Exiles Under the Bridge, a novel

Exiles Under the Bridge, a novel

Exiles Under the Bridge

“Exiles Under the Bridge” is a novel (125,000 words) about two families: one white, one HK Chinese, in 1980s, Pasadena, CA.  

The book unfolds in a setting of affluence, privilege and natural beauty where the American Dream is within grasp.

But their struggles and aspirations coincide with political conservatism, personal licentiousness, and the terrifying arrival of AIDS. 

George Gilmore is an entitled scion from old money. He is also a closeted gay man, father, husband and failed screenwriter whose name, money and reputation protect him even as he self-destructs. His admirers burnish his reputation to fuel their own social climbing. His victims are his wife Edna and their two sons, Ed and Rory, all starved for love and honesty.  


Dr. Vincent Yue and Norma Loh, Hong Kong natives, are best friends with the Gilmores and endure marital and familial conflict when they discover cousin Tony’s relationship with George. Teenage daughter Lesley must wrestle with her own burgeoning homosexuality to avoid her mother’s wrath. Norma is ambitious and is eager to exploit the wealth and political power of George Gilmore.


Befriending Norma, Sinophile Edna collects Chinese pottery and works as a docent in an Asian museum but is innocent in all knowledge of Chinese culture. Her marriage is a sham. And when George becomes ill with AIDS their façade of contentment collapses.

The enduring relationship between Edna and Norma is the foundation of the book.


Notables from that era, including Dominick Dunne, Jennifer Jones, Norton Simon, Farrah Fawcett, Ronald Reagan and Cary Grant make guest appearances in the novel.


White supremacy, women’s roles, bigotry, homophobia, and ethnic conflicts run through the story.

“Exiles Under the Bridge” also depicts characters who must live within the confines of traditional Chinese family mores even as they experiment with sexual freedom and nonconformity. 

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The novel is available to read FREE on Apple Books.

Or in the PDF below:

The Model is Not Your Friend

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Used with permission of koiladecallisto

 

The Model is Not Your Friend

 

By Andrew B. Hurvitz

Two sober living men intoxicated by young beauties get drunk on self-deception.


 

There are some talented people here in Van Nuys.

One, Hector Suarez, an artist, lives here, downwind from the smoky outdoor grill run by Dos Hermanos Hernández on Victory Boulevard, west of Kester. He stays in one of those one-story garden apartments where people once slept with open doors and open windows behind the jasmine vines. That slow, hand-churned world of clothes hung on clotheslines was killed off, about the time girls stopped wearing gloves.

Today it is a never quiet place of constant lawlessness where fireworks are set off at night by derelicts and delinquents to arouse deep sleepers from sleep. And ever so often an unlucky man or woman is given up to gunfire.

Hector rents a little place with two rooms, in the corner unit. A steel door with bulletproof screens guards his front entrance. Behind the doors he paints.


Hector is an affable, baby faced, balding man in his late 40s who wears white t-shirts, paint splattered chinos, and a driving cap. He smokes hand-rolled cigarettes and frugally subsists on carrot sticks and jars of salsa.

I’ve been visiting his apartment for the last year, encouraging him to keep painting beautiful young men, young men who come to his studio and end up immortalized on six foot long canvases in colored oils.

We met at Alcoholics Anonymous, at a church on Kittridge, near the high school. The first time I met him, he was so kind and friendly (patting my shoulder, smelling of deodorant soap) that I wanted to stay close and buy him a beer. He is also my sponsor.

But as you will learn later I mostly take care of him.

At my first AA meeting we packed into the community room at St. Elisabeth’s with its yellow walls and orange wood floor. We sat, awkwardly, on steel chairs under scholastic style florescent lights in a space too honest and too ugly for lies.

I watched 20 strangers stand up and announce their addiction. Then I had to do it.

“My name is Mark Chiou and I am an alcoholic.”


 Revival Meeting

That night, after secular confession, the priests and nuns served us little cups of fresh squeezed orange juice, just like old mission settled Californians. Father Ernesto told me they still had a small grove of trees behind the rectory.

It was January, the nights were cold, and the ripened oranges just picked.

In winter, the air in the valley is cleaner, and you can see the mountains clearer, and the fog of confusion is blown out of the bowl. In that atmospheric respite, the wise often seize sanity before the summer smog returns to muddle the mind.

Hector came by with two more cups of juice and handed me one. “Here. Get drunk on this,” he said. We sipped and stared at a large wooden cross hanging on the wall.

“Did you ever think that a cross gives you only four choices? You can go up or down, backwards or forwards?” Hector asked.

Absent God, I examined the cross, just on its own merits, and extracted some answers in its form: finite, precise, and definite.

Hector spoke that first night about his faith and his squandered virtue. But he transmitted his ideas seductively, gently, without fire and brimstone. He was attractive in his acceptance of all failings, his, mine and others.

I was on the precipice of ruin: unemployed, broke, living in a trailer. Addicted to Japanese whisky, a bottle a week of $150 Yamazaki, 12-Year-Old.

Hector worked and supported himself painting public schools around Los Angeles with a large firm that sprayed cinderblock walls in watered down paint.


 

Judge Judy

Sometimes, I think of my failings and imagine I have to appear before Judge Judy (2017 Salary: $47 million per year) as she interrogates and castigates me for not having a full time job, or family, or for my addiction. She is cruel, but her meanness, like all highly paid scolds, is for my own good. I have no answers for her, because she talks over me. But, in the end, she is always right. And well paid. Which makes her right.

I remember work. I used to work. I had a paycheck and responsibilities.  I sold houses. I had a couple of roles in Geico commercials. I conversed with an elephant and got thrown off a building. I made some money.

I bought a house in Van Nuys near the 405. It was loud but they built a concrete wall to shut out the noise and then homeless people moved behind the wall between my backyard and the freeway.

When I stopped being cute I was no longer cast in commercials. Then the real estate market crashed. I couldn’t sell houses. I couldn’t pay my mortgage. And I ended up drinking because all the losing shattered me.  I told this all to Hector, confessing it for the first time.

“So you didn’t really do anything so terrible,” Hector said. “I’ve heard far worse. I think you’re going to be OK.”


 

Projection

After one AA meeting, on one of those nights in late August, we were on his front stoop. It was warm. There was a brush fire in Santa Clarita and the air smelled like smoke and grilled chicken. Police cars sped past spraying red splatters of urgent light.

A helicopter bladed overhead and shone a spotlight over the yard, and again we were in the midst of another nightly menace around us, somewhere, nearby.  Hector sighed.

“So much barbarism in our midst. So much hatred.  Where is love? Every night I sleep here, alone, and I think why can’t I have just one friend? These models come to my apartment, so young, so beautiful, so tender. Why can’t one of them be mine?” he asked.

“Can’t you just find someone to love?” I asked him.

“Even if I did I couldn’t go back to my parents in El Monte. I’m not coming out at 47,” he said.

“How about finding a secret love? Here in your apartment? Nobody has to know,” I said.

We spoke as two platonic friends in the protected intimacies of AA. I knew then, that the feeling of relief I once had from drink might be replaced by expunging secrecy. I felt calm with him, tranquilized, by talk.

We stood up and walked back into his apartment. The windows were open. A dusty floor fan blew sooty air. Hector pulled off some sheets protecting his artworks. He lit three important candles: Jesus, the Virgin of Guadalupe and Pope John II.

In dimness we moved among the paintings, silently. An introverted young man looked down from one.

Hector smiled. “Kyle Grovers from Fayetteville, NC. Only 22. He is 6’1, lean, with piercing eyes and a sharp jawline. He doesn’t have a drop of fat on him. I took him out to dinner. He ate one vegetarian taco and threw up afterwards. He told me he was sick. I let him sleep over here that night. But we didn’t do anything.”

“I do love Southerners. Even when they’re sad they’re full of joy,” I said.

Hector pointed to another half done canvas: a tall white woman.

“Megan. A Wilhemina girl. Smoked constantly. Hated her body too. You think they smell fresh, but I’ve been up close and they stink,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to Megan, or women, or all models.

“I used to try and cheer her up. She was so stunning. She lit up this dismal apartment just by sitting on a stool.”

“The model is not your friend,” he said. “The more you befriend them the worse they treat you.”


One Day They’ll Save Me

He went into the bathroom. I heard him pee.

I was in a moment that moment, a morose trance, in a room, surrounded by bodies and faces from heaven, half-dressed; a room of silent sensuality, a gathering of magnificent creatures, who spoke me no words, who shared me nothing but their own exquisite gazes.

Hector came out and went into the dark kitchen. He put two cigarettes in his mouth, bent down to the stovetop and turned on a burner with a hot blue flame. He walked back in, pulled one out of his mouth and handed it to me.

“I can’t deal with these models any more,” he said. He sat down on the floor, flickering ashes into a coffee can with wet brushes. He smoked and talked, soft and low, as if he were afraid of waking the sleeping crickets.

“I invest so much in them. I think one day they’ll save me. Their looks will attract me a patron of the arts who’ll buy seven paintings. And then one of the models will fall in love with me. And we will have such physical, emotional, wonderful sex,” he said.

“You have some fantastic aspirations. Almost too fantastic,” I said.

“Kyle came over one Sunday morning. He surprised me and took off all his clothes without me asking. He is straight he says. I don’t touch him. I just position him on the stool in the living room, near the window. He lifts up his long arms, showing me those dark patches of underarm hair. He puts his hand over his dick. Then out of the blue he starts to cry and break down and the tears are pouring out of him,“ Hector says.

“I ask him what is wrong. But my hands are off him. I stand 10 feet away. Then he stops. I give him a paper towel to wipe his eyes, blow his nose. And he doesn’t say another word. I resume my painting. He looks away from me. And we work for another two hours in silence.”

“These gods and goddesses that you think are so sparkling. They are really pathetic, needy, weak people.”


 

The Killer Held a Can of Spray Paint

A few nights after that talk, I was half-asleep in my trailer, parked in the lot at LA Fitness on Sepulveda.

Hector called me at midnight. He had been crying.

“A couple of hours ago they killed my friend Arturo Montez on Saticoy. He yelled at a tagger to stop defacing the fence in front of his rental house. And he got shot. 40 years old. Married, three daughters. Oh my God. He is dead. Please come over.”

I rode down Erwin, up Noble, through the back alley and pushed open the unlocked wooden gate. He was sitting on the grass, near a tree, smoking a cigarette, surrounded by dozens of discarded, red, aluminum cans of Coca-Cola.

I laid my bike down, unloading my burden of transport to care for my friend.

I sat down on the ground and held him as he cried.

“Our families came from the same village. El Sabinito in Tamaulipas. Our fathers were friends. We were all friends. I know his wife Tara, his daughters, Ava, Olivia, Sammy. What kind of monster kills a father because he asks you not to tag his fence?”

“This is L.A.,” I said.

Two initials: a shortcut answer for a sensationalized act of desecration.

“Fuck Los Angeles! Fuck America! I used to envy this country when I lived in Mexico! I thought this was a paradise. The fucking land of liberty!”

“In Tamaulipas we are rural. There are rivers, and rain forests, and caves to explore. We grew maize. We had public squares, we were poor, but we were civilized. We lived in peace. We belonged to the Earth. Now we are lost,” he said.

We stayed under the tree, slept, awoke at dawn, in the same place, lost.


 El Velatorio

A few days later we went up to see Arturo’s family in North Hills to pay our respects to the dead wood worker.

A six-foot high redwood fence bordered a house blocking it from street view. Flowers, candles and cards sat on the sidewalk near the tags, at the death spot where Arturo died. This family once supposed, wrongly, that nailed redwood planks might keep evil out as screens on windows shut out flies.

We walked through the gate, into a yard littered with toys, into a ranch house normal in every sense except for the occasion. There were tables in the living room set up with silver foil trays of yellow rice, grilled chicken, fried plantains, pinto beans, and roasted green chilies.

Arturo’s brother, Cesar, a black mustached electrician, hugged Hector. “Where are the girls? Tara?”

“They are staying at our church. They have a rectory house. Two much noise and people here,” he said.

“But come see my brother,” Cesar said motioning to the coffin.

In the dining room, an open casket sat under a chandelier of antlers, two dead mammals repurposed for other acts.

Arturo was gone, yet all the life, all the people he knew, all the foods he loved, all of it swirled around.

A white haired woman, his mother Valentina, sat in a chair, in a black lace dress, holding a string of rosary beads, a few feet from her murdered son. People walked up to her, with kindness and touch, held her hand or kissed her, attempting to soothe her inconsolable grief.

Hector kissed her.

“Desearía poder ayudar. Nuestra pena es insoportable, ” he said.

I wish I could help. Our grief is unbearable.

The mourning mother, wounded and despondent, looked at me.

“Do you know my son made art? He was so talented. He was a hard worker too. He spent his life building beautiful fences and someone killed him at the fence! It’s like Leonardo dying in front of the Mona Lisa.”

Hector walked over to sleeping, insensate Arturo and kissed him on the forehead.

Nothing could nullify the obscenity of loss.

