Bury Their Hearts in Topanga Canyon
Imagine: H.G. Wells is friends with Jack the Ripper but, after suspecting him of the horrific murders that have been terrorizing London, ends up stalking him through the steep streets of San Francisco. A somewhat fantastical notion, but not necessarily beyond the realm of possibility . . . except that the year is 1979, and Dr. Leslie John Stephenson (aka Jack the Ripper) has stolen the time machine recently completed by Wells in order to flee Scotland Yard. Wells, meanwhile is hot on his heels; he is a deeply moral man, compelled to follow his former friend through time and space in order to bring him to justice. The two Victorians compete in a contest of wills, leading to a surprising climax that is almost impossible to predict.
This is the premise of Karl Alexander’s 1979 bestselling novel Time After Time, which was adapted that same year into what became a classic cult film starring Malcolm McDowell, Mary Steenburgen, and David Warner. Alexander, though a writer, is no stranger to the world of film. Born and raised in Los Angeles, he is the son and nephew of screenwriters—his father, William Tunberg, wrote the screenplay for Old Yeller, and his uncle, Karl Tunberg, wrote the screenplay for Ben-Hur—and has worked on a number of films himself. Hollywood, in more ways than one, is in his blood.
But while his father wrote of a pastoral and “grounded” world, it would seem that, throughout his own career as a novelist and screenwriter, Alexander has been captivated by much more fantastical ideas—specifically, time travel, both literal and figurative. In his novel Papa and Fidel, for instance, Alexander imagines a friendship between two (in)famous figures: Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. Castro’s career is about to begin, Hemingway’s is in its twilight. It is no simple task to create a world in which two almost mythic men discuss everything from fishing and baseball to art and revolution, but Alexander does so successfully.
The meeting of both reviled and beloved historical figures is a conceit many writers have wondered, if not toyed with, and Alexander’s devotion to it computes. As the writer Ben Taylor has said, “Writers don’t have interests, in the usual sense of the word; they have obsessions.” For Faulkner, for example, it was the post-Reconstruction Southerner; for Roth it’s been Newark and the Jewish-American experience. This is what writers do: find their obsession, dig in their heels, and explore it for the rest of their writing lives. What keeps us, the readers, involved is the ability of these writers to take the obsessions and, through some alchemical process, transform them into something new and fresh—into art and entertainment.
Alexander has always created his art by blending historical fact with fiction, in order to reveal to us the some aspect of contemporary life. His obsession is his own peculiar take on history: not necessarily what was but what could be. In this essay, he returns to that theme, though rather than excavate the past of an historical figure, he fixes his attention on those he may know best: his parents and himself.
The folks don’t leave instructions. Nope. There’s no will, no family plot, nothing passed on except a few heirlooms, a box of old photographs, sixty grand in credit card debt, and a house in Vista worth considerably less than its three mortgages. It’s January, 1992, and they’ve left us hanging. We don’t know what to do with them, but, Jesus, we can’t just toss them out now, can we?
So they end up in my garage.
My father, Pop, comes in 1988 because Mom thinks I should have him. He’s facing eternity in a beautiful hardwood box complete with old-fashioned lock and key, crafted by my brother, Bill, an accomplished artist. I don’t ask Bill why Pop’s ashes are locked up—I’m guessing it’s retaliation for our concentration-camp childhood. When he gives me the key with great ceremony then busts up laughing, he confirms my suspicions, and I shrug thoughtfully and laugh with him. If nothing else, my brother survived them with a sense of humor. If nothing else, the folks gave us plenty to laugh about.
Sometimes when I’m in the garage looking for a hammer or a trowel, I’ll see the little box and dust off Pop’s name. Sometimes, I’m tempted to unlock it and free his spirit—if it’s not already gone—except I’m living in the small, spiritually-eclectic community of Malibou Lake nestled in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California, and I doubt Pop would get along with the neighbors. They’re almost as eccentric as he was.
