Dad Got Mill

With his wife’s urging, a middle-aged man musters the courage to open a luxury men’s store on the brink of the pandemic.

Dad Got Mill

a short story
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

Soundtrack: Dad Got Mill on Spotify

DGM

Kathy Fessenden and I were on our daily walk around the Silver Lake Reservoir to exercise and throw out ideas.

Raised in a small North Dakota town, founded by her family, my wife worked as a Senior Financial Analyst at Disney, her only employer for the last 25 years. Kathy was the reason we could afford a house, a private academy for Nikolas, and last year’s trip to Sardinia. She was frugal. And we were well off from that.

By contrast, I stayed at home, listening to my large collection of jazz records, trading mutual funds, auditioning for voice acting jobs, researching out-of-state houses for sale.

Decades earlier, in New York, I was a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs, then a trader at Morgan Stanley, then a portfolio manager at Fidelity. At no point did I progress at those jobs.

My secret dream was to own a men’s clothing shop.
My reality was pursuing imaginary creative endeavors past 50.

Yet Kathy Fessenden loved me no matter what.
We had a strange, but successful marriage.


Go Forth!

That morning, we stopped on the west side of the lake, near a stark, flat-roofed Gregory Ain house. It was perched on a hill with a row of tall windows overlooking the reservoir.

As she spoke, I looked up at that house, floating back down to her words.

“Listen to me! You love Las Colinas Rojas and Winchester Arcade. You said if you had one place to make a store it would be there. It has all your requirements: glass roofed, English, charming.

“Am I foolish? Am I dreaming? Can we afford it?” I asked.

“We’ve had this discussion so many times. Go forth and manifest what you want in life!” she said.

“Bottom line. I’m a failure. I can’t earn a living. I’m torn up because I’m too afraid to sign a lease and open a little men’s store. I’m a wimp,” I said.

“You have my support and resources. Make 2018 your year of action. Sign the lease. Buy the goods, and get on it,” she said.

We walked, the sun came out, my mood lifted.

“Do you like the name August? I read a novel by that name when I was young, about the month when the therapists go out of town, and since I’m always in therapy with Myra Rubin, it fits,” I said.

“I like it. Nik goes back to school in late August. He can help you set up the store,” she said.

“Maybe I should discuss it with Myra first,” I said.

“She won’t give you an answer. She’ll just ask you what you think,” she said.

“I think I’ll paint the shelves Farrow and Ball Green Smoke. I’ll have perfumes from DS & Durga and dad’s favorite, St. John’s Bay Rum. And handmade socks from Japan, great khakis, nice oxfords, Irish woolen caps, Italian silk neckties, crested navy blazers, and rugby shirts. A traditional men’s store with whiskey, tweed jackets and jazz music,” I said.

“I love it. There’s your answer. You came up with it yourself, without your therapist’s help,” she said.

We hugged and then continued up the steep hill to our dark green 1938 ranch house on Kenilworth Avenue.

It stretched along the sidewalk, garage near the street, stub driveway, no front lawn.

In the back, on our enormous wooden deck, we spent many hours enjoying our expansive views over Silverlake.


Lease

I signed the lease!

Move in date was three months away, August 1, 2018. I spent the summer buying stock for the store, nervous, but excited.

$70,000 on Kathy’s credit card.

Boxes came to Kenilworth Avenue: Trucker’s English brogues, Scottish cashmeres, J Press oxfords, Ralph Lauren neckties; perfumes, wool scarves, tweed jackets, tennis sweaters, university sweatshirts, lambswool caps, brushed cotton flannels.

Nik watched me open a box of Norwegian wool sweater vests.

“Who’s going to wear that in LA?” he laughed.

“People with money go places, they don’t stay in one place. They ski in Switzerland, or they have a winter lodge in Vermont. Those are the customers who will shop at August,” I said.

He chuckled at my Farrow and Ball paint samples, picked up two cans, read the labels.

“Duck Green and Lake Red. Sounds like your new customers. Nobody buys clothes in stores anymore,” he said.


Shad Mill/ Dad Got Mill

The only thing I didn’t have were old style rugbies.

One of my 57 followers was Shad Mill of Dad Got Mill clothing, made in Los Angeles.

He had fine hashtags: #Slow fashion, #handmade, #traditional, #organic, #heirlooms, #rugby.

Shad was a former New Yorker, about my age, now living here in Los Angeles.

Blond models in striped rugby shirts populated his page.

He had a long resume in fashion, most recently as head designer at Chuck Fagan. And he made high end rugby shirts, precisely tailored khakis with old Hollywood names (“Spencer” and “Montgomery”), and unconstructed wool blazers.

He had a vaguely preposterous persona, quite pretentious, but characteristic of his age and profession. I invited him to the opening party at the store.


Colin

Again, on Instagram, I found Colin Chu, a 27-year-old vintage menswear dealer who lived with his parents in Alhambra.

We met for coffee at a little cafe in the Winchester Arcade, weeks before the store opened.

He wore high waisted jodhpurs, tucked in ivory cashmere sweater and cordovan lace up boots. Thin, smooth faced, articulate, he spoke fluently and easily in grosgrain, merino, foulard, lapel, angora and alpaca.

He talked about his eBay store, selling vintage neckties, tweed jackets, oxford shirts, wool caps, and rowing blazers. I liked his positive energy, boyish and eager.

He was active in influencer walks in Los Angeles, groups of guys who walked around men’s stores trying on expensive clothes they never purchased and photographing themselves wearing luxury goods.

I told Colin about my life: growing up in Suffolk County, New York, my love of traditional clothing, my unhappy years commuting to jobs on Wall Street, and my eventual rescue by Kathy, who convinced me to go west to get married, escape finance, and pursue voice acting.

After I spoke, I felt letdown by my autobiography.

My abridged life story was like wood floating down a river: pulled by the current, past landmarks beyond reach, moving along with no direction.

“You gave up voice acting? Why not keep working to achieve your dream?” he asked.

“Good question. No answer. I ended up as a day trader, which was more lucrative, and then I invested in real estate,” I said.

“Owning property is always a good move. One day I’ll own a house, or two,” he said.

I felt old. I referenced the golden age of Hollywood: Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, The Thomas Crown Affair, Sabrina, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, The Birds.

All elicited a blank stare.

Bewildered, he looked at me like a father. We had nothing in common, but love, for clothes.

But he had youth and I had none. I needed him.

He would pull in young clientele, beef up social media, sell online.

He seemed ethical, honest, and trustworthy. He wouldn’t steal or lie. I could leave him in the store, go on vacation, no worries.

“I would be into working with you. I live not too far from here. Commuting is fine. I can borrow my mom’s car. How much can you pay?” he asked.

“$20 bucks an hour. 30 hours a week,” I said.
“Ok. I’ll take it,” he said.

As a placeholder I offered him a bottle of 18-year-old Scotch.

“No, thank you. My parents don’t allow liquor in the house. Our church prohibits it,” he said.


Opening

Kathy, Nik and I drove to Las Colinas Rojas early Sunday morning on the day of the store’s opening party.

The queen city of the San Gabriel Valley was in a mist. We came up through a mansion lined road of sprawling lawns and mature oaks, clouds hiding the sun, and emerged into the shopping district as the fog receeded.

We parked in back, stood in the glass ceilinged arcade, outside the store entrance, viewing it like tourists.

August was painted in Old English Monotype on the window. Behind the sign, a body form wore a double-breasted blue blazer. Spread below it were my jazz albums from the 1950s and 60s: Miles Davis, Art Blakely, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk.

Colin was inside, holding a small paint can and brush, finishing off a cabinet shelf.

He had meticulously hung the Japanese tailored Ring Jackets in the back room, alternating the coats with rigidly ironed dress shirts, grouped by colors, in a rhythm of light blue, navy, and white.

He had steamed, iron and folded.

“Have a donut,” he said, pointing to an open box.

On a round, dark wood table were an assortment of tartan scarves. A chrome liquor cart on wheels held various spirits, wine and highball glasses.

A feather duster rested against a bottle of Dewar’s.

Vintage watches were arrayed under glass at checkout. On the wall behind the register hung framed and matted black and white photographs of defunct New York jazz clubs.

“How did you learn to do all this?” Kathy asked.

“Ralph Lauren. I worked in the Beverly Hills store for two years when I was at UCLA,” he said.

Kathy leafed through a colorful assortment of rugby shirts on wooden hangers.

“Hey, these are nice. Very heavy, weighty cotton,” she said.

I walked over, concerned.

“I don’t know those rugbies. Where did these come from?” I asked Colin.

“Some man dropped a box off yesterday. I thought you ordered them,” Colin answered.

I looked at the labels: Dad Got Mill.

Kathy checked Disney Visa on her phone.

“Yep. Here’s $4,320 on the card by Dad Got Mill,” Kathy said.

“Oh, so I did. My mistake,” I said.


The Party

Trumpeter Kenny Dorham played on LP. Guests drank scotch and craft beer. They looked through the wares, admired the clothes, took photos.

They were Asian-American friends of Colin, young guys, in collared shirts, knit beanies, selvedge jean jackets, expensive rolled up denim, and dark leather shoes.

A good-looking Black man rode up on a Harley-Davidson, parked along the curb, came inside.

I sipped my iced whiskey and walked around.
Kathy and Nik smiled. The party was going well.
I met Shad.

He was a white middle-aged male, possibly fat or thin, 5’10, covered in orange turtleneck, blue and gray flannel shirt, houndstooth tweed jacket, striped university scarf, horn rimmed glasses, and green tweed driving cap, the quintessence of eastern seaboard docked at the liquor cart in Las Colinas Rojas, California.

“Dad Got Mill! Wonderful clothes. Welcome to August. I’m so delighted to have you here,” I said.

“Yes, yes. I’m still getting used to LA. Finding my way. Almost got lost coming here,” he said, toasting with his gin and tonic.

“Delighted you came. You worked for some great designers in New York,” I said.

“Yes, yes. I was the head designer for Chuck Fagan and I also worked ten years for Ralph Lauren. Things change in fashion. When I was hired at Polo in 1999, people there still looked like me. When I left they were already into diversity. Dad Got Mill is my salute to our family mill that once stood on the Merrimac River in Massachusetts,” he said.

“Oh, lovely. You take your family heritage and create a brand out of that,” I said.

“I’m the real article. So many pretend to have my heritage. I mean Ralph is an example of that,” he said.

“Well, my family worked in fishing, trucking, farming, and I was the first to go to college,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” he answered, seemingly bored, sipping his drink.

“Are you relocating to California permanently?” I asked.

“I think so. But the problem is nowhere do I really feel at home. I moved to a gorgeous 1929 Spanish duplex apartment near Sycamore and 2nd. I would have killed for something like it in New York. It’s tree lined, quaint, charming. My place has French doors, balcony, wood floors, perfect for my watercolors,” he said.

“Like the West Village,” I said.

“A few days after I moved in, I sat down with my nightly Negroni. I was jolted by loud noise. Upstairs moved an Orthodox Jewish family, The Moskowitz Bunch. They are horrendous. Three brats in yarmulkes, pounding on the floors. The noise is insane. I went up to knock on their door when they got loud, and they wouldn’t open it. They pray all the time. They won’t answer the phone on Friday or Saturday! I hear Hebrew melodies until midnight. They boil everything and the smell comes into my apartment. It’s repulsive,” Shad said.

“Maybe you should look for a place in Las Colinas Rojas,” I said.

“I don’t think I’d like it here either. Las Colinas Rojas is way too Asian, like Flushing, Queens. I’m a normal American guy. I want to live in a normal American place. Every place in LA is infested with Armenians, Asians, Mexicans, Jews. Can you advise me on where not to go?” Shad asked.

I looked around to see if anyone else could hear.

His openly expressed hatreds were startling. That he considered me an empathetic ear was unsettling.

“Please excuse me. Look in your email for the agreement on Monday,” I said.

I watched from a distance as Chad inspected his rugbies.

Colin came over, beaming.

“We have our first sale! Two Dad Got Mill rugbies. $400. And they bought a Drake’s scarf for $375, and Orslow khakis for $225!” he said.

“That’s great news! I just had a talk with Shad Mill. I like his shirts. I like his style. I like his business acumen. But I really don’t like him,” I said.

“Why?” Colin asked.

“He’s an old-style bigot, in the exact mode of his 1940s clothing,” I whispered.

“Ok. Gotcha. Let’s talk later. I see someone at the register,” Colin said, patting my shoulder reassuringly.

Shad was across the room. He sipped his drink, put it down on the tie table, left the store. I wondered how sloshed he was and if he was driving home.

The athletic, good-looking Black man came over.
“Hey, I’m Joshua. I want to shake your hand. I absolutely adore your store. This Dad Got Mill rugby is the best quality I’ve come across. How come it took so long for a shop like this to open in LA?” he asked.

His teeth glistened. His handshake was iron.

“It’s my fault. I procrastinated for twenty years until my wife told me to get my ass in gear,” I joked.

“I’m glad you did. Seriously, this is so pristinely elegant and well-merchandized. And very welcoming and diverse. I feel the love you have for all people, all the glorious rainbows in this city. You have my blessings. I’m going to post myself in this shirt tonight. I only have 43,000 followers but my wife has over 100,000,” he said.


