If I didn’t see it myself I never would have believed that the old biddy had actually gone and done it. For six hours she stood in front of the Ambassador Bar. Six hours! She was dressed for church even though it was Monday. She got there at 11 in the morning. She called me when I was in the middle of doing my TV calisthenics with Jack La Lane. Normally I don’t answer the phone when I am all out of breath and sweat’s dripping into and around my private parts. But something told me it was important.
“You’ve got to come over here immediately!” said Gladys Knudsen Grout, my best friend, my worst enemy, my soul mate, my co-conspirator, “Martine Jaeger Grout heard that her scoundrel of a husband has been in a bar for 72 hours and she wants me to go get him!”
My heart, which had been pounding as much from the sight of muscle-man Jack in his snug beige corduroy jump suit as from the exertion of my calisthenics, almost came to a complete stop.
“You mean he’s still alive?” I asked.
“Not only is he still alive, he’s getting drunk three blocks from where his family lives and I’m sure he’s carrying on with some pencil-legged floozy in this moment of crisis for his poor family.”
“Thank God!” I said, “what a relief.” “What’s a group of floozies called?” I asked myself, “A stiletto of slatterns?” I had always loved Herman Rodman Guidry, Gladys Knudsen Grout’s son-in-law. He was a madman, a romantic madman, not like anyone I’ve ever met before. The kindest soul there ever was.
“What a relief? You mean to tell me you’re happy at his latest misdeed? Get over here this instant and come with me to the bar!”
“I can’t,” I said as I resorted to my lying mode, which was the only way she and I had stayed friends for these 35 years, “I’ve got a roast in the oven and I’m having Pastor Bjerke over to discuss the new sanctuary building campaign.”
“I can’t believe you’re not going to help me in my hour of need. Fine, I’ll go alone.”
She hung up and I drifted back to the television set, happy that Herman Rodman Guidry was still among the living, happy that I was doing jumping jacks with Jack La Lane and wishing he’d jump me, and happy that I wasn’t going to stand in front of a bar with Gladys Knudsen Grout.
Forty-five minutes later, refreshed from my exertions, purified by my bath, and beautified by 25 minutes of cosmetic labor in front of my mirror, I decided to take a stroll on the sly down to the Ambassador to see how things were going.
Sure enough, there she was. I stood on the north side of Ocean Avenue, two blocks down from the Ambassador, on the other side of the street. I parked myself on a bus stop bench so she wouldn’t see me. She was dressed in her forest green dress and white shoes and purse, and that ridiculous veil she wore to no good effect for, even though she was a little long in the tooth, she did have those gorgeous Scandinavian blue eyes.
I’ve got to hand it to her. She stood right in front of the swinging saloon doors so she would block the entrance of anyone who wanted to enter. In those days Long Beach was a sailor’s town, especially in those parts, so anyone she confronted would be at least ten times larger and about thirty times more vulgar than a scrawny Norwegian housewife from Luverne, Minnesota.
I waved a bus to not to bother stopping as I sat on the bench and surveyed the scene. The air still smelled like lighter fluid and, even though there was a breeze, gray soot still speckled the cars and lawns that rimmed both sides of the street. I smiled at the incongruity: snow on a balmy afternoon.
Behind me the sky was still yellow and black and green; the blue of the sky showed through but it was clear that the fire up on Signal Hill was still smoldering. I heard the damn thing go up. It was Friday afternoon, three days ago. I was watching Ralph Story – or was it Jerry Dunphy? - I always confuse the two - on the 4pm edition of the evening news when there was a big kaboom and I thought it was another one of those pesky X-15 jets perforating the sound barrier. If they ever broke my china collection I swear I’d buy a bazooka and shoot down one of those jets. But this sound was different. The ground seemed to heave and the television reception got bad and for a second I thought it was one of those periodic earthquakes we get from time to time to shake us out of the ennui of too much sunshine.
The noise came from behind me. All there was behind me was mile upon mile of single story houses that stopped three blocks away from the oil refineries on Signal Hill. For a second I thought it might have been an explosion at the gas station the next block over. Then I thought it could just be all those oil derricks up on Signal Hill and I prayed that Martine Jaeger Grout’s husband, Herman Rodman Guidry, was okay. Then Ralph Story – that’s right, it was Ralph Story – announced in a voice that trembled with man-fear that the Hancock Oil Refinery on Signal Hill had exploded and that though no official count had been made the initial estimates of the extent of the damage suggested that there would be no survivors.
I felt my knees go weak and limped over to the phone. Already the party line buzzed with the news. “Get off the damn phone,” I said, knowing it would be no good because gossip birds have got to have their twitter, “I have to see if a husband of a daughter of a friend is okay.” The chattering continued apace. Wishing a cat would bite off their heads, I hung up.
