Clock – Jesse Hilson
June 27, 2021
I first met Red Stillskin in the naval shipyards of San Diego in the early 1960s. We were driving trucks up and down in the yards, collecting scrap metal and propellers. We also drove off a fair number of vagrants and hoboes. Once our work there was done, we kept in touch as we traveled around California. He got a job as an analyst at the RANDY Corporation. I became an “action-painter” and went to work trying to sell my paintings. Red was an avid surfer and played guitar in a band called The Sinisters. He was known for having “great chops” before he lost both his hands. He also wrote songs, and actually penned a few releases under a false name which he would never divulge no matter how hard I tried to get him to tell me. His relationship with the beatnik circles we both moved in at the time was more than a little ambivalent. He retained some of the military man’s distrust of countercultural types, even as he partook of their wine, women, and song. I once watched him beat a man near to death in a parking lot at Redondo Beach, because the man had shat on Red Stillskin’s 1963 Chrysler Turbine’s windshield as a revenge tactic because Red had “cut in” on him while trying to catch some waves. I stood back and watched the whole thing, from the initial altercation in the water to the sight of the man squatting on the hood with his trunks around his ankles, to the bloody fisticuffs in the parking lot. It was a savage beating; nobody took a dump on Red’s car and walked away from it. I did nothing either to help Red attack the man or to protect him. He was taken to the hospital in a near-comatose state. I was a Maynard G. Krebs lookalike in a black turtleneck. I had the requisite bongo drums which Red would sometimes forcefully grab out of my hands at house parties, like a gorilla.
But Red could spout hippy-dippy Rod McKuenesque “Love Is In The Air” gibberish with the best of us. As I say, he had a contract writing songs with Capitol Records. Along with his producer, Virgil Virgule, who was without fail always in RayBans and a mohair jacket, Red came up with a sure-fire system for writing effective, lucrative love songs. Love songs were Red’s specialty. We’d be driving around Long Beach in the same beshitted Chrysler with our dates, listening to the radio, and he’d turn it up and say cryptic things like, “That’s a good 12:00,” or, “As far as that song goes, I’ve heard better 8:00 in my sleep,” or, “She gives good 6:00.” It was odd. The hour of the day had some special significance to him and Virgil, and you’d hear them on the phone all the time, speaking in this chronological code. I was puzzled, until one day at the Redondo Breakwall he explained it to me.
Red using the tip of his red surfboard drew a large circle and then with his big toe made twelve dashes at all the hours – then wrote the numbers 12, 3, 6, and 9 at the appropriate places. He made me stand at 6:00. He stood across from me at 12:00 with one arm around the glowing shoulders of Irene, his current old lady who was from the secretarial pool at the RANDY Corporation. She was in a black polka-dot bikini and wore around her neck a large silver ankh which poked out of her epic cleavage.
Red and Irene looked at me across the clock. “Okay Larry,” Red said, “I’ve got the girl at 12:00, and you’re all alone at 6:00. Get it?”
“I’m afraid I don’t get it, Red.”
Irene rolled her eyes at my obtuseness and Red Stillskin sighed. “One day, Larry, you’ll thank me for explaining the secrets of the universe to you. 12:00 is when you’re in love, then, as you go to 3:00 you’re breaking up. And breaking up is hard to do. Stay there at high noon, Irene — you’re the love object in this little drama.”
Red walked a quarter of the way around the circle to 3:00. He looked at Irene with some theatricality and said: “I heard it through the grapevine, not much longer would you be mine. 96 Tears: too many teardrops, for one heart, to be cryin’. You’ve lost that loving feeling, now it’s gone gone gone. The Supremes, ‘My World Is Empty Without You.’ Now I’m falling off the wheel of fortune, down into the hell of 6:00 loneliness, where you dwell, Larry.”
Now he stood beside me. The surfboard towered over me.
“I’m caught in a trap, Larry. I can’t walk out. I’m lonely, cut off from my girl, from any girl. I’m in a position of exact antithesis from the unity I once had. This pit of loneliness, of striving for love is where some of the best love songs are written — the Sufis wrote all their best love poems about the absent love object, which to them was Allah. Petrarchan sonnets, it’s all the same. They were written at a position of separation, at 6:00.”
