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Netflix-BloodlineNetflix’s new original series Bloodline begins with one of those familiar tropes of fiction, film, and television alike: the return of the prodigal son. In Bloodline, the prodigal son is Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest of four, who returns to his family’s hotel for a 45th anniversary celebration. Back home, his two brothers and sister await, seeming to dread his arrival and the chaos they expect to come along with him. His younger brother, Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz), believes he will only hurt their elderly parents, while his sister Meg (Linda Cardellini) just wants to placate. His brother John (Kyle Chandler), is the only sibling excited to see Danny come home. Behind the siblings looms their father Robert (Sam Shepard) and mother Sally (Sissy Spacek), who are big fish in the little pond of their small Florida Keys town. Something happened, long ago, that haunts them all and centers around Danny, who has become the family scapegoat. It takes several episodes to get a hint of what this central event is: the death of a sister, Sarah, which happened during a boat trip with Danny thirty years before.

Man in clown makeup on LA bus

It was two weeks before Halloween, and I was on a Metro bus headed toward Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. Ahead I saw the ninety-year-old Vista Theater, which is just down the hill from the strip mall where Jerry’s video store used to be, and this was the season when I particularly missed the store. Its owner, Jerry Neeley, claimed an inventory of 20,000 titles of every genre, but horror was his specialty, so that I would observe Halloween by renting movies that only he would insist on stocking: The Astounding She-Monster, The Hideous Sun Demon, The Thing That Couldn’t Die. In his twenties Jerry had contributed articles to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, my preadolescent bible, and to rent a movie from him was to invite anecdotes like this one about The Astounding She-Monster: “You’ll notice that the lead actress never turns her back to the camera. That’s because she split the back of her costume open on the first day of shooting and they didn’t have time to repair it.” Jerry’s knack for trivia was a magnet for regular customers, and it was shared by his wife, Mary, an animal lover who taped snapshots of customers’ pets to the side of a filing cabinet behind the counter. She and Jerry could both be peevish, and the store was frankly homely, with its cinderblock walls and ramshackle racks, while its musty smell must have been off-putting to some; but there was no shortage of corporate alternatives that smelled vaguely of plastic and were staffed by cheerful teenagers who consulted computers when asked about offbeat titles and said, as expected, “Sorry, we don’t carry that.” Jerry’s store wasn’t computerized. Everything there was done by hand: the bookkeeping, the checkout slips, the signs that distinguished the Fellini section from the Fassbinder section, the Gable section from the Garbo section, and so on.

gillian-anderson-the-fall

As a precocious pre-teen and teen, I was obsessed with adulthood; I couldn’t wait for the responsibility of rent checks and retirement plans. I watched serious drama as a way to prepare myself for this adult life I so wanted, and since we didn’t have cable I spent a lot of time watching PBS to figure out exactly how adults lived. I loved Masterpiece Theater, Mystery!, and particularly Prime Suspect, the dark and emotionally complex BBC crime series starring Helen Mirren as Jane Tennyson, a lone female detective in a boys’ club of often outright hostile fellow officers. I wanted to be like Jane Tennyson when I grew up. I dreamed of living a solitary but important existence, of having a job that was so central to me that I would forget meals and drink black coffee, a job that included meetings and orders and sleepless nights in which I would struggle to find the key to understanding a fragmented picture and solving the case. Jane Tennyson’s life always had an air of romance to it despite its gritty realism.

For an explanation of the 30 Stories in 30 Days, start at Day 1.

Today’s “story” is not a story. It’s a list of titles for other stories that I made up, based on a very famous boy detective and his well-worn book titling convention. If you want an actual story, you’ll have to settle for this anecdote: one time I read the word “titling” and in my head I pronounced it “TIT ling” and I spent 5 minutes trying to figure out what the hell a “TIT ling” was and then I finally moved on and after reading the rest of the sentence realized that the word was “TY tul ling” and it meant “to give something a title” and I was an idiot. The year was 2009.

