It was me alone at Cuffy’s, swilling corn beer and waiting for the mouse. I was underwhelmed and oversexed, woeful and old, and not half as drunk as I wanted to be. Football was over, spring training was a month off, Castro had shut down the Tropicana, and cops and hobos were finding friends of mine crushed and shredded and burned in places never mentioned in Variety: the bilgy beaches of South Bay, the El Segundo onramp to the 405. The TV above the bar was as dead as the moon, and three stools down, a cube in a bowler and topcoat too heavy for March was eying me like he was a razor and I was a strop. In the corner lounged the Looney Tunes crew, carrying on like they do, tittering like hussies and sipping their bitty cones of gimlet and sloe gin fizz. It was just the rabbit sitting, two-legging a stool against the wall, his big rabbit feet propped up on the rim of the pool table, the pig and the duck and the bald hunter laughing at everything that came out his mouth. About my head a zeppelin of a fly was circuiting lackadaisically, and I swatted at it with my splinted paw, which had swelled up big into a soft club.
“Thomas,” the rabbit called to me. “Thomas, come nostaligize with an old man.” The others goggled my way, and the pig gave me a white-gloved thumbs-up. As I waved Bugs away, the Ivy Leaguer in the bowler asked if I’d ever heard of William Jennings Bryan, and I debated the merits of frying pan and fire. But finally the rabbit said, “But Thomas, it’s my birthday.” I glanced up at the nudie calendar tacked above the bourbon shelf, where about half the days were X’d off. “The eyes,” he said. “The eyes of March.”
With my splint and my beer, I shuffled across the clapboard’s peanut shells in the dishwater blonde light, setting myself down on the edge of the pool table by the rabbit’s feet. He didn’t take them down. The pig blew a kazoo and offered me a party hat. He was the only one wearing one. I told him thanks but no thanks.
“You were there my first Hollywood birthday,” Bugs said, jiggling his wrist and its Mickey Mouse watch at me. “Remember this? Mickey’s still ticking. You were the best roomie ever.”
At the name of the Disney posterchild, Daff heaved an empty Tom Collins glass at the wall opposite, almost braining a raccoon playing darts, Pork took the kazoo out of his mouth to cup his hand around his snout and boo, and Elmer muttered, in the King’s own English, “I loathe that man.” Obliged, I slammed my bandaged paw on the table, and through the pain grunted, “May his mother rot in hell.”
“Hey T-t-t-t-tom,” said Pork, “Is it true you were the one who p-p-p-p-p-painted the devil horns on, on, on …” He was treading water, not wanting to say the name. “On that jerk?” he said, raising a stubby finger at Bugs’s watch, whose faded Mickey still sported faint red crescents behind his ears.
“Just trying to be accurate,” I said.
“Hey Tom,” said Daffy, eying me but raising his hands toward the hissing raccoon by way of apology, “What he get you for your first LA birthday?”
“Arrested.” All I remembered of that night, the summer of ’37, was a motorcycle with a sidecar, a gun-toting priest, a truckload of rotting bananas, and four very angry Chinamen throwing me off Santa Monica pier. But the Looney Tunes crew tossed their heads back and cackled like hatchlings waiting for the worm.
“Bugs Bunny,” said Elmer in his tea-and-crumpets accent, “a man with a criminal past, but not a criminal future.”
Bugs shook his fist. “To the moon, Elmeh,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was an impression or not: if you closed your eyes, Bugs Bunny sounded just like Ralph Kramden. When I asked if he’d got any presents, he said, “The good sirs at Warner sent roses and carrots this morning. And Daff here got me a tie bar, which I’ll be wearing on the red carpet after those Oscar nomerations come out. And I bought myself a Studebaker.”
“Don’t you already own a Studebaker?”
“That one’s green. This one’s blue. Besides, it’s a new kind. Avanti.”
“Hey, T-t-t-t-t-t-tom,” jackhammered Porky, that sweet sausage of a lackey, “what happened to the p-p-p-p-p-p-p … what happened to the hand?”
“Grand piano. Three stories up.”
They all puckered at me like my words were made of lemon juice – the Looney Tunes bunch risk life and limb on set less than Lucille Ball, and the worst thing probably ever happened to any of them was a fleck of carrot in the eye from all Bugs’s munching. What my paw felt like was cheap meat, pummeled to hell then set to simmer in a crockpot.
“We were in Barbados on a shoot,” said Daff. “Two weeks. Just got back last night.”
“Don’t talk to me of Barbados,” said Elmer, who took off his flap-eared hunter’s hat to show a cap of skin so red he looked like a Roman cardinal. “The place was nothing but mosquitoes, heat stroke, and the clap.”
“You were just palling with the wrong crowd,” Daff said to Elmer as he rolled a cigarette. “I had a great time.”
“You were the crowd,” said Elmer, throwing his hat at Daff.
“I bought a shrunken head from a medicine man,” said Bugs. “I hung it from the rearview of the new Studebaker.”
“You heard about Igby,” I said.
“What about Igby?” Bugs asked.
“Found him legless in a storm drain in Hawthorne.”
“D-d-d-dead?” asked Porky.
“No, just peachy.” I should’ve taken it as a omen not to come to the set that morning when instead of Gracie next to me there was the early edition of the Hollywood Reporter, with a front page headline IGBY BERT BINDLE MURDERED, with an accompanying photo of Igby, who looked less like a frog and more like green-egg hash. Gracie’d underlined the grisliest parts with an eyebrow pencil.
“I blame the French,” said Bugs.
“Don’t joke,” I said, grabbing one of the pool cues and poking Bugs in the neck. “He was one of us.” The cue chalk left a blue polka dot in Bugs’s white fur.
