John O’Brien, the author of Leaving Las Vegas, committed suicide in 1994 at the age of 33. Akashic Books is now publishing his novel, Better, from which this excerpt is adapted.
Double Felix is semireclined. From where I stand — perhaps ten feet behind him — I can hear the whine of his headphones, excess noise that even his ears cannot collect. True to form, he has the volume control of his tape player set too high, but I won’t mention this to him; Double Felix is the sort of person who resents concern, or so he claims. Anyway, disturbing him is rarely a good idea, so I turn and walk from the room.
“I see you, William,” I hear him yell after me. “I see your fat fucking face reflected in the window.”
Rather than respond to that, I pull shut his door and continue down the hall. I should mention here that “your fat fucking face” is merely one of Double Felix’s many terms of endearment. My face, as well as the rest of me, is angular, almost gaunt. I have the sort of face that one expects to be adorned with a modicum of gratuitous facial hair, perhaps an anemic goatee, or an adolescent mustache, though I do not and would never have either. I did once spend some time with a black glass marker and a mirror; the effect was unconvincing.
Passing the familiar array of six doors, two of which stand open, I arrive at the end of the hall where I exit to the deck. Here I will stay until morning — a relatively new habit of mine — feeling the airborne chill of the Pacific Ocean sweep over my body, linger in seductive spirals, and grow ever more to the point as it waits for sleep to take me. It is then, as I lie innocently, making stupid barks and gurgles in protest to my dreams, it is then that the wind will turn malicious and send its bite to my bones. I will awaken and shiver, clutch myself and curse. Though the door behind me is unlocked and a bed awaits my name, I will stay here and watch for the sky to lighten.
In the morning I will join Double Felix for vodka on his balcony. We will have our regular palaver, perhaps joined briefly by one of the female houseguests wearing one of Double Felix’s shirts, or an outcall hooker clad in lace and wondering if Double Felix meant it when he asked her to move in. “Do you live here too?” she will ask of me, her eyes searching mine for either a clue or a warning sign. “What has Double Felix been telling you?” I will respond, trying to look mischievous. Seeing I want to sleep with her, Double Felix will then chuckle, and so give his blessing.
Our house — I mean his house, for we are all guests of Double Felix, myself the most tenacious — sits on a cliff in Los Angeles, overlooking the Pacific, just northwest of the city of Santa Monica. Most of the nearby roads are known as canyons, circuitous strips of black and yellow cut to deferentially follow nature’s compelling leads, and I have yet to find a straight line that leads here, much less a shortest distance. It is my understanding that
Double Felix purchased this house some years ago. I would have sworn he built it himself, for it matches him and he is to a degree seemingly beyond coincidence; but perhaps that can be only a result of a chance purchase, as no man could possibly know himself that well. I can’t say exactly why I find this house so appropriate for Double Felix, but I do know I feel very much an element in whatever it is he wrought here.
Very cold. Two thirty, it will get colder still. I have awakened with a rare — considering my gin intake lately — desire to urinate. If I go inside at this point, I will probably not be able to bring myself back out. This happened once before: inside for a leak, tempted and lost to my bed, inexplicable guilt for the whole day. No. At this late date — and it must truly be exactly that — I’d rather not risk it. Shivering, I get up to urinate on some weeds that lie on the other side of the railing. Small dribble hits the deck, a false alarm, bladder bluff. Water would be nice; I opt for more gin instead.
With the calender now firmly rooted in the ambivalence of autumn, sleeping on the deck is much more to the point. A few months ago, as I lay watching fireworks launched from passing yachts, it seemed a fun way to get a little attention, warm nights and pretty stars the only things on and above the horizon. It has since dug itself in, lies deeper, nearer its origin. Now I find I am here for reasons that I can no more control than I can understand.
A quick and distant crack-crack tells me I will soon be hearing the far-off flutter of a Los Angeles police helicopter, too far, too late. I don’t care; it’s too cold to sleep out here anyway. Laurie is haunting my mind. Perhaps I’ll find some inspirational warmth hidden under the increasingly unwholesome scenarios that play out behind my eyes and feature her oh-so-supple body. Unlike the other girls I have encountered here over the years, she is, despite her questions, somehow on target. There is a comfortable quality to her demeanor that I’ve never seen in a new guest, and I can’t help but think she has something to teach me. I must also suspect that she will be none too popular with Maggie and Zipper as they are now feeling quite established and will no doubt resent the more nubile competition. The fact that they, themselves, are both quite attractive will only exacerbate the situation. But this is perhaps as it should be.
Much like Laurie, though I think with different intentions, Maggie simply stuck around after one of the larger parties. This was about six months ago, and unlike with Laurie, Double Felix nailed Maggie immediately. I’m certain that this eventuality was part of her plan, for I had seen her at an earlier party quite aroused, intoxicated, piqued and piquant as she sampled her surroundings and conducted her investigations in a state of wonderment.
Zipper Allele is quite a different story. Petite, dark-haired, a hopelessly complex amalgamation of Third World gene pooling, Zipper came to us through a phone call over a year ago. Almost immediately on that first evening our professional relationship began and ended; our personal relationship began and remains. This has happened to me only only before with a prostitute — and I have been with many prostitutes. It’s like falling for a girl in the supermarket or the library, except that you’re already in bed together. The whole situation was enormously exciting for both of us, highly unusual and unexpected. We slept well, side by side.
The next day Zipper returned with her suitcase. I, of course, with my Midas touch, had her running scared from my bed and established in her own room by the end of the week. But, more than even Double Felix, she has accepted my need for distance, and she and I have found a truly friendly groove of congenial dependence laced with very occasional sex. It has been many weeks since I’ve slept with Zipper, longer since I’ve really talked to her, but, oh, how I dread the hours that she spends away from this house.
The sharp sound of breaking glass awakens me. As I dozed my drink fell from my hand, rolling for seconds? Hours? It has apparently left the deck and shattered on one of the many large rocks that lie just over the edge. The sky may or may not be lighter. Looking west at this hour requires imagination, which then steals the show. Consulting my watch, I find that I have just under an hour until Morning Vodka, so I pout a short gin in a new glass and wait.
More and more I am emitting the telltale odors of an alcoholic, though I think I have merely the proclivity and not the condition; more and more that seems like a fairly innocuous problem, though I suppose I know better. No matter; without comment Double Felix will tolerate the organically tinged scent of liquor emanating from my pores this morning. He has his own troubles, and I shall shower in lieu of lunch.
I wait here in the very chilly morning. Now I am certain that the sky has grown lighter. I must remember to lean close to Double Felix this morning. Perhaps by now he carries Laurie’s redolence on his breath; it would be of fresh air.
Book Soup celebrates John O’Brien with readings by his sister Erin O’Brien, Jerry Stahl and Joseph Mattson on Thursday, July 16, at 7 p.m. (310) 659.3110, or www.booksoup.com.