he had left on this journey. He thought back to the time he had been inside the house, protected in his cocoon of gadgets: refrigerators, microwave ovens, clocks. Whereas now he had left all that behind. Now he was face to face with an emptiness in the shape of a mountain lion, staring into the abyss in a way that the Pagets next door would neither of them ever have the courage to do. What did they do for a living again, the Pagets? He was some sort of VP at Paramount and she was some sort of VP at someplace that was not Paramount. Logically speaking, this must be Ogilvy & Mather. They had two awful children, an awful boy and an awful girl, both of whom were finally and mercifully off to college after making Hillel’s life miserable for the last fifteen years. The entire family had first names but, if he tried very hard, Hillel could briefly forget them. Then the names would come back to him again in all their hideous banality: Jim, Cindy, Tom and Diane. There was enough light now to see clearly and the emptiness in the shape of the mountain lion seemed to roll over onto its other side and yawn. Ah, thought Hillel, the yawning abyss. Sooner or later Hillel was going to have to make the final leap and occupy the abyss himself, but in his present state it seemed to him he’d better try and get a more reliable sense of how far the abyss lay from where he was. He moved his head back and forth like an owl and the abyss yawned lazily, though its eyes watched him skeptically. Then the abyss sat up and waited. Hillel steadied himself on the crossbeam as best he could and jumped.
# # #
The male Paget woke to a voice calling. Where had it come from? From under the bedroom window. At first almost meekly, then with greater urgency.
“Somebody better call an ambulance,” said the voice. Then it made a bleating sound, like a lamb.
When Paget walked out to the landing he saw the figure of a man in his underwear impaled on the cactus below.
Paget agreed, someone should call an ambulance. Probably him.
“The paramedics are coming,” he called down to the man.
“Is that you, Paget?” Hillel couldn’t turn his head. His neck was impaled on the spines of one of the wide flat leaves of the opuntia.
“Is that you, Himmelfarb?”
“I wish it weren’t,” said Hillel, “but it is.”
“I’m coming down,” said Paget, “but it’ll take a while to get there.”
“Didn’t take me very long,” said Hillel.
“What the hell is going on?” the female Paget, who was still lying in bed, asked.
“Nothing much,” said the taller of the two Pagets as he pulled on pants and a t-shirt, “Looks like Himmelfarb got drunk and fell down the hill. Did I mention into a cactus?”
“Jesus,” said the Paget with smoother legs. “He’s drunk at six in the morning?”
“I’m only guessing he’s drunk. I mean, there’s the falling down the hill. Then there’s the fact he’s in his underwear.”
The Paget with the wider hips looked down the hill through the window. She could see Hillel curled up amidst the giant cactus like Jesus in a pietà. “Maybe he’s been there all night.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” said the male Paget. “I imagine he started yelling shortly after he hit the cactus. I know I would.”
The bigger, more muscular Paget drove all the way down the canyon and then back up to the street below the Paget house, just as Hillel had done the day before to fetch the note about the Golden-Throated Thrush. But by the time Paget got there someone from one of the houses on the street below was standing with a phone up to his ear. A few other people started showing up and by the time the police arrived there were eight people standing around, not counting the male Paget, all wondering what they might do to help Hillel Himmelfarb – a still somewhat famous author, despite the critics – extricate himself from a prickly pear cactus. Paget suggested when the ambulance arrived they’d probably cut the cactus away. He said they probably shouldn’t do anything that might make things worse.
“How much worse could it get,” asked a lawyer rhetorically named Tierney, who tried to give Hillel his card.
“Christ,” said Paget, rolling his eyes.
Hillel thanked Tierney for the card but said he had nowhere to put it and besides you couldn’t sue yourself for criminal negligence.
“No,” said Tierney, “but you can sue the city for letting a cactus grow right about here where someone could fall into it.”
“I’ll admit it would have been more convenient right about there,” said Hillel, his eyes casting about six feet to the left where the cactus so inconveniently did not stand.
When the police got there – pointlessly waking up the whole neighborhood with their siren – the sergeant, who was driving and never wandered farther than roughly two feet from his open car door where safety lay, told Hillel the paramedics would be there shortly and then asked him what had happened.
“I fell into this cactus,” said Hillel.
“I see that,” said the sergeant, who wore a little plaque that said his name was Ortiz, which was a little hard to read sideways and drunk. “But where from?”