“Guess I’ll have to get it dry-cleaned,” he said, trying to brush the powder off his fur, trying to brush away my comment. Bugs always had trouble feeling bad for pain that wasn’t his own.
“He ever get anything after Mr. Toad?” asked Daff, striking a match on Elmer’s hunter’s jacket and setting the tip of his loose cigarette afire.
I shrugged. “Does Campbell’s Soup count?”
“Are you in m-m-m-m-mourning?”
“He wasn’t my mother.”
“But somebody was his mother,” said Pork. I hadn’t thought of that.
“Two is a coincidence, but three is a spree,” said Elmer, absent-mindedly removing his hat and scratching his head. “Christ,” he shouted, jerking his hand up from the burn.
“Four,” I said. “Beaks. No one’s seen him in two weeks.”
For the first time since I’d seen him that day, Bugs’s feet touched the floor. “Beaks?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Thought you heard.” Pork’s face was plastered over with his white gloves. Daffy’s cigarette was dangling from his bill, but he wasn’t smoking. Beaks used to have a regular poker game at his place, a shoebox in a pagoda in Chinatown; he said he lived there because the Chinese made the best jerky, and since Beaks was a vulture, I guess that made sense, but we always suspected it was more Oriental powders and not Oriental meats that kept him there. He spoke very slowly, very perfectly, and his sense of humor was a meat cleaver – unserrated, sharp, heavy. He was the best poker player I’d ever met.
Bugs’s egg-shaped eyes were pooling with tears. “What did Beaks ever do to anybody?”
“What did any of them ever do to anybody?” I said.
“What about Jericho?” asked Bugs, gripping the edge of the pool table, eyes bouncing around the room, looking for further signs of the End Times.
“Jerry’s fine,” I said. “Jerry’s always fine.”
One hour, two beers, and no painkillers later, the bar was picking up, the William Jennings Bryan guy was gone, and me and Cuffy were deep into a game of German whist, talking wounds. He pointed to his left pinkie, forever buttonhooked and the color of a screaming baby. “Stalag-17. Tire iron.”
I lifted my tail, thrice-kinked near the tip. “Two mouse traps, one three-wood. Cameras weren’t even rolling for that last one. Jerry just thought it’d be fun.”
Cuffy pulled down the neck of his A-shirt. Below his collarbone was a patch of raised pink skin that looked like Jersey. “Twelve O’Clock High. Steam burn from an engine on the fuselage.”
I nodded. Steam burns were the worst.
Bad luck good luck bad luck man, Cuffy, kraut-type bruiser, like me born orphan in Baltimore, went west, ate eggs, bench-pressed on Muscle Beach, gained some small fame on the silver screen in the rah-jingo flicks of the late Forties and Fifties, a natural Nazi thug with his chrome dome and blonde handlebar, but shit out of luck when World War II epics gave way to teenie bopper dreck and faggy beatnik mopers. His was the usual decline: littler and littler dirtbag Venice bungalows, rotgut rye, diner waitress whore wife, Mexican tar, the orchard wars, porn acting, bear-baiting, arson, until one night when he blacked out, woke up in a schoolyard in Watts, quit the bottle, found Jesus, sweated and shook himself cold turkey off the smack, cut ties with his own personal Jezebel, begged up the money to buy a bar and started turning a decent profit with the Tinseltown crowd. Judging from the stock floor chatter, the big burger of smoke clinging to the ceiling, the menagerie of boys and badgers and ladies and lemurs all tossing back whiskey like water, I’d say he was doing all right.
I played a spade and flexed my wonky back left foot at him. “Steamroller.”
He lifted his head to reveal a collar of rope burn around his coffee can neck. “Rough love.”
“Speaking of,” I said, “you hear news about the ex?”
He jerked his noggin at the nudie calendar and grunted.
“Ah,” I said, and took my foot off the bar. “Miss March. I see.”
The first sign of Jerry was a thonking at the base of the door, and when it finally opened a crack, my partner squeezed in with an industrial bolt slung under his arm. “The bolt is mightier than the door!” I roared, and the crowd of bigger beings parted. After swinging the thing above his head like some mad Viking, Jerry charged through the gauntlet of wingtips and pumps, then into the clapboard floor he braced pole-vaulter-like the end of the bolt, which bent a hair then flung him barward. I stuck up my tail and he springboarded off of it, somersaulting toward Miss March, who he kissed on the tit before kicking off and backflipping down onto the bar. He bellowed, a burning trail of vowels that lit into the air and singed the frivolity of flirting bigger creatures, except for Cuffy, who beamed with his hockey player’s mouth, gave Jerry a splay-fingered clap, and in a silver jigger glass poured him a rum-and-grenadine. Jerry always liked it sweet. He had a name for the drink, but it couldn’t be repeated in polite company. I reached over the bar, yanked out the LA phone book, and told windburnt surfer on the next stool to scram.
“Walls,” I said, sliding the phone book onto the stool as Jerry stepped off the bar, just as smooth as Aladdin onto his magic carpet. He started slurping the jigger through a coffee straw.
“Hoss,” he said, tipping an imaginary cap at me.
“Half past five beers, Walls.”
“Don’t scold. You sound like a schoolmarm. I was out.” Out meant whores. “How’s the slapper?”
“About how you’d think after a one ton thing fell forty feet on it. But you should see the other guy.”
“That’s right,” he said, miming a piano scale. “Other guy’s firewood.”
“Doc got me morphine, Walls. Gracie picked it up at the RX.”
“Pills or drops?” he coughed, finishing up his rum-and-grenadine.
