NOVEMBER 30, 2013
Photo: courtesy Skylight Books
But in the end I understood this language. I understood it, I understand it, all wrong perhaps. That is not what matters.
Does this mean that I am freer now than I was? I do not know. I shall learn. Then I went back into the house and wrote, It is midnight. The rain is beating on the roof. It was not midnight. It was not raining.
— Samuel Beckett
I MARRIED A MAN I had only known for six weeks, so I was used to being surprised by him. Despite this, despite our ever-growing list of differences and disparities and discoveries about each other still unfurling, sometimes malignantly, after two years together, I was bemused that he had ordered a book online, an obscure novel set in the 1970s, published in 1995, a novel called The Last Bongo Sunset by Hungarian-American writer Les Plesko.
Husband’s interests were not obscure literary novels set in the 1970s, I had thought. Or maybe they were, clues to something beneath the surface, just like the strange positive pregnancy test that appeared underneath my writing desk in a crumpled envelope with Haitian creole scrawled on the outside, just like the strange faded girls panties I’d found in his drawer, next to strange diaries that I pored over deep into the night, while he disappeared to do strange things I didn’t know about. Husband was something intangible and unknown, and things I found seemed only to deepen the mystery rather than elucidate it. Perhaps that is why I continued to love him when for sane people, it would have been impossible.
The temptation was to lean on memories and hobble on the crutches of his emotions.
— Les Plesko, Firefly (unpublished novel)
I call him, puzzled and pleased by the discovery that we share the same literary tastes. He picks up immediately. Hey. “Why did you order The Last Bongo Sunset online? Didn’t you know I had a copy already?”
This is how we talk, how we have always spoken to one another. No preamble. No introduction. No foreplay. As if we both sense how little time we have to clear up the enigmas we each have accumulated. He screws up his forehead as he answers, interested. I can see it even when I’m not there. Even as we gather more riddles, we collect the safe and the known, depend on them to keep us anchored as everything else is unstable, tilting at the crest of the wave, ready for the fall.
“The writer threw himself off a building last week. He lived in Venice.”
He could not know, did not know, would not have known. It was one of those things we must add to the ever-growing list of differences and disparities and discoveries about each other still unfurling, sometimes malignantly. Husband could not have known, didn’t know, would never have known that Les was my friend, that the parcel Husband had picked up in the mailbox a couple of months previously and handed to me, uninterested in the contents, was, in fact, a copy of Les’s latest book, Who I Was. I’d never mentioned Les to Husband. Les was just another character in the backdrop of my pre-married life, another character that seemed so interminably part of my contingent reality that I hadn’t even thought to mention him to the person I was closest to in the whole world.
I will miss you. I will miss you. I will miss you.
— Jennifer Parkhill, Les’s Memorial Book
Les had sent me a copy of Who I Was after we’d sat for several hours together in April, writing in companionable silence at the old Novel Cafe on Pier Street — 212 Pier or whatever it was now called — a place we always knew as the 24 hour café where van-dwelling folks could come and piss and shit in warmth and eat vegan Bundt cake all night long and write bad novels no one would ever read and good novels no one would read either.
I hadn’t seen him for a year or so. I’d moved away from Venice, into a van in Topanga Canyon, then into a large communal house with anarchists and sex workers and PhD students in South LA. I missed the beach, missed the bums and the freaks and the mental patients and the weirdoes and the fuck ups, faces I knew didn’t have a lot of time left before gentrification shunted them east of Lincoln. I would drive west to escape the house, to write every day and breathe the scent of piss and sea air, and it’s there that I met Les again in April of this year, when we probably hadn’t talked for a year or more. After he sent me the book, I emailed him back to say thanks and we chatted back and forth a little in a disinterested way, both preoccupied with parts of our life that we probably did not articulate to the other, intending to catch up properly at a later time. Our conversation and correspondence faded out without rancor, intending to be picked up again at a later date. Then Les’s life ended.
Hey man. I am still here reading the emailed pages with your mark ups in them. I am using that stuff. You know, I talked to the guy who saw you the last seconds before you swan-dived off the roof at your place. You freaked him out. You freaked all of us out. He is moving the hell out of there now. We did not want you to die.
— Amanda Copeland
Old Billy with over 30 years sobriety and a ton of unopened letters from the IRS and little to his name but a laz-E-boy and a dog called Buddha, will later say, in a tone of dismal, fatalistic authority, “He was Hungarian. You know those Eastern Europeans, there’s summat fucked up about them. They’re depressed. It’s all doom and gloom over there. I ain’t fuckin’ surprised.”
