Walter sought to get work as a paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.
Nariko was asleep at 5am when a text message awoke her.
She lay in a dark bedroom next to her husband Eric, inside a warmly furnished ranch house, somewhere in the shadows of the mountains in Toluca Lake.
They lived in an affluent, tony district of clean windows, mowed lawns, and large, tinted glass cars carrying schoolchildren.
She dropped out from blanket onto carpet and sat on the floor. In her hand were illuminated words: “I love you. See you soon. Walt.”
She tiptoed out, walked down the hall, and reached into a closet laundry hamper, clutching a stained shirt and elastic shorts.
After exercise, still in the dark before the dawn, she set out granola, almond milk, sliced bananas, coffee and boiled-eggs for Eric and little Lillian.
Eric came out of the bedroom. He stood near the coffee maker, in a white t-shirt and blue boxers. He was in a cloudy, Monday morning kitchen, a decade past his youth, hurling into mid-life.
He worked at nearby Warner Brothers Studio. His office was a trailer in his own production company, staffed by interns who spent all day online inventing tales, a business of no security and no importance, whose attributes and contracts were purchased ten years earlier with his late father’s money. Something Southern and scatalogical was always in development and just about to get green lit.
At night, after work, Eric pedaled out into the dark. He rode home through Burbank and Toluca Lake, taking wrong roads, turning down unfamiliar streets, places he rode through with no clear direction, in a frenzy of sweat and physicality; elated, invigorated.
In low gear, passing other houses and inhabitants, he processed and archived life with no intention beyond sensation.
Back home on Placidia Avenue, Trader Joe’s food waited: pre-cooked turkey meatballs, plastic bag risotto, and bottles of cheap red wine. Dessert was always those waxed tangerines and tiny containers of Greek yogurt.
His income was largely a trust fund depositing enough for mortgage, dinner and a movie into his account.
His wife was cheating and he knew it but he didn’t.
This particular morning she was naked and locked in the bathroom seated on the toilet texting Walt, a hired photographer from back east whose visit was platonic in purpose. She sat on the throne for fifteen minutes and then wiped up, made up her face, threw on a shirt and slipped like a virgin into bleached white jeans.
Nariko Araki worked inside a converted garage, in back of her well-groomed Toluca Lake garden. Thin, dark-haired, and industrious, she commanded a small textile studio, printing and producing organic cloth whose aura was tactile, natural, handcrafted, and sensual.
She used a lot of blues and whites, careful not to suffocate in pattern. Every marking and shape had plenty of room around it. In her creations objects floated separately in vast white seas.
She looked cool and smelled smoky like cedar.
She mixed brown dyes in a large steel can, standing on a small step ladder, stirring it with a plastic oar as Eric stood by plaintively, like a boy watching his mother make dinner.
She told him that his car payment, house taxes, mortgage payment and credit card bills were due and he had to pay them all. Head down, he turned and walked out, stomping on fallen gold maple leaves.
Back to work she went, tugging, folding, tucking, rolling and lifting fabric. Bolts of linen cloth, in hues of walnut, sage, saffron and henna, were laid down and stacked on the concrete floor. Inks, dyes, industrial poisons and metal stamps congregated atop rectangular wooden tables.
In a corner, a pile of corrugated boxes, packed with fabrics, pasted in mailing labels, waited in silence for the UPS man atop the Dutch door ledge.
In the open air of the workshop Nariko’s mercurial moods moved from anxiety to tranquility, acidic and rancid from chemicals, benignly seductive in rose, jasmine and lavender.
Self-taught, she had taken a home hobby and built it into a thriving little enterprise supplying fabrics for home furnishings, bedding, clothing and tabletops.
In long sleeve black spandex top and dark jeans, Eric came back into the studio with Lillian on his arm. He asked for the car keys and some gas money to drive the child to school.
“I think we are going to have a meeting at Paramount next week. New exec there used to go to Syracuse with Cody Soldinger,” he said.
“Take a hundred out of my purse,” she directed, holding and cutting orange and black fishes printed on white cotton.
On the driveway, he put Lillian into a seat, belted her in and stopped to look up at the sky. Cirrus clouds, wisps of white, blown by a cold north wind, moved across the sky like kinetic sculpture from God’s mobile.
The unfathomable enormity of the blue and beyond was terrifying.
He stopped looking up and got down into the car.
A week before Thanksgiving, Walter W. Simmons was inside Nariko’s studio.
Prematurely gray, he favored his old Nikon F, coffee in a mug, and menthol lozenges that he sucked all day turning his kisses cool and hot.
Lean, up and down, he favored dark denim, turtleneck sweaters, Red Wing boots, and aviator sunglasses.
He moved around the studio, on his knees, lens aimed up. Perched on a ladder looking down.
