by Andrew B. Hurvitz
Early afternoon, Angela and Adam, in their red Ford F-150 pickup truck, exited I-10 at Blythe, into a dust blown asphalt lot beside 7-Eleven.
She turned the engine off.
“What do you want? I’m getting Red Vines and a Coke,” she asked as she got out. Denim shorts, sandals, strapped top, blond spiky hair, coral lipstick, plastic necklace, she outfitted herself like a 42-year-old teen.
“We’ve been driving five hours and that’s your lunch? Can’t you wait another two? You want to eat licorice? Now?” her son Adam asked.
“Fuck it. I’m hungry. I promised you Sushi Michi, Pasadena’s best. This will tie me over,” she said.
He watched her hurry in. His mother. He turned the cold air on, slumped, and shut his eyes. His lanky frame and long legs curled in fetal posture.
After a while, he heard the door open. She got in, poked him.
“Stop it! You’re so irritating. Like a 7-year-old girl,” Adam said.
“Take one. You’ll be sorry if you don’t eat something,” she said, offering red licorice from a freshly torn bag.
Late afternoon, they arrived in Pasadena and parked along Raymond Avenue in front of the 7-story Castle Green and its expanse of turgid Victoriana: iron balconies, awnings, turrets, cornices and ornate embellishments, curved windows. And a deep, elongated, Doric columned porch running under a red-tiled overhang, amongst a wooded garden of many flowers, shrubs, plants, mature trees and well-watered lawn.
“This is your horrible, 19th Century home of Dickensian deprivation and cruelty that you ran away from?” he asked.
“Oh, shut up. I know it’s very grand. I need to pee, so bad, let me out!” she said.
“Go in. I’ll wait here,” he said.
“Please come. What if I bump into Aunt Denise?” she asked.
“First you have to pay the meter,” he said.
“Fuck meters. I parked here free in high school,” she said.
“Twenty-five years ago! Now they have an app to pay for parking. Look at the sign!” he said.
“This ain’t Tuscon. The Southland, as they call it, has no cops, no laws, and no parking tickets,” she said.
“Angela, use your common sense,” he yelled.
But she was on her way.
He got out, grumbling, following her to the security gate. She punched a code on the panel. A door buzzed open, and they rushed into the garden, along the sidewalk, up the steps, into the building.
She hurried to a bathroom off the grand ballroom, stayed in there a while, came out. And then he went in.
At the sink he wet his longish blond hair and threw water on his face to wake up.
Out in the lobby, she brushed the hair of her tall young man, pushed it back, away from his eyes.
“You look tired,” she said.
“I’m not looking forward to picking through your father’s apartment to gather souvenirs tomorrow,” he said.
“You knew we had to come here to sign the papers, to ready the place for sale. It’s not like you do this every weekend,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I’ve just always heard how you hate coming here and how Aunt Denise makes you feel inadequate. You roped me in,” he said.
“Yeah, she does provoke my insecurity. But she’s also done a great deal for me, for us, over the years: supporting grandpa, sending us money. When this place sells, we also get half the proceeds. I think that’s a pretty sweet deal, don’t you?” Angela asked.
Casual dressers, in bright Puma; suede sneakers, cheap backpacks, water bottles, bucket hats; they stood amidst the ornate elegance of an 1899 former hotel, incongruous to the setting.
An entryway floor was paved in black and white decorative tile bordered in Greek key. There were potted palms, marble stairs, decorative iron railings, ceilings with inlaid wood painted in green and gold. A grand piano was tucked under the stairs, next to an illuminated, multi globe light mounted atop an iron newel post.
“Looks like an old western bordello. Where’s madam and her ladies?” Adam asked.
“Madam Angela! Let me show you around sir,” Angela said, licking lips, eyelashes batting, hands on hips, sauntering into the maze.
“Thank God nobody is around to see you walk. Can’t you ever act like a proper mother?” he asked.
He followed her to a beamed sitting room with an expansive fireplace framed in black glossy tiles, decorative fire screen, and stacks of wood logs in two symmetrical brass containers. There were two red velvet armchairs. And a high backed, Empire style sofa with mahogany carved arms.
There was a patterned rug. And gold, green and red walls. Shiny red drapes draped every single doorway.
“A 1990s condo board interpretation of 1890s décor,” he said.
“Don’t insult it. I love this place. This was my youthful reverie,” she said.
“They need to hire design professionals. Like me,” he said.
She led them both to a spartan sunroom, enclosed in tall, dark framed windows covered in creamy lace curtains. There were wicker seats, black metal pendant Mission lights hanging above.
“Look at this room, isn’t it exquisite? You can feel the happy presence of spirits,” she said.
He didn’t see it. The room was colorless, empty of people, silent.
“When we moved here in 1988, artists came almost every month and performed. Werner and Giovanna were in heaven. A French flutist played baroque music. Another month a quintet performed Bach and Richard Strauss,” Angela said.
“Your parents were cultured Europeans. Unlike their white trash runaway daughter,” he said.
She ignored his insult. This room evoked her memories. She recalled her mother.
“Nobody could sing like your grandmother, Giovanna Tommaso, coloratura soprano from Sacile, Italy. When we moved from El Monte to Castle Green she was delighted. This would cure her sadness, or so we thought. She could walk to the symphony, the Norton Simon and Asia Pacific Museums, the library, the post office, Vroman’s bookstore. We were all so happy. Because she was so happy,” Angela said.
Here was the retelling of the tragic story of his maternal grandmother, who had thrown herself off the Colorado Street Bridge in 1991. He heard the story many times before but let his mother tell it again.