I continued to shoo the buses away – couldn’t they see that I had no intention to board them? – and watch Gladys Knudsen Grout. For once I had to admire her pluck, though her common sense was, as always, nonexistent. Couldn’t she just call the bar and see if Herman Rodman Guidry was indeed there – so far evidence to that effect was only hearsay - and if he was, to ask him to come to the phone or else remember to ask pretty please in her fake treacly voice she uses when she wants something, to tell him that his wife – his pretty wife with two darling kids – required his immediate presence in their home a few blocks away?
I guess not.
No, she had to make a big fancy statement: “I’m not afraid of those ill-mannered, no-necked. Un-Christian men,” she would say, time and again, as we passed them on the way to the Crown Cafeteria. Everything was confrontation with her. Black and white. No middle ground. No accommodation, no admitting to the possibility that perhaps, just perhaps, there was an alternative point of view that had to be considered. Kompromiss? Aldri!
No, she had been like that ever since I met her in high school calisthenics class in Luverne, Minnesota and I was sure she would be like that until the day she died which, to judge from the way she refused to yield to those large sailors could very well occur this afternoon in Long Beach, California.
God knows how Floyd Otto Grout, may his soul rest in peace, has put up with her these 45 years. But then he’s another story or two or three that I may or may not get to. Right now I have to get down what I remember of that afternoon because it so perfectly encapsulated everything that was good as well as everything that was bad about Gladys Knudsen Grout.
She had no way of knowing what condition Herman Rodman Guidry was in at that particular moment. The only people that knew were the bartender, a reedy Syrian with eyebrows that looked like umlauts who sold stolen television sets out of the trunk of his Rambler, and a couple of Herman Rodman Guidry’s madmen and barbelles. He had kept the bar open for the past 72 hours just for his, no, for the bar’s patron saint, Herman Rodman Guidry, who had just risen from the dead.
I don’t think Gladys Knudsen Grout had given any thought to what he might have looked like after what he went through, to his frame of mind, to his desire for total oblivion. No, I’m sure she was so caught up in her cyclotron of moral indignation that she would not think to put herself in his position, to see the world how, at that moment, he saw it.
I do believe that if she did she would have tempered her wrath, at least for a while. If she wanted to, she could have, you know, tempered her wrath; it was certainly in her, especially for the truly magnificent way the story ends – I may or may not get around to the grand finale, I have yet to decide - but now I’m getting ahead of myself here.
No one knew exactly what had happened in that refinery the moment it blew up. I’m looking at it now in my memory, having overlaid it with facts procured from various sources. What Herman Rodman Guidry did made perfect sense, given his particular circumstances. Come to think of it, what Gladys Knudsen Grout did made perfect sense as well, although I could have strangled her for being so pig-headed and righteous about the whole thing.
Of course, I heard the story from her point of view, though it was all filtered through her selfishness. The facts I picked up from Martine Jaeger Grout and from the newspaper stories. Apparently something called “unengineered friction” had caused a belt to shred which caused something to overheat which caused a spark and one single solitary spark, apparently, in such a volatile place as an oil refinery, can wreck all manner of havoc. Of course it could. Of course it did.
That was the big whoosh I heard. I read in the paper that the flash of the explosion caused a sailor on a boat dry docked in the shipyards to think this was the Big One, that the Russians had invaded America with a first incursion in Long Beach. If it were true, that the Russians were invading, they would have been better off invading San Francisco – at least they would have found some young women because Long Beach in those days was overrun by senior citizens who played shuffleboard in Bixby Park and drank Yuban coffee and ate sugar donuts in the Park Pantry and somehow didn’t kill themselves driving those ridiculous golf cars down the middle of the road.
This sailor radioed a friend who radioed a friend who radioed someone in command who, fortunately, at least in this instance, was drunk and asleep in the arms of a civilian secretary that he called Betty Blueprint which of course wasn’t her real name and of course wasn’t his real wife. That non-communication probably saved the whole west coast from being put onto high military alert and who knows what mischief could have ensued from that. Men.
