It is the fall of 1978, and Alan Krieger is thirty. On a bright, clear Southern California day, he is fired. Alan is thirty years old, tall and good-looking. He drives an Alfa Romeo Spider, has twenty thousand dollars in the bank and a pleasant apartment in Venice, with a view of the beach. For the last six years, he has been a lawyer with the firm of Robbins, Sloane, and McKenna in Century City. He came to the firm after graduating from Yale. It is the only position he has ever held. Six years ago, he had had aura of success around him like a luminescent cloud. Slowly that cloud began to darken, and today, Alan Krieger was fired.
In order to understand exactly why he lost his job, to find out just what went wrong, I want to look at the six times in his life when Alan was moved to shed tears. I don’t list diaper changes or falls in the crib, although perhaps that list would be more to the point.
(1) Alan discovers death at the age of seven. His parents have employed a Mexican gardener and the gardener’s son, Jesus, who is also seven, comes with his father to work one Saturday. The two boys play a game of catch and Alan refuses to give Jesus his turn with the ball.
“You are going to go to heaven and burn up,” Jesus tells Alan.
When Alan asks his father, Mr. Krieger laughs and explains that some people believe in another life, and in a heaven and hell. He says that everybody dies, that is they stop being here, and that’s all that anybody really knows. Alan is confused and that night he has a terrible dream full of fire.
The next week, in school, he hears his older sister, Melissa, and one of her friends talking about the friend’s bomb shelter. They say that everybody will be blown up and that only the ones in the shelters will survive.
That night, Alan can’t fall asleep. First he pictures a blown-up world, with he and his sister coming out of a shelter into the rubble. At the same time, he tries to imagine himself dead. He can’t, but he can imagine the death of his parents, and suddenly he is very alone and very afraid and the darkness of his room is a terrible thing in which the shadows playing off of his toys are living and evil. He calls for his mother, although his parents have gone out for the evening and the sitter is at the other end of the house watching T.V. By himself, with no one to hear him, Alan starts to cry.
(2) Alan is twelve, in the seventh grade at Emerson Junior High School in West Los Angeles. He comes home one afternoon from school with a black eye. Alan has gone to a private grammar school and this semester at Emerson is his first in the public system. Beaming with pride, he steps through the front door of his family’s house, a two-story quasi-colonial on an expensive Brentwood street. His mother takes one look at him and goes upstairs, having one of her spells. Melissa, who has just started high school, is there with her friend, Karen. The two are listening to records. They ignore him completely. Alan can’t wait for his father to get home. He is glowing.
At six, Alan’s father comes in. Alan has been waiting for him on the stairs. Father looks at son and the two go into the study. Alan tells his story. In gym class, a boy named Terry, from the eighth grade, had called him a fag. Alan was not sure what that was, but he was sure it was an insult, so he said that he wasn’t. Terry said that they could settle the question by meeting after school. Alan was terribly frightened, but he agreed, trembling all through fifth and sixth periods. He met Terry by the buses after school. Terry was surprised and, Alan noted cheerfully, scared. Terry said that he couldn’t stay; he had to take the school bus as he didn’t have any money for the public bus. Alan reached into his pocket and tossed a quarter at Terry for the bus. It was the most heroic moment of his life.
He describes to his father every detail of the fight which left Terry with a broken nose and a missing tooth. Finishing his story, he looks up, expecting to see his father beaming down at him. But his father is not smiling.
“We don’t solve anything with our fists,” his father tells him in his sternest voice. “Physical violence is for petty, ignorant people. Is that what you’re learning to be?”
Alan spends the rest of the night in his room, crying. In the morning he goes to school with his head between his knees, like a puppy that was hit for something it didn’t do. The rest of his three years of junior high school are a pitiful nightmare. Alan never feels that warm rush of pride again.
(3) By his second year of high school, Alan is terribly unpopular. He is the best student in his class, and arrogant about his intelligence. He cheats on all of his tests, although he can easily get the best grade without cheating. He is never sure if he is right, and a bad grade will send his mother upstairs with a migraine. On this particular day in March, the honors English class is filling out college applications. Alan announces to the class that he is going to become a lawyer. “They make the most money,” he explains, “and they have the most power. No one can tell them what to do.” The other students in the class start to laugh. Angrily, Alan sweeps his books and papers off his desk. He knocks over the desk itself. The class has grown completely silent. Alan looks up at them and his eyes are full of tears. Outside the window, a breeze rustles the trees and, as a cloud blows past the sun, the day is suddenly cold.
