Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2012 v11n1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Messages from the Dead

A few days after he died, my father sent me a message. It arrived through a family friend named Ulrich, who for years used to drop by my father’s house to have a drink and play backgammon. This was all nearly thirty years ago. Ulrich always wore a schoolboy blazer and an ascot; he’d once been a Broadway actor and appeared in several musicals. Later, he became a horticulturist. He married my father’s longtime literary agent, Lea, and eventually they left Hollywood for a secluded life up the coast, in the foothills above a place called Zuma Beach.

They had a fabulous garden, and occasionally we’d drive up for the afternoon to see it, and also to have a “Martini Bugler,” which Ulrich named after the scarlet bugler you find in the chaparral of the coastal mountains. He would give you a chilled glass, plunk in a huge red Moroccan olive, and then like a priest at the rail mumble, “This is my body of the New Testament given for you and for many, for the pleasure of our sins.” A couple of those Buglers and you were done. Afterwards, we’d go across the highway, down to the beach to swim.

Ulrich was not only unusually gracious and wonderfully droll, but he was also heroic. I’ll never forget the time he saved my younger daughter, Jasmine. She was then a leggy, fourteen-year-old, and a colorful foreshadowing of who she has become: instinctive, impetuous, flamboyant like her mother, and too curious for her own good—my double, according to my ex-wife.

Every nightmare I’ve had since that day includes this scene. One minute we’re sitting on the beach having lunch. The fog is just starting to burn off. I remember the light blue parasol and the black and white stripes on Lea’s bathing suit. I remember the sand flies around my ankles and the smell of drying seaweed. And then the next minute I hear this faint screaming. Suddenly, we’re all standing up and someone is pointing out to sea and there’s Jasmine fifty yards off the beach inside a huge wall of wave, her body clearly visible. A figure in a Lascaux cave is how I’ll always remember it.

So here’s Ulrich, in his slicked-back hair, a portly man at sixty, with broad shoulders. He calmly puts down his plate and runs straight into the sea. I don’t remember that he even took off his clothes, but he knew exactly what to do and how in a riptide you escape by swimming parallel to the beach, until you reach one end or the other of the current.

But before that he had to get through the kelp, rearing up out of the water, looking like a jungle guide hacking his way through the Amazon. Finally, he reached her and with his fingers under her chin, pulled Jasmine along the backs of those enormous waves. Eventually, they came in between the sets and through the rocks. I don’t know how he did it. I’ll tell you this; it was much more than he made of it when he told the story weeks later over Martini Buglers.

And then, “dissolve,” as my father would say in his scriptwriter lingo—a year or two later Lea came down with cancer and up went the drawbridge. I don’t remember seeing Ulrich after that until my father’s funeral, in the flats of Beverly Hills, down at Our Lady of the Good Cadillacs, as we used to call it. After the service, Ulrich came up to me and—in his low, theatrical voice—expressed his condolences, adding very matter-of-factly, “I received a communication from your father.”

I thought he’d found some of my father’s old correspondence.

“I know it sounds strange,” he went on. “I was walking along the beach a few days ago, and suddenly he was just there in my mind; he was talking to me, you know, in that way he had. What he said was—this is as close as I can remember it—‘Tell George not to be afraid of the world. He doesn’t need to worry so much. It will be alright.’ ”

Ulrich shook his head. “Does that mean anything to you?” he asked, and added in his gracious way, “You never seemed afraid of anything to me, but I’m sure he’s trying to help you in some way.”

He went on to say that this message kept repeating itself, and that despite strong reservations he felt compelled to tell me. “Well, I just wanted you to know,” he said. “In my experience, messages from the dead sometimes take time to settle.” He gave me a hug and turned away. I don’t think I ever saw him again.

A few weeks later, when I could sit down and think, it occurred to me that this
“communication” was probably advice from Ulrich himself. It’s the kind of thing he would say, some well-meaning patter, and because he might not want to tell me directly, fearing I would be insulted or hurt, or, perhaps that I wouldn’t take his advice seriously. And so he cast it all as a “communication” from the dead.

On the other hand, Ulrich was well known for his stories of strange occurrences. Lea always insisted he was a “sensitive.” But my father dismissed all that. “She doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he said once, drawing his hands up to his face and wiggling his fingers to suggest trances and mumbo-jumbo. “She’s meshuggenah, he’s meshuggenah, they’re all meshuggenah.”