Christmas Season

Kathy and I had planned a three weeklong, family trip to Scotland in December.

I went ahead with our vacation plans and decided to close up the store for nearly 8 weeks, from Thanksgiving to the middle of January.

A working trip.

That was my official line.

Colin was surprised.

“I can’t imagine closing down before Christmas. That’s the prime shopping season. I really need the income. I’m helping my folks with their property taxes,” Colin said.

“I’m going to source goods. I have a trip planned to visit Inis Meáin Knitting Company in the Aran Islands,” I said, half truthfully.

“It’s like throwing money away. This is your first Christmas. What are you thinking? What about all those potential customers who wander in a few days before Christmas looking for gifts?” he asked.

I had no answer.

“Enjoy your time off and come back in mid- January, refreshed,” I said.

“Refreshed? If I am not working here, I’m working at my mom’s dry cleaners. If she doesn’t need me, I’m selling clothes on eBay. And if I don’t sell on eBay, I’ll work at my father’s hardware store. I told them I’ll be working with you for the holidays,” he said.

“Ok, I’ll let you keep the store open. I trust you. Keys will be in your hands and you’ll do it all,” I said.

“Yes! That’s a good plan. We are bursting with inventory now. I counted five dozen cashmeres,” he said.


Elation

We went to Scotland. And we had a grand time. I was calm and relaxed with honest, hard-working Colin minding the store.

We spent a week in Edinburgh. We went to festive Christmas markets, Jenners department store, and the Scottish market in St. Andrew’s Square.

I purchased a $450 oil cloth, corduroy collared, tartan lined coat at Barbour Edinburgh. And a matching one for Nik.

Kathy abstained.

“I don’t want one. We’ll all look ridiculous walking around in the same jacket,” she said.

We traveled to Braemar and spent Christmas at the Fife Arms, a 19th-century inn. We ate smoked salmon, venison burgers, drank scotch and local ale. We drove further and ended up in Glencoe, along the steep sided mountains, with waterfalls and trails, red deer and golden eagles, and spent New Years at the Isle of Mull Hotel along the sound.

We visited the Isle of Iona with her Benedictine abbey and St Oran’s Cemetery, burial grounds for many Scottish kings.

We never made it to the Aran Islands. We went back to Edinburgh, and stayed our last two nights at The Balmoral, a palatial Victorian hotel.

It was a long, tiring trip back to Los Angeles.

After a day and night of insomnia and napping, still high on Scotland, I went to see Colin at August.

The store looked perfect, as usual. The soundtrack was Ahmad Jamal’s Happy Moods.

A Diptyque fig candle burned.

The pressed shirts hung in formation, the sweaters were precisely stacked, the antique wristwatches were laid diagonally across purple velvet under clear glass.

Gone was all holiday décor. Soon the spring shirts would arrive, linen and madras would replace wool and flannel.

“How was business?” I asked.

“We had some good numbers. I sent you daily updates by email. Didn’t you see them?” he asked.

“I didn’t open my email. I apologize,” I said.

“Really? You didn’t look at any of the sales figures for your store for the last two months?” he asked.


s-l1600

Valentine’s Day

I was working alone, one Friday in early February, when model man Joshua Fuhrman came in, smiling, ebullient.

At no angle was he ever imperfect.

“A little Valentine’s present since you weren’t here for Christmas,” he said as he handed me a 1956 collector’s LP: Jazz at Cal Tech, Bud Shank Quartet in Concert.

“My gosh! This is wonderful. Can I hug you?” I asked, throwing myself around his knotty physique and sea green cashmere.

“This record belonged to my dad. I honestly have no reason to keep it, as I have nothing to play it on,” he said.

I admired his outfit.

“Lovely sweater. 6 ply? One of ours?” I asked.

“Oh man you caught me. I saw the Johnston’s label here. I actually got it on eBay. Brother, I’m looking for a tweed coat,” he said.

“Come right this way, sir,” I said.

I showed him a $1,300 jacket, gray Donegal tweed, two button, notch lapel, black buttons. The way he slipped into it was graceful, though a bit tight in the shoulders.

“I work out too much. That’s why I can’t get hired. You have something less pricey?” he asked.

“Dad Got Mill has a less expensive, unconstructed jacket in blue worsted,” I said.

“Absolutely not. Don’t mention Dad Got Mill. Hate that fucker,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“He blocked me on Instagram. Did the same to your boy Colin. Maybe he’s a white supremacist. Why block me? I’m a god damned Ford Model. Wouldn’t you want me wearing your clothes? For free?” he asked.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“You have bigots out there who want to keep Ivy Trad for their own kind,” he said.

“I hope you feel welcome here. I don’t countenance any bigotry,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be back. Probably this weekend,” he said.

I thanked him again for the jazz album as he left empty handed.


Numbers

I began to fear my association with Shad Mill. Maybe Joshua was right. I thought of removing Dad Got Mill.

Colin objected. He brought up our Shopify dashboard. A multi-colored circle was divided into percentages pertaining to each vendor.

“Dad Got Mill is 14% of our sales. That’s the largest of any brand we carry. And when the clients buy rugby shirts, they usually get khakis or denim, or both. Dad Got Mill pulls in other labels. It’s not good business to stop selling it,” Colin said.

“How many DGM pieces do we have?” I asked.

“You have 40 rugby shirts, 19 pairs of khakis, 12 sport coats. See your net costs here, and your retail here. If you remove Dad Got Mill that potentially is nearly $20,000 in sales. Keep it. Don’t pull it. You will thank me for this,” he said.


Social Media

On days we worked together Colin was like a therapist. He listened carefully to all my gripes, personal and business. He always had logical advice for my childlike mind.

Colin was also my salesman, my accountant, my merchandiser, my stylist, my social media guru. He brought in new customers. And August got some fame for reviving traditional men’s clothing stores in Los Angeles.

Nowhere in the Southland was anyone else selling handmade velvet slippers with embroidered bulldogs for $550. I fantasized that tweed suits, angora turtlenecks and camel hair coats belonged on men who lived year-round on sunny, palm lined streets.

Even with the hype and Colin’s industriousness, most days we sold nothing.

I cut back store hours. That gave me more time to audition for voice work and browse vintage record stores in Hollywood.

Now Colin came in only two days a week.

I needed him most on Saturdays and Sundays, for the weekends brought social media stragglers, crowds and chaos, nothing but mess. And Colin was highly skilled at clean-up and containment.

They arrived in packs, an obnoxious, unprofitable procession of juvenile influencer pilgrims who never spent a dime. They photographed themselves in everything. They pulled items off hangars and shelves, tried on shirts, sweaters, hats, jackets. They drank my Japanese scotch. They hung out for hours, often congregating in the arcade smoking pot. I had to make sure nobody shoplifted.

Their presence was an ordeal.

What could keep the vicarious pigs out? Something expensive, exclusionary and custom.

I proceeded with posh plans for a made-to-measure clothing event with Mr. Ian Humphries of Bosworth Woolens. I fortified our bar with a few bottles of Balvenie 21 Year Scotch at $249 each.

He flew in from London and brought his famed two button jackets with the trademark CelticCross© lapel buttonhole, and several thick books of Irish, Scottish and English fabrics. We invited everyone on our mailing list to a custom fitted weekend of woolens.

It was a dud. We made not a single sale.

It was humiliating to watch Ian run into the parking lot chasing after a young customer, begging him, unsuccessfully, to try on a $1,400 tartan wool jacket.

“You can have it for $1,300,” Ian shouted as the buyer drove off.


The Pandemic

I first heard of Covid-19 on Friday, January 24, 2020 when Nik read aloud a tweet from epidemiologist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding.

“We are now faced with the most virulent virus epidemic the world has ever seen,” Nik quoted.

“Don’t believe everything you read on Twitter,” I said.

“Dad they’re closing down cities in China and people can’t leave their houses,” he said.

“It’s in Asia. They sound like they have it under control. Relax,” I said, never imagining the war to come.


Discovery

Colin had asked for the weekend off to attend a family reunion in Big Bear. Nik came to work with me.

I was happy, for I had a foreboding about the last days of August.

Late morning at the store, Laura F., a petite young tourist with close-cropped blond hair, tried on a medium Viyella tartan button down. She came from Chicago, followed us on Instagram and was excited to shop here.

“I only wear small,” she said.

“We have six different colored small ones in in back,” I answered and asked Nik to retrieve.

He came out empty handed.
“I couldn’t find any,” he said.
“What? We have them in stock. Look at our Shopify,” I said.

Laura picked up a $275 Harley of Scotland wheat-colored Shetland sweater.

“I love this. Do you have it in small?” she asked.

I checked our online inventory.

“Yes, you’re lucky. We have red, navy, forest green and rust, all in small,” I said.

Nik went to get them.
He came out with nothing.

“Sorry, Laura. Missing those too,” he said.

I apologized to the customer.

“This is disappointing. I thought for sure I would be walking out with a few items,” she said.

Nik sat at the laptop, concentrating, jotting down items on paper. He went in back, spent a half hour there, and came out with his verdict.

“Dad you have a theft problem. There are many jackets, shirts, and sweaters that are supposed to be unsold, in stock, but are not in storage,” he said.

“That’s impossible. Colin knows everything. He’s on top of sales to the last penny,” I said.

“Maybe he’s your problem,” Nik said.

I looked onscreen at our inventory.

“Have you checked Dad Got Mill’s khakis? We should have twenty pairs,” I asked.

“I checked that too. You have six pairs in back. What’s your boy’s eBay store?” he asked.

“I can’t remember,” I said.

“Your only employee and you don’t know?” Nik asked, as he pushed me aside to look up Colin’s eBay.

Within thirty seconds, Nik found Colin Chu Superb Vintage Menswear.

IMG_7773

There were many items from August: tweed jackets, khakis, socks, t-shirts, neckties, flannel shirts, dress shoes.

Our $600 cashmeres for $450 each.

My trusted employee was stealing and selling stolen goods.

I was diminished, degraded, betrayed.

“Please don’t tell your mother,” I begged.

“Mom should know. She’s your wife and co-investor,” he said.

“Let me handle it. Say nothing to her. I never thought that respectful, churchgoing young man would steal,” I said.

“He has half your inventory. Mom’s credit card is paying for his eBay,” he said.

“Just shut-up! Show some sensitivity. You don’t have to utter every dumb thing that comes into your head!” I shouted.

“Fuck you,” he said.

He stormed out into the arcade, passing by Joshua, the male model arriving for his weekly no buy visit.

“Hey there. Did I come at an awkward time?” Joshua asked.

“No, no. Just teenage hormones. You know how that works,” I said.

“Indeed, I do. I was there 20 years ago,” he said.

He went straight to the Italian motorcycle jacket, a $1,400 black lambskin number with an asymmetric zipper. He put it on, walked to the mirror to admire.

“Damn, I look good,” he said.
“Last one,” I said.

“I’ll think about it. It looks great over these Dad Got Mill khakis,” he said as he left.

It was always the same routine with him. Never a sale.

Next thing I heard was his motor revving. I looked out the window as he sped off on his Harley.

Nik came back with two cappuccinos.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that earlier. I didn’t mean it dad. I was wrong. I mouthed off,” he said.

“Ok. Apology accepted,” I said.

“Did he buy anything?” he asked.

I took a sip of coffee.

“Nope. He comes in every weekend. Never a sale,” I said.

“He probably sees what he likes, and buys it from Colin on eBay,” Nik said.

“I’ve got bad news. I’m afraid today will be it,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“I have half my inventory stolen, my buyers are gone from the pandemic, what reason is there to keep this store open?” I asked.

“I wonder what Mom will say,” Nik said.

“Use Covid as the excuse. She doesn’t need to know about my ignorance concerning Colin and the stealing,” I said.


Covid

The world collapsed and we went to hide in our house, to order groceries online and wash them outside under the garden hose, to wear masks on our morning walk, to conduct work and school online, to look out the window and observe streets without cars and skies without planes.

A month had passed since I found out about the theft. I fired Colin. He left the store keys in our home mailbox.

Kathy commandeered the dining room table for her home office. Nik stayed in bed attending school.

I was going out of my mind, unable to escape them, or myself. I had nowhere to go. Everything was shut down.

While I languished Kathy still had a job. Our entire prosperity rested upon her diligence and hard work.

She was colder, distant, bothered by something she never uttered. I probably knew exactly what that something was. But I had no guts to say it.

While she worked, I slithered out to the deck to work on the New York Times crossword puzzles and browse houses on Zillow and Redfin. Anything to distract.

After 5, I drank bourbon, whiskey or wine. I sat in self-pity, staring across the lake. That was my routine. How long could this go on?

One day I heard the floorboards shake.

Kathy marched out of the house, onto the deck, and stood over me, looming.

“You’ve been lying to me. Colin stole from you. Nik said that he found out the day he went to work with you. That’s why you fired Colin. Yet you came home and said nothing. All these weeks have passed. I knew the whole story. I waited for you to tell me. Nik is worried, terrified of you, and I’m god damned furious,” she said.

“If I had paid attention to inventory and sales, this wouldn’t have happened. My ego has been destroyed by this. It confirms every rotten thing I’ve thought about my own ineptitude. I couldn’t face you. I made an appointment to discuss this on Zoom with Myra Rubin,” I said, referring to my old therapist.