Nariko wore a long black cotton scarf whirling about her neck. She stood next to the Dutch door, resting her elbow on the ledge, and held a cup of green tea in a gray ceramic mug.
Walter sought to get work as paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.
Nariko guessed that Walter saw in her something that fit into his own marketing plan.
Walter set up a mise en scène plate of oatmeal cookies atop the oatmeal dyed linen. He was a master of the subtly obvious.
He went into the garden and took close-ups of lambs ears and succulents, jasmine vines and hanging lanterns. He went back in and grabbed her from behind, kissing her on the neck.
Before he jumped in a cab to Burbank Airport he had both hands under her blouse, clasping her breasts, rubbing against her, man to woman, breathing into her ears, sticking his probing tongue into the ridges and spirals of her sonic hinterlands.
He aimed to dominate. But he wrapped his industrial sized dreams in benign sustainability.
Walter’s visits invigorated her. He found sunlight and shadow in her Southern California studio as only a visitor from a dark, northern place could.
The conjugation of her printed fabric and his printed photographs bore real emotion and sentiment, connection and intimacy. His departures left her empty, sullen, and morose.
She needed activity and threw herself back into projects, chores, and work.
On the studio wall she had a large chalkboard grid for the year, scheduling each month’s production goals and deadlines.
Two years ago none of this existed.
Last year she called it a hobby.
And this year it was a business.
And some of it was an affair: illicit, dangerous, exciting and energizing.
In a little yellow VW, 80-year-old Auntie Tammy sped up the 405 and across the 101 for her once-a-month visitation with her niece.
Tammy Shibuya was the youngest and only survivor of a family of four who had lived in Mountain View, CA before WWII. Rounded up after Pearl Harbor they endured more than three years in an internment camp, returning back home to a looted hardware store. Unable to rebuild on land stolen, the Shibuya clan went south. They joined family in Oxnard, farming strawberries and asparagus, later migrating southward into West Los Angeles property development in the 1950s.
Auntie Tammy never married and worked managing apartments. She was tough, able to get under a leaking sink and clear pipes, wire fixtures and hang doors. She scoffed at spendthrifts who wasted money on plumbers and electricians. Thin and fastidious, she ate carrots and ramen soup, washed her hair in bar soap, and kept her furniture for 40 years. She barked out orders to tradesman, and knew her way around blueprints, drains, circuit breakers and lathe saws too.
Unreligious, unromantic and clear-eyed, she spoke the truth, making many enemies. If you were fat, indebted, bored, failing school, falling into self-pity, she let you know. Hardy, blunt and clear-eyed, she lead a life of flinty independence and self-reliance.
Nariko and her aunt walked around the brightly illuminated studio as ductless air-conditioning blew, and a new 55-inch smart TV played.
Her Aunt stood glumly, shaking her head.
“You spend too much. Air-conditioning? New TV? New computer? How much are you selling and how much are you spending?” she asked.
Nariko had expected the assault. She was armed with figures and produced an optimistic report. Tammy did not budge.
“I’m no spoil sport Niki. You have a creative mind and you do good work. But keep your ego in check. Don’t overdo it, don’t try to impress with a big fancy operation,” Tammy said.
Nariko attempted to get up from the tackle and threw parental responsibility and wifely duty back at the old childless woman without a husband.
“Who is talking about your kid or your husband? I’m speaking about your money. Spending it like you have so much to spend. One day you might be in trouble. Or your husband loses his job. Or God forbid you have to go into the hospital. Save money. Save money. That’s what I tell you. I didn’t buy a TV until I was 40 years old!”
Tammy asked about Eric’s work.
“He’s got some promising leads at Paramount,” Nariko said quietly.
“Ha! The so-called industry! The business! I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to see generations of young men and women go broke trying to catch fire in Hollywood. I think your husband is headed for calamity. He’s too old to play that fucking game,” she said.
The Virtual Dog
Walter emailed his edited photographs to Nariko. She waited until Eric came home that night to unveil them to him. It had been a long day with Tammy ignoring putdowns and hiding wounds.
She fortified herself with several large glasses of Cabernet, numbing potential joy and carnal guilt.
It was dark, about 8pm. Drenched in bike sweat, Eric came through the back door. He soaped up his hands, washed his face, poured himself a glass of red wine and kissed milk-lipped Lillian.
“Daddy is home. Aren’t you happy?” he asked, wetting a paper towel and dabbing his daughter’s chin. She smiled and turned away to the hopping rabbit cartoon.
Husband and wife walked out into the studio and sat down at the desktop monitor. Before receiving her digital photos, Nariko sprayed the screen with glass cleaner, as if preparing to receive a holy sacrament.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“My aunt was here today spreading her joy,” she said.
“Let’s look at these photos from Walter. I think they might distract me.”
Scrolling down the selections, andante, reverently, Nariko put her finger on the screen each time a new photograph born into being.