“Good,” he said, waving Cuffy away for another drink. “Drops hits you faster.”
“What’s that on your ear?” I said to him, licking my good paw then wiping at a patch of dark crusted hair.
“Smidge of this, maybes,” he said, jiggling the jigger glass, his whiskers bristling at my touching.
“Can’t be. It’s already dried.”
“If I’d wanted a bath, I’d a asked for one.” He squinted over at the corner of the room. “Why’s Pork wearing a hat?”
“The rabbit’s birthday.”
“First time I met Bugs, I says to myself, there is somebody would suck poison off the pavement if he thought it would make people like him.”
“I have met people with a steadier hand at the emotional tiller,” I said.
“You know he can’t read?”
“Couldn’t make out the directions on a box of shampoo.”
“Who said that? I lived with him nigh on two years.”
“Grip buddy of mine at Warner. Anyway, think about it. He never looks at menus – it’s always either the spaghetti and meatball or he just asks the waiter what his favorite is.”
“What about his lines?”
He grabbed the coffee straw, stuck it in the corner of his mouth, and pretended to chew. “What’s up, doc?” he asked in a good impression of Bugs’s yiddy Flatbush drone. He threw the straw back into the jigger glass. “The rest is off the cuff. I’m not saying he’s stupid. I’m saying he’s illiterate.”
It had been a puzzler why Bugs always used to wave the Times away and say newspaper people were all Commies. Or why he hated maps. Or why every book in his Malibu mansion was one of those hollow ones with a gun or a sex toy inside.
“How’s the ball and chain?” Jerry said, still looking over my shoulder at the Looney Tunes crew.
“Get this: I come home early couple days ago and she’s in the shower, but there’s all this tracing paper and charcoal on the dining table, from Hollywood Forever.
“I think that’s kind of foxy.”
“That’s because you’re a creep. Plus yesterday I was trying to find some scissors and in one of the drawers in this envelope were all these clippings of the murders. She even drew little stick figures of the victims.’”
“Like Igby? What’s a stick figure frog look like?”
“Think you’re missing my overall sort of point here.”
“You should be grateful she’s not like most wives with the shopping and the what have you.”
Cuffy parked me another corn beer, and an r-and-g for Jerry. I trailed my good paw over the bar, which now over the burls of the original walnut had an artificial grain cut by knives, glass, fake nails, battery acid, the diamond of Errol Flynn’s wife’s engagement ring, the Host-like watermarks of a million men. My good paw felt it all.
Monty Clift wandered over with Jerry’s bolt-vault and set it next to Jerry’s jigger glass. He’d been standing alone for an hour. “For you,” he said.
“Rusty screw,” Jerry said, fingering its groove.
Monty smiled the way you smile when you don’t want someone to pistol-whip you. He smelled like apricot brandy and frou-frou cologne. “So, Monty,” I said, quick-like, “saw that Misfits flick. Sure as hell make a whamdinger of a bronco buster.”
“And a Nazi retard,” said Jerry. I couldn’t tell if he was poking fun.
“Yeah, that Nuremberg, damn,” I said, even though I’d fallen asleep when Gracie’d taken me. “Full of all that moral … ambiguity.”
“Thanks,” he said, rimming the lip of the brandy glass with his finger. He coughed and backed away. “I need to use the men’s. His fingers made a slow cat’s cradle in front of his chest. “Thanks for the … thanks.”
“He looks so old now,” said Jerry, who was doing a first-rate job catching up with me in the drink tally.
“We all look old now.” But it was a lie: Jerry’s coat was still an ungrayed sable, his eyes like two-tone bucks. They were right to call him the Mickey Rooney of the animal kingdom.
“Monroe once told me he was the only person she knew in worse shape than she was.”
“Marilyn?” I asked.
“Sure as shit ain’t James.”
“When was that?”
“She let me hide in her cleavage when some pimp was chasing me.”
“I call bullshit.”
“Well, okay,” he said. He shrugged, and his whiskers followed suit, rising then falling. “But I did dream it once.”
On the doorstep of midnight, I was on the doorstep of Cuffy’s, Jerry swung babylike over my shoulder and the hot winds whooping down from the hills. When I’d told him to slow it down on the rum, Jerry’d told me he’d wrap me in barbwire and throw me in a trash compactor. Then he blacked out and fell off the bar onto his face.
The day had been warm for March, and now, parched under Mojave winds as hot as exhaust, my paw boiling inside itself, the prospect of hauling my best friend best man best mouse a drunk mile up La Brea was enough to make me cry. By my lonesome I’d a called a cab, but cabbies blab, and after his brush with the law last year, the suits at M-G-M told Jerry to keep his hijinks out of the Hollywood Reporter. So I stepped off the curb, my paw over my head like an overeager school brat, Jerry muttering foul, foul words to the imaginary whores of his head.
Gracie and me lived in the little eyelet of Hollywood that stuck up into Runyon Canyon, and by the time I was crossing Sunset uphill half a mile from home, I hurt so much I thought I might have to bang a stranger’s door till I found someone who’d call me an ambulance. Instead I whispered to Jerry that he owed me one and cursed Leo Shampoo, the doctor M-G-M kept on call at the studio – him, his mother and father, siblings, bridge partners, lodge brothers, his present and future psychics. Rumor was he lost his license after a back alley abortion went south and now he worked off the books for M-G-M. I’ll say this much: he got there fast after that baby grand pancaked my paw, but all the half-sized nitwit did was check my pulse, shove a thermometer in my mouth, and ask how many fingers he was holding up. When I told him where he could stick all four of them, he asked me what my sign was, and I told him I was on the cusp of Gemini and fuck you. I yanked him back down to me by his tie and asked about the hospital, but he chuffed it off and told me the angry pain in my paw was nothing morphine and ylang-ylang tea couldn’t cure. As I staggered to my front door, I distracted myself imagining all manner of heavy things falling from great heights onto that goddamned hack.