“I was 12, reading Nancy Drew on my bed. The phone rang out in the kitchen. Pasadena Police. Daddy screamed, “No, no!” I ran in. He was on the floor, bawling. Denise was a freshman at USC, in class. Then Daddy had to leave to go to the coroner. Before he left, he said, ‘Don’t worry my angel. This is a mistake. I’m sure she’s alive. She wouldn’t suicide.’ Then he went to identify her body. I was all alone. 12 years old. Can you imagine? I barely remember her. I lost my mother when I was a girl,” she said.
“You’ve suffered. I’m sorry. I wish I could have been there to console you. You never told me about the way Werner left you there,” he said.
“He was a wartime father. He didn’t bring his daughter into battle. I stayed at home. Crying alone,” she said.
Adam hugged her.
“What was that funny story you once told me about a harpist who played the Bewitched theme?” he asked, stroking her hair, diverting to cheerful.
“Ah yes. JoAnn Turofsky. Superb harpist. Played here on New Year’s Eve, 1989. I was giddy when she performed the Bewitched theme in the style of Debussy. Daddy was appalled after he learned it was a TV show theme song. But he adored JoAnn. And Debussy,” Angela said.
“Didn’t you have a boyfriend, a singer, you met here?” Adam asked.
“Denny Walters. Handsome, muscular Black tenor, Juilliard voice student. Magnificent voice. And body. Everything. I met him when he performed at a Gay 90s event, in the summer of ‘95,” Angela said.
“Gay 90s?” Adam laughed.
“Castle Green was bedecked in flowers, bowls of punch, women in long dresses, Fuller Theological Seminary boys in blue seersucker suits, madras neckties, white bucks, straw hats. I think Talbots or Brooks Brothers sponsored it. There were hundreds of red, white and blue balloons throughout the rooms. They strung white lights on the porch, and put tea lights in paper bags along the garden paths,” Angela said.
“I drank too much gin and champagne punch. I hooked up with Denny after the show ended. He was wonderful, passionate, and insatiable. We did it in the utility closet. We met there several times on other nights that summer,” Angela said.
“An Only Fans conversation with my own mother. Stop sharing everything!” Adam said.
“I’m truthful. Give me that. Denny started my downfall,” she said.
“How so?” Adam said.
“Someone at the front desk learned about me and Denny and told Werner. My father proclaimed, verboten,” Angela said.
“Because he was Black?” Adam asked.
“Yes, of course. And because I was loose, of course. And Denny was older and I wasn’t legal yet. Werner was protecting my virtue, which only promoted my promiscuity,” she said.
They went into a red room with rounded walls, Moroccan tables and chairs, and Marrakesh dark wood cabinets hung on walls, softly illuminated by a hanging Fortuny floral light fixture, shaped like an inverted pagoda, strung with Murano glass beads.
“This place never ends. Every room is another story, another space, to wander and dream. Why did you run away?” he asked.
“After I got into drugs, music and men, after the Denny debacle, this place seemed old and confining. I had to escape,” she said.
“Zunk-382?” he asked.
“I was a Zunk groupie from 16 to 19. I met them in Solana Beach. I was dating their lead singer Drew. Louis was a drummer in their band who also lived with Drew. I started dating Louis. Drew was actually OK with that. I went on the road with Zunk. Louis drank. We fought constantly. Louis was fired. I got pregnant. Louis went to rehab and we broke up. Wonderful story of your loser mother,” she said.
“I hate how you put yourself down. Every single time. You don’t give yourself any credit. Raising a kid by yourself, working as a waitress, nail salons, making leather belts at home. Teaching me to ride a bike, walking me to school. You did more for me than Louis ever did. Why can’t you be easier on yourself?” he asked.
“Because I come back here and it’s like I never left. Aunt Denise still runs the show. I still compare myself to her. Perfect student. Full scholarship to USC. Law degree. Tax attorney. Century City office. Framed diplomas up the wazoo,” she said.
“So, what! If I gave you a framed award for great mother you would be her equal!” Adam said.
Angela hugged him.
“Thank you,” she said.
“We better go upstairs. Are we going to eat Sushi Michi with her? Take her out?” he asked.
“Oh shit. The truck. We left it on the street. I’m sure it’s fine. Let me go out and move it,” she said.
He stood alone in the red room with the Moroccan chairs. He examined the Moorish tiles and Art Nouveau woodwork bedecking yet another fireplace.
She ran back in, breathless, white ticket in hand.
“I knew it. I knew it. Damn! You just don’t listen!” he said.
“Fucking parking ticket. $75. That could pay for sushi. How could I have been so dumb? Why do I always do the wrong thing?” she asked.
The unit was unchanged since the late 1980s.
Especially the kitchen.
Angela turned on the ceiling light: fluorescent tubes with plastic cover, many little bugs trapped inside.
Brown Formica cabinets, tile counters and tile backsplash adorned with Mexican scene of a woman making tamales; electric Kenmore stove and oven, orange vinyl floor, white Maytag double door fridge and freezer.
The rest of the musty apartment had bare brick walls, beige carpeting, oversized floral sofa, yellow tiled bathroom and pink pedestal sink. The primary bedroom was dark paneled with a king bed and fur bedspread. The second bedroom, like a nunnery, had two iron beds where the two sisters once slept. A cross hung over a shared night table. Moth eaten pink curtains covered a big plate glass window.
Angela parted the curtains. On the sill was a dusty ceramic German beer stein decorated with a village scene of Rothenberg.
“Daddy brought this from Germany,” she said.
“This whole apartment is truly ugly. Can this be a landmark? No air con?” Adam asked.
“Daddy believed in fresh air. He died before global warming,” Angela said.
“Great. Hot and dusty apartment. Ugly. How will it sell?” Adam asked.
“Pasadena is very sought after,” she said.
“Just not in here,” Adam said.
