Love and Death on Long Island (10 page)

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
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And just two days later I became the owner of not only a video recorder but a television set, my first as it happened. In fact, I had failed to grasp from Rafferty's explanation that any use of the former was contingent upon prior possession of the latter, and I had had the mortifying experience of ordering a splendid new and jet-black recorder, its panel of controls such as I imagined could not be equalled but by the dashboard of a supersonic ‘plane, and having it delivered to my home only to find the delivery boy snickering at me in disbelief because I didn't have a television set.

Eventually this too was put right, the two umbilically
linked machines were installed inside my study, on bookshelves which had to be hurriedly cleared of a complete collection of Balzac. Holding the manual in one hand, I experimented with the sample tape I had received with the recorder. Then, confident that I was as proficient at the controls as I was ever likely to become, I immediately made my way down through Hampstead Village to its sole video-rental shop, whose address had been given me by the same snickering delivery boy and in which I had not the least difficulty finding, with my greedy, picky fingers, tapes of both
Tex-Mex
and
Skid Marks
.

It wouldn't be easy to describe the excitement with which I advised my housekeeper (rather redundantly, in truth) that I did not wish to be disturbed, locked the door of my study, settled myself as comfortably as I could on a cushion that I placed on the floor (for some reason connected with plugs and sockets, the recorder and television set had been positioned on the lowest shelf of my bookcase), inserted the tape of
Tex-Mex
into the dim, dark letter-box slot, nervously prodded the appropriate button on my remote-control unit and rested my head back on the conch-whorled fist of a narrow Empire chaise-longue that stood, like a psychoanalyst's couch, close to the curtained window.

To start with, though, I forgot to switch the television set on at all; then forgot that there was, of its twelve channels, one alone designated to receive a video image and only remembered when the television programme, a witless show about sheepdog trials which surely no one could have wanted to see, ran on imperturbably, quite unaffected by the fact that the recorder was already
humming away nicely; and then forgot which of those twelve channels was the one so designated and had to proceed by trial and error from channel to channel (it turned out, as might have been predicted, to be the twelfth and last of all). Yet these mishaps only sharpened my appetite for what was to come after.

Of the two films,
Skid Marks
was the more negligible, and not merely because Ronnie's own part in it was negligible, hardly more than that of a walk-on. To my dismay, its narrative revolved yet again around a gang of motorcyclists, based in this instance in San Francisco. Of two rival gangs, I should say, whose anti-social escapades – forcing motor cars off the road, crashing headlong into a plate-glass window, causing a terraceful of diners in some harbour-side restaurant to scatter for the sake of life and limb, smashing to smithereens a huge oblong tank filled with live fish which made up one entire wall of the same restaurant, swan-diving off the end of a nearby pier straight on to the upper deck of a white and streamlined yacht moored in the marina -were portrayed in the film as though nothing were likely to impress the spectator as more delightfully larky and irrepressible.

Thankfully, Ronnie had only a small part to play in these reprehensible antics. He was cast, rather against type, as ‘Prof, the younger brother of one of the motorcyclists and, one gathered, something of a high-school swot. As a precocious scientific wizard and inventor (notably of a rickety retroactive rocket which was attached to his brother's cycle with the expected crude comic effect), he had been burdened with a pair of owlish spectacles that would repeatedly slide down the bridge
of his nose, a mop of hair that I rather longed to run my fingers through and a droll and otherwordly air of beetle-browed quixotry. Oddly enough, it was he to whom had been assigned the line of dialogue from which the film's title was punningly derived, a line whose stupendous vulgarity took my breath away even as it did make me laugh. It was delivered by the actor in the scene directly succeeding that which I mention above, when, after a series of violent twitchings and backfirings, his handcrafted rocket device had caused the cycle to which it was attached to jerk itself into the air, forward and upward at the same time, completely out of the control of its rider, who then landed, rear end up, in an enormous compost heap. Dragging himself from the mire, he discharged a volley of obscenities at the unwitting agent of his disgrace, who, alarmed at first, was now helplessly doubled up with laughter. And it was at that moment that Ronnie, drawing himself up to his full height and making an indecent gesture with the forefinger of his right hand, spat back at his brother with all the adolescent aplomb of which he was capable, ‘And you … you know what you are? You're nothin' but a skid mark on the underpants of life!'