Okay! Without any further ado, I give you:

Six Encyclopedia Brown Books for 2011

  1. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Groupon Massage
  2. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Twitter Trend
  3. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Dubious Divorce
  4. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Movie Renter’s Mess-Up
  5. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Stupid Scorpion Jacket that We Are All Going to Have to Deal With Being a Thing for a While
  6. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Dr. Pepper Dipshits

Six Encyclopedia Brown Books That Describe My Weekend

  1. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Thundersnow
  2. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Law and Order Marathon
  3. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Missed Birthday Party
  4. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Accidental Nap
  5. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Grown Woman Watching the Movie Spooky Buddies All By Herself for Some Reason
  6. Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Macaroni and Cheese Binge

Six Encyclopedia Brown Rip-Offs

  1. Thesaurus Bronze and the Claim of the Comparable Cousin
  2. Dictionary Dave and the Case of the Voluminous Vocabulary
  3. Wikipedia Brown and the Case of Anything Goes
  4. Detecting for Dummies and That Time What We Got Into Trouble
  5. Clancy Brown and the Case of the Shawshank Redemption
  6. A. Whitney Brown and the Big Picture

 

I never want to accept any invite to attend any organized event, ever. Yet, I always do accept and I almost always go.

Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking.

For one, saying “yes” feels good. All non-sociopaths want to please other humans to some degree, and accepting an invite usually engenders good will between the inviter and the invitee.

Fear is also a critical component. If I say “no” too much, will I cease to be remembered? Upon my fiftieth declination, will my phone number and email be deleted from every contact database the world over? Will the walls of my silly little bedroom collapse on top of me, as the North American Coalition Against Bad Excuses files away every last memory of my existence? All photos, commendations, and birthday cards slid into a tattered manila envelope containing only Hootie and the Blowfish singles and Palm Pilot owners’ manuals?

“Luke? Luke who? Let me check the Shit No One Cares About envelope. Oh, yes. He was invited to Beth Maloney’s sister’s medical school graduation party and said he had a dermatology appointment. That was number fifty. Yes, I’m afraid there are no more invites for Luke. Not here, or anywhere else for that matter. That scoundrel. That poor, inconsiderate bastard.”

Last, there are my delusions. Time and time again, some scheming agent in my withering brain mounts a dendritic pummel horse and performs dazzling gymnastics routines. After his dismount, I see speed networking events as “useful”, aunts’ birthday parties as “important”, and high school reunions as “chances to reconnect”. I think pummel-horse man operates in the same cognitive space that houses every “getting ready to go out” movie montage I’ve ever seen because, for a split second after agreeing to go somewhere, I picture myself thumbing through rows of fine suits in a cavernous walk-in closet, oblivious to a well-engineered soundtrack that seamlessly blends the din of Stevie Wonder’s Living For The City with the street noise of my imaginary perfect Park Avenue block. This will be fun. This is what people do. Who knows what the night holds?!

The thing is: I do know.

There have been very few instances where I haven’t forecast every thing that was going to happen before it did. Speed networking will always consist of sweaty palms, poorly formatted business cards, and allusions to the Cape’s unpredictable weather patterns. Aunt Paige’s birthday will always leave me longing for a time when every woman in my extended family wasn’t divorced and dating fifty-year-old mortgage-brokers who offer little more than made-up stories about how close they once came to qualifying for the American Express Centurion card. High school reunions will always be a lot like Aunt Paige’s birthday, except with soon-to-be mortgage brokers struggling to remember the names of their “favorite” single malts. I know this, and I still go. To everything. Always. In fact, it was for all these reasons that I accepted a dinner invite last Saturday. Little did I know, that acceptance would be my last.

I’d planned on a night in: a hot shower, a jar of Nutella, and a healthy Netflix Instant Play queue.

But my phone buzzed and the plan changed.

A text message from Annabelle, a quasi-work-friend with whom I occasionally grabbed a bite: “Any interest in coming to dinner with me and a few others?” it read.

My psychosis sprung into action. Desire to please? Check. Fear of being forgotten? Check. Fantasy? Maybe. I needed more information.

“Sure, where?” I replied.

Pastis.”

Ah, yes. An overpriced, up-its-own-ass Manhattan restaurant that I can’t afford. But maybe my ill-fitting cardigan will catch the eye of Mike Bloomberg or, better yet, an infertile Russian Oligarch looking for an idiot, American heir. Delusion button pressed. With a “Yes I’d love to” text and a desperate, “Please come with me” plea to my best pal, Sam, I was headed downtown.

Annabelle met Sam and me at the hostess stand and lead us to her table. We sat next to an expansive bar that made me wish I knew how to make even one drink with vermouth in its recipe.

