THE GHOST OF SHARON TATE
by Greg Chandler
Karl sat on his bed, his favorite
paperbacks spread between his legs. Suicidal Hollywood, Vol. 1 & 2; Big Foot:
Living Legend?; Hippies Haight: Flower Children and the Occult; Subs on the Sea
Floor; and The Ghosts of Benedict Canyon. Their lurid covers and
sensationalistic stories, frail yellowed pages and mildewy odor helped take Karl's mind
off the day's incident.
He finished a chapter in Suicidal Hollywood
about the son of Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence, kicked off his ragged tennis shoes, and
tuned in Dr. Irene Greene, AM 1020 on his night stand radio. She was at the part in her
show where she repeats the evening's mantra again and again: "You can't love others
until you love yourself." Every night at least one psycho phoned in, usually with
tales of self-inflicted abuse. Karl squirmed when they described burning themselves with
cigarettes, cutting their faces and genitals with razor blades, or sticking their fingers
in a garbage disposal. Occasionally, Dr. Irene herself was the target of verbal abuse;
though usually by the end of the call, a testament to her talent, she had the caller
pacified. Karl took notes on her methods for dealing with violent people. Psychology
seemed easy coming from Dr. Irene, but for some reason he just wasn't getting it. On his
way home from school Karl used some of her soothing words and common sense on Ted Rochelle
and Ron Butler but they beat him up anyway.
The first caller was a forty-seven year old
mother of four. Like the typical caller, she seemed sane at first, then gradually became
unglued. "Irene, Ronald Reagan tried to rape me last night. Very few people know that
he owns illegal slot machines here in L.A. and I've lost close to a billion dollars in
them." Her voice grew shrill and high-pitched like a child's. "Miss Freddy was
on her way over to my house but her car got washed away in a flood. Miss Freddy was my
daddy's secretary, my daddy probably had over three thousand Miss Freddys, and she told
Ronald Reagan where I'm hiding." Dr. Irene cut to a commercial.
Finally starting to relax after such an anxiety
filled day, Karl switched off the radio and went to get a glass of iced tea. From the
kitchen he watched his mother sleeping in her usual spot on the couch, the TV news
blaring. He stood there in a daze, twisting a curly lock of brown hair between his
fingers, and remembered his father would be home from work any minute. Fortunately, it
would only be for two days. Karl's dad was fire chief.
Karl returned to his room. Sitting at his desk,
he painted the inside of a small gift box peacock blue. The lemon wedge in his tea burned
his busted lip so he threw it out the window. Karl's bedroom was large, with maps of
Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and Beverly Hills on the walls. A sliding glass door opened
onto an overgrown half-acre backyard thick with fruit trees, ivy and bamboo. Rats ate the
avocados, loquats and guavas. Dogs trespassed under the fence to eat the avocados as well,
large seeds and all, which they later pooped on the neat and tidy front lawn. Uncontrolled
growth in the backyard had eclipsed the drab ranch-style house for as long as Karl could
remember. Over the years, Karl watched the jungle swallow three birdbaths, a greenhouse,
the trash incinerator, a mini-bike motor and most of his childhood toys.
Looking out there reminded Karl he was due to
make an offering to the hollow tree in the jungle's furthest corner. The hollow tree was a
secret spot Karl visited for hours at a time, a grotto in Mauritania, a secret cave in
Inspired, Karl cut illustrations out of the
dictionary to paste inside the gift box. He chose periscope, locust, the Seven Hills of
Rome, and abacus. Rifling through his desk drawers, his stock of interesting things, he
selected a piece of green wire and ten red sequins. These he fashioned into a chandelier
which he hung inside the diorama. In need of a centerpiece, he plunged his arm in the fish
aquarium where he kept a collection of treasure chests, pearl divers, coral, sunken ships,
and porcelain mermaids riding giant squid and octopi. He selected a plastic treasure chest
overflowing diamonds and rubies, dried it with a sock, and glued it inside the box. Around
it he set tiny trees of white coral and a few bits of neon orange gravel. To guard the
treasure a rubber wise man from an old nativity. Pleased with his creation, he set it on a
high bookshelf until he could deliver it to the tree when his parents were asleep.
