The Guncle by Steven Rowley



            “Mom had three nothes?”

            “Grant! What did I say about interruptions?” Patrick cleared his throat. “That night on the roof she told me life was going to be easy, I remember that. I promised her the same, but she looked at me as if I were hopelessly naive. She said life was different for girls—harder. But she told me I was talented. That I might even be famous one day. I had that kind of head.”

            “What kind of head do you have?” Maisie asked.

            Sara meant large, but for the sake of the story Patrick said, “The kind with only one nose.”

            “You are famouth!”

            “Well, fame is measured on a sliding scale, but your mother was right about a lot of things.” Patrick’s eyes glazed, thinking how tragically wrong she was about others. “Eventually, campus police came and told us to move along. We’d tripped an alarm, if I recall.” Patrick paused; it might have been that joint they were smoking instead. “Our friendship began in darkness,” he repeated, remembering the stairwell. “But your mother? She was always my light.”

            Maisie quietly pressed stop and lowered the phone to her side. There was indeed a right and a wrong way to tell a story, and her expression said she wanted to know everything that happened next.

            “That was really good, GUP.”

            Patrick leaned forward to reclaim his phone. He motioned for them to sit back together. “Now, let’s try this again.” He imagined himself Mr. DeMille, the children now ready for their close-up. “Tell me something special about your mother.”





SIX

WEEKS

EARLIER





ONE




            At 8:38 a.m., the temperature was already hovering in the high eighties, on its way north of one hundred—unusual perhaps for May, but not unheard of. The desert sky was cloudless, a vibrant cobalt blue you wouldn’t believe was real until you spent enough time underneath it to ensure it wasn’t some sort of Hollywood effect. Patrick O’Hara stood curbside in front of the small airport, lost. The mountains surrounding Palm Springs were herculean; they worked overtime to hold back all kinds of weather—clouds, rain, humidity—everything except for wind, which accounted for the majestic windmills that stood like palace guards at the entrance to the Coachella Valley. The palm trees waved gently in the breeze, but did not so much as bend. In this moment, Patrick wished he had even a fraction of their strength.

            An old Chevrolet convertible in robin’s egg blue eased past him, pausing at the speed bump, the driver taking extra care not to scrape the automobile’s low carriage. It hiccuped over the barrier, and then resumed a reasonable speed around the corner away from the terminal, following a line of dignified palm trees toward the airport exit like it was driving into an antiquarian postcard. It’s something Patrick loved about Palm Springs, the city’s timelessness. The days were long, and so clean with sunlight it was impossible to distinguish one from the next. For four years now he’d been holed up in his midcentury desert estate, the one he’d purchased with his TV money (handsome compensation for costarring in nine humiliating seasons of The People Upstairs, plus syndication, plus streaming, plus a surprisingly robust run in France), in the aptly named Movie Colony neighborhood south of Tamarisk Road. It wasn’t his intent to cut himself off from the world so completely, but the city invited it. In the old studio days, actors who were under contract were not allowed to travel more than one hundred miles from Los Angeles in case a picture needed them on short notice. Palm Springs sat exactly on that line, one hundred miles as the crow flies; it became an escape—as far away as actors dared go.

            When he first relocated, Patrick invited friends to visit, people in the industry mostly—oddballs he’d collected over a decade and a half in Hollywood. Sara once brought the kids for a week and they laughed and splashed in the pool like no time had passed; she made fun of him and his celebrity in the way only old friends could. Then, slowly over time, he stopped reaching out. And people stopped coming. Sara had legitimate reasons, but others just seemed to forget he existed at all. Those who observed his trickling visitors, like JED, the gay throuple who lived in the house behind his, went so far as to call him a recluse. John, Eduardo, and Dwayne would pop their grinning faces over the wall that divided their properties with friendly (but barbed) taunts, like a Snap, Crackle, and Pop who fucked. His housekeeper, Rosa, encouraged him to meet someone. “Mr. Patrick. Why you have this house all alone?” The answer was complicated and he skirted around it, knowing if he moped she would feel sorry for him and make his favorite ceviche. But to Patrick, his situation wasn’t that dire. He was simply . . . done. For nine years he had given a side of himself to the world, and what he had left he owed no one.