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Turning to the devil to stay dry

AL MARTINEZ

February 28, 2005|AL MARTINEZ

I like movies about hell, especially on a day of darkness and rain when, at any moment, a horrible winged creature can come swooping out of the sky and carry me off to a place of fear and ugliness, like Oakland or Boise, Idaho.

My interest in hell emerges from a Catholic upbringing fraught with images of burning souls. My mother, who once saw the face of the Virgin Mary in a tomato, often warned me that if I didn't eat my turnips or brush my teeth or perform any number of other unpleasant duties I would wind up in hell, being cooked like a turkey on a grill.

The movie was "Constantine," in which Keanu Reeves is the only person standing between us and an infestation of nasty little flying beasts who look very much like the whiney creepy-crawlies in "Lord of the Rings." Even though his character is dying from chain-smoking cigarettes, he takes the time to scatter the beasts and protect his girlfriend.

After the first encounter, she asks, trembling with fear, "What in God's name were those things?" "Demons," Reeves replies in the cool nonchalance of a British butler who has just shooed flies off the apricot preserves.

When you're a guy like me with an imagination rooted in visions of hell, being a little unnerved by "Constantine" makes sense. In the first place, I was alone in the house on the day I went out and saw the movie. Cinelli had gone to Sacramento for the weekend to help our daughter redo her apartment.

This was the kid whose teenage room was like a village sacked by Rome. Once she left uneaten food under her bed for so long that it was beginning to morph into a new and scary life form. But now, I am pleased to say, she is a very clean lady. If you wait long enough, it's bound to happen.

Rain pounded on Topanga in apocalyptic fury, knocking down trees, wiping out roads, flooding homes and sending people fleeing to the only bar in town at a Mexican restaurant called Abuelitas, where they drank soothing glasses of alcohol and prayed to ancient gods.

In the midst of all this, a power pole went down, which is why our home was plunged into darkness for 14 hours. In an all-electric house, it means a cave life of dampness and silence, minus bats, but without even heat and the friendly little noises that emanate from the refrigerator and whatever else hums.

I'm no good in domestic emergencies. I might do OK even at this stage in my life helping to fight off an all-out enemy attack, but dealing with utility companies is Cinelli's job. So I telephoned her and she said, "Go to lunch and a movie." Good idea. I went to the Valley and watched Reeves, as an agent of God, battle a slick, buttoned-down attorney for the devil, if you'll forgive the redundancy.

After the movie, I telephoned a friend in the canyon who said the power was on, but by the time I splashed my way home, it was off again. Right away I thought of the devil. The movie depicted Lucifer as a combination of Bruce Willis and James Carville, with a better sense of humor. I asked my mother once what the devil looked like and she said, "Like Mr. Likum."

During the Depression, Mr. Likum lived in a tent in our backyard. He was an old drinking buddy of my stepfather, and my mother couldn't stand him. I was about 6 when I sneaked into his tent once and found his false teeth. I put them in my mouth and went clacking up to my mother, who had a fit. Saying that the devil was like Mr. Likum was intended, I think, to keep me out of his tent and away from his teeth.

Anyhow, I was home in darkness and storm in the shadowy presence of the devil. I was going to call Cinelli again, but I felt a little foolish displaying such dependency on a woman in a man's world, so I left the house and went down to Abuelitas, where I found warmth and light and a dry martini.

By the time I got home, the rain was falling like panties in Hollywood and the wind was pounding against our simple but adequate wood-frame house. There was still no electrical power so I stumbled about for a flashlight and lit some candles. I could hear the hum of the portable generator across the street, which was a good feeling, knowing that the rich were warm and comfortable, but even it seemed to die after a while, lost in the howling wind and the roaring rain. It was a dark and stormy night, just like in the novel Snoopy was always writing.

By morning, the rain had stopped, the power was on and I had not been whisked off by the devil, thanks to Keanu Reeves and his nonchalance in the face of evil. That kind of attitude is too cool to burn in hell, but the future of my soul is still in doubt. Just don't let me die on the Ventura Freeway during a storm. There are better places to spend eternity.

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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