“Christine was #3. She was a zit freak more than a sex freak. We coupled in early ’71.”


james ellroy once joked that he was the only person not to get laid during the “summer of love” . . . here he hits rock bottom in late ’60s, early ’70s L.A. . . .

I woke up. I was naked, she was naked, I didn’t know where I was.

We were under bedsheets. She was still asleep. I didn’t know who she was.

I rubbed my face. It felt like a four-day growth. I was clean-shaven at my last recollection.

You sold blood plasma downtown. You hitchhiked to the beach. You met your pal Randy and started drinking. You argued with some hippies. You stood on the Palisades and fulminated. Your tory worldview appalled them. You stormed off then.

Booze blackout—age 23.

I was a fit 160. The woman weighed three bills easy. I looooved voluptuousness. My standards were permissive. These were curves I could not condone.

A memory burst hit me. I still had nine bucks left from the blood bank.

My clothes were on the bedside floor. My glasses and wallet were safe. Two twenties were tucked in the billfold.

The woman snored on. Maybe she paid me for it. That would mark a first.

I got up, got dressed and stealth-walked out of the pad. Stairs led down to a ground-floor landing. I stepped outside. I was on Fell Street in San Francisco.

•    •    •

She was the fourth. Keeping track was easy then. Susan was #1. She was 29 to my 20. She needed a roof and fucked me in the Spirit of Revolution. She caught me jacking off on uppers the night RFK got shot. She defamed me as a perv, a bum lay and a fascist. She turned dyke for political reasons and the valid motive of inclination.

I was an especially puerile 20 and malleable in the extreme. I was months into a run of sobbing fits out of pure sex hunger/angst. Susan had a ’60s-zeitgeist spiel down pat. I believed all of it when we were stoned and none of it when we were clean. Susan knew a high school pal of mine and fucked him just as callously. He was even more pliable than I was and had an even more roach-ridden apartment. His cystic acne was worse than mine. I could steal drugs from stores and rich people’s houses. He was afraid to. I boded as a better doormat/pity fuck.

Susan and I guzzled cough syrup and pills swiped from medicine chests all over Hancock Park. We talked classical music shit endlessly. We got bombed and played Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter. We defamed rock and roll as counterrevolutionary pap. Susan endured Beethovian mood swings and treated me as her mongoloid kid brother and dope-thief-on-command. All that tsuris got me four peremptory fucks. My zits popped in the throes of my real and her feigned passion. Susan held the line at fuck #5. My technique had not improved to her specifications. My social skills were sub-zero. I was staggeringly uncool and required deep pore cleansing and dermabrasion. Besides—she’d just met a groovy chick with a cool pad in the Hollywood Hills.

Charlotte was #2. It was late ’69. She was an affluent Palos Verdes girl on post-college hiatus. My booze-brave approach charmed her. She bought my great-writer-in-waiting act for three months and wised up. Her inclination: postpone sex for marriage to a real man. Why I got it: the era mandated pre-marital sex as an experiment. We were next-door neighbors and met on the Wilshire Boulevard bus. I held down temp jobs as I brain-broiled the world’s greatest unwritten novel. Charlotte thought I drank too much. I pried open movie-house back doors and glommed us free double features. Charlotte thought that was cool and très ’69. Charlotte found me too emotional and sex-crazed. Sex was not all day and all night. Sex was a special occasion. Charlotte came to view me as a dubious experiment.

The experiment full-on tanked. Charlotte gave me a withering look and skedaddled. The look has since become familiar. It means, You’ve lied to me and you’re not who you say you are.

Christine was #3. She was a zit freak more than a sex freak. We coupled in early ’71 and hooked up periodically. I got in fistfights with her numerous boyfriends. Chris was a poetess and a dermatologist manqué. My acne-assaulted back delivered her delighted. She studied cross sections of the human dermis for hours. She bit my right-middle knuckle down to the bone to scope out the cartilage. I’ve still got the scar. She popped my pimples and examined the pus under a microscope. My first three women treated me as a lab-rat lover.

I stole a pint of vodka and hopped a bus, Frisco back to L.A. I lived in Robert Burns Park that summer. It was Hancock Park–adjacent. The girls I loved and stalked were off in grad school or married to stiffs. They had fulfilled the dashed promise of their mothers at that dance party. Money and safety were horrible temptations. They should have waited for me. I knew I’d sort my shit out at some point in the future.

The ’60s sizzled all around me. I remained nonplussed. My shit solidified and fossilized. I was well into a loooooooong tailspin.

My dad died in ’65. I got kicked out of high school and psych-discharged from three months in the army. I held down minimum-wage jobs and flopped in dive hotels and parks. I smoked weed and scored uppers from dubious physicians. I shoplifted and full-time fantasized. I kept a bust of Beethoven stashed in a bush at Burns Park. I did lightweight jolts in the L.A. County jail system. I was too thin and was developing a chronic cough.