You understand I very much wanted to believe Ulrich’s message, but I’ve always thought—for no good reason—that you have to be a certain type of person to receive such messages, a “sensitive” to be sure, but also someone with goodness of character. I have neither. My character is presently awaiting trial on a host of charges. My faith is as speculative as the whereabouts of a particular electron. The best I can say about myself is that I have an erratic record of good intention.

I’ve been thinking about all this lately for several reasons, not least because I still greatly miss my father. Such is the tiresome and tireless lament of middle-aged men, is it not? Fathers and colonoscopies. The self-ingratiating pleasure of sentimentality; the morbid solace of childhood memories. Forgive me. Still, I miss his humor and panache; even his cynicism. And, of course, these days I miss the illusion of his financial protection.

Twenty years later he still appears in my dreams. Just the other night I was on a raft, in a river, crossing the ocean. I stopped at a roadhouse, ordered some food and then went to find a bathroom, but even the bathrooms were being used as bedrooms, some quite lavish. I went out a side door looking for relief and stepped into a town square. I hadn’t been there in years, and just then along came my father striding briskly, going “Fat Sam” as he would say, in his check jacket, his black cashmere sweater and dark glasses.

“Whataya say?” he said out of those chapped lips. I told him I’d just seen his old friend, his very best friend, Maxwell, a famous publisher.

“Max, that poor bastard, how is he?” And then he added, “C’mon, we’ll go down to the Polo Lounge, get some martunis. I’ll tell you a few lies.”


I need to say here that for the last two years I’ve been looking for work. The ad firm in San Francisco where I spent a decade was caught in the screws of 2008 and went down with all hands in 2010. My clients had always been museums and public TV affiliates, a precarious portfolio in the best of times. Then more calamity. Until recently, my wife was the acting artistic director of a suburban symphony. It was all surprisingly successful until one day the board decided it wasn’t.

At about the same time, my mother became ill, Jasmine went off to college, and there were some other low cards. In sum, in two years we went from a feeling of genuine security to the growing conviction that we may never get back to where we were.

I have a friend in the same position, a man once atop his field. He sent me an email the other day saying he was giving up looking for work. “I don’t believe it’s going to happen anymore. And it’s not going to happen for you either. You have to face it: We’re too old. We’re finished.”

I knew someone else, another one of these “creatives.” His specialty was gamification. On LinkedIn he described himself as “an expert on the psychology of fun.” Then one morning last year he went down into his study, and while his children were upstairs getting ready to go to school, he shot himself. He told his wife a few days before, “I try to pray, but I can’t even do that anymore.”

And now I’ve had my own strange goings-on, including dreams about my archetypal hanging basket. In the dream the basket always contains a fern, just as in life, but there are variations. A few weeks ago, the basket contains a little compartment with a lock. I find the key, open the lock and then open the compartment door. Inside, there are two poisonous snakes. But today one is missing. Still, I reach in. I need to do this for some reason, although I don’t remember what it is. After a moment I’m bitten, and when the snake keeps striking I hit out at it. And that’s when I wake up and find myself hitting my wife with the back of my hand. She shouts at me to stop. There’s no hysteria. Firmly, and without a word, she holds down my left arm until I go back to sleep. Nor does she mention it the next morning.

But then the very next night the same dream, and once more I reach into the little compartment, once more the horrendous bite, and again I can’t get the snake to let go. I hit out, and once more I wake up to my wife shouting. This time she’s in pain. But she turns me the other way, holds down my arm, and that’s the end of it. And it’s never mentioned the next morning, or even some weeks later when we have a serious conversation about anger.


But this is what I’m getting to. About ten years ago my father called one day to say that Maxwell's wife, Sovereign, had died following a long struggle with breast cancer. As I told you Maxwell was my father’s oldest and dearest friend, and Sovereign as well. What a spectacular woman she had been: an American aristocrat if there ever was, never stiff, always present. She came from a wealthy family in New Orleans and had the most beautiful way of speaking, and if she turned to look at you with those dark eyes, you were stilled. She could be brusque, although she was never that way to me, but above all she was unflappable. No situation undid her.