But that day, those palliative rites of death somehow seemed right and corrective and soothing.


The Mercurial Model

I encouraged Hector to paint, to soothe. He soon booked a female model gladdening me. And asked me to sit in the room while he painted her.

Lauren Zoberi, 21, a precociously sensual, blue-eyed model from Cincinnati was curled up on a brown sofa, a denim shirt she wore, unbuttoned, opened, revealed her smooth breasts.

“Lauren is going back to New York next week,” Hector said, attempting polite conversation. He lit up two cigarettes and handed one to me.

“You addicts smoke a lot of cigarettes,” Lauren said.

“A cigarette can be a life saving thing young lady,” Hector replied.  Lauren didn’t care. She was eager to bring the conversation back to her.

“I gave LA a chance for acting and modeling and nothing happened yet,” she said.

“How long have you been here?” I asked as she stared at her smart phone.

“Three weeks,” she said. “Right now I need to take a toilet break gentlemen.”

She abruptly got up and walked into the bathroom. Hector looked at me and shook his head making the crazy sign with his finger.

“I need her for a few more days. But honestly I’d like her out as soon as possible,” he said.

Lauren peered out of the bedroom. “I have to just take a few minutes and check my phone. I’ll be right out,” she said closing the door.

Hector looked at his watch. He got up and went into the kitchen. “Want a Coke?” he asked me.

“Sure. Thank you,” I said.

There was a sudden crashing in the bedroom and a loud “Fuck!”  We rushed into the room. Lauren was on her knees. She had tripped on a lamp cord. The floor was slippery too.

“Why is the floor wet?” Hector asked.

Lauren laughed demonically. “Whisky from my flask you asshole!”

“Whoa. You know I’m sober. I don’t want that shit in my house,” he said.

“Oh, so you care about the whisky more than me? How do you know I am not hurt?” she asked.

“Are you hurt?” Hector asked offering her his hand to pull her up.

“Fuck you!” she answered. “You don’t care about me!”

“Do you care about me honey? You brought alcohol into my house! You know I’m an alcoholic! I’m sober and you disrespected me!” he said.

“Oh fuck off Hector! You are really selfish! You have no consideration for others! You are into exploiting models! Who the hell are you? You are nothing! You don’t even have 700 followers on Instagram!” she railed.

“Just get out now,” he said.

She stormed into the living room, knocked her canvas off the easel and kicked the painting. Hector grabbed her from behind, locking her with two arms.

“Get the fuck off me! Get the hell away! You fucking Mexican faggot,” she screamed.  He pushed her away.

She threw her t-shirt on, shoved her feet into flip-flops, grabbed her cheap, fringed purse and ran out the front door.

Her portrait, left behind, lay on the floor, torn through with a foot hole in its stomach.

Hector picked up the painting. “Kicked in the gut. Exactly,” he said as he placed the damaged art back on the easel.

“Mexican faggot. I used to think being a recovering addict was the lowest position on the social register,” he said.

I took a towel and wiped the bedroom floor.

“In LA a recovered addict is actually the highest status you can attain. Even better than a Master’s Degree,” I said.


Angus Muir Ale

A few months after the Lauren implosion, I left my trailer behind, set up a cot in Hector’s living room and spent my nights there.  I found some part-time work at Angus Muir Ale on Bessemer St.

The brewery and taproom was in an industrial building in Van Nuys, on a street of auto repair shops and towing yards. I diligently cleaned floors, tables, counters, bathrooms, and brewing tanks and never took a sip of alcohol. I got paid $7.50 an hour and worked 25 hours a week.

Angus Muir had a large, black walled room filled with dartboards. Every few months they would take down the darts, hang paintings and turn it into a gallery.

Hector got in through my connection. He started promoting his upcoming show on Instagram. And Jesse Somera, a model and blogger with over 10,000 followers, liked one of Hector’s posts. Hector became ecstatic.

“This is cool,” he said as he showed me Somera’s like. “I checked him out. He is friends with Ingrid Fonssagrives. She is a very big art collector in Bel Air. She used to be in Andy Warhol’s Factory in the 60s,” he said. “He already said he is coming to Van Nuys for the show and bringing six friends!”

“Hector. Aren’t you forgetting the first rule? The model is not your friend. They are indifferent to your betterment. They don’t care,” I said.

“Jesse is different. He is Eurasian!” he said using the common liberal argument that race always matters when assigning virtue to a person.


Basil Floor Cleaner

In my life I was consumed, not with models or art, but of how to properly mop the floors at Angus Muir.

Keeping a close eye on me was the manager, Kathy Chin, a stocky, gray haired, middle-aged Asian woman, in flowered shirts, pegged pants and flip-flops. She had an MBA from USC (1991) and was given to speaking in every matter related to Angus Muir Ale in terms of numbers and units.

“You poured maybe half a cup of Mrs. Meyers in there. It only should be about a quarter cup. It’s expensive. We buy about one bottle every seven days. We should look into using less. Save money Mark,” she admonished.

She was already disliked by the staff for her frugal, persnickety spread sheets measuring how much beer was poured into every mug, how many bags of hops were used in a day, and how many hours of air conditioning were needed (only after customers arrived, the employees could sweat). She took notice of employee bathroom breaks, and removed toilet paper from the bathrooms that she only installed after the taproom opened.

Kathy was the one who decided to pull in more revenue by hosting some high priced art shows. She liked Hector’s work because the canvases were big. “The larger they are the more we can charge!” she said.

At a meeting with Hector she even made him pay for a can of sparkling water.

After Hector left, Kathy approached me.

“What do you think Mark? Is his work good?” she asked.

“He went to art school so I think so,” I answered.

“Only 650 follow him on Instagram. How good could he be? Oh well. If he sells we make money!” she said.


Bowls of Chips

Hector’s exclusive art show at Angus Muir was catered with bowls of potato chips, M&Ms, bottles of orange soda, and those little, dehydrated carrot sticks that come in the plastic bags from Trader Joe’s.

His works hung on the wall between the open garage door and the last dartboard. Fumes from the auto painting shop next door mixed with the hoppy air of the brewery; a taco truck from Dos Hermanos Hernández provided dinner and outdoor dining on asphalt.

The Montez Family arrived at 6pm: the wife, daughters, mother and brother of Arturo. These survivors, only months out of the shadows of death, came dutifully to an event they might have skipped.

“My man! What a nice show!” Cesar said with forced cheer.  Hector kissed Tara, and the daughters: Ava, Olivia, and Sammy. The family walked over to survey the paintings, many of them with nude or half clothed men. Respectfully, by coincidence, only one subject was clothed: Arturo, standing next to a fence, an oddly, morbidly, prescient painting, a portrait that both anticipated and chronicled his short life and death.

“This is your papa, my husband,” Tara said to the little children who shook their heads in agreement, in love, no doubt, in pain.

Cesar smiled. “$4,500 for Arturo? I hope he is laughing in heaven.”

Karin came up to the group and said hello. “Why don’t you all come to the table and chairs I set up in the back of the brewery? It’s much cooler and less crowded back there!”  She ushered the un-fashionables back behind the large silver tanks.

Hector looked at his phone. “Oh cool. Jesse just said they are leaving downtown and he DM’d with Ingrid and they are all coming here on their way to Ventura! Who is Taylor Zakhar?” Karin overheard his remark.

“I know those people. I keep up with Hollywood. These are the VIPs,” Karin said as she carried glasses away to the sink.

Hector leaned over to me. “Yeah. She is really in the Hollywood elite running this brewery in Van Nuys.”


9 O’Clock High

The art show attendees, those social media people invited by Hector, confirmed only hours earlier, none of them showed up. Jesse and his bunch did not send any messages. And of Ingrid Fonssagrives, rumored as expected, there was not a sighting.

Karin walked over to me. “Looks like a failure. Not something I want to put on my resume. I think if nothing sells I take it all off the walls. What good is hanging art just to hang?”

“I thought they could stay up for a few weeks?” Hector asked.

“Would you stock shelves with products not selling?” Karin asked. Hector, deflated, walked outside.

“Is this my fault?” I asked her hoping to deflect her callousness away from the un-selling artist.

“Of course not. I’m not blaming you or your friend. Successful people want to be around other successful people. It was stupid of me to think Hector could pull in buyers. I blame myself. I was hoping it would work out because I know you and he had tough breaks. And for you, being Chinese, like me, we never want to disappoint. Our parents drilled that into us. So let’s learn our lessons and move on!”

I went out into the never dark urban night and stood under the LED light where Hector was smoking. “Is your boss smacking you around?” he asked.

“I don’t care,” I said.

Hector slumped down to the ground, his back resting against the building.  “You think people would keep their promise. Why don’t I ever learn? They hate us because we are old alcoholics and we live in Van Nuys,” he said.

 


Silver Shadow

We hung outside, smoking, on the driveway, avoiding the inevitable dismantling of the show. “I can’t go back in there. I don’t want to cry in front of Arturo’s family,” he said.

Improbably, a long, graceful Rolls Royce Silver Shadow drove up, steered by a white haired woman with an aristocratic face and a sprayed and powdered mane of perfectly coiffed hair which she stuck out the window. “Shall I give you my keys to park the car?” she asked Hector.

He shook his head and muttered. “I ain’t the valet. Just park your car here lady,” he said.

She smiled with closed lips and opened the door releasing a heady scent of gardenia that pervaded the night. “Thank you so much dear,” she said. And we watched the strange, surrealism of an older sweep of elegance dressed in paisley silk pants, high heels and a baby-blue fur jacket walk into the brewery.

“I should just be a valet. That’s how people see me,” Hector said.

Karin ran outside. “Get in here! That woman in a Rolls-Royce. I think she’s here to buy!”

We went in and the gallery was still empty. “Maybe she use the restroom,” Karin said. “Fill up the M&Ms! Some bags in back!” she ordered me.

I walked in back to look for the candy and found, instead, a laughing group of people. The rich lady was sitting at the table with Arturo’s family.

“Do you know this lady is a world famous fashion model? Come meet Ingrid. She used to model for Andy Warhol! She lives up on Benedict Canyon. Arturo worked for her!” Tara said. Just then Hector walked over.

“You’re Ingrid Fonssagrives! You’re Jesse’s friend!” Hector said.

“Who’s Jesse?” Ingrid asked.

“Jesse Somera. Mad Thirsty Dot Com. You are real friends on Instagram!” Hector said.

“Never heard of him! But I have heard of you my dear Hector. Arturo when he came to my house to build my fences, my cabinets, all his wonderful work, he would always talk about my friend Hector who is a wonderful painter. He would say Ingrid you have to buy his artwork! So now, on this bittersweet occasion, I have driven from Belair, down the canyon, up to Van Nuys and I can now meet Arturo’s family, his beautiful children, his wife, his mama, his brother, and especially you, Hector, whom Arturo idolized. Now I can see why!”

“He was my friend. He also said he worked for a well-bred, dignified woman who once knew Andy Warhol. But he never told me your name. I think he protected your privacy. Did you really know Andy? He was my hero,” Hector said.

“Andy was a dear friend. That car outside? He bought it for me in 1977. He said he was going to give me a $30,000 present and I could choose either an apartment in New York on 17th Street or a Rolls-Royce, so of course, like a fool, I chose the Rolls-Royce!” she said as everyone laughed.

Ingrid stood up, queenly, her long silk scarf blowing back, bracelets jangling, as the family followed her, like an entourage, right into the gallery. She went up to Arturo’s painting. Dabbing two of her right fingers against her coral lips, she blew a kiss to the portrait.

Karin walked over, humbly, as if she were a factory worker in the presence of her visiting boss. “Which one please you most?” she asked.

“All of them. I’m going to take them all,” she said.

Karin covered her mouth and clasped her hands in reverence. “Oh madam. This is an honor. Really. You are making a very good investment. Hector is soon going to be world famous. He will have many followers on Instagram. Maybe you can take a photo with him and I post in on Angus Muir Instagram!”

Ingrid and Hector stood in front of Arturo’s portrait as Karin’s snapped content.

Ingrid took Hector’s arm and pulled him into a corner, her voice lowered. “I’m going to write two checks. One to the brewery… And I guess they’ll give you a cut. But then I’m going to give you one, in secret, in private, only for you. That is just between us. Do you understand?”

“Yes. Ma’am. I mean Ingrid. How can I thank you? How did you ride out of the night and find me? This isn’t how I predicted things. You turned this event upside down. You made me feel like you care about me. How come I didn’t ever know people like you existed?”

Karin came over with a glass of beer and handed it to Ingrid. “Please. Have this complimentary glass of beer on us. You deserve it. This is truly gratitude from us to you Miss. Truly.”

 

THE END

 

The White Defeatist

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A progressive architect is forced to confront his assumptions about himself, his family and his city.

After our mother’s funeral, I flew in a plane, from Little Rock to Los Angeles, accompanied by my older sister Stephanie and her catatonic, teenage son Norman.

Over Arizona, I looked out at the vast, unpopulated desert below and remarked.

“All that space, all that enormous emptiness.”