(4) In college, Alan is something of a recluse. He studies eight or nine hours a day. He is constantly reading. By the end of second quarter, he has already completed his books for the next two years. He has no close friends. His mother comes to visit him for Thanksgiving. She is an attractive woman, and Alan, who hasn’t seen her in months, notices her prettiness for the first time. He also notices for the first time the white circles of fear around her eyes. It disturbs him terribly, to know that there is anything that his mother is afraid of. It puts the world onto a different axis where none of the rules apply.
“Work hard,” she says. “Get something that no one can take away from you.”
Alan takes her to the airport. Driving back to the dorms, he has to pull over to the side of the highway. He is crying and he can’t see the road.
(5) Alan finishes his undergraduate work in less than three years and is accepted to Yale for Law School. He has grown very handsome and is increasingly aware of his good looks. He lifts weights every morning and he jogs. During his second year in New Haven, he meets a girl. Her name is Chris Dayton. She is two years older than Alan and comes from a wealthy Boston family.
Chris is Alan’s exact opposite. She is spoiled, but gently, so that it gives her a wonderful self-assurance. She has a disarmingly believable lack of interest in the future.
At Yale, Alan has come to feel more and more a part of some preconceived personal history. The Ivy League traditions have made it easy for him to see himself simply as a mechanism set in motion. At the same time, he has been increasingly aware of the shell that he has already built around himself and sadly frustrated by his inability to stop the process of thickening it. Chris to him is everything free and unregimented. In her lies his salvation. He feels an incredible need to hold her tightly; he must be constantly reassured of her love. And he is terribly afraid that his desperation will spoil everything.
They spend long weekends together in Eastrock Park or out at Sleeping Giant, and occasionally Alan misses a class. Over Easter vacation, they take the train to New York together to spend the week with Chris’s friend, Tracy. Tracy lives in the Bowery with her boyfriend, Timothy. Timothy is a poet. Tracy is studying art at the New School. They are part of a scene, a group of friends who spend endless hours in each other’s company.
Here for the first time Alan, who has spent his adolescence in a self-imposed exile, encounters his generation. Everyone talks about rock-and-roll bands and English movies. They all smoke pot. He is defenseless and uncomfortable, and he envies Chris her easiness and familiarity with the situation. He feels that she is somehow lost to him.
The third night, they have dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the Village. Everyone talks about somebody named Michael who is wanted by the FBI. After dinner they go to the Fillmore East to see Cactus, Humble Pie, and Edgar Winter’s White Trash. Chris dances with her friends and Alan stands at the edge of the sea of people, watching, with a miserable ache in his stomach. A very fat man, completely naked, starts to push his way through the crowd. Slowly, he makes his way to the stage. It is a process that seems to take forever. At last, he climbs onto the stage, taking the microphone away from Steve Marriott, the lead singer with Humble Pie.
“The word is LOVE,” he begins to shout, but before he can finish his message, two huge bikers in chains and sleeveless Levi jackets drag him off the stage. Marriott, who has been standing by the drums, smiles at Jerry Shirley, the drummer, takes back his microphone, and begins to sing.
After the concert, they start for a party in Brooklyn. About twenty people pile into two VW vans. Everyone is very excited. Michael, the friend who is wanted by the FBI, will be there.
On their way to the party, Alan looks across the crowded van at Chris. She has a half-gallon of wine up to her lips, and the red liquid is running down her mouth. There is that desperate tightening in his stomach, and he thinks of his mother, and the circles of fear around her eyes.
Michael is staying in a condemned tenement hidden on a street of burned-out apartment buildings in the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn. These streets frighten Alan as he watches them from behind the curtained windows of the van. They are alien streets where nothing works. The vans park and the partiers head for Michael’s, talking like conspirators, in proud whispers.
Michael is a big man, in his late twenties, with a thick beard and burning eyes. He has a rich, beautiful voice, and he talks slowly, all the while looking at his hands.
“Destruction is the thing,” he says. “It’s simple mathematics. Zero has more value than a negative number. Right now, the world is in a negative place.”
That night, in a sleeping bag on the floor of Tracy’s apartment, Alan and Chris have a tremendous fight. They have just made love. Sex in their relationship has always had a desperate edge, Alan’s uncertainty making their bed a battleground where he must fight to win her love. There are dark, beautiful times, moments where Alan is lost in her beauty and all his fear leaves him in a hot rush that is actually physical; but there are other times when he feels terribly far from her, as if he were a traveler in some wonderful land whose mysteries could never be explained to him, although to Chris they were not really mysteries at all but the every day pleasures of her life.
Tonight they lie for a while in a stillness that for Alan is terribly uncertain.
“I thought that Michael was an absolute asshole.”
“I think you just had a bad night. I mean, it’s all my friends, people you don’t know.”
“That doesn’t mean I don’t know an asshole when I see one.”
“Michael’s a very important person. He blew up that bank in Santa Barbara.”
