During Christmastime 1980 my grandmother took me to see Popeye. I had no clue then but I had just witnessed the first Robert Altman film of my life. At that time I also had no idea the film was expected to be a smash hit, with it being Robin Williams’ first major role, plus having the flamboyant Dino De Laurentis producing this big budget movie about a very popular cartoon character set in exotic locales (the production filmed in Malta, a breathtaking archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea). It did okay, making $50 million dollars nationwide, the 16th highest grossing film of the year, but it fell well short for hopes of a grand payday on the order of Superman or, God willing, Star Wars. The picture sunk Altman. His maverick style of filmmaking that produced thirteen movies in the seventies (eight of them unqualified gems) went wayward as the other, more successful blockbusters dominated in wake of the new administration taking office and the financing for his more typical shoestring budgeted, Altmanesque films which played around with the script (a Hollywood no-no), reveled in actor’s improvisations for a good deal of material, and frequently employed multiple microphones to simulate the overlapping dialogue one hears in real life, dried up.
Popeye had all these colors, bright and vibrant, like the cartoon it had derived from, but human beings filled the frame with few special effects—though one did stick out. In a scene at the wharf, a red filter turned the picture and Bluto’s POV a candy colored rouge as he stared down Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall in a torrent of anger. Amazing to me the world could look that way to a human being and later I told my dad that was my favorite part of the movie.
My cousin from Denver visited that Christmas and she went along with my grandmother and I. Afterwards we all went to McDonald’s. We sat in the red and yellow swiveling seats, our legs swinging around, our fingers holding the worst, wretched food known to man. But then it tasted like freedom—freedom from home cooking. From here we went home to the mounds of toys and other presents, being the week after the holiday, and all the play I could want to tide me over at least until the middle of a Milwaukee January when the same Star Wars figures, ships and sets would continue to only revolve the same way while the piles of snow outside were much more vast and entertaining. I would pray for the snow to continue, for many feet of it to fall during the long nights so school would be canceled and I could be home, but not in the home—playing outside, away from a crying mother and traces of a father intent on biding his time in the basement, in a world of tools, wood, metallurgy and all things male. In those days it was hard to tell who it was he saw suffused in red—my mother, me, or his own powerful left hand. One night, a few days after seeing the film, I tiptoed into the upstairs bedroom (my parents slept separate from my earliest memories) and pulled the covers halfway back off his snoring body. I had a flashlight and I examined his forearms nestled tight to his chest in sleep. Being winter they were always covered and I needed to know if they were shaped like Popeye’s, bulky and tumescent. They weren’t. They were the forearms of a regular man, someone trying to get in touch with their feelings but severely blocked by ignorance, expectations, covetousness and pride—a person I’d one day become.
Twenty-four years later I sat on the decrepit floor of a cheap apartment in Eugene, Oregon, a thermarest keeping me off its grim and vague smell of feces, as I watched Robert Altman’s Gosford Park with my friend Collin. Not too long before we started the video he had put me in a chokehold after I told him I saw his girlfriend walking in Hendricks Park the day before with Rex Slaton, a firefighter displayed partially nude in the September of a calendar containing the hottest firefighters on the West Coast. Collin cut off my air for a moment until I slammed the back of my boot into his shin to get his attention—hopefully redirecting him to realize I was the messenger and not Rex. He released me. Complaining for weeks something was up with Sasha and he’d had a few beers in him? What did I expect? My friend, the thug.
Collin—a broad man with a healthy dose of Norwegian blood. He’d sit in front of his bedroom mirror flexing his right biceps so a fat vein would pop out in conjunction with the hefty muscle. Oftentimes, due to some endocrine issue, he smelled like a shovel and showered three times a day, sometimes four.
Collin stood over the sink, crushed. He viciously kicked in the tin metal doors underneath until they broke off and the neighbors downstairs, a couple in their late ‘30’s started screaming at him that this was a working neighborhood they all lived in and begged civilized behavior. “Fuck you, cows!” Collin yelled and I couldn’t arrest a chuckle as they both were on the large side.
He wanted all the details, but before I would tell I made him promise to wait at least till morning before acting. Earlier that day Sasha had left to visit her parents in Corvallis (something I considered very carefully before telling him at all) and Rex was probably on a long shift at the fire station, so I didn’t think he would make waves just yet. Most every conversation with Collin was like this—a chess game—thinking ahead ten moves so as to survive. The details I watered down to the forbidden pair walking in the gardens, examining flowers and then Sasha going for a swing by herself while Rex spoke on a cell phone nearby. Then they left. In reality they both took turns pushing each other in the swings, swinging in unison, and ravenously kissed and groped in the gardens.
Before taking a cold shower, Collin punched a hole into the hallway’s cheap brown paneling. I had worked off and on at mental health crisis shelters and one of the first questions asked of a new client during their intake was Have you caused any recent property damage? I wondered how Collin would answer this if the next morning he went into such a residence. Knowing him he might grab a nearby lamp, smash it on the ground and say, “Does that answer your question?”
