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In the Bleakness, the Sound of Laughter

January 05, 1987|CELLA MOREY | Morey lives in Los Angeles. and

I've been looking for the man who used to juggle chain saws at Venice Beach. Not to look for that improbable young man would be like not sharing a good story with someone who needs a laugh or maybe a cry. The last time I went several weeks ago, I went with $5 to give to the chain-saw man if I found him. I owe it to him--at least that much.

He still had not come back to his old place near the Pavilion, so I gave a dollar to "Barry the Lion Gordon," a cheery pianist who has hung in for some time in his place on the boardwalk a little north of the Figtree Cafe. He was surprised because he was packing it in for the day, and that day I didn't spend any time listening to him play ragtime on his battered upright. I just thanked him for being around and not giving up even though he probably doesn't make much money on cloudy days in the winter when the crowds thin out.

Never did I dream when I left for Boston to visit my nephew and his family that I would be eternally grateful to the carnival that is Venice Beach and its potpourri of bizarre, colorful, ragtag characters and performing artists.

As a friend says, Venice Beach is "a laboratory for modes of self-presentation." Every weekend for a year, and some week nights, too, during the year I lived at the beach, I'd bicycle up and down the bike paths, tour the boardwalk lineup of self-appointed swamis, comedians, Tarot card readers, xylophonists, broken-string guitarists, soapbox hustlers, tall, silken-legged roller skaters twirling and dipping to ghetto-blasters so heavy the roller skaters develop biceps that might some day rival the body builders at Muscle Beach.

I walked past a new act, a guy sporting a Medusa's head of hair curlers who was miming to a speeded-up tape; it wasn't the most talented or spectacular show I've seen in the hundreds of hours I've spent at Venice Beach. But it was so incongruous, it would have made my nephew Alex laugh anyway.

I wished the hair-curler mime had been around before I went to see Alex in Boston. I could have put him in the story I told my 14-year-old nephew who was dying of an inoperable brain tumor--the story that made a boy who couldn't speak burst into laughter.

I was spending the afternoon with Alex, who was in his hospital bed in the study between the living room and dining room. His family had put him there when they brought him home from the hospital the second from the last time so he could be near everyone. His head was swollen and there was a shunt coming down along his back to relieve pressure. He could not speak. He was able to communicate only when he wasn't too tired by moving his head in slight movements back and forth, combined with a moan. If you paid close attention, you could interpret what he was trying to say.

It was difficult for him to eat. If you held the straw in his mouth just right, you could get it positioned to feed him ice cream shakes and milk. You had to tune in tightly with a little prayer in order to connect, to feel what he wanted.

We were alone one day. He had been read to a great deal that day. As I picked up books to show him, and said, "How about this?" or "What about some more 'Phantom Tollbooth'?" he responded with only a weak, weary little moan and closing of the eyelids in sad frustration. For inside this dying, physically incapacitated teen-ager still lived a bright, aware, proud young person.

How would I fill this time, connect and share something with Alex? I had come from so far away to let him know I cared. I was afraid he would give up on me and just drift off to sleep, that I would fail to bring some special moment of delight that would prove a visit from a distant aunt was worth hanging around for. We couldn't talk, couldn't read; television would have defeated the purpose, which was to share. I sensed expectation in Alex, though. My heart thumped, because suddenly I felt that the sum of all my parts, everything I thought I was, was suddenly on stage being tested to see what counted.

Inside I berated myself for being at a loss for what to do. Who in the devil are you, where have you been these past few years that you are suddenly confounded by what to do, what to say, how to simply be when you now have one chance only to connect with this brave boy who has suffered so?

I decided to be me, even if I seemed ridiculous. And I stopped being afraid of censure or pity because I'm not really very good at telling a story.

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