Red then walked around the circle to 9:00. “Roy Orbison: ‘Pretty Woman.’ Gene Chandler: That girl, I’m gonna make her mine if it takes all night, can you dig it can you dig it? Now I’m finding that girl again—or a new one. I’m escaping from the hell of those lonely nights where you, Larry, reside. These songs are all about the excitement, the pursuit. It’s hard work to scramble back on top of the clock again, on top of the wheel of fortune. Better to never fall off.”
Now he was standing with Irene the secretary again. She was gazing with numb adoration at Red the mystical surfer stud, who continued with his lecture:
“Every love song you hear on the radio can be placed somewhere on this circuit around the wheel of fortune. 12:00 is when you’ve got that steady love. 3:00 is when you’re falling out with your old lady. 6:00 is the lonely time. 9:00 is when you’re getting your love light back on line. Virgil taught me all this at the High Grand Esoteric Temple of the Gnostic Fortunates in Santa Monica. These mysteries are high-powered stuff, gleaned from hours of study in the Temple’s secret library — which Irene here was kind enough to loan Virgil and I the key to. She’s one of sixteen vestal virgins who keeps watch over the place.”
Red kicked sand over the mystical diagram. I hung around like an old Cracker Jack toy while Red went surfing and Irene watched. I walked up the beach, thinking about the clock code. I wasn’t a songwriter but I thought about how to put this knowledge to use for me. I was determined. I had been at 6:00 for a long time.
I went and got a beer at the Red Pelican, a touristy junky kind of place right near the beach, and tried out the jukebox. The Pelican was shadowy and crowded. I must have put in about $2.00 in quarters into that machine, and all I did was clear the place out. I played songs which I guessed were between 6 and 9, hopefulness surfacing like bubbles, looking around for anybody wanting to dance, but all the girls, if not attached, must have been carrying around hearts of high noon with them. A young man with sideburns came in and played a solid 3:00 on the jukebox and instantly a girl in knee-high boots started talking to him, as if attracted to him in order to console him.
I finished my third beer and was about to bug out when a guy came crashing into the doors of the Red Pelican. He looked a little frantic, and he spoke to the bartender who spoke to the owner. A girl came in a few minutes later, looking pale green and sick. Voices got raised and people were jabbering: Shark Attack.
I went back out down the beach and walked a few minutes to where I came from, but no one was in the water. Crowds of people were standing on the beach and staring, dazed. A stretcher was being loaded by several men into an ambulance in the parking lot, a long hike.
Irene was sitting on Red’s board on the sand. Her hands were over her face. I couldn’t see Red anywhere and I considered the worst.
“Irene, where’s Red?” I asked her, panicky.
She looked up at me. Her eyes were red and raw.
“He got attacked by a shark,” she said, her voice wavering. “It bit his hands off. They’re taking him to the hospital.”
I looked around and saw blood on the sand.
“Jesus,” I said.
“Do you think they’ll be able to fix his hands?” Irene asked me, her face contorted.
“Sure they can,” I said, having no idea. I had to scrabble around for something to say. “Your bosses at the RANDY Corporation probably have contacts, you know, the same people building legs for landmine cripples from Vietnam.”
“He’ll never play the guitar again,” Irene said, and this seemed to be the thing that pushed her over the edge because she began sobbing heavy. Another girl on the beach, a redhead in a yellow bikini, crouched down next to Irene and put her arm around her quaking shoulders.
It was true, he never played the guitar again. I visited him later in the rehab place where they were fitting him with prosthetic hook-hands that looked like something 007 would have to face. He wrote a few lyrics, by dictation, but they always seemed to be for some part of the clockface where there wasn’t a market. It was as if the record company guys could tell even without laying eyes on him that he was maimed. Virgil Virgule disappeared like a scarf in a magician’s routine. I saw Irene around town but she was with some other guy, a real sharp character. She was holding hands with him.