Local Current Blog

When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes

Andrea Swensson

I couldn’t wait to get out of Minnesota. I needed a change of scenery so badly that the destination felt secondary, and the trip felt inevitable. So when Babes in Toyland quietly added a little warm-up gig out in the California desert to their tour schedule, and when I realized that this funny little show up in the mountains at a bar called Pappy and Harriet’s would be their first public show since 2001, I didn’t even question it. Of course I would be there. I couldn’t wait to get out of here.

In the week leading up to the trip, David Campbell and I kept joking that my trip to California was a spirit journey, and that I would be heading out into the desert to face the endless unknown and find myself.

“What will your spirit animal be?,” Campbell asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “A gecko?”

“You can’t be a gecko. An eagle will eat you. You have to be something strong.”

“Ok,” I replied. “A jackrabbit. Then I can run away.”

I couldn’t wait to get out of here.

I kept picturing myself standing out in Joshua Tree National Park with my arms stretched wide, staring off into the distance in search of peace and finally finding a way to steady my breath and slow down my busy jackrabbit heart. Maybe I would buy some scarves or a hippie skirt at a desert thrift store or find a Stevie Nicks hat to wear. Maybe I could feel like someone else for a while. Maybe I could figure out where I lost myself.

Landing in Palm Springs was a trip. As the plane nears the city you can see endless rows of perfectly manicured lawns, backyard pools, and lines of palm trees, and between the extraterrestrial feel of the surrounding desert and the Pleasantville-esque vibe of the 1950s vacation town, it was easy to feel like I had been transported to another world. It was just what I was hoping for. I practically had my nose pressed up on the airplane window. I couldn’t wait to get out there.

I only had 36 hours in Palm Springs and about seven hours until my interview with Babes in Toyland, so I didn’t want to waste a second. I picked up a rental car at the airport, took off my heavy boots and socks and sweater, threw my bags in the trunk, and revved the engine. It was hot and sunny, there was midcentury modern architecture everywhere I looked, and when I flipped on the radio and the sweet strains of the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” filled the car, the transformation was complete. I was in another place. I was so happy that I laughed out loud.

Once I realized just how easy it is to get around Palm Springs, I decided to hit a few thrift stores and then spend the rest of the morning trying to find some of the more famous houses in the city—after all, this was the place where Elvis, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and so many others used to hang out between their Hollywood gigs. And after asking a few thrift store owners for advice, I decided I would start with Liberace.

I had been told that Liberace had a mailbox shaped like a piano, so naturally I was going to have to find it and take a picture. After a little bit of aimless wandering I happened upon a little tour trolley that had tourists dangling off either side, and I decided to hang back about a block behind it and trail it in my rental car like a private investigator. Sure enough, after a few blocks the trolley stopped in front of Liberace’s winter home—the famous estate where the musician spent his winters and where he passed away in 1987—and as soon as the tourist trolley pulled away I got out of my car and went to stand at the home’s front gate.

liberacepianoThe piano mailbox was there, complete with a tiny metal piano bench, and there was a lion statue out front keeping watch over a sign that read Piazza de Liberace. It was beautiful.

I snapped a couple of pictures and got back in the car, then drove around the corner and stopped the car again. There, on the sidewalk next to Liberace’s home and perched between two perfectly manicured hedges, stood a ladder with a sign that read “ESTATE SALE.” Obviously I was going to have to go in.

Liberace’s neighbor had a beautiful home. And on this day—this surreal, bizarre day—Liberace’s neighbor’s friend was sitting outside reading a book, waiting for more people to show up and claim the belongings that were nestled inside.

“Hello, dear,” the old man said, looking up from his book. “Come on in. The house has been sold but everything else is up for grabs.”

I gingerly stepped inside the house and then stopped again, pausing to take in all of its strange beauty. Much like the rest of Palm Springs, Liberace’s neighbor’s house had sat undisturbed for decades, and it was hard not to feel like I had just opened a time capsule from 1962. A shiny black Yamaha grand piano sat in front of big sliding glass doors that opened to a backyard pool, and every room was lined floor to ceiling with books and scattered with other knickknacks and antiques.

I was thankful that I was alone in the house because the whole process of pawing through someone else’s belongings started to feel a little creepy. But the old man out front had instructed me to open all the drawers and cupboards to see if I wanted to purchase anything inside, and so I followed his orders and made my way around a desk and coffee table and into the kitchen, which already had half of its drawers pulled out and its contents in disarray.

I opened a few drawers myself and then cracked open a cupboard, and as I scanned the ancient packages of sugar and salt and oatmeal I realized that these items had sat undisturbed for quite some time. What happened to the person who lived here? When had they died? And why didn’t they have at least one person in their life who bothered to throw out the old sugar before letting strangers paw through their life?

Then it hit me: This wasn’t fun at all. It was actually quite painful and sad. And it felt all too familiar.

Still holding onto the cupboard door, I squeezed my eyes shut and it all came flooding back: The awful night a few weeks ago when I held onto my husband for dear life as a police officer told us his dad had died. The family meetings around kleenex boxes. The unthinkable duties. The obituary that was still only half-written and the apartment that we were in the process of sorting through and cleaning out; the memorial that needed to be planned and the feelings that had all been left hanging and unresolved. It was all still so fresh, and it was all still waiting for me.

I shook my head, trying to make sense of it all. What was I doing in this house, ogling Liberace’s neighbor’s things? What was I doing in California? What was I hoping to find here, all these miles away from what was going on?

I shut the cupboard door, and all of the rest of the drawers, and then absentmindedly straightened up the kitchen in a daze. I couldn’t leave it that messy, but I also couldn’t wait to get out of there, out of Palm Springs, out of the desert, out of this feeble attempt at escaping what was really going on in my life.

When I got back in the car, there were ghosts all around me. The ghosts of all these old movie stars and icons, and the ghosts of all the people who had passed through Palm Springs. And when I turned the car back on, there was the most important ghost of all—the ghost of Roy Orbison singing his song “Crying,” the last song I ever talked about with my music-loving father-in-law, and the most perfect and poignant song that could have possibly come on at that moment.

I laughed through my tears and revved the engine again. I couldn’t wait to get back home.