Diorama complete, Karl settled into his pillows
to resume the Sharon Tate chapter in The Ghosts of Benedict Canyon. Three
paragraphs deep, he heard a commotion at the front door, followed by silence. He froze.
For five minutes his eyes locked on the words Cielo Drive. No slamming, no shouting. He
peered underneath his door; no one in the kitchen. The TV got louder. Karl heard a special
news bulletin: "Out of control wild fires burn million dollar homes in Malibu
Canyon...." Over the din of the helicopter broadcast, his father started in on his
mother. Karl flipped the lights and jumped into bed.
"Wake up." The light flashed on.
"You're never asleep at this hour," his father barked, standing at the foot of
the bed. Sweat beaded on the man's brow, drops of beer clung to his red mustache. Karl
never looked his father in the eye, he couldn't.
Focusing on his father's belt buckle, he held
the blanket under his chin.
"Your goddamned principal called me today
at the fire house...it was very embarrassing."
Karl felt his throat constrict. "Mr.
"I understand you like making a real
fruitcake fag show of yourself in front of the kids at school."
"No...Why would I do that?...I'm sorry, I
didn't do anything."
"You're always sorry, fine, but do you have
to constantly embarrass and humiliate your mother and me? Has that ever occurred to you?
Have we ever entered your thoughts when you're doing your fag show for the whole
"Dad, I swear I didn't do anything wrong. I
didn't do a fag show, that's not what happened. The proctor, she hates me, she's always
trying to get me in trouble. She thinks I'm too smart."
"Look, I know Mr. Osterman pretty well, the
man has a doctorate in education, I think he knows a thing or two. He says you've got
problems. My solution is simple: when you're eighteen you can leave my house, you can
flitter away and debase yourself any way you choose. That's your business."
Karl yanked his eyebrows. "Dad."
"But while you're living under my roof
you're going to behave like a normal boy."
"And don't go running to your mom because
she's as disgusted as I am," he added, leaving as abruptly as he came in.
Karl rose and turned out the light. Why had he
made such a fool of himself at school? He'd been in a wonderful giggly mood having fun at
lunch with his girlfriends. He should have known...but they got carried away dancing
circles around the mean proctor singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop." At first he
didn't think he was doing anything out of the ordinary, until the proctor started to yell
with disgust, though not at the girls. She sent him to the principal's office. The
principal said very little. "Do yourself a favor, Clonus, nip the sissy bit in the
bud as fast as you can, otherwise the rest of your life will be a living hell."
* * *
Apart from the television, all was quiet again. In bed,
Karl read about Sharon Tate's ghost. It was an especially fascinating story since Karl
thought he knew everything about her from Helter Skelter, The Family, and a Los
Angeles Times he'd bought at a garage sale for three dollars, it's headline: "FILM
STAR, 4 OTHERS DEAD IN BLOOD ORGY--Sharon Tate Victim In 'Ritual' Murders." One
fantasy: sarcastic repartee with Gibby, Voytek, Sharon and Jay, over a poolside lunch of
tabbouleh and casaba. In another fantasy, he and the Manson Family dune buggy through
Death Valley in search of the infamous "bottomless pit." When Karl gets his
driver's license his first destination will be Cielo Drive, thirty minutes west.
Karl sipped iced tea as he slowly read The
Ghosts of Benedict Canyon, absorbed in a story about a wardrobe assistant at
Paramount who found a box packed with beautiful, expensive clothes. After admiring the
clothes the woman discovered, much to her surprise, the name SHARON TATE stenciled on the
inside of the lid. She took the box home with her to Hermosa Beach, where over a light
supper alone, she couldn't stop thinking about the clothes: "Did these fabulous
Cardin dresses and Pucci pantsuits once belong to the one and only Sharon Tate? Although I
never met Sharon, her death ten years earlier had really affected me, to such a point
where I didn't trust a soul for a long time. Sharon had everything going for her until
those evil monsters took it all away. It really was the end of the Sixties. For some
reason the clothes brought back a lot of bittersweet memories. I just couldn't rest until
I knew the truth. I had decided to check film stills at the studio Monday morning to see
if she'd worn them in any of her films. Also, the clothes smelled faintly of Me by Helena
Rubinstein, a tuberose and lime blossom perfume I'd worn in the sixties. If Sharon Tate
wore Me, then it would be safe to say these clothes really were hers. On top of all these
emotions I couldn't stop thinking it was wrong of me not to send the clothes to Roman
"Later on that night after Police
Woman, my sister, a highly successful script supervisor, called from Tennessee where
she was working on the set of a Carol Lynley Movie of the Week. Complaining of
debilitating insomnia, she was afraid of being fired if she didn't get some sleep. Her
idea was that I make a tape-recording of the soothing Pacific surf and send it to her.