But I was surprised. We were all surprised. We called each other and traded stories in the spanked, empty tones of the bereaved. Muck, the tagger-turned-painter, had heard the morning after it happened in an AA meeting from a man who lived in his building, Nigel. Nigel had walked, distraught, into the pizza parlor on Main St at 7am, and started his share with “I saw something really fucked up yesterday. Bloke in my building — Les, this really quiet writer — threw himself off the roof. Right in front of me.” Muck ran out crying. She’d seen him the day before. He’d seemed normal. Morose, dour, but then he was Hungarian. They were all like that. He was a little down about the fact the publishers of his book, MDMW of Deyermond Art and Books, had closed down, that copies of his novel were neatly stacked in Michael Deyermond’s garage, waiting for someone more vivacious and pro-active than either Les or Michael to launch a vibrant PR-drive assault upon the unsuspecting literary world.
“D’you think it was that? I mean, that’d piss me off, having all those books just stacked somewhere, not doing shit. Maybe that’d drive me over the edge,” says Muck, and we disappear down the rabbit hole of “maybe,” the rationale of plausibility. Maybe it was his finances. Maybe his girlfriend had recently ditched him. Maybe he was depressed. Maybe he was loaded. Billy had heard from a guy in AA that Les hadn’t been invited back to teach Creative Writing at UCLA’s Extension Course, where he’d been teaching for a number of years. UCLA had never heard any such thing and declared tightly that Les’s next writing class was as full and as popular as ever.
Sam had heard that Les had started drinking with some rich trust fund girlfriend after 20 years of sobriety. Muck had heard that he was having a hard time. Some people mentioned a girlfriend, a break up, health problems. Most of us knew nothing, and instead clung desperately to speculation, because when someone dies, when someone kills themselves, it is inconceivable that we might have seen that person, chatted with them, traded pleasantries, not detected the turmoil within, not sensed impending doom, not heard the insidious crackle of smoldering wood, not done something to avert the tragedy, distract the shark, divert the grizzly bear.
Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling “Don’t! » and “Hang on! », can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.
— David Foster Wallace
To make the irrational and the insane seem rational and sane, to make it inevitable perhaps, we invent fictions, crawl into the spaces and ellipses of someone’s life and play out the dramas we have chosen for them. Silence, the unknown, is a terrible thing when it comes to death. Uncomfortable and eerie, it extends possibilities too close for comfort.
Les, like my husband, was someone who had many ellipses.
I think he must have felt he was being burned alive and that’s a tragedy. I think he’s where he wanted to be…
— Pam Alster
There are things we do know about him, facts we can properly recount. Perhaps we should start there. Leslie — Les — Plesko was born in Budapest, Hungary in January, 1954. His biological father was unknown: his stepfather was named on his birth certificate. He moved to the US when he was eight years old, and had one half brother, George. English was his second language. He spent some time in New Jersey, and then the family moved west. Les gained his bachelors in literature from UCLA in the late 1990s, after he had delved into, and limped out of, the junkie life of Venice Beach, developing a heroin habit and a lifestyle that he documented quasi-autobiographically in his first book. By the time he met his long term girlfriend, Eireene Nealand, around 2001, Les lived in a beautiful little cottage at 704 Victoria Avenue in Venice, was several years into recovery, staunchly sober, and would not even walk into a bar with her. It was in this small house that Les first discovered that he had contracted Hep-C from his heroin use all those years before.
White male, slim, 59 years old, 5’ 5”, leptosomatic Les Plesko spoke with a lisping, soft voice which sounded like it could never be raised to anything more malevolent than a quiet, mocking derision. Les Plesko had a monkish bald head, mad wisps of unfettered hair escaping wildly around his ears, a mustache concealing those broken piano-keys of teeth, a gray, straggly, stray-dog beard. Les Plesko had one good eye, one which roved madly around, and few of us knew which one to engage.
I think of funny things like how he’d make fun of his one good eye when we were always looking at the wrong one. He’d clamp his hand over the bad one and be all, it’s this one FOOL. He’d make fun of his teeth and just like tell us his great ambition was to lose all of them with all that chocolate. He had a wonderful sick mind like most great writers.
