by Les Bohem
“Someone like you should not be allowed to start any fires.”
— David Bowie, “Win”
My friend Peter Woolcott was incredibly good-looking. The great grandson of a duke, he had the classic features of a prince, with a combination of arrogance and vulnerability that was amazingly appealing. He did not carry himself with that irritating sort of self-confidence that is the distinguishing mark of most attractive people. He was prone to fruitless introspection, very much afraid of saying the wrong thing, and I think that there was something in his personality that clouded his sight whenever he caught a glimpse of his own reflection.
Peter was something of a dabbler. At twenty-seven he had already painted, photographed, sculpted, tried for rock stardom, renounced the material world in search of Self, and taken up backpacking. He was not oblivious to the state of his wandering ambitions although, in his more positive moods, he did take a certain pride in his inability to settle down.
Unlike most dabblers, he seemed to be good at whatever he tried. I always felt that he was, at most, a month away from producing a masterpiece.
Peter and I had been roommates in an apartment in NoHo for about six months when we were both twenty-one. Many of our evenings were spent with a bottle of tequila, drinking our way through the suddenly ancient histories of our adolescence. I think it was the first time that either of us were really aware of the intangible reality of the past, or aware that we had one.
Peter’s life had been shaped by his romances. He had an absolute faith in love. He truly believed that somewhere in that magic concept lay the answer to all his problems—that if he could just find his other half, the world would fall neatly into place. He clung to his memories with a passion. In high school, his world had revolved around a girl named Ynez. She never liked him, preferring a string of UCLA theater majors with full beards and deep expressions. She did, however, spend the night with him in a sleeping bag at the Renaissance Faire at the Santa Fe Dam. When he texted her a few days after that, it took her hours to reply. When she did, her text was disquietingly friendly, and a short while later she married their biology teacher. Peter carved her number into the door of his bedroom closet and swore never to forget her.
Just before we’d moved into the apartment in North Hollywood, Peter had lived with a girl named Diane. He would talk for hours about how happy they had been until something restless in him had gained control and made him throw away his chance with her. Peter was afraid that Diane had been his golden moment, that he had left his destiny in her Toyota station wagon in the Ralph’s parking lot at Curson and Sunset where he had told her that he thought that they should see other people. He still followed her Instagram, sulking every time she posted a photo of the dinner she’d just had and the boy she’d shared it with.
As I said, Peter and I lived together for about six months. Then he moved to Silverlake. He had begun to paint. I went to several of his shows, and we had an occasional drink together, but all our meetings were in crowds. Peter was changing in a disturbing way. Like most romantics, he was, at heart, selfish, and his narcissism had left him in a precarious balance, having begun to produce a self-hatred that could only lead to his own destruction. Peter himself seemed all too aware of the machinery of this, but was unwilling to move out of its way.
While still chasing his notions of idealized love, Peter forced himself into the most unromantic situations conceivable. With his friend Charles, he visited paid admission “parties” in the Hollywood Hills where roomfuls of naked men and women writhed and sweated and fucked in a ritual of total anonymity. It was as if some terrible revulsion drove him further and further away from himself, while at the same time he proved to himself that he could get the best of a world he totally despised.
About two years ago, Peter opened a photography studio in West Hollywood with a friend of his from school. Like all his other attempts, his photographs were exceptional. He had an eye that wouldn’t miss, an unerring in his ability to find the visual expression of an emotion. But there was something disturbing in the photographs, just as there was in the zeal with which he had thrown himself into his latest means of expression. A smugness had come over Peter since he’d started taking pictures, as if capturing isolated moments—a pretense of reality—had given him some bizarre grant of power. There was a confinement, a very real sense of boundary. His subjects were his prisoners. After looking at the pictures, I had the definite feeling that Peter had brought himself to the brink of imminent disaster.
It was over a year after Peter had started the studio that he called me one Saturday night and asked me to pick him up. We had not seen each other once during that time. There was an urgency in his voice that was almost fear. He was staying in the Hollywood Hills with Charles.
Several months before, Charles had married into rock ‘n roll aristocracy. His wife was Andrea Moon, whose beautiful face was, even then, already smiling down onto the Sunset Strip from an enormous billboard. Her album had gone platinum the week that she and Charles met, and she was now coasting on what seemed to be a never-ending stream of hit singles. They lived together in a palace off of Beachwood Canyon that had been built for a silent film star. Charles was a stylish, vicious young man who snorted too much coke and drank himself into oblivion at the Soho House nearly every night. He and Peter had known each other for years, and Peter, while repulsed, was drawn again and again into his company, perhaps envying a road to annihilation that was so direct.