Booze and dope regulated my fantasy life. The theme had only intensified. I remained consumed by women. It was pushing me toward insanity and death.

Tenderness in no way marked my short liaisons. I grasped with suffocating force and trawled for the next image with real women present. I couldn’t let go of the hurt or stop telling myself stories. I couldn’t stop looking at women and beseeching them to smash my stories and talk back to me.

The only love I knew was pornography self-created. The only lovers I desired radiated a distrust of men that would always exclude me. I succumbed to fantasies of Jean Hilliker and had her for a few dope-depraved seconds. Evil boy, piety lost, unredeemable searcher.

The American ’60s: even extreme self-indulgence carried limits.

Booze and downers fueled my great-writer fantasies. I read crime books and historical tomes in public libraries. Amphetamines gave me SEX. Dexedrine, Biphetamine, Desoxyn. A gonad-goosing triad. Dick-depleting substances. Eroticizing and not counterproductive. There were no women. They were all in my head.

The Hancock Park girls. Their mothers. Guest-star actresses on The Fugitive. Women glimpsed on my obsessive window peeps.

The fantasies were raw and loving. I holed up in dive pads, gas-station men’s rooms and dark public parks. I saw faces, faces and faces. I saw Her, She, Them. There can only be One. The cavalcade of faces must lead to one woman revealed.

I masturbated myself bloody. I brain-screened faces for stern beauty and probity. The dope drizzled out of my system. I drank myself comatose and woke up in random shrubbery and jails. I never questioned the validity of my mission. I never questioned my sanity or the religiousness of my quest. I did not subscribe to the notion of the American 1960s as the sine qua non of all behaviors in extremis. I was tracing the arc of The Hilliker Curse. I wanted One Woman or All Women to be Her. The horribly looming price of insanity or death in no way deterred me.

The fuzz started cracking down on dope-script docs. I was big, short-haired and some weird bookish/fierce-looking hybrid. I vibed rookie cop/faux hippie. Nobody would sell me dope.

I roamed around Hancock Park and peeped windows. I got the urge to prowl around inside.

Peggy’s house, Kay’s house, Cathy’s house. Missy’s house, Julie’s house, Joanne’s house.

Beautiful Hancock Park houses. They lived there. I could smell their secrets and touch their things.

The burglary show ran through the mid to late ’60s. It was its own separate blur. There might have been 20 performances. Time disintegrated during the actual process. It weighs big in retrospect. It was a minute proportion of my active watcher’s life.

Hancock Park. All those houses. B&E was easy then.

Unanswered phones meant empty dwellings. Pet-access doors were made for me. Push back the rubber flap and trip the inside latch. Genetic determinism. It’s why you’ve got long arms.

Window screens were loosely attached to bent nails. The panes were often pushed up. The first-floor sills were within my reach. I had memorized those details on furtive walk-bys. It was a learning process. I didn’t know it until my first break-in.

The idea was to touch Their lives and Them once removed. Don’t soil the premises. Don’t ransack and leave signs. You love Them. You know this is wrong. Don’t announce your violation.

Then you can do it again and again. Then you can perpetuate your wrongdoing. This will cosmetically justify your affection.

I succeeded at this pursuit. I did it and never got caught. I had the phone numbers, I knew the neighborhood, I was innocuous on the 10:00 p.m. streets. My backup job was to steal. I filched small bills from purses and small quantities of pills from medicine chests. I raided refrigerators and ate small quantities of food. I poured short shots of liquor, decanter to glass—and always avoided spills.

Careful boy, twisted heart, ever self-serving.

A long prelude up to this. Never covetous of wealth nearby. Never envious in my hunger.

I possessed night vision. I carried a flashlight for the detail work and kept the beam low. The dark was comforting. Unlit rooms console me now. Muted colors thrilled me then. The fabrics were stimulating. Brocade wallpaper and chenille. Things They had touched.

Objects tossed haphazardly. Napkins left behind. A tennis racket propped up with three umbrellas.

Their interiors. An explicit view to complement my all-internal love. Lush sets for fantasies.

Their bedrooms frightened me. Scents came on stronger as colors went too bright. I lay on Their beds and jumped up, that much more afraid. I ran my nose over Their pillows. I touched Their clothes and smelled new things and got the flash of Their everydays.

The rush always made me dizzy. The light-headedness felt like a rewiring I might not survive. I stole sets of lingerie. I pulled hairs out of brushes and held them to my cheek.

The ’60s coddled and camouflaged me. I eschewed hippie regalia. My booze stunts got me county-jail time. My craven housebreakings and epic jack-off stints did not. Dope dried up for me. A chance meeting tapped me into an endless legal source.

A hippie guy told me about Benzedrex inhalers.

