by Joseph Scott Kierland


Three in the morning in the Hollywood Hills feels like five in the morning anywhere else. The coyotes and the owls have crossed the northern boundaries and strayed down under the big HOLLYWOOD sign that glistens in the moonlight at the top of Beachwood Canyon. Field mice, possom, snakes, and house cats become fair game for the wild intruders that prowl the canyons for a quick kill and a quiet meal with the family.

I nursed my bourbon, waited for the big owl to land on the roof, and listened to the ice tumble in Nicky's glass as he downed his third quick scotch. He had come out from New York to record some background jazz for a
new Spielberg film-- but it wasn't going very well. Spielberg was trying to
do a serious film about Blacks, but the jazz didn't fit and Nicky seemed
even more out of place than usual. He was a true New Yorker. One of those
who was born and bred and remained for better or for worse. Hollywood was
just the suburbs to Nicky.

We had managed to avoid the 'family subject' until he had opened one of my dusty liquor bottles and eased into some hard comments about his ex-wife and three kids. I was Nicky's only brother and knew him longer than anyone else, but I had always been as confused about his ex-wife and kids as he was. In fact, it was because I knew Nicky so well that I had decided to stop being his brother. It was the best thing I could have done for the both of us. I remained his friend but definitely avoided being any kind of a relative. Being Nicky's brother had become much too dangerous.

"I can't begin t' tell you how much money she's cost me," Nicky said, in that raspy voice that always had a restrained edge of aggression in it. He assumed I knew who "she" was, and I did. "An my goddamn kids-- they
don't know what they want-- and they wouldn't know how t'get it even if they
did know," he snapped, and looked up at me with an intense stare that
always appeared after his second scotch. I knew what he was thinking but I
refused to say anything. His kids were having a difficult time adjusting to
what we laughingly called, "the dear, dear, modern world" and he and his
ex-wife's constant tongue-lashing and bare-knuckled brawls hadn't helped the
matter very much. I could see the defeat and confusion in his eyes and my mind
raced through its convuluted back roads looking for a way to avoid the
'family subject' but it was too late.

"Your kid--", he said, almost accusingly, "she's doing all right, isn't she?"

"Yea-- she's certainly way ahead of me at her age," I mumbled, and hoped the subject would pass.

"I always liked her," he smiled, and took another belt of the scotch. "What's she up to these days?"

I knew that he knew "what she was up to" but I just shrugged and said, "She's working for some movie producer."

And then, as if he didn't hear me, he said, "I don't know where my daughter is-- she won't even give me her fucking phone number."

"That right--?", I said, in a faked surprise because I had sworn not to tell him that his daughter was secretly staying with my daughter and that she was definitely avoiding him. These family matters could get very sticky.

"Yea-- I don't know what the hell she's doing," he mumbled as he took another gulp of the scotch, and I could feel it coming as soon as he lowered the glass. "We never went through this shit!", he muttered angrily.

The "we" was a definite reference to a time long gone when I was still Nicky's brother and we were growing up and sharing an odd-shaped bend in the hallway of a Bronx railroad flat that still hung on our lives like some cursed jewel.

"It was tough-- but we got through it, didn't we?"

I had heard this question, that Nicky never wanted answered, many times before. The question would always lead to the usual anecdotes about the cramped apartment and exaggerated incidents that had lost all their meaning a long time ago. I waited for one of these Bronx tales to begin but his dark eyes were deeper and sadder than I had ever seen them and he slumped over his scotch like a beaten fighter. But then he did something that he'd never done before. He looked straight at me and actually waited for an answer to his question. It was absolutely terrifying.

"No--", I said softly to him, "I don't think we ever really did get through all those years in the Bronx, Nicky. We only thought we did-- but we never quite made it. Graduating from movie matinees at the Loew's Paradise to Saturday afternoon concerts at Carnegie Hall to working in Hollywood is kind of a progression-- but we dragged a lotta shit with us."

To my surprise, he just smiled and nodded as if it'd been the answer he had expected all along. I heard a scraping sound on the roof and I knew that the owl had taken off to catch a silent dinner somewhere below us on the hill.

"I always think of the Bronx as the good years, but you don't, do you?", he asked quietly.

"My memories of the Bronx aren't exactly good ones--", I answered, almost in a whisper.

"What do you remember--?"

I avoided his eyes, and said, "I remember the old man charging down that long hallway, half asleep and half naked, coming to beat the shit out of me-- and probably to give you a few licks too."

Nicky didn't move for a long agonizing moment and when he finally did he just nodded and took another long sip of the scotch. "Yea-- I remember that too,", he admitted softly. "The old man had one helluva temper, didn't he?"

"He had more than just a temper-- he was one frustrated sonofabitch, and he beat us just for being what we were-- kids."

Nicky stared back at me, but didn't say a word. He hardly even breathed when he finally said, "But we grew up."

"Yea--," I answered. "We grew up and he died-- but he didn't leave. He's one of those ghosts that doesn"t go anywhere. He insists on hanging around for the whole trip so I have to fight off the Sonofabitch just to get out of bed every morning."

Nicky smiled and nodded, waiting for the inevitable, and when I heard the owl land on the roof again, I said, "The only real difference is that I live with it--"

"And I don't."

"You side step it."

Nicky poured some more scotch into his glass and we watched the family ghosts dance around us in the eerie silence. "You never liked him very much, did you--?", he suddenly snapped at me.

The "him" he was referring to was always the old man and my lingering ghost. "No--", I answered, and purposely left the subject hang there.

"They had it tough-- a lot tougher than we did."

"They" included our long-suffering Irish mother. "Maybe--", I answered slowly and evenly, "but having it tough is never any reason to take it out on your kids. Kids don't know the difference and they don't come with those kinds of demands. If you eat your kids, then they'll probably eat their kids-- and it can go on like that meal after meal, and generation after generation."

He didn't say anything for a long uneasy moment, and then he growled, "And that's what I did-- I ate my kids--!"

It wasn't a question that he had asked, it was more a statement of fact, so I didn't answer him. We just sat there and listened to the mocking hoot from the owl on the roof, and the distant yapping of a coyote.

"How did you get around it?"

"Around what--?"

"Not eating your kid."

"I don't know--", I shrugged. "It isn't easy keeping your neuroses away from your kid. The hard part is just admitting there's something wrong with you."

"But they end up being just like us anyway."

"Yea-- but I tried to keep that to a minimum."

I finished my melted ice bourbon and wondered why we had both avoided this subject for most of our lives. The coyote yelped again and the sound was much closer. Nicky looked up in surprise, and asked, "What the hell was that--?"

"It's just a coyote."

"You're kidding--", he said, and got up quickly and went to the window.

"I doubt if you'll be able to see him in the dark but whole families of them come in to hunt every night."

I watched as the true New Yorker stood at the window and tried to catch a glimpse of the coyote in the darkness. "They don't eat their kids, do they?", he asked.

"No-- they don't--", I answered hesitantly.

"I didn't think they did," he said.

At that moment, when he was still looking for the coyote, I wanted to tell him why I wasn't his brother anymore and that I knew how much he wanted to hurt me-- but I never said a word. The night just passed in a silent, soundless, brotherly divorce. No lawyers, no courts, no visiting rights, no tears. It was the last time I ever saw Nicky. He flew back to New York the very next day-- and I stayed out in Hollywood with the owls and the coyotes.