“Myra? Were you going to tell her before me? I don’t care about your oblivious mismanagement. I care about the cover-up. You lied and told our son to lie. What about Nik? When I asked him to be honest, he thought he was snitching. I trusted you. I supported you in every sense. How could you lie to me? How could you recruit him to lie?” she asked.

“I know, I know,” I said.

“How much did Colin steal?” she asked.

“Maybe $20,000 or $30,000,” I answered.

“Did you file a police report?” she asked.

“Of course not. I’m not putting him jail,” I said.

“Then how are we supposed to file a claim? Nik can’t go to college next year. We don’t have the money,” she said.

“Another calamity I brought on us,” I said.

“Do you think of anyone but yourself? All I hear is how bad this makes you feel. What about me? And our son?” she asked.

“What can I do?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You told Nik to keep a secret. It put him in pain. It put our family in jeopardy. And a crime you didn’t report to me or law enforcement. You had to know that eventually the truth would come out. You had no right, no right at all,” she said, as she broke down sobbing.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said.

“You took all my love and trust and destroyed it. I despise you. I wish I could leave you. But we can’t go anywhere now. The pandemic took that away. The world is shut down. We are trapped. We must muddle through our pain and heartbreak here under one roof, day by day. Tonight, go sleep in the guest room,” she said.


Blue Star

Thrown out of our bed, I felt, in some way, homeless, tortured by my own histrionics.

Those who had no home, the ones who lived in the Griffith Park, set it afire. Around the city, people moved into RVs, they slept under bridges, pitched tents on the sidewalk, turned the public lands into their private campsites.

I slept in the guest room, fearful and alone, imagining home invaders. Lost was sound sleep and the old reassurances of work and wife.

There was no happiness or peace. Everywhere was catastrophe: mind, marriage and country.

People recorded a man murdered by cop in Minneapolis and every city in the United States rioted. The police were attacked, stores were looted, the President walked through smoke cleared crowds and held a Bible aloft.

There were sick and dying people around the world. The days and nights got hotter.

And everything true was a lie.


Clearance

Nik and I cleared out the store and brought the stock into the garage on Kenilworth Avenue to lay in its crypt on steel shelves behind my Lexus.

Our daily walk was conducted in silence, a masked march around the lake, timed at 45 minutes on the Nike App which always ecstatically cheered:

“This is Coach Sally! Congratulations on another amazing run, you are killing it!”


Alhambra

In August, the month, not the store, Colin texted me.

“I have money to pay you, along with some clothes in the garage. Would you consider coming by my house so I can make good to set things right?”

I drove to Alhambra, to South Monterey off Valley Boulevard, a straight street of Spanish cottages and two bed ranches, steel guarded windows, workaday shrubs, bright annuals, white sedans and garden gnomes.

I parked in front of the Chu Home, a little, yellow, stucco house with metal awnings, red tile roof, and detached garage in back, probably built for some returning veteran of WWII.

Colin, masked, in blue Dodgers cap, black t-shirt, black basketball shorts and sock footed rubber sandals, came out to the curb.

How young he was, how fresh and clean, washed and dried in Tide and Downy.

“Hi,” he said, head down, contrite.

I kept my hands in my pockets and grunted behind sunglasses and N-95 mask.

“You have something of mine?” I asked, coldly.

“Stay here and I’ll bring the clothes to your car. I have four containers. My parents are inside. I told them you were coming. They don’t know nothing, so please just wave if you feel like it. My dad is sick, my mom too,” he said.

“Covid?” I asked.
“Yes. Thank God they are not worse,” he said.
“And you?” I asked.
“Nothing. Only God knows why,” he said, scurrying up the driveway to retrieve the illegal goods.

Mr. and Mrs. Chu came to wave at the picture window. I waved back to the old parents, born in Taiwan, the father and the mother in face masks, pajamas and bathrobes.

I was heartbroken. Seeing them I lost pity for my own life of inherited advantage.

They were sick but alive, their faith and their son keeping them going.

I lost my anger too.

I thought my judgment was sound in not going to the police.

Sometimes, for the sake of justice, silence is the superior testimony.

I opened the car trunk, and Colin came down the driveway with a hand truck and boxes. He loaded in the garments, fitting the containers in neatly, the remaining inventory of August.

“Can you come over to the other side of the car?” he asked.

We stepped to the driver’s side, to hide from the watchful eyes of the parents, as Colin opened a large manila envelope thick with banded cash.

“This is all the money I made selling on eBay. I won’t keep none of it. $15,000. I pay you everything. I’m taking down my store for now. I’m applying to business school at UCLA.” he said.

“How are you able to afford graduate school?” I asked.

“I have a Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. Undergrad and grad school. Fully paid,” he said.

“You must make your parents proud,” I said.

“They think well of me. If you can find it in your heart to also forgive me, that would be the biggest gift,” he said.

“I do forgive you, Colin. You and I are settled. Good luck with your future. I think you will do very well. Please give your parents my best wishes. When times are normal again, maybe we can all meet for dim sum,” I said.

“Goodbye boss. Thank you for the wonderful opportunity you gave me, truly, you believed in me,” he said.

His mother and father remained at the window. I was the big V.I.P. who had employed their son. Perhaps they stood there to honor me, another elder, like attendees at a parade.

If they looked upon me with admiration, surely, I was undeserving of their respect.

I got into my car, opened the windows, and waved good-bye to Colin on the lawn, and to his mother and father behind the glass, all of us in our masks, all making life in pandemic time.


Home

I drove back to my street, my house at the end came into view.

Kathy was outside, dressed in a cotton top and yoga pants, leaning against the garage, cold and shivering. From a distance she was again a young woman.

I parked along the curb and got out.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” I asked.

“No. I locked myself out of the house. Nik rode off somewhere on his bike. I don’t have my phone. Where were you?” she asked.

“Colin’s house, Alhambra. He gave me back what he has. Clothes and 15 grand. Let me get a sweater out of the car for you,” I said.

“You’re kidding? Cash and clothes? I guess that’s good news,” she said.

I pulled out a white woolen cardigan, brought it over and placed it across her shoulders. Her teeth were chattering.

“Thank you. I was so dumb. I closed the garage, because I wasn’t thinking, and then you were out somewhere, and Nik was gone, and I was alone and freezing and had nowhere to go. I couldn’t break into our house you know,” she said, and then she cracked a smile.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” I said.

Nik rode up on his bike.

“What the hell? My parents have to come outside to wait for me! What am I like 7-years-old? So fuckin’ embarrassing,” he said.

“It’s not what you think. We are just here, quite accidentally,” I said.

“You didn’t know the code?” I asked Kathy.

“I always use the car opener to drive in. I never needed to enter it,” she said.

Nik opened the garage with the key code and rode his bike in.

We parents stayed out front.

“He made a virtual August store on eBay for you. I think he’s already had some sales,” she said.

“That’s a hopeful development,” I said.

“I think he feels some responsibility. And he knows how expensive college is,” she said.

“Colin has a full scholarship to UCLA business school,” I said.

“No kidding. Business school. That figures,” she said.

“I thought he was an angel. Then he was the devil. Now he’s redeemed. He was only trying to help his parents,” I said.

“Everyone has a motive,” she said.


Unpacked

I was happy to see a yellow and black striped Dad Got Mill rugby with white collar and the DGM monogram.

It was the last one. I made it mine.

I looked at Dad Got Mill’s webpage on Instagram.

There were black squares to honor Black people, and a Black person in every post of Dad Got Mill. All the blond men were gone, now replaced by Black men, and texts decrying racism, standing for justice, saluting tolerance, promising inclusion, remembering George Floyd.

It was the new dawn of civil rights for rugby shirts.


Epilogue

The store has been closed for over a year now.

Sometimes I’ll go into the garage and unpack the dwindling supply of sweaters and shirts and colognes and debate whether I should keep any as souvenirs.

Every so often I make a sale on eBay. Nik showed me how to use it.

I have time on my hands. We all got vaccinated. Kathy went back to work at Disney in Burbank.

Nik moved to Riverside and is in his sophomore year of college.

I am wary of going out, but tired of staying in, my life is in lived in limbo. Perhaps that is all I can ask for.

END

Blueprint, Blueprint: a story of Castle Green

Blueprint, Blueprint
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

Early afternoon, Angela and Adam, in their red Ford F-150 pickup truck, exited I-10 at Blythe, into a dust blown asphalt lot beside 7-Eleven.

She turned the engine off.

“What do you want? I’m getting Red Vines and a Coke,” she asked as she got out. Denim shorts, sandals, strapped top, blond spiky hair, coral lipstick, plastic necklace, she outfitted herself like a 42-year-old teen.

“We’ve been driving five hours and that’s your lunch? Can’t you wait another two? You want to eat licorice? Now?” her son Adam asked.

“Fuck it. I’m hungry. I promised you Sushi Michi, Pasadena’s best. This will tie me over,” she said.

He watched her hurry in. His mother. He turned the cold air on, slumped, and shut his eyes. His lanky frame and long legs curled in fetal posture.

After a while, he heard the door open. She got in, poked him.

“Stop it! You’re so irritating. Like a 7-year-old girl,” Adam said.

“Take one. You’ll be sorry if you don’t eat something,” she said, offering red licorice from a freshly torn bag.

Late afternoon, they arrived in Pasadena and parked along Raymond Avenue in front of the 7-story Castle Green and its expanse of turgid Victoriana: iron balconies, awnings, turrets, cornices and ornate embellishments, curved windows. And a deep, elongated, Doric columned porch running under a red-tiled overhang, amongst a wooded garden of many flowers, shrubs, plants, mature trees and well-watered lawn.


“This is your horrible, 19th Century home of Dickensian deprivation and cruelty that you ran away from?” he asked.
“Oh, shut up. I know it’s very grand. I need to pee, so bad, let me out!” she said.
“Go in. I’ll wait here,” he said.
“Please come. What if I bump into Aunt Denise?” she asked.
“First you have to pay the meter,” he said.

“Fuck meters. I parked here free in high school,” she said.

“Twenty-five years ago! Now they have an app to pay for parking. Look at the sign!” he said.

“This ain’t Tuscon. The Southland, as they call it, has no cops, no laws, and no parking tickets,” she said.

“Angela, use your common sense,” he yelled.
But she was on her way.

He got out, grumbling, following her to the security gate. She punched a code on the panel. A door buzzed open, and they rushed into the garden, along the sidewalk, up the steps, into the building.

She hurried to a bathroom off the grand ballroom, stayed in there a while, came out. And then he went in.

At the sink he wet his longish blond hair and threw water on his face to wake up.

Out in the lobby, she brushed the hair of her tall young man, pushed it back, away from his eyes.

“You look tired,” she said.

“I’m not looking forward to picking through your father’s apartment to gather souvenirs tomorrow,” he said.

“You knew we had to come here to sign the papers, to ready the place for sale. It’s not like you do this every weekend,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I’ve just always heard how you hate coming here and how Aunt Denise makes you feel inadequate. You roped me in,” he said.

“Yeah, she does provoke my insecurity. But she’s also done a great deal for me, for us, over the years: supporting grandpa, sending us money. When this place sells, we also get half the proceeds. I think that’s a pretty sweet deal, don’t you?” Angela asked.

Casual dressers, in bright Puma; suede sneakers, cheap backpacks, water bottles, bucket hats; they stood amidst the ornate elegance of an 1899 former hotel, incongruous to the setting.

An entryway floor was paved in black and white decorative tile bordered in Greek key. There were potted palms, marble stairs, decorative iron railings, ceilings with inlaid wood painted in green and gold. A grand piano was tucked under the stairs, next to an illuminated, multi globe light mounted atop an iron newel post.

“Looks like an old western bordello. Where’s madam and her ladies?” Adam asked.

“Madam Angela! Let me show you around sir,” Angela said, licking lips, eyelashes batting, hands on hips, sauntering into the maze.

“Thank God nobody is around to see you walk. Can’t you ever act like a proper mother?” he asked.

He followed her to a beamed sitting room with an expansive fireplace framed in black glossy tiles, decorative fire screen, and stacks of wood logs in two symmetrical brass containers. There were two red velvet armchairs. And a high backed, Empire style sofa with mahogany carved arms.

There was a patterned rug. And gold, green and red walls. Shiny red drapes draped every single doorway.

“A 1990s condo board interpretation of 1890s décor,” he said.

“Don’t insult it. I love this place. This was my youthful reverie,” she said.

“They need to hire design professionals. Like me,” he said.

She led them both to a spartan sunroom, enclosed in tall, dark framed windows covered in creamy lace curtains. There were wicker seats, black metal pendant Mission lights hanging above.

“Look at this room, isn’t it exquisite? You can feel the happy presence of spirits,” she said.

He didn’t see it. The room was colorless, empty of people, silent.

“When we moved here in 1988, artists came almost every month and performed. Werner and Giovanna were in heaven. A French flutist played baroque music. Another month a quintet performed Bach and Richard Strauss,” Angela said.

“Your parents were cultured Europeans. Unlike their white trash runaway daughter,” he said.

She ignored his insult. This room evoked her memories. She recalled her mother.