Like me, my sister lives at the beach so she's used to falling asleep to the sound of
"So I went out on the deck of my beach
house, set a tape recorder in the butterfly chair and pressed RECORD. The next morning I
listened to the tape. Crashing waves, the surf's ebb and flow, it was very calming. But
then, literally out of nowhere, a woman's voice became audible, a distant whisper twirling
in the surf. I rewound the tape, raised the volume, held it to my ear. Without a doubt-and
I still have the tape to prove it-the voice said, 'Keep the clothes...keep the
clothes...this is Sharon...keep the clothes.'"
Chills raced up and down Karl's body, sending
him under his bed in search of a cassette.
"Hiding something under there?" his
mother asked, poking her head in.
Karl sat up. The bags under his mother's eyes
were darker, heavier than usual. "No, I'm getting a tape."
"Well, your dad's gone to the fires in
Malibu so you better fix yourself something."
"Are you mad at me, too?" Karl asked,
hoping she'd mention his swollen lip.
"No, I'm not mad, do whatever you want, I'm
too tired to get worked up about anything." She paused, her eyes looked desolate and
dull. "You want to play with little figurines and dolls, fine. Just try to keep this
stuff from your father because I'm the one who gets in trouble."
Karl thought of a snapshot of his mother taken
in 1966. She sits at the top of a water slide, joyful smile, long blond hair falling over
tan shoulders, ample bosom, daisy- print bikini. Held to the refrigerator with a fire hat
magnet, it was everyone's favorite picture of her, and an image Karl had seen ten times a
day for most of his life. Now and then, Karl peeked under his door and saw his mother
eating ice cream, staring at the picture.
"Another million dollar home is up in
flames! And we have reason to believe it's the home of former Rifleman star, Chuck
Certain his mother was preoccupied with the
devastation, Karl crept out the backdoor with his tape recorder in one hand, diorama in
the other. A red candlestick poked out of his front pocket, The Ghosts of Benedict
Canyon out his back. Getting to the hollow tree wasn't easy, which kept it
inaccessible to parents. First Karl braved the prickly, waist-high weeds of Spanish
Sahara, formerly his sandbox. He emerged from Spanish Sahara into denser, darker
territory, the jungle Bandundo, where fruit rats scurried from avocado to avocado.
It was a very dark night. The smell of fire was
in the air. Karl was on edge. A branch scratched his sore cheek; he tore it from the tree
and snapped it into tiny pieces. Something thumped in the ivy behind him. He turned and
saw a rat splayed over a half-devoured avocado.
Just before the wall at the end of the property,
Karl reached his hollow scrub oak. He lit the candle. Inside the trunk, on four shelves
made of wood scraps and rusty nails, were two dozen little worlds. Karl deposited his
offering at the left end of the top shelf next to a diorama of space aliens made of green
buttons and match sticks and planets made of broken glass and chewing gum. He set the
candle on one of the tree's knots. He squatted in the ivy, tried to imagine the voice of
Sharon Tate, her laugh, words she may have liked: green grapes, groovy, Sapperstein, love
house, Richard Paul Polanski. Karl placed the tape recorder inside the tree. He moved his
hands in circles over his head, whispering, "Sharon, Sharon, Sharon. Speak to me
through this tape recorder. Talk to me, Sharon, give me a sign. The tape will run all
night. Please, Sharon, come to me. Speak to me. Sharon...Sharon...Sharon." He pushed
To guide her, he left the book and candle. He
started back for the house. Pausing in the kitchen, he saw his mother on the couch sipping
wine, her eyes still glued to the television fire, a heap of smoldering cigarette butts in
the ashtray, a cushion on her lap.