Collin wasn’t always like this. He wrote a charming thesis on the Mayan Civilization, concentrating on their rituals of sacrifice such as invocations to the rain god Chaac in times of drought. He’d been down to Mexico twice and visited the famous ruin Chichén Itzá in Yucatán. He saw the legendary ‘Cenote (natural sink-hole) of sacrifice’ where some tour guides reported virgins were regularly cast, though there is no evidence for this. Collin even fell in love there, until a mustached man with a switchblade sliced his face within a quarter inch of his eyeball as a warning and, scared shitless, he ran back to the border. Perhaps that was the beginning of this incredible rash of violence in him—inciting a vicarious revenge to the nth degree on all those who had ever wronged him, exemplified by this maestro of the knife. He took all these kung fu, karate, and Brazilian jujitsu classes though his form was completely unrefined and he ended up attacking two teachers who told him so but they promptly set him to the ground on each occasion.
Most of this happened over the years I traveled in Europe. I had returned a year before. Oakland was doing me wrong. Cathy, my woman there, didn’t like me dancing with my now platonic ex-girlfriends. And I didn’t like it when she complained about me or left milk on the counter overnight, a long way from the refrigerator. We’d been through these wars before. I needed to be free and also hold her ass while plunging in for what I took to be love. In the end I’d come out the other end like a rewired car, only to again get testy on extended drives. Collin invited me to live with him while picking up landscaping and painting jobs. He had a small apartment. There may have been other places to crash but Chance brought me to him. The kind of Chance that says for doing dishes and taking out the garbage you can stay for free.
Sasha lived on the other side of town. She often smelled of a gauche perfume someone double her age would wear—probably some Elizabeth Taylor concoction called Husky Busky. Her loud and querulous voice compensated for her small stature. Also she liked to take loads of pictures with her cell phone, shooting a series of Collin and me preening when I first arrived. I stood there with a dumpy smile, sweat-drenched after negotiating four hours of the curvaceous I-5 from the border without a break, emitting my own rank scent even after a dunk in Lake Shasta midway through the first half of the journey. Are there farms in Oakland? was among her first questions.
That night we all went out. In celebration Collin drank ten pints of beer to my three and called Sasha ‘the best bitch on the planet.’ She had gone to the bathroom at this time. When he went she asked, “So you’ve known the big boy for ten years now mmm?”
“Yep, we go way back.”
Her blue eyes twinkled. “You don’t know him now though.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean how he is now. You have no idea. Welcome to the fire, Brandon,” and she snapped her gum.
I chuckled and sipped a Sierra Nevada.
“You’re a choir boy compared to him, I can see it.”
“Collin is fine. Did you ever read that paper he wrote on the Mayans? The compassion there. The even temperament. I tell you.”
“Ancient history, Brandon. You know about Mexico. He only gets uglier everyday. Uglier in thought.” She ran her fingers through her brown curly hair and grinned, “He has to. To keep up with me.”
She was right and they liked it that way. Blood curdling fights followed by one ignoring the other until the ignorer broke down but by that time the other started their own cold spell, then days of frenetic sex—alternating between tender, soft encounters and dizzying, thumping bouts of fucknation, then back to fighting again and no sex whatsoever.
Sasha was not to be trusted. During one of their silences I saw her at a party and she brushed her puffy ass against me twice, a fact that could well have sent Collin into a rampaging, manic episode of unlimited destruction if he ever found out. The sooner Sasha left the picture, the sooner I could breath easy and not be implicated in any of her fictions.
Walking around the city I had to staunch a laugh. It was as if in coming to Eugene I’d gone to limbo and instead of a film or literary version, I was given a theatrical reenactment of the frenzies and doldrums in my own hot/cold relationship currently playing in Oakland. Maybe love was like a faucet Lady Day, just going on and off, but did I really have to be reminded rampant communication breakdowns between couples had spread so savagely, faster than bubonic plague? I tried to time it so whenever Collin and Sasha were together at the house either fucking or fighting I was away. I might drop in on an old girlfriend and use her couch for a few nights, but Collin’s shack was my home base, however wild and unpredictable.
After his second shower since I broke the bad news, Collin strode into the living room, his feet throwing water over the splintering wood. Skin goose-pimpled, a yellow towel tied at his waist, he looked down at me on the thermarest and said, “Now what?”
“Robert Altman,” I replied.
“Gosford Park. It’s a distraction. Just what you need. You and I will be transported to 1930’s Britain. I missed it when I was in Europe. I couldn’t see it dubbed.” I loaded the tape in.
“1930’s Britain sounds boring, Brandon. And I don’t know directors by name. Robert Altman means nothing to me. I only know Hitchcock,” he said pouring out a pint of vodka.
“I have an idea.”