That comment induced a reaction from Stephanie, who told me about some vacant land for sale in Van Nuys near the house she rented. Perhaps she was trying to distract me from grief.

“I know you don’t like to visit me or Norman or Van Nuys, but perhaps I can lure you there for other reasons,” she said.

I hated their dirty house. It made me feel unclean.

She and her son lived in dilapidation: pet urine, hair in the drain, flies, animal hair, the stink of cat litter.

On rare occasions, I came over, and I numbed myself, on their love and their alcohol.

Often I was just down. I had yet to make a solid living as an architect. I hid out from my family.

But I had plans bursting in my head. Now, when she talked of an empty lot, my sputtering motivation ignited.


Death Money

We had both inherited a few hundred thousand dollars each: a pittance in Los Angeles, a goodly sum in Arkansas. It was just enough to induce the promise of future prosperity without granting it.

“You have to see the property Zeke. It used to be a farm. They grew walnuts and oranges here back in the 1940s. My friend Alisa Grumpfel, bought it from Martin Boyagian, an Armenian who stored stolen vehicles and rented out to illegals. Now she owns it all. An acre. She could build four houses there,” she said.

“Undocumented. Not illegals,” I corrected.

“Yes. So sorry for my use of that word,” she said.

The plane landed at LAX. We walked through the concourse, and onto a conveyer belt, gliding back with luggage, into life without mother.


Working Architect

Three years ago, I lived above a bodega on Temple St. alongside the Hollywood Freeway, near downtown Los Angeles, designing slant-roofed houses for liberal tattoos and social-minded beards of all genders.

In that insular, hilly community of tight jeans and slim shirts, I had a bit of a following. Some of my architectural renderings were framed and sold on Sunset at Marketplace.

The artist Moby photographed a house I designed and put it on Instagram. He later hired me to design a Viennese style doghouse. Miranda July wrote a poem about me and performed it at Intelligensia. Thousands of dollars blew by like winds.

Many late mornings, I went into The Drawing Room on Hillhurst, carrying my laptop, and sliding into a red vinyl booth, prepping and laying out floor plans, ordering whisky, diluting it with ice, slipping, into numbness.


Motherland

After she died, Mom came back in a dream.

She floated, laid down, in an iron bed escorted by angels.

We were in my childhood home on Maple Street in Conway, Arkansas, in the old back room.

Windows were open, sheer curtains blowing. An electric fan pulled in pink scents in notes of magnolia and dogwood.

Her silver hair was tied back and groomed in coconut oil. And a white cotton blanket inched up to her chin. I sat next to her, holding her hand, listening to her.

In her dying voice, still charged by the sputtering, electrified current of motherly love, she asked me about my plans for work, and life and staying in Los Angeles. She had a hard time believing I would settle there.

“You don’t like LA. So why live there?” she asked

“I really don’t know Mom,” I said.

“If you don’t know who does?” she asked.

“Do you want an answer on deadline?” I asked.

“Deadline. There’s a word,” she said.


Erroneous Assumptions

After our parents die we are left alone in silence with own erroneous perceptions.

Mine was always about failure, and fucking up.

My sister saw through me, kindly, empathetically.

She said she had a secret, inside scoop on the property that might benefit me. “You are the favorite architect. I know it. Don’t ask me how,” she said.

“Okay. I’ll come up to Van Nuys and look at it,” I promised.

“Not tomorrow though. I have to go pay some bills that are past due at DWP and The Gas Company. If it weren’t for a lovely friend my water and power would have been shut off yesterday,” she said.


Jardín Olvidado Avenue

The next Monday, I rode the Red Line up to North Hollywood, took a bus west, out to Van Nuys. I got off at Sepulveda.

That gentle morning, nature, after I stepped off the sealed bus, seemed so clean and earnest that it felt like a dirty trick.

I walked in sunshine, past sparkling curbs. The wind and the warm gusts felt so light, so breezy, so unburdened of Van Nuys. The public realm, so often abused, looked fastidious.

I stopped off at CVS on Erwin.

I picked up a bottle of Pine Sol, and a plastic container of bleach wipes. Housewarming presents for my sister.

 


Good Enough

Her stucco workman’s shack beckoned up an unpaved dirt path connecting Hamlin St. to Haynes St.

Stefanie never cleaned. And took pride in it. “We call it good enough, Norman and I. The dogs don’t care if you vacuum. And they love a little pee around the toilet,” she said.

But she had other worries besides housework.

She was chronically short of money.

Until now when a relief pitcher named Death stepped in and left funds.


Mrs. Grumpfel

At Haynes and Noble, I encountered a lumbering, middle-aged woman walking her well-groomed German Shepherd. The owner wore a black parka, men’s cargo pants, work boots and a face full of aggravation.

“I’m Alisa Grumpfel. You’re Zeke Kittridge,” she said. Her de-saturated blond hair was braided in two and pinned down. She had the demeanor of an affable prison guard at Dachau.

“Oh, hi—nice-to-meet-you. How the heck did you identify me?” I asked her.

“Facebook,” she said. “Around here you recognize a white face right away because they’re so rare!”

“Sit Rudolph sit!” she screamed. The dog licked my hand.

“Last night they arrested some homeless men sleeping on my property at 6517 Jardín Olvidado. Mexican scum. Illegals. Like rats in the sewer. Everywhere! Nobody reported it! All the Latinos saw them. They don’t talk to the police. We had helicopters flying over,” she said.

“How terrible for you,” I said.

“My great-grandfather Heinrich came from Bavarian royalty. He ran away from military service. But he came to America legally. He settled in Detroit and invented the windshield wiper! He made a contribution to his country! Now his granddaughter is a landlord for illegals!  Somebody has to speak up. Those animals think they have a right to graze on my land but they don’t! That’s what private property is! They aren’t Americans! But they throw THEIR rights in OUR face!”

“It’s a good piece of land. I could work with you,” I said.

“I’ve seen your Facebook page. I like your houses. I like your likes,” she said.

“Let’s talk soon,” I said, attempting to disentangle.

I walked into the house, leaving Mrs. Grumpfel and dog at the curb.


Mrs. Grumpfel’s Plan

Stefanie fixed me some over-cooked eggs with buttered, blackened toast. She served instant coffee in a red, lipstick rimmed, white mug. Flies circled around the breakfast table.

I sat, and she stood, leaning against the counter and speaking of the local tragedies: a waitress who had bypass surgery, an alcoholic screenwriter next door, a texting plumber crashing his truck into a cinderblock wall at Home Depot. Hers were stories of mediocrity squashed, potential wasted. Rote lives pounded under by the foot of fate.

I wondered if these tales were told to me as precaution or prediction.

After breakfast, we left the dirty plates on the table and walked over to 6517 Jardín Olvidado Avenue and climbed over a cyclone fence.

We beheld an abandoned lot with dead fruit trees, and a hollowed out ranch home with broken windows.

“Depressing,” she said. “I bet this was once a beautiful farm. What is wrong with this country?”

“I don’t know. I can see building a sustainable, lovely little group of houses around a common garden,” I said. “It’s not unique but it could work.”

“The owner might like that. It sounds quaint. But subversively modern,” she said.

“Alisa’s grandfather was the original inventor of the windshield wiper,” she said unexpectedly.

“She told me earlier. It must be quite an honor to come from that lineage,” I said.

She picked up a tree branch and waved it like a scepter. “Be gone ugliness!” she commanded.

“How long have you been friends with Alisa?” I asked.

“Since I moved here. I thought she was a mean lady at first. I had months where I couldn’t pay the rent and she gave me money. I never encountered such generosity and kindness. She was like a sister,” she said.

“She has a lot of friends in high places. She thinks of herself as quite an aesthete. She is a leader in Spiritual Formation & Soul Care at Bel Air Presbyterian.”


An Offer

As we walked back her house, my sister stopped. She turned to me and caressed my face. “You could move up here. Save money. Help me pay my rent. Get work with Alisa building and designing houses. Norman would like a man around here too. Consider it an offer that may expire soon,” she said opening her front door.

I stayed outside for a few minutes, near the front door, alone with my thoughts about the property and my plans. And I had yet another unpleasant conversation with defeat.

Then I wiped my shoes and went into the house, and grabbed a cold can of beer. I went into the backyard and sat down on a fat tree stump.

I decided, right there, to move up to Van Nuys. If I was going to dive in, I had to dive in.

Looking back now, I think I was driven that night more by masochism than ambition.


Movement

I painted my new bedroom in a tentative, non-committal gray-beige (Sherwin Williams’s Crushed Ice).

My days in La La Van were leisurely, lonely, and improvisational.

Norman went to school, Stephanie worked as an administrator at the VA, and I stayed in my room and drew up plans for houses.

I ate dinners with Norman. My sister often ate at McDonalds and went to evening meetings with the Planning and Land Use Committee of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council.

She came home with fantastical tales of how Van Nuys Boulevard was soon to be remade by enormous light rail systems, lush landscaping, and organic markets. She spoke of decorative lighting and historic buildings. The rebirth of Van Nuys was prophesised by Reverend John Hainey, a retired postman and ordained minister who lorded over the VNNC.

Clearly, she, along with other spiritualists had some unfulfilled desire to make over the community as Stephanie was making over her brother.

Beyond her dirty dishes, her unmade bed, the dead mouse on the patio, and the wet leaves at the bottom of the refrigerator; beyond it all, she was a true beautification enthusiast.

 


Interludio Extraño

Alisa Grumpfel invited me to dinner at Interludio Extraño, a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

We ate strange little flatbreads covered in braised sweetbreads, flavored with stewed prunes, infused with weird vinegars, festooned with flowers, dropped atop the plate deliberately, feigning randomness.

Alisa wore a red baseball cap, silver cross, wide-ass denim jeans, and a green Christmas sweater with an embroidered Santa. Her sandals showed off cracked heels and purple painted toenails.

I was petrified other diners might out us as visitors from Van Nuys.

After three highballs, she began to pour seductive compliments on me.

“You’re a good-looking white man. You’re smart. You’re an artist. Let me help you build your dream.”

The dream dialogue came out of a woman’s mouth I had no intention of ever kissing. I smiled, and acted gentlemanly, knowing she might hire me.

After sharing a piece of hot chocolate cake and a melted scoop of almond ice cream, Alisa asked me if I would partner with her to build houses.

We walked, arm in arm, down 7th Street and stopped in front of an old stone and brick building with the name “Van Nuys” carved into a pediment above the entrance.

“I admire the way the old timers built,” she said.

I looked at my suburban benefactor in her Christmas sweater. I tried to separate my low opinion of her tackiness from her high architectural aims.


Walking with Norman

When the sun was hottest, I’d pull down the window shades and nap. I’d wake up for Norman when he got back from school around 3:30.

After cookies and milk, we often walked around the neighborhood conversing.

He was a taciturn boy, tall, thin and slouchy. He strode, looking down, with his hands in his pockets.

His father, craggy Don Paver, was gone for good, a pipe-smoking, wife-abusing, drug-injecting rebel from western Kentucky. When Norman was two, Don broke out of fatherhood like an escaping convict. After he tossed his duties along the road, he never returned, never sent a dime, never dropped a word of love or regret or explanation to his only son.

So here I was, a virtuous stand-in for Don Paver, in the fatherly role, pushed into it, performing like an amateur actor.

I had been just like Norman once: sullen and pissed off, aware of every single hypocrite and mad at anyone who didn’t get me. Somehow, now, the petulance of youth seemed wise to me, untarnished by the fake, cheery opportunism of adults.

“Did you know my dream is to get the fuck out of here? When I’m 18 I am going to move to New York City. Mom doesn’t know it. I’m leaving for good. I’ll wait tables since she can’t afford college,” he said.

We walked past houses with old cars, hoods open, parked in withered and neglected yards full of dogs on speed.

Obese teenagers in black stretch pants sat on the curb smoking pot; their plastic marijuana containers and food wrappers littered the street. Nothing was properly maintained: machine or human.

I looked at the surroundings and empathized with my nephew’s defeatism. But I, as an adult, had the duty, the noble duty, to deny the truth and blow out bromides.

“You’re young. You’ve got time. You’ll get out, but try to study and get good grades. Don’t you want to go to college? I think you’ve got lots of talent in so many things. Math, music, video editing,” I said.

I don’t want to die in obscurity in Van Nuys!” he said.

At Burnet St. we passed a rare sight: an LAPD car with a lone female officer parked along the curb.

It was Officer Samantha Sanchez, black hair tied back, latte colored skin, red lipstick and blue uniform. Her window was open, her manner was languid and disarming, she waved hello and we waved back.

“Hi Norman! Good to see you!” she said.

“Hello Officer Sanchez. Have a nice day,” he said. We walked on.

“That dear, sweet woman with a badge and a loaded gun,” he remarked acidly. “Last year I was drinking beer with a girl in Mom’s car and she busted us. Mom was not happy. I think Grumpfel called the police cause we were parked in front of her mansion.”

“You don’t like Alisa Grumpfel?” I asked.

“I know she has a crush on you. But she’s nothing but a rich cunt. She has everything, all the money in the world. But she has no man. So she’s bitter. Nobody is fucking her. So she hates all the minorities. She takes out her sexual frustration by being a bigot,” he said.