It was raining heavily and the hills above Beachwood were an unfriendly blur. I parked up the street from the house and walked past a waiting limousine. The driver was inside reading on his phone, encased in his little shell of light like something extinct on display at a museum.
Charles answered the door wearing a bathrobe. He had a glass of wine in his hand and looked as if he had just woken up. He was anxious to show the house off, taking me from room to room and telling me little snatches of the place’s history. “Some old star, I think her name was Mabel Desmond, she broke her neck falling from the chandelier. I think she was fucking Ramón Novarro while hanging from it and one of the chains broke or something. Those people knew how to party.”
As we continued our tour, Charles moved to the present, convinced that anyone would be fascinated with the details of his newly acquired status. He spoke in the plural, making a point of establishing that “we” were putting in a new recording studio downstairs because “we” had taken over our own management and as a result “our” finances were greatly improved. “We’re monitoring the downloads on all platforms, and I’m negotiating a preferred rate with Spotify so we don’t get raped there.”
What struck me most about the house was not its enormous size or its structure, but the unbelievable disinterest with which it had been decorated. There were none of the garish, deco excesses that had probably been the original furnishings, or any of the ultra-modern vulgarities that might have been expected to replace them. It was as if Charles and Andrea Moon had gone into a furniture store and, blindfolded, bought just enough to fill the rooms of their new house without giving their selection a single thought.
Peter met us upstairs. He was just coming out of the shower. I had forgotten how handsome he was. He disappeared into one of the bedrooms and Charles and I went down two flights of stairs to the game room and the as-yet-unfinished recording studio.
Andrea was in the game room, sunk into a meaningless black leather couch and watching a rerun of Friends on a huge monitor. The aspect ratio hadn’t been adjusted on the TV and the actors looked squat and misshapen. The sound was up so loud that the speakers were distorting. Between Andrea and the monitor were scattered a half-dozen boxes of fried chicken filled with half-eaten pieces. There were empty Coke cans littered around them. No lights were on, and the room occasionally went black when the image on the monitor darkened. Charles introduced us and Andrea turned and smiled. She had a kimono-esque robe thrown on and, as she turned, the robe dropped to her waist. Her body, reflected in the light from the monitor, was something wild and foreign. It was as if, having sat down to dinner in a restaurant, you turned to see a sleek young leopard stalking between the tables. The room went dark and then a commercial came on. She was facing the set, the robe pulled back over her shoulders as she leaned forward and picked through the boxes for a piece of cold chicken.
We moved towards the window and Charles reached for a handgun that was sitting on the ledge. It was a small gun, about the length of a paperback book, but with a thick barrel that stuck out from it in an unnatural way as if it had been put there by mistake. Charles handed the gun to me with a grim smile. “Seven point six two millimeter,” he said. “A Norinco. Cop gun. I do my own loads, fifteen grain, steel jacket over lead.”
He took it back from me and unscrewed a long gray tube from the barrel. “The silencer,” he said, pointing the gun vaguely out the window. “I could turn that chauffeur’s head to runny garbage, but it’s really made for close range. I’ve got a Madsen I keep upstairs by the window. It’ll do over 1,500 rounds a minute. In ‘Nam they called that rock ‘n roll. I got them from a guy.” He nodded back over his shoulder at his wife. “A lot of heavy people are into Andrea,” he said, “and we stepped on a lot of toes with the management trip.” He lowered his voice dramatically. “Russians,” he said proudly and put the gun back on the window ledge.
Peter had come downstairs. Charles wanted us to stay, but Peter made our excuses. Andrea turned away from the monitor and looked up at us. Again, for a moment, I had the feeling of something animal looking out from her eyes. “Come back soon,” she said.
“I had to get out of there,” Peter said as we walked to the car. “Thanks.”
“I thought you were living in Highland Park,” I said.
“I’ll tell you about it. I’ve got to pick up some clothes. Do you mind? It’s on the way.”
We drove down from the Hills in an uncomfortable silence. Peter was distracted, bursting, but not yet ready to tell me about it. Instead, we started to talk about Charles. “I’ve known him for so long that to me, he’s playing at it,” Peter said. “Just a kid playing gangster. But maybe that’s all it is for anyone. I mean, he’s done some things that touch real people.”
“What happens if Andrea dumps him?”
