the Past Lives of robert redford
With our mother gone, our father takes us to the desert to breathe for a few months. He says that work is meant to be better here for people like him, but while he struggles to find employment, almost immediately I land a summer job with Robert Redford, the famous film actor, who lives in a villa across the road from the house my father rents, right where the desert begins.
I am fourteen. I do not yet know he is a famous film actor. I think that he’s some sort of retired mall architect, the way he looks that first day, trying to slip his body past the automated gate before it has opened far enough.
He has no sons I’m aware of. Stevenson, my brother, is thereby bereft. There are few landmarks in our neighbourhood: a school I’ll need to attend at the closing of the summer; a retired limestone quarry full of wind; a stand of old-growth cactus marking the end of our street, coming straight through the blacktop, beyond which the desert appears suddenly, as if our homes are a short intermission of it.
Our first meeting comes after we’ve returned from visiting the quarry, my father enthusiastic to commune with the ghosts of local industry. He is quickly spooked by its emptiness.
‘We can come back when there’s more happening here,’ he says. ‘When it’s being dug up again, or getting filled in, or when it rains heavily enough to fill it right up like a swimming pool.’
‘A lot of people are surprised, but it rains heavily in the desert,’ says Stevenson.
‘That’s right, that’s why I said it,’ says our father,
I suggest that, once students have been found, he could bring his astronomy classes here.
‘Wild dogs,’ he says. ‘Crazy for blood. The permission slips would be long as your arm.’
‘It’s only our first month of rent that’s paid?’ I ask. It’s easier to point this out as a question.
‘We’ll have a lot less if your old man has to go to prison for getting a class eaten in the desert,’ he says, turning to leave.
Walking back, I see Robert Redford watching us from the roof of his home. Later, he calls on me as I kneel on the sidewalk, transcribing literature onto the concrete with chalk as Stevenson dictates.
‘Hey you, little girl,’ Robert Redford says from his driveway. ‘Are you in a gang or something?’
I can barely hear him over the movement of his gate. Stevenson hasn’t noticed the interruption, his stubby finger still moving along the photo copied pages of Beckett.
‘Let me go to hell, that’s all I ask, and go on cursing them there…’
‘Nobody goes into the quarry but the gangs. They go to the quarry and they shoot up,’ Robert Redford says. ‘They eat K, and so forth.’
I can’t see his eyes behind his dark glasses. I roll my sleeves up and flash my arms at him.
Robert Redford nods. ‘Good,’ he says. ‘Do you own a clip-board?’
This is how the summer works: Stevenson and I wait out the mornings in our backyard, the desert wind bringing ash in over the black eye of our swimming pool and across all the swimming pools in town. We watch the planes making memory-trails. We practise conversations I’ll have at school, and undertake activities designed to develop Stevenson’s cognitive prowess, creative memory-engagement, self-esteem, and so on.
‘Ok,’ I say. ‘Tell me about a past life.’
We are sitting together, back to back, our eyes closed, our breath falling in and out of sync.
‘I remember being at the storming of the Bastille,’ Stevenson says. ‘I am the wife of a soldier, and I am terrified for him.’
‘Do you really remember that, or are you making it up?’
‘I do,’ he says. ‘I do.’ I write this memory in our journal. If it is a lie then it is a complicated one, and this sort of engagement will look good on his application to Young Genius Junior Achievers Sunday School, we know. No other institutions for gifted children exist in this part of the world and, left rudderless by conventional schooling, I worry Stevenson spend the year running with wild dogs.
‘It’s your turn,’ he says.
I remember the house we just left, small and dark. My father spending each night in the fields nearby, showing the stars to teenagers with their faces dark with cold, cobbler’s pegs on his wind-breaker, dew in his hair. I remember feigning sleep as our mother appeared at the foot of my bed, gripped my toe, gone again, the night she left.
But what I say is, ‘I remember working in an office building. I’m the boss of the building. There is a fire on the bottom level and we are trapped.’
Then, at 3 p.m., I grab my clipboard and head over the road. My father stands at our gate, smoking cigarettes and watching Robert Redford, who is also standing at his gate, also smoking cigarettes, waiting for me.
He gives me a short tour of his villa. My father would describe its size as shameless. There are cocktail glasses, half full, resting on every table in sight. They spring up like cactus-roses.
‘What kind of experience do you have?’
I have strong eyes and a mind for problems. I dislike trouble as much as anyone could, and avoid it at all costs.
‘It’s pretty cut and dry,’ Robert Redford tells me. ‘Keep the prairie-rats out. Keep the neighbours out. Keep my family thinking I’m dead. You’ll sleep there. Orson Welles slept there once.’
He gestures to a small guesthouse whose windows seem to have been knocked out.
‘I’ve got a bed I can sleep in at my house,’ I say.
He wanders over to an enormous swimming pool. He plucks one of the cocktail glasses off a stool and takes a sip and then hurls it, overarm, into the water.
‘Maybe see someone about getting that out,’ he says, wandering over and dipping the toe of his moccasin in.
‘You want me to get a pool cleaner?’
‘If that’s what it takes.’
He stands up straight and stretches. ‘Have you ever been broken-hearted, little girl?’ he says.
I shrug. Over the walls of the compound I can see the desert mountains blue-faced in the evening. ‘I don’t know, have you?’
He looks back down into the pool. ‘Well sure,’ he says. ‘Only every day of my life.’