“Nobody could sing like your grandmother, Giovanna Tommaso, coloratura soprano from Sacile, Italy. When we moved from El Monte to Castle Green she was delighted. This would cure her sadness, or so we thought. She could walk to the symphony, the Norton Simon and Asia Pacific Museums, the library, the post office, Vroman’s bookstore. We were all so happy. Because she was so happy,” Angela said.

Here was the retelling of the tragic story of his maternal grandmother, who had thrown herself off the Colorado Street Bridge in 1991. He heard the story many times before but let his mother tell it again.

“I was 12, reading Nancy Drew on my bed. The phone rang out in the kitchen. Pasadena Police. Daddy screamed, “No, no!” I ran in. He was on the floor, bawling. Denise was a freshman at USC, in class. Then Daddy had to leave to go to the coroner. Before he left, he said, ‘Don’t worry my angel. This is a mistake. I’m sure she’s alive. She wouldn’t suicide.’ Then he went to identify her body. I was all alone. 12 years old. Can you imagine? I barely remember her. I lost my mother when I was a girl,” she said.

“You’ve suffered. I’m sorry. I wish I could have been there to console you. You never told me about the way Werner left you there,” he said.

“He was a wartime father. He didn’t bring his daughter into battle. I stayed at home. Crying alone,” she said.

Adam hugged her.

“What was that funny story you once told me about a harpist who played the Bewitched theme?” he asked, stroking her hair, diverting to cheerful.

“Ah yes. JoAnn Turofsky. Superb harpist. Played here on New Year’s Eve, 1989. I was giddy when she performed the Bewitched theme in the style of Debussy. Daddy was appalled after he learned it was a TV show theme song. But he adored JoAnn. And Debussy,” Angela said.

“Didn’t you have a boyfriend, a singer, you met here?” Adam asked.

“Denny Walters. Handsome, muscular Black tenor, Juilliard voice student. Magnificent voice. And body. Everything. I met him when he performed at a Gay 90s event, in the summer of ‘95,” Angela said.

“Gay 90s?” Adam laughed.

“Castle Green was bedecked in flowers, bowls of punch, women in long dresses, Fuller Theological Seminary boys in blue seersucker suits, madras neckties, white bucks, straw hats. I think Talbots or Brooks Brothers sponsored it. There were hundreds of red, white and blue balloons throughout the rooms. They strung white lights on the porch, and put tea lights in paper bags along the garden paths,” Angela said.

“I drank too much gin and champagne punch. I hooked up with Denny after the show ended. He was wonderful, passionate, and insatiable. We did it in the utility closet. We met there several times on other nights that summer,” Angela said.

“An Only Fans conversation with my own mother. Stop sharing everything!” Adam said.

“I’m truthful. Give me that. Denny started my downfall,” she said.

“How so?” Adam said.

“Someone at the front desk learned about me and Denny and told Werner. My father proclaimed, verboten,” Angela said.

“Because he was Black?” Adam asked.

“Yes, of course. And because I was loose, of course. And Denny was older and I wasn’t legal yet. Werner was protecting my virtue, which only promoted my promiscuity,” she said.

They went into a red room with rounded walls, Moroccan tables and chairs, and Marrakesh dark wood cabinets hung on walls, softly illuminated by a hanging Fortuny floral light fixture, shaped like an inverted pagoda, strung with Murano glass beads.

“This place never ends. Every room is another story, another space, to wander and dream. Why did you run away?” he asked.

“After I got into drugs, music and men, after the Denny debacle, this place seemed old and confining. I had to escape,” she said.

“Zunk-382?” he asked.

“I was a Zunk groupie from 16 to 19. I met them in Solana Beach. I was dating their lead singer Drew. Louis was a drummer in their band who also lived with Drew. I started dating Louis. Drew was actually OK with that. I went on the road with Zunk. Louis drank. We fought constantly. Louis was fired. I got pregnant. Louis went to rehab and we broke up. Wonderful story of your loser mother,” she said.

“I hate how you put yourself down. Every single time. You don’t give yourself any credit. Raising a kid by yourself, working as a waitress, nail salons, making leather belts at home. Teaching me to ride a bike, walking me to school. You did more for me than Louis ever did. Why can’t you be easier on yourself?” he asked.

“Because I come back here and it’s like I never left. Aunt Denise still runs the show. I still compare myself to her. Perfect student. Full scholarship to USC. Law degree. Tax attorney. Century City office. Framed diplomas up the wazoo,” she said.

“So, what! If I gave you a framed award for great mother you would be her equal!” Adam said.

Angela hugged him.

“Thank you,” she said.

“We better go upstairs. Are we going to eat Sushi Michi with her? Take her out?” he asked.

“Oh shit. The truck. We left it on the street. I’m sure it’s fine. Let me go out and move it,” she said.

He stood alone in the red room with the Moroccan chairs. He examined the Moorish tiles and Art Nouveau woodwork bedecking yet another fireplace.

She ran back in, breathless, white ticket in hand.

“I knew it. I knew it. Damn! You just don’t listen!” he said.

“Fucking parking ticket. $75. That could pay for sushi. How could I have been so dumb? Why do I always do the wrong thing?” she asked.

The Apartment

The unit was unchanged since the late 1980s.

Especially the kitchen.

Angela turned on the ceiling light: fluorescent tubes with plastic cover, many little bugs trapped inside.

Brown Formica cabinets, tile counters and tile backsplash adorned with Mexican scene of a woman making tamales; electric Kenmore stove and oven, orange vinyl floor, white Maytag double door fridge and freezer.

The rest of the musty apartment had bare brick walls, beige carpeting, oversized floral sofa, yellow tiled bathroom and pink pedestal sink. The primary bedroom was dark paneled with a king bed and fur bedspread. The second bedroom, like a nunnery, had two iron beds where the two sisters once slept. A cross hung over a shared night table. Moth eaten pink curtains covered a big plate glass window.

Angela parted the curtains. On the sill was a dusty ceramic German beer stein decorated with a village scene of Rothenberg.

“Daddy brought this from Germany,” she said.

“This whole apartment is truly ugly. Can this be a landmark? No air con?” Adam asked.

“Daddy believed in fresh air. He died before global warming,” Angela said.

“Great. Hot and dusty apartment. Ugly. How will it sell?” Adam asked.

“Pasadena is very sought after,” she said.

“Just not in here,” Adam said.

“Wait ‘til Aunt Denise gets here. She will talk, ad nauseum, about her time on the condo board, how she saved the building from collapse, how she examined all the books and balanced the budget, and how important she was in officially registering Castle Green to get fed money for rehab. She considers herself the savior of this property. Wonders why nobody appreciates her,” Angela said.

“She saved historic Castle Green. But forgot this unit,” Adam said.

Out in the living room, Adam found his grandfather’s framed paintings stacked against a wall.

He bent down to examine them, flipping through.

Auschwitz, Hiroshima, nuclear war, dead bodies in war scenes, slaughter, atrocities, corpses, hangings, gassings, burnings.

All the catastrophes of the mid-20th Century.

Surrealism painted in petrochemical colors.

“Cheerful stuff here,” Adam said.

“I know. I’ve wanted for years to take something- but somehow- I’m always revolted by his work. Daddy saw many dark things during the war. I guess he was fighting injustice through his art. But it never sold. Rich people don’t want to hang genocide over their fireplace,” she said.

“Art isn’t always pretty. I think these are extraordinary,” Adam said.

“Denise has a friend, Tommy, who is an amateur art appraiser. He thinks this can fetch a fortune. Along with the $49,000 condo, now worth nearly a million, we may come out all right,” Angela said.

“He didn’t sell any paintings when he was alive. Yet he was so talented,” Adam said.

“He scrimped by. Mostly he made money by translating German into English for American publishers. He gave up after mom died. Denise stepped in to pay for the condo. She paid for his mortgage, utilities, HOA. Wait ‘til she gets here. She’ll let you know all that!” Angela said.

“Where is she already? I’m starving. I want Sushi Michi,” Adam said.

“She works late. She is very industrious, very prosperous, works very long hours in the law office, and is very, very busy. She is married to her profession. Please be understanding of her very important needs!” Angela said, laughing.

“I’m already sick of her and I haven’t even seen her yet,” Adam said.

“She is an overachiever. We must give her that,” Angela said.

Denise and Tommy

The door burst open. Aunt Denise in blue pants suit and high heels, and her friend Tommy Stompanato, 55, a short, fat man carrying trays of silver foiled food and a bag of wine and dessert, with a big camera and long lens hanging on his neck.

Aunt Denise reminded Adam of Hillary Clinton: a lined, legal face, sensible blonde bob, probing blue eyes.

“Tommy, please meet my gorgeous sister Angela and her extremely handsome son Adam!” Denise said.

Denise threw her arms around Angela, hugged and kissed Adam. Then she went to the bathroom.

Tommy was piled high with his trays, anxious to unload.

“Hi, hi! Nice to meet you Angela, Adam. Let me drop off dinner first!” he said, rushing into the kitchen with his delivery.

“What’s all that for?” Angela asked.

Denise yelled from the open-doored bathroom as the faucet ran.

“A feast awaits! Tommy brought it down from San Francisco. He drove seven hours. Can you smell that garlic?” she asked.

“We also drove seven hours. I know you don’t tolerate lateness. From others,” Angela said loudly.

“No sushi?” Adam asked.
“Sorry,” Angela said.

Denise walked back in, shaking the water off her hands.

“Your hair is nice sis. I never know what color it will be. Blue, purple, shaved head,” Denise said.

“I’ve never shaved my head,” Angela said.

Denise looked Adam up and down.

“University of Arizona! College of Landscape Architecture! You must be what six feet tall? Don’t believe everything your mother says about me,” Denise said.

“Yeah, I’ve grown. Tommy thinks Gramps’ artwork is valuable, huh?” Adam asked.

“He is certain of it. He has been invaluable in researching price points for Daddy’s art. He also found our realtor, got the condo appraised. He wants to talk to Angela about investing in real estate. He has half a dozen properties in several states earning rental income. He’s a genius. Oh, and he has a very successful blog, Tommy Knows Best, with 18,000 subscribers who each pay $49 a year,” Denise said.

“What a go-getter. And he brought food too. We were going to take you out for sushi,” Angela said.

“Sushi tomorrow. Tommy brought some delicious food from North Beach. They have the best Italian food up there,” Denise said.

She went to set the dining room table, with an old lace tablecloth. She took a box of silver out of a drawer, opened the glass cabinet and took down the daffodil Heinrich and Co. plates, the frumpy German made china they grew up with.

“I came here yesterday after Tommy told me he was bringing food. And I hand washed all this last night,” Denise said.

“Thank you. That must have been a chore,” Angela said.

“I don’t mind. I was excited for you to meet Tommy. He has worked at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for 25 years. I met him when I stayed there in the 90s. You could say he is their Senior Concierge. Wisely and strategically, he buys cheap properties in forgotten places, and advises friends on where to invest. And he’s nearly never wrong. Or so he says,” Denise said.

“Are you two dating?” Adam asked.

“My boy, are you that naïve? Don’t they educate you about the birds and bees in landscape architecture school? Tommy is gayer than these daffodil plates. Sit down everyone. Tommy is serving,” Denise said.

Adam leaned over to his mother.
“No sushi,” he whispered.
“Sssh!” she said.

Tommy wore a flowered apron tied around big dad sized Lee jeans, his blue oxford cloth shirt sleeves were rolled up and each hand was covered in acid green oven mitts. He laid down platters of steaming Molinari’s meat lasagna and eggplant parmesan. He uncorked a bottle of Sangiovese wine, arranged a basket of warm garlic bread, and a tray of roasted onions and clams.

The food smells clashed with his perfume.

Tommy was drenched in Diptyque Olene. An odiously fem swarm of jasmine, wisteria, and honeysuckle. His fragrance dominated the room.

“This is from a great bakery in my town. Stella’s cannoli and rum soaked sponge cake. That’s for dessert, of course,” he said as he removed a lens cover and put the camera up to this eyes.

Without asking, he began to photograph the food and the guests.

He moved and advanced, arranged and directed.
Like the host in his own apartment.

“I’ll probably post these on my Tommy Knows Best blog. I love to write about my good friends and old buildings,” he said.

Adam saw his mother’s pained expression. He got up and opened a window for ventilation.

But the stagnant outside air knew better and refused to come in.

After dinner, Tommy dozed on the sofa with his neck strapped Nikon DSLR camera and telephoto lens. It rested on him like Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. His white leather elevator sneakers, comically bulbous, pointed upwards, amusing Adam who saw him as the sartorial embodiment of a baby boomer.

But Angela seethed. The intrusion of this overzealous zealot into her private family visit was unsettling.

He reigned over them, even as he snoozed.

For Angela, it was strange, indeed, to sit in her parents’ living room waiting for the evening to end. The purpose of the visit was to sort out personal belongings, take anything she wanted, and then sign off on selling the condo. Tommy upset all those plans.

As Tommy snored, Adam fell asleep in a chair.

Impatient, Angela got up, went into the kitchen to talk to Denise who was cleaning up.

“We have to go to the Luster Inn Motel on East Colorado and check in before 10,” Angela said.

“What do you think of Tommy?” Denise asked.

“Oh gosh. I’m so tired. What does my opinion of him have to do with anything?” Angela asked.