The darkness of the living room was the blue-black of Superman’s hair, and I only saved myself from falling over a stack of Gracie’s magazines by hooking a leg of the coffee table with my tail. Before picking my way to the bedroom, I did my best to swaddle Jerry in an armrest cover, then laid him as gently as a Magi onto the ottoman while he mumbled to no one that if she didn’t take off her stockings, he’d do it for her.
The bedroom door was open. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard Gracie was the inspiration for the phrase “sex kitten,” and there she was, in my bed, white queen tangled in lavender sheets, thrashing through the heat lightning of her dreamlife, through the scorched plains and shimmering salt flats of the wordless night. My wife. My nightstand was bare but for the phone and the alarm clock and, thank God, a dark little vial with MORFEEN scrawled atop it. Bugs Bunny and Leo Shampoo would make quite the team. That homonculus of a doctor told me to take two drops when I got home, so I dropped six, wishing him deep pain as each one splashed on my tongue, tasting of maraschino juice left months too long outside the icebox. Easing myself horizontal, I rested my paw on the nightstand, and after a minute, I didn’t think I was going to die, and after three, I felt like a soap bubble floating on top another soap bubble, and after ten, I thought I might name my first child after that dapper little physician.
Just as the train of sweet drugged sleep was pulling into the station, the phone rang, and I almost knocked it off the nightstand. From the living room Jerry yelled, “Balls!” and Gracie moaned and rolled over, the heat pouring off her like musk. I picked it off the cradle before it could ring again.
“Where’s Thomas? Dear holy mother of God, I need to speak to Thomas.”
“Bugs, it’s me. You’d think after twenty odd years you’d recognize my voice.”
“I can’t take it any more, Thomas. This world is too much for me. I’m going to end it. This time, I’m really going to end it. I’m standing on the edge of the deck looking out over the gorge, and I must say, it’s a pretty nice night to die.”
“Two things, Bugs. First, you don’t have a phone out by the deck, so you can’t be looking out –”
“I could be there in five seconds, ten seconds tops.”
“And second, you live on a hill, not the edge of a gorge, so if you threw yourself off, the worst you could do is break a leg.”
“Harsh, Thomas. Harsh. You might just have blood on your hands tonight.”
In the years since I’d first met him, Bugs had built around himself a carnival of a life, big and bright and boisterous, but being a Coney Island boy, he’d started with the Cyclone, right smack dab in the middle, and instead of wandering around enjoying what he’d made, I don’t think he’d ever got down from that rickety old roller coaster. Someday a bolt would come loose and he’d go flying right off. But I was pretty sure it wasn’t tonight: normal friends would sometimes send singing telegrams, drop off trinkets and oddities for me at the studio, but Bugs’s way of saying he was thinking of me was to call me at 4 a.m. with a gun pointed at his head.
For Edison, genius was one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration; for Bugs Bunny it was one per cent desperation and ninety-nine per cent affectation.
“What’s yanking you around, Bugs?” As I adjusted to the darkness, the mirror Gracie had screwed to the ceiling some months back had been uncloudying itself from a dark pool into the two of us sprawled limbs akimbo like some Japanese word, and damned if she wasn’t slinkier than when I’d married her, while my fur was stiff with dirt and sweat and rum and beer, and my eyes were a battleground between blood and phlegm.
“The suits at Warner are talking retirement, Thomas.”
I inch-wormed myself up until I was shoved back against the headboard. “Balderdash. You’re Bugs Bunny. You’re like our George Washington.” Then I heard a bunch of weepy hiccupy nose and mouth sounds on the other end.
“Thomas, that might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”
“Why’re they doing it?”
“Money’s tight. And the kids don’t like the newer ones as much. Figure they’ll make more re-running the old ones on TV. Syndimication.”
“How’s the money work?”
“Warner gets eighty, the writers and directors get ten, I get four.”
“How big’s the pie you’re cutting from?” Gracie’s dream whimpers were starting to make me grind my teeth in lust, and her tail, a charmed snake, began dancing up and down my leg.
“Big as a manhole cover.”
“So you’re telling me you’re getting big money to sit on your ass?”
“I liked seeing myself at the movies.”
“No more jumping out of a hole for fifty takes? No more shit-for-brains director? It’s a dream is what it is, Bugs. A dream.” My tongue felt unruly and fat and lost, like the retarded kid in class you always throw trash at.
“I have a nightmare, Thomas: me sitting at the Hilton on a Tuesday afternoon, a pint of gin sloshing around my insides, watching the shadows get longer and praying Daff calls up with something to do. That’s not just boring, Thomas. That’s apopoclipse.”
“Bugs, I’m too doped up to be subtle, so I’m just going to ask: can you read?”
There was a pause. “Thomas, I like to think of myself as a man who can come to his own opinions.”
“Bugs, once in a while I miss having you around, and I’ll lay this one-time offer out there: what’s say I come to your place sometime, and if you like, I teach you how to read.”
More of the hiccupy, mouthy noises, and then Bugs snuffling, “That’d be just aces, Thomas.”
“All right, Bugs. Call you tomorrow. I settled the phone back in the cradle. I stuck my paw behind the wood pineapple that screwed into each end of the headboard, and even though my eyes were gritty with tired, the brain behind it was idling like the keys had got stuck in the ignition. So I used the trick I always did to help me go to sleep: imagining myself beating the shit out of Mickey Mouse with a Louisville Slugger.