“Wait ‘til Aunt Denise gets here. She will talk, ad nauseum, about her time on the condo board, how she saved the building from collapse, how she examined all the books and balanced the budget, and how important she was in officially registering Castle Green to get fed money for rehab. She considers herself the savior of this property. Wonders why nobody appreciates her,” Angela said.
“She saved historic Castle Green. But forgot this unit,” Adam said.
Out in the living room, Adam found his grandfather’s framed paintings stacked against a wall.
He bent down to examine them, flipping through.
Auschwitz, Hiroshima, nuclear war, dead bodies in war scenes, slaughter, atrocities, corpses, hangings, gassings, burnings.
All the catastrophes of the mid-20th Century.
Surrealism painted in petrochemical colors.
“Cheerful stuff here,” Adam said.
“I know. I’ve wanted for years to take something- but somehow- I’m always revolted by his work. Daddy saw many dark things during the war. I guess he was fighting injustice through his art. But it never sold. Rich people don’t want to hang genocide over their fireplace,” she said.
“Art isn’t always pretty. I think these are extraordinary,” Adam said.
“Denise has a friend, Tommy, who is an amateur art appraiser. He thinks this can fetch a fortune. Along with the $49,000 condo, now worth nearly a million, we may come out all right,” Angela said.
“He didn’t sell any paintings when he was alive. Yet he was so talented,” Adam said.
“He scrimped by. Mostly he made money by translating German into English for American publishers. He gave up after mom died. Denise stepped in to pay for the condo. She paid for his mortgage, utilities, HOA. Wait ‘til she gets here. She’ll let you know all that!” Angela said.
“Where is she already? I’m starving. I want Sushi Michi,” Adam said.
“She works late. She is very industrious, very prosperous, works very long hours in the law office, and is very, very busy. She is married to her profession. Please be understanding of her very important needs!” Angela said, laughing.
“I’m already sick of her and I haven’t even seen her yet,” Adam said.
“She is an overachiever. We must give her that,” Angela said.
Denise and Tommy
The door burst open. Aunt Denise in blue pants suit and high heels, and her friend Tommy Stompanato, 55, a short, fat man carrying trays of silver foiled food and a bag of wine and dessert, with a big camera and long lens hanging on his neck.
Aunt Denise reminded Adam of Hillary Clinton: a lined, legal face, sensible blonde bob, probing blue eyes.
“Tommy, please meet my gorgeous sister Angela and her extremely handsome son Adam!” Denise said.
Denise threw her arms around Angela, hugged and kissed Adam. Then she went to the bathroom.
Tommy was piled high with his trays, anxious to unload.
“Hi, hi! Nice to meet you Angela, Adam. Let me drop off dinner first!” he said, rushing into the kitchen with his delivery.
“What’s all that for?” Angela asked.
Denise yelled from the open-doored bathroom as the faucet ran.
“A feast awaits! Tommy brought it down from San Francisco. He drove seven hours. Can you smell that garlic?” she asked.
“We also drove seven hours. I know you don’t tolerate lateness. From others,” Angela said loudly.
“No sushi?” Adam asked.
“Sorry,” Angela said.
Denise walked back in, shaking the water off her hands.
“Your hair is nice sis. I never know what color it will be. Blue, purple, shaved head,” Denise said.
“I’ve never shaved my head,” Angela said.
Denise looked Adam up and down.
“University of Arizona! College of Landscape Architecture! You must be what six feet tall? Don’t believe everything your mother says about me,” Denise said.
“Yeah, I’ve grown. Tommy thinks Gramps’ artwork is valuable, huh?” Adam asked.
“He is certain of it. He has been invaluable in researching price points for Daddy’s art. He also found our realtor, got the condo appraised. He wants to talk to Angela about investing in real estate. He has half a dozen properties in several states earning rental income. He’s a genius. Oh, and he has a very successful blog, Tommy Knows Best, with 18,000 subscribers who each pay $49 a year,” Denise said.
“What a go-getter. And he brought food too. We were going to take you out for sushi,” Angela said.
“Sushi tomorrow. Tommy brought some delicious food from North Beach. They have the best Italian food up there,” Denise said.
She went to set the dining room table, with an old lace tablecloth. She took a box of silver out of a drawer, opened the glass cabinet and took down the daffodil Heinrich and Co. plates, the frumpy German made china they grew up with.
“I came here yesterday after Tommy told me he was bringing food. And I hand washed all this last night,” Denise said.
“Thank you. That must have been a chore,” Angela said.
“I don’t mind. I was excited for you to meet Tommy. He has worked at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for 25 years. I met him when I stayed there in the 90s. You could say he is their Senior Concierge. Wisely and strategically, he buys cheap properties in forgotten places, and advises friends on where to invest. And he’s nearly never wrong. Or so he says,” Denise said.
“Are you two dating?” Adam asked.
“My boy, are you that naïve? Don’t they educate you about the birds and bees in landscape architecture school? Tommy is gayer than these daffodil plates. Sit down everyone. Tommy is serving,” Denise said.
Adam leaned over to his mother.
“No sushi,” he whispered.
“Sssh!” she said.
Tommy wore a flowered apron tied around big dad sized Lee jeans, his blue oxford cloth shirt sleeves were rolled up and each hand was covered in acid green oven mitts. He laid down platters of steaming Molinari’s meat lasagna and eggplant parmesan. He uncorked a bottle of Sangiovese wine, arranged a basket of warm garlic bread, and a tray of roasted onions and clams.
The food smells clashed with his perfume.
Tommy was drenched in Diptyque Olene. An odiously fem swarm of jasmine, wisteria, and honeysuckle. His fragrance dominated the room.
“This is from a great bakery in my town. Stella’s cannoli and rum soaked sponge cake. That’s for dessert, of course,” he said as he removed a lens cover and put the camera up to this eyes.