“Andrea’s not like us. I mean, a year ago she was taking a bus up from Huntington Park to clean houses. It’s an accident of modern life that their worlds ever overlapped.”
We went to a duplex on Havenhurst just below Fountain. It was Spanish, tan, with a dead lawn and peeling paint.
“This’ll be kind of weird,” Peter said. “Do you mind coming in?”
We crossed the street and went into a dark hallway. A stairway led to the door to the upstairs apartment. As we started up, we were met by a series of horrible noises followed by a woman’s voice, hoarse and ugly.
“Bitches, you’re all manufactured. Someone has to beat the world back into you.”
The door of the apartment opened into a large living room. All the furniture had been pushed to the walls. The carpet had been rolled to one side. The room was long to begin with and now the effect was one of dream-like distortion. Against the far wall, nearly obscured by the furniture, were several canvases and a series of framed photographs that I recognized as Peter’s. There were six women in the room, all dressed in leotards. One, with a shock of wild brown hair, stood facing the others, her back to us.
“There’s nothing real in any of your lives,” she screamed at the other women. Hers was the gruff voice we’d heard from the stairs.
The women’s attention had wandered to the doorway where we stood. The shock-of-hair woman turned and looked at us. She wore bright lipstick and no other make-up. Her face was pock-marked.
“Goddamn it,” she said.
One of the others, the prettiest, her hair short and very red, looked over at us with an angry glare.
“Excuse us,” Peter said in a loud, self-conscious voice. He turned back down the hallway and went into one of the bedrooms. I followed uncomfortably. He turned on a light and started to pick through a pile of clothes on an unmade bed.
“I told you it’d be weird,” he said. There were angry footsteps in the hall and the red-head stood in the doorway.
“What the hell are you doing, Peter?” she asked. Her lower lip trembled, which is something I had only seen in the movies. “You know Goddamned well my group is rehearsing. I thought we’d agreed that you would stay out of here. You’re like some kind of bad child.” She stared at him, and her eyes were actually getting wet.
He didn’t answer.
“It’s atmosphere, you stupid bastard, you ruined the atmosphere.”
“This is my friend,” Peter said, introducing me. “This is Calley, my wife.”
I was surprised, and I’m sure I showed it.
Calley turned to me. “Hello,” she said and offered her hand. She had a strong, dry handshake. “We do plays here. Last summer we did Ibsen, now we’re doing something contemporary. John Steppling. Do you know him?”
I shook my head slightly. Peter’s wife. There was such a formal permanence to that. It was so very grown up. Up close, Calley had one of those faces that seemed to fall into its separate pieces, very big teeth and a slightly crooked nose. Her lips just a little too thin. But then, as you stared, all the parts fit back together and her face became alive and wonderful and you were left with the impression that she was quite beautiful. There was something familiar to me about her, something that disturbed me. I tried to hide my staring behind conversation.
“Steppling?” I said. “Is he from L.A?”
She was fairly tall and very thin, and she carried herself with a sophistication that was effective even though it was transparently self-conscious. She wore her leotard as if it were straight out of Vogue.
“I think he lives in Norway now. No one knows much about him. This play is based on St. Augustine’s Confessions. It’s very real.”
Her most startling feature was her eyes. They were jet black. “Augustine?” I said. Suddenly I understood the familiarity. I had seen her several years before, in Peter’s paintings. Paintings he’d done long before he’d met her. Peter had finally found his masterpiece.
“Let’s take a break,” the gruff voice screamed from the living room. “Who wants to be the first to kiss and get nasty?”
“Rhonda is a wild woman,” Calley said without smiling at all.
Peter had been watching us intently, and I realized that Calley had been deliberately ignoring him, playing me neatly in between them as we talked.
“Alright then,” he said. “I just came to get a shirt.” He had taken off his old shirt and was replacing it with one that looked just as dirty. “Let’s go,” he said to me.
Calley turned and looked at him with stage sadness. “Will you be back tonight?” she asked.
My presence was making Peter uncomfortable. He shuffled through his dirty clothes on the bed.
‘”You know how I am when I’m working,” she went on. “Things get so difficult. You understand.”
Peter winced. He said that he did understand. That he did know.
“I love him,” Calley said to me. “He doesn’t believe that I do, but I love him.”
I didn’t say anything and she turned back to Peter.
“Are you still staying up at Charles’, then?” she asked. Peter looked at her and then turned back to the clothes.
“Alright,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m a bitch,” She walked out of the room and went back to her rehearsal.
