Adorned with paint the color of ripe cantaloupe, my fathers house stood serenely on a Los Angeles hillside, high above Echo Park on a street named Lucretia.
At night, during his final years, we often sat on his couch and talked and watched through his living room window, as airplanes took off and landed at Los Angeles International and Burbank airports, regularly ascending from and descending into the twinkling lights of the Wilshire District. Funny, but they always looked like rising and falling stars, which is what you thought they were at first glance... stars... because from such a distance they moved so slowly that they appeared to not be moving at all. But then the realization... no, just another airplane.
The view being somewhat northwesterly, the early morning sky would begin to brighten only ever so gradually, and the porch lights from houses on adjoining hillsides would extinguish one by one, as residents awoke and prepared for the day. Most late-afternoon and evening sunsets bathed the sky, if only for an hour or so, in a soft and stunning explosion of crimson and orange and yellow cirrus that took your breath away.
In the daylight hours, the San Gabriel mountain range loomed magnificently on the northern horizon, and several miles straightaway, clearly visible even on a hazy day, the Hollywood sign and Griffith Park Observatory sat virtually side-by-side in peaceful coexistence. Only a few feet from the window, birds of prey routinely patrolled the skies, searching the terrain below for moles and gophers and lizards, glancing inside occasionally as they passed by, as if to ask, What are you guys eating?
Around ten oclock on most weekend nights, from mid-spring through late-autumn, a massive fireworks display from nearby Dodger Stadium, could be seen over the rooftops of the houses across the street; and every night, through the bedroom windows, the glimmering lights of the Los Angeles skyline dazzled b
My dad maintained a cactus garden greenhouse with a redwood chip floor, a green mesh ceiling for shade, and two chairs, down the back wooden steps leading to what would have been the backyard, if it had been a yard... which it wasnt. He had a lizard friend in the cactus greenhouse, and whenever he and I were down there watering or repotting or spreading new redwood chips, from time to time my dad would suddenly pause and say, Hey, look, and there our lizard friend would be, perched on his rock, just watching. Curious creatures they are.
I was there when my father died, in March of 2009, and for months after, actually, doing routine things, like painting and cleaning-up and pulling weeds and giving away to charity a few belongings, like empty file cabinets and the fold-up chairs my dad had stashed under the house, because you know... he kept them there for the birthday party he held for himself every year out on the patio, during the dog days of early September, when even the L.A. nights are really hot. He was big on birthdays, and you have to have a place for people to sit at a birthday party. Consequently the multitude of folding chairs. He had many friends.
When most of the work was finished, I began thinking about heading home to Tahoe, but somehow I couldnt seem to actually schedule leaving. It was like when I would come to visit him when he was alive and we would find a project or two to work on... it was still that way after he died. My dads physical being was gone, but his abiding presence held me there. He dwelled in all his remaining possessions... his books and his furniture, and in the house itself, and in the very atmosphere... therefore how could he not be there, as well? It seemed simply a matter of deductive reasoning. So we continued to hang out and do projects together, he and I, as we always had done.
It was during this time that my friend Dennis Kelley came to briefly stay. An Irish Catholic intellectual wit
h a philosophical bent to the strangely humorous, Dennis was a friend to almost every member of, not only our band, but members of The Byrds and Spirit, as well. He had come to L.A. in the mid-sixties, like thousands of others, to wander the Sunset Strip in search of his destiny, all the while honing his appetite for rock and roll music and art, before finally packing it in and joining the United States Navy.
He served his time as an Internal Communications Electrician on a repair ship, with a tour of duty in Viet Nam; I asked him one time what that was... Internal Communications Electrician, and he said, I repaired movie projectors. You know, like when everybody on the ship was all finished working for the day and they were relaxing and watching a movie after mess, if the projector broke, I fixed it.
When he got out of the Navy, Dennis settled down in Las Vegas, where he became a dealer at The Tropicana Hotel and Casino. In his later years, with his thin build, his long flowing white hair, and his neatly-trimmed beard, he became the spitting image of Johnny Winter and was often called on to try and explain to the autograph seeking fans that he wasnt actually Johnny. But because of the striking physical similarity, nobody ever seemed to really believe him. The fans knew he was Johnny Winter, so they usually just nodded with understanding and backed off, figuring he just didnt want to sign autographs, thats all. I mean, hes a dead ringer.
One morning, Dennis and I were sitting on the couch in the living room, drinking coffee and looking out the window, watching the hawk patrol and shooting the breeze, when he asked, Hey, Michael, you want to drive out and visit Arthur today?, and I said, Yeah, sure, because why not? It was a nice day and I knew Dennis hadnt been able to attend the memorial service back in August of 06. So, after a while, we jumped into my dads Toyota Rav 4 and headed over to Forest Lawn.
There was a guy at the front gate w
ho gave us brief verbal directions and a map that showed Arthurs plot (complete with a helpful numerical designation) and off we drove again... up a windy little asphalt road, past a group of loved ones standing beside the grave of somebody newly-buried, then up further until we saw a marker like a street sign that approximated Arthurs location; so we pulled over and parked and began walking.
We started out walking together, but after two or three minutes of looking, we spread out, so as to cover more territory, because Forest Lawn is a big place and there are like a zillion graves, and a big part of the problem is that instead of standing upright, like the gravestones in film or on TV, the markers bearing the peoples names lay flat, so that you have to walk right over and look down to read them. In other words, you cant read the markers from any distance at all, so we had to do a lot of walking and looking down, walking and looking down; and at first, as we walked, I tried to avoid stepping on the graves because it seemed disrespectful somehow, but it was kind of hard walking between the graves in such an exaggerated zigzag pattern, so after a while, I just walked.
Finally Dennis yelled out, Michael, its over here! and he pointed down where he stood. I nodded gratefully and made my way over and looked down again for about the hundredth time, and there it was, at last... with the LOVE logo first and largest at the top, then directly below it, Arthur Taylor Lee, the marker read. Then the dates he lived, and, Son of Agnes and Chester, and, Husband of Diane, and a few other things, and it concluded with a quote; Love One Another Because Love On Earth Must Be. Signed A. Lee, and the grave was decorated with two flower pots near the foot... pots filled with flowers a few days past their prime. I thought of Charles Laughtons wistful soliloquy to death in The Canterville Ghost: To be buried in the soft brown earth, to have no today or tomorrow, to forg
et time, and to be at peace.
We sat next to Arthur for a while, one of us on each side of his grave, making small talk. I asked him how it was going and told him what a nice spot he had, because it actually was pretty nice... up on a little knoll overlooking a quiet valley; just the kind of place anybody would want to be buried. We asked him a few, Hey Arthur, remember the time?s and had some laughs, and then, after a brief lull in the conversation, Dennis abruptly and quite suddenly blurted out, in a pseudo-confrontational tone, Hey Arthur, wheres my five hundred dollars? Because come to find out, Arthur had borrowed five bills from Dennis back in the early seventies and never paid him back; and Dennis, being an understanding friend, and the patient type, hadnt bugged him for it until this very moment. So now, he was finally mentioning it.
The funny thing is, Dennis always kept the cancelled check he wrote Arthur all those years ago, a check all properly endorsed with Arthurs childlike scrawl signature on the back. I mean, he didnt have it with him out at Forest Lawn or anything, but he showed it to me one time. Why did he keep it? He said it was because he figured Arthur might call him up after he cashed it and claim he never got the money and hit him up for it again... which is exactly what happened, of course. Why did he keep it after that? Its hard to say. I suppose because it was a visual reminder of a good story.
Anyway, Dennis was only asking for the five bills to hand Arthur a laugh, because he knew all...