The Summer of 1973. Los Angeles.
Ken drove a rusty VW hippie van that configured around his restless and unpredictable patterns. He was known to drive, stop, and stay in the same spot three days. Our adventures began on Pacific Coast Highway driving along without any direction or plan. Ken would be singing the blues, and I’d be sitting in the back, stretched out, watching him in the rear view mirror. He had cloudy blue eyes that perpetuated the intensity of his tortured soul. The only time they didn’t appear preoccupied was when he was playing the piano. I’d noticed that the first time he took me home to meet his parents, Bernie and Anna Marie.
They lived in hillside split level home. The first level belonged to Ken. As soon as we crossed the threshold he darted into a dimly lit carpeted room and sat down at the piano.
“Hi, I’m here! I have Louellen with me.”
“What! I can’t hear you Ken,” his father shouted back. It was apparent they were a family that communicated in various tones of yelling; the kinds of people who never consider finding the person they are talking to, they just yell from one level of the house to the other.
“Bernie, I’ brought Louellen– put on a pair of pants!”
“SuEllen did you say?”
“Come on Lou, you gotta meet Bernie. I told him about you. But he takes so many pills he can’t remember anything.”
We climbed the stairs to the living room and Ken shook his head as we reached the last step. “The television is always blasting.He thinks he’s deaf.”
As soon as I laid eyes on Bernie I could tell he lived his retirement in front of the television, clutching the remote as one does a cigarette. His form had molded the sofa into an abstraction of his physique.
“Bernie, you look great. Can you at least get up to meet her.” Bernie rose reluctantly, rubbed his lower back, and shook my hand. He smiled as if he was happy about meeting me, but I knew he was irritated because I was standing in front of the television set.
“Anna Marie, Louellen’s here.” Ken yelled.
I stood there feeling like a new chair they were inspecting. Ken sensed my predicament; he read people before they even opened their mouth. Anna Marie came out with a pot holder in her hand.
“Okay Lou–this is the family. Now everyone back to their places.” I was the only one that laughed.
“Your cooking smells so good.” I said to Anna.
”It’s nothing, just dinner for us.”
“Mom‘s the best cook in the world. Did you make my potatoes?”
“Yes Ken, I made your potatoes, brisket, coleslaw, blueberry blintzes…
“Mom, there’s four of us—you’re not cooking for the German army.”
Anna Marie grew up in Austria during the occupation; the Germans took her family home and everything with it.
Bernie was back on the sofa, and Ken seated next to him in a leather club chair. He was bantering his Dad about watching CNN all day. Bernie talked back to the news reporters, scolded the football players, and grudgingly laughed at the comedies. It appeared Anna Marie wasn’t worth talking to any longer. She masked her sadness poorly; it was written so everyone could read her.
“What college are you going to Louellen?” Bernie asked. “ Sonoma State.”
“Somoa what? Never heard of it. Ken’s in law school– aren’t you Ken?”
“What? Did someone say something to me?” Ken winked at me.
“You wouldn’t know if someone clubbed you on the head for Christ’s sake. Why don’t you straighten up and start taking things seriously. All you do is drive around in that heap of junk in the driveway, that leaks oil by the way, and you need a bloody haircut!”
“What was the question?”
They went on like that and I recognized the mental match between father and son. I walked through the white carpeted living room feeling it’s history; safe and predictable, like coming home would always be the same. I noticed Anna Marie’s garden;, tiny rows of perfectly nurtured flowers set inside a large freshly mowed yard that looked untouched since Ken was a teenager.
I found Anna Marie in the kitchen stirring and juggling pots.
“Would you like something to drink Louellen?”
“No, I’m fine. What a feast you’ve made. Do you always cook like this?”
“Well, it never goes to waste. I got used to cooking for all the boys–Ken has three brothers you know.”
Just then Ken came in, kissed his mother on the ear and opened all the lids of the pots.
“Kenny,don’t you dare,” she said. Ken took a bite out of a potato and she yelped as if she was surprised. It was their playful match that had been going on for years.
Through out dinner I watched Ken; how he deferred their questions and manipulated the conversation so it remained directionless like his driving. After dinner we went downstairs to the piano room. Ken slammed his hands on the keyboard, and starting playing some Dixieland jazz. He looked over at me and smiled triumphantly.
“ Bernie hates it, he’s always hated it. I do this to drive him nuts. He can’t stand my playing the piano-the poor bastard doesn’t have a creative cell in his body. He used to break into my classical lessons and start yelling his head off. ”
“Kenny! I can’t hear a thing! Shut the door!” Bernie hollered. Ken let out a thunderous roll of laughter and kept right on playing. Each time we returned to have dinner with Bernie and Anna Marie, the routine slackened, and I felt more at home. I grew to like Bernie, and the feeling was mutual. Anna Marie would not allow herself to feel something for me, in case I had any ideas of taking Ken away. I spent the rest of that summer trying to help Ken figure out what to do, while he unknowingly was teaching me about my essence.
One day towards the end of the summer my father called me. “Ken’s father called asking if I knew where his son was.”
“Ken’s gone?” I answered.
“Apparently that’s the situation. What the hell kind of family is you mixed up in? What a thing to ask me. Ken told his father he was driving you back to Sonoma in September. Is that right?”
“Yes, he offered to.”
“Well, you can forget about that. If the bum does come back, I don’t want you going out any longer. His father isn’t all there.”
“That’s funny.” I said.
“What’s so funny about it?”
“That’s what Ken says about him.”
“Well in any case–forget the bum–he’s not going anywhere. His father went on for half an hour and I heard everything I need to hear. He had the audacity to tell me he read about me in the newspapers.”
“That’s irrelevant. The point is you don’t reveal what you know about someone.”
“Because you have the upper hand.”
That fall I returned to Sonoma, Ken dropped out of law school, and my father was arrested again. Bernie and Anna Marie remained together until Bernie passed away. Ken moved to the southern tip of Baja and plays piano in a resort. Every few years he drops me a line, and we talk about Bernie and my dad.