For a moment, I thought Peter would run after her, but he just stood and said, “let’s get a drink.” We started out the door and got to the bottom of the stairs. “Would you mind waiting a minute?” he asked and ran back up.
I stepped outside and waited. Ten minutes later Peter came back down. His eyes were red and there was a distance in them. He was caught by something that he didn’t understand.
We went to a bar on Third Street and drank bourbon like a couple of hard guys in an old movie. Once he started, Peter spoke in an explosion of confused frustration. He talked straight through me as if I weren’t there at all. He had met Calley at a party a little over a year ago. She had been standing by the bar pouring a drink for a middle-aged man. She was smiling and she looked drunk. She spilled a little of her drink on the man’s hands and she laughed. Then she looked up and caught Peter staring. He went over to the bar for a refill. “And you’ve seen her,” he said, looking for her reflection in his shot glass. “She was wearing a black dress. She looked amazing.”
They started seeing each other regularly. Calley was four years older than Peter. She was living in the apartment on Havenhurst with her six-year-old son, Justin. Justin’s father was a fairly successful songwriter who had just released his first album. He and Calley had lived together in Echo Park for eight years. One day, having signed a recording contract, he had come home, packed up his things, and moved to Beverly Glen. His album had been hailed by Rolling Stone as the greatest West Coast debut since Jackson Browne, a work rich in sensitivity and insight. Justin had been five and Calley twenty-eight.
Calley and Peter had problems right from the start. With her twenties virtually over, Calley had begun to panic as the promise of success faded from a destination to an impossibility, until her growing desperation became the focal point of their relationship. She would go into black periods in which Peter became her persecuting demon, a heartless bastard whose selfishness was holding her back. She was jealous of everything that was his—his paintings, his age, even his sadness, which was pure and untroubled by ambition.
Peter moved into Calley’s apartment two months after they met. He was out of his head in love with her.
“We spent nearly all of our time fighting. I don’t know, maybe I am selfish. We’d fight all the time, right up to the last moment, but then, Jesus, making love is like nothing I’ve ever known. It’s like fire.”
“What about her son?”
“He’s a good kid. A little messed up and kind of quiet. I’m painting again. I did a portrait of him, but you couldn’t see it tonight.”
“Where was he tonight?”
“At Calley’s mom’s. He spends a lot of time there.”
“When did you get married?”
“About six months ago. We had this real intense fight one night. We were both crying a lot. And then Calley said that she thought the problem was commitment—we needed to put ourselves on the line. So I asked her and we went to Las Vegas right away before either of us could change our minds.”
Peter finished his drink. “I don’t know what it is. I need her in this weird way. But right now, she’s making me feel like everything is out of my control. Like I’m just letting my life spin itself out.”
We sat until two in the morning, when the bar closed. I offered dull advice. I tried to tell him that he had to distinguish between his own problems and Calley’s. That he couldn’t blame himself for hers. He never heard me. I was just filling in the pauses while he gathered his thoughts.
“Should I take you back to Charles’?” I asked as we stood outside the bar.
“No,” he said flatly, looking at me and shaking his head.
I saw them together several times after that. Peter had taken a large studio for himself on Washington Boulevard near Western, just below Koreatown. He was painting again, preparing for an upcoming show. Calley had been waiting up for him that night when he came home from the bar and they had talked until morning. They had determined to make something of their marriage. When I saw them at his studio, Calley seemed to be terribly happy. There was, about Peter, a certain aura of imminent success that I think attracted her, almost as if they were meeting for the first time. She talked excitedly about his paintings and tried to involve him with her theater group by having him do the sets for their new play. But behind her enthusiasm, her lurking anger could be felt. She was too quick to take my side in any conversation, to talk to me about books that Peter hadn’t read. It seemed only a matter of time before the pressure would blow her wide open.
“I think she’s fucking Charles,” Peter told me one evening when Calley had stepped into the other room. “He was over the other night when I came home from the studio. Andrea is touring right now. They acted a little weird.” He looked toward the door where Calley had gone out. “I guess it’s my fault,” he continued. “I sort of threw them together. I mean, Calley’s always on me about being too possessive. She hates jealousy. I guess maybe I did leave them alone one or two times to show her I didn’t care. But I really didn’t think anything would happen.”
In October, Peter had his show at a gallery in Culver City. Charles brought some of Andrea’s friends and they bought a few of Peter’s paintings for quite a lot a money. Calley beamed all evening, and it looked, again, as if she and Peter were really making a new start. She was wearing the black dress that she’d worn to the party the night they’d met. She looked absolutely incredible. It was as if her beauty alone were enough for her that evening.