“But she gave your mom help when your mom needed it. She isn’t all bad,” I said.

“She’s like, here’s money for food. Now at least you don’t have to take food stamps. That would be degrading for a white woman. Seriously, she said that,” he said.

“I think she helped us because it made her feel virtuous. And she has this idea that all the minorities are lazy and if a white person is in trouble it must be an act of God. I have a horrible father who walked out on us. And now Mom and I are in debt to Grumpfel,” he said.

I had no answer for him. “I just have to be on good terms with her until the houses get built and we can sell them. I’m going to be fine. If you see her just smile and be polite,” I counseled.


The Next Door App

Grumpfel and I had formed Valley Time Homes, LLC, a name she chose which sounded to me like a bowling league. My whole world of work and family was now confined to a few blocks in Van Nuys.

Nine months into the project, I posted some preliminary drawings of the houses on Monday at 2:40pm.

Walkable, sensitively sited, each home was solar-powered with water saving plants. I thought, from my vantage point behind my laptop, I would be showered with compliments.

“Where is the parking?” was the first comment by Becky Shlockhaus.

“I hope not on my street!” added Mark Holdupp.

Kellie Barfolo complained about little houses as a drag on property values.

“You put this up in the middle of the day? My son and his wife work two jobs and have no time to post on Next Door at two in the afternoon! Maybe you need to work at a real job. Try Target or Costco!” Miranda Beagle-Pinscher wrote.

Tam Sinkdrayne said organic gardens attracted rats. She did not like the idea of planting orange and walnut trees. “First you plant fruit trees and the next thing you’ll want pigs and we’ll have a hog farm around the corner!”

Yves Dropper-Hopp, a “Deputized Government Monitor”, whose avatar was a smoking cigar, said zoning law required bigger homes with “at least three car garages.”

Martin Guerrero, a self-described “traditional Hispanic Catholic working man” said it sounded like a liberal commune and “anti-family.”

Rhonda Peevosky and Jackie DeZay objected to the idea of a communal area. “If you have a bunch of people sharing a garden who is going to pay for the gardeners? And where is everyone going to park? What if there is a party? You’ll have cars spilling out everywhere!”

After all my months of working, planning, and designing, my first foray into public comment was demoralizing.

Stefanie, tired, red-eyed, back from work, walked in the house and looked at my face. “What’s wrong?”

“A lot of angry comments about the houses on Next Door,” I said.

She threw her backpack on the couch and took off her shoes.

“I’m not surprised. Nobody is happy these days. They all hate their work. Even if a project benefits them they want to destroy it. Especially if they think someone else can make a profit. Did you hear from Miranda Beagle-Pinscher? She is the worst,” she said.

“Didn’t people, I mean Americans, used to believe in making things better? Better houses, better schools, better communities?” I asked.

“Now you just sound naïve brother,” she said.

She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

 


Bulldozers and Champagne

“Tonight I have a little green something for you,” Alisa told me as we sat on the patio around her pool drinking champagne.  She handed me an envelope with my name on it and poured more champagne into our glasses.

We had started construction of the houses, and, per our agreement, she had paid me a few thousand for design. I was now acting as general contractor, hiring out electricians, plumbers, carpenters.

“Let us toast to the progress we are making. And let us sell some homes!” she said.

“I finally feel like a real Californian. Building houses, putting down roots, it feels good,” I said.

“Nobody really knows what makes a real Californian,” she said wistfully. “It used to be you knew a real man, a real woman, a real Westerner. Now it’s all muddled,” she said.

“They usually are beautiful and disturbed. At least in Los Angeles,” I joked. But it was nervous laughter.

It was windy that night.

The air was desert dry, and somewhere someone was burning wood.

Distant sirens rode in on the wind.

A premonition of danger, disquieting the evening, hit me with unease.

Old reckless me, younger, had been through nights like this before, when I went out drinking, and came home thirsty, passing out and awakening to broken glass and some woman screaming out in the alley.

Alisa sensed me. She looked at me. So I looked away at the swimming pool, at the underwater lights, at the pumped-in bubbles.

“I’m worried. I don’t think we’ll sell these houses,” I said.

“I’m rich. So I’m used to worrying about money,” she said.

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.

“There is a terrible fragility to privilege. You think it’s a breeze to be born into money? It isn’t. It has its own kind of suffering,” she said. “You might have money in the bank but you don’t have love at home.”

I hoped this was not leading to a proposal. My instincts to degrade myself kicked in.

“What do you see in me?” I asked her. “I think I’m inconsequential. I’m surprised you wanted to hire me.”

She folded her arms and shook her head.

“You want to screw up. You want things to turn out badly. That way you confirm that you aren’t any good. You have been a defeatist all along. You believe any rotten thing people say about our homes. You don’t defend the good ideas you have. Now you come to me and tell me you think nobody will buy them,” she said.

“If you think I’m a negative person, why did you come after me and lure me into our partnership?” I asked.

“I lured you? You were lost. I’ve befriended your sister for years. I saw her rotten marriage crumble. I saw her cry. I saw her struggle. And I never once saw you visit her. You didn’t come out to comfort her, you never thought about her troubles,” she said.

Her charges were exasperating.

“All you women! All you do is call out men for what they are!” I said in a fit.

“I’m just speaking the truth,” she said.

She went over to the barbecue, opened the hatch, removed the grate and dumped a bag of charcoal in. She poured on lighter fluid, poked the coals, lit a match, and stood back from the flames.

And then she handed me a plate of raw hamburger patties.

“You do the grill,” she said.


 You’re the Enemy!

“You wonder why I sound racist. Even though I’m the most tolerant woman on Earth,” Alisa said the next morning.

We were standing, with LAPD Officer Sanchez and Hector Garbanzo from Councilwoman Felicia Romero’s office, in front of our construction site, looking at spray painted gang signs (“BVN”) on the fence.

Young, stocky Hector was dressed in a tucked-in blue shirt stuffed into poly-cotton khakis, black hair slicked over his tanned head. He spoke apologetically and officiously.

“We don’t tolerate this. You are building some fine homes. We completely support you. And now, you have to deal with destruction and vandalism. I’m ashamed, quite honestly as a community leader and as a Hispanic. This is not what Van Nuys represents,” he said.

“You said you have a security camera video that may have captured the incident?” Officer Sanchez asked Alisa.

“Yep. I sure do. I know this happened last night sometime before dark. I drove by here at 6pm on my way to eat dinner and it wasn’t there. Then when I went past at 8pm it was up here,” Alisa said.

“Can I look at the video?” Officer Sanchez asked.

“I’ll email it. Right now,” Alisa said pounding her mobile.  “After you identify the garbage I hope you march right over to his house and arrest him. No doubt he is an illegal! And I’m sure his parents are too and they can all be deported! I’m not racist! I’m a law-abiding citizen. I’m sick of all the crap they bring here.”

Officer Sanchez’s phone beeped. “Ok. Let me go over to my car, sit down and look at the video.” She walked back to her squad car as we waited.

“Once again my apology. I’m going to talk to Councilwoman Romero and see how we can protect property owners from this. You shouldn’t have to put up with it,” Hector said.

He extended his hand to me and we shook.

Alisa turned away, folded her arms and ignored him.

He left and waved at me and made a thumbs up gesture.

Alisa eyed him with malice.

“Sanchez, Garbanzo, Romero! A lot of good it will do having them on our side. I remember when the only time you spoke about Garbanzo was when you were opening a can of beans,” Alisa said.

Officer Sanchez walked back and rejoined us.

“I am quite certain I know the boy who tagged your fence,” she said. “As a matter of fact he lives a few houses from here. Would you like to come with me to talk to him?”

“Oh you are the answer to my prayers! I want to press charges. If possible I’ll bring a lawsuit against his parents if he has any! I’ll make them pay for this!” Alisa said.

We walked down Haynes Street, with Alisa leading the way, and walked like vigilantes, ready to pull the suspect out, and hang him up, by rope, on the tree.

My heart beat faster anticipating a confrontation with the lawbreaker.

And then we stopped in front of my sister’s rental home, my current home. Officer Sanchez turned to me and Alisa.

“That boy on the video is Norman. Do you want me to proceed?” Sanchez asked.

Alisa gasped and covered her mouth in horror.

“It can’t be! Let me hear it out of that boy’s mouth! He’s a good kid. He has had a little trouble but he is no gang member!” Alisa protested.

“Let me bring him out,” I said.

I went into the house, alone, and found Norman sitting in the dark, on the living room floor, looking out the window, watching Alisa and the cop.

“Fuck both of them! I hope they arrest me,” he said.

“Why did you do that? Why? Don’t you know you’re hurting me too?” I asked.

“I’m trying to hurt everyone! Especially bigots, and especially cops! You shouldn’t be pals with them. You aren’t your own man! You build houses with a Nazi. And I am fighting gentrification, fighting people who want to improve Van Nuys and throw me and Mom out on the streets!” he said.

“You and your mom are going to be the new owners of one of the houses! You are the beneficiary of my good fortune. You God-Damned, spoiled, ignorant brat! You are luckier than 99% of all the people in Van Nuys!”

Alisa walked into the living room. “Norman Kittridge. Get up. Stand up and tell me why you vandalized and ruined our fence! Get up and answer me!” She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up, pushed him against the wall and whacked him across the face with a furious slap.

He started to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I have my reasons. I am fighting for justice and against developers. You’re the enemy. I’m sorry to say it,” he said.

And then he ran out of the room.

Alisa looked at me and shook her head. “This is what happens when you take God out of the public schools. I’m just going to pray for him. And let his mother take a leather belt to him,” she said.


My Own Epitaph

Stephanie and Norman bought into one of the four houses, and the other three eventually sold.

It was a drawn out couple of years, an experience that thrust a single, childless, semi-employed man into a family drama that yielded something some call progress.

I went to see Stephanie one Sunday after she had moved into her new house. My sister was living in my architectural creation. I was proud. But I knew how she lived. She was no rendering. She was a slob.

And in the high ceilinged room I saw spider webs on the beams above. The bamboo wood floors were caked with mud and there were French fries crushed underfoot. The 30’ long seamless white countertop was cluttered in newspapers, sliding glass doors were filthy with fingerprints, and window screens torn by dog paws.

I tried to suppress my architectural imagination and enter into reality.

“Are you happy here sis?” I asked

“Oh, it’s so wonderful. Look at it. It’s a dream. So clean and modern and functional,” she said.

“What else is new?” I asked.

“Well Alisa is in love,” she said.

“No kidding. Well some man is going to be very well taken care of,” I said.

“Man?” she laughed. “Alisa is gay. She has a new girlfriend!”

“No way! The whole time we worked together I thought she was after me. I thought I knew her!” I said.

“You are so naïve brother. There’s more to people than just surfaces,” she said.


Everything Once Looked So Ideal

I was driving in my convertible in West Los Angeles last October around dusk. And I passed a new white school not far from the light rail along Olympic. The building was smooth and glossy, low and long, and punctuated by a tall, rectangular tower.

There were solar paneled overhangs installed over the parking area. And graduated, curving paths for the disabled slithered into landscaped mounds wrapped around water fountains and polymer illuminated bollards.

It looked so ideal.

My project in Van Nuys was long completed and I had moved to Venice. I met a blond woman who wore chambray shirts. She owned a hair salon near the beach. She needed a lover and an architect so I was hired.

I drew up plans for her place and proposed a photo studio, a coffee bar, and a garden in back. It was going to be so chic and so private, and so exclusive. I was in a new place, professionally, geographically and romantically.

We lived together for a few months and then we had a falling out. We broke up over sushi.

Everything once looked so ideal.

I was recruited for work, saved from indolence, promised rewards.

But here I was again.

In the car, and looking out.

END

3/17/17

 

 

 

 

Trade For Print

trade-for-print-photo-1

Trade For Print

a short story

 By Andrew B. Hurvitz

 

An unscrupulous photographer lures a postal worker into fraud by offering young love for sale.

There was a photographer who lived and worked at the Tri-Pines Manor apartment on Chandler Bl. in North Hollywood.

After leaving work at the post office I’d see him, in the late afternoon, from the windows of my moving bus. He stood outside, smoking a cigarette, staring out somewhere, camera around his neck.

He had short gray hair and a handsome tan. He favored dark, cuffed jeans, and black lace shoes worn sockless. And, white t-shirts with sleeves rolled up, in pre-determined casualness, around muscular arms.

If my bus stopped at the red light at Colfax, I might get to see him shooting a young, fit person leaning against a decrepit, shabby apartment building.

Seeing him work with sparkling young people was a vicarious pleasure for me, neither erotic nor spiritual; but uplifting, like a bubbly, lemony gin and tonic.

The Woman at the Counter

Once a week, on Friday mornings, Luisa Lopez visited the post office. She was old and proper. Her silver hair was tied in a bun. She always wore a wooden cross around her neck, a belted cotton dress and black safety shoes.