“From up there,” said Hillel.
Sergeant Ortiz looked up. “You fell off the terrace?”
“All right,” said Hillel.
Smelling scotch on Hillel’s breath, even from four feet away, the sergeant asked, “Mr. Himmelfarb, were you drinking last night?”
“No,” said Hillel, “I was drinking this morning.”
Then an ambulance arrived with the siren blaring. Two fire trucks also arrived with sirens also blaring. This was as good as announcing to the entire neighborhood that a man had fallen into a cactus and by the time the firemen had finished cutting Hillel out from the cactus, there were a good twenty-five people on the street, many of whom helped record the event for posterity with their phones.
# # #
At the hospital, nurses cut away the remaining pale green paddle-shaped cladodes from Hillel’s left side, his buttocks, left shoulder, neck and left calf. Over the spines that remained – and there were many of them – they let Hillel marinate, for the time being, in cotton-padded gauze soaked in isopropyl alcohol.
For a long time Hillel was left in the emergency room surrounded by a curtain under a bright florescent light that glowed an unearthly greenish color and made him feel slightly sick. Very little was happening in the emergency room, this being Sunday morning, though he could hear a woman, who had brought her daughter in with, apparently, a fever, speaking to a doctor in Spanish./p>
“Su cabeza se siente como una tortilla fresca,” he thought he heard the mother say – “Her head feels like a fresh tortilla” – though that seemed unlikely. Hillel’s Spanish wasn’t what it ought to be. But she’d said something about the child’s head and the little girl was crying and keeping him awake.
“¿Por cuánto tiempo ha tenido esta fiebre?” he heard the doctor ask. Hillel thought the doctor had asked, “How long has she been fibbing?”
Then the child, maybe with the laying on of hands by the doctor and the working of the Holy Spirit, had quieted and Hillel drifted off to sleep. In his dream, a wide, dark red mestizo with golden teeth sat at the foot of his hospital bed occasionally turning tortillas over a tiny Sterno flame with one hand while reading a book by Flannery O’Connor Hillel had never heard of, and which even while he was dreaming he doubted existed, titled, The Apostle’s Accomplice. As each tortilla was finished the mestizo would lay it over a place where the spines lay in his flesh. “Burns,” he said to her each time. “Pero, señor,” she said, “es delicioso para comer tortillas con cactus.”
When Hillel awoke there was a dark Indian at the foot of the bed, but this Indian was a man and he was an Indian from India, not Mexico, though he was nearly as dark as the woman in Hillel’s dream.
“Mr. Himmelfarb, I’m Dr. Modi,” said the man in the white coat. He spoke with a slight British-Indian accent through teeth that glowed under the florescent light, and he had thick, graying eyebrows, which drew themselves together like mating caterpillars as he looked over Hillel’s chart.
“Hello, Dr. Modi,” said Hillel, then watched the caterpillars for a moment, before turning his head back to the pillow, “I’m wondering if I could maybe be given a sedative.”
“Well,” said the doctor. But then nothing followed except the exchanging of some banter with one of the nurses.
“Because, uh,” said Hillel, clearing his throat, “this whole episode has kind of put me on edge.”
At this Dr. Modi smiled and said, “Well, Mr. Himmelfarb, I can see how it would. But I’m afraid we can’t do that. You see, according to the officer who came along when the paramedics brought you in, you’ve been drinking this morning.”
“Yeah,” said Hillel, “that’s true. But that hasn’t calmed me down as much as I’d like to calm down.”
“No, Mr. Himmelfarb, I mean we can’t administer a sedative if you’ve been drinking because the alcohol interacts with the drug. In fact, we’re going to have to wait until the alcohol has worn off to set your ankle.”
“According to the X-ray, your left ankle’s broken, Mr. Himmelfarb. Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Yeah, now that you mention it,” said Hillel, making a face as he tried to twitch the toes of his left foot, “it does kind of hurt.”
“The cactus spines we’ll have to remove one by one. A nurse will do that. At least some of the spines. We’ll do as many as we can until we send you home and then you’ll have to come back and have the rest removed as an outpatient or go see your regular physician and have them do it. Do you see an acupuncturist by any chance, Mr. Himmelfarb?”
“No,” said Hillel, “why?”