Next morning, the sun through the undrawn Venetians woke me to a landmine of a hangover. Gracie was gone, but so was the pain in my paw, which made me so happy I almost didn’t mind retching as I three-legged it out into the living room, past Gracie’s spaceman chairs and the Cracker Jack box of a coffee table, which I’d told Gracie was too plain to be expensive until she told me it was made in Denmark, by Denmark people. All that was left of Jerry was a mouse-shaped dent on the ottoman.
In the kitchen I mixed a Bloody Mary, equal parts vodka, tomato juice, and Tabasco: after years of Jerry pranking me, spiking my drinks with everything from pickle juice to iodine to rat poison – which sent me to the ER and did almost kill me – I mixed my Marys strong and I mixed my Marys hot. Since the morphine tasted so bad by itself, I topped the drink off with a quick squirt, tossed in a pawful of salt, stirred it with a steak knife, and downed it like I was being timed.
In the bathroom I faced the john, set the hurt paw on the sink, which was as clean and green as an after-dinner mint, and fished myself out of my drawers. Gracie had taped the obits for Beaks and Igby and Screwy and Felix to the mirror, and I almost tore them down. I didn’t want to start my day with that. Four cartoon stars in six weeks, and with all the LAPD had come up with, I was starting to think they were all relatives of Leo Shampoo.
I finished, shook off the last drips, flushed, slid into a sweat suit, and when I saw the Caddy was gone, I shrugged and sighed, jogged the downhill half mile to Hollywood Boulevard and caught the 109 to Pasadena.
The bus was lousy with gentle, cautious creatures – mothers out for Saturday morning specials, a family of gray squirrels, a pair of Chinamen in lampshade hats, a couple sleepy hounds probably just off the night shift, children who sat facing forward with their knees together, a glum frog reading his horoscope. Some seemed to recognize yours truly, and it struck me that at that very minute thousands of others across the nation were also watching me, on their own personal devil boxes (although my syndication deal was nowhere near as good as Bugs’s) and perchance they stared on the bus because I seemed to bilocate. But as I shuffled back until I found enough real estate on the overhead bar, it seemed more likely they gawked because I was like the painting that Brit dandy kept up in the attic so he could look young forever, except in reverse: it was the me on the bus that looked like something we’d drag in, and the 2D version that was all everlastingly bright and perky.
That eternal life we called cartooning and the way it worked was this: they’d shoot our little episodes on 16mm, then a stable of artists and illustrators would blow up each frame and recreate it with pencils and watercolors, simplifying the lines, flattening the surfaces, mixing variegations of hue into one consistent color, and just generally making it more visually digestible to the average ten-year-old in Kenosha, and more importantly, his parents, who were more likely to let Junior watch a cat and mouse beat the shit out of each other if they could tell him it wasn’t not real. Then the illustrators and artists order the stills all in a row like a giant flip book and run them in every theater and now television across the country. Then they give us sacks of money.
I stepped off a few blocks from the set into the bobby-pinned world of Pasadena, a suburban hell of trikes and elms and fathers pushing mowers and waving to each other as they slipped mindlessly into middle age. It was the sort of place freedom went to die. Outside the Cape Cod M-G-M used for its more domestic shoots the grips and gaffers and best boys and cameramen were sorting their gear, and from their crazy-legged walks and faces more slack than pained, I could tell they were drunk, not hung over, which was good for them but troublesome for both their future marital prospects and for me: their sloppiness meant forgetting to cushion walls and dull fork tines, meant retakes of me falling down stairs and sitting on pins. Because even though they fudged things here and there, what the cartooners didn’t do was make up something that hadn’t happened, so when Junior sees Jerry drop a hot iron onto me, the lump growing from my noggin is real.
Spike was shadowboxing out back by the pool, his white coat gleaming in the growing heat, mumbling, “Take that … and that … and that …” until he spotted me and hustled over. Jogging in place, he beamed and smacked me on the shoulder and asked how Death was doing. I was a tad embarrassed he remembered from a few weeks back I’d told him my fists were named Death and Pestilence. More embarrassing was that the morphine made me feel like I was wading through thickening aspic. “I named mine, too,” he said, putting up his dukes. “St. Michael,” he said, shaking the right, “and St. Patrick,” squeezing the left into a coconut-sized ball.
“That’s good,” I said. “That’s good.”
“Hey, you going to Igby’s funeral?” he asked, uppercutting, dancing around me in a way that was not helping my headache one bit.
“Didn’t know about it.”
“It’s in Sherman Oaks. Our Lady of Perpetual Help.”
“Didn’t know Igby was Catholic.”
“Lot of frogs are,” he said, ducking under an invisible punch. His breath smelled of mint-flavored bone – even though they would get bleached in cartooning, Spike liked to make sure his teeth looked clean on camera.
“Hell of a ways, Sherman Oaks.”
“I think I’m going to take the kids. It’s important for them to understand that life is short, and precious.”
“Right,” I said.
We were finishing up an episode, the gist of which was me auditioning to be an ivories man at a swanky club, hence the falling baby grand, but in order to pay for the tux I needed to perform, I had to steal the birthday money Jerry had given Spike. With most of the scene done, the only big sequence left was a long chase ending at the pool, which they’d just drained. Blotches of water at the bottom were shrinking down to nothing, and the air above was sashaying, stinging my nose with its heat and its chlorine. While I was eying possible maneuvers, angles, and exit strategies, our director Headley St. John came striding around the corner in his tight black suit and Barry Goldwater glasses, clasping his hands together and calling me by my Christian name. Because our episodes were seven-minute shorts that had almost no dialogue, little need for direction, starred a hardscrabble tomcat and a psychotic, alcoholic mouse, and eventually got cartooned over anyway, the show over the years had had a carousel of sparkly-eyed expat directors wanting a starter job with an established brand. Headley, who’d directed the last four, was the latest. But at least he was British, not French or South American, which meant I could understand him, and he didn’t try to kiss me on the cheek every time he saw me. Plus he wasn’t pushing boring novels on me about the unbearable boringness of life or trying to convince me to see a shrink about what the last director called my abandonment issues.