She brought packages for her son, Sr. Guillermo Calderon Lopez, who lived at the Hotel De Mendoza on the Calle Venustiano Carranza in Guadalajara, Mexico.

One day, for no particular reason, I put one of her un-mailed packages into my backpack, waited until my 4:45pm release and left work with it.

Something dark and imperceptibly wrong propelled me to act badly. I have no other explanation.

Mediocrity

Dina, my ex-girlfriend, who still works at the North Hollywood Post Office, told me I was a mediocre man who never did well at anything. She said my joy was watching other people fail.

For an excuse I offered my childhood in celebrity-saturated Studio City. I grew up with gorgeous parents all around me: blonde mothers who booked shampoo commercials and drove convertibles in dark sunglasses. They were married to heroic fathers who coached Little League and squinted into the sun like Clint Eastwood. My own family compared unfavorably to these perfect nuclear units.

My parents were not good looking. They ran a lock and key shop on Sherman Way. Later on they expanded to sell fireproof safes and burglar alarms.

In pursuit of not failing and not succeeding I went through North Hollywood High School, Valley College, a stint at Ralph’s Market, a four-year sojourn living in Idaho working at Walmart, then back to North Hollywood. I took a civil service exam and got into the Post Office before thirty.

I also had a secret routine at work involving my breaks.

I would go outside into my blue, vinyl upholstered Chevy Nova, turn on the air-conditioning, open the glove compartment, take out and swig some Old Smuggler Blended Scotch Whiskey. I’d stay there for ten minutes and go back into work.

Buzzed, selling stamps, sorting mail, pushing carts full of packages, the clock moved quickly, the day was over and I had completed my tasks.

Accomplished nothing but earned money.

 At Work

There was a kitchen in the back of our workplace, adjacent to the loading dock, where they had industrial strength coffee and those powdered packets to flavor it.

On Fridays, we ordered pizza from Little Toni’s. Dina was there too. Unfortunately.

She wore a frumpy blue uniform to compliment her bleached streaked hair and goldfish shaped brown eyes.

One day she accused me of grabbing the last greasy slice of cheese and sausage.

“You’re a lonely, self-centered drunk. So I wouldn’t expect you to think about common courtesy,” she said.

“I’m glad you think I’m selfish, lonely and drunk. Now I can be like everyone else,” I said.

Her summing up against me felt good, for now I mattered again.

After that I had to blow off some steam. So I walked home on the sidewalk, under the shade trees, beside the Busway, along Chandler Blvd.

As I reached the red light at Colfax, I passed the two-story tall Tri-Pines Manor Apartments. It had no pines, no plants, no grass, no charm.

The photographer was outside, smoking a cigarette, talking on his mobile phone, gesticulating, arguing in Hebrew, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.

I had empathy for his angst. I thought, maybe, he was screaming at a woman.

I stopped, smiled at him and waited for the light. He looked back at me, nodded and walked over.

“The only people who are worse than the Jews are the Armenians! And I’m a Jew so I can say that! My landlady won’t let me back in my apartment and she lives next door!”

“Are you locked out?” I asked.

“Of course I am! Ani is angry because a few times a week I lock myself out. I come outside to smoke, so I don’t dirty the apartment, make the carpet smell, turn the walls yellow. I do it out of consideration for her! And now she is making me wait out here. To punish me!”

He threw his butt over a frayed rope fence enclosing a drought-murdered dirt yard. It landed in a yellow porcelain toilet next to the sidewalk. “I have to call her and she lives next door!”

“Now she comes,” he said motioning to the landlady on the second floor. “Ok. See you later Mr. Postman.” He ran upstairs into his unit.

He must have recognized me from the post office.

 A Confession

On Saturday’s, my half-day at work, there was a North Hollywood Farmer’s Market set up on Bakman Avenue near the post office. Stalls of produce, along with unbearably ugly crafts, jockeyed for dollars.

Well-meaning people were always there under tents peddling brochures for CPR training, massage therapy, welding internships, immigration services, pre-natal care, and nighttime biking outings for the transgendered.

It was an attempt, along with a recently constructed subway train, to hobble together a real town and a real place amidst the wasteful, sprawling discordance of the San Fernando Valley.

South of Sunrise Ford, there was an imaginatively named “Arts District”, without much art, but plenty of bars. In Los Angeles, some people believe that imaginary names, like Little Tehran or Little Tokyo, create actual places resembling their antecedents.

I had come to the outdoor market with my recyclable bag to load up on provisions, such as turnip greens, parsnips and jicama, foods whose preparations were beyond my abilities.

But I didn’t go there just for food. I had placed myself where gorgeous people gathered. My homely invisibility allowed me to watch, without being watched.

After buying some yellow tomatoes, I sat under a shaded canopy on the steps of SGI Buddhist Center.

A lean, tall, young Asian man in white t-shirt and 1950s rolled-up Levi’s approached me. He had extraordinarily wide-set eyes set symmetrically into a high cheek-boned face. His black hair was pomaded back, brushed high, and parted straight. His cinematic handsomeness reminded me of an old Kinoshita directed melodrama.

“Are you waiting to get in?” he asked, holding his head inquisitively. He spoke with a Japanese accent.

“No. Just sitting,” I answered.

“I am waiting to go into the center. Do you want to come inside with me when the doors open?” he asked.

His manner, so gentle, so caressing, traversed some strange territory of inquiry I could not ascertain. Was he hitting on me? Was he being kind? What were his motives?

He extended a hand to introduce himself.

“My name is Sora Kumo. And yours?”

“Al Stephenson,” I said.

“You must come in Mr. Al. Join us in chanting. We are a very special place. We are a community. We welcome all people. You will like it. We will surround you in love.” He spoke mechanically, like Siri on iphone.

He chop-sticked two long fingers into his wallet and slid out a card, handing it to me.

It said, “Chant the words Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo every day and you will find bliss and harmony and a place without worry.”

He leaned his wiry frame along an angled steel bannister beckoning me to follow. He continued to look into me as if he were trying to pull truth out.

“Sometimes I am lost in the grip of sadness. You see my mother in Japan died last year. She wore wooden shoes and had beautiful feet. She fell down on the rocks near the sea. And I was very sad. I cried because she was gone so young. I was only 25. Now I have no mother. Chanting gives me serenity,” he said.

My induction into the cult was stalled by a new arrival. The photographer.

“Mr. Postman. Are you shopping for fresh foods?”

He carried a camera hung around his neck and a backpack.

“I see you and Sora are friends. Hello Sora,” he said.

“Hello Amir. Good to see you again,” said Sora.

A woman inside the center unlocked the doors to the Buddhist facility. Sora made his way up the steps.

“Please come in Al,” he said and then turned icily towards Amir. “You reject our community so I won’t ask you.”

“Nice meeting you Sora,” I said, declining an invitation into a world of magical transformation.

After Sora left, the photographer smiled at me and shook his head. “He was a big model a few years ago. I shot a campaign with him for Levi’s. Then he got into this place. And all he talks about is chanting. Praying to what? I don’t know. And he doesn’t even want to model now. I got out of Israel because I couldn’t stand all the religion. And in LA you have it even worse. They pull in all the weak people. Tell them lies and they believe it,” he said.

He spoke in muscular, sweeping pronouncements, delivered in a guttural, militaristic, unsentimental way. He verged on steely obnoxiousness, but it was tempered by a kind of fatherly kindness, and weary wisdom. He seemed accepting and tolerant. When he spoke of all the weak people I felt he understood me.

“On the day I met you I stole something from work. I have been torn up and destroying myself over my misdeed. I guess I’m weak too,” I said.

“Do you still have the stolen item?” he asked.

“Yes. I didn’t open it. I put it under my bed,” I said.

“So go home and take it back to work. Mail it out. If you don’t interfere with the delivery you are fine. Everyone knows the mail is slow,” he said.

“Yeah but why would I steal in the first place?” I asked.

He lit a cigarette, inhaled, and slowly, intentionally, exhaled.

“Don’t ask why. We don’t live long enough to know,” he said. I had no response.

We sat silently, lost in the torrid, heavy air of Los Angeles, marooned in wordless speech.

That hot afternoon, the sky was full of wispy cirrus clouds so feathery, so brushed, in streaks of cream on blue flying by fast on desert winds; powerful winds that assaulted the ground and bent the palm trees into frightened old men and blew street trash out of town.

“You want to get a beer?” Amir asked. And I agreed.

We walked to The Federal Bar, a brown-brick, former bank building restored in stylish dilapidation. Inside were many craft beers on tap, and many stools and chairs occupied by pretty people who examined everyone who entered, except me.

We sat down on green velvet sofas, away from the crowds, in a wood paneled, grimy windowed, dark back room. We drank, for two hours, chasing obliteration before sundown.

An Offer

 We left the bar at dusk and walked down Wellington, stopping to chat at an empty lot. He took out a pack of Marlboro’s.

“Do you mind?” he asked.

“No. Go ahead. I grew up with cigarettes. When I’m in their haze I feel like a kid again,” I said.

“Tell me. Are you satisfied?” he asked.

“Not really,” I answered.

“What’s missing?” he asked.

“Sex. I make enough money to get by but I really want sex. I’m lonely, starving,” I said.

As we talked, three teen-aged girls walked by.

“Like them?” he asked.

“Who wouldn’t? I haven’t kissed a 16-year-old girl since I was 17. I try to stay innocent,” I said.

“You Americans are guilty of too much innocence!” he said.

“And you? What is your angle?” I asked.

“I photograph young women. They’re school kids walking from high school past my apartment. I get them right in the door,” he said, as if he were recounting the capture of fireflies in a glass jar.

“I tell them I’ll make them famous. 9 out of 10 do it for free. I call it “trade for print,” he explained.

“Do you have a website?” I asked, intensely curious to see his work.

“I never use the internet. I shoot film. I print up magazines. I have subscribers around the world who subscribe to Junior Pussy. It’s the name of the publication. It costs $110 a year, it’s published quarterly and I have 16,000 subscribers,” he said.

His journals were sent out internationally the old fashioned way, through the mail.

I asked him if he were afraid of getting caught.

He was sanguine in his response.

“My work is artistic. I’m contributing to the self-confidence of young people. Some of the girls are very sophisticated. They are sexually promiscuous. They take money for sex. Not for modeling. I never pay them to model. That would be wrong.”

He made an offer to me. He said he would pay me a few hundred dollars a month if I would help mail his items to international destinations by officially falsifying the contents.

“What do I get out of it besides money? I’m pretty satisfied with my income,” I told him.

“If I showed you a few girls who are open to meeting you, I mean really gorgeous, precious, soft, kissable, hot young things, you would melt and get down on your knees and thank me. They are like manna from heaven,” he said.

“I don’t think I’m the right person for this. Sorry Bud,” I said.

His smile turned acrid. He now looked at me with derision and disgust.

“You’re a paunchy, middle-aged man with a bald spot and an average face. I’m offering you opportunities you can only dream of,” he said poking my gut. “Look at you. What woman would consider you? I’m giving you a free pass to ecstasy.”

“Thanks. But insulting me isn’t winning me over,” I said. He was not dissuaded.

“You told me something today you shouldn’t have. If I wanted to I could contact your supervisor and get you fired. Or worse,” he said.

He was referring to my earlier admission of mail fraud. And now he made me an offer to commit more of it.

“I’m only human. I told you something because I trusted you. Why do you want to hold that over me?” I asked.

He told me that financially and sexually he was helping me in two ways. Why would I stand in the way when there was so much mutual benefit?

He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and gave me a friendly, thumbing massage.

“Relax. Don’t try to be so human. It will destroy your life,” he said. We crossed Bakman and passed the SGI Buddhist Center where we again sat down on the steps.

“Keep repeating nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” he said.

He had co-opted that sacred chant for nefarious purposes.

I began to repeat it to calm myself. Words to soothe my guilt over future crimes. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

 

The Law

In our postal cafeteria, tacked to a corkboard, was the following notice:

 “Section 1470 of Title 18, United States Code, prohibits any individual from knowingly transferring or attempting to transfer obscene matter using the U.S. mail or any means or facility of interstate or foreign commerce to a minor under 16 years of age. Convicted offenders face fines and imprisonment for up to 10 years.

In addition, Section 1466A of Title 18, United State Code, makes it illegal for any person to knowingly produce, distribute, receive, or possess with intent to transfer or distribute visual representations, such as drawings, cartoons, or paintings that appear to depict minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct and are deemed obscene.”

 On lunch break, drinking my usual pint of chocolate milk, I’d stand near the vending machine and review the US Federal Obscenity Laws, taped to a wall, while casually and quickly denying any of them applied to me. Often a milk mustache would walk out of the cafeteria with me indicating my carelessness and disregard for detail.

I wasn’t sending obscene materials to minors. I certainly wasn’t sending illustrations such as drawings, cartoons or paintings. My reading of the law was selective.

So I continued my arrangements with Amir.

I walked over to his apartment, a couple times a week, and went upstairs, into stale smoke, trampled shag carpeting, and yellow curtains, pulled shut against invasive, blinding afternoon sun.