“It seems to me that person would be the most skilled with this kind of thing.” Dr. Modi laughed. It was a strangely jolly and unrestrained laugh, but it stopped just as suddenly as it had started when Hillel bent his neck and looked at the doctor.
“I’m wondering if I might be given a number,” said Hillel.
“A number?” Dr. Modi asked.
“Are there a lot of them?”
“Oh, spines?” said the doctor, throwing back the sheet and pressing gently against Hillel’s ankle. “That depends on whether you call three hundred a lot. Of course, three hundred is just our best guess. No one has really counted them. But it’s certainly the most cactus spines I’ve seen in one man at one time. Of course, I’m only forty-three. There’s time yet.” He chuckled. “Tell me, does it hurt when I do this?”
“Yes,” said Hillel, “it does.”
# # #
After Hillel’s ankle was set in a cast, and he had been left in a room to think long and hard about the direction his life had taken but which he did not use for that purpose, a large-bodied but small-faced nurse spent much of the late afternoon and evening pulling the spines from Hillel’s flesh with a long pair of tweezers. They were bright red tweezers, as if they had been broken out of a glass box and were only to be used in cases of very serious tweezing. Hillel lay on his side with the hospital gown pulled up as the nurse examined his flesh with what looked like a jeweler’s lamp. Its circular neon bulb cast a warm, pleasant glow over his skin and the strange intimacy that accompanies certain sorts of light – the nurse had turned off the overhead fluorescents in the room and the only light came indirectly, from the sheets, his gown, and the pale flesh of his exposed thighs – made him feel like a boy whose mother sat reading him a bedtime story. The lamp had a big magnifying glass in the middle and she stared down through it, her face lit by the reflection from Hillel’s buttocks.
“What were you doing exactly, Mr. Himmelfarb?” the nurse asked as she dropped another spine into a metal cup. It made a small, delicate plonking sound.
“When?” By this time he was swimming through a kind of pleasant but not numbing haze provided by the drugs – Norco, Flexeril and Ativan – and very little bothered him.
“When you fell into the cactus.”
“There was a mountain lion under my terrace.”
“Mmmm, not what I read.”
“Not what you read where?”
“What did you read in The Huffington Post?”
“What I read was there was a mountain lion under your terrace yesterday morning, according to the cops, and park rangers came and took it away. But you fell into that cactus this morning.”
“Did The Huffington Post mention the rangers left behind a mountain lion-shaped hole?”
“They left that out.”
“Well, that’s what I was trying to get to.”
“Mmmm. Why is that?”
“Why is what?”
“Why were you trying to get to a mountain lion-shaped hole?”
“Wanted to remember what it feels like to be a mountain lion, naturally.”
“And when were you a mountain lion, Mr. Himmelfarb?”
“Oh, once upon a time,” said Hillel.
“Well, The Huffington Post left that out. But they did say you were in your underwear.”
“Did I hurt you?”
“Video’s all over the Internet,” said the nurse. “The headline in The Huffington Post was: ‘Watch Hillel Himmelfarb Tangle with a Prickly Pair.'”
“I was the one brought you in this morning. I didn’t know who you were, but one of the nurses told me you used to be a famous writer. Then one of the other nurses told me about this article in The Huffington Post. Show it to you if you want. On my phone.”
“Well…” – he looked at the small white placard she wore over what looked like a well but not perfectly camouflaged pendulous breast; “Laurie Belkin, C.N.A.” it read – “what is a CNA, anyway?”
“Certified Nursing Assistant. You didn’t think they were gonna have a nurse spend two hours pulling cactus needles out of your butt, did you?”
“I hadn’t given it much thought, I guess. Procedurally. But I’ll tell you something, Certified Nursing Assistant Belkin, I don’t happen to read The Huffington Post. Of course, I don’t not read it all the time. Ouch! I stop not reading it when it says anything about me. Which, mercifully, is almost never. So maybe I’ll read it. Later. How’d they spell ‘pear?'”
“The word ‘pear’ in the headline. Did they spell it like ‘pear,’ the fruit or did they spell it like ‘pair’ as in a pair of balls?”
“Oh.” she laughed. “I just got it.”
“Mmmm,” Hillel moaned skeptically. “Only, my pair was practically the only thing not involved.”
“Well, I guess The Huffington Post got that part wrong.”