— Lisa Douglass
Les Plesko looked like a bum at the best of times, a small, sad, innocuous, existential, asthenic, fragile bum shuffling along Abbot Kinney Blvd, perched on a chair in a corner of Abbot’s Habit or Equator Books, regarding everyone quietly, his large glasses sliding down his nose. Les Plesko lived in a tiny studio apartment in a redbrick building at 120 Westminster Avenue, right opposite the dog park, two blocks from the beach, for many years. It was this building that he always associated with The Last Bongo Sunset, and he stayed because it had a kind of grimy, cramped charm, it was cheap for the location and he liked the view, overlooking the dog park with a glimmer of ocean visible from the roof. He eventually left at some point, went to Westwood for a year presumably because he was teaching over there, but then returned to the same apartment in the same building — 120 Westminster, Apartment 14 — to live out the last few years of his life. After working as a DJ, pool cleaner, cotton shoveler, crop-duster flagman, furniture refinisher, messenger, phone sales and “other stuff,” he eventually made a living editing a medical journal and teaching creative writing at UCLA’s extension program. He had published three books, and written several more that were circulated amongst his friends, lovers, and students.
Les’s first book, The Last Bongo Sunset, is a lyrical, raw, dirty and heartbreaking tale of a young college dropout who gets sucked into the white-trash world of a pimp and a prostitute in Venice Beach. Interspersed with flashbacks, it’s the literary equivalent of a Terrence Malick movie: sensory, picturesque, cinematic, emotional. Published by Simon and Schuster, it had an initial print run of 15,000 copies, and never reprinted. Despite being hyped for success, it was either ignored, or trashed disparagingly by reviewers as “another first novel with more promise than delivery,” a “mindless pastiche,” “monotonous and self-indulgent.” Even the ringing endorsement of Les’s mentor, the beloved experimental writer Kate Braverman, failed to impress the critics, who concentrated predominantly on the content. There’s no doubt this guy can write, but why did he write about these people and this time? seems to be the predominant sentiment oozing from reviewers who seem affronted they were being asked to even consider the book. Characteristically, Les had located the most vicious, pretentious review he could find, and had posted it on his website (slowliedetector.wordpress.com) under the title “My Favorite Review”:
self-absorbed, Jun 13 2004
By A Customer
This is a book only one reader will like: its writer.
A solipsistic experiment in writing, this book is the product of ultimate selfishness. The author sees only himself and his words without sending a message to the reader, who is not quite the vulgate audience. What’s left for the reader is to decipher rhythmic lines only.
Editorial reviews have already suggested the lack of a storyline, the lack of plot, of a coherent novel structure. Added to the writer’s autistic verbal universe, this book’s flow becomes an experiment in writing, not a novel per se. Maybe this is why this writer could not publish anything in the past ten years. Not even the excuse that the writer is Kate Braverman’s student is strong enough to justify his wordiness. With no other publication to prove his self-absorbed geniality, this writer remains a mere failed disciple.
The female characters are dehumanized through pain beyond the level the body can take. Ultimately, these women’s hyperbolic decay transformed them in monstrosities, the only thing the author could subconsciously do in order to compensate for his lack of inspiration, for the lack of a story. Characters become cartoonish in their engrossed dehumanization, the product of a misogynist mind.
Such an autistic style poses problems when the writer is faced with alternative creative styles. His stylistic universe is egocentrically closed; it’s the only thing that gives this writer the quality of author, in the absence of other novelistic virtues.
Closed in his word-weaved cocoon, this writer will always miss or hate other creative styles the human mind generates in an infinite universe of expressiveness.
Les’s second book, No Stopping Train, his “Hungarian magnus opus,” as it was known amongst his friends, never found a publisher. His agent at the time deemed it too dark. Whatever happened with that agent, we know that his third, more experimental and less mainstream novel ‘Slow Lie Detector’ was not represented by anyone but did find a publisher — Equator, the local bookstore and independent small press on Abbot Kinney Boulevard run by Les’s friend, Michael Deyermond. Les’s last book, Who I Was, was also published by Michael, this time in his new establishment, MDMW books, part of Deyermond Books on Main Street in Santa Monica. Fragments of a new, unpublished, unnamed final book remain, a love story of sorts, unusually upbeat for Les, a book that existed idly, floating around as attachments on emails to Eireene, his ex, and people like me.
Those who knew Les talk about this decline — the movement away from a large press, to a relatively obscure one which had none of the connections or commitment that an independent press requires to make an impact — as if it were a purposeful decision, not one made by the vagaries of a ruthless publishing industry obsessed with commercial viability, sales, ‘branding’ and social networking.
“He had stopped trying,” says one of his students, Azarin Sadegh, bluntly.
I could feel his own hopelessness and lack of passion for promoting his own work, or going after getting an agent who could understand him and his work. Once I suggested to send his work to European publishing houses, since I am sure that his work is way more understood and appreciated outside of US, but he just smiled and thanked me. I knew he had already given up trying.