In his living room, he set up a soft-box light, camera on tripod, and sheets pinned to the walls and the ceiling. The young and pretty students came, undressed, and sat on the sofa, naked, under our gaze. Amir directed them to curl up, spread out and seduce.

After the shoot, he’d hand some of them two-hundred bills and guide the girls into another room, a bedroom, where they would climb under a white comforter, pulled up to their naked necks, and wait for me to enter.

Every week I had a new, young delight. After exhausting myself in sexual intercourse I’d marvel that I had somehow stepped into a world of fantasy that few middle-aged men experience.

After the client had left, I’d hang around Amir’s apartment. He handed me dozens of brown, soft packages, ready to mail to Dubai, Russia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Greece, Sweden and Israel.

I sent out his subscription magazines at work. He became my second employer, turning me into a shadow broker of sorts between him and the US Postal Service.

Renata

One day Amir asked me to go by myself to meet a new client, 18-year-old Renata Lopez. After work, I walked over to North Hollywood High School, wearing a red cap as an identifier. I was there to bring her to a hair stylist for a pre-shoot blowout.

At 5pm she walked out of the school, down the steps, and shyly said hello. She was short, with brownish reddish hair, deep brown eyes and pouty lips that curled into a sardonic smile. She effused wholesomeness in a petite blue cardigan and pleated gray skirt. I introduced myself and we crossed Colfax over to Rita’s Salon.

Rita, a stout Vaca Negra about 40, with cherry red lips and linear eyebrows, ushered Rita into a chair. I sat down on a bench amidst old copies of Men’s Journal, Esquire and dog-eared National Enquirers.

I watched as Rita enrobed Renata in a white cotton smock. Its angelic countenance flattered her dark, brooding beauty. Adjectives danced around inside my head.

Mesmerizing

Soft

Alluring

Pure

Girlish

The procedure began with washing, then blow dryer and brushing, more blowing; and then the combing, the fluffing and the drying. The hot air lifted the young woman’s hair up, like the windy, fluttering tail on a galloping horse.

The shop got hot. Rita turned on a tall, metal floor fan. It blew out chemical, childish, adult scents of baby powder, peroxide and hair spray.

I had placed the LA Times sports page over my crotch, covering a growing erection. I was quite ready to explode.

And then the blowout ended.

Renata was un-buttoned, brushed all over. She sauntered over to the register. I paid $40 plus $5 tip. We walked out and proceeded to Amir’s apartment.

The Fruit Cart

At Chandler and Colfax, Cesar operated his snack cart. Renata and I stopped there. She ordered fresh fruits seasoned with red chili powder.

“Hola Cesar! Me gustaría melón, pepino, melón, sandía, plátano, piña, aguacate y un poco de chile en polvo y cal por favor,” she said. And then turning to me, “Would you like one too Al?” I declined but watched her partake.

Wistfully observing this Latina, I thought of how I grew up in this state, thinking my ethnicity the norm, only to find myself living in another country.

We white, monolingual fools who were born, work and live in [I wrote this down on a slip of paper] “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula”, who are we but Anglo aliens in Latino heaven? We are wandering, plastic, pale, dumb, blank-faced, insensate orphans of language, faith and culture. We are lost, dreadfully marooned, and insignificant in a sea of Spanish.

The young, beautiful girl next to me spoke it and I didn’t. She knew something deeper, felt it, and consumed it. Something I could not. I realized all this at Cesar’s Fruit Cart.

Box City

We walked up to Amir’s apartment and knocked on the door. I also rang the doorbell to no affect. I texted him, and called him. No answer.

“I can’t wait too long. My grandma is cooking dinner. I have to leave by 6:30,” Renata said.

“This is strange. He told me to go meet you, to take you to the hair salon, and then walk over here,” I said, attempting to stall her.

She sat down on the steps and I tried his number again. It was a strange evening of events, of actions undertook under weird directions, and I was here, with an underage girl, waiting for an appointment from a man I did not trust.

“It’s raining,” Renata said. She held out her hand to catch the first few raindrops. I was in disbelief not imagining it was real.

“I’m so happy. I’ve been waiting for the rain since March,” she said.

“I’ve been waiting for 25 years,” I answered.

Under the building overhang, we waited and we watched the trickling rain. We heard the car tires on Chandler as they slushed through puddles and slid. We were periodically deafened by the timed regularity of planes landing at Burbank Airport, their acoustics amplified by mountains and clouds.

For now we stayed still, but all around us, on road and sky, movement.

I wanted more of a hard, cleansing rain, but it never came. And that begrudging, stingy deity who reigns over Los Angeles withheld his baptizing showers, again.

Renata said good-bye and we both left Tri-Pines.

Waiting

A strange interlude of silence, a malignant calm, descended upon my life.

I went to work as usual, riding the bus to the post office. I processed packages, pushed baskets of mail on the floor, waited on familiar faces. Reliably, assuredly, I stayed inside of my routine, unaware of impending events.

I stopped at Amir’s place and bumped into Ani, the building manager. She told me her tenant had cut out of town and moved back to Tel Aviv. “He has a lot of money. He owes me three months of rent. I bet he screwed you too,” she said.

Back at work, on Friday, Luisa Lopez came in. She walked up to my counter, but she had no package in her hand. Her face was full of sorrow and grief.

“My friend I come to tell you that my dear, sweet, wonderful granddaughter was killed. Crossing the street in front of the bus. Just like that. She is no more. So I have no reason to come here. Her father, my son, has come back from Mexico and is staying with me. I am in such pain you can’t know. I hope you don’t suffer as I am suffering,” she said.

I reached for some quick words to comfort her, but I was lost and blindsided by self-pity.

“What can I possibly do?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just nothing. I did not want you to worry. Now you know why I don’t come here any more. Please go to the church or wherever you worship, and say a prayer,” she said. And she elbowed out of the building, through the old wood and glass doors, a black shawl draped around her shoulders.

Under the Bed/Beyond the Window

That night I went back to my apartment, dug deep under the bed and pulled out the taped package stolen from Luisa. I sliced it open with a steak knife.

I found printed photographs of a young woman, 4 x 6 snapshots paper clipped together. And a cheery looking letter, in Spanish, hand written on yellow stationary decorated with white daisies.

I perused each picture. I saw a young woman at Disneyland, then she was on the beach, then sitting at a picnic bench surrounded by family, in another holding a small white dog.

All this was useless to me. What did I care?

Then I looked closer at the girl in the photos.

It was Renata Lopez.

Return

The next morning on my way to work, I followed the return address on the envelope and found myself on Lemp Avenue, a street of pleasant homes next to the Hollywood Freeway. I held the package with the photos inside and walked up the street, feeling as if I were falsely impersonating a postman.

As I neared a small 1940s ranch house, there was Luisa, corn broom in hand, cleaning her driveway. Lost in grief, she was assured in her chores. Leaves were swept aside, a reassertion of woman over nature. How many times in history have brooms assisted in the rebuilding of ravaged lives?

“My goodness. Now you deliver the mail too!” she said.

“Actually I came to give you your package which ended up in our lost and found. I apologize for this,” I said.

She took the package from me and examined it in frank heartbreak. Her eyes swelled up again. Her frail hands pried open the tape. She removed the photos, cautiously, for they were irreplaceable. Yet she did not look at them.

“God bless you. You are the one who brought me something beyond words. This is holy. This is sacred. This is my Renata and here she is alive. She is young and full of hope. This is whom I lost. Such love and innocence. When she walked in the house the first thing she would say is, “Hola mi querida abuela estoy en casa!”

Mi querida abuela.

My dear grandma.

Heard no more.

 Epilogue

After my scene with Luisa, I walked down Chandler, past the park, past the fire station, and into the post office parking lot. A small world taken for granted, mine enjoyed in liberty.

Outside of the back entrance were four men and a woman, officials from the Office of the Inspector General. I walked past all of them standing mutely, emitting their static electricity of suspicion.

Dina stood in the doorway, arms folded, almost blocking it.

She looked at me and shook her head. “These people are here for you,” she said. I turned around and saw law enforcement walk up the stairs, onto the loading dock and surround me.

A navy shirted woman, armed, with badge, approached me. She informed me that I was under arrest on suspicion of fraud and intentional misuse and violation of international mails, of sending indecent materials related to child pornography.

You have the right to remain silent, to consult an attorney. It all rushed past my ears like wind.

I was handcuffed. Then Dina came out and stood in front of me. “I knew you would get it bad. I just didn’t know how or when or why,” she said.

I could sink no lower. Her newest appraisal of me now rested on empiricism not emotion. But nothing she said mattered really. I was, admittedly, loathsome.

They led me into a vehicle and I was taken downtown. And that is how I will end this part of my story.

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decline Press

“Decline Press”

Short Story/Fiction

by Andrew B. Hurvitz


 

After the horrific events of April 20th I buried my feelings, like socks in a dark dresser drawer.

I tried to elude pain but it stalked me so.
I spent hours hiding: at the gym, on the treadmill, on the bike.
I wore red headphones. It was the color of the rage I felt inside.

When a cop dies, and, if you are somehow connected to it, you are left dazed, morose, and unshakably sad. Someone should have shot me dead that day.

One passable Tuesday, many months after the tragedy, I was at the gym pedaling a stationary bike. And a font of mid-century wisdom, Steve, red-faced, sharp-nosed, white-haired, came over. He carried a plastic water bottle and a Bible. He put his hand over mine on the handlebar grip.

“I am so sorry about what happened to you. That was truly a tragedy. And that cop who died. My heart breaks for her family.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“What’s important is getting into a routine. Stay busy. You’ll feel better. Be positive,” he said.

“Thank you. I appreciate it,” I said.

“Your friend was a loser. Even if your own life is crap, you don’t have a right to kill a cop. I thought your friend was a jerk from what I heard on the news. Wasn’t he a Marine too?”

His last question implied that there was honor and stature in a Marine. Something we both agreed on.

“He was a good man. Everything fell apart for him in rapid succession,” I said, attempting suture for my dead friend’s torn character.

Old Steve shook his head, muttered good man and walked away.


Smoky or Sweet

Early last year, before any of the bad business began, I worked as a stylist for fashion photographers. My specialty was boxer shorts and briefs. They paid me about $150 a day. I worked 2 days a week on average.

One night, after a jockstrap shoot in Echo Park, I rode out to Van Nuys and disembarked with the rest of Las Vacas Negras near LA Fitness, across from Costco.

I biked over to Bevmo on Sepulveda. There was a 5 Cent for a Second Bottle Wine Sale going on. But I was there not for wine, but whisky.

I ended up in front of a locked glass cabinet holding expensive Scotch, teasingly alluring and expensively unreachable. My eyes were locked on the labels beyond my budget.  And then a deep, male voice spoke.

“You like it smoky or sweet? You could spend up to $250,” he said.

“Can’t do it. I’m low paid. My job is kind of futile. I’m a lowly fashion stylist. I pick out boxer shorts for models to wear. There’s nothing lower than that,” I said.

“Yamazaki from Japan. It’s our last one. It was voted best whisky in the world last year.”

“If it’s under $100 I’ll take it.”

“I’ll give you a 5% off coupon. And if you join Bevmo you’ll get it for $89.99. Good deal huh?”

At the checkout line, shy eyes down, earphones on, I did glance up briefly.

A name badge pinned to his red company shirt, a shirt tucked into his plain front khakis:

Derek Moss, Store Manager.


Good Child

Frank Young Loh, also known as Dad, taught me humility and to never think of myself as above anyone else. “See the woman at Starbucks sweeping up the sidewalk? She has a job to do too,” Dad once said as we parked outside of a coffee shop near our home in Bountiful, Utah.

He had grown up in Taiwan. He was converted and later fished off that island by Mormon missionaries. He came to Salt Lake City, graduated from Brigham Young, married a white girl from Provo, had a kid, me; got widowed and later took Mom’s life insurance payout and opened a hardware store.

He had an Asian work ethic, nose to the grindstone. He had the pure heart of a believing Mormon and the coldly indifferent soul of an ice pick. He was ready made for Utah: flinty, bland and obedient.

We were two men living together. Yet we were all alone. Carol Brady never came around.

My ambition, under his tutelage, was to reach for the average. Make no waves. Broach no controversy.

I thought I got along OK by not challenging him. And then my dick got in the way.

I told my father I was gay and I was ejaculated into exile.

“Get your bag or your purse and get the hell out of this house. There is no place for this in my home,” he said.

I quickly stuffed a backpack with underwear, socks and a toothbrush and ran out of the house on S 50 W.

S 50 W. Does that sound like a human place, a loving home? I think it sounds like coordinates for a place on Mars.

That’s the last I saw of him. People ask me if I miss him.

Nope.

I lost my virginity through honesty.


 Decline Press

Along the mirrored wall at LA Fitness in Van Nuys, are men and women staring at their reflections as they move weights. I never went into their area. I was too intimidated.

Then one day I said fuck it. I’m going in. 5’8, 148 pounds, determined.

I entered their space and laid down on their Decline Press. I started out light and put two, ten-pound plates on each side and got into position on the padded bench. I wrapped my sneakers under the cushioned poles. Supine, low angled, head lower than feet, I felt light-headed, blood rushing down.