Without asking, he began to photograph the food and the guests.
He moved and advanced, arranged and directed.
Like the host in his own apartment.
“I’ll probably post these on my Tommy Knows Best blog. I love to write about my good friends and old buildings,” he said.
Adam saw his mother’s pained expression. He got up and opened a window for ventilation.
But the stagnant outside air knew better and refused to come in.
After dinner, Tommy dozed on the sofa with his neck strapped Nikon DSLR camera and telephoto lens. It rested on him like Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. His white leather elevator sneakers, comically bulbous, pointed upwards, amusing Adam who saw him as the sartorial embodiment of a baby boomer.
But Angela seethed. The intrusion of this overzealous zealot into her private family visit was unsettling.
He reigned over them, even as he snoozed.
For Angela, it was strange, indeed, to sit in her parents’ living room waiting for the evening to end. The purpose of the visit was to sort out personal belongings, take anything she wanted, and then sign off on selling the condo. Tommy upset all those plans.
As Tommy snored, Adam fell asleep in a chair.
Impatient, Angela got up, went into the kitchen to talk to Denise who was cleaning up.
“We have to go to the Luster Inn Motel on East Colorado and check in before 10,” Angela said.
“What do you think of Tommy?” Denise asked.
“Oh gosh. I’m so tired. What does my opinion of him have to do with anything?” Angela asked.
Denise put a tied-up bag of garbage down.
“He’s been very helpful. I’ve been so busy at work. And he has come here and priced everything in the condo for the estate sale. He worked with a realtor to appraise the unit. He brought in an art dealer to estimate daddy’s paintings. Tommy flew down from San Francisco three separate times to make this work. You can’t buy a friend like him,” Denise said.
“He sure knows a lot. About art, property, and every personal thing. I didn’t know he would be here. It’s a lot for me and Adam to absorb. It’s like Tommy is taking over. Is that right? Shouldn’t you have asked me first? This is our family’s condo. Our inheritance,” Angela said.
“Now you show an interest! Where have you been for, like, the last 20 years?” Denise said.
“Raising my son! Working jobs, surviving!” Angela screamed.
“And not getting child support from that Zunk-382 fool. Who walked out on you! Who left you destitute! Only your foolish sister cared. I picked up the pieces for Daddy and you, I never wavered or hesitated,” Denise asked.
“Not again. Not another accounting of all your expenditures and sacrifices! Haven’t I told you a thousand times I was grateful? You didn’t have a kid to raise,” Angela said.
Denise sprayed, wiped, dried and lectured.
“30 years of property taxes. Who paid the HOA every month? Who paid for Daddy’s dental implants? Nursing home? Ethan Allen leather sofas, cable TV, mobile phone, Mr. Coffee? Who bought the kitchen set at K-Mart? Who paid for water and electricity?” Denise asked.
“You just can’t stop. I know all this! Can I change history? Should I live it all over again? Should I write a check to you with my proceeds from the property sale? Let’s ask Tommy!” Angela said.
“Tommy has been a rock to me. Like a brother I never had. Like a sister too. You should kiss the ground he walks on. He’s only got our best interests at heart!” Denise said.
“He’s too much. He doesn’t own me, run my life, tell me what to do. Maybe yours, not mine!” Angela said.
“You could never stand any guy who didn’t want you,” Denise said.
“How low!” Angela said.
Adam heard the arguing, got up and hid behind the wall listening to the fight.
Aunt Denise sobbed, and her voice broke.
“Daddy called you Mein Kleiner Engel until the day he died. Tender, loving. And what did he say to me? He told me to keep my life in order. Like a file cabinet. Halte dein leben in ordnung,” Denise said.
“And you called me tramp, slut, drunk, druggie, whore, loser, self-destructive, selfish!” Angela said.
Adam felt a tug at his shirt. Tommy ushered him out the front door, into the common hall.
So, in Love
“Let’s go up to the roof. The sun is setting. Fresh air! It’s glorious up there!” Tommy said.
“Ok. I was sort of entertained listening to them fight,” Adam said.
“You are better off not hearing,” Tommy advised.
They took the stairs. Adam bounded up the steps, two at a time, his powerful legs and young lungs no match for the labored, slow, climbing Tommy and his large swinging camera and oversized lens.
Up there, all around, was Pasadena, bathed in hues of the setting sun, pinks and salmons, cirrus clouds in the sky.
Castle Green was adorned with twin-turreted, red-tiled, conical pagodas, supported by embellished stone columns which encircled shaded, open-aired lookouts.
There was a tower, with a red observatory shaped top, adorned with three Islamic styled horseshoe windows and Fleur-des-Lis carvings.
“Is this Pasadena or Morocco?” Adam asked.
Tommy gazed at him. Adam’s beauty was evident, his portrait inevitable.
“Stand over there. I’ll take your picture,” Tommy commanded.
Adam, flattered by favorable light and temporal youth, leaned against a railing on the east side of the rooftop as Tommy shot photos.
“Oh, so beautiful. You and the light. You should model. I know talent agents in San Francisco. Come up and stay in my hotel. I’ll get you a free room. You could be on the cover of Vogue Hommes,” Tommy said over rapid shutter firings.
Then Angela arrived.
“What is this? What are you two doing?” she asked.
“We’re just enjoying some fresh air,” Adam said.
“Adam you’re done! We’re going back to the hotel. We’ll come back tomorrow to see what we want to take from the condo. I’m very tired. I don’t understand why you two are up here doing this!” she said.
“I assure you we are only innocently enjoying the evening. Relax,” Tommy said.
“You don’t have permission to photograph my son. We don’t want to be a post on your blog. We don’t want to read Tommy Knows Best and see photos and a story about our family. Delete everything!” she said.
