I am out of sync the whole time I am in the Maltz/Burch home. Maltz shows me his improvements in the kitchen: far better tiling, flooring, and counter-work than I ever managed (and I tried), and I am suddenly seeing my 300-pound dead mother standing on a footstool, hanging bluebell-patterned wallpaper at the edge of the ceiling. This would be 1981. She was exactly the age I am now, and in my imaginations she is smiling, still quite alive. In 1981, I was 30 and had outgrown performing rock and roll. I smoked a pipe, wrote fiction, and managed a bar for a respectable yacht club in the Coronado Cays. My mother seems terribly old to me on that stepladder, sizing dripping from folds of bluebells as she laughs, and her bulk sends the glue around the room like hawked-up loogies.
Maltz is saying, “I wanted to put a bathroom in here, and I didn’t know how to do it. I called a contractor…” He points to an entirely new but small, reinforced area of the house, just to the right of where I wrote several stories that now come flooding back to me. One of them, “The Coffin Rider,” was about murder and rock and roll. “There was this little sitting room you had here,” Maltz says, “and on the other side, that back porch where the refrigerator had been…” Meanwhile, my mind passes easily beyond that wall to the terribly canted porch area, where, indeed, we once had a refrigerator that defied the laws of tectonics and gravity. I watch the ghost of a gray mother cat walk over my feet (I suddenly seem to be wearing Frye boots, just like the ones I bought in the ’70s, and these are good and broken in — it must be 1982), a kitten in her jaws, the identical color. She brings out another, and another, settling them in a pile of paint rags, which I quickly replace with old but clean towels. I would name that cat Ashes because she looked as if she had rolled around in a fireplace. A year later, she would get run over on Curlew Street by one of the mad drunks who careered down the hill and along that curve. I got the news at the yacht club during happy hour, and I was crying behind the bar while couples in their 60s snake-danced around the dance floor to Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” on the jukebox.
“This was wasted space, the wall was right here,” Maltz says. “What he [the contractor] ended up doing was tearing out the wall. We ended up getting an office and a bathroom here.” Indeed he had. A much more sensible and stable space it is now, and the view of what had been the bamboo stand is now a view of another kind of wild: somehow more a young girl’s perfect patch of imaginative wilderness à la The Secret Garden than a boy’s Neverland. “The way he did it is that he added more space. You had a little overhang over the patio.…”
“Yeah,” I say. “My father-in-law Duke and I did that. We did a lot of stuff. That overhang was all redwood. Termites, you know.…”
And my mind is on the late Cecil “Duke” Crowell, who died a few years ago, a man who was as much a father to me as my own, who’d died in 1968.
“I redid the floor down here.” Maltz is showing me the rental, the granny-flat basement. When I lived here, it had been a nightmare. I remember the pitch and the near complete lack of light. Enough, however, to expose a patch of wall that always seemed to shimmer, separate, scurry with the movement of a thousand cockroaches. Two women had rented this space for years in the 1970s, feminists, lesbians who apparently equated cleanliness, housecleaning, shaving (even facial hair), any type of personal hygiene and/or housekeeping with bondage to the oppressive patriarchy of chauvinist swine. “We didn’t want to change anything that was in here,” Maltz says, and he is, I dearly hope, referring to improvements my wife Diane, her father the Duke, and I and my young son (helping, helping, always helping, and doing a manly little job) had managed, I thought, pretty well. Our greatest contribution might have been the introduction of sunlight, with new windows, cleaner windows, mirrors, etc. The shimmed-up floor, to correct for something like a 20-degree angle downhill, was a stopgap measure that Maltz more finally corrected. “We had renters,” he says, “and they wanted a kitchen, so we said, ‘What the heck.’ ” Maltz gestures at many other improvements. I am struggling to keep my footing in the here and now.
Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Pretenders, Toots Thielemans and Bill Evans, and Bruce Springsteen provided the soundtrack to the renovation in those earlier years. Also Mink DeVille and Little Feat. The music dovetailed into my second novel, the first that would be published. The renovation was maddening. The insects alone: mosquitoes bred by a leaking water heater emptying down the canyon, cockroaches, spiders, and flies, of course — all conspired to create a pissy discontent, even paranoia, when I confronted my father-in-law (who’d lent us the down payment) and asked, “Are you unhappy with the progress we’re making? We’re doing the best we can, but I really don’t know what I’m doing, and I feel it’s all wrong. I sense you’re angry at me, and you think I’m an idiot.”
After a long pause, Duke said, “No. Not at all. You’re doing fine.”
Maltz says, “This is kind of a mess, and that kitchen area went all the way to the stairs…”
“Yeah,” I say. “That was kind of the edge of the world. Very unsafe, actually. I admire what you did.”
Maltz is 44 and works as a teacher at City College in biology. Formerly, he worked at the Evergreen State College in Washington. His background is in science. “When I bought this,” he says, “I was doing research at Scripps Oceanography. I wanted to move back to California, to San Diego, and I could see the market rising. I rented at first. This house was probably knocked down [in price] from, like, $850,000.”