Three years after Pop’s internment on a shelf between spray cans of Black Flag, WD-40, and a half-gallon of Roundup, Mom joins him, only she’s in a cardboard box like the kind you get at Nordstrom’s, her box graced by a gray velvet sack. Before her passing, she tells Bill and I that we should get all our ex-wives and children together, go out in the boat and sprinkle Pop’s ashes on the lake. It never occurs to her that we’d need a flotilla of boats and that none of our ex-wives and children were particularly fond of Pop to begin with. Regardless, Mom is enthused by the idea—wouldn’t it be great to see everybody again?—until I remind her that Pop hated water.
Aside from her lake idea, Mom has no idea what to do with Pop’s ashes just as she hasn’t a clue what to do with herself. I’m astonished that as self-absorbed as my parents were, they didn’t seem particularly concerned about their remains. When we were kids and the subject of death came up, Pop would invariably blow it off by sing-songing the little “worms crawl in, worms crawl out” ditty. Then again, who knows? Maybe the folks thought they’d live forever.
The summer my mom dies, my stepdaughter, Damien, comes home from college, bringing along her fiancée, Paul, and the first thing she does is take him out to the garage and introduce him to her step-grandparents, Jackie and Pop. If he’s horrified, to his credit he says nothing. I’m ready to tell him that if it were my choice, I’d have them in the living room with the spectacular view of the lake and Sugar Loaf Mountain, the same view that’s the actual logo on all the Paramount films, though I don’t think Pop ever wrote a movie for Paramount. But it’s not my choice. Kateri, my current wife, says she can’t sleep with dead people in the house—she doesn’t care who they are—and besides, my parents lived in so many different places, she’s sure they’re right at home in the garage. More importantly, what am I going to do with them?
Once a week or so I call my brother, but he doesn’t know what to do with them, either. Actually, I’m getting used to having them in the garage. I can talk to them and not have to endure a political diatribe in response to something as non-political as, say, the weather. No doubt, this is the first time they’ve ever visited anywhere without insulting someone’s sensibilities or causing trouble. They’re pretty quiet, too, although they do trigger more than a few painful memories. Yes, yes, I know I have to move them on. I am, after all, the executor of their non-estate, and lately I’ve heard Kateri muttering, “Me or them, Karl, me or them.” It’s just that nobody appreciates the irony: no matter where the folks eventually go or get disbursed, they’ll haunt Billy and me forever.
“Hi, Mom, hi, Pop,” I say, getting the lawnmower out of the garage so Paul and I can do the yard. “Nice day, today, huh?” Paul smiles graciously, and I think, You have no idea, son, none whatsoever. You should thank your lucky stars you’re marrying into Kateri’s family and not mine.
In the summer of 1939, the folks meet standing in line at the Hollywood post office. Pop is a reader at 20th Century Fox, writing short stories on the side, trying to follow in the footsteps of his younger brother, already a published novelist and working screenwriter. Mom is a junior at UC Berkeley, a starry-eyed English major. She writes poetry, has visions of someday becoming a lyricist for Broadway musicals, maybe even a famous playwright. Alas, love at first sight has a habit of derailing dreams, especially when it gets physical, for about the time Hitler’s armies are marching into Poland, my brother, Billy, is on the way, making an invasion of his own. Mom never sees her senior year.
My parents run off to Yuma, Arizona, and get married. Horrified, Mom’s family protests, but the lovebirds stand their ground, resisting heat for an annulment. They “settle down” in West L.A., renting the first of twenty-eight different places they’ll call home, the car being one of them. But Pop is eager, inspired now. He writes war stories and suddenly is selling them to Liberty, Collier’s, and Saturday Evening Post, yet happily for him, the closest he comes to WWII is a fatherhood exemption from the draft. With unbridled optimism and money in the bank, he buys a new car, quits his day job, never looks back. Would had his car had a rearview mirror.
For the next forty-eight years, Pop struggles as a writer. If his career were graphed on a screen, you’d see it inch slowly along, spike a half-dozen times like an irregular heartbeat, then flatline. Why does he keep doing it? It’s certainly not for the money, though wealth and fame are undoubtedly part of the dream. As the years pass, writing for him becomes an addiction. Like the cigarettes he smokes, he has to write, and if he doesn’t sell the screenplay de jour, he sits down and writes two more, figuring he’ll get his fix tomorrow or the day after. Yes, those spikes do indeed come, but twenty years into the picture, he’s up to four packs a day and no longer enjoys the cigarettes with his morning coffee. Likewise, the typewriter has become a monkey on his back—he has to write just to maintain, to keep his dream up and running.