Perhaps it seemed that way to people, but I knew Les hadn’t. He was just quietly plugging away, quietly sending his work out, discreetly writing books, always hopeful that someone would recognize his brilliance. He tried to adapt to a world that tweeted and facebooked and instagrammed and hashtagged and promoted books with movie trailers. He’d even made a trailer for Who I Was: a strange, mad little ditty of random movies clips and songs, entitled Crow. He blogged, he facebooked, he tweeted, he had a youtube channel: these were the signs of a man who very much wanted to learn how to use the tools of the modern world to promote his words. What others assumed was not trying, was simply watching and absorbing. Les had learned that telling people what you were doing, didn’t mean shit. Articulating your productivity didn’t make that agent any more likely to respond, that publisher more inclined to read beyond the first paragraph. It didn’t mean Simon & Schuster would call back, and say “Actually, maybe your first book didn’t sell so good because we handled it all wrong. Let’s have another whirl.” It didn’t mean his long lost agent would suddenly rediscover his talent, regardless of his commercial appeal — or not.
He wasn’t shy about his work but he detested the commerce of it. He thought we were all very Hollywood in questions about the publication, publicity. When my book was published, though, he seemed slightly interested in how things in the “new world” were moving. I don’t think he had the stomach for it. When publishing in general took the fatal dive it’s taken in the last couple years, he was over the race. He was happy to stay in Venice and sell a couple books at a reading or a salon. I can’t say I blame him for that.
— Pam Alster
Les needed readers. In the absence of paying readers, people to pay his bills, (and what legitimacy paying readers bestow upon us starving writers!) he had us, his writers and students and girlfriends and lovers and friends. He sent us his words because a writer needs to be read to be properly alive.
Ruth Fowler <email@example.com>
Bumped into that guy you taught who came into the programme — tom? He just got 11 months and was singing your praises — said you helped him loads at the start.
How’s you? What’s new? Trying to think up some opinion pieces on current affairs. Got any ideas?!
Les Plesko <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Hi Ruth. All is well (enough). I finished a new book and sent it off to a couple of agents I know, and have started a new one. YAY for Tom. Say hi to him if you see him. Current affairs? They’re everywhere. Maybe we should all reflect on PAST affairs, instead.
I don’t know the details surrounding The Last Bongo Sunset, why, despite the fact it had a relatively wide release and was reviewed in major literary magazines such as The New Yorker, it failed to make much of a commercial or literary impact and seemed to invite derision from most reviewers. I heard from Eireene that it made Les a literary celebrity of sorts in Venice, but Venice is not the publishing world, and whatever stalled with that book failed to launch Les into what we might term a “successful” literary career: publications in magazines and journals, and a second, third, and fourth book, each more widely distributed than the last. It failed to turn Les into the kind of writer who completed renowned residencies and retreats, published essays and stories in magazines, won awards, was in demand as a teacher, the kind of writer that did not live in a bedbug infested studio apartment on Westminster Avenue in Venice Beach, worrying about how to pay the rent. The kind of writer who sold copies of their book, that didn’t get reviews with comments like “an ugly, unforgiving first novel” (New York Times), “profoundly irritating” (LA Times) the “autistic” ramblings of a “misogynistic” “junkie” (amazon reviews) ….
He was scheduled to teach Novel IV at UCLA in early October and took his life in mid-September. Clearly, he gave his two weeks’ notice.
— Jamie Schaffner
When I met Les at the age of 30, I was a failed, lonely writer: raw, broke and broken, masticated by New York and spat out in Los Angeles with an attitude and an alcohol problem to boot. Spurned by my publisher after the monumental commercial failure of my first book, ditched by my agent and loathed by my readers, with no work visa, and no home, I was living temporarily in Venice Beach with the crack-addicted son of a famous 1960s Hollywood actor, and could not quite figure out if it was love or need or simply a lack of any better alternative which kept me there.
I was like a character from one of Les’s books. Perhaps we all were.
I am a character in my novel; it is my life.
— Les Plesko
Les, somehow, made me pick myself up, and start writing, start sending my work out again. I found out, at his memorial, that he had a habit of doing that.
Ruth Fowler <email@example.com>
wot do u think of this — better?
Les Plesko <firstname.lastname@example.org>
GREAT. I think the first person present tense is really working swell.
I found out at his memorial that “swell” wasn’t something he said to make lunatic, lonely females feel better. It was something that he actually meant.
