Ralphie and Howard went out after the tattoo and had dinner in a trendy fusion spot and then on to a club with velvet ropes and no signs outdoors. They were whisked inside through an unmarked door, and shown to Howard’s table, segregated away from everyone else. Howard sat there unimpressed with the scene, and felt out of place in the place he came on a weekly basis. He said his hellos, had a few drinks, tried to enjoy himself. Ralphie sent over so many women that Howard couldn’t keep track and it didn’t do a thing to distract him from the fact that Nancy left him just hours earlier, and he came to the realization that his career as he knew it was most likely coming to an end.
Howard left early and returned home. Of all the things, he couldn’t stop thinking about Punch. He called Ralphie to have him get in touch with the kid at the tattoo studio to see about getting Punch’s phone number.
* * * *
Alan made a personal visit to Howard’s home; quite a schlep from Beverly/Fairfax in West Hollywood to Malibu, but he was worried about his friend. He hadn’t seen him in weeks and though he knew that Howard wasn’t angry with him personally, just wanted reassurances that they were ok. He brought rugelah from a great Jewish bakery in L.A. hoping to warm Howard up and make him feel better. Howard answered the door with his usual greeting, a great hug and handshake.
“What the hell took you so long to come see me? I’m not a fucking leper.”
“Howie you know I love you. You said you wanted some time. Or some space. Whatever the hell you said you wanted I gave it to you. I always give you what you want,” Alan gratefully replied.
“I’m glad you’re here. We gotta talk.”
“No word from Nancy?”
“Nah, the slut. You know it’s not really a big deal she’s not here anymore. I don’t miss her. I don’t miss the company. I don’t mind having the quiet around here.”
“So what are you getting at?” Alan inquired cautiously.
“Nothing, I’m just…I’ve been thinking a lot. I think I’m going home.”
“What, home? Which one? The Island? Yacht in Amalfi? You wanna stay at my place in Maui for a while?”
“Alan I’m going back to Brooklyn.” Howard stood up and made the pronouncement resolutely.
“What the fuck is in Brooklyn? Of all the places, Howard…Are you going through some kind of crisis?”
They both laughed at the dramatic effect.
“You sound like a bad screenplay,” Howard joked. “I just thought I’d get the hell out of this town for a while. Get back to—“
“What? Get back to what? There’s nothing there. No one’s left. You know that,” Alan said, knowing that a trip home for all his clients and friends never meant anything good. They hadn’t even made good movies about the subject of going back home. It was trite. Going back home was a contrived context to too many bad stories. It was unlike Howard to fall for such sentimentality.
Howard sat back and basked in the imaginary sun in the enormous living room, soaking in every detail that his interior designer carefully planned, as if to look at it for the first and last time.
“I can’t say I have strong attachments here anymore,” Howard declared.
Alan stood up and appeared to take offense. He paced around a little bit. Howard didn’t look in his direction, but saw him from the corner of his eye and he knew his friend was planning a counterattack.
“Attachments? Howard Motherfucking Kessler, Attachments? Your whole life is here, your career, you were nothing without Hollywood and don’t pretend you would have made anything of yourself without your career in this town. You don’t attach well, if you hadn’t already noticed by now, you cold fuck,” he steamed. Alan inhaled and was about to continue the tirade but then Howard interrupted.
“I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate what you’ve done, or what I have. For chrissake, Alan, this is a $10 million house I’m in; you don’t think I know what I have? That’s not my point. I don’t know what the fuck my point is anymore. I just don’t—“
Alan knew exactly what Howard was getting at, even if he himself didn’t know. And nothing against Howard, Alan knew he couldn’t articulate it anyway. Here’s a guy who was shrewd enough to get where he is today, but by brute force, talent, and intensity, not book smarts.
“Fine then. Fine, how long do you want to take? I mean, you know what happens to people out here when they’re off the circuit for too long,” Alan tried to keep Howard focused.
“I don’t give a shit about the circuit. I’m 66 years old. 26 movies, countless TV shows, a fuckin musical, you think I give a shit about the circuit? What else is there for me here? Taking roles as a Grampa sitting on a porch reading stories to a snot-nosed ankle-biter in some schlocky period piece?”
He was right.
Howard was either too embarrassed or confused to admit what he was really thinking—if anything, Alan thought.
“You’re too old to have kids. They don’t even do that in Africa,” Alan said bluntly, angry that he couldn’t dissuade the headstrong Howard.
“It’s not kids. That ship left a long time ago. I don’t know, Alan, I just don’t have anything of my own. I keep playing these roles, they’re all the same, I’m tired and bored—“
“And those tired, boring roles are what’s gotten you this $10 million home,” Alan retorted.
“I have nothing of my own, is what I was going to say. I mean, I’ve made a living off of a caricature of myself, and I don’t have any identity.”