“I see you’re reliving your own bad days at Castle Green and projecting them onto your boy. He’s done nothing wrong. And neither have I,” Tommy said.
“Thank you for dinner. And for your other services. But we are done here,” she said.
“Good night,” Tommy said, leaving the rooftop to ring his elevator man for a pickup.
Her nemesis gone from sight, Angela looked at Adam in anger and disgust.
“He’s a manipulator. I don’t trust him. He is after something. Or everything. Just stay away from him,” Angela said.
“Now you’re being an Aunt Denise,” Adam said.
They left the roof in silence and fury. And trudged down the stairs.
In descent, near the second floor, they heard music: an operatic melody and poetic lyrics.
A woman and a man sang a duet, accompanied by a piano player.
Angela and Adam stopped at the landing and watched the singers. It melted their icy mood.
Angela was stunned by the sight of the well-built, middle-aged male singer, a handsome Black man. It was her old boyfriend, Denny.
“So taunt me, and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours, till I die…
So in love… So in love…
So in love with you, my love… am I.”
The song was “So in Love” from the musical, “Kiss Me Kate.”
“Denny! Oh, my goodness! Denny Walters! That was beautiful. This is my son Adam,” Angela said.
“Angela Pfade! Lolita and her grown-up son! How can this be? Nice to meet you, Adam. This is our soprano Mei Lan, and pianist Sean Liu. We are rehearsing the songs of Cole Porter for a show next Friday evening. Will you be there?” Denny asked.
“I’m sorry. We are leaving tomorrow afternoon,” Angela said.
“Angela and I dated in high school and college,” Denny explained to Sean and Mei.
“So young looking. You can’t be older than 29,” Mei Lan said.
“The lighting flatters me in this space. In daylight I’m old, but thank you,” Angela said.
“I hope I see you again,” Denny said.
“Yes, perhaps. We are late checking into our motel. It’s wonderful to see you again Denny. And nice meeting you all,” Angela said as she and Adam left.
Morning fog, gray sky, damp grass.
In that gentle hour, they walked in the east garden with takeout coffee and croissants.
Adam ran his fingers over the wood pecked trunk of a tall, stately Japanese Oak.
They strolled past profuse pittosporum hedges, ballooning in groups, against the long veranda wall on Castle Green’s east front.
“They must have big water bills here. You wouldn’t plant all these thirsty varieties and moisture starved lawn now. It drinks up money. Xeriscaping fits the Moroccan architecture better. This design looks like it belongs in rain-soaked England,” he said.
“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to a two-story high structure jutting out from the building, an enclosed bridge sweeping high over the garden, abruptly stopping at the edge of Raymond Avenue. It was long, multi-arched, a promontory in stucco, with Romanesque framed windows and decorative columns, red tile roof, copper gutters.
It culminated in a pentagonal lookout embellished by an Arts and Crafts frieze.
“It was connected to the now demolished Hotel Green on the east side of Raymond. Guests would arrive on the Santa Fe Railroad. And their luggage would come across the bridge, wheeled in carts, riding on steel tracks that are still imbedded in the floor,” Angela said.
“You do know some history. I guess it wasn’t all drugs and sex,” he said.
“Werner taught me a lot. We would come down here, sit on the porch and talk. He was often a great father. When I was young, I would sit on a stool, and watch him paint, astonished by his skill, asking how he chose colors, why he held his brush just so, why he got up and stood back, examining his half-completed work,” she said.
Adam looked at his phone.
“I wish we could stay and chat but I’d like to head over to Huntington Garden. I should be back by mid-afternoon,” he said, disposing of his coffee and pastry bag in a trash bin.
“Great. Leave your mother to the wolves. Just kidding. Enjoy yourself. Drive safely!” she said.
She kissed him, watched him walk to the street gate.
He was nearly out when he stopped, turned around and jogged back to her.
“We need to talk,” he said.
They sat in two wicker chairs on the shaded porch, facing the garden.
“After graduation, next spring, I have a job offer with Yanez Architects in Culver City, Sophia’s dad. I know this is crazy, but please don’t sell the condo. It’s paid off. I could live here, alone, affordably,” Adam said.
“Well, that’s quite a request. I know you are serious with Sophia, but I didn’t know you wanted to work for her father,” Angela said.
“I don’t’ tell you everything. But that’s my plan for future employment,” Adam said.
“Aunt Denise does everything by the book. It has to be 100%, legal and proper. And it doesn’t sound like anything is wrong with your proposal. But she is stubborn. I’m not exactly on her good side. Our unit is worth nearly a million,” Angela said.
“She has money. She has her own condo in Beverly Hills. Partner in a Century City law firm. She’s not hurting,” Adam said.
His expression was pleading. He clasped his hands under his chin, devoutly, tentatively, waiting for her answer.
“This is all I ran away from. Would you be happy here?” Angela said.
“That was your life. This is mine,” he said.
“True, true. Your Aunt Denise still holds the cards. Why the sudden spark of enthusiasm for Castle Green?” Angela said.
“I’m mad for this place, for LA and Pasadena. There’s so much to do! I really love it here. You had to know I would be seduced by the architecture and garden. It would be tragic if you gave it all up. I don’t want to graduate and live my whole life in Tuscon,” Adam said.
“I will take your request into consideration. I want you to be secure and happy,” she said.
“Promise?” he asked.
“Yes. Go and enjoy yourself,” she said.
Watching from a distance was Denny Walters. He walked up to Angela who sat alone, lost in thought.
“Oh Denny! You scared me,” she said.
He sat down.
He wore a denim shirt and golden khakis, work boots, an ensemble of solidity and masculinity.