Denise put a tied-up bag of garbage down.

“He’s been very helpful. I’ve been so busy at work. And he has come here and priced everything in the condo for the estate sale. He worked with a realtor to appraise the unit. He brought in an art dealer to estimate daddy’s paintings. Tommy flew down from San Francisco three separate times to make this work. You can’t buy a friend like him,” Denise said.

“He sure knows a lot. About art, property, and every personal thing. I didn’t know he would be here. It’s a lot for me and Adam to absorb. It’s like Tommy is taking over. Is that right? Shouldn’t you have asked me first? This is our family’s condo. Our inheritance,” Angela said.

“Now you show an interest! Where have you been for, like, the last 20 years?” Denise said.

“Raising my son! Working jobs, surviving!” Angela screamed.

“And not getting child support from that Zunk-382 fool. Who walked out on you! Who left you destitute! Only your foolish sister cared. I picked up the pieces for Daddy and you, I never wavered or hesitated,” Denise asked.

“Not again. Not another accounting of all your expenditures and sacrifices! Haven’t I told you a thousand times I was grateful? You didn’t have a kid to raise,” Angela said.

Denise sprayed, wiped, dried and lectured.

“30 years of property taxes. Who paid the HOA every month? Who paid for Daddy’s dental implants? Nursing home? Ethan Allen leather sofas, cable TV, mobile phone, Mr. Coffee? Who bought the kitchen set at K-Mart? Who paid for water and electricity?” Denise asked.

“You just can’t stop. I know all this! Can I change history? Should I live it all over again? Should I write a check to you with my proceeds from the property sale? Let’s ask Tommy!” Angela said.

“Tommy has been a rock to me. Like a brother I never had. Like a sister too. You should kiss the ground he walks on. He’s only got our best interests at heart!” Denise said.

“He’s too much. He doesn’t own me, run my life, tell me what to do. Maybe yours, not mine!” Angela said.

“You could never stand any guy who didn’t want you,” Denise said.

“How low!” Angela said.

Adam heard the arguing, got up and hid behind the wall listening to the fight.

Aunt Denise sobbed, and her voice broke.

“Daddy called you Mein Kleiner Engel until the day he died. Tender, loving. And what did he say to me? He told me to keep my life in order. Like a file cabinet. Halte dein leben in ordnung,” Denise said.

“And you called me tramp, slut, drunk, druggie, whore, loser, self-destructive, selfish!” Angela said.

Adam felt a tug at his shirt. Tommy ushered him out the front door, into the common hall.

So, in Love

“Let’s go up to the roof. The sun is setting. Fresh air! It’s glorious up there!” Tommy said.

“Ok. I was sort of entertained listening to them fight,” Adam said.

“You are better off not hearing,” Tommy advised.

They took the stairs. Adam bounded up the steps, two at a time, his powerful legs and young lungs no match for the labored, slow, climbing Tommy and his large swinging camera and oversized lens.

Up there, all around, was Pasadena, bathed in hues of the setting sun, pinks and salmons, cirrus clouds in the sky.

Castle Green was adorned with twin-turreted, red-tiled, conical pagodas, supported by embellished stone columns which encircled shaded, open-aired lookouts.

There was a tower, with a red observatory shaped top, adorned with three Islamic styled horseshoe windows and Fleur-des-Lis carvings.

“Is this Pasadena or Morocco?” Adam asked.

Tommy gazed at him. Adam’s beauty was evident, his portrait inevitable.

“Stand over there. I’ll take your picture,” Tommy commanded.

Adam, flattered by favorable light and temporal youth, leaned against a railing on the east side of the rooftop as Tommy shot photos.

“Oh, so beautiful. You and the light. You should model. I know talent agents in San Francisco. Come up and stay in my hotel. I’ll get you a free room. You could be on the cover of Vogue Hommes,” Tommy said over rapid shutter firings.

Then Angela arrived.

“What is this? What are you two doing?” she asked.

“We’re just enjoying some fresh air,” Adam said.

“Adam you’re done! We’re going back to the hotel. We’ll come back tomorrow to see what we want to take from the condo. I’m very tired. I don’t understand why you two are up here doing this!” she said.

“I assure you we are only innocently enjoying the evening. Relax,” Tommy said.

“You don’t have permission to photograph my son. We don’t want to be a post on your blog. We don’t want to read Tommy Knows Best and see photos and a story about our family. Delete everything!” she said.

“I see you’re reliving your own bad days at Castle Green and projecting them onto your boy. He’s done nothing wrong. And neither have I,” Tommy said.

“Thank you for dinner. And for your other services. But we are done here,” she said.

“Good night,” Tommy said, leaving the rooftop to ring his elevator man for a pickup.

Her nemesis gone from sight, Angela looked at Adam in anger and disgust.

“He’s a manipulator. I don’t trust him. He is after something. Or everything. Just stay away from him,” Angela said.

“Now you’re being an Aunt Denise,” Adam said.

They left the roof in silence and fury. And trudged down the stairs.

In descent, near the second floor, they heard music: an operatic melody and poetic lyrics.

A woman and a man sang a duet, accompanied by a piano player.

Angela and Adam stopped at the landing and watched the singers. It melted their icy mood.

Angela was stunned by the sight of the well-built, middle-aged male singer, a handsome Black man. It was her old boyfriend, Denny.

“So taunt me, and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours, till I die…
So in love… So in love…
So in love with you, my love… am I.”

The song was “So in Love” from the musical, “Kiss Me Kate.”

“Denny! Oh, my goodness! Denny Walters! That was beautiful. This is my son Adam,” Angela said.

“Angela Pfade! Lolita and her grown-up son! How can this be? Nice to meet you, Adam. This is our soprano Mei Lan, and pianist Sean Liu. We are rehearsing the songs of Cole Porter for a show next Friday evening. Will you be there?” Denny asked.

“I’m sorry. We are leaving tomorrow afternoon,” Angela said.

“Angela and I dated in high school and college,” Denny explained to Sean and Mei.

“So young looking. You can’t be older than 29,” Mei Lan said.

“The lighting flatters me in this space. In daylight I’m old, but thank you,” Angela said.

“I hope I see you again,” Denny said.

“Yes, perhaps. We are late checking into our motel. It’s wonderful to see you again Denny. And nice meeting you all,” Angela said as she and Adam left.

Garden Walk

Morning fog, gray sky, damp grass.

In that gentle hour, they walked in the east garden with takeout coffee and croissants.

Adam ran his fingers over the wood pecked trunk of a tall, stately Japanese Oak.

They strolled past profuse pittosporum hedges, ballooning in groups, against the long veranda wall on Castle Green’s east front.

“They must have big water bills here. You wouldn’t plant all these thirsty varieties and moisture starved lawn now. It drinks up money. Xeriscaping fits the Moroccan architecture better. This design looks like it belongs in rain-soaked England,” he said.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to a two-story high structure jutting out from the building, an enclosed bridge sweeping high over the garden, abruptly stopping at the edge of Raymond Avenue. It was long, multi-arched, a promontory in stucco, with Romanesque framed windows and decorative columns, red tile roof, copper gutters.

It culminated in a pentagonal lookout embellished by an Arts and Crafts frieze.

“It was connected to the now demolished Hotel Green on the east side of Raymond. Guests would arrive on the Santa Fe Railroad. And their luggage would come across the bridge, wheeled in carts, riding on steel tracks that are still imbedded in the floor,” Angela said.

“You do know some history. I guess it wasn’t all drugs and sex,” he said.

“Werner taught me a lot. We would come down here, sit on the porch and talk. He was often a great father. When I was young, I would sit on a stool, and watch him paint, astonished by his skill, asking how he chose colors, why he held his brush just so, why he got up and stood back, examining his half-completed work,” she said.

Adam looked at his phone.

“I wish we could stay and chat but I’d like to head over to Huntington Garden. I should be back by mid-afternoon,” he said, disposing of his coffee and pastry bag in a trash bin.

“Great. Leave your mother to the wolves. Just kidding. Enjoy yourself. Drive safely!” she said.

She kissed him, watched him walk to the street gate.

He was nearly out when he stopped, turned around and jogged back to her.

“We need to talk,” he said.

They sat in two wicker chairs on the shaded porch, facing the garden.

“After graduation, next spring, I have a job offer with Yanez Architects in Culver City, Sophia’s dad. I know this is crazy, but please don’t sell the condo. It’s paid off. I could live here, alone, affordably,” Adam said.

“Well, that’s quite a request. I know you are serious with Sophia, but I didn’t know you wanted to work for her father,” Angela said.

“I don’t’ tell you everything. But that’s my plan for future employment,” Adam said.

“Aunt Denise does everything by the book. It has to be 100%, legal and proper. And it doesn’t sound like anything is wrong with your proposal. But she is stubborn. I’m not exactly on her good side. Our unit is worth nearly a million,” Angela said.

“She has money. She has her own condo in Beverly Hills. Partner in a Century City law firm. She’s not hurting,” Adam said.

His expression was pleading. He clasped his hands under his chin, devoutly, tentatively, waiting for her answer.

“This is all I ran away from. Would you be happy here?” Angela said.

“That was your life. This is mine,” he said.

“True, true. Your Aunt Denise still holds the cards. Why the sudden spark of enthusiasm for Castle Green?” Angela said.

“I’m mad for this place, for LA and Pasadena. There’s so much to do! I really love it here. You had to know I would be seduced by the architecture and garden. It would be tragic if you gave it all up. I don’t want to graduate and live my whole life in Tuscon,” Adam said.

“I will take your request into consideration. I want you to be secure and happy,” she said.

“Promise?” he asked.
“Yes. Go and enjoy yourself,” she said.

Watching from a distance was Denny Walters. He walked up to Angela who sat alone, lost in thought.

“Oh Denny! You scared me,” she said.

He sat down.

He wore a denim shirt and golden khakis, work boots, an ensemble of solidity and masculinity.

“You scared me! Last night! I didn’t think 45-year-old me would be rehearsing Cole Porter and have an old flame, from 25 years ago, walk down the stairs with her son to watch me sing,” he said.

“How have you been?” she asked.

“Oh, pretty good. Juilliard graduate, Broadway, Lincoln Center, on stage, working. Then 9/11. A wife, a daughter and a divorce. She gets Julia. I get AA, auditions, tours, stinky motels in worn down towns. The usual American dream,” he said.

“I’m also sort of divorced. Well, I never quite got married. But you met Adam. He’s studying landscape architecture. We came back here to sell my late father’s apartment,” she said.

“Ah, Werner. Yeah, remember the man. Darn it. I wish you still lived here. You look good. Fit, sexy,” he said.

“Thank you. Why are you here so early? You must rehearse long hours,” she said.

“I live here. Bought a place in 2004. Thank God. I couldn’t afford it now. Still can’t afford it. But this is the right place for me. A lot of creative people. A lot of big dreamers. That’s Castle Green. Most people have small dreams. If, once in their life, they make it to Disney World they are happy. The people who live at Castle Green, even if their jobs are small, their dreams are big,” Denny said.

“You are still so handsome. How did a man of your size fit into a tiny utility closet with me?” she asked.

“My hard-on pushed the door open,” he said.
“You’re embarrassing me,” she said.

“If you want to see something a lot bigger, if you have the time, come upstairs to my spacious condo,” he said.

“I have to meet my sister at 10,” she said.

“It’s 7:30. I think you can spare a couple of hours. C’mon Angela,” Denny said, standing up, extending his hands to raise her up and out of the chair.

They walked with his arm around her. He radiated warmth and gentleness. And he still spoke with that sonorous voice: arousing, stimulating, authoritative, comforting.

They entered the cast-iron lift.

Jimmy Loh, the elderly operator, ushered them into the open-air machine, oldest on the west coast. They rode up to Denny’s fourth-floor apartment, up to adventure, excitement, passion and intimacy.

Briefly, that morning, she again found youth, freedom, and joy.

But it was their talk that made her happiest. He was interested in her. He seemed to crave her company. He listened, he laughed. He was gentlemanly and complimentary. And a good kisser.

Tutankhamun Throne Chair

After the unexpected romantic encounter came the drudgery of Denise and Tommy.

Tommy had appraised and tagged all of the apartment furniture, accessories and artwork.

Angela walked around the unit as Tommy arranged and dusted.

“If you want anything else in the apartment just carry it into our old bedroom. How about Daddy’s 1949 oil painting of refugees on a train fleeing Pakistan?” Denise asked.

“Not that one! Let her have a lithograph. The oils are our cash cow,” Tommy said.

Tommy arranged a Tutankhamun Throne Chair in Aztec fabric next to a brick wall, polishing its arms, examining it for flaws.

It definitely was not here last night. It came from the card room downstairs.

“What’s this?” Angela asked, forgetting the refugee painting.

Denise interjected.

“Oh, it’s just that Egyptian chair. I told Tommy to bring it up here. The board is getting rid of a lot of junk from down there,” Denise said, offering an excuse.

“You stole furniture from the lobby to sell up here? That’s unreal,” Angela said.

Tommy quickly slipped out of the apartment, anticipating another argument.

“I have to get his approval for which paintings I can keep? Unbelievable,” Angela said.

“He wants us to make money. You never think of money, do you? Do you know what pro bono is?” Denise asked.