I grabbed the bar and tried to raise it but it lost balance as the right side plates slipped down.

Quickly, a solidly built black man in a blue spandex shirt stood over me and held his palms open under the steel, leaning over and smiling.

“Slow-ly. Raise it up, breathe brutha. Let it down. I got you. Up, slow, bring it down, slow. Good. Keep going young man. I’m right here. Ok. Get it up, up, push. You got it. You did it.”

The voice was smooth, like Nat King Cole, sonorous, soothing. His encouragement was gentle and kind.

“Thank you,” I said. He had an earnest gaze, a wide smile and broad shoulders. He walked over and extended his hand.

“I’m Derek. If you need me I’ll be over there.”
“Conner,” I said.

He went to the chinning bar and raised himself up and down. He stretched his arms out and raised them overhead. His lats opened like butterfly wings. He dismounted and wiped his mouth and walked over to the water fountain. I thought of a panther, an acrobat, a dancer.

I watched him in his tall, assured dexterity, an adroit form of athleticism touched with decorum.

I wanted to know him.
He looked back at me and smiled.
I felt a chill.
Recognition for the lonely is dear.


Why Don’t People Have Respect?

Later on, I walked out the door of the gym, into the sun. I encountered him in the expansive parking lot picking up discarded bottles and trash, in between shrubs, the people’s plantings of Van Nuys.

“They dump shit everywhere. Why don’t people have respect?” he asked me, taking a handful of crap and dropping it in a wastebasket.

The ground was dirty, the air was smoggy; and that day, a mushroom cloud of fire in Santa Clarita pumped toxins into the atmosphere: thick, black, toxic, ashy, smelling of burnt wood.

“I think there’s a fire out in Santa Clarita,” I said.

He laughed. “I drove through there five years ago What a lost place of look-alike houses. Every house alike! Tens of thousands!”

“Were you going somewhere?” I asked.

“I left Los Angeles in search of California. Then I took a job in San Francisco. I went to work in a tech start up. They had a program for vets to learn coding,” he said.

“Why didn’t you stay there?” I asked.

“I had dreams of greatness. Then I realized I was doomed. I tried to concentrate. But I was no coder. I was working in a tall high rise on Market St. I rode the elevator up to my office on the 32nd Floor. One day I ran out of the building screaming. Right on Market St. I had a complete collapse. I could not go back in an office building in an earthquake zone. It might collapse on me. I had a building fall on me in Iraq,” he said.

“San Francisco scared me. But down here in the heat I think about it. What I miss most is the rain. And that cold, blowing fog.”

I tried to empathize with him.
“People live and die in LA for no good reason,” I said.
“I won’t dispute that. But my life has been on the upswing since I settled here,” he said.

He got into a new, red Ford Focus. It looked like a just licked lollipop. It made me salivate.
He opened the window and looked out at me.
“Aren’t you tired of walking across this endless stretch of asphalt? Too hot to walk. You want a ride?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure. Can you drop me off on Burbank and Kester?”
“Get in,” he ordered.

We were stopped at Sepulveda and Oxnard. He looked at me. “I know how I know you. You came into Bevmo and bought some Yamazaki whisky. Smooth and Asian.”

“Me?” I asked.
“No the whisky,” he said.

He reached into his glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of Diptyque’s Tam Dao fragrance.  He sprayed it on his neck.

It smelled like sandalwood and cedar, like the fire burning in the mountains north of Los Angeles. It enkindled desire.

We parked, in front of the mini-mall donut shop at Kester and Burbank, and sat in the car, air-conditioning blasting.

“Tam Dao keeps me calm,” he said holding the bottle in front of a chilled air vent.
“I got it in Fallujah. My buddy gave it to me. He had the bottle on him,” he said.

“It was a hot day. Just like today. But Iraq hot in war hot. We were resting on a bench inside a walled, arid garden courtyard. It was house-to-house combat but this place seemed quiet. A family lived there. My buddy, Lance Corporal Jose Martinez, was talking with me. We were both scout snipers. He had this bottle of Tam Dao in his pocket. He said it made him calm. Then, out of nowhere, but actually up on a roof, an enemy shooter hit him, right in the heart, and he collapsed. He died quick. No scream, just death. Lord, mercy, no. I had no time to think. I dove behind a wall and started shooting at everything around me in the air. I think I hit that sniper on a roof. I stayed there until I was rescued. It was three hours. See that black and white Tam Dao label? It was covered in his red blood. I felt ashamed to wash it off. Somehow dishonoring him,” he said.

“I never saw someone die. I never fought in a war. I respect you. How do you, how do you deal with death?” I asked.

He looked at me and took his hand and rubbed my shoulder.

“You think it will all go on but it won’t. Once the heart stops it’s over. I never went looking for death. It just finds you.”


Last Year in Van Nuys

He became my workout buddy. He took care of me on the machines, especially on the Decline Press. On there I felt most vulnerable, most in need of support and encouragement.

One of my favorite lines was “I can’t do it.”
But he would challenge me and shame me in a joking way.

“C’mon Loh you ain’t so Loh. Get it up!”

I’d push and surprise myself in getting it back up.
I’d daydream when I had to spot him. I’d look around at other men on the floor and he’d tease me.

“Stop looking at the chicks. Concentrate. Look at me Loh and say I Concentrate on You!”Inadvertently, I’m sure, he named a song I loved, a song once sung by Sinatra.

Whenever skies look gray to me, and trouble begins to brew
Whenever the winter winds become too strong
I concentrate on you

When fortune cries “Nay, nay” to me
And people declare “You’re through”
Whenever the blues become my only songs
I concentrate on you

On your smile, so sweet, so tender
When at first my kiss you do decline
On the light in your eyes when you surrender
And once again our arms intertwine

And so when wise men say to me
That love’s young dream never comes true
To prove that even the wise men can be wrong
I concentrate on you[1]

[1] Cole Porter, Songwriter. © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

I listened to that song, covertly; hummed that song, secretly; absorbed the lyrics, furtively; and never confessed it anyone. It was too soft, too romantic, too tender. To admit to liking or believing it, was to surrender myself to persecution and ridicule.


Fatburger Confessions

One night, under the red neon Fatburger sign, we devoured turkey burgers after the gym. He twirled a fry and divulged a secret about having a kid and an ex-wife back in the Bronx.

“She wanted to instantly shape me up: job, attitude, love-making. Men are sometimes lethal. But woman are always toxic. She was too much,” he said.

“I used to be irresponsible. But hey, look at me now.  I’ve changed. I got on my feet! I manage a liquor store. I bought a new Ford Focus. I go to the gym. I put it all together,” he said.

He leaned back in his chair, patted his stomach and laughed like the Devil.


Styling Men’s Socks

One day last year, Polo Ralph Lauren hired me to assist on a shoot for men’s socks, a step up for me as a stylist. I earned two grand.

I remember the day well. I wanted to celebrate my good fortune. I met Derek at MacLeod Ale Brewery on Calvert Street and we played golden hour darts, and drank beer in the large room with the open-to-the-sky garage door before sunset. The setting sun bathed the room in an amorous glow: rose and amber on cinderblock and concrete.

I hadn’t eaten at all that day, and I was quickly drunk. My tongue was loose and I said whatever came to mind.

“I’m glad we are buddies,” I said. He threw a dart that missed the board and hit the wall. He looked annoyed.

“Did I say something wrong?” I asked.
“I got a parking ticket before you got here,” he said.
“I’m sorry.”
“The back tires were barely in the red zone. And the parking enforcement dude, fat white guy, he knew my Ford Focus. He wanted to aim his $75 dart at me. I don’t have to tell you why,” he said.
“I’ve had parking tickets too,” I said.
“Dude I’m telling you this was not normal. Sometimes only revenge makes you feel like there’s justice in the world. I have a semi-automatic rifle at home, a Saiga AK-74. Only my excellent self-control as a man and a Marine prevents me from turning lethal.”

He took a sip of the pint. He smiled at me benignly and patted me on the back. Then he stepped out of the room onto the driveway.

He looked out across the chain link fence, out across the auto repair shops, the parked tow trucks and the darkly silhouetted palm trees along Calvert Street marching tall against the orange sky.

There was lament and sadness in his eyes.

“Was anyone ever happy in Van Nuys? Why do they come here? Why the hell do they stay?” he asked.

We sat on a ledge. “At least today I’m happy. I made some good money. I’m going to give you $75 for your ticket. It’s my fault you were waiting for me,” I said.

“Silly little boy. You ain’t got nothing to atone for. Keep your money. Or use it for dinner Tuesday night. My place. Bring some prime meat. We can cook on the balcony. You can see my pink building on Kittridge and Sepulveda where the whores hang out.”


Up Tempo

I wanted to be loved that Tuesday night.

I walked into Whole Foods and picked up two, solid, meaty pork chops, bone-in, a bottle of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a crusty, fresh baked apple pie and a pint of high fat vanilla ice cream.

At home, I showered and dried, picked out navy cotton trousers, a white oxford cloth shirt and suede wing tip shoes. I pomaded my hair and parted it precisely.

It was Tuesday, April 1st. A day when I last fooled myself into imagining happiness.

There was something in the cool air that spring night: a sense of expectation, wonderment, mystery, and desire. I rode my bike, hopefully, up Sepulveda, with a backpack full of food and liquor.

It was one of those evenings when the ocean breezes blow up into the valley, slithering through the passes, over the brake lights, and lay onto the land a soothing blanket of coolness. Ecstasy is when you are alive, and aware, and intoxicated, at the hour your events align with meteorological events.

I had arrived at my destination on Kittridge.

He was up on the balcony, shirtless, in shorts, surveying the sky. His carved arms were clenched on the bar of the steel rail. He looked out onto the street, and beyond, with that same faraway look he had on Calvert Street, at the brewery, the night before. He did not see me down below.

I waited and watched, in silence, on my bike, admiring him, not wanting to end our moment of separate but equal gazing.


A Lost Place

I carried my bike into the elevator, wheeled it up to his apartment door and knocked. He opened it wearing only green paisley silk boxers. I smiled and handed him my food and booze. He put it up on the counter, examining it. And frowning.

“Why pork chops?” he asked.
“I thought you would like that instead of beef,” I said.
“Yeah, I always eat pork chops. Did you get collard greens too?”

He left the items on the counter and walked over to his chinning bar/dip station in the living room, lifting himself up and down.

He was the trained soldier and the focused athlete up for inspection: advertising his fineness, keeping me away.

He went over to the kitchen counter and opened the bourbon. “You drink it straight or with ice or water?”

“Water please. No ice,” I said.  He poured water into a glass, added bourbon and gave me the drink. I sipped it and waited for the sedation to soothe my rattling.  “Do you want to see my Saiga AK-74?” he asked non-chalantly.

“You mean your gun?” I asked. “Ok.”

“Semi automatic rifle,” he said picking it up and carefully pointing it down towards the floor. He brought it closer to me and I reached over and touched it.

Ignorant of its uses, it appeared to me like a three-foot long, black metal toy.

“Obama stopped importation of these after Putin invaded Ukraine. But I got this ten years ago. It’s the same folks who make Kalashnikov,” he explained placing the gun back carefully on the floor, sliding it under the sofa.

“Let’s go out on the balcony and cool off,” he said.

“When I was in the Marines they would make us drink bourbon out of the bottle. We had contests to see who was toughest, who could hold out the longest,” he said sipping his bourbon in his boxers.

I went to move closer to him. But I dared not touch him. “You’re so lucky cause you were born with such a great, natural body. I have to work for mine. And I still could never look like you,” I said.

“That’s a shitty thing to say,” he said. “I’ll go inside and get the pork chops.”

He brought the pork chops out to the barbecue, dropping them on the gas grill.  They sizzled, smoked, burned up with black marks.

We forked them done, went back inside, and ate them on the couch, watching “The Bachelorette” in distracted silence.

I had spent an evening with him. A first date really. I had seen his home, his gun, his body, and his hospitality. And it left me in a suspended state of frustration and incomprehension. Was it all for show? He was so undressed, yet so hidden.

Front door open, I paused before closing and looked back. He sat on the leather couch, eating his bowl of vanilla ice cream and laughing at the blue flickering light without acknowledging my departure. I closed the door, slowly.

I rode back home on the sidewalk, like a boy on a bike, sulking and morose, in the brightly lit night along Sepulveda Boulevard, a high wattage ugliness of billboards, burgers, and cheap motels, where everything worthless on earth was for sale.


 French Toast With Butter and Syrup

The French Toast was soft, soaked in butter and maple syrup. The bacon was crisp and crunchy. The hot coffee was roasted dark and diluted in vanilla cream.

It was Sunday morning and I ate at Nat’s Early Bite on Burbank and Hazeltine. Above me, along the wall near the ceiling, a long shelf held dusty plastic trinkets, artificial plants and imitation flowers. The walls were hung with photos of actors who once acted.

And then he entered the restaurant. We hadn’t spoken for weeks. He saw me sitting alone at a two-man table near the door and walked up to me.