The next morning I read in the P-T that a manhole cover flew 150 yards across a vacant lot, landing in a playground and decapitating a couple of palm trees along the way. I read about what some writer, clearly a journalist masquerading as a poet manqué, called “a two-foot tsunami of hot viscous oil that cascaded down Redondo and melted the tires of 27 cars and trucks”. As I breakfasted by myself the next day at the Park Pantry – my Saturday morning ritual: I loved to inspect the faces of hung over, unshaven, and unkempt bachelors as they eat pancakes and swill coffee (and sometimes rush off to the bathroom in mid-fork-full) the morning after an alcoholic debacle, how they reach into their wallet and find a lottery of women’s phone numbers on napkins, the way they realize they have no money (I pay, graciously say it’s nothing, sagely call it karma, tactically call it a good way for a prematurely widowed woman at the top of her intellectual and sensuous game to meet eligible, interesting men, helpless and oh so eager to please). Off to the side of the Pantry entrance sat the old German man with a face that looked like a bag of melted caramel. He sat there on an orange crate, selling papers. As I came out the door I bought a paper, the front page of which was plastered with news about the refinery explosion. “Those poor men,” I said to no one in particular. He said, apparently to no one in particular either, “If you want to hear about the air being sucked out of a room, a street, a city, then let me tell you about Dresden.”
But what no one reported because no one saw it or, if they saw it they quickly forgot it because they had already (prematurely, as it happened) assumed everyone was dead, though many, many lives were affected by it, was the work of a hero or an angel or a devil or a rogue: call him what you will but very few people knew what happened inside the control unit of that refinery the first ten minutes after the explosion, when all hell broke loose.
I found out because Floyd Otto Grout told me and he knew because over Friday night bourbon Herman Rodman Guidry could take already interesting stories – his middle name should have been either Fate or Destiny, like someone out of a Robert W. Service poem – and make them downright Homeric and quixotic. It confirmed what I had suspected about Herman Rodman Guidry: he was a saint. Along with some of the other stories Floyd Otto Grout told me – maybe I’ll get to them, too, as well as the circumstances under which he told them to me – I will go to my grave having known one of the most remarkable men who ever lived.
It went like this. Five minutes before quitting time Herman Rodman Guidry had just picked up his lunchbox, the one Martine Jaeger Grout each morning would lovingly pack with two Underwood deviled ham sandwiches, a wedge of German chocolate cake, some cut carrots, some cut celery. Oh, and the Monday morning love note on a piece of perfumed stationary. Floyd Otto Grout said Herman Rodman Guidry loved the poems and lyrics and sentiments expressed therein though the smell of the perfume clashed something fierce with the deviled ham sandwiches.
On the way home he was going to make an appearance at the monthly meeting of the Long Beach Reptile Club. He was the Treasurer and he was going to drop off his quarterly report and some receipts for reimbursements and an article he had written about matters serpentine for the National Geographic – the same periodical Gladys Knudsen Grout had bought him a lifetime’s subscription for as a wedding present – and notify the boys – the stories they must tell! – that he had been asked to appear on the Today Show with Steve Allen to milk the venom out of some of his dreadful rattlesnakes.
But he had begged off staying for the full meeting because it was his sixth wedding anniversary and he was going to take Martine Jaeger Grout and the kids to Sam’s Sea Food in Sunset Beach out on the Coast Highway for dinner.
As he walked out the door of the control chamber, shaking his head at the punch line of a joke he had just heard that was so vulgar, so beyond every possible shred of common decency, that he, even he, the barometer of bawdy, wouldn’t repeat it, he felt himself lifted ten feet off the ground and then shoved back against a wall at the back of the room. As he shot backwards he dislocated his left shoulder, as he later discovered, on the heavy metal edge of the control chamber door. This explained his listing to the left twenty minutes later as he staggered, burned, blistered, in shock, the four miles down Cherry Avenue as he wound his way to the Ambassador like a horse given free rein by its driver.
Before, though – and this is where I wish I could have been there to hear the story straight from Herman Rodman Guidry’s mouth: Floyd Otto Grout said he was talking in a low, guttural voice, so unlike his squeaky little boy voice; slow – “You mean like a seer at the Oracle of Delphi?” I asked. Floyd Otto Grout stopped talking for a moment, looked at me like I was dog poop squished under his church shoes, closed his eyes for five seconds – I know, I counted, - and continued. He has no idea how my ardor would augment when he would close his eyes in exasperation. Wait, yes he does.
Where was I? Oh, then, according to Floyd Otto Grout who heard it from the horse’s mouth, the moment Herman Rodman Guidry got lifted off his feet, two things flashed simultaneously in his mind: first the flash and, seconds later, the boom. God, he sure was right on kaboom.
Second, he became that nineteen year old Marine again who felt time slow down to a crawl as he, they, tripped down the ramp of the Higgins Boat stuck nose down in a sand wedge whose chute didn’t fully open so the skulls of the Marines of the Third Division that got submarine-gun strafed would explode like coconuts before they could even get a toehold on Bougainville and the flames from the flamethrowers nestled in the coral peeled skin like tomatoes dropped in scalding water.