Walter’s camera had captured and enhanced the textures, the linens and cottons, and the richly dyed silks. Next to the fabrics, he contrasted food and color: red wet cranberries, blue soaked blueberries, rinsed romaine lettuce, green and alive.
Her print making, drudgery in reality, was transformed in his images to an artistic blur of human at razor-sharp machine. Her specter brushed across his wide angled shots, morphing into a dark form floating across a bright white room.
“I’m dazzled,” she said. “I can’t believe how wonderful these are. I wish I could send these to Aunt Tammy but she doesn’t use a computer!”
She was breathless and exhausted from excitement and got up to get a glass of water. As she stood at the tap, Eric inspected each photograph.
Schooled in the falsehoods of the edit bay, he stared closely at the photographs, one in particular. “Whose dog is this?” he asked as he pointed to a lovely, shiny Golden Retriever online. She sat down quizzically.
“That’s so weird. He must have put that in,” she said.
“Photoshop.” he said. “That CG dog is so real he probably barks.”
“I’m baffled,” she said. They looked at another image of the patio. Instead of a few pots of succulents, there were perhaps two-dozen pots of succulents, and many flowered vines.
In several close-ups of her, her dark eye circles had been removed, something she did not mind. But magenta lipstick floated across her virtual lips and her teeth were as white as a just scoured ceramic sink.
“I guess he thinks he can make you look better,” Eric said without malice.
“The whole reason I hired him was honesty. That’s what I wanted from Walter,” she told Eric.
Did she look old in real life? Were her teeth yellow? What else was Walter not telling her? Why did he not ask her before mangling reality?
The photographer’s uninvited artifice, the redrawing of her face and space, violated her integrity and trust. His godlike belief in overt digital correction sickened her.
And then there was the $4,000 invoice.
“Are you going to say something to him?” Eric asked.
“Not yet. He knows many editors and people in New York. If I confront him he may break up with me. Let me think about this,” she said.
“Break up?” Eric asked laughing. “Are you two dating?”
“Of course not!” she answered.
Walter’s methods had exposed client and vendor, in flattery rendered dishonestly. Eric had uncovered it, as baldly as if he had walked in on her with another man.
Before the discovery of the artifice, she held Walter on a higher plane. She believed in his moody, faded photographs of tin crosses, rough hewn wood beams, long haired bearded men, brick warehouses on the waterfront, ales poured, cows milked, corn shucked.
Eric consoled. “This is what they all do. Do you want to play the game? Don’t you want your work presented professionally? You’re going to get a lot of orders from these,” he said.
New orders grew.
Hits and tweats, posts and emails multiplied. Bloggers blogged.
Nariko hired a part-time student assistant.
Lillian graduated from Kindergarten, and Nariko threw a little party with some local children and parents. Walter was in Pacific Palisades photographing designer Ross Cassidy’s mud room.
He came over to Toluca Lake to photograph the Kindergarten graduation party. He had hoped, and was delighted upon arriving, to see Eric absent.
Eric knew the end was coming for his production company. His partner dropped the news that he would no longer look for investors. Eric was leaving entertainment for good.
But God, how he loved the make believe land of Warner Brothers back lot.
He biked around the empty, dark studio streets, an ersatz neighborhood of parks, lampposts, carousels, brownstones and gracious brick homes planted with plastic flowers and portable trees.
Riding out of studio gate, on his evening bike ride home, Eric stopped to pick up some wine at Trader Joe’s. He saw an old classmate from Ramaz, attorney Theodore Gettelman, tall and middle-aged, but dressed boyishly in blue crew neck and khakis, backpack slung over one shoulder.
Eric observed him silently. It was too much, now, to catch up in banalities and wrap-ups with someone from that era. Gettelman was that former cool kid, snarky; amused when someone tripped on ice at Wollman Rink.
Pity, not envy, came to Eric’s mind as he imagined Gettelman, now entangled in Los Angeles and her hothouse fictions, an urban magnet for deluded idiots, insane ambition and unavoidable disappointment.
Eric bought a $4 bottle, paying without speaking. On the sidewalk, he watched Gettelman drive east on Riverside in a black Tesla, no doubt on his way to a meeting with someone behind a guardhouse.
Cars sped by as Eric unlocked his bike. He walked it into an alley without prying eyes. And leaned against a dumpster wall to cry. He stayed within his sadness for a few minutes.
A dry wind picked up. Eric got back on the bike and rode home against it.
It was a backyard Kindergarten graduation party. Arthur Rubinstein played Bach on Bose.
A small group of neighbors, parents, and a few children who attended school with Lillian, ate gluten free cakes and drank organic juices. The decorations were Japanese lanterns and Nariko’s linens and napkins.