“You scared me! Last night! I didn’t think 45-year-old me would be rehearsing Cole Porter and have an old flame, from 25 years ago, walk down the stairs with her son to watch me sing,” he said.
“How have you been?” she asked.
“Oh, pretty good. Juilliard graduate, Broadway, Lincoln Center, on stage, working. Then 9/11. A wife, a daughter and a divorce. She gets Julia. I get AA, auditions, tours, stinky motels in worn down towns. The usual American dream,” he said.
“I’m also sort of divorced. Well, I never quite got married. But you met Adam. He’s studying landscape architecture. We came back here to sell my late father’s apartment,” she said.
“Ah, Werner. Yeah, remember the man. Darn it. I wish you still lived here. You look good. Fit, sexy,” he said.
“Thank you. Why are you here so early? You must rehearse long hours,” she said.
“I live here. Bought a place in 2004. Thank God. I couldn’t afford it now. Still can’t afford it. But this is the right place for me. A lot of creative people. A lot of big dreamers. That’s Castle Green. Most people have small dreams. If, once in their life, they make it to Disney World they are happy. The people who live at Castle Green, even if their jobs are small, their dreams are big,” Denny said.
“You are still so handsome. How did a man of your size fit into a tiny utility closet with me?” she asked.
“My hard-on pushed the door open,” he said.
“You’re embarrassing me,” she said.
“If you want to see something a lot bigger, if you have the time, come upstairs to my spacious condo,” he said.
“I have to meet my sister at 10,” she said.
“It’s 7:30. I think you can spare a couple of hours. C’mon Angela,” Denny said, standing up, extending his hands to raise her up and out of the chair.
They walked with his arm around her. He radiated warmth and gentleness. And he still spoke with that sonorous voice: arousing, stimulating, authoritative, comforting.
They entered the cast-iron lift.
Jimmy Loh, the elderly operator, ushered them into the open-air machine, oldest on the west coast. They rode up to Denny’s fourth-floor apartment, up to adventure, excitement, passion and intimacy.
Briefly, that morning, she again found youth, freedom, and joy.
But it was their talk that made her happiest. He was interested in her. He seemed to crave her company. He listened, he laughed. He was gentlemanly and complimentary. And a good kisser.
Tutankhamun Throne Chair
After the unexpected romantic encounter came the drudgery of Denise and Tommy.
Tommy had appraised and tagged all of the apartment furniture, accessories and artwork.
Angela walked around the unit as Tommy arranged and dusted.
“If you want anything else in the apartment just carry it into our old bedroom. How about Daddy’s 1949 oil painting of refugees on a train fleeing Pakistan?” Denise asked.
“Not that one! Let her have a lithograph. The oils are our cash cow,” Tommy said.
Tommy arranged a Tutankhamun Throne Chair in Aztec fabric next to a brick wall, polishing its arms, examining it for flaws.
It definitely was not here last night. It came from the card room downstairs.
“What’s this?” Angela asked, forgetting the refugee painting.
“Oh, it’s just that Egyptian chair. I told Tommy to bring it up here. The board is getting rid of a lot of junk from down there,” Denise said, offering an excuse.
“You stole furniture from the lobby to sell up here? That’s unreal,” Angela said.
Tommy quickly slipped out of the apartment, anticipating another argument.
“I have to get his approval for which paintings I can keep? Unbelievable,” Angela said.
“He wants us to make money. You never think of money, do you? Do you know what pro bono is?” Denise asked.
“Yes. I’m not a lawyer but I understand that term,” Angela said.
“That’s right. I’ve spent hundreds of hours and my considerable legal skills assisting this building in the documentation of historical items, not to mention zoning issues, as well as federal, state and local tax write-offs and subsidies. I worked with architects, engineers, designers, all in my spare time, without pay, to help preserve Castle Green. If I take a fake Egyptian chair from the lobby and sell it for $799 it wouldn’t begin to cover what they owe me!” Denise said.
“That is disgusting. You don’t remove historic items from a landmark! It is a small thing to you, but hugely unethical. I think you could be disbarred for this. I’m serious. What malign influence does this Tommy have on you?” Angela asked.
“I don’t have time for all this pettiness. The estate sale is for our benefit, selling the unit is for our benefit. Who cares if Tommy is in charge?” Denise asked.
“Someone is always in charge at Castle Green. It’s just never me! How I wish you could understand that!” Angela said.
“And I wish you could see I brought him into this to relieve our burdens, and contribute to a successful outcome,” Denise said.
“And skim off a percentage into his own pockets!” Angela said.
“He’s a stand-up guy! Stop attacking him!” Denise screamed.
Now Denise was infuriated. She walked out and slammed the door. Angela had paranoid visions of Tommy and her sister conspiring.
But Tommy walked right back in. He smiled and evinced a gentle, conciliatory demeanor.
“You and Denise need to work collectively to solve pressing problems. Or are you obsessed about how the other side is evil while your sibling problems fester?” he asked.
“It’s hopeless. She and I are too different,” Angela said.
“You’ll make out all right. Especially when you sell the condo and your father’s art. I know. I had it all appraised. You have one and a half million here. Trust me dear. I’m your ally,” he said.
“I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but just curiously, how do you come in and establish dominion over our family? The condo? The art? You are not a relative. I didn’t hire you. What professional training do you possess to proclaim yourself an expert on everything?” Angela said.
“Life experience. I’ve worked at the Mark Hopkins for 25 years. Bellhop, concierge, tour director. I’ll die with a pension. I got top notch health care too. Not bad for a high school dropout from Fresno. I’m smart. I buy cheap property. I earn income owning and renting houses. And organizing estates and transforming lives. My good friend Elaine on Nob Hill is 88 years old. She had a fortune left to her by her husband. She gave me complete control over her portfolio, wrote me into her will. She calls me the unheralded genius of the Hotel Mark Hopkins,” he said, like an infomercial.