“Yes. I’m not a lawyer but I understand that term,” Angela said.

“That’s right. I’ve spent hundreds of hours and my considerable legal skills assisting this building in the documentation of historical items, not to mention zoning issues, as well as federal, state and local tax write-offs and subsidies. I worked with architects, engineers, designers, all in my spare time, without pay, to help preserve Castle Green. If I take a fake Egyptian chair from the lobby and sell it for $799 it wouldn’t begin to cover what they owe me!” Denise said.

“That is disgusting. You don’t remove historic items from a landmark! It is a small thing to you, but hugely unethical. I think you could be disbarred for this. I’m serious. What malign influence does this Tommy have on you?” Angela asked.

“I don’t have time for all this pettiness. The estate sale is for our benefit, selling the unit is for our benefit. Who cares if Tommy is in charge?” Denise asked.

“Someone is always in charge at Castle Green. It’s just never me! How I wish you could understand that!” Angela said.

“And I wish you could see I brought him into this to relieve our burdens, and contribute to a successful outcome,” Denise said.

“And skim off a percentage into his own pockets!” Angela said.

“He’s a stand-up guy! Stop attacking him!” Denise screamed.

Now Denise was infuriated. She walked out and slammed the door. Angela had paranoid visions of Tommy and her sister conspiring.

But Tommy walked right back in. He smiled and evinced a gentle, conciliatory demeanor.

“You and Denise need to work collectively to solve pressing problems. Or are you obsessed about how the other side is evil while your sibling problems fester?” he asked.

“It’s hopeless. She and I are too different,” Angela said.

“You’ll make out all right. Especially when you sell the condo and your father’s art. I know. I had it all appraised. You have one and a half million here. Trust me dear. I’m your ally,” he said.

“I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but just curiously, how do you come in and establish dominion over our family? The condo? The art? You are not a relative. I didn’t hire you. What professional training do you possess to proclaim yourself an expert on everything?” Angela said.

“Life experience. I’ve worked at the Mark Hopkins for 25 years. Bellhop, concierge, tour director. I’ll die with a pension. I got top notch health care too. Not bad for a high school dropout from Fresno. I’m smart. I buy cheap property. I earn income owning and renting houses. And organizing estates and transforming lives. My good friend Elaine on Nob Hill is 88 years old. She had a fortune left to her by her husband. She gave me complete control over her portfolio, wrote me into her will. She calls me the unheralded genius of the Hotel Mark Hopkins,” he said, like an infomercial.

“Ok. Great. So happy for you. I’m fine. I don’t need a guru or genius,” Angela said.

“And I have a very successful blog: Tommy Knows Best with 18,900 subscribers. They each pay $49 a year. Nearly a million a year from that blog! Does your home business making Navajo hipster belts earn you that income?” Tommy asked.

“Navajo hipster? I’ve had it up to here with your smarminess. Your presence is very disturbing, quite intrusive, thoroughly unsolicited, arrogant and rude,” Angela said.

He heard nothing and persisted.

“I have an idea. Why not take some of your winnings when you sell here and invest with me? You can buy a beautiful home in Akron, Ohio for $99,000, rent it out and pay it off in ten years. Think about the future. Renting an apartment in Tuscon? How long can that go on? What about your boy? He’s got to have something when you’ve passed on,” Tommy said.

His products and services pitch was relentless.

When she didn’t buy it, he went on the attack.

“You fucked up and you live on the edge of ruin. I’m secure. Let me help you become secure too,” Tommy said.

“Oh, fuck off. You don’t know anything about me! What do you know about me or my family! Nothing!” Angela screamed.

“Your mother jumped off a bridge. Are you going to do the same with your finances? You fucked boys in the broom closet. You were a groupie who did drugs and got pregnant. Had a kid at twenty. Denise stepped in to save your father and you from destitution,” Tommy said.

“You dare to speak of my mother’s death? And tell me I fucked boys in the broom closet? You spill out personal, hurtful, vile things to win your argument? What a fine friend of the family you are!” Angela said.

She left the apartment.

Alone in the hall, walking through the corridor, she wept.

Restitution

Adam drove up to the guard house at Huntington Garden in San Marino. A sign said the grounds were closed for a television production, “Antiques Roadshow.”

Disappointed, he drove back to Pasadena, stopped in Old Town for an iced coffee.

He sat in a chair, under an umbrella, in a restored, slate-stoned alley, Mills Place, enclosed with repurposed brick buildings, softened by shade trees and container flowers, not far from Castle Green.

Passing the hours, avoiding an early return to Castle Green, he looked at his smartphone, checked the weather, texted his girlfriend, browsed shoes on Amazon, looked at his photos, Googled his family name.

And he came across a Pfade item.

Former Tax Lawyer, Denise A. Pfade, 49, Facing Five Years in Federal Prison for Evading Back Taxes Owed to IRS.

“Oh Jesus,” he said, covering his mouth in shock.

He read the facts of the case.

$1.5 million embezzled from clients of the law firm. $778,000 owed to the IRS. Two shell companies to evade taxes. Phony bank accounts opened in other people’s names to deposit money and cheat on taxes. A judge ordering Ms. Pfade to repay $1.9 million in restitution and to surrender her law license. Five years in Federal Prison. Sentencing next month.

He sat there, dumbfounded.

Aunt Denise was going to jail.

He looked up from his phone just as his mother walked past him, unaware of her son. Her head was down, she seemed to be talking to herself, shuffling along the alley like a lost soul.

“Angela! Angela!” he called. He rose from his chair and hurried over to her.

She turned to him, swollen red eyes.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at Huntington Garden?” she asked.

“They were closed today. Why do you look so upset? Aunt Denise?” he asked, caressing her hair.

“The other monster. He said some vile things to me, crushing, personal, hateful. I feel so low, so rotten,” she said.

Adam hugged her. He spoke softly.

“I know something about Aunt Denise that you won’t believe. You might feel differently about her when you hear it,” he said.

“I have had enough. I’ve been attacked. Mentally assaulted. I have no strength left. I can’t stop crying. All the cruel things are true. I’m the cause of all our misery! Just let me walk to the bridge like mother and die,” she said.

He let go of her and looked her dead in the eye.

“You’re going to kill yourself because a pompous ass said some mean things?” Adam asked, sneering, mocking.

“No, no, no! Can’t you let me be immature for once?” she said. She burst out laughing, releasing despair into air, a relief.

“Immature? For once? For once? I’ve got something big to blow your mind,” he said.

He guided her out of the sun, to a large awning at the Burke Williams spa, tucked into a shaded corner.

“I just read a few news stories about your sister. She is a convicted felon. She is going to prison for five years. She lost her license to practice law. She owes millions. It’s in the LA Times. And the Wall Street Journal. And KTLA,” he said.

“I don’t believe it. Are you sure it’s not fake news? Maybe an enemy planted it,” she said.

“Fake news? Are you insane? She has been convicted in a court of law. Angela wake up! Stop punishing yourself. Denise is in turmoil. She needed Tommy for support. That is the truth,” Adam said.

“Tell me everything. Let’s go back to the castle,” Angela said.

They walked as he read the crime story aloud.

They went down Green Street, past the old brick stables and carriage houses matured into high priced retail stores.

At Fair Oaks, they stopped to wait for the walk light. She looked up to her son, towering over her, the young guardian, in loco parentis.

“This is unbelievable. She was the one to emulate. She was the gold standard. A perfectionist. The higher she went, the lower I fell. She had a blueprint for life. I floated like a leaf down a river of no return,” Angela said.

“She is wounded. You have the upper hand. We both do,” he said as they crossed the street.

“Denise was Phi Beta Kappa. USC JD Business Law & Master of Business of Taxation. Partner at age 34, six years after joining her firm, youngest ever, only woman, $900 an hour. Beverly Hills condo. Did her life of accomplishment really come to an end on your smartphone?” Angela asked.

Now they stood outside the gate at Castle Green.

“Go in. Don’t say a word. We know the truth,” Adam said as they entered.

Redemption

By accident, they reunited under the arches of the disconnected bridge.

Stripped of virtue, associated with crime, naked stood the convicted sister.

Seeing Adam, Denise was pacified. She carried a small, white papered, box of candies.

“Adam came back early. The Huntington is closed for a TV show,” Angela said.

“Good. I can spend more time with him. I want to hear about your school, your plans for work,” Denise said.

“Is Tommy upstairs? If he is, I won’t go in,” Angela said.

“I sent him away. He told me some of what he said to you. He’s insulted me on many occasions, but I drew the line when he attacked you. I made him put the Tutankhamun Throne Chair back in the card room and he left for good,” she said.

They walked into the garden and coalesced under the shade of the Japanese Oak.

“I heartily and sincerely apologize. I was wrong. Tommy shouldn’t have come here. His presence was disruptive. He’s a blunt Calabrian. He’s crude and bare knuckles. I didn’t anticipate he would turn his venom on you,” Denise said.

Angela stood silent, stone-faced, wounded.

“All the fighting we did was about him. He’s gone and now we have peace. I love you my little angel. Don’t keep me incarcerated in your grudge. Comme ça?” Denise said.

“I accept your apology. I’m relieved he’s gone,” Angela said.

“I recruited him because I thought his managerial skills would support us. I didn’t trust you or I to make decisions. And frankly I still thought of you as the party girl. Not the woman you really are. You and Adam are solid and grounded,” Denise said.

“Thank you, Aunt Denise,” Adam said.

“Well maybe one thing about you hasn’t changed. This is a box of chocolates from See’s Candies. With a lovely note card. Left at our front door,” Denise said.

Angela took the box and opened the card.

“Dark chocolate. So, in love, Denny.”

She burst out laughing, stuffing the card into her pocket.

Adam shook his head. “What trouble have you gotten into now?” he asked.

“Don’t you have something important to discuss with your aunt?” Angela said.

He took a deep breath, now presenting his case.

“I’m graduating next year. And this may sound nuts. But I wonder if you and Angela would consider not selling the condo?” he asked.

“Are you planning to get a job down here?” Denise asked.

“Yes, that’s the plan. I want to work in LA and move into Castle Green,” he said.

“I see nothing wrong with that. I only wanted to sell to help you and your mother. But if this condo can give you a fresh start in life, and if your mother agrees, why of course you can live here. As you know the mortgage is fully paid off,” Denise said.

“I researched salaries and the average starting salary for a landscape architect is high 40s, low 50s,” he said.

“Your HOA is about $1,000 a month. With utilities add another $300. Property taxes come out to about $80 a month. If you can swing $17,000 a year you can afford to live here,” Denise said.

He hugged her.

“Thank you so much. I will be super responsible and you won’t have any trouble from me. This is so exciting! My own apartment in a new city! I have an offer with Yanez Architects, in Culver City, next to the Expo Line light rail. I won’t even need a car. I date the owner’s daughter, Sophia,” he said.

Angela bunted Adam’s pitch.

“Adam is also minoring in Real Estate Development, and has taken courses in finance and land development,” she said, tag teaming his ambition, diligence and business minded strategy.

“I like what I hear,” Denise said in firm corner office voice, evincing family pride.

“I’m making some changes in my own life. I plan to leave the firm, sell my Beverly Hills condo, and explore other options. I discovered, after nearly 20 years, that I despise working as a tax attorney. Hate it. I tried to get out of it, into entrepreneurial ventures that crashed and burned,” Denise said.

“Anything else happening in your life?” Angela asked.

“Isn’t that enough? Let me treat you both to Sushi Michi,” Denise said.

Brenda

On the road back to Tuscon, he drove, she slept.

He timed it, so they came across the state line at golden hour, as glorious light washed over the Sonoran Desert, the furious heat surrendering to dusk, dry wind, and the coming of night.

He exited I-10, in the red pickup, onto slower US-60, window opened, elbow resting, steering one handed, peering over the land, surveying the natural inhabitants he knew by name: cactuses saguaro, yucca, organ pipe, ocotillo, prickly pear, pin cushion, staghorn, buckhorn and rainbow.

And Joshua Tree.

He needed to grab some food before they got home.

He pulled into Buckaroos Country Store and Sandwich Shop, a false fronted western market with cold drinks and hearty portions near Brenda, Arizona.

The gravel on the tires was loud. But Angela slept.

He parked, took his wallet and keys, locked the door, and went inside.

She woke up, disoriented, looked around, and saw the store sign.

Everything from their two-day visit to Castle Green imploded in her mind: Adam, Denny, Denise, Werner, Giovanna and Tommy.

Everything was unsettled.

Only love remained: bruised, battered, resilient.

She just had a wonderful, sensual dream, fresh in her mind, lovemaking with Denny, set to soundtrack: so in love, so in love, so in love with you am I.

Long ago and far away, she had run away from Castle Green and woke up in Solana Beach with the boys from Zunk-382, Drew and Louis.

Thoughts flew past.

Adam should get a DNA test.
Denise is going to prison.
I will visit her.
I will never stop loving her.
She did everything for me and dad.
Sometimes I acted like a spoiled child, resenting and comparing.
Denny might be my new boyfriend.
Adam will live at Castle Green.

What else are you hiding, my Castle Green?

All the random things, all the men, all the myths, yesterday would never be the same.

Night fell, flood lights went on, the parking lot was orange and strange.