“I guess they did,” said Hillel. “I guess this all seems pretty funny to you.”
There was a long silence with only the faint sound of the TV on in a high corner of the room where The Jeffersons was showing on Nickelodeon. If Hillel turned his head slightly he could see the TV’s version of life for a successful black couple in a Manhattan high-rise in the 70s, which probably bore only the faintest relationship to reality. With the drugs in his system, the horror of the show wafted over Hillel pleasantly enough. He could hear George Jefferson’s pugnacious banter even at low volume, then the audience laughter, then the son, Lionel, saying something, followed by slightly louder laughter. Mainly it was the strange color schemes of their apartment that interested him at the moment, the denuded pale greens, the washed out beige plaid of the sofa, the grayish-brown stripes on a leisure chair. How could any of this ever have been considered a comfortable environment in which to spend your time? And yet, from what he could remember, this is what the 70s had looked like. George Jefferson wore a plaid suit with a crimson tie; Lionel, a beige leather jacket. How had these strange fashions come about? And where had they gone? And would they be back? Then Hillel turned again to the woman digging needles from his punctured flesh and studied her tiny doll’s face. She was middle-aged, probably about forty-five, with faint red splotches on her cheeks, therefore possibly Irish, and a little too much powder around the eyes, therefore covering up dark circles, therefore getting too little sleep. She wasn’t fat, but there was an extra roll around her neck where it met the collar of her uniform, therefore a lousy diet, probably a lot of fast food, scarfed down on breaks. The drugs made everything clear to him. He could see into her life without the usual mental effort. The facts about Certified Nursing Assistant Belkin seemed to present themselves to him on the surface of things; they could be read right off the Teletype. Then it came to him that he knew nothing about Nurse Belkin. Not a thing. That his deductions were probably wrong, and that his easy sense of insight had probably come from the drugs. But there was a feeling of closeness that came along with it too, as if the usual wall separating spirits was more porous at the moment. As if souls could slip more easily into one another’s domains, as the mountain lion had slipped into Hillel’s.
“Are you happy, Nurse Belkin?” Hillel asked.
“Probably happier than you are at the moment, Mr. Himmelfarb.”
“Probably,” said Hillel. “Probably.” And he looked away and let his head lie on the pillow again.
“How old are you, Mr. Himmelfarb?”
“Fifty, Nurse Belkin. Turned fifty on the ides of October.”
“A belated happy birthday!”
“Nothing happy about it, Nurse Belkin.”
“Is it true you wrote your first novel when you were nineteen? That’s what it said in…”
“…The Huffington Post. Mmmm. No, I published my first novel when I was nineteen. But that was the second novel I’d actually written.”
“Oh. Well, when did you write your first novel?”
“When I was sixteen.”
She made a whistle through a thin gap in her front teeth, but it sounded to Hillel as if he were being mocked by the sound, and his eyes turned to her where she hovered over the jeweler’s light. He tried to read Nurse Belkin’s implacable expression for a sign.
“How many books have you written, Mr. Himmelfarb?”
“Not counting the first unpublished one, nine. But I’m not so sure there’s ever going to be a tenth. I like the shape of the number 9.”
“Is it? You didn’t know I’d written any until The Huffington Post told you so, and now you’re sad there aren’t going to be any more. Strange world. Ouch!” She had pulled out what felt like a particularly large spine with what felt to Hillel like a purposeful tug, but he couldn’t crane his neck far enough to see, only felt Nurse Belkin swipe the area with a cotton pad and some rubbing alcohol. He could see a drop of blood on the cotton pad as she threw it into a small plastic cup though. Then he turned again and looked at her little face. It seemed to be shrinking further still as she concentrated on the tiny forest of spines at the edge of his upper thigh. “That kind of hurt,” he said.
She smirked. “You know what you are, Mr. Himmelfarb?”
He sighed. “What am I, Nurse Belkin?”
Her eyes turned and looked at him, though her head did not move, and she dropped another tiny spine into her metal cup.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Nurse Belkin,” said Hillel. “What I am is a mountain lion.” He slowly closed his eyes. “I’m a mountain lion.”
Nicholas Roth lives in Los Angeles and has worked in fine arts as an animator on shows at the Guggenheim, the Pompidou, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco), the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and a number of other venues. He’s been writing for the last year and a half but has only recently begun to publish.