“Ok. Great. So happy for you. I’m fine. I don’t need a guru or genius,” Angela said.
“And I have a very successful blog: Tommy Knows Best with 18,900 subscribers. They each pay $49 a year. Nearly a million a year from that blog! Does your home business making Navajo hipster belts earn you that income?” Tommy asked.
“Navajo hipster? I’ve had it up to here with your smarminess. Your presence is very disturbing, quite intrusive, thoroughly unsolicited, arrogant and rude,” Angela said.
He heard nothing and persisted.
“I have an idea. Why not take some of your winnings when you sell here and invest with me? You can buy a beautiful home in Akron, Ohio for $99,000, rent it out and pay it off in ten years. Think about the future. Renting an apartment in Tuscon? How long can that go on? What about your boy? He’s got to have something when you’ve passed on,” Tommy said.
His products and services pitch was relentless.
When she didn’t buy it, he went on the attack.
“You fucked up and you live on the edge of ruin. I’m secure. Let me help you become secure too,” Tommy said.
“Oh, fuck off. You don’t know anything about me! What do you know about me or my family! Nothing!” Angela screamed.
“Your mother jumped off a bridge. Are you going to do the same with your finances? You fucked boys in the broom closet. You were a groupie who did drugs and got pregnant. Had a kid at twenty. Denise stepped in to save your father and you from destitution,” Tommy said.
“You dare to speak of my mother’s death? And tell me I fucked boys in the broom closet? You spill out personal, hurtful, vile things to win your argument? What a fine friend of the family you are!” Angela said.
She left the apartment.
Alone in the hall, walking through the corridor, she wept.
Adam drove up to the guard house at Huntington Garden in San Marino. A sign said the grounds were closed for a television production, “Antiques Roadshow.”
Disappointed, he drove back to Pasadena, stopped in Old Town for an iced coffee.
He sat in a chair, under an umbrella, in a restored, slate-stoned alley, Mills Place, enclosed with repurposed brick buildings, softened by shade trees and container flowers, not far from Castle Green.
Passing the hours, avoiding an early return to Castle Green, he looked at his smartphone, checked the weather, texted his girlfriend, browsed shoes on Amazon, looked at his photos, Googled his family name.
And he came across a Pfade item.
Former Tax Lawyer, Denise A. Pfade, 49, Facing Five Years in Federal Prison for Evading Back Taxes Owed to IRS.
“Oh Jesus,” he said, covering his mouth in shock.
He read the facts of the case.
$1.5 million embezzled from clients of the law firm. $778,000 owed to the IRS. Two shell companies to evade taxes. Phony bank accounts opened in other people’s names to deposit money and cheat on taxes. A judge ordering Ms. Pfade to repay $1.9 million in restitution and to surrender her law license. Five years in Federal Prison. Sentencing next month.
He sat there, dumbfounded.
Aunt Denise was going to jail.
He looked up from his phone just as his mother walked past him, unaware of her son. Her head was down, she seemed to be talking to herself, shuffling along the alley like a lost soul.
“Angela! Angela!” he called. He rose from his chair and hurried over to her.
She turned to him, swollen red eyes.
“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at Huntington Garden?” she asked.
“They were closed today. Why do you look so upset? Aunt Denise?” he asked, caressing her hair.
“The other monster. He said some vile things to me, crushing, personal, hateful. I feel so low, so rotten,” she said.
Adam hugged her. He spoke softly.
“I know something about Aunt Denise that you won’t believe. You might feel differently about her when you hear it,” he said.
“I have had enough. I’ve been attacked. Mentally assaulted. I have no strength left. I can’t stop crying. All the cruel things are true. I’m the cause of all our misery! Just let me walk to the bridge like mother and die,” she said.
He let go of her and looked her dead in the eye.
“You’re going to kill yourself because a pompous ass said some mean things?” Adam asked, sneering, mocking.
“No, no, no! Can’t you let me be immature for once?” she said. She burst out laughing, releasing despair into air, a relief.
“Immature? For once? For once? I’ve got something big to blow your mind,” he said.
He guided her out of the sun, to a large awning at the Burke Williams spa, tucked into a shaded corner.
“I just read a few news stories about your sister. She is a convicted felon. She is going to prison for five years. She lost her license to practice law. She owes millions. It’s in the LA Times. And the Wall Street Journal. And KTLA,” he said.
“I don’t believe it. Are you sure it’s not fake news? Maybe an enemy planted it,” she said.
“Fake news? Are you insane? She has been convicted in a court of law. Angela wake up! Stop punishing yourself. Denise is in turmoil. She needed Tommy for support. That is the truth,” Adam said.
“Tell me everything. Let’s go back to the castle,” Angela said.
They walked as he read the crime story aloud.
They went down Green Street, past the old brick stables and carriage houses matured into high priced retail stores.
At Fair Oaks, they stopped to wait for the walk light. She looked up to her son, towering over her, the young guardian, in loco parentis.
“This is unbelievable. She was the one to emulate. She was the gold standard. A perfectionist. The higher she went, the lower I fell. She had a blueprint for life. I floated like a leaf down a river of no return,” Angela said.
“She is wounded. You have the upper hand. We both do,” he said as they crossed the street.
“Denise was Phi Beta Kappa. USC JD Business Law & Master of Business of Taxation. Partner at age 34, six years after joining her firm, youngest ever, only woman, $900 an hour. Beverly Hills condo. Did her life of accomplishment really come to an end on your smartphone?” Angela asked.
Now they stood outside the gate at Castle Green.
“Go in. Don’t say a word. We know the truth,” Adam said as they entered.
By accident, they reunited under the arches of the disconnected bridge.