Twenty years into that same picture—amidst those glorious spikes—Mom goes back to school, earns the B.A. she gave up for Pop, then an M.A. and a Ph.D. for good measure. When she gets a full-time teaching job at San Diego State, the folks move to San Diego, but Pop complains that he’s too far away from Hollywood, so they move back to L.A. Mom commutes. Though Pop remains the “professional writer” in the family, Mom tries her hand at writing plays and volunteers for anything, anywhere that smacks of a theatrical production. She also picks up a political consciousness—the ’60s are upon us—but like everything in her life, she takes it to the extreme, going from nonpartisan spiritual dilettante to liberal Democrat to fist-waving leftist radical in less than a decade. Then she, too, gets hooked on writing. Only for her, writing must have a political agenda or it’s no better than the crappy shows on TV—those very same crappy shows that Pop writes for. Yes, they toss him bones from time to time, but it’s never enough, and as we march into the ’70s, Mom has become the breadwinner, wearing jeans and a blue work shirt instead of pants or power suit.
By 1988, Mom is a white-haired, little old Marxist-Leninist who will do anything to get her latest play produced—a musical period piece about black people enslaved by the Sears Roebuck and Co. Catalogue. She’s been an English professor at San Diego State for twenty-two years now, rising through the ranks despite her outspoken politics, but these days she doesn’t have much time for teaching. The Inner City Cultural Center has granted her a vanity production of Catalogue, but since the venue is a dilapidated second-floor walkup between Hollywood and South Central, she spends six hours a day on Interstate 5, her ’66 Alfa Romeo on its third engine, stuttering toward 500,000 miles and the Guinness Book of Records.
Pop is a Marxist-Leninist because Mom says he is. He’s in charge of coffee and soft drinks for the Catalogue rehearsals, a far cry from his salad days as an amateur boxer, jazz musician, and a budding writer at the studios who used to drink with Dalton Trumbo and William Faulkner. In the early ’50s, he had a brief run with the Hollywood big dogs, earned an Academy Award nomination for Garden of Evil, and then wrote Old Yeller before free-falling into the swamp of episodic television. For much of his life, he’d lived in the shadow of his younger brother, Karl Tunberg, now the credit-rich screenwriter of Ben-Hur. Compared to Uncle Karl, Pop’s moments in the sun were few and far between, and he resented it. How he lived for so long on anger and envy, I’ll never know.
His last TV assignment was in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. After that he wrote novels in the back bedroom, composing on yellow paper, then typing draft after draft on his veteran Olympia portable using more yellow paper. Yellow? I dunno why. Maybe they used yellow at the studios. He used to criticize me for using white paper and pen, as if that would keep me from following lockstep in his footsteps, as if that meant I was abandoning him. A computer? He never considers one. What the hell would he do with his pencils and yellow paper? Or his electric pencil sharpener? What if Ping or Pong—his cats named after Mao Tse-tung’s Ping-Pong diplomacy—get into all those cords and shit? They could get electrocuted or something. Pop worries too much as it is. He worries more than he works, more than he does anything. And I remember him working. In bathrobe and slippers, resembling “Whistler’s Mother,” he sits in a faded green recliner staring at his dog-eared clipboard, inventing bad cops and good criminals, the former usually white, the latter, black, brown, or Muslim. He painstakingly crafts sentences in longhand that die as he types them, that make funeral corteges to L.A. and New York in manuscript boxes that come back in those same boxes and get buried without ceremony on dusty closet shelves with rejection letters from agents.
Six months after turning eighty-three, Pop himself dies ignominiously from cancer of the pancreas, then the prostate, then the liver, then everything, rogue cells metastasizing through his insides like Genghis Khan trashing Asia. I remember him in diapers—as he no doubt remembered me—only he’s curled up on the threadbare living room sofa, crying for morphine instead of mother’s milk. His writing addiction used to ease his pain, hope being one of his strongest suits, but now he needs something stronger. His last book—like his life—is not enough and remains unfinished.