“Thomas!” Headley called out, even though I was about five feet away. “Thomas! How is your paw?”
“Better,” I said, waving it around like a tennis racket. “Morphine. Hell of a drug.”
“Oh, Thomas,” he chuckled.
“Any word from Jerry?” I asked, checking the watch I wasn’t wearing.
“I was just about to ask you that.”
Just then Spike jogged over, still shadow-boxing.
“Saint John,” he said, letting loose a little jab that landed inches short of Headley’s long nose.
“Oh, my,” he said, stepping back.
“Ooh, sorry,” said Spike, grimacing. Besides never remembering that Headley’s last name rhymed with Rin-Tin, Spike thought that the St. meant Headley was a clergyman of some type, and that he was a direct descendant of author of the fourth Gospel; being a daily mass Catholic, that was big rocks for Spike, and he treated the director like a walking saint.
“Spike, you seen Jerry?”
I peered into the pool, where one of the grunts was flopping down a pale blue pad.
“You still planning to jump?” Spike asked. “What with the paw and all?”
“Thomas, do you think we ought to have looksee?”
I motor-boated the air and unwrapped the gauze from about the splint. The plywood boards fell out, and there was my paw, twice as big as usual and the color of an undercooked hash.
“Smeg,” said Headley, rippling his upper lip.
“My sentiments exactly.”
“How’s it feel?” asked Spike as a limo idled up to the curb outside the house.
“Somebody die?” asked Spike.
“Just my dreams,” I said, as we all three shuffled toward it like zombies in the heat. The chauffeur opened the door, and out stepped Mr. Noggles Schmear, an M-G-M VP we all joked was half Jew, half lobster, followed by a lackey humping a case of what looked like genuwine French champagne. His face red as a hothouse tomato, beaming like we were his sons returned from the war, Mr. Schmear grabbed a bottle from the case and out from somewhere behind his back pulled a saber. I was about to turn tail and shove Spike out at him when he in his Delancey accent yelled, “Boys! The Academy just announced its nominees, and guess what cat-and-mouse combo are up for one?” He tossed me the chilled bottle, which my rubbery morphined fingers almost dropped, and although I’m sure he wanted the bared teeth in his head to look more exhilarated than raging, I was not too keen when he swung the saber and hewed half the bottle’s neck right off, missing my good paw’s finger by a dime’s width. Then he squeezed my bad paw, and I could have clocked him with the jizzing bottle right then.
“I know, Tom,” he said, mistaking my tears of pain for joy, “it’s been too long. But we are back now. Goddamn it but we are back.”
“Huzzah!” said Headley, from Spike’s headlock.
Mr. Schmear wrapped on the bottle with his fat pink knuckles. “Veuve Clicquot. Only the best for – hey, where’s my favorite rodent?” he said, just as Jerry out from nowhere popped over the lackey’s back, stuck a landing on the case of champagne, and threw his arms into the air like Mae West.
“Har!” shouted Mr. Schmear, doing a weird high-kneed hillbilly dance over to Jerry and the struggling minion as I glugged down the bubbly, which stung my throat with its cold and its fizz. The humans did love Jerry. Mr. Schmear rubbed Jerry’s ear like he was testing a bolt of cloth at the tailor’s and took the bottle from me and tilted the sundered neck toward Jerry, who although he wasn’t much taller than the Veuve, drank most of it in one long draught. I was beginning to regret the full squirt of morphine – everything was so bright and smooth I felt like I was living a cartoon, and my limbs felt less like a part of my body and more like something I was trying to marionette around.
“Hope you’ve all left April ninth open on your social calendars,” said Mr. Schmear as the crew gathered about, cursing happily and clamoring at the lackey for the dewy bottles. With all the corks shooting off, I felt like a gang of kids with pop guns was chasing me.
We’d had a streak of Oscars in the Fifties, a decade as sweet as Coca-Cola, but for years, not even a nomination, and the voice in the back of my head whispered we’d lost the magic. I hoped the news would make Gracie proud. Certainly the crew seemed pleased as punch to know me and Jerry, sidling over, giving their pointer fingers for Jerry to shake and telling me they were real sorry about the baby grand.
“Dust off your tuxedoes, boys,” cackled Mr. Schmear, showing off his molars. “Shine up your spats. They best be gleaming on the red carpet.”
“Who’s that?” asked Spike, pointing up at a dark shape perched near the twiggy top of an grand old elm tree across the street. It was a man wearing a black topcoat and bowler, no-handedly straddling a thin bone of a branch without breaking it. I’d spied him a minute before, but I wasn’t sure if he was real or just another piece of my morphine fantasia, along with the grass that was telling me my fortune and the clouds that bore the faces of all the people I’d ever betrayed. When the man in the bowler saw that we saw him, he monkeyed his way to a lower branch, dropped twenty feet to the ground, and hurried away.