Stripped of virtue, associated with crime, naked stood the convicted sister.
Seeing Adam, Denise was pacified. She carried a small, white papered, box of candies.
“Adam came back early. The Huntington is closed for a TV show,” Angela said.
“Good. I can spend more time with him. I want to hear about your school, your plans for work,” Denise said.
“Is Tommy upstairs? If he is, I won’t go in,” Angela said.
“I sent him away. He told me some of what he said to you. He’s insulted me on many occasions, but I drew the line when he attacked you. I made him put the Tutankhamun Throne Chair back in the card room and he left for good,” she said.
They walked into the garden and coalesced under the shade of the Japanese Oak.
“I heartily and sincerely apologize. I was wrong. Tommy shouldn’t have come here. His presence was disruptive. He’s a blunt Calabrian. He’s crude and bare knuckles. I didn’t anticipate he would turn his venom on you,” Denise said.
Angela stood silent, stone-faced, wounded.
“All the fighting we did was about him. He’s gone and now we have peace. I love you my little angel. Don’t keep me incarcerated in your grudge. Comme ça?” Denise said.
“I accept your apology. I’m relieved he’s gone,” Angela said.
“I recruited him because I thought his managerial skills would support us. I didn’t trust you or I to make decisions. And frankly I still thought of you as the party girl. Not the woman you really are. You and Adam are solid and grounded,” Denise said.
“Thank you, Aunt Denise,” Adam said.
“Well maybe one thing about you hasn’t changed. This is a box of chocolates from See’s Candies. With a lovely note card. Left at our front door,” Denise said.
Angela took the box and opened the card.
“Dark chocolate. So, in love, Denny.”
She burst out laughing, stuffing the card into her pocket.
Adam shook his head. “What trouble have you gotten into now?” he asked.
“Don’t you have something important to discuss with your aunt?” Angela said.
He took a deep breath, now presenting his case.
“I’m graduating next year. And this may sound nuts. But I wonder if you and Angela would consider not selling the condo?” he asked.
“Are you planning to get a job down here?” Denise asked.
“Yes, that’s the plan. I want to work in LA and move into Castle Green,” he said.
“I see nothing wrong with that. I only wanted to sell to help you and your mother. But if this condo can give you a fresh start in life, and if your mother agrees, why of course you can live here. As you know the mortgage is fully paid off,” Denise said.
“I researched salaries and the average starting salary for a landscape architect is high 40s, low 50s,” he said.
“Your HOA is about $1,000 a month. With utilities add another $300. Property taxes come out to about $80 a month. If you can swing $17,000 a year you can afford to live here,” Denise said.
He hugged her.
“Thank you so much. I will be super responsible and you won’t have any trouble from me. This is so exciting! My own apartment in a new city! I have an offer with Yanez Architects, in Culver City, next to the Expo Line light rail. I won’t even need a car. I date the owner’s daughter, Sophia,” he said.
Angela bunted Adam’s pitch.
“Adam is also minoring in Real Estate Development, and has taken courses in finance and land development,” she said, tag teaming his ambition, diligence and business minded strategy.
“I like what I hear,” Denise said in firm corner office voice, evincing family pride.
“I’m making some changes in my own life. I plan to leave the firm, sell my Beverly Hills condo, and explore other options. I discovered, after nearly 20 years, that I despise working as a tax attorney. Hate it. I tried to get out of it, into entrepreneurial ventures that crashed and burned,” Denise said.
“Anything else happening in your life?” Angela asked.
“Isn’t that enough? Let me treat you both to Sushi Michi,” Denise said.
On the road back to Tuscon, he drove, she slept.
He timed it, so they came across the state line at golden hour, as glorious light washed over the Sonoran Desert, the furious heat surrendering to dusk, dry wind, and the coming of night.
He exited I-10, in the red pickup, onto slower US-60, window opened, elbow resting, steering one handed, peering over the land, surveying the natural inhabitants he knew by name: cactuses saguaro, yucca, organ pipe, ocotillo, prickly pear, pin cushion, staghorn, buckhorn and rainbow.
And Joshua Tree.
He needed to grab some food before they got home.
He pulled into Buckaroos Country Store and Sandwich Shop, a false fronted western market with cold drinks and hearty portions near Brenda, Arizona.
The gravel on the tires was loud. But Angela slept.
He parked, took his wallet and keys, locked the door, and went inside.
She woke up, disoriented, looked around, and saw the store sign.
Everything from their two-day visit to Castle Green imploded in her mind: Adam, Denny, Denise, Werner, Giovanna and Tommy.
Everything was unsettled.
Only love remained: bruised, battered, resilient.
She just had a wonderful, sensual dream, fresh in her mind, lovemaking with Denny, set to soundtrack: so in love, so in love, so in love with you am I.
Long ago and far away, she had run away from Castle Green and woke up in Solana Beach with the boys from Zunk-382, Drew and Louis.
Thoughts flew past.
Adam should get a DNA test.
Denise is going to prison.
I will visit her.
I will never stop loving her.
She did everything for me and dad.
Sometimes I acted like a spoiled child, resenting and comparing.
Denny might be my new boyfriend.
Adam will live at Castle Green.
What else are you hiding, my Castle Green?
All the random things, all the men, all the myths, yesterday would never be the same.
Night fell, flood lights went on, the parking lot was orange and strange.
Adam come out with a paper bag of groceries, like her parent.
She quickly closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, laying her head along the closed window, giving him that attitude he had in Blythe when she brought him red vines and coke.
He stood outside her door, bent down and peered into the passenger window. His shadow fell over her. She kept her eyes shut, bit her lip to hold it in, but her deceit failed.
“I know you’re awake,” he shouted.
And then she opened her eyes, and they both laughed, through the glass, knowing the game.