We move him to the bedroom for those final hours. I remember his stick-like, shrunken form, lost in blue-print pajamas, light as a leaf on the bed. I remember his ancient white-stubbled face, blue eyes seeing nothing, seeing everything too late. I remember his musician’s hands clawing preternaturally at the air as he struggles to breathe. I think of pterodactyls. Is he trying to fly? I take one hand—oh, to hold my father’s hand—but he pulls it loose and resumes his work, work always coming first with Pop, work at the expense of everything. I imagine his soul gaining altitude, maybe even seeing the forest through the trees over smogged-in Southern California.
The struggle stops. Finally. William A. Tunberg, born April 12, 1905. C’est la mort. Haunted by bittersweet memories and dreams of what might have been, he mercifully dies, October 4, 1988. I kiss his cold hand, hold it to my face. Goodbye, Pop, I love you. Pong, the big orange tom, jumps on the windowsill outside and meows plaintively. Good-bye, Pop, we love you.
The Coroner’s people arrive the same time as the oxygen man shows up with the oxygen that’s about four years too late. They zip him in a body bag and take him away—just like they did with the boys in Nam. Yet he fought in that war, too, reluctance the better part of his valor. For better or worse, he was on the other side, drafted into the anti-war movement by Mom, then schooled in the rhetoric by Susan, his hip, radicalized daughter-in-law. She gave the folks solidarity and counterculture, dismissing Pop’s elusive dream of renewed Hollywood success with stoned, bemused witticisms. Either you’re part of the problem or part of the solution, man. Pop never has a chance to decide for himself. He doesn’t get to claim the fatherhood exemption that worked once before. Sorry, Charlie, the movement’s taking everybody, no deferments allowed. He never has a chance to secretly relish looking like a Hollywood writer, either. They criticize his ’66 XKE convertible with wire wheels, his ’50s sports jackets, his speeding tickets. According to Mom and Susan, success in Tinseltown makes you a “capitalist pig”—complicit in carpet bombing and napalm runs, not to mention police brutality in the south. They don’t see that Pop is losing control. They don’t realize he’s writing out of desperation. Ironically, he resembles the boxer he once was—only now he’s deep into the late rounds. He’s out on his feet with no idea where he is or who he’s fighting, yet he goes on swinging and punching. Except Pop doesn’t do it for three or four rounds. He does it for twenty years.
Back in ’68, Mom and Susan never do get him to demonstrate against the war. He flat out refuses and turns a deaf ear to their abuse, surprising them. It must be fear, I think. He’s terrified—not just that somebody he knows might recognize him—but what about his image? Him, sixty-three and counting, out there on the street, marching with all those long-haired, drug-crazed freaks! It’s unacceptable. It’s not him. Besides, what if the Goddamn wind comes up? How’s he supposed to hold his hair down over his bald spot if he’s carrying a sign?
Still, the war goes on and on. It outrages Mom and therefore outrages Pop, yet his heart really isn’t in the movement. He has a hard time rooting for Victor Charlie and the NVA because his second son, Karl, was an officer in the regular U.S. Marine Corps—one of “the enemy.” So, in those days, Pop watches the six o’clock news furtively as if the war’s a football game and he’s rooting for the wrong team. God forbid Mom should walk in, catch him with a beer, his hand in the peanuts, and ask why PBS isn’t on. In the Tunberg household, acceptable behavior is Mom and Pop having a glass of sherry before dinner while listening to KPFK. Then after Pop’s done the dishes, they read the National Guardian over coffee—if he’s allowed coffee that late—and then she might recite a Palestinian agitprop or Leroi Jones. In those dark days, Pop waits in agony for that one phone call—the next TV assignment—the one phone call that will give him his cojones back and restore his dignity, that one phone call that never comes.