I can’t remember how we met — Les and I. Possibly it was through Muck, the graffiti artist who was my AA sponsor at the time, and whom lived in the same building as Les on Westminster. It might have been with Stan, the homeless mental patient who lurked around Electric Avenue. It could have been Billy, the chain-smoking 65-year-old builder who lived with Lori, the ex-tweaker, in an apartment above the garage Jules used as her art studio on Santa Clara. All I remember about Les was that we were friends, or approximations of this. That he would see me at 7am outside Abbot’s Habit with the happy, energetic little puppy I’d adopted on the boardwalk and carried everywhere like a living security blanket, as if to put him down for a second would make me lose the only connection I had which kept me grounded on this earth, the only thing that kept me linked to something warm and living and vital, not the wheezing corpse of a bofriend with those crack-scarred accordion lungs. Les would duly note the red eyes, the tear-streaked face, the wriggling puppy, and he would roll me a cigarette and let me talk at him as I babbled out whatever new insanity I had plunged into with the actor as a distraction from the pain of failing at being a writer, failing at being a functioning human being, failing at being happy, failing at being sufficiently mad enough to have ended things before they became this tawdry and pathetic.
…you knew I couldn’t afford some of the workshops and included me anyway, and then bought us terribly expensive coffee.
— Ara Bear
Sometimes he would buy me coffee, intuiting, correctly, that I could not afford my own. He invited me to his creative writing workshops, the ones held privately outside UCLA, and never charged me. We would meet at Equator Books or Abbot’s Habit or the outdoor courtyard which Gjelina’s took over and turned into part of their bourgeois celebrity restaurant. We would be eight adoring professional women in their 20s and 30s and 40s, or we would be a rag-tag bunch of tattooed, unwashed, homeless losers from AA, or we would be quiet, innocuous, gentle people who did not come alive until someone gently leaned over our mouths and breathed our words into our own lungs so they inflated with a painful gasp. Les would quietly hold court to us all, and we would be entranced.
Weekend workshop. The places we met at changed, the people too. We sat around at bookstores, on cushions in your apartment…
— Jackie Lam
I think we all took him for granted, to be honest. Looking back, I can certainly see that the babbling madwoman I had become was probably very difficult to deal with, that I did not deserve the patience, grace or kindness which Les handed me. He was a kind man. I wonder how many of us remember to acknowledge that.
We hung out one evening on First Friday, when hipsters and rich kids would swarm over a rapidly gentrifying Abbot Kinney, and we locals would emerge to seek out the free samples, cheap food-truck tacos, before retreating back to whatever dark Venetian cave we usually lurked in. Les and I were in Equator Books. It may have been just after the release of Slow Lie Detector. I think I missed the reading and turned up when the crowds were dissipating in search of alcohol. I browsed through the store, chatting absent-mindedly with Les, thanking him for the review he had just left on my amazon page in a vain attempt to rescue my book from the baying crowds of online haters. I found an old hardback copy of a recipe book entitled Mother Had a Way With Food. I don’t know why, but it made me laugh, and Les bought it for me, along with an expensive iced espresso, and presented it to me there and then, then drifted off into the night, back to his apartment on Westminster, two blocks from the beach, a building grotesquely afflicted all night long by the drunks and the bums and the mentally ill of Venice Beach, California. But Les liked to watch and listen, and his role of spectator of the circus suited him. Les was good at listening, at guessing what we all needed. Lisa Douglass, one of his students, recounts how he would listen to her for hours on end, talking her out of suicide and depression and whatever complicated and doomed romantic entanglement she had found herself in:
There were countless times we met where I was crying and inconsolable. In that environment, people tell you secrets to get you to stay here. He did that because I literally begged him to. He was always closed off at the beginning and seemed more interested in me and what was going on, but I’d be like, you never tell me ANYTHING. It’s not fair. And I’d throw a tantrum while crying.
Les was good at listening, but he didn’t open up to many of us. Even when I track down his ex-girlfriend of 13 years, Eireene, probably the woman who knew him better than anyone else, the ellipses merely extend dot-dot-dot-dot-dot…….. both of us circumnavigating a page which has more blanks than words, little punctuation aside from question marks.
Eireene is a gentle, girlishly voiced fiction writer, a PhD student specializing in translating Russian literature. I speak to her over the phone, and can barely understand her, so softly and rapidly does she speak. We resort to email, and send each other missives back and forth long into the night. I google her and find a young-looking, serious woman, pretty and grave, with an impressive academic resume behind those preoccupied eyes. He had always planned to get out before age brought too many indignities, she tells me. His suicide did not come as a surprise then. The timing of it, however, the manner — throwing oneself off a building, a not-very-high-building — did.
We must have met in 1999 or 2000. He was in a bungalow across from Beyond Baroque then, running private classes from his house…. I was in the Ph.D. program in Political Theory and he was an English Major, getting his B.A. We were engaged for a short time, but I had moved to SF then switched to the Ph.D. program in Santa Cruz and it was taking so long for me to finish my Ph.D. The drive was long. Probably when he and I met there was some overlap with someone else. And there were a few breakups and maybe some other girls I didn’t hear about. If I’d tried to keep track I would’ve gone crazy so I let him keep track. That’s the dark side of Les.