He told Floyd Otto Grout that all this carnage, this hell – the smell, he said, was the worst of all – activated something he called his reptilian brain. I knew exactly what he meant. My correspondence course, “The Marvels of Human Biology,” obscure instincts of reptile brain, back to first principles: brilliant. And fueled with that legendary Guidry-esque adrenaline, not to mention his incendiary rage, he went on a rescue spree the details of which he made Floyd Otto Grout promise not to repeat and which, of course, he did the moment I ran into him at Buffum’s Department Store.
But I do know that’s what happened inside that control chamber. Herman Rodman Guidry absconded to his reptile brain, and did whatever it was he did – I had to fill in the blanks here because Floyd Otto Grout didn’t want details made known to us women-folk. A little patronizing, I should think, but then again I would probably vomit to hear the details.
We’ll never know what he did, who he saved, what he heard, what he said. The next thing I know Gladys Knudsen Grout is pounding on my door telling me to open the damn thing or she’ll kick it down. My dear, sweet, Gladys Knudsen Grout, no wonder that, with that language, you’re the queen of the harvest ball.
She was out of breath. She told me that Martine Jaeger Grout and the kids had gone to Disneyland and so hadn’t heard anything and she, Gladys Knudsen Grout, was so upset and didn’t know what to do and she’d never see him again. “See who again?” I asked, stupidly.
“See goddamn Herman Rodman Guidry again, you idiot, that’s who!”
That’s when I realized that maybe just maybe she really did like her son-in-law. Who knows, perhaps she just might have loved him. I took her hand and we walked slowly to my car and I drove her to her daughter’s house to await their arrival. I held her hand as I drove. I told her, in a voice whose soft timbre I didn’t even realize I had, that everything was going to be all right but already the air was sooty and smelled like a barbecue and the smoke hurt my eyes. We sat on the wood bench on the porch of the bungalow on Mariquita Street until Martine Jaeger Grout and the two kids drove up the drive. The daughter was asleep but the son was smiling and happy. Both kids were sunburned, each a bundle of joy.
Martine asked about the smoke she saw up on Signal Hill. “What’s with this welcoming committee?,” she asked Gladys Knudsen Grout started to sob, so I spoke. It wasn’t pretty. Martine Jaeger Grout emitted one loud long wail and fainted. Now I know how the women of Troy must have felt when they learned their men weren’t coming home.
But how quick the compassion, touching, genuine, of Gladys Knudsen Grout vanished when she heard from the highest authority, Pastor Bjerke, and God alone knows how he knew it, that Herman Rodman Guidry was indeed alive – this was three days after the explosion – six dead, four missing, including one Mr. Herman Rodman Guidry – and that he had taken up residence on a bar stool at the Ambassador Bar.
I knew my friend was fighting a losing battle. She couldn’t conquer him, turn him to her will because, after what he saw in the Pacific 20 years prior, no longer would he wage war against man, against country, against mother-in-law. Without enemies they could be no war, right?
Gladys Knudsen Grout looked down the street and glowered at a mother wearing black Capri pants that were too tight pushing a baby carriage. Just then the streetlights came on. That’s when the saloon doors swung open.
I saw Herman Rodman Guidry approach her. From where I sat – it was twilight by now – he looked like hell. The hair on his head was burned off and his face and arms were blistered like almond roca. I’m sure he didn’t recognize her. For a moment he stood before her and said, in a pitch-perfect Cary Grant voice, “It matters not how straight the gate, nor charged with destiny the scroll, I am the captain of my fate, I am the master of my soul.”
He then bowed like a papal courtier and the top of his hip flask popped off, rolled across the sidewalk to the gutter, and fell through the sewer grating down the drain. He wove his way down the street towards his home like a man doing a polka by himself to an accordion that no one else on earth could hear.
Gladys Knudsen Grout wrapped her arms around her chest as if only then noticing that that the air had grown cold. I had never seen that look on her face before. As she told me the next Sunday after church, she couldn’t tell whether that expression reminded her of an angel or a devil.
Gladys Knudsen Grout also told me – I’m paraphrasing here, the woman couldn’t hold a narrative to save her life - that something profound had recently come over her. Many times, she said, as she reflected on that moment, she would feel a chill that would percolate down her spine. She assumed it was her Lord’s grace. The old hag, she never once suspected that the foundation of her righteousness had shifted and re-settled askance and that it had nothing to do with our Lord.
I’m convinced that what caused the slight frown on my friend’s face 17 years later and which prompted her daughter to ask the mortuary cosmetician to smooth it out before the next morning’s funeral service – I’m extrapolating here, so sue me - was the memory of an odor born of salt air and orange blossoms and acrid smoke and through eternity this odor would remind her of something sacred and elusive, incense-inviolate and Gnostic, something that filled her with dread and rapture. Something not entirely of that, this earth.