Adam come out with a paper bag of groceries, like her parent.

She quickly closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, laying her head along the closed window, giving him that attitude he had in Blythe when she brought him red vines and coke.

He stood outside her door, bent down and peered into the passenger window. His shadow fell over her. She kept her eyes shut, bit her lip to hold it in, but her deceit failed.

“I know you’re awake,” he shouted.

And then she opened her eyes, and they both laughed, through the glass, knowing the game.

END

Wrigley McCormick

Wrigley McCormick

Wrigley McCormick

by Andrew B. Hurvitz

In a tense time of academic purges and social media bullying, a newly fired, nearly retired professor from Northwestern University is befriended and taken in by a wealthy young benefactor hungry for a father figure and style muse.


Note: This story contains a racial term which is considering insulting but is necessary in the telling of this fictional tale. There are also documented historical events which may be painful for some readers.


Sunday, weekend of Labor Day, Professor Steven Goodman walked at dawn down the driveway alongside his small ranch house in West Evanston, IL. He pushed a metal clothes rack, hung with garments, and a “$10” sign, taped on end.

It was the third day of his four-day estate sale.

Items included a cherry wood glass cabinet and six dining room chairs arranged around a Queen Anne table covered in stacked piles of folded towels and linens.

Down near the curb, on a large Oriental rug, was a seating arrangement from the 1960s, a rust-colored tweed couch, brown vinyl recliner, and three Giotto Stoppino orange stackable plastic tables.

Board games of Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Monopoly, Lost in Space and The Game of Life sat on a scuffed, steel-legged card table.

There were LPs of Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Stan Getz, Henry Mancini, and Bill Evans (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”).

Parked on the back end of the driveway, headlights facing out, was a gold ‘75 Buick LeSabre with a $1,900 or Best Offer sign taped to the windshield. Doris and Gene had driven it for 25 years.

An ebony wood Baldwin Grand Piano sat on the asphalt, its closed keyboard lined with caps from Chicago sports teams: Cubs, Sox, Black Hawks, Bulls.

“A boy who plays the piano also has to play sports,” his German born father had instructed him.

He watched the sky, crowded with fast-moving clouds, traveling with their shadows east to the lake.

His father liked to watch the skies, observing light.

Gene Goodman, born in Nuremberg in 1933, had once dreamed of becoming an artist, but, more practically, sold restaurant supplies for 50 years.

Gene’s surviving paintings were out here, framed in gold, surveys of locations never visited: Yellowstone, Eiffel Tower, Fiji, and Jerusalem.

The oils were copied from torn out National Geographics, subjects chosen for his Oakton Community College night classes, homework painted in the basement under bare bulb, near the washer and dryer.

Painting was a hobby to his late father the way acting had been for Steven.

Professor Goodman took some photos and posted on Instagram with the hashtags: #garagesale, #vintage, #clothes, #estate, #Evanston, #Skokie.

Then he went down to the curb to survey.

The yellow brick house was homely, pitiful and plain: squared hedges, straight walk, and scallop edged shades in the front window. Gene and Doris bought it in 1958 for $14,000. A steel fence in the backyard neatly divided the property from the alley in back where the garbage cans lived.

He was 61, alone, orphaned, nearly as old as his house, wounded and demoralized since his firing last year from Northwestern, his alma mater and lifetime employer.

On Redfin he found his new house, a 950 square foot stucco ranch in Tuscon near the Catalina Foothills. He would join all the other old Chicagoans, retired exiles in the desert, kept cool, fresh and alive on air-conditioning and prescription pharmaceuticals.

Farewell to snow, winter coats, ice, chapped hands, rain, fog, and overcast weather.

Home had always been Lincolnwood Drive. He thought of Doris, dish towel in hand, shouting from the side door to come in for dinner. Meat loaf, spaghetti and meatballs, lemon bars, ice cream sundaes, Hi-C.

“Lincolnwood Drive is wonderful because it dead ends before Church St. You boys can play ball in the street and no cars will come down here. That’s why we moved here. It’s safe and closed off.”


People trickled in, perused, browsed, left.

In late afternoon, an older Black woman, cardigan and denim, banded gray hair, librarianlike, walked up the driveway.

She stopped at a table to inspect the Kodak projector and boxes of slide carousels. Some were labelled in magic marker: Miami, 1967, Door County, WISC. 1971, Michigan, 1973.

“Don’t sell these. This is your family history,” she said.

That night, he pushed the piano back into the garage and dragged the furniture and dry goods behind the gate.

He went inside, made a bologna sandwich, poured a glass of milk, sat down, and opened his phone.

There was an email from Erica McCarthy, a colleague at Northwestern, an eminent and esteemed professor of English.

Her NY Times bestseller, “Our Eternal Debt”, about white culpability in the failure of Black contentment, was the talk of the nation last year.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it. You didn’t say that disgusting word. A student in your class said it, a word used so often by Twain. The student who said the word was not expelled. And you were. I know it was unjust. You are too honest. This is no time to defend great authors or freedom of speech. You should have gone public to say you would stop teaching that book. That would have calmed it,” she said.

Her words were safe, curated, bullet proof.

She was still employed, she still had her salary and her title, her agent, her royalties, her fellowships. Her husband, Hubbard Woods III, was an investment banker. They had a large house in Lake Forest. She was good until death, and beyond.

One time he Googled her address and saw her 2018 property taxes: $92,000. She was rich and beloved, privileged and adored.

By contrast, he was a pariah; condemned, rejected and reviled. The haters had come after him for many months. Nobody defended him. All the administration joined in the phony piety, alliances of parents, students, faculty and strangers online standing up for social justice.

Exhausting

Thirty years teaching. Once loved and respected, honored, tenured. Now an old, white, male oppressor.

Twain, James, Wharton, Hemingway, Stein, Pound, Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Spencer. Some of the authors he loved and assigned, now enemies of the university, purged from the curriculum.

It seemed the happiest people lived in white rooms without books, sparkling empty ones, ones with the most likes on Instagram.

Labor Day he awoke for work before the sun.

He made coffee at 5am, went out, unlocked the gate, and opened the garage. For two hours he wheeled, carried, and pushed all the merchandise back onto the driveway.

Today was selling.
Tomorrow was the reinvention of life.

No more school, no more semesters, no more students, no more talks with young and open minds, no debates, discussions or stimulating talks.

His commute had been a leisurely, dreamy, leafy way east, biking for fifteen minutes on East Prairie Rd and Emerson, across the Sanitary Canal, under the El, over Green Bay Road, into University Hall.

No more.

One word, spoken by one student, one day in class, ended his life.

Serena Chan, Lululemon influencer, biking instructor, owner of a popular yoga studio, Chanfit on Dempster, jaunted up the driveway with her infant girl and $900 UPPA baby stroller. She lived in the fiberboard house with solar roof, orange door and electric charging station.

He had seen her on morning power walks many times. She wore high waisted seaweed yoga pants and a midriff top.

She took off her sunglasses, exposing a thin, strained face.

He smiled back.

“Good morning, nice day, huh” he said, wincing a look at one-year-old Pela, wrapped in a baby blanket.

Pela Chan, Pela Chan. Like an exercise bike.

“I haven’t seen you in years. Hardly recognize you,” she said.

“I’m old. Now I regret never having a child. Your daughter is gorgeous,” he said, wistfully.

“Maybe you are childless for a good reason,” she said.

“Huh?”

She broke into malice and anger.

“You are a low piece of shit. I came down here to tell you that to your face. I know your story professor! I grieve for your wounded students. You’ll do all right. You inherited this little house. You won’t be out on the streets. I’m happy you’re suffering! Happy you’re leaving this neighborhood. In our community we don’t tolerate intolerance! I say that as an ally of all who are oppressed,” she said.

Then she turned around, mission finished. Her confidently sculpted ass, muscular legs and toned arms strode back onto Lincolnwood Drive pushing the stroller in workout.

She had blackened his day.

After she left, the afternoon lasted a long time.

He distracted himself on Instagram and posted his 1984 acting headshot, longish hair gelled and combed back when he was 21, taking classes at Second City, having fun, meeting people, joking, and creating.

His parents advised against his “hobby” and had refused to come to any of his performances.

“Nobody makes money in that,” his father said.

“You’ll be poor and struggling,” his mother said.

“Working at night in a smoky room and begging for applause in Old Town? Miserable. Where will you be at 35?” his father asked.

“And where will we be when you’re 35?” his mother asked.

He followed their fears and gave up. He went back to Northwestern and earned a master’s degree in English Literature.

Decades flew past. The ones who urged practicality were dead.

Now he was the white-haired man on the driveway selling their old junk.


Near sunset the air was thick with barbecue smells, chicken, ribs, burgers, music, laughter and the thumping of speakers. People walked from cars into houses and yards.

It was time to wrap up.
An Uber arrived.

A white man, model handsome, got out, holding a rattan picnic basket. He had close cropped brown hair, athletic body. He wore purple shorts and a pink t-shirt, striped knee socks, and unlaced high tops.

He stumbled and seemed intoxicated with a goofy, funny, lost expression, headlight wide eyes, angled, thick eyebrows two or three inches long.

He walked up the driveway, bewitched, staring all around, entranced.

He said nothing.

Then he grabbed two blankets off the table, a sheet and a pillow, and he walked over to the grass and made himself a bed on the front lawn, shaking out the sheets, taking a nap.

“Hey, hey, what are you doing?” Steven asked, rushing over to apprehend the miscreant.

“Hey Pro! I’m Wrigley McCormick and I’m fucking exhausted. Let me nap. Please? I’m so tired. I know you were about to close up, just let me rest,” he said.

“I follow your gram. I want to buy everything. Everything. I have cash. I love your style too. Just let me chill out here and sleep. I’ll get to you in like 30,” he said, closing his eyes, curling up under the blanket, on the grass.

A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc rolled out of his rattan basket.

Steven watched, thought to call the police, and decided not to. He moved the sale items off the driveway, back into the garage, working deliberately, continually, as if his last customer asleep on the grass were not there.

Now it was dark. The lawn lights went on. Wrigley dozed. Steven went over, bent down, gently jarred and awakened him.

Groggily, innocently, he sat up like a child, blanket clenched under his chin.

“Are you OK? Should I call your parents?” Steven asked.

He laughed.

“Parents? Father lives overseas with his wife. Mother killed herself,” Wrigley said.

“Can I get you water or coffee?” Steven asked.

“I need to use your bathroom,” he said, standing up, grabbing his wine, insouciant.

Steven guided him into the side door near the kitchen. He slipped into the bathroom like a lumber board, enviably thin, hard, lean.

He came back out, face washed, shaking his wet hands.

“I had to shit. Sorry. I opened the window, though, and sprayed Lysol. Here’s a couple thousand,” Wrigley said, pulling a wad of bills out of his shorts and slapping his rubber-banded money on the counter.

“I’m buying everything Prof. I’m summoning an Uber now. I’ll see you mañana with my crew and our U-Hauls,” he said.

He had come here, slept, woke up in the dark, said he was buying everything. It didn’t make sense.

“Do you want to take a second look?” Steven asked.

“I had my eye on your posts, Professor. Didn’t you see all my likes? I want it all. Aren’t you delighted I showed up here?” Wrigley asked.

“You work? Go to school?” Steven asked.

“I work from home. I’m not going to college. You don’t learn anything there,” he said.

“Perhaps you’re correct,” Steven said.

“All of my friends love you, love your hair, your vintage sweaters. And those light blue poplin pants, green Izod shirt and red whale belt. Stunning. Your 1980s are what we aspire to: your jackets and your smile, your boat shoes,” Wrigley said.

He had made a study of the professor.

“That picture of you in August 1986 with your hair blowing in the wind on the dock at Montrose Harbor. And the photos Suzanne took of you at Lighthouse Beach that fall. We all wish we lived back then. I’m buying your whole life and putting you and your looks online, that’s my plan,” Wrigley exclaimed.

Wrigley had learned the historical dates, memorized the places, devoured the throwaway snapshots, curated the images, like an archaeologist discovering and cataloguing the treasures of a long-buried Etruscan tomb.

“My crew is Dylan Wieboldt, Carson Field, and Saira Pirie. And the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon. We talk about you constantly. And we all adore John Hughes movies: Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller and Pretty in Pink. And Tom Cruise in Risky Business! Chicago in the 1980s is our kingdom. And you are our king!” he said.

The professor was made adjacent to trivia and pop culture, connected to John Hughes and Hollywood films set on the North Shore. He was flattered yet befuddled.

“My windblown hair and 1982 Members Only jacket was not how I expected to earn kudos,” Steven said.

“Members Only” was 1983. July 23rd. You and Suzanne were at Comiskey Park at The Police Synchronicity Tour,” Wrigley said.

“Oh man. Stop,” Steven said, laughing.

“Uber is here. I’m outta here. We’ll get some German pancakes at Walker Brothers. I will give you a tour of my house, of what I plan to do with your furniture, your piano, and, of course, all of your clothes. You are going to die when you see it all in my house! Bye,” Wrigley said, running out.

Left behind: an unopened bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.


Next morning, several young men and women arrived with three U-Haul trucks. Under Wrigley’s direction, they went up and down the driveway and moved everything into the vehicles: piano, furniture, books, clothes, kitchenware, textiles, rugs, linens, glassware, LPs and Steven’s clothes. They were strong and fast and packed up quick.