The dark side of Les, his Hungarian side, the fatherless child born in Budapest, the man who eventually left long-distance Eireene after 13 years because he fell in love with a trust fund kid called Kate, a blonde in her 30s who liked animals and words and could provide him with enough material for his next book. As Eireene states plainly, without pity, with an indiscernible literary shrug, a regretful sigh that I imagine between the ellipses of our email correspondence, “He was tired of writing ‘a girl like you and a guy like me.’ He was pretty darn dedicated to his craft…Then he said ‘Hey, I found Kate’ and I said ‘OK. Be with Kate now.’”
Beyond those lyrical junkie years in Last Bongo Sunset, Les’s other books were starkly about heterosexual relationships between men and women, complicated poetic dynamics which existed in a vacuum-packed, hermetically sealed reality, in gorgeously crafted prose which made even the mundane slightly removed from the strains of Les’s increasingly painful and difficult daily life as an old man growing older, hovering on the brink of poverty. The man whose teeth had fallen out, the man who had recently started drinking and smoking weed after 20 years of diligent sobriety, the man who could no longer bike from Venice to Westwood, the man plagued by chronic unexplained stomach pains that compelled him to multiple expensive, lonely trips to the Emergency Room, the man who complained three times to his Property Supervisor that his $1,150 a month studio apartment was infested by bedbugs (“I sent the best guy there is to his place three times. He treated the place twice. By the third time, there were no bed bugs. But people get paranoid, you know?” Andrew Sanesi, Property Manager) the man who fretted when Kate left him after a year or so together (“he was worried he wouldn’t be able to finish the book” — Eireene), the man who eventually found out that Kate was pregnant with another man’s child.
“Even if the bugs are gone I have to move because I’ve had two girlfriends in this room, three if you count the whole building,” he said. He thought he’d get some smart reply but she just blew it off.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said, “My ob-gyn is the same as Kim Kardashian’s. You always have to wait.”
She really could be pregnant, so it seemed. Her time of month had come and gone without a spot. He was surprised she wasn’t freaking out. She too hardly believed how calm she felt. “Well,” she said, “I wanted this, but maybe not so fast.”
“Does Hardy know?” Lee said.
She shook her head. “I’m going to see if I miscarry first,” she said.
— Excerpt from Les’s last, unpublished manuscript.
Eireene tells me that she and Les used to talk about his past a lot. His father died when he was young, his stepfather was named on his birth certificate. Les was left behind with his grandparents in Budapest when his mother, a theater actress, and stepfather, an architect, left Hungary illegally in 1956 during the uprising. They moved to New Jersey, had a child — George, his half-brother — and then sent for the eight-year-old Les, who could not, at the time, speak any English. Even years later, after his parents had divorced, after his mother, whom he had been close to, had drunk herself to death, Les felt that they had favored George, and was profoundly affected by his absent father. He sent Eireene pictures of the man he suspected it could be: a successful Hungarian film actor called Rozsos Istvan. It seems unlikely, but according to Eireene, Les stubbornly clung to this belief, and had several pictures of Istvan in his apartment. Perhaps he found something in the myth of Istvan that eased his loneliness, something that adequately filled the omission in the sentence, provided a verb his life was lacking.
“Yeah, I’d have a kid,” Les told me once.
“You would?” I said, because I might or might not.
“Sure,” he said.
— David Rubenstein
Eireene pauses nervously over the phone, and then she hurtles on with another story, barely stopping to mention, almost in passing, that Rozsos Istvan had killed himself by jumping off a building.
I’d wake up and he’d be at his desk, smoking. He wrote by hand and then typed the pages out on a typewriter and retyped them again and put them in a 3-ring binder. He didn’t like to go out because he’d rather be doing that, same thing with keeping up with acquaintances.
Billy walked down to the building on Westminster the morning after it happened. Nigel, the guy who lived on the roof, was standing outside with Sam, who lived on the first floor, and they chatted for a little while, Billy smoking his Winstons, all of them trying to get to grips with what had happened. Nigel wasn’t too pleased with Sam because he’d taken a picture of Les’s body when it was lying there, on the street, covered by a bloody cloth. When a cop had protested that this was in poor taste, Sam had said “Fuck you. That’s my friend lying there and that’s the last time I’ll ever fucking see him.” Nigel secretly felt that the cop was right. It was in poor taste and he couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the building. He’d already told the landlord he couldn’t stay. He wasn’t sleeping well. Billy probably said, though I have no way of knowing for certain: “He was Hungarian. You know those Eastern Europeans, there’s summat fucked up about them. They’re depressed. It’s all doom and gloom over there. I ain’t fuckin’ surprised.”