“That’s just great, maybe next week he’ll put two into your father’s head.”
“What a hateful thing to say.”
“I guess I’m just a prick. I guess it’s my fault that your friends are a bunch of stoned dipshits whose idea of a good time is listening to some limp-dick radical who has to work out his frustrations blowing up banks.”
Chris doesn’t answer. In the other room, Tracy and Timothy are making love, and the noises of the springs on their bed cut sharply into the room. The shadows made by the streetlight are the same shadows that frightened a little boy all alone in his parents’ house with the baby sitter watching T.V. Alan feels a terrible sinking; he has missed something and the worst of it is that he has absolutely no idea of what it is that has passed him in the darkness.
“I guess I just don’t know how to have a good time.”
“I guess not.”
In the early morning, Alan takes a cab to Grand Central Station. The driver, a young Puerto Rican with a pockmarked face and gold teeth, looks him over in the rear-view mirror.
“You need dope? Need a girl? Need a blow job?” But Alan doesn’t hear him. His face is pressed against the cold window, and as he watches the city come to life, so automatic and unquestioning, he starts, for the fifth time in his life, to cry.
(6) Alan has graduated at the top of his class and has come home to Los Angeles to work at the firm of Robbins, Sloane and McKenna. At first, his life seems to have arrived at a smooth plain. He has an apartment in Westwood. He is doing international business law, and there is enough work to keep him busy. He joins the Century City Racquet Club and plays racquetball with the other young lawyers in his firm. He is generally thought of as a young man with a future.
But slowly, the work becomes less and less satisfying to him. He has applied himself to it with the same almost manic devotion with which he moved through school. But in school, there was always the next inevitable step. From high school to college, from college to law school, from law school to his present position. Now, although there is the opportunity for a steady, dull improvement, there is really no new goal to reach. It is as if the blueprint for his life had been suddenly rolled up and tossed in a corner. He finds that he is no longer able to disappear into his work, to hide there until the vague bite of anxiety passes. The work itself has become the anxiety. The terrible feeling of missing something, of staying home while the rest of the world goes out to a party, grows more and more unbearable. The nights are impossible. His apartment becomes a cell to him, and the huge city, with its dirty air hanging like a giant net above him, is scarcely better. Driving to work in the morning, he feels claustrophobic and the world itself seems as closed in as the smallest closet.
Increasingly, he is obsessed with the idea that he has squandered his youth. All of his hard work seems to him a cheat. He rarely sees his family; he has come to blame them for all the things he most dislikes about himself. Other people’s lives depress him. He feels again the awful envy that he felt on that Easter vacation with Chris. He is terrified by the bitterness that grows out of that envy like a virus.
He becomes determined to make up for the lost years. He wants to have fun. He throws himself into his new passion with the same methodical zeal that he had always applied to his studies and his work. He buys an Alfa convertible and rents an apartment at the beach in Venice. He joins seven of the most exclusive private dance clubs. From another lawyer at his firm he begins to buy grams of cocaine.
He spends nearly every night of the week at a different club, dancing until three or four in the morning.
Within a few months, Alan has established himself as a regular fixture in a very chic world of wealth and fashion. One night, at a club in Beverly Hills, he is photographed dancing with a famous movie star. His picture is in several of the papers, and he is mentioned in an article about the star in the National Enquirer.
“The handsome young lawyer seen with her at El Privado…”
His life begins to fly by him at an incredible pace, so that everything blends into a long and uninterrupted blur. More and more often he finds himself thinking of Chris, and he is vaguely aware of doing things in his life just for her. As he dresses for the evening, he thinks how much she would like this shirt or that pair of shoes. Chris is a successful model now, and he has followed her career through the fashion magazines. They haven’t met since their last night together in New York.
At Alan’s firm there are no specific hours, rather there is a set workload that must be completed every week. As Alan’s nights get later and later, he takes to bringing home his work; doing a lot of it on the beach in the mornings, not going into his office until the mid-afternoon. He is surprised and pleased with how easy it is for him. He is proud of the fact that he doesn’t take his job seriously. At last, he feels, he is learning to enjoy himself.
Alan has not gone to work for several days, he has slept little, and he has had a little too much to snort and drink. It is a Thursday night and he is going dancing at a club in Beverly Hills. He is supposed to see some people whom he met there last week. They are planning to dance for a while and then go off to a party. In the shower, Alan finds himself thinking of Chris and the party they went to in Brooklyn. He wonders whatever happened to the radical, Michael.
The club is crowded, and none of the people he is supposed to meet are there. He takes a seat at the corner of the bar, orders a double Wild Turkey, and takes a few sniffs from the small, bullet-shaped vial in his pocket. He looks around the room, and he is struck by the feeling that he wants to participate in every life there. He is overcome with desire and it seems to him the only thing that might help would be to drop himself from the ceiling and splatter himself into a billion pieces throughout the crowd.
