Empty Glasses

Illustration by Jeffrey Vallance

Bombs were dropping everywhere, but no one seemed to mind. Just a 13-inch screen in the kitchen, with the volume turned way down low. And now it was Sunday morning again. Again. I’d just finished arranging the food and building the fires. Mrs. Cornwallow, “T.P.,” was out of town, visiting her sister. Her husband, Peter-Anne, famous motion-picture tyrant, was scheduled to descend at 9 a.m., to stroll past and ignore the roaring fires I’d built, as he made his way to the breakfast nook, where, among the orderly piles of lox and bagels and smoked whitefish I’d fetched from Baconman’s Deli, he would find a clean, empty glass. A special glass kept on a special shelf.

I’d never been much of a criminal before I met Cornwallow. But at 8 a.m. I’d asked the counterperson at Baconman’s for an additional quarter-pound of whitefish, in a separate bag. And two more bagels. And fuck yes: an extra quarter-pound of lox. Another Sunday at the end or beginning of another 80-hour workweek: He can buy me a couple of water bagels and a half-pound of dead fish, damn it. I don’t even like bagels.

This particular Sunday followed a Saturday night I’d spent wandering around a stage at the now-defunct Angel City Zoo Café. Talking to seated strangers for 45 minutes, reeling through a catalog of disparate personalities united by four cups of coffee, 2 mg of Ativan and an espresso martini.

Trouble sleeping, more trouble waking up three hours later to hit Baconman’s for Cornwallow grub.

On Sunday mornings, Cornwallow liked to drink what he called his Secret Youth Potion. The recipe: Retrieve one 20-ounce Danish crystal highball glass ($200) from the secret shelf ($1,800); fill with 18 ounces of MicroClear organically flown distilled Canadian mountain spring water ($4), tepid; add a pinch of organic sea salt and stir briskly with a Kuhlmann magnesium teaspoon (serial number 3526976), left-handed, counterclockwise, until dissolved. Sip slowly, between salty, fatty, smoky fish sandwiches.

While Peter-Anne got younger, ate his breakfast and read The New York Times, I made coffee and sat in the kitchen watching the war on the 13-inch monitor, trying to stay awake. After 45 casualties, I received a phone call from headquarters: Cornwallow had finished his breakfast and relocated to the living room, where he required my immediate assistance in reminiscing.

I found Peter-Anne standing there beside couch three, across from fireplace two, cradling his almost-empty potion glass like a kitten against the folds of his robe. Across from him, a roaring oak inferno raged 8 feet wide and 4 feet high and deep. With outside temperatures in the low 80s, this was how Peter-Anne liked to unwind.

“Ahh,” he said, after detecting my arrival. Still staring into the fire, trancelike: “Yes.”

I held my ground and my coffee from a safe distance, gulping audibly, awaiting further instructions.

“Delightful,” Peter-Anne concluded, then turned to face me. “Tell me, David . . .”


I waited a good 30 seconds for more instructions, but after the “Tell me, David,” nothing. Peter-Anne turned his attention back to the fire.

Then I waited that long again. Nothing.

So I took a noisy sip of coffee and said, “Yes, Peter-Anne?”

“What is it, David?” he said.

I said, “You . . . you’d started to say something a minute ago. I think you were about to ask me something.”

“Really?” he replied. “Are you quite certain?”

“Well, no, not quite,” I said. “But you said, ‘Tell me, David,’ and it seemed like you were going to say something else. Like you had something important to tell me.”

“Really? Something important?”


“I see.” Peter-Anne nodded and downed the last of his potion. “Oh, yes.” He sat down on the couch, placed his glass on the coffee table there, and, keeping his eyes fixed on the fire, crossed his legs and gestured for me to sit on couch four, about 12 feet away.

“So tell me, David,” he said, as I sat. “What do you do in your . . . in your leisure time?”


A few hours later, I was summoned to Peter-Anne’s office and found him seated at his desk. It was a very nice, small writing desk. Made of mahogany, I think, or maybe cherry, with maple or ash inlays. It was the sort of writing desk that made occasional cameos on the sets of my slow-twitch fantasies, the ones where my wife and I live in a cabinlike bungalow in the woods northwest of Santa Cruz, writing and fucking our days away, taking breaks with Napa reds, Humboldt greens, walks through the redwoods with our faithful yellow Lab and so on. Fantasy desk.

Earlier, when I’d admitted that I spent my “leisure time” (not that I considered any time to be either leisure or mine) writing and performing standup comedy, Cornwallow had scared the hell out of me by smiling. “Oh, really!” he’d said, with teeth. “Well, isn’t that interesting?” Then he’d left the room, mumbling postproduction notes to himself, and headquarters had sent me on an errand to Burbank.

Now Peter-Anne seemed to have reverted to his standard residual fragile-tyrant persona. Frowning, frowning at the surface of the very nice desk.

Several dozen pairs of eyeglasses were arranged neatly on the desktop. It looked like his entire collection, or most of it. And no run-of-the-mill, Fred Sanford–style Goodwill spectacle stash was this; each pair of prescription glasses had once belonged to an elite Hollywood historical figure: Orson Welles, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Marilyn Monroe, Stan Laurel, Bettie Page, Chico Marx, Boris Karloff and so on. Or so I’d been told.

“David?” said Peter-Anne, not looking up.


An arm jutted at me. In its hand was a pair of roundish black specs.

“Try these on.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “Thank you,” and put the glasses on.

“Those used to belong to Harold Lloyd.”

I couldn’t see a thing. It was beautiful. (“Thank you,” I repeated, in a whisper that neither of us could hear.)


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