Three others were already seated at the table when we arrived. “The friends.” They seemed harmless. Cornell graduates. North Jersey suburbanites-cum-West Village aficionados who probably clutched their New York Magazine “Best Of” issues like wading remnants of the Titanic’s freshly splintered deck. They smiled, and shook hands, and asked about where I lived, and recoiled when I said Queens. Then, one with a gold Rolex and a puffy red face sympathetically mentioned she had an uncle from Park Slope, Brooklyn. Another mentioned her family’s “small vacation home in Sagg Harbor” in a fine display of counterfeit humility. I let it roll off my back. All was still subtle enough. I pressed my knee against Sam’s, silently communicating my guilty thankfulness.

Then the last friend arrived, and all hell broke loose.

He bent down to kiss the female dinner guests on their cheeks, the shawl collar on his red cashmere sweater flapping against his face with every overzealous dip. I could tell right away that he was something extraordinary, something awful, something for which I never could have planned. Then, he extended his hand to me: “David. A true pleasure.” I looked into his eyes and I knew: I had encountered pure evil.

The things that came out of David’s mouth were stunning. His pretension seemed limitless. It was as if the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald replaced David’s brain with the entire contents of This Side of Paradise, and then destroyed the concept of irony.

 

-“I can’t believe they gave us this table. I’ve been back from Hong Kong, and in New York City for over a week. I’ve been to Pastis four times already. I should think that’s enough to get a decent table. I mean, we’re at Pastis, not M. Wells for Christ’s sake.”

 

-“Waiter, waiter, I’m not sure what this is, but it’s certainly not lamb. Grace, try this. Please. Does this taste like lamb to you? Well, does it?!”

 

-“There’s nothing quite like owning well-positioned retail properties.”

 

I couldn’t be sure anything David said was true or even factually accurate, but I guess he knew that. And that’s why he kept going.

 

-“Sideways be damned, I don’t mind Merlot. What else would you drink with a filet mignon…if trying to adhere to a certain price point, that is? Oh, Lizzy, I’m sorry. I know you’re a Chardonnay fan. No, no. Enjoy it.”

 

-“I swear, sometimes this city makes me wish I were an American.”

 

He clapped his hands, and laughed the way I imagine Boss Tweed would have, if he were pretending to be a foreigner. Inappropriately timed, forced blasts. I asked David what he did, and he replied only, “I deal in the markets.” Soon after, he referred to Zagat guides as “dining papers of the proletariat”.

I looked around the table to gauge my companions’ reactions. Surely, even this group of tip-toeing braggadocios would show some shock. None. Only Sam, my loyal friend, looked back at me terrified, his suddenly sunken eyes beaten in by the endless barrage of David’s insanity.

I became numb. Claustrophobic even. I feared that if I listened to David much longer, my exploding skull would ruin the steak tartare he ridiculed me for ordering. Like a panicked soldier foolishly lured over enemy lines, I resorted to desperate measures. I put down my water glass, placed my napkin beside my plate, took out my phone, and conquered my crippling desire to please.

“Sam!” I said, grabbing my confidant’s shoulder in manufactured alarm. “I just got a text message from my landlord. A pipe broke in my building and my entire apartment is flooded. We have to go. Now!”

“Oh God, let’s go. Oh God, do you have renter’s insurance?!.” His reaction was pitch perfect. He knew.

No goodbyes. No extended explanation. Just a lie. A well-placed lie to extricate myself from the worst commitment I’d ever made.

That dinner was rock bottom, and it changed me. My desire to please is gone. My fear of being forgotten, a thing of the past. And the allure of my movie montage, “getting ready to go” fantasy? Fin.

Sam and I left the restaurant and hopped in a taxi.

 

I turned toward him. “Are we sociopaths?”

 

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I think so.” He opened the cab’s window and let in the blare of a passing fire engine. I breathed deeply as I let it drown out my last regret.

 

“Oh well,” I exhaled. “There are worse things to be.”


Mine was the first family on our street to own a VCR.I’d walk the neighborhood kids in and show them the buttons on the player the size of an industrial microwave oven.“We can record stuff on T.V.,” I’d explain, head cocked back with the smugness of a Scorcese gangster, “and play it back.”The irony being we had nothing to record, although we had found an airing of Nighthawks on a Saturday matinee.We were the first with a VCR, but the very last with cable.Dad was holding out on principle.“Pay for television?Only a fool would pay for something that you should get for free,” he’d say before queuing up Nighthawks.Again.