After the show, we went out for something to eat with the owner of the gallery and several critics, all of whom spent their time fussing over Peter. Calley graciously took the back seat. She still seemed happy to let Peter have his night.
After a few drinks, one of the critics invited us over to his place in Venice to smoke weed and soak in his hot tub. I excused myself. Calley stood up abruptly and asked me if I’d mind taking her home. She kissed Peter and said that she was tired, then she apologized to the others, making the prettiest exit imaginable.
She was quiet as we walked to the car and quiet as we got in. As I pulled away from the curb, she put her hand gently on my arm. “I know you don’t like me.” Her voice was quiet, resigned.
I didn’t answer. I was thinking that, with an actor, you never could be sure anything was real.
“He shouldn’t give me the opportunity,” she said. “It’s too easy. It just makes me spiral. If I’m horrible to him, I hate him for taking it. It’s very important to me that you don’t hate me.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you’re Peter’s friend and I don’t want you to think any less of him.” She let go of my arm and looked out the window. After a while, I thought I heard her crying.
I dropped her off outside her apartment. She turned and looked closely at me. “Please don’t hate me,” she said and got out of the car.
I watched her until she was inside the door and then I drove away. As I turned the corner, a large black limousine was turning onto Havenhurst. When Calley had looked at me, there had been no sign of tears in her eyes.
I woke up abruptly at four in the morning. Charles was pounding on my door. His eyes were glassy and he was covered with sweat. “We’ve got to get Peter,” he said.
Something was obviously very wrong. I slipped into my clothes and we left. “Do you mind driving?” he asked. His voice was like a little boy’s. Weak and helpless. “I think he’s gone to his studio.”
We took my car and I drove towards Western. Charles tapped nervously at the dashboard, then he sat on his hands and immediately began to shuffle his feet. He was frightened.
“Andrea came back tonight,” he said, looking at his knees. “I’ve been… well, I’ve been doing a thing with Calley. I don’t think Peter knew. I was over there tonight, just after you brought her home. Anyway, Andrea wasn’t due back for another two weeks, but there were some hassles with the booking in Kansas City so she came back early. She never liked Calley. God, I wish none of this had happened.”
He was quiet for a moment and then continued, still looking at his knees. “Andrea came over to Calley’s. I guess she’d come home and, when I wasn’t there, she knew where to go. She had the Madsen… Jesus.” He started to vomit.
At the trial, Andrea testified that she was only sorry that she hadn’t gotten Charles as well. “His head was played by that chick. All of them, that little bitch she was married to, Charlie, all of them. What the hell did they think I’d do? They live in some kind of dream world or something, and, truth told, I’ve still got more money than all of them put together.”
She pleaded temporary insanity and received a sentence of five years at the California Institute for Women in Chino. While the publicity increased her sales enormously, the record company was still forced, for appearances sake, to terminate her contract. Her billboard poster was taken down from the Sunset Strip.
Calley’s funeral was small and quiet. It was a closed coffin and her body was cremated. Justin went to live with his grandmother so that life didn’t change too much for him.
Peter was not at the funeral. He was at UCLA Medical Center recovering from a total nervous breakdown. When Charles and I had reached his studio that night, we’d found the door open. We went inside. Peter had taken off all of his clothes and covered himself from head to foot with his paints. He was running from one end of the room to the other, smashing himself into the white walls of the studio, then rubbing against them in an orgasm of rage. He turned towards us as we entered, and I could see the red of his blood among the swirl of other colors that covered him. “This is my world,” he screamed at us, pointing an accusing purple finger, “and every fucking bit of it belongs to me.”
Les Bohem began life as a songwriter with songs recorded by Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, Freddy Fender, Johnette Napolitano, and Alvin (of the Chipmunks.) He played bass with the legendary band, Sparks, as well as with his own band, Gleaming Spires. His audible novels, Junk (narrated by John Waters) and Jive, are available on Audible. Junk was a NYT notable for 2019. Please listen to his recent album, Moved to Duarte, available wherever you stream your music. He wrote the movies Dante’s Peak and Twenty Bucks and the miniseries Taken, for which he won an Emmy. His fiction and poetry have appeared a bunch in print and on-line in such places as Polychrome Ink, Soledad, Deluge, Clever, Fabula Argentea, and the Belmont Story Journal.