Billy, Lori, my husband and I attend the memorial together, in the courtyard of Beyond Baroque, the community center on Venice Blvd that Les used to live opposite, on Victoria Avenue. It’s September, Indian Summer, too hot. I stand, hidden at the back — or as hidden as my pregnant belly will allow me. An overweight child actor-turned-novelist wearing an appalling hipster hat is talking when we shuffle in late. “…. and as Les was standing outside the coffee shop, someone dropped a quarter in his coffee…” I later contact him, as I do many others, to talk about Les, and he assures me he really wants to meet up, but has so many “meetings.” A day full of “meetings.” He’s taking “meetings.” His Hollywood-ness and his hat depress me and after he evades me for three weeks due to his “meetings,” I stop trying to meet him. But for now I’m at the memorial, listening to speaker after speaker talk about themselves and pretend that they are talking about Les. I listen to crepe-necked ladies read pretty passages about a man I do not recognize as burgers smoke and sizzle with delicious inappropriateness on a grill and Michael Deyermond keeps asking the two black guys who own the burger joint on Abbot Kinney to take the burgers off, put them back on again but perhaps that man was Les, and his talent was for becoming whomever we wanted him to be, whenever we so desired.
…the women of top-notch sophistication twist their poisonous-glorious Salome lips, and one by one confide in me, “I have a thing for Les.”
I shrug— “Everybody does. It’s like a Point of View.”
Ridiculous toothless man has nothing and everything.
— Dana Mazur
“Sexy” is how many of those elderly ladies describe Les at the memorial. Eireene laughs about that on the phone with me. “He really got the girls,” she says. “He dated a lot of his students. They fell for him.” Most of the people attending are middle-aged female writers, colleagues and students from Les’s UCLA life. He was loved, his classes were always full, he won an ‘Outstanding Instructor’ award… I wonder if they are the “girls” Les got. I would have said no, but seeing Eireene and Kate, both young and attractive, I am awed by the secret life of a player disguised as a shaggy dog with evaporating teeth and growing health problems. I am awed by a man I didn’t know. I’m awed by a man whom I think we are all desperately trying to turn into an image, an icon, a member of the 27 (x2) club. An image for whom? For ourselves, for our need. I’m aware as I write this, that as soon as we try and tell a story about someone else, it becomes about ourselves. Later I find that Linda Venis, the Director of the UCLA Creative Writing Program, will write that:
On September 26th, over 100 people gathered at Beyond Baroque to pay tribute to the man that many present said would take one look at the gathering, say “Oh brother,” and walk out. Les despised, as Janet Fitch wrote, “the sentimental, the cornball, the witchy-poo.” But we did it for ourselves, for our need to remember and grieve and laugh and most of all, to celebrate the exquisite gifts as a writer and teacher he so generously shared. [emphasis mine]
I go to the memorial not to remember, but to find answers and words and verbs and adjectives for the constructions that hung in the air, loaded with the weight of their ellipses. Remembering doesn’t give me answers, nor does the Les of someone else’s elaborately constructed eulogy bear any resemblance to the Les I knew.
I tune out after a while, concentrate on hopping from one foot to the other, feeling heavy and pregnant. No one offers me a seat and I don’t ask. Husband falls asleep contentedly on the ground, in the sun, dust and dead grass in his soft brown hair. I wonder how many people would turn up to my memorial. I wonder what Les would make of all this. I wonder if Les would even bother coming to my funeral. What would Les do. I like to think he’d be there, but none of us seem adequately qualified to answer on the general likelihood or probability of Les’s potential actions, given none of us had foreseen he’d rather leap to his death from a not very high building in preference to living, in preference to the dignified, slow, somnambulant sepsis of a heroin overdose. People mention the bed bugs several times in their carefully crafted eulogies, making Les’s property supervisor, Andrew Sanesi, visibly sigh in irritation and say to me later in a dark, comedic tone, “OK, it was the fucking bed bugs. I killed Les! I admit it!” Several more people say aloud, in various approximations, in tones of sad, resigned, fond weariness, as one might talk of a child throwing a tantrum again, “I always knew Les would go on his own terms.”
I can’t say I had ever given Les’s death much thought before it happened.
Ruth, I’m sure your intentions are the best, but I really can’t answer these things. If you want to know anything about how I feel, look at the Pleskoism.wordpress.com site for my comments.
— Janet Clare
I try several times to reach out to Kate, Les’s pregnant ex-girlfriend. She does not want to talk, and who can blame her.