Cotton wads soaked in an amphetamine-based solution. A nasal decongestant encased in plastic tubes. Toxic cotton that you swallowed. An ever-tapable source of jack-off sex—until it destroys your health or kills you.

A stealable drug sold over the counter. A seven-year search engine in my quest for Her.

I swallowed inhaler wads and brain-screened faces. I held down sporadic employment. I got a job at the KCOP-TV mailroom. I stole cash sent in through the mail, banged up the company van and got sacked. I passed out handbills for a Serbo-Croatian psychic. I got a job at an all-night porno bookstore. I raided stacks of beaver-photo books for pictures that might be Her. I stole beaver books and plundered them on my inhaler trips. I tapped the till and got fired for my thefts.

None of the pictures were Her. There was no Her, no She, no The Other. I did not know it then. I could not stop looking then. I was unstoppable unto the death.

I developed a tolerance for the wads. It took eight to twelve to get me sufficiently high. I saw women’s faces and heard taunting voices in my head. They accused me of inflicting The Curse and killing my mother. The shit fucked with my lungs. I got pneumonia twice. Two-week jolts at County General cured me and taught me nothing. I walked out the door and stole more inhalers. I resumed my search for Her again.

I consumed cotton wads in extreme quantity and prowled the streets that had enticed me since childhood. I knew all of the houses, many of the windows and the precise location of prior-seen faces. New windows alerted me to new women. I saw familiar faces—older now, and oddly grave. I retreated to dump hotel rooms and parks and got alone with Them in the dark. The voices in my head got worse. I veered very close to psychosis. I stuffed cotton in my ears and heard the voices that much louder.

I bolted my enclosed settings and walked long distances to deflect the sound. I twitched, lurched and betrayed my mental state. People shied away from me. Women stared briefly and averted their eyes. I always tried to note their faces without scaring them. I know that I always failed at this.

I developed a lung abscess. A giant pus ball ate up my left pleura. I stumbled into a hospital. A month of intravenous antibiotics and daily back pounding killed the fucking thing.

The seven-year search.

For Her, She, The Other.

I survived. God has always had a job for me. I’m the guy who lives to tell you the story.

I met a woman in ’73. We ran into each other at a coin Laundromat. I was tailspinning as she was living upright. She was unaccountably kind to me.

Her name was Marcia Sidwell. She was a year younger than I and worked as a registered nurse. She wore glasses and had reddish blond hair.

We had three conversations at one-week intervals. Marcia initiated the first. She was properly friendly and never flirtatious. I knew that she had surmised my outdoor lifestyle and that she did not judge me unduly. I dredged up a semblance of decorum in an effort to sustain her acquaintance.

Marcia spoke more than I did. We discussed Watergate. Marcia thought my disdain for rock and roll was reflexive and peculiar. She had a somewhat dubious boyfriend. She was vexed by the general male reaction to her big breasts and commended me for not staring. She was not being coy or provocative. I never mentioned my red-haired nurse mother and her 15-year-old death. Marcia had startlingly bright blue eyes. I showed her my grimy Beethoven bust. She touched my arm for a second.

I showed up for a fourth chat. Marcia washed her clothes at the same time every week. I assumed that she’d pull up in her Volkswagen.

She didn’t show that day. I waited every day for a month. Marcia never showed up again.

It devastated me. I figured I’d said or done something wrong or betrayed my acute dissolution. My self-absorbed/guilty-boy logic was entirely specious. Marcia found a Laundromat closer to home or opted for some other convenience. Our acquaintanceship meant the world to me and not much to her.

She told me who she was and treated me justly. I wish I could have done something stunningly bold in return.

February ’58—the San Gabriel Valley as the Third World–cum–Appalachia. Jean Hilliker and I land in the hellhole hub.

Our house was moldy and confining. Pervasive mildew made me retch and sneeze. Our pachuco-redneck neighbors made my pious soul quake and my baby-pervert skin crawl.

Jean Hilliker was boozing more. She always reeked of rotgut bourbon. She got me that loser dog for my birthday. I knew it came with a price.

She sat me down on the couch. She was half-gassed. She laid out a line of shit pertaining to my rite of passage. You’re a young man now. You’re old enough to choose. Would you rather live with your dad or with me?

I said, My dad.

She hit me.

I fell off the couch and gouged my head on a glass coffee table. Blood burst out of the cut. I called her a drunk and a whore. She knelt down and hit me again. A shutter stop blinked for her. She covered her mouth and pulled away from it all.

Blood trickled into my mouth. I recalled the book, I issued The Curse, I summoned her dead. She was murdered three months later. She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.

Her crime was passionate and thus forgivable. She inflicted her own damage and repented in true haste. My punishment was callous and premeditated. I parceled my rage and mystically summoned a killer. We are as one in our hunger and rectitude. I owe her for every true thing that I am. I must remove The Curse I have placed on her and on myself. I must revoke her status as The Other.

James Ellroy, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women (2010)




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