More than 30 years ago, in a town halfway between Los Encinos, CA and Riverside, Mr. and Mrs. Hill bought a modest ranch house in the sleepy Santa Tara Valley.
The newly named Hill House was a white clapboard ranch set back about 200 feet from Highway 14, along a beautiful apple orchard nestled beneath the Santa Tara Mountains. In its rustic and gentle unpretentiousness, the ranch looked like it might have once been a set piece for a 1940’s cowboy movie.
Santa Tara had only about 1,300 residents back then, most of whom were farmers, small business owners, retirees and migrant workers.
When Larry and Annie Hill moved into Santa Tara, they were a different type. Larry was a rugged, long-haired sculptor who looked something like the 60’s radical Abby Hoffman. Annie was the Joan Baez wife, who wore her long black hair with a headband, and drove a Ford pick-up around town with her three black Dalmatians. She hid her wealthy origins well. Her father had been a publisher of a San Francisco newspaper, it was alleged.
They had moved from somewhere else, perhaps San Francisco, possibly Berkeley, maybe Portland, nobody knew for sure.
They might have had anti-war connections, experimented with drugs, conducted all night orgies, or maybe they weren’t even married. They just looked strange.
I was 12 year old Edgar Evens, a boy who rode my bike past their house and wondered why such artsy folk would move to such a dusty dry town far removed from urban sophisticates.
I looked at those people and I wished my parents looked that cool. But my mom and dad were fat and Baptist, listened to Lawrence Welk and said grace before every single meal.
One blistering July afternoon, I came into my parent’s bedroom to find them lying lifeless on top of their king- sized bed. They had been shot up, and my mother was full of blood and holes. My father lay there with his eyes wide open and a red-river of liquid pouring out of his stunned mouth and onto the soaking crimson pillows.
The Sheriff came. Then the ambulance, and then the coroner. My seventh grade teacher, Mona McKinsey came, and she brought Pastor Clark, and pretty soon the good Pastor took me back to his place and I never went back to my parent’s house again.
The funeral was a week later. My Uncle Russ, Aunt Betty, and tons of cousins from Kentucky, Oklahoma and Oregon showed up. They said that my father had shot my mother and then turned the gun on himself.
KTLA-TV sent a reporter to interview me, but Pastor Clark wouldn’t let me talk. The Los Angeles Times called once, but then they didn’t call again. The Santa Tara Gazette reported the killing on its front page. That was something.
I went back to school, and finished the seventh grade. Then Pastor Clark asked me if I wanted to move into Hill House. The Hills wanted to become my guardian. I said yes, and moved into the white ranch house in the apple orchards.
Larry played The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He had a studio where he kept sheets of metal, tools, paints and poisons and fashioned bizarre beings out of steel.
Annie worked as a guidance counselor at the high school, but at night, she drove 20 miles to study architecture at the local college. Her drafting tools, papers, and architecture books took up one corner of Larry’s studio.
A few days after I had moved in, Annie knocked on my bedroom door and sat on the edge of my bed. Outside, crows were circling the fields and causing a ruckus. In late afternoon, the gentle orange tints of the setting sun washed against the bedspread.
“Do you think of your parents, son?” she asked.
“No, not really.”
She fastened her deep brown eyes into mine. Her breath smelled of red wine and rosemary. The scent of chicken in the pot perfumed her hair.
“I’m cooking downstairs, and we’ll have some dinner. Just know that no matter what, I’m here for you to talk. Understand?”
“Yes ma’am! You don’t have to call me that. How about Annie?”
“Yes ma’am. I mean Annie……”
The eighth grade started again, and I went back to school. The Mexican workers came into town to pick the ripened apples. I would pass straw hatted kids my age in the fields while sitting on the bus dreaming of running away from Santa Tara.
Mona McKinsey was again my teacher and this year she began class by saying that everyone was so sorry about the death of my parents and how much I was loved by everyone in town.