Mornings were prosaic, her panties hiding in the bed while Lee played with her hair and they smoked cigarettes. We’re doomed, Lee thought. His long and lost sobriety had left him pragmatic. He looked away from all his faults and noticed hers but kept them to himself. They thought they had their secrets but really they were obvious. Her bed-face made her look completely like some other girl. It must have been the angle of repose. That little roll around her waist felt like white cream. Don’t scream! Lee said.
At night, he saw her lying there beside him when she wasn’t there -— just the pillows in her long pale shape, the blanket’s slightly salty smoke and almond scent. It meant something that this felt comforting, but dangerous.
When they met she’d sat across from him with that Jean Seberg haircut and a low red blouse. He’d found out all about her on her Facebook page. Then she changed her hair to kind of red. No, black, she said. Now she was off somewhere in a bikini with a green drink in her hand. He tried to sleep and wished for bright consoling dreams, those obvious and vivid mysteries.
The room grew cold, the window open, too much light striped through the blinds while he pondered his handwriting he couldn’t read. His tongue annoyed the hollows of his newest broken tooth. This mood needed another attitude. This day-to-day needed a bigger room.
— Les Plesko, Unpublished Manuscript
Les’s demise was quiet and graceful. Like his life, it was full of absences. It was a sad and poetic demise, lacking fury, lacking passion, substituting quiet pain for the hyperbole of our 21st-century lives. His last unpublished manuscript was weirdly upbeat, positive, connected with contemporary life in a manner that was unusual for Les. It was as if something new, alive and vibrant had come into his life, distracting him from the painful inconveniences that age and our own perceived failure brings.
I wish I had known things were getting so bad.
— Eireene Nealand
I call Nigel a few days later.
There’s stairs going past my door which lead to the roof. I was on my computer in a positive Monday morning mood — it was 10.10am, I remember. I had my door open that leads onto the stairs, and Les came stumbling up — he wasn’t too stable. I looked at him and thought “What the fuck’s he doing? and noticed he had blood all over his neck and his hands. I went to my window and asked him “Are you alright?” and he looked right through me. I wondered if he’d been drinking. You look in someone’s eyes and there’s nothing going on there… I mean — he was determined to do what he was going to do. He laid down, and rolled himself off the roof… the noise when he landed was just fucking horrible. I yelled out to Mick [the handyman in the apartment below], “Come here quick” and he ran downstairs. I called 911 first. I think I said, “Someone in my building just jumped off the roof.” They asked if he was breathing — asked me to look — and I said “I worked in the WTC and saw people jump from Tower 1, I’m not looking over that fucking roof — The Coroner came about three hours after it happened. So many people in the dog park were taking pictures and stuff, and they covered him with a sheet and the sheet was all bloody — all these fucking assholes were taking pictures and it really pissed me off — one guy took a picture of Les’s body — I don’t even wanna talk to that guy anymore, it’s horrible.
Les’s brother George came down the next morning from his place upstate to clean out the apartment and deal with arrangements for the body. He was heavier than Les, younger, fitter-looking, well fed, slightly taller, with startling blue eyes and a kind face which buckled under the circumstances of his visit. The coroner took away the body to perform an autopsy that afternoon. Andrew Sanesi went into Les’s apartment — a small, south-facing room with a kitchenette area, closet and bathroom. A few spots of blood had pooled and dried on the floor. There was no evidence of any kind of alcohol or drug binge. Andrew called a company he knew which specialized in bio clean-up, and once George had taken away Les’s few belongings, they moved in to efficiently zap the apartment of any biological remnants of Les, before the contractors arrived to repaint the interior and to make sure everything else was working. I asked Andrew it if was difficult to rent out with the stigma of suicide attached. He shrugged it off. “That shit happens a hundred times a day all around the world. Statistically, people need apartments. And anyway, you’re only obligated to tell the potential new person if someone died in the apartment. Technically Les died on the street, not in the apartment.”
Last time she visited she said, “Me and Hardy haven’t even said ‘I love you’ yet, although he makes those eyes.”
“We said it once.”
She looked down and smiled, remembering or not.
“Though we were drunk,” he said in case she cared, so she wouldn’t feel bad.
— Les Plesko, Unpublished Manuscript
Les died on Monday, September 16th, 2013 at approximately 10:10 am. Nigel left 120 Westminster within ten days of Les’s death, and moved to a new place less than a mile away, owned by the same landlord. Kate and George never called me back.
The new tenant moved into Apartment 14, 120 Westminster Avenue, on November 1st that same year.
Ruth Fowler is a British-born Los Angeles-based author, screenwriter and journalist.