Her only child was Charles, a lanky boy, with the blue eyes and square jaw of a young matinee idol. Sovereign always called him Charles Le Roi. He and I were almost exactly the same age and as adolescents grew up in what seemed to be roughly parallel universes, but his family had all the money and power in the world; my family had only charm and the appearance of money. “Sunday money,” as my father would say. However, in this parallel construction there was one thing Charles and I shared: Sovereign.

For three consecutive summers I visited their estate in the south of France. It was life in the eighteenth century, with pools, a zoo of exotic birds and monkeys, tennis courts, and stables. Sovereign loved the outdoors, and often went off by herself on treks and climbs. She made more than one trip to Denali State Park in Alaska, and if I remember, attempted a brief climb of one of the smaller peaks in the chain. She also loved to go riding.

Charles had little interest in the outdoors—he was into puzzles and mathematical equations. And so often, always in the late afternoon, Sovereign and I would go off riding, just the two of us cantering through the countryside. We’d run for an hour, over a course that included a series of jumps she’d constructed, then stop by a certain stream and start off again, winding ever deeper into the forest surrounding their estate.

I have no better memory of childhood. At night she would put Charles and me down in separate rooms. I couldn’t possibly describe the anticipation when she came to turn out the light, offering the promise of some new adventure the next day, putting a wafer of chocolate on the bed stand, and then a kiss on the forehead, a prolonged kiss, and there you were, under her, in the scent of her perfume, in a kiln. “Off you go,” she would say in her lilt.

But then childhood went away; Sovereign fell into the past. I may have seen her a few other times over the years but eventually she slipped to the bottom of the memory box. Then the news of her death, and off to Our Lady of the Good Cadillacs. I paid my respects and expressed my condolences to Charles and his father. I didn’t attend the wake. Had my father still been alive it would have been one thing, but he wasn’t.

A few days later I began getting my own messages from the dead. “Oh William,” Sovereign began, in that most extraordinary way she had of speaking, “I have a request. I know this is strange  . . .” That was repeated over and over. “I know this is strange but I have one request.” And, “Oh George, didn’t we have such fun riding through the forest.” And “Oh George, you are the only one I can ask.” And, “Oh George, you are such a good person.”

Looking back that was the hook that kept me on her line, her declaration—with the authority of being beyond death—that I was a good person. Incidentally, this was not like the communication with Ulrich, a passing word while walking on the beach one afternoon. This was relentless and lasted nearly two weeks, but ever in her lilt, with its associations of the kiln. “You need to talk to Charles,” she would say, “you need to tell him that there is a God.”

I kept telling her the truth, that I didn’t even believe in God myself, that the closest I could get to any of that was standing in the shower reading Dr. Bronner’s moral ABCs on the back of the Castile soap bottle. I told her I’d be a fraud’s messenger, and that Charles wasn’t going to have any interest in my message anyway. In those days Charles had become a prominent venture capitalist. His nickname was “BD,” for “Big Data,” which referred to his fortune, his physical size, and his mastery of numbers.

“Oh don’t be so tentative,” she went on, and sometimes with real sharpness. “He’ll listen to you. You won’t think so but he will.”

On and on. And of course the longer it went on, the more I’m thinking this is the beginning of dementia. “Self,” I said, “it’s the vapors. Have another Herradura.”

And still she kept demanding and pleading. Finally, one day I was planting a sword fern in an old steel hanging basket. I carefully surrounded the fern with moss, and as I was doing that Sovereign became more insistent than ever. “Look, I don’t know if I’m going crazy,” I told her. “I’m sure I am. But if not, you need to tell me this is real. You have to produce something. I need proof.”

I felt better that I’d made a challenge out of it. That’ll shut her up I thought. And with that I picked up the fern and went into the kitchen. As I was raising the basket to put in the sink, I dropped it. I picked it up, put it in the sink, and then turned to clean up the mess. A piece of metal had broken off the bottom of the basket. Right away you could see what it was. Although black and rusted, the proportions were exact. There was absolutely no ambiguity. It was a cross. A haunting if there ever was. I turned it over and over. I had absolutely no doubt that this was a response. If it had been a vague representation, that would have been one thing, but the dimensions were so precise, and it came just seconds after my challenge. I sat down and wept.