By 1995, the folks have been in my garage longer than they’d lived anywhere else. I’ve gotten used to “exchanging” pleasantries with them and really don’t mind their presence, though deep down I know we have to part company sometime. If I knew where they’d like to be—if, if they’d give me a sign. Frowning, I wonder why my brother and I can’t just sprinkle their ashes somewhere and be done with it. How come we’re having such trouble letting go? Is it a pathetic attempt to have a normal relationship with them? Or do we merely want to hang onto their craziness? We’ll never know.
On January 10th after weeks of El Niño, the mother of all rainstorms slams into Southern California. The lake rises fourteen feet in a matter of hours, flooding my house and garage. My living room guest-stars on the six o’clock news, and there’s three feet of muddy water in the garage, but, no, Mom and Pop haven’t been swept away. No such luck. They’re snug on their shelf, a foot above the high-water mark, dry as dust, except Kateri tells me to forget bringing them to the new condo we’ve rented. She has no intention of setting up housekeeping with the ashes of her in-laws. Understandable, I guess. Maybe it’s bad feng shui. So I cave in to domestic tranquility and call my brother, musing, if it takes an act of God to get rid of the parents, maybe I should start going to church again.
His service answers.
“Hey, Bill, this is your brother, Karl.We gotta do something about the folks.” I pause in case he’s there, but he doesn’t pick up. “Call me, okay?”
Of course, he doesn’t call. I call again the next day, but he doesn’t return that call, either, so I set my alarm for three in the morning and try him then, figuring he’ll answer for sure because he’ll think somebody died. Indeed, he does, and is extremely pissed off when he finds out what I want.
“Why can’t they stay in your garage?” he says when awake. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Yeah, but nobody’s gonna buy your house. Your house flooded! You can leave ‘em there.”
“Okay, okay,” he acquiesces, “so what do we do with them, then?”
“I think we should sprinkle their ashes where they were the happiest.”
“So where were they the happiest?”
“I dunno, Karl, they lived in twenty-eight different places.”
“What about Topanga Canyon?” he says after a pause. “That’s where Pop wrote Old Yeller.”
Less than an hour from downtown L.A., Topanga Canyon sits lost in the Santa Monica mountains, a foreign principality of weirdness. I’m surprised they don’t make you show your passport when you cross Mulholland and descend into its vibrations. Rugged and inaccessible, it’s always been a haven for wayward souls. In the mid-19th Century, the area was named after Topanga, a Chumash Indian who settled there after being expelled from the Ventura tribe for questionable spiritual practices. When the Civil War broke out, Topanga started an Evangelical Chumash-Christian church that appealed to white male settlers because Topanga’s seven daughters wore no clothes. Eventually, the church became a nudist colony known for its libertine philosophy. Now the Fernwood Market occupies the site where Topanga’s daughters used to frolic with their bearded consorts. A few miles north on a remote hillside off Entrada Driveis a ramshackle Spanish-style faux adobe where Mom and Pop first tuned in KPFK in 1958.
Topanga Canyon is only a half-hour drive from my condo, but when I pull off the narrow mountainous road and gaze at the old house, I feel as if I’ve gone back in time. It still needs painting, its red-tile roof is still missing tiles, the grounds still need weeding, and the long asphalt drive curving up to the house remains pot-holed. Nothing has changed except someone has added a dog-run alongside the house, and the field sloping down to a grove of scrub oaks is emerald green from the rains. When the folks lived here, it was always parched brown. A Dodge Ram crew-cab is parked in front of the house, too. Pop would never drive a pickup or a truck. When the folks lived here, he drove a ’54 Ford, but was usually smiling because he was working at Disney. He had Ferrari dreams.
My brother shows up late and in a hurry to get this over with. Having just come from World’s Gym in Venice, he wears ragged sweat pants and an old muscle shirt with holes in it. He resembles a pro wrestler turned fugitive—perfect for Topanga Canyon. Nervous, he scans the trees behind us, looks at the road, then peers across the field at the house. A German Shepherd has materialized in the dog run and stares back at us, its ears perked. Bill nods at the dog, allows himself a quick grin. “Remember Tango?”