“Goddamn pinkos,” chuffed Mr. Schmear, making a gesture at the suit I guessed was either vulgar or Masonic. “First they steal our life essences, now they’re snooping on our secret forms of creative entertainment.” I’d known the man long enough to sense a monologue coming, in the same way you know for a half-second of exhilaration and terror that you’re about to sneeze, but it subsided, and instead he shoved his chin – which really was just the bottommost part of his flaming face – toward the backyard, and asked no one in particular if he could kick the tires a little. Even though Headley was a newbie who’d spent most of his life in schools that made you wear ties with shields on them, he was still the director, and so I broke my eyes from the fleeing suit to Headley’s rice-white face, but before he could stammer anything out, Jerry said that his casa was Mr. Schmear’s anytime he liked. I rubbed my eyebrows and locked my jaw, thankful the morphine was slowing everything to half speed and rounding the edges off all my feeling – I’d been planning on telling Headley how about we save the end of the chase for another day or two, for the paw’s sake. Headley was terrified of Jerry, and every day on set was like Yalta, with me playing Roosevelt to his Churchill and Jerry’s Stalin, so Headley would have agreed to the delay without a second thought. But Mr. Schmear, that artless tycoon, that blubbery beet, decided he wanted to be the firsthand witness to my pain.
In the backyard, the three of us limbered up like always: first we got down on all fours a few feet apart and started hopping over and sliding under each other like God was playing three card monte with us. After a couple panting minutes of that, I jumped onto Spike’s shoulders, then Jerry jumped onto mine, then Spike lifted his paw and I hopped up, then Jerry did the same with me, then with a timing we’d honed over the years, Spike and I squatted deep and pushed in unison, which flung me ten feet up but Jerry so high he became just a black fly hovering toward the yolky sun, before zooming back down and onto my good paw.
“That is Oscar-worthy action!” hooted Mr. Schmear, whose girth was straining the diving board, his 6EEE wingtips dangling above the chlorine fumes, his lackey standing behind holding a parasol over his overripe strawberry of a head. Headley stood off near the shallow end, thumbing an unlit Chesterfield and trying to look useful.
Jerry rolled a medicine ball from out behind the shed, and after he clambered up, Spike and I tossed it back and forth, the mouse balanced on top. The paw was ginger, but not so bad I couldn’t catch the medicine ball, so I decided to strike while the iron was hot and the morphine thrumming along: “Spike, Walls, let’s go and put on a show.”
We picked up the episode where we left off: Jerry speeding inside after hoisting the baby grand with a crane and almost killing me with it in the front drive. Now, with a camera near the stairs catching everything, Headley called Action and I wheeled after Jerry across the living room, forever on his heels, then slid face first toward the mouse hole cut into the room’s baseboard, the carpet burning across my chest, finally accordioning into the wall just after Jerry slipped inside. I’d done it a thousand times but goddamn if each one didn’t hurt a little worse than the last. I scampered toward the closet and came back with a fumigator pump that read Mustard Gas on the side. After emptying the harmless green fumes into Jerry’s hole, I stepped back with a death’s head grin and stretched myself out on the sofa. When Jerry emerged a second later wearing a miniature gas mask, I hurled the pump at him and the chase began again, first over the upright piano’s keys in a back-and-forth boogie-woogie duet we’d perfected over the years (along with a couple of Sousa marches, “In the Mood,” and the introitus to Mozart’s Requiem, which was I admit a little slow and deathy for anything but fooling around off-camera). With three limbs instead of four and a head floating in morphine vapor, I was a bit behind the beat, but because of the good news about the Oscars, as we were finishing the last notes of the twelve bar, I flashed Jerry a finger-moustache too quick for the cameras to catch, and all at once we ascended into the “The Ride of the Valkyries,” which seemed appropriate considering Jerry’s gas mask, and as he hopscotched that Nazi leitmotif, he sang “Kill the wab-bit, kill the wab-bit,” then while I took over the main theme, he hit the first flute part’s high F trill with a machine gunning of his tiny feet before hopping off and hustling into the kitchen. Almost before I slid behind the swinging door, Jerry’d secured the high ground atop the counter at the knife rack, and he hurled them all at me — steak knives and bread knives, butcher knives and boning knives, oyster knives and carving knives, and from the way I had to boogie-woogie myself to dodge them as they whiffed past and skittered onto the tile, it didn’t seem like he was trying to miss.
When the knives ran out, I reached for a cast iron skillet hanging from a peg, to line drive him into the fridge, forgetting for a terrible moment that first lesson of boxing: never leave your body open, a canvas your opponent could paint with pain. The knife stand was indeed empty, but an innocuous wedge of Parmesan was leaning against it coquettishly. With a flick of his toe, Jerry chipped it into the air, caught it, and whipped at my head with a full leg-kick follow through. But if I could dodge a steak knife, I could sure as hell dodge a piece of cheese, so I started to duck, bending at the knees, knowing the worse the Parmesan would do is give me a crew cut. Leaning forward on one leg, Jerry winked, and my eyes dropped to his fingers, which were curled up toward his hand like a claw. Knuckleball.
In mid-flight, the wedge dropped, righted itself, and started corkscrewing, shaking off so much smell I felt like I was being assaulted by an Italian restaurant. Trying to track it was dizzying, but as it flew toward me, I knew I had to guess, so I jumped spread-legged like a cheerleader, hoping it would slide beneath me, but just as I left the ground, the cheese was buoyed by some unseen force and it rose, spearing me in the crotch.