“Oh, so that’s what you think this is about? Your identity? Listen to me—I mean it, Howie—listen to every word I’m going to tell you, and not just because I think Brooklyn is a useless piece of shit place, but because I know you better than anyone and I can see from a million miles away that you were about to hit this point—“
“I don’t want to hear it. Alan, thank you, really, I am thankful for your friendship. But I have to do this. I have to get out of here, and I just have to go back home and see what’s there for me.”
He stood up and looked out at the ocean, then turned back around and stretched his arms out to his side, clasping them behind his neck—pulling rather than hanging his arms.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Howard said, almost in a whisper, trying to convince himself that it was true.
“Fine. I have strong opinions about this, Howard, I’m just telling you then. Just one last question though. Are you in trouble? I mean, you know, the numbers? I don’t wanna get another fucking knock on the door at 3am by a bunch of animals,” Alan asked, referring to the time a few years back when Howard owed every bookie west of the Hudson.
“No, I’m good.”
And with that, they bid goodbye.
* * * *
Alan left the house and sulked back to his car up the steep driveway. He was losing his friend. Even if he came back, which he doubted he would, things wouldn’t be the same. Once you’ve turned on L.A., you can’t come back the same person who left. Alan couldn’t see anything good out of Howard’s decision to go back home. It had been 50 years and there was nothing for him there. A couple of altakaka’s who used to be hoodlums. Alan’s worst fear is that going back home would resuscitate the old feuds, or bring out the parasites who would suck everything out of his friend that there is to give–money, first and foremost, and the pathetic requests to be set up on dates.
A few quiet days passed. Howard’s phone rang and it was Ralphie with the phone number he wanted from Ben, the tattoo artist. Howard wrote it down on the back of last week’s copy of Variety in thick, black marker. Howard didn’t use pen and paper much for anything, so when he did, Sharpies were his choice writing tool.
He thought he should be clear with Alan, and gave him a call.
“Alan, buddy, listen, I don’t think we had a straight conversation the other day,” Howard said sheepishly.
“What the hell are you talking about now?”
“About going home. Me, when I said I’m going back to Brooklyn—“
“Were you shittin’ me? Because if you were that’s a terrible trick, really, Howie—“
“No, I know you have problems with my decision. But honestly, the first time I thought about it was when we talked.”
There was a long silence. Alan didn’t know whether to laugh or hang up. He had to clarify, since Howie wasn’t a big talker on the phone.
“Wait, are you going back or no?”
“Yeah, I’m probably going back. The whole thing started because I just heard about a guy I knew, one of my closest friends before I left, he’s still around and I just, uh—“
“Alright, I get it, you’re curious. It happens to the best of us.”
“I don’t know if it’s just curious, you know, it’s like, I don’t know, I just want to get back to something I know,” Howard said, though wavering.
“I’m not trying to talk you out of it, but you already know my feeling about this. But I can’t help but tell you that it’s a stupid fucking idea,” Alan rebuked.
“I don’t know if it’s stupid. I have to get the hell out of here. I have to go learn something, find some new things, come up with a new project for myself.”
“Uh, Brooklyn isn’t where you go to learn stuff and find new things, you know, it’s a dead-end.”
“I’m just talking about digging up a couple of guys. Finding out what they’ve been doing.”
Alan had no response.
Losing patience, Howie said, “Forget it, forget I called, I’ll be in touch.”
He hung up. Alan couldn’t change his friend’s mind, even if he knew that Howard’s mind wasn’t exactly resolute.
Several days passed before Howard had the gumption to call Punch. He didn’t even know what he would say. He didn’t obsess over it, though. He spent a few days packing some clothing, arranging for the artwork to be sold or sent back to the galleries from which he borrowed them. He had a cleaning service come in, his decorator arranged for much of the furniture to be packed away, and the management agency to come assess the property for an extended separation. Howard didn’t even know where he was going. His phone used to ring all day—now only a few calls a day from friends or his publicist. Things were winding down on their own, which is just the way Howard likes it.
Howard wasn’t going to stick around town to hear gawkers whispering that he’s a has-been.
Ralphie, who was much less of a mensch than Alan, called Howard out on Ben’s frantic search for Punch’s phone number. “What, you going back home to be a big star there, you don’t get enough of that here?”
“I don’t really know what the fuck you’re talking about Ralphie, so you can fuck off.”
But Howard felt he had to think about Ralphie’s inartfully-said message. Was that really why he was going home? Because he knew that he would get the fawning attention of a New York audience, his home-town? He tried it once before about 25 years ago and it went over well for a while until he overstayed his welcome. He owed money, was wrapped up in a horse-fixing scandal, landed a few punches at one of New York’s 3-star restaurants, smashed a borrowed Ferrari and never repaid the owner. He was also accosted by everyone who ever came through Brooklyn, claiming to be his best friend and in need of money. But most of all, his old friends always wanted him to hook him up with girls. Most of those guys were so desperate for women that they felt Howie was a silver bullet for dates. It was pathetic.
This time it will be different. He’s not going back as a star. He’s going back as Howie Kessler, to find his friends, clear the noise, and find some truth.
He picked up the phone and dialed Punch’s number.