Never in my life had I encountered this figurative use of the phrase ‘skid mark', but the image was so shockingly vivid, so instantly, hideously legible, that I threw my head back and let out a laugh such as I had not known could be in me. There was something that thrilled me about the warped sweetness of Ronnie's features as he spoke. So thrilling, too, was the utter unlikelihood, as I believed, of those lips having ever in life befouled themselves with such a scurrilous phrase that the scene
was invested for me with a perverse enchantment. I would replay it over and over in slow motion, so that every movement made by Ronnie's body would be ennobled by an ethereally glissading, ‘harp-string' effect, would be decomposed, as it were, into a sequence of now graceful, now halting and shuddering, gestural spasms, each of them broken up in its turn by an alternating sequence of static frames.

As for
Tex-Mex
, it was no masterwork, to be sure, but its tale of the mutual hostility of two gangs of youths, and their nocturnal prowlings along the borderline dividing Texas from Mexico, proved absorbing enough in its ingenuous fashion. Ronnie played a member of the American gang, the offspring of ‘white trash' drifters leading an idle, feckless existence in and out of sleazy saloon bars and the shabby caravan or ‘mobile home' site that appeared to be their only residence. Pitted against them were the sons of illegal Mexican immigrant workers who were resented (rather unreasonably, as the film itself was mindful of pointing out, in a final sequence of revolting, speechifying mawkishness) for their readiness to accept just the kind of demeaning employment that the native-born
lumpenproletariat
would in any event have repudiated as being beneath even its tatterdemalion dignity.

Such, no doubt, was the earnest and simple-minded ‘message' by which the film sought to justify its didactic pretensions, such was the message poor Ronnie so piously ‘believed in', and it was one to which I myself would have been, in any other circumstance but this, utterly indifferent. Even here, it touched me only to the degree that its articulation had been prompted by the
myriad indignities which the film's narrative heaped upon Ronnie's bruised and fragile little frame. For here, too, as I had so long ago divined would be the case, the actor had been cast – typecast, I would have said – as one of nature's victims, as one whose blood is meant for shedding, his body for gentle rape. Being the very youngest of the American gang, by whose more mature members he was treated as almost a mascot, it was he who would routinely bear the brunt of the Mexicans' aggression. And it was as well, in that closing scene, his death at their hands (by being held under the oily surface scum of a street fountain in the
louche
Mexican border town in which most of the action unfolded) that would bring about the eleventh-hour reconciliation of the two gangs, a reconciliation sanctified by the ‘uplifting' rhetoric of a virile middle-aged priest who, as it would occur to me, seemed to devote suspiciously much of his energy to the welfare of these just post-pubescent parishioners (but whose motivations in this regard had been forearmed against such prurient speculation by the otherwise unexplainable shafts of light which chanced to fall on his permanently inclined head wherever he might happen to be). Mawkish it might be, but I had to own in spite of myself that I was moved (profoundly or superficially, what did it matter?) by the film's climax. I grew slowly conscious as I watched it of a queasiness in the pit of my stomach, a salty prickling of my eyelashes, a moistening under my eyelids as of rain dripping off a pair of tiny umbrellas, until the general blurriness of my vision confirmed to my amazement, when I drew myself up to switch off the recorder, that my commitment to
the drama – more precisely, to one of its participants -had by the end become not only total but visible.

I would run and rerun these two precious tapes of mine until scarcely a heartbeat was struck that I failed to anticipate the instant before. A film viewed this many times, I discovered, however mediocre may appear its point of departure, must always end by acquiring unto itself a special type of beauty, the beauty of things that are or have come to seem
inevitable
. Each negligent and certainly unrehearsed gesture, each fortuitous element to have swum unsuspecting into the camera's ken – a face in a crowd, a fleeting, half-glimpsed landscape, some irrelevant, ‘non-signifying' message just legible in a drugstore window or on an extra's teeshirt – would by the umpteenth viewing have been branded into the film's textures, its grain, its very pores, as though all along its producer or director had determined that it had to be so and no other way, as though it were one of the cinema's vocations, and perhaps its most elevated vocation, thus to statufy spontaneity, to render the incidental indelible, to hold the random to account.