Walter reveled in the waning sunlight and cinematic colors of the hanging lights. He could be seduced by naturalism but only if it had some payoff. And this event, he told Nariko, reminded him of one of Ina Garten’s East Hampton summer parties.
Nariko walked into the kitchen where Auntie Tammy conservatively turned off kitchen lights. “Everyone is in the backyard!” Tammy protested. Nariko turned the lights back on and guided her aunt into the yard.
Auntie Tammy carried a large glass of red wine in her hand, carefully stepping over the irregular stones, making her way over to Walter. “I hear you are a lawyer who gave up practice to do photography,” she said.
Walter smiled. “Yes, and I hear that you are the terror of Toluca Lake,” he said.
“Oh, I am. But I don’t live here. I’m in West LA. Tell me, why do you want to make your living doing something everyone on Earth can do for free?”
“I don’t understand. Are you saying there is no such thing as a professional photographer?” he asked.
“Not any more. Maybe when I was young. I think it’s pure economics young man. What you do anyone can do,” she said.
He was constrained in his response by her oldness. Swimming in his own photographic imagination, this old lady shark had bit off his leg.
“I intend to make a living at my work. I love photography. And I do have more and more clients and more and more recognition for my work. So thank you for your advice,” he said and walked away.
She had picked up on his brittle insecurity and exposed it.
Inside the house, Eric, freshly showered, dressed in a blue chambray shirt, slim tan corduroys, and dark brown suede boots, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife. Nariko told him he looked handsome.
Walter walked in distressed and visibly agitated. He asked Nariko if he could speak to her privately. She moved with him into a corner, behind a refrigerator, inside a narrow hall between a bathroom and the washer and dryer.
“I’m not enjoying this evening,” he said. “I want to wrap it up and get a check from you if possible.”
“Did something happen?” she asked.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss it. I am a professional. Diligence, integrity and honesty—that’s who I am. I don’t need any elderly messengers giving me advice. If you want to insult me do it to my face,” he said.
“What on Earth are you talking about?” she asked, completely mystified.
Someone opened the powder room door behind Nariko. She was pushed and thrust, face first, into the photographer’s chest and arms. He tried to step back, but there was nowhere to move. Three screaming children ran between Nariko and Walter’s legs.
“Your Aunt insulted me. Questioned my professional dedication and career. I don’t even know her. But you do. So she was obviously put up to it by you,” he said.
“She insults you and I’m at fault?” Nariko asked.
“Did she speak the truth? Did it sting and hurt? Be a man.”
“Like your husband?” Walter asked.
It came out of nowhere, anger and raw feeling.
“What do I owe you Walter?” she asked.
He had crossed that third rail of the Asian family, insulting an old relative.
“My rate is $300 an hour. I’ve been here three hours so that would be nine-hundred,” he said.
“For a children’s party? For your friend’s kid you rip me off with almost a thousand dollar fee? You pretentious piece of shit!”
“Oh man. You started something that we are going to have to settle legally,” he said and stormed out of the house.
Walter sent a letter advising her, legally, to remove his name and photos from her website. She complied.
Despite his character deficits, Walter’s artistry, his reading of light and capture of mood and matter was peerless. Divorcing him from the last year of her nascent business, under threat of lawsuit, wounded. For she had formed and built in the backyard, by her own hand and heart, something tangible, recorded for posterity, creatively photographed in collaboration, and now cruelly stolen.
Walter’s erasure also robbed her of a man who was her equal, a self-made artist who made a profit doing what he loved. She still had Eric at home, a husband, a father and a breadwinner, deficient in all these titles.
He still went on his errands, taking Lillian to school, training her to ride a bike, painting the kitchen, even making love as if they were still in love.
Eric joined a swim club that met weekly in Van Nuys, and he rode his bike on Saturdays with other guys in Griffith Park, finishing off his ride with a meet up at the Golden Road Brewery where the men’s talk was always about what it might take to open and operate a brewery.
In pursuit of opportunity he sat many hours alone at Starbucks staring at digital devices while mimicking paid work. Unemployed and content, he was relieved to be outside the walls of Warner Brothers.
Another year had passed and the chill returned to Los Angeles.
The clock fell back one hour into long dark nights anesthetized in wine, burning logs and pine.
Alone on Christmas Eve, the family watched The World of Susie Wong.
Nariko looked around her den, and saw that she was taken care of, surrounded by love and nice things. Eric lay on a fur rug playing checkers with Lillian near the tinsel tree. They were laughing and making up nonsensical words, roughhousing, kissing, hugging and playing together. Nothing Walter might ever add into his photographic fakery could top this.
She got up and walked into her studio to check her email. She had a calendar to work on, and shipments to check up on. She also was conjuring up, in her head, a future of even better things to come.
Her habit of constantly trying to improve, to dream of more, to push into imagined triumphs, deadened these living and tender and fleeting times.