I left and shortly returned from the video store with Popeye. Collin and his towel sat dejected in the kitchen’s one wooden chair.
“What?” he squeaked. “I saw that when I was a kid.”
“You’ll love it. It’ll get whatever’s in you out. And, it’s an Altman too.”
He made a fist. “Stop it with that Altman crap.”
We watched about fifteen minutes. When the song ‘I Yam What I Yam’ came on he calmly ejected it and loaded Gosford Park. He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. I need some reality, some sanity. I’ve got that Popeye shit running twenty-four hours a day in my head.”
Over the course of the next days the question I carried with me, in all seriousness, became ‘Who discovered the color red?’ But my question, perhaps, was nothing more than a red herring. Nobody discovered red. It just was. From the first humans on we always saw colors in our midst.
Some define color as a perception of the frequency of light, some as the visual effect caused by the spectral composition of the light emitted, transmitted, or refracted by objects. And these definitions go on, getting more and more intellectualized. Goethe put his own spin on chromatics. He wrote of red that it evoked a festive mood and was suggestive of imagination. Tibetan Buddhist monks wear a plush maroon garment (they call it a zen) to attract the eyes of followers and in some cases to open those followers’ hearts enough to give money. For them red is the sacred color of one of the five Buddhas. It also transforms the delusion of attachment into the wisdom of discernment. In a money-saving test, caged chickens wearing red-tinted contact lenses ate less, produced more and didn’t peck at or fight as much as regular clear-eyed ones. I don’t think Bluto, my father at times, or Collin, as he drove to Rex’s firehouse in the morning, would appreciate me suggesting they take up this conundrum of a color permanently into their eyes. Maybe red transferring attachment to discernment was right on because after incredible droves of anger shot through all of us—the ‘I’m seeing red’ syndrome—we could move to another station in life (shed skin like the cold-blooded snake) and go on our way to some lighter, more forgiving state of being.
Maybe I should have asked, ‘Since human blood is not destined to change color anytime soon, how will it never not be linked with our mortality which we fight for and against everyday? In their scrap, Collin and Rex Slaton each lost a specific amount of this blood. The other firefighters jumped to intervene, but Rex stopped them. The fistfight continued until Collin tackled him and they rolled on the floor. Collin sat over Rex and pummeled his stomach with lefts and rights. Wheezing and snorting, Collin tried to stand but couldn’t, sprawling on the ground next to Rex. Each man huddled by themselves talking to their wounds. Collin rose first and kicked at Rex’s shoe. When Rex looked up he spit in his face. Collin twisted his head and staggered away mumbling, “I win.”
At the apartment the next day Sasha and Collin again entered the throes of programmed ecstasy. At what seemed like strict five-minute intervals, SuperSasha erupted in a bluesy Nina Simone voice, Fuck, I’m coming.
It was then I decided I had had enough drama. When more truthfully it could have been said I had had enough of my own push and pull relationships and to be so privy to every breath and gesture of another couples’ reminded me too much of how I dreaded my own. Before I said Sasha was not to be trusted. There of course are mirrors in apartments and in the bathroom while dropping my contact lenses in before departing, I stared back at myself. I refused to judge if the moaning couple were happy and only concerned myself with what the mirror held. How happy was he? He certainly was delighted when his needs were met. But what was he doing with Cathy? And what was she doing with him? That Collin won a fistfight made no difference and I grabbed at the sink, stunned that I’d almost left without the lessons Sasha and he yielded. Pride, covetousness—I was all men and they were me. I’d looked at red for a few days now and quietly in a small corner of my mind I saw how my definition of a liar fit myself much better than Sasha.
I quietly packed my things, left Collin a brief thank you note and drove off in my beater, my Volvo. I headed directly down 13th and then onto Franklin Boulevard to enter I-5 south. San Francisco the next stop. The next morning, Saturday, I’d be gunning the gas in view of the bright red girders and stanchions of the Golden Gate Bridge since I needed to drop some things off with a friend in the city before refilling my car with the necessities and objects that still meant something to me. My European diary, a picture of my best friend Alex kissing my cheek in jest one afternoon on Stinson Beach, two glassy, jagged pieces of obsidian from hiking in the Cascades.
Cathy would be home listening to Car Talk. How does one begin these things? Wouldn’t the wave I’d ridden to our doorstep have crested long ago? I could see it in film clips with no header, no countdown; actually, no spool. My findings would trickle out of me in the patented, derelict lexicon we relied on whenever we wandered into hatred. Could it support something as devastating as this? Inevitable, no, but in the beginning, change is always sloppy.
I thought I’d pick up my stuff before something happened to it.
Why would something happen to it?
You know what they used to call Vietnam and are now calling Iraq?
A no-win situation.
I think what we have here is a no-win situation. But I’ve brought a parting gift. Something to brighten your days. Then I’d pull out the videocassette. Olive Oil in her fire engine red pullover on the cover. You know how much I like Altman.