And there was another discovery I would make, one whose implications, as they penetrated, would startle me most of all. I had permitted myself, no matter the whys and wherefores, to take a close personal interest in one young American film actor. In pursuance of that interest, moreover, I had had to confine the parameters of my field of operation to what was promptly and legitimately available to a man in my position: which is to say, the actor's appearances in just three films and the journalistic
coverage of his career in a collection of magazine articles and photographs. Even so, as I realised, with only such a meagre capital of information at my command,
I now knew more about Ronnie Bostock than about any other living individual
. Naturally, I continued to retain a modicum of scepticism with regard to the youth's publicly aired character and opinions, and had even let a few stronger doubts linger on as to certain uncorroborated and not easily credible details of his personal history. Yet it was by very virtue of their wellnigh unaltered reiteration from one article to the next, together with my own proven flair for reading between lines, that I was finally persuaded of the basic trustworthiness of my intelligence in the matter.

Therefore, proceeding from the broadest of canvases, I could claim to know the boy's age, his date and place of birth (San Fernando), his place of domicile (Chesterfield – apparently an almost entirely residential township on Long Island a few miles distant from the ‘Hamptons' of such glamorous reputation), his family background and all other co-ordinates relating to his environment. I knew his height, his weight, the colour of his eyes and hair, the fact that he was very slightly myopic and that his skin tended to blister in the sun. I had studied photographs of him taken at successive stages of his physical development, from the classic snapshot of coddled infancy – of a tiny, quite unidentifiable seven-month-old baby laid out plump and naked on a patchwork coverlet and beaming at someone evidently not the photographer himself, as the infant's gaze was directed slightly to one side – to one of the very latest, of an unsmiling, humid-eyed Ronnie standing in a trellised
garden, holding a rhubarb stalk in his hand. And, between these extremes, there had been summoned up, as though solely for my own fond and credulous attention, a pictorial chronology of Ronnie's progressive maturing. His face would start to lose its puppy fat (oh but, please God, not yet altogether). The form of his features, that stayed boyishly unsculpted throughout the earliest of the photographs, later ovalled out towards the chin. The childlike puffiness of his cheeks had quite suddenly retreated inward to expose the underpinning of his bone structure as well as the two diagonal shadows, like evening shades, that would fall aslant his face. His honey-hued hair, which had once draped his forehead with ringlets and kiss-curls, was then given its head, as it were, the left side upswung, the right allowed to tumble brow-wards in a curling forelock. His body, if still slight for someone of his age, acquired a perceptible curvature of the shoulders that some of the photographs had contrived to catch unawares. His hairless torso tautened and firmed. And his legs became frosted with a fine, wispy down, even if they had yet to forfeit the slender, stalky spindliness typical of the very late stages of adolescence.

Over the years Ronnie had lost weight, regained it, lost it again, put it on again. He was, self-admittedly, ‘a pizza freak – with lots and lots of extra toppings!'. There was little that I did not now know of his taste in food, in clothes, in music, in girls, in sport, in movies and even in books (Stephen King, science-fiction and ‘rock star biographies'). I knew that he had two tiny moles on his face, that his armpits were as clean of hair as a statue's, that the flat, shiny declivities behind his knees were as
smooth as the palms of his hands, that the hair on the nape of his neck had been fetchingly shaped towards a receding point (except, in
Tex-Mex
, for a single wisp in the middle that curled down his collar like a stage Chinaman's pigtail, a style the boy, rather to my regret, had elected not to carry over into his private life). And I had watched the two films so often I knew exactly how Ronnie moved, how he would set one leg in front of the other when he walked, with what graceful turn of his body he would sit down or stand up or merely be quite motionless – for he had a lovely way all his own of just standing still.

BOOK: Love and Death on Long Island
10.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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