At the periphery of existence are suicide and mental illness, each submerged in the tide of Everydayness. “They” omit mention of suicide in the Sunday obituaries. “They” have swept mental illness under the rug. We long for normalcy, a smooth ride, and an idealized conception of life. Our biological natures plead with us to unite with a family and a tribe. Nevertheless we receive sinister or mysterious messages from the other side. Why, one wonders, would a minor actress being paged in the lobby of the Riviera at one o’clock in the morning be precisely the moment that Play It As It Lays began “to tell itself” to Joan Didion? From nothingness comes a message for the reader as well.

“You have to come over sometime and use the sauna,” Larry Kulik said when he brushed by the table on his way inside. “Stereo piped in, beaucoup fantastic.”   At midnight one of the amplifiers broke down, and the band packed up to leave. BZ was getting together a group to go back to his house: the French director, Larry Kulik, the girl in the white halter dress. “Simplicity itself,” he said to Maria “The chickie wants the frog.”

                  “I have to go home.”

                  “You’re not exactly a shot of meth tonight anyway.”

                  “I feel beaucoup fantastic,” Maria said, and turned away so that he would not see her tears. 

Didion forces Hollywood to speak in its own language, a way of revealing the mystery at the center of Didion’s epiphany. “The chickie wants the frog,” what a horrid expression. Here are human beings as commodities, an ancient relation updated to someplace in Beverly Hills. Everything is new and different and nothing has changed. Already, Maria is having trouble with her equilibrium.

“Darling,” they would say,“have another drink.” And she would. She was drinking a good deal in the evenings now because when she drank she did not dream “This way to the gas, ladies and gentlemen,” a loudspeaker kept repeating in her dreams now, and she would be checking off the names as the children filed past her, the little children in the green antechamber, she would be collecting their lockets and baby rings in a fine mesh basket. Her instructions were to whisper a few comforting words to those children who cried or held back, because this was a humane operation.

Drifting farther and farther backwards with Maria we find her at the Holocaust—“This way to the gas, ladies and gentleman,” a famous book title itself, makes its way onto the page blowing dust into the reader’s eyes, as more dust comes to rest on the picture of a minor actress, now drinking a good deal in the evenings.

Carter called today, but I saw no point in talking to him. On the whole I talk to no one. I concentrate on the way light would strike filled Mason jars on a kitchen windowsill. I lie here in the sunlight, watch the hummingbird. This morning I threw the coins in the swimming pool, and they gleamed and turned in the water in such a way that I was almost moved to read them. I refrained.

                  One thing in my defense, not that it matters: I know something Carter never knew, or Helene, or maybe you. I know what “nothing” means, and keep on playing.

                  Why, BZ would say.

                  Why not, I say.

Our minor actress can’t speak with her estranged husband, himself a minor movie director on location. She notices the way light strikes a Mason jar. She tosses coins in the swimming pool and knows what nothing means. She may as well be someone like a writer hanging around the lobby of the Riviera in Las Vegas at one o’clock in the morning. The messages can come from anywhere, but some places are better than others; for example, coins shining up from the bottom of a swimming pool. One can sense that famous Los Angeles yellow sunlight, the blue-green pool, maybe kidney-shaped, a clutch of palm trees rattling in the hot breeze.

“Lie down here,” she said after a while. “Just go to sleep.”

                  When he lay down beside her the Seconal capsules rolled on the sheet. In the bar across the road somebody punched King of the Road on the jukebox again, and there was an argument outside, and the sound of a bottle breaking. Maria held onto BZ’s hand.

                  “Listen to that,” he said. “Try to think about having enough left to break a bottle over it.”

                  “It would be pretty” Maria said. “Go to sleep.”

“It would be pretty,” Maria says, another literary echo, this time from Hemingway. The reading life is filled with resemblances on the periphery where the emissaries and constables of the Everyday have less reach.

As a young lawyer, I worked for poor people in the Black ghetto of my town. Three of us and staff officed in a ramshackle house that was regularly burglarized. We were reduced to using old, worthless typewriters that no burglar wanted to steal. We’d put signs on other things like reading glasses or water coolers (“Please don’t steal me…”) and took our most important files and papers home at night. We met burglars in parking lots and ransomed our stuff. Pretty soon, when we’d become a community asset, the burglaries stopped. There was also nothing left of any value to steal. It was a crazy world, in the transition zone between the late 60’s and early 70’s, the same zone where Didion and her husband worked. One day a young white kid came to the office and wanted to see a lawyer. He had no appointment, but I saw him anyway. I saw everybody who walked in. He was distraught it turned out because his new wife had filed for divorce. He was younger than me by a few years and a student at the local university. I asked about his life. He was studying philosophy; it was my subject in college and we began a long conversation about its problems. We talked through lunch. He asked if anything could be done about the divorce. He loved his wife and didn’t want to lose her. Not much, I told him. Things even then had gone “no fault”. Besides, he didn’t really qualify for my services, which were government financed. Somehow, I felt we had a bond. He was reading Heidegger, Camus, and the other existentialists. These writers and philosophers had been my special love at the university. Pretty soon, it was time to go. I told him to call me if he had questions or worries. Time passed and I didn’t hear from him. One day, an attractive young woman came to my office and asked the receptionist if she could see me. She mentioned the young man’s name and I ushered her into my cold, bare little room where there was a metal desk, a metal chair, and a dirty window looking out on a ghetto boulevard in gray winter light. I want to say snow was on the ground, but it might have been spring, who knows? Up front, I told her I couldn’t really talk to her because I’d spoken to her husband, and there was a case pending. “Oh no,” she said. She was beginning to shed tears. My husband (here she used his name, whispering it with love) killed himself. I found him hanging at the house with his wrists slashed, she said. There was blood everywhere. My heart melted and I didn’t know what to say. “I’m sorry,” suggested itself. She just wanted to tell me. He’d mentioned me in one of his calls to her. She said he’d liked me and she wanted me to know. She knew he didn’t want a divorce. She loved him but he was ill and she couldn’t handle it. I knew she wanted me to tell her it was OK. I did. It was OK. I knew she loved him. I knew his problem belonged only to him and that love alone wouldn’t change that. She wasn’t to blame. I knew she felt guilty and I tried to tell her about our talk. After a time, she left the office. All these years later, the experience still haunts me.  In my memory is the face of a young man who’s just been sued for divorce. It has taken its place in a gallery with the Andromeda galaxy glimpsed through a boy’s telescope, my dog left behind, and others.

During that time I was reading Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, which takes mental illness and suicide as its subject. The book and the moment merged. These powerful convergences display themselves, disappear, and are invisible to others except as peripheral residues of the Everyday. Readers and writers meet, merge, and move on. People not in the reading life look on and see what they see; how that person in the reading life is different, maybe. How he is strange or alien or off-kilter. Sometimes he is happier or better adjusted, but just as often he is not.