He is suddenly terribly nervous. He gulps his drink and orders another, thinking to override the cocaine charge that he has just taken. Before the drink comes, he finds that he can no longer sit still. The music is too loud. the lights are confusing. He fumbles a ten-dollar bill onto the bar and starts for the door.
“This, is a little like Maunkberry’s,” a voice says somewhere near him. There is something soothingly familiar about that voice. He looks up and Chris Dayton is standing in front of him, talking to a group of extremely fashionable young men and women.
“Alan?” she says, with a surprised smile in which there is real pleasure. She takes his hand and introduces him to her friends. His nervousness has vanished. He feels that he has come to the single peak moment of his life. Like an athlete in training for a meet. His last year seems now to have been merely the warm-up for this meeting and suddenly he feels a great sense of relief. There is a reason in his life, again, and things can now make sense.
The music is loud, and there is no real chance to talk. All that Alan can do is hope that she will notice how he’s changed. He wishes that he weren’t so tired and drunk.
Alan asks Chris to dance, and the two take the floor. Both are wonderful dancers. As they move across the room, Alan feels his strength build within him. He moves with a growing confidence. Chris looks up at him and smiles.
They dance together for nearly an hour, and for all that time, Alan’ s world is a perfect place. Then it is time for Chris to leave; her friends are taking her to a party. She invites Alan along, but although he wants with all his soul to follow her, he forces himself to appear indifferent.
“I have other plans. I’ll call you at your hotel tomorrow.”
She looks at him strangely and he is filled with a sense of panic. Perhaps he has done the wrong thing. But then she takes his hand and leans over to kiss him, and he feels strong again. “I’ll wait for your call.”
The next morning, his picture is in the paper again. “Young lawyer Alan Krieger is certainly getting around these days. Seen here with model Chris Dayton…”
At the racquet club that afternoon, Alan has a drink with Nicholas Gilbert, another young lawyer from his firm. Nicholas is a sharp young man with a sinister sort of good looks and an attitude of detached amusement. He smiles knowingly at Alan. “Chris Dayton is a beautiful woman,” he says, putting down the paper. “You should have come to Warren’s party last night.”
Alan looks up sharply but doesn’t say anything.
“It’s amazing what fame can do for you,” Nicholas continues. “That guy who played Oswald on T.V. last year, supposed to be the next Jack Nicholson? I can’t remember his name, but he’s supposed to be a real wild one, fought his way to the top and all that? Well he’s not nearly as good looking as either of us, but he just walks up to Chris Dayton as soon as she comes into the party, introduces himself, and within a half an hour, they’re on their way to the airport for a weekend in Paris. It offends the sensibilities.”
Alan stands up from the table without excusing himself and rushes across the room to the telephone. He calls the Chateau Marmont, where Chris is staying. He is told by a man with a French accent so thick that it must be false that she checked out the night before. She hasn’t left any messages.
Alan goes back to his apartment. For over a week, he doesn’t leave. He sits in front of the T.V. all day, often falling asleep in the chair and spending the night there as well. He scarcely eats. He is not brooding. He is not thinking at all. Rather, it’s as if he has simply shut down, like a factory built for the manufacture of something obsolete.
Finally, after several weeks, he drives into Century City and goes to his office. At the front desk, he is told that Mr. McKenna would like to see him. Mr. McKenna is a small, neatly built man in his fifties. Everything about him is compact, efficient. There is no waste. He motions Alan to a seat.
“I certainly hate to see this happen, and to a Yale man. We rarely let one of our lawyers go. To tell you the truth, I had reservations about you from the start. You did too well in school, you worked too hard. Fellows like you have never had a good time, you always get yourselves into hot water. Enjoyment is a sense of spirit, Krieger, it’s something deep. You fellows come along with your intense expressions and your work ethic, and you’re always the ones to go off the deep end. You try too hard and it’s a hopeless battle. You’re fighting for something you’ll never really understand. I’m sorry but we’ll have to let you go.”
Alan doesn’t say anything. He stands up slowly and walks out Of Mr. McKenna’s office. He walks down the hall and into his own office. He closes the door behind him and sits down in the Eames chair that his mother gave him for his thirtieth birthday. He opens his desk drawer and picks up a few things aimlessly. A letter opener, a box of paper clips. He looks out the window at the city below him. It is a clear hot day, the first clear day in ages. He can see the ocean and the outlines of Catalina Island. He has never been to Catalina. He puts his hands up to his face and, in a room that is suddenly very quiet, he begins to cry like a baby.