Named a decade before the folks felt morally compelled to name their pets after left-wing heroes or events, Tango was a German Shepherd without papers who spent his salad days at this very adobe. He disliked small children and farted in his sleep. He was Pop’s perfect dog.
My brother nods at the shepherd again. “That dog looks like Tango.” He chuckles nervously. “He could be the reincarnation of Tango.”
“Maybe.” I get the folks out of the car, set them on the hood, unlock Pop’s box, take Mom from her velvet sack.
“Remember when Tango used to chase rabbits in this field?”
“Yep.” I hand him Pop.
He holds the box gingerly, away from his body. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“You take Pop, and I’ll take Mom. We’ll get as close to the house as we can and then we’ll sprinkle their ashes, okay?”
Not knowing exactly where, I start across the field. Reluctantly, he follows. Late afternoon sun comes in shafts through the scrub oaks giving them an aura of serenity, and we veer toward them. My throat goes dry. I’m just as nervous as my brother. Releasing the ashes of your parents is not something one does lightly, for there’s an unseen, a sacred quality to their remains. We are, if you will, releasing energy and spirit. So, yes, I feel that I’m about to do something spiritual and noble, yet I also know that I’m trespassing. Confirming it, the shepherd in the dog run starts barking—a deep, big-dog bark that reverberates down the hill. I walk faster, legs swishing through the grass.
“You know there’s a $500.00 fine for littering,” my brother says ominously. “Even in Topanga Canyon.”
Irritated, I glance at the house. A man has come outside, a little man. He wears a greasy baseball cap, green T-shirt, and cargo pants. Hands on his skinny hips, he glares down at us, and I almost laugh. Though famous for spaced-out, liberal people, Topanga Canyon does have its share of rednecks, and one of them is living in Mom and Pop’s old adobe.
In the oaks now, we set the folks on a patch of grass. Heart pounding, I drop to my knees in front of them, turn expectantly to my brother, but he’s still watching the redneck.
“He went back in the house,” says Bill, kneeling across from me. “You don’t think he’s getting a gun, do you?”
I shake my head, no, and start opening Mom’s box, my eyes suddenly brimming with tears. Bill follows my lead and pulls Pop from his hardwood box, but we both discover the ashes are sealed in plastic. Prepared, I slice the plastic with a pocketknife, look at my brother.
“I feel weird,” he says.
“We should say something.”
“The folks loved it here.”
“Yeah,” I nod, tears streaming down my face.
Then I take a handful of Mom, her ashes surprisingly gritty, and throw them high in the air. I take a handful of Pop and toss him skyward as well. My brother grabs handfuls, hurls their ashes everywhere. I begin speaking, my words counterpoint to the sound of the ashes raining down through the trees, the ashes falling gently on the grass. We commit your spirits to the sky, the earth, the grass, the trees. We commit your spirits to the universe. You were happy here once—may you be forever happy here again. God bless you, Mom and Pop. We’ll always love you. Welcome home.
We bow our heads in silent prayer and listen to the silence. Finally, we’ve put them to rest. We pick up the boxes, the plastic, and start back, but coming out of the oaks, I hear furious barking and glance at the adobe. Jolted, I see not one, but two large German Shepherds scrambling down the hill and bounding toward us. The redneck has let his dogs loose on us!
I take off running for the cars, my brother right behind, but the dirt is soft and the grass heavy, and I know we’ll never make it. I hear the dogs baying now, almost on us, and in the middle of the field, we turn to defend ourselves, but then the strangest thing happens.
The dogs aren’t barking and growling. Ears back and tails wagging, they’re crying joyfully, jumping up on us, licking our faces, holding onto us with their front paws. Astounded, I stare at my brother, and he gapes back at me. We pet the dogs and talk softly to them and tell them to go home, but they don’t. Bounding playfully in the grass, they follow us to our cars, and I look at my brother again, but shake my head and can’t think of anything to say. Has some sort of strange transmutation taken place or were these dogs friendly all along?
I’ll never know, but driving away, wiping tears from my face, I think, We didn’t put the folks to rest, we released them. And in the best of multiple universes, Mom will be busy leading a revolution somewhere, and Pop will be right behind, writing a screenplay about it.