“Can I sit with you?” he asked.
“Of course,” I answered.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“I had a lot of bad problems,” he said.
“What?” I asked.

“I got fired. I forgot to ask a company spy for her ID and she purchased some alcoholic lemonade that looked like regular lemonade but had vodka in it. The minute I rang her up, I was called back into the office and dismissed that very second. Bevmo is mean and cruel,” he said.

“Oh my God. I’m sorry,” I said.

“And with no income I missed a car payment and then I thought I ain’t going to get no $45,000 a year job like Bevmo so I turned in my car and I owe money on that car but I don’t have no car,” he said.

“My ex-wife’s been texting me for child support but I have nothing to send her. I can’t pay the rent so that will be the next thing to collapse. I’m sorry I’m telling you every woe in my life,” he said burying his face into his hands.

“Let me get you something to eat,” I said.
“No I couldn’t let you do that,” he said.

A waitress walked over. “Please bring my friend the same breakfast you brought me. French Toast with well done bacon and a cup of coffee,” I said.

“You’re a good man. I mean you are a good man. You know what I mean!” he said and laughed.

His weary eyes were open, focused on me, singularly and poignantly.

“I went to return the car to Galpin Ford. I was pulled over on Roscoe by a cop, LAPD Officer Veronica Montez, a Latina bitch with her hair in a bun. She said I was going too close to the car in front of me. She wrote me a ticket, a moving violation, just as I was heading into the dealership driveway to dispose of the vehicle. Am I cursed or something?” he said.

“No. I think you’re blessed,” I said.

The Second French Toast with butter, syrup and bacon arrived. Derek tore into the bread, plastered it with butter and drowned it in syrup. He looked grateful for a meal.


Clearing Out

On another very hot day I told him he could stay with me.

We went over to his apartment, packed his clothing, Frosted Flakes, pillows, sheets, towels, and toiletries into heavy plastic garbage bags. He did not seem sad until he went back out on the balcony, sat down on a plastic stool and started to cry.

“I see those homeless people living in their cars. And I think, God, I don’t want to end up like that,” he said.

“You’re going to climb out of this sad time. I’m not going to abandon you,” I said.
“Just when you think you are winning you fail. Nobody ever escapes enslavement,” he said.

I took a cold bottle of water out of cooler and rolled it up and down the back of his sweaty neck.

Here was the battlefield Los Angeles. Here was the heartbreak of a war vet struck down by life.

I found that bottle of Tam Dao, the one that belonged to the dead soldier, and I brought it out as an offering, out to the wounded man on the balcony. I sprayed it on the side of his neck.

“Breathe deep. You’re going to win again. You’re a King, ” I said, saying those hyperbolic words as if I were administering an anecdote against suicide.

He unhooked his silver cross chain, put it in his hand and rubbed his finger on it. Rubbed it as if its essence, its power to confer eternity, justice, and compassion could come to life in his palm.

“Sometimes I think God’s gone away. Do you believe in Jesus?” he asked.
“I left Jesus back in Bountiful,” I answered.

I hugged him and pressed my head against his chest. I wanted this for so long but it was affection conceived in mourning, not joy.

“Should we continue packing?” I asked as we went back in.

There was a Holy Bible with a bookmark in it. He brought it over to me.

“Look here. This is something I want you to read,” he said. I read it aloud.

“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”-2 Corinthians 4:8-9

“You didn’t leave Jesus back in Utah. He is here in Van Nuys.”


 Covert Operation

After Midnight, under cover of darkness, he came into my apartment, tiptoeing along the exterior hall and sliding into my studio.

I spoke softly. “You can sleep on my bed, or you can sleep on the sofa. House rules. No dirty dishes in the sink. Hang up your wet towel on the door so it dries and doesn’t get musty. I have an extra toothbrush for you. It’s red. Don’t forget. And don’t pee on the toilet seat. Lift it up before you urinate. Ok?”

“I’m going to crash on the couch buddy. Thank you for extracting me from desperation,” he said.

I laid out a bed of bleached, fragrant, white sheets.  His Saiga, covered in its own protective wrapping, slept next to him.

“I have my protection here. I just keep it here. I won’t take my eyes off it. You understand right?”
“Of course,” I said.

Around 3am, I got up to piss, and looked out into the living room to see him asleep in the nude, fan blowing, but uncovered, and resting comfortably.

I tiptoed next to him and bent down on my knees and with no trepidation, kissed him softly on his lips.  He stayed asleep and again I laid my head down on the pillow and kissed him on the neck. And he didn’t awaken. I raised myself up and went back in my room.

At 6am, I was up for good, already showered and dressed.  I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He turned over and spoke. “You going out Conner?” he asked.

“Yeah. Sorry to wake you. I got a job in Hollywood. Make yourself at home. If you go out just make sure to avoid the building manager Jen Broadbent. You’ll recognize her. She’s a fat blond lady about 40. She waters the plants with a hose and wears a red hat. Try and be quiet and don’t tell anyone you are staying here,” I instructed.

As I grabbed my keys he spoke up. “I know what you did to me last night,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You took some liberties with me when I was sleeping. Or you thought I was sleeping. I didn’t say anything,” he said.
“Are you mad?” I asked.
“I’m not mad for the reason you may think. I’m mad because you took advantage of me without asking,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And then I walked out.

I left for work with an uneasy feeling tempered and jolted by an electric surge of eroticism and guilt.


 House Rules

I worked on a breath mint commercial in Hollywood and picked out the skateboards and t-shirts for young actors who ate mints, rode boards downhill and smiled for multiple takes.

When I got back to the apartment, he was in the bathroom. The countertop was full of open Styrofoam food from Zankou Chicken smelling of garlic and grease.

A wet towel was crunched up on the couch and his clothes were thrown onto the floor and across the coffee table. Open cans of Diet Coke sat atop the TV. In one day it had all turned slummy.

He walked out of the bathroom, trailing a shit smell that leaked out into the living room.

“How you doing dude?” he asked.
“Tired man. You need to clean up this room. This is my home,” I said.
“Hey I’m sorry. I was online trying to get work. I walked next door to the Laundromat to do my laundry and they had a help wanted sign so I applied,” he said.
“Close the bathroom door please,” I said. I wasn’t pleased.

“I’m sorry to get on your ass about cleaning up. I had a long day at work and when I come back I like things orderly and clean,” I said.
“I know man. You’re in command here. I will obey you. You have my respect. I’ll shape up,” he said smiling.
“I’m still in the mood for Lido Pizza if you want to grab dinner. My treat,” I said, attempting some reconciliation and niceness.

“Yeah sure,” he said.


Incident at Lido Pizza

We were in the rococo red sauce and vinyl booth restaurant on Victory, eating plates of spaghetti with clam sauce and drinking glasses of ordinary red wine.

The earlier confrontation in the apartment dissolved as we twirled pasta and soaked bread in the clam sauce, forgetting the problems in our entangled and undefined relationship.

Three LAPD officers, two men and a woman, came in and sat at a booth across from ours. Derek’s expression changed into agitation.

“That’s the bitch who pulled me over on Roscoe. Sgt. Veronica Montez. The enemy,” he said.

“Have another glass of wine,” I said.
“I need some air,” he said as he got up and rushed out the front door. I followed.

Derek, furious and gasping, pounded his fist against a steel sign pole in the parking lot.

A fire truck passed with deafening sirens, and Derek let out a scream. I held onto him as he screamed more. He fell down on his knees and cried out.

“I can’t stand it! I can’t be around this war, these cops, and all these people trying to kill me! What if the building falls down? What if the cops kill me? This is war! This isn’t Van Nuys. This is a war zone!”

In the midst of the asphalt melodrama, our gallant waiter came out to the parking lot with a glass of water on a silver tray.

Derek took it and he drank it. The waiter stood back observing.

“He just found out that his mother died. That is why he was so upset. If you could bring me the check I can pay you,” I said.

“Yes, of course,” he said and went back into Lido Pizza.

I took a cloth napkin, dipped it in the water glass and wiped Derek’s forehead. And then I lightly kissed him where I had dabbed him as he lay seated on the ground, his back against the steel sign.

“How do you feel now?” I asked him after he had thrown off his uncontrollable emotional convulsions.

“I realize now I tried to superimpose happiness upon this sad city but it never truly worked. I either have to leave here. Or I will die here,” he said.

“We can go to the VA tomorrow. Maybe they have some medication for you. We need to get some help,” I said.

“Lorazepam. I need that drug. If you can get that from the VA,” he said.
“I will,” I said, stroking his arm.

It was a night of emergencies. Another red LAFD fire truck, lights flashing, sirens blasting, sped down Victory west towards the 405. Something was on fire somewhere, out there beyond our view.


What We See Is What We Want to See

The next morning I carried a bag of just cleaned laundry and said good morning to Jen Broadbent who was out in the courtyard watering her clay pot plants. She wore her red cap and a satisfied smile, resonating confidence in her small triumphs of apartment management and horticultural husbandry.

“What are you up to today Conner?” she asked.
“I’m trying to get my buddy an appointment at the VA Hospital in Westwood,” I said.
“Your buddy a vet?” she asked.
“Yes. He’s a Marine who served in Iraq. He desperately needs some medication. I wish I had a car,” I said.

She turned the water off and dried her hands on a rag and looked at me with compassion.

“Take my car if you want to drive your friend down to the VA,” she said.
“Oh that is too much to ask,” I said.
“My father served in Korea, my older brother served in Vietnam. I come from a family of service members. We help each other out!” she said.

She pulled a set of keys out of her pocket and handed me a black one. “It’s the Toyota Yaris parked right across Burbank. Go move it by 10 O’clock cause they’re street cleaning today. Use it for today and bring it back in one piece. I’m proud of you for caring for a veteran. We don’t do enough for them. God Bless you!”


Appointment At Noon

He cleaned up the apartment, put his dirty clothes in the basket, and wiped down the toilet, even turning down the seat.

I came back with the laundered clothes and placed them near my bed. “Let me fold them for you,” he offered.

“We have to be there by Noon,” I said. “I have to move her car by 10. And I need to shower,” I said.

“Let me get the car. I’ll drive it over to this side of the street,” he said.
I handed him her car keys and he went out.

In a few minutes my phone rang. It was Jen. “I just saw a black guy in the courtyard and asked him who he was and he said he was your friend. Is that true?”

“Yes, that’s Derek the vet. He is moving your car because I need to shower,” I said.
“Ok,” she said.

He couldn’t even go out of the apartment to do an errand without arousing suspicion.

I went to take a clean, quick, water conserving, shower.

Rinsing the shampoo out, I heard, over the running water, shouting. I turned the faucet off, grabbed a towel, tied it around my waist and ran out into the living room.

“The bitch! The bitch! She’s out there. That cop I told you about! The one we saw at Lido! She pulled me over for an illegal U-turn right in front of the building. I swear that bitch she gonna die! She gonna die!”

“Ok. We can’t let her get to us!” I said. But he wasn’t hearing me. He was lost in wrath. He pulled off his rifle cover, grabbed the gun, loaded it, cocked it, aimed it, and defended his position in the apartment.

I pulled the drapes shut, sealing in heat and fear. The room was daylight dark, encased in danger, sparsely oxygenated. A lone goldfish swam in her bowl obliviously.

Derek stood ramrod, next to the door, no longer a civilian, but now, monstrously transformed into a sniper. The air in the apartment was still- then shaken- as a police helicopter circled and sliced in concentric menace.

A megaphone voice, a pounding on the door. We were in the siege of my house, the closing in of law enforcement, the sounds of police sirens, voices in the courtyard, panic all around, panic inside and outside. I pleaded with him.

“Don’t escalate this any more! Put the gun down. Let’s open the door and put our hands up!”

“This is the only honorable way to finish it!” he said.

I could see cops down in the courtyard. I motioned to Derek with my thumb their location. He moved away from the door, over to the sliding doors on the balcony. He stood behind the drapes aiming his weapon down to the courtyard.

He let loose maybe a dozen rounds.  I screamed and ran over to the bathroom and locked the door. In my own deluded and crazed insanity I grabbed the holy bottle of Tam Dao and curled up into the bathtub. I heard more gunfire and then nothing.

I opened the bathroom door slowly into smoke, glass, death and carnage.

Glass shattering the sliding door; and Derek hit. The white drapes pulled off their rod, grotesquely splashed with blood. His brains blown out, his skull ripped open, his body on the balcony.

I crawled on the carpet, right up to the Saiga, grabbed it and pulled the trigger, and aimed it at my windowless front door, shooting furiously.

The bullets I engaged killed LAPD Officer Veronica Montez, 32-years-old, married mother of two, on the force for 4 years.

Who was the cop killer? Who cares? The answer was already officially adjudicated. I was never charged. Only God knows the truth.

After the horrific events of April 20th I buried my feelings, like socks in a dark dresser drawer.

I tried to elude pain but it stalked me so.

When fortune cries “Nay, nay” to me

And people declare “You’re through”

Whenever the blues become my only songs

I concentrate on you.

END