In my line of work, you learn to be a connoisseur of pain – knowing the tinsel of regained circulation from the throb of built-up pulse, distinguishing the flash of flame-burn from the sizzling parasitic seep of acid, sniffing out the difference between the tang of a dislocated shoulder from the bone-grind of a joint that’s spent its lifelong allowance of cartilage. You learn to distance yourself through analysis. But as any boy who’s ever picked up a mitt can tell you, that’s impossible when you’ve taken one to the balls. You don’t just hurt, you feel evacuated, manhood surrendered, your self slurped out through yourself, the interior hollowed until you’re only an outside. I crumbled to my knees, mouth snatching for air, while Jerry leaped toward the ceiling, grabbed one of the overhead fan blades, and timed his letting-go well enough that it shot him out through the open window. Behind me the cameramen were chuckling. I stood, gasping. The constitutional horror I felt was resolving its component parts: the background of black void, a single sting in the family jewels, and a pull along the veiny underside, like a rubber band yanked too many times, until its elasticity was spirited away. That was a new one.
I coughed, listing to starboard, and stumbled into the paparazzi flash of sunlight.
My attention was directed by bad fake-snoring to Spike, pretending to sleep by his doghouse, which had been painted with a drippy Happy Birthday and brightened with a whole bouquet of red balloons. Fortunately Headley’d had the sense to eighty-six Mr. Schmear from the board, and the two were watching the action from behind the white picket fence, Noggles goggling as Jerry flew over the breadth of the dry pool and I tried to remember what I was supposed to do next.
Headley looked like he always did during takes, doubled up in his head about the fact that the better the episodes went, the longer he’d direct them, and the longer he directed them, the less likely he’d ever create a film of true artistic grandeur, which far as I could tell meant flicks about skinny boys with very purposeful hairdos reading philosophy and complaining about the pointlessness of the universe to their girlfriends, who were always improbably curvy and saucer-eyed and eager to take off their tight sweaters to comfort their beaus.
My groin was having an existential crisis of its own, the fumes of the injury rising up into my guts, threatening to shove my Bloody Mary up my gullet. The basic blocking we always did for our longer sequences had vanished from my head. So I did what any cat worth his salt does when he sees a mouse: I started chasing. Jerry’d alighted on the far rim of the pool as gently as an angel, then started sprinting into a long wheel route. God he was fast. Watching his body shrink through the pastel universe of a Pasadena backyard, some ancient cattishness reasserted itself inside me: while I was as bipedal as not, two-leggers were thinkers, not killers, and if you want to catch something, you need a cheetah, not a chimp. I leapt into my ancestry and onto all fours, clenching my jaw at the pain the hard ground shot through my bad paw, trying to distract myself by thinking about something besides my crotch, paw, and stomach. As I galloped around the pool, I remembered the Oscars, the competing bouquets of the starlets’ perfumes in lobby of the Civic Auditorium, the impasto of satin dresses, the loose smiles of beautiful drunk people who would get lucky whether they won or lost that night. It was like an orgy in Macy’s. I couldn’t wait.
I was catching up to Jerry, who was racing toward the California Fan Palm that towered over the yard, a tree the cartooners hated because they always had to redraw it into a many-branched oak. His foreshortened body was flying toward the trunk, and any other creature I knew would’ve crashed, but Jerry pushed off on his right foot, translating his momentum with all the grace of Del Shofner into an inside turn, grabbing his crotch at me with a wink then sprinting toward the doghouse. I was not Jerry, and a second later, when I reached the tree, I had to loop wide around it, feeling my paws flap at the ground to gain purchase, whipping up the grass in waves, as though it were a bunched carpet.
Spike was still fake-sleeping, an Alp of a dog, and Jerry hopped over him at the last second, while I, remembering my duty, my role – the earthbound clod, the creature of dirt always flailing at the creature of air, failing to grasp him – I obligingly crashed into the starboard flank of Spike’s ribcage, bouncing off as though he were a trampoline set on its side. Earlier in the episode I’d eaten Spike’s pork chops and stuffed dynamite into his birthday cake to try and blow Jerry up, and as Jerry watched behind the doghouse with the glee of the devil on your shoulder, I gave Spike my toothiest, most apologetic grin, trying not to let on that I was having a hard time standing up. But for the Spike of the show, far meaner than the real Spike who’d internalized the Gospel message to forgive your brother seventy times seven, it was a clear case of three strikes and you’re out. So that linebacker of a bulldog started after me as I chased Jerry toward the pool while breathing deep, trying to keep the stars out of my eyes that portended a blackout. I couldn’t do a re-take.
Offscreen one tech untethered the birthday balloons and another blew them toward us with an industrial fan. We three made three passes around the pool, and each time new constellations appeared in my vision, as though the evening were fading into night, but I couldn’t stop. Finally on the fourth circuit, Jerry screeched to a halt at the board, just as the balloons were lazing by, and raced down the blue runway, springing off the edge to catch one of the low-floating ones. Spike stopped at the edge but I followed, Tom the Persistent, leaping off the lip of the board, grasping at the pretty tails of the bright red balloons, missing them all as Jerry waved to me wickedly, a stowaway on an airborne flotilla of red dirigibles. For a moment, suspended twenty feet above the bottom of the dry pool, I ran in place, before that bitch gravity got me for the second day in a row, my happy red world jump-cutting to a cruel chemical blue, but as I spread my arms into the Iron Cross and prepared to take my licking like a man, I could not but smile, taking the nomination as a harbinger that my world would redden again soon, the deep lipsticky vermillion of the red carpet, the same color as the bow my Grace wore that first day I met her, at this very set, the blooming red of our deepest insides, of glory and terror and lust. Pain I could handle. What startled me was the opposite – as I flew down toward the bottom of a pool the color of a cartoon sky, wind brushing past the fur of my face, my paw felt like a grilled bratwurst about to burst, my nicotined lungs were scorched from the running, and my head was a shrieking teakettle. But in my groin, the seat of myself, I felt something scarier than hurt. Nothing. I didn’t feel a damn thing.