I had once liked school, but the eighth grade was horrible. We had to study trigonometry and algebra. We had to memorize English and American history, and we were drilled in grammar and sentence structure. Every night, I spent two or three hours struggling with math, and I never seemed to catch up to the other kids. I was falling behind, and then I began to feel shy.
I started eating alone at lunchtime. In gym class, I was picked last for sports teams. My skin began to break out and every morning I would wake up and find that my cheeks were sore and ruptured with pimples and blackheads.
Girls were now growing breasts and getting bitchier. They ganged up in large groups and walked around the playground picking out targets like game hunters on an African safari.
I remember one bitch, Lisa Gettleman, who had freckles and brown teeth, but acted as if she were Cheryl Tiegs.
“Well, if it isn’t the town weirdo. When are you going to act normal again? You’re not the only kid whose parents are dead!”
Six of these girls were glued together, laughing and chewing gum and taunting me.
“I think he’s gay. That’s what he is. Do you know what a HOMO is?”
“Fuck you! Fuck off bitches!”
“Fuck you loser!”
They fled the scene of the crime and I ran to the other side of the playground and hid my head behind the thorny bushes under the cafeteria windows.
Larry took me for a walk with the three Dalmatians: Missy, Matador and Marvin. We walked up behind the barn, and into the hills behind the house. A couple of hundred feet along the trail, you could stop and see the whole town below. The air was cooler and the settlement down there seemed small and unimportant.
“It’s a toy town. Toy town with toy folks.” He said.
“What do you mean?”
“Little minds like dolls. They go about their lives and their small matters. You have to come up here and breathe some fresh air sometimes. Don’t swim in the town without coming up for air.”
“I hate this town.” I said.
“I know. I hate it too.”
“Then why did you move here?”
“I wanted to get out of the city. I had my art, and my wife. We just thought it would be better to concentrate on creating something. So Santa Tara seemed to beckon.”
“But its so dinky here.”
“But that’s the point. Annie wants to be a big fish in a small pond.”
“Why did you take me in?”
“That’s not a good answer. You don’t just take a strange kid into your home just because he has no parents.”
“You were an outcast. That’s why. We took you in because we don’t like it when people are outcasted.”
“Great. You think I’m a freak!”
“An outcast. Not a freak! You can be different and come from difficulty and it don’t make you a freak!”
Annie got her degree and now she was an architect. She threw a party and invited some of the townsfolk. Her diploma stood proudly atop the fireplace mantle.
She didn’t design houses though. There weren’t any people who would hire her. Larry did, however, know of a man in Santa Monica, a radical architect who did weird projects like building homes out of sheet metal, plywood, fencing, and old tires. This future design celebrity came out to Santa Tara one day and sat out on the front porch drinking red wine in his faded jeans and dirty ostrich boots.
“This is our boy. Sort of. Edgar come and meet Frank T. Geary.”
“How do you do Mr. Geary?”
“Just fine. Larry tells me that you hate this house.”
“Tell me why you hate it?”
“Look at it. It’s just plain and doesn’t say anything. It looks like boring people live here. These people aren’t boring—but their house looks like hell.”
Everyone laughed. Annie poured herself a glass of wine, and then Larry brought out some avocado dip. The architect dipped his potato chip into the bowl and sat down on the wooden steps of the porch, petting Missy.
Annie spoke. “We don’t want you to improve this house. We want you to transform it. I want people to drive out to Santa Tara and look at my house and say, “What were they thinking!”
“Now you don’t want all that publicity do you Annie?”
“I want whatever is going to make a name for all of us. I have a husband who needs to sell his sculptures. I need to find work at least as a draftsman and you need to get your name on TV.”
“Something for everyone, huh?” sneered the architect.
“We ought to be famous for something good here. The last time our town was in the news…….”
They had spoken the unspeakable. Crossed the line. The air turned sticky and silent. Larry took Annie aside and she went into the house.
Larry came out and exclaimed with renewed confidence:”If Santa Tara becomes famous it’s going to be from the new Hill House.”