But then nothing is enough without true faith, is it? The truth is, you could wrap me in the Shroud of Turin or put me on the back of butterflies fluttering through the universe, as some near-death aficionado wrote the other day, and still I couldn’t look you in the eye and say I believe.

But that day I did have a connection to something, if only for a moment before I quickly wrote it off to sentimentality. Years went by. I never contacted Charles. Instead, I told the story to friends as an entertainment. Eventually, I misplaced the metal cross.

Then a few months ago I attended a benefit for a community arts organization and over someone’s shoulder I noticed Charles leaning up against the bar. It took me several minutes to approach him. “Oh, George is like family,” he said introducing me to a couple standing next to him. We fell right into old times. It all seemed better even than I remembered and I thought, Gosh, we must have been closer than I thought.

“We should catch up,” he said. “I want to hear all about your life.”

“I can’t tell you how much I look forward to that,” I said. It occurred to me that perhaps there was a good business opportunity as well.

Some weeks later we met in the bar down in the Financial District. The waiter lowered his head between us. “What do I want?” Charles asked looking out the window. “I think I’ll have a glass of chardonnay.” He mentioned a particular vineyard. The waiter nodded.

“Two,” I said, although I don’t drink white wine.

“Now where do you live these days?” Charles began. I was immediately defensive. Suddenly, I was confronted by the enormous distance between us. But I went on with it, avoided describing our house and described the neighborhood instead, an up-and-coming part of the city out by the beach known by the name of a popular new restaurant called The Outlands.

“I read about something out there the other day,” Charles said, as though it was a new crater on Mars. “A fraud scheme. Chinese women telling people they were cursed, that their children were going to die unless their jewelry was purified? Ghosts or something, right?”

“Yes, I read that,” I said. “Thank God no ghosts have reached us yet.”

He gave a big-data smile and lifted his glass. “To ghosts,” he said.

He went on about houses and how he’d bought one out in the Sea Cliff District but after a few years he thought better of the investment and sold it to buy something “closer in,” as he put it.

“What are you doing these days?” he wanted to know. I didn’t tell him about my misfortune. Instead, I threw out an image of a contented life and listed various projects, including things I’d barely thought about.

There was an awkward silence. He looked out the window again, “Well, it was something in the old days, wasn’t? Things seemed bigger than life, now nothing seems bigger than life.”

I agreed.

“I don’t know how much longer I have to live, but I would like to do something meaningful.”

“Of course,” I said, taken aback by his sudden openness.

“Magazines,” he said. “I’d like to start my own magazine.”

He went on to describe an old-fashioned print magazine that he’d stock with stories by famous writers from the West Coast. It sounded like something his father would have done. He went on to describe how all these people he’d known over the years had joined on. I had the impression he felt a little overwhelmed by these people who probably had a great interest in the project but also were attracted to his fortune. It occurred to me that I was one of those people myself.

“Here’s to our dads,” he said.

“And to moms,” I added without thinking.

And that was when I decided to tell him the story. I genuinely wanted to give him encouragement, and in the spirit of the moment to give him the message his mother had implored me to give. But maybe there was something else as well: the desire to risk an unwanted consequence.

I stood up and moved my chair so that I could speak more confidentially. He looked at me with bemusement, as though I reminded him of an aggressive insurance agent.

And so I told him about the two strange weeks of persistent messages and then the fern and the cross. And how Sovereign had wished he would find some faith in his life. It occurred to me how great it would have been to give him the cross.

As I went on, his expression changed. He seemed detached. Was the story too unbelievable, too personal? Did it seem an outrageous ingratiation? Had I stirred up some other memory?

“Well, that’s quite a story,” he said when I’d finished. Immediately, he caught the waiter’s eye and wrote a signature in the air. “I have to be on my way, but it’s been great to see you and perhaps you can come over for dinner.”

The waiter put down the check; Charles signed it, stood up abruptly, shook hands and left. I remained at the table, wondering at my penchant for telling stories that don’t need to be told.

I never heard from Charles again, but a year later someone told me he’d given up the idea to start a magazine, and had moved to Alaska to become, as this person put it with a mixture of derision and envy, an “outdoor adventurer.”  end  

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