September 19, 2017
In some cultures, alluding to the dead is considered taboo. Even remembering them is forbidden. Above all, one must never utter the deceased individual’s name.
Now that I think of it, I have known a couple more people who’ve died. First there was Robert. It’s not like I knew him well or anything, but I did know him.
I used to work at this café in Santa Monica, Limbo, on Colorado and Thirteenth. This was the mid-1990s. I had moved to LA to be with this guy, Tim. The café doesn’t exist anymore, but it had burnt-orange walls and dark wood tables with green lamps and battered velvet chairs and sofas. There was a lounge upstairs, where bands played. None of them were very good.
This woman Katarina ran the place. She had white-blonde hair and claimed she was descended from the missing daughter of the last Russian tsar, the one people thought had escaped execution. There were all those impostors; I hear they found the tsarevna’s remains a couple of years ago. It was a good mystery while it lasted.
Katarina mainly hired foreigners—Russians and Israelis and South Africans and Poles; the accents were good for business. A few Americans worked there; Robert was one of them.
He wasn’t much older than me, three, maybe four years? Tall and sturdy, he had long, dirty-blond hair and pale-blue eyes and big features. When I describe people, I feel awkward, like I’m giving a missing persons report, which I suppose in this case is exactly what I’m doing.
Robert was handsome; girls were always hitting on him at the café, coming up to the counter and saying, Has anyone told you that you look like Brendan Fraser? It’s a dumb thing people do, using actors as a reference point, but all those girls were right; Robert bore a close resemblance to this actor. So close, that for a while he worked as a body double or stand-in.
I believe the difference between the two occupations is that a body double appears on camera, although his face is never shown, while a stand-in fills in for boring tasks that the actor doesn’t want to do and that will never be seen, like lighting setup. Robert was even a stunt double once or twice—I think he got knifed. Eventually they replaced Robert because they found someone who looked even more like Brendan Fraser, whose movies are all pretty forgettable.
So I worked at Limbo four or five nights a week, 8:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. I could never do that now. These days I go to bed early.
Robert and I did the Friday night shift. When I got there, he would be sitting at the counter, counting in the drawer. We would say hi, and not much else. He wasn’t much of a talker, and back then neither was I. I’m still pretty reserved. I don’t know what got me talking to you.
Unlike you, Robert made me nervous. He often had this sort of amused expression on his face, or bemused—I reckon those two states are connected. It was like he was keeping a lot in.
Apart from the acting, the only real thing I knew about Robert was that he used heroin but was trying to stay clean. That’s an important piece of information. Perhaps it’s the only thing you need to know. Like I said, Robert was quiet, so someone else at work must have told me.
We would close at three, and then there was all the cleaning to do: fiddling with the fixtures on the espresso machine and scrubbing the grill, bleaching the sinks, sweeping and mopping, and counting out the drawer. Robert did the money and left me to do the bulk of the work. It was a question of seniority. He would slip twenty bucks or so from the till. I’m not trying to soil his name. Just about everyone who worked there took money. It was the only way the job made sense.
By the time we got out, it was usually around four. Robert drove home. Or his girlfriend picked him up. She was Nordic; at first I thought she was his sister. He would give her a big piece of chocolate cake. Neither of them ever offered me a ride and I didn’t have a car so I had to walk down to Colorado and Third to catch the bus to the studio I was renting, in the basement of this old building on Ashland. I worked out a deal with a cab driver who was lonely and gave me free rides, but that came later.
Not too long after I started working at Limbo, that boy from UCLA disappeared. His picture was stapled to telephone poles all along Colorado. I took one of the missing posters down one night. The staples cut my finger.
I’ve forgotten his name but I remember his face. He was a good-looking kid, beautiful actually, short black hair, dark eyes, pale skin; he was dressed formally in the photo, in a black suit with a white shirt and black tie, the kind of suit you would wear to a prom or a funeral. He had a pure smile. His picture was on my pinup board, but at some point I filed it away.
I suppose I should have been slightly anxious, walking around by myself late at night in a foreign city, near a neighborhood where a boy had recently vanished, but for some reason it didn’t overly concern me.
Robert got the bus with me, once or twice. He must have had car trouble. He sat in front of me, listening to music on headphones. I wish I could remember if we talked about anything on the way to the bus stop. It was ten blocks, so we must have talked about something. Who knows; maybe we didn’t say a word to one another. We didn’t want to intrude on the quiet.
I mean, have you ever walked around Santa Monica at 4:00 a.m.? It’s so empty. Like being in outer space, if outer space had gas stations and 7-Elevens and homeless people curled up in doorways. There was one guy who lived a few doors down from the café. He didn’t have legs, well, not complete ones. His legs ended at the knee. He had these cheap-looking silver prosthetics, but I never saw him wear them. He kept his
silver legs neatly beside him. Everyone else was sleeping, but he was always awake.
ALISTAIR MCCARTNEY is the author of The Disintegrations: a Novel (University of Wisconsin Press). His first novel, The End of the World Book (University of Wisconsin Press, 2008) took Rimbaud’s method of systematic derangement and applied it to the form of the encyclopedia. TEOTWB was a finalist for the PEN USA Fiction Award 2009 and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Debut Fiction Award 2009, and was in Seattle Times Best Ten Books of 2008. Born in Perth, Western Australia, he lives in Venice, California. He teaches fiction in Antioch University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, and also oversees AULA’s undergraduate creative writing concentration. He has presented at institutions throughout the country, including CUNY Grad Center, PEN Center USA, AWP, Teacher’s and Writer’s Collaborative New York, and UW Madison.
Adapted from The Disintegrations: A Novel by Alistair McCartney. © 2017 by Alistair McCartney. Reprinted with permission of the University of Wisconsin Press.