IN THE LATE SPRING OF 1981, the skies were always a light azure blue in Southern California, cypresses camphored out their scent around the apartment house swimming pool below my living room window, and the soft green prisms of aspen leaves would spin and quake on the small trees beside the walkways. I was a graduate student at UC Irvine, living with my girlfriend Cynthia in a two-bedroom upstairs unit in Costa Mesa - yellow shag carpet, stacked orange crates for bookshelves and room dividers, a gaudy sectional sofa I found at a swap-meet, a huge hand-me-down Panasonic TV, avocado green Melmac plates and yard sale tableware, my parents' old Formica kitchen table, and a king size mattress on the bedroom floor. The neighborhood around me was nondescript California suburban - mixed ranch homes and gigantic apartment complexes, a ball field behind a windbreak of eucalyptus trees near the thoroughfare, burrito stand behind home plate, and a strip mall on the main drag that led to the 405 and Costa Mesa freeways. You could smell the Pacific sometimes, as Newport Beach was just down the bluff, and you could hear commercial jets roaring overhead, on the landing and takeoff paths of the John Wayne Airport about five miles away. Nights, heavy dual-rotor, schoolbus-sized Chinook CH-47 helicopters from El Toro Marine Base thwocked across the skies as the stars glowed only faintly, drowned in a luminous ambience from all the city lights.
One day, Charles Wright, recently my teacher, telephoned to ask if I would house-sit his place in Laguna Beach while he and his wife Holly and son Luke went to their cabin in Montana for the summer. They'd be gone about eight weeks, he said. I got my MFA from Irvine in 1980, but I'd stayed on to enter its Ph.D. Program in Critical Theory. When Charles called me, I was just finishing up my first year, buffeted by the mental tumult of colliding theories and poetics - Longinus, Kant, Burke, and Jacques Derrida. Charles asked if I'd come for dinner to seal the deal and bring Cynthia.
Charles was an extremely private person, seeing us students in class and maybe at afternoon poetry readings and the brief wine and cheese receptions on campus. I'd occasionally spot him loping across campus in that easy gait of his or see him in my rearview pulling up behind me in his blue VW bug. Slim, a bit under 6 feet, with wavy brown hair he wore fashionably longish, just over the ears, he looked a bit like Peter Fonda in photo-gray glasses and a brown sports coat over a dress shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots. Ever casual, he was also distant if not remote. It seemed to me that, most of the time, Charles was in a world all his own and that he liked it.
Laguna Beach was part of what's called "the California Riviera." I'd been there before, but never to the "Top of the World," Charles's ridgeline neighborhood, up a long incline that wound above the town. Charles's place was just below the top, on a dead-end street along a short shelf bulldozed into the earth, a gigantic pepper tree drooping over the asphalt driveway as we pulled up. Holly called from behind an opened window where she stooped over the kitchen sink, rinsing salad greens. Cynthia and I got out of my battered Toyota Corolla and stepped across the drive, the litter of pepper pods snapping and grinding under our feet.
Behind some shrubs and a hanging pot of purple and pink fuchsias, Charles was out on the front deck, waving at us, standing over the half-globe of a Weber barbecue, grilling kebobs of veggies and sliced sau...