An aunt from Illinois who has learned all she knows about Los Angeles by reading Chicago columnist Mike Royko is visiting for a few days and it's driving me crazy. Forget that she is as ignorant about L.A. as Royko is. I can handle that. But she is also terribly nervous, hums all day and is visiting during the height of rattlesnake-black widow-fire season.
I picked Emily up at the airport last Monday. Her husband Wil died just a few months ago, so after we had exchanged hugs I told her how sorry I was that Wil was no longer with us.
"That's all right," she said, looking around. "He'd have hated California." I should have known it would be that kind of visit.
As we carried her luggage to the car, she stopped suddenly, pointed toward a man emerging from the terminal and asked loudly, "Is that a homosexual?"
"God, Emily," I said, trying to quiet her, "I don't know."
The man had apparently heard and was glaring at us.
"Wil used to say you could tell by their small hands," she said as I hustled her away. "I always wanted to see one. Where do they keep them usually?"
"West Hollywood," I said. "Now let's go."
On the way to my house in a canyon, we passed a flatbed truck carrying a giant red bulldozer. Aunt Emily wanted to know what that was all about.
I explained it was the start of the fire season in Southern California and the fire department was getting its equipment in place. She began humming.
It wasn't until later I learned that humming is her safety valve. If she didn't hum, she would scream and cry in fear. It is an aimless little hum, without tone or destination. I hate humming.
We arrived home after dark on a star-filled evening. In the distance, a coyote howled. I could feel Aunt Emily tense up. She hummed faster.
Though she said nothing, I knew what was going through her head. We had passed a hippie on the way up. An untrimmed beard and no haircut since the 1960s covered his face with hair. She was thinking Werewolves!
I was sorry I had told her about the doctor they arrested one night on the beach at Malibu, howling at the moon.
She looked around the house, checking each room and their closets carefully. You never knew when a homosexual or a werewolf might jump out. When she had finished, she said, "So this is where you get laid back."
"Actually," I explained, "you don't get laid back. One is laid back when one is, well, mellow. And I'm never mellow."
"Oh," she said slyly, "then what's this? " She was holding a bowl that contained a white substance. She was thinking cocaine.
"That's just powdered sugar, Em."
" Sure it is."
She wanted to know where the sex parties were held.
"In the back yard," I said with a sigh. There was no point in arguing. That night she hummed in her sleep.
The next day was a disaster. Normally the few dangerous creatures that inhabit the Santa Monica Mountains do not all appear at once. But they must have heard that Aunt Emily was in town.
First there was the black widow. I found it as I was showing her around the deck and killed it with a stick. No big deal. Emily was terrified. She was
positive thereafter that every harmless little spider we saw was a black widow, even though I had told her about the red hour glass on its belly.
"But how do you know for sure? " she demanded.
"The black widow eats its mate," I said, "and the others don't." I was tempted to ask if she had eaten Wil.
Then came the rattlesnake. It was about a foot long, coiled under an apricot tree and poised to strike. I couldn't hear its rattle for Aunt Emily's humming.
"You keep humming," I warned, looking for a shovel, "and that sucker's going to go right after you. They're attracted by humming."
It was a masterstroke. She stopped humming instantly. I killed the snake, but reluctantly. It was a lousy way to repay anything that could mute Aunt Emily's hum.
I didn't know what might happen after that. Anything is possible when you're luck is running bad.
I envisioned a giant owl carrying Emily off into the night, her skinny legs dangling out from under a black cotton dress. Or perhaps the puma which is rumored to prowl the mountains would make a sudden appearance, leaping down from the roof of the carport on to Aunt Emily's bony shoulders.
She was a lightning rod for minor catastrophes.
Aunt Emily was clearly not pleased with her experiences. I like the old broad and it pained me to feel she was not having a good time in L.A. Even the naked Jesus-loving neighbor who spoke loudly in tongues from his porch each evening did not amuse her.
I can understand the disappointment of coming to Southern California half expecting to see celebrities driving by in open-top convertibles and ending up instead in a canyon filled with rattlesnakes and black widows. The best I could offer was a friend who had once appeared on the Gong Show in a polar bear costume.
He sang "White Christmas."