There was talk of money in the house. Larry had an inheritance and a little cash to play around with. The architect was going to take on the project, and charge very little commission in the hope that Hill House would put his name on the map.
After I graduated from the eighth grade, Larry asked me to work with him in construction. He was going to help build the home, with guidance from his wife and the architect, and I could be the intern on the project.
The drawings for the house arrived in the mail. Annie laid the giant manila envelope on the dining room table, sliced open the cover and pulled out the blueprints.
“What is that?” I asked. I was looking at a window that was not round or square, but a trapezoid with cartoonish angles set against a façade of corrugated steel, plywood, plastic and aluminum.
“That’s our new house, Edgar. Isn’t it fantastic?”
“That’s the house? That’s the ugliest thing I have ever seen! How could you even build that!”
She laughed. She picked up the drawings and went outside to show her husband.
“Edgar thinks it’s ugly. That’s the point. We want them to hate Hill House. Then we’ll be famous.”
“You want to be so obvious! I don’t want to live in something that people make fun of.”
Larry put his hand on my shoulder. “All great art is despised when it’s first shown. I’m going to tell you about the French impressionists. Why, do you know the first time Renoir painted, people spit at his paintings? Van Gogh died broke. Picasso was despised. So were the Beatles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marlon Brando. People– I mean average people– don’t understand great artists!”
I was getting angry. My teenage temper burst.
“You’re not building art! You’re building a house and it’s ugly and you’re pretending that you have something artful and it’s just so you can fool people so you can make money. It’s dishonest and you want to trick people!”
“Now don’t be a jerk! You don’t have the knowledge to talk about art. You will learn, but right now you have to accept that we are telling you the truth.”
Just as I entered freshman year, Annie quit her job at the high school. She had gotten some work from the architect, and had managed to build up a clientele based upon her association with the radical builder. The projects were money, they weren’t fun and they bored her. One of the assignments was to design a chicken coop for a neighbor.
But Annie and Larry’s house was now nearing completion. Just as the town had once driven by another house to see where the dead victims were, they now pulled up to gawk, to take pictures, to comment on our house. We were conspicuous and I was ashamed. Annie and Larry were town celebrities though, and they knew they had hit a nerve.
Larry came home one night, ran into the den and turned on the TV.
“Look, everyone get in here! KTLA has something about Frank’s new house in Venice. Robert Redford might move into it.”
“It looks like a retarded person’s playhouse.” I said.
Annie came in holding her glass of wine. “Yes, yes, yes! If that house can be on TV, so can ours!”
Workmen arrived every morning at 6am. It was impossible to sleep through the hammering, drilling, screaming, cussing, dust, trucks and sawing.
Mr. Geary hardly came out to the house. Great architects worked like that, Annie explained. They created, and then others did the building.
Finally, the house was complete. Standing alone in the apple orchards, with the blue-mountains as a backdrop, stood the architectural sensation of the year.
Folks could not believe the “genius” of the building. Some thought it was ridiculous, but most believers convinced the skeptical and very soon almost everyone knew that something amazing had come to Santa Tara.
“Looks like a tornado hit it.”
“Ugly as sin.”
“You don’t know beauty when you see it.”
“Where are the loonies?”
“Does that weird kid still live there?”
Mr. Geary, Larry, Annie and dozens of friends came over for the housewarming. Vegetarian chili, white wine, reefer, scented candles and the barking dogs, it was California hospitality at its most sincere. I was a part of a new wave, like Surrealism or Expressionism or Method acting, and where I slept and shit now was a hallowed ground for the aesthetes of Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Soho.
They had taken me once after my parents died, into a home which was a sanctuary from violent America. I had been ripped open, left alone, orphaned, and these two rescuers had brought me into their lives. They would protect me, and nourish me, and teach me those great values that might insure my success in life.
I had seen greatness in the new art, the house that looked like an insane asylum, but who was I to judge? As unanimous opinion spread like a virus, I realized that I was destined to live in a home that was now on the map of celebrity residences. I could not object to what I hated, I had to learn to love what everyone else desired, and eventually I would desire it myself.