Wrigley knocked at the side door.

“Morning Professor. Here are another three grand. I want to get the car too. Do you have the papers? I’ll go up to the DMV in Waukegan tomorrow and we can transfer ownership. My friends will die to see me driving a 1975 Buick LeSabre,” he said.

“Do you want to come in and see the house? Maybe there is something else in here to buy? Please call me Steven. I’m no longer a professor” Steven said.

“Sure Steven,” Wrigley said.

They walked through the tiny rooms carpeted in beige, stripped of furniture. The scalloped shade in the living room picture window caught Wrigley’s eye. He went and pulled it up. Light came into the empty space and he saw a still functioning white dial telephone on the floor, 312-DA8-3020.

“Know how to use that?” Steven asked.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” he said.
“You don’t know how to use a rotary telephone?” Steven asked.
“No,” Wrigley said.
Now he felt old.


A week later, Steven sat in the massive dark-paneled library of a mansion off Sheridan Road, a 1911 Tudor pile of stone and brick with seven bedrooms, wine cellar, servants quarters, and a 70-foot-long terrace overlooking Lake Michigan. There was a verdant, green backyard with many native American Basswood trees, a type of Linden with heart shaped leaves, fragrant and shading.

The library with its empty bookshelves was now a studio for Wrigley and his friends, furnished with the Goldman Family couch, dining table, vinyl lounge chair, and racks of 1970s and 80s clothes from Steven’s youth.

This was Juicy Fruit Productions, a filming studio, with muslin backdrop, softbox lights on stands with sandbags, and Fuji GFX camera on tripod wired to a laptop. There was a floor length mirror, a director’s chair for makeup, and grooming products scattered on the floor.

A 10-foot-long, yellow, painted sign of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum endowed the room in corporate identity.

Howard McCormick, Wrigley’s father, lived in Singapore and ran a property development company there with his second wife Julia.

Goodman met the crew: multi-racial, wealthy, liberal youth who were performers, assistants, gaffers, writers, comedians, influencers, stylists, cooks and cleaners. They drank beer, got high, ate sushi and frozen popsicles, and chuckled at their phones.

Whatever they felt like doing, or not doing, was okay at Juicy Fruit Productions.

All around the room were reminders of Lincolnwood Drive scattered like shabbily dressed interlopers at a black-tie affair: the rust-colored sofa, the Oriental rug, the Queen Anne dining table and chairs, the vinyl recliner, Doris’s floral pillows and macrame blanket.

But high respect was accorded Steven’s old clothes, revered and worshipped by Wrigley and friends. The vintage garments were neatly hung on hangers on metal racks. T-shirts and sweaters were folded and stacked on the mahogany bookshelves. Dress shirts had been pressed and starched. Iron and ironing board were on duty.

It was 90 degrees, humid, torrid, summer. The opulent estate had no air-conditioning. Floor fans blew hot air around the house.

Six French doors in the library were wide open to the terrace and the garden, the sight and sound of Lake Michigan; waves, seagulls, foghorns; accompanied by the scissor-grinder mashing of the dog-day cicadas, an unending drone of faint noise.

Wrigley had asked the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie to dress up in Steven’s clothes, and film Steven reacting to their looks.

Wrigley and Steven went out to the terrace under threatening skies. One-by-one, the three kids came out for the video. Sara was in Steven’s sweatpants and madras shirt.

Then the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon, two handsome, preppy Black twins about 20, came out in Harvard and Yale t-shirts, and 1980s jeans.

“Professor was skinny. These are so tight,” Brandon said, tugging at his waistband, choking his own throat.

Steven sat on a stone bench. He remarked how good the burgundy shirt looked on Brandon.

“Good line Steven. Keep going,” said Wrigley filming and directing.

“You can come on to me, anytime,” Saira Pirie said to Tyler.

Brandon threw his arms around her. Tyler did too. They all fell down on the lawn, laughing and acting for the video.

“Cut. Take a break,” Wrigley directed.

They were hot and sweating, drinking cold bottles of water, wiping their foreheads with paper towels.

Out in the distance there was the rumble of thunder. Leaves blew off the trees. The atmosphere was charged. The yard was cast in greenish light before the impending rain.

The thunder got louder and nearer, but only Steven seemed to notice. For the cast and crew were oblivious to the weather, immersed in their activities, prime age beings supreme.

“We should move inside,” Steven advised as he walked into the house.

The merry makers followed him into the house. Wrigley hurried to shut the doors and push their brass steel floor locks into place. Steven sat back down on his parents’ rust sofa.

Wrigley looked at his phone. He was ecstatic.

“I checked your gram days ago and there was nobody. Now it’s exploding! I think they just love looking at me in your clothes. Okay let’s shoot something else. Nelson Brothers change into Steven’s pajamas! And put on his hunting slippers!” Wrigley said.

Brandon and Tyler stripped down to their underwear and changed into two vintage Brooks Brothers pajamas, one blue, one white.

Saira changed into Steven’s 1982 red flannel men’s nightshirt.

Steven spoke about his first sexual experience in the nightshirt as Wrigley recorded.

He recalled its quick sexual convenience, his first time wearing it, losing his virginity to Suzanne at her uncle’s condo in Northbrook, the easy way he could slip into the nightshirt with no underwear and fuck away on the fur bedspread at the brown-bricked Villas Salceda on Willow Road. He remembered the balcony that looked out to the artificial lake with the fountain, the mowed mounds of lawn, the parking lots sprinkled around, the spindly developers’ trees that never grew up, the lifestyle of the 1980s: malls, office parks, tennis, movies, sex anytime.

As he talked, the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie came and sat on the couch, next to him, intimately, suggestively, looking at him as he commented on his 40-year-old carnal milestones.

The young, gathering on the couch, talking sex with the old teacher, it was salacious, exactly what Wrigley wanted.

The rains came, the thunder and lightning exploded, the showers pounded the glass doors. To the English professor pathetic fallacy had joined the party.

Now was that seminal Midwestern moment, that great cleansing glory in the storm’s release, that summer moment when the temperature drops and blood pressure rises through anticipation and fear; fear of hail and lightning; fear of tornadoes knocking over trees, shattering windows, ripping off roofs, hurling cars through the air; storms of decapitation and electrocution, bodily injury and death; storms to hide and cower from, storms like this.

The players watched the weather, went back to their phones. Wrigley shouted to get back to shooting.

He fetched an ancient bottle of English Leather cologne, buried inside its original wooden box. He opened the fragrance and splashed it over the Nelson Brothers to elicit their reaction and revulsion.

“That shit is nasty!” Brandon said.
“Professor, you say you wore this back in the day?” Tyler asked.
“Yep. We thought it was sexy,” Steven said.
“Cheap and trashy, smell like a whore’s bedroom,” Brandon taunted as he stood up and unbuttoned his pajama top and threw it on the floor. Tyler grabbed the English Leather and doused it onto his brother. Wrigley’s phone captured it all.

“No way. Nigger get that off me! You a dumb fucking nigger piece of shit!” Brandon screamed at Tyler.

Saira laughed uproariously.

Steven stood up.

“Don’t you dare put that online with me in it!” he screamed.

He grabbed Brandon by the shoulders and shook him.

“Don’t ever say that word in front of me! Do you hear me? I despise that word, it’s the worst thing you can ever say. It destroys lives. When you speak it you bring calumny onto others!” Steven screamed.

He stormed out of the library.

“What the hell was that?” Brandon asked.
“What you said homie,” Tyler answered.
“The N word,” Saira said.
“What’s calumny? I need to swallow that word,” Brandon said.
“Why does that white ass fool care?” Brandon asked.
“Shut up Brandon,” Wrigley said.


The storm knocked the lights off and on. Wrigley left the room to find Steven.

Steven sat on the carpeted entry hall stairs next to the carved wood banister and newel post lamp.

Face down, hands behind head, all was quiet.

The weakening rains fell against the stained-glass Tiffany window emitting a dreary light onto the staircase.

He was tired and angry, enraged at these ignorant, reckless, careless youth who fired off words like deadly weapons.

This house added to his futility, for he found himself there without direction, recruited by an accident of fate and chance, a participant in juvenile nonsense, performed in his honor, disgracing his honor.

He laughed bitterly. He was played, again.

Wrigley came over and sat on the stairs next to Steven.

“Are you OK?” Wrigley asked, rubbing Steven’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I’m alright. I guess the Nelson Brothers hate me,” he said.

“No. The Nelson Brothers love me. And they love you too,” he said.

Steven told him about the incident that got him fired. Now Wrigley understood.

“Feel better?” Wrigley asked.

“Take my clothes and everything you bought and do what you want. But please don’t put me on camera. You don’t need to make me an internet star. You bought me out at the estate sale. That should be enough. Perhaps I need to go home now,” Steven said.

He stood up and stretched.

“Looks like the rain stopped. I might even walk home,” Steven said, peering out a front hall window into the clearing light and water dripping from the trees.

“Let’s go outside. This hall is haunted. This is where they carried my dead mother down the stairs for the last time. I never come in here,” Wrigley said.

They opened the front door to the freshness and stood out on the brick stoop between the two pots of drenched geraniums.

“My father and I chatted last night. He is worried about me. He and Julia want me to move to Singapore, to their mansion in Bukit Timah, and work in their property development company,” he said.

“Abandon Juicy Fruit?” Steven asked.

“Yeah. Give up production and become a responsible son. Wear a necktie and marry a rich girl and work for my father. I hate the weather over there. Julia is bossy. They both expect too much. I asked if I could stay here. He said he would consider it if I presented a plan. Father said education is vital. I suggested you as my live-in tutor,” Wrigley said.

“I would work for you? Become your personal tutor? How could I live on that hourly wage?” Steven asked.

“You’d be exceptionally well-paid. We are tragically rich. You could teach literature and writing. Maybe we could have classes outdoors, under the Basswoods, a few days a week. With my crew. I found a photograph. New Trier High School in 1950. Students and teachers studied on the lawn,” Wrigley said. He opened his phone to show it.

“I was planning to move to Tucson,” Steven said.

“Tucson is even hotter than Singapore. And the food isn’t even as good. Let me set up a Facetime with you and father,” Wrigley said.

With a potential job and his home empty, the plan to sell went on hold.

Steven found himself, like a royal, set up in a wing of the McCormick Mansion, in Howard’s bedroom suite with its own adjoining private library and gentleman’s bathroom of monogrammed towels, tartan covered toilet seat, and etchings of Scottish barons and noblemen.

He slept in the master’s bedroom for a night. He woke up and borrowed the master’s robe as he awaited a call from Singapore to discuss matters impending.

Wrigley knocked at 7am. He came in and put a cup of tea on the desk, opened the drapes, turned on the desktop computer in the adjoining library to connect his father and Steven, and left the room.

In the early morning light, the beaming, bald, smiling man in a dark plaid sports jacket and light blue shirt came up in living color.

“Good morning Steve! How are things in Evanston?” Howard asked.

His accent was familiar, like an old friend, flat, nasal, familial, true to Chicago.

“Oh, fine. Very kind of you to be so hospitable,” Steven said.

“My pleasure. My son is ebullient about you. And I am tickled pink. I’m a Northwestern man myself, on the board. I heard about your troubles. And my hearty condolences on your job loss. But I hope you will consider our offer,” he said.

“Go on. I’m open to ideas,” Steven said.

“Wrigley does not want to live in Singapore. I understand. My wife Julia is Straits Chinese, her extended family is here, our development company is here. It’s an adjustment. I can’t even legally chew gum here. Imagine a Wrigley under that law! Our projects take us all over Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Hainan Island, Bali and Vietnam. I haven’t been to Chicago in five years. And the goddamned property taxes ensure I’ll never move back. I need a pedagogical and parental rector for my son. I wish to assign his care to you,” he said.

“I am pleased Howard. But for how long? Under what conditions? Who will decide the curriculum? I only teach literature. That’s not a fully rounded college education for your son,” Steven said.

“I don’t want him in college. Ever. He’s not going to invent the grain reaper or start a theological seminary like his great-great grandad. But if he can write well and think logically by studying classic American writing, and he’s not exposed to all these leftist, multicultural, gender ideologies, he will have a free mind and a mind freed,” Howard said.

The proposal was for a year contract, $200,000 to teach Wrigley and his four friends American Classics. And to live, rent free, at the house. And to work three days a week, four days off.

The offer was irresistible, tailored to make it impossible to say no.

“Do you think, without having met me, without references, I have all the necessary qualifications?” Steven asked.

“Come now old sport. You are thoroughly vetted. Last year I told Wrigley about you and the cancel culture that came after your hide. Multiculturalism, leftism, racism, gender, capitalism, colonialism, diversity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, LGBTQ. These crazies only teach victimhood. I’m fine with my son un-polluted by modern radicals who run these schools,” he said.

“I thought your boy followed me on Instagram because he liked my 1980s pictures,” Steven said.

Howard laughed.

“If that’s what he told you, go with it. I’m the one who first heard about you last year. He probably looked you up and got hooked on your fashion. He’s got that influencer business and I think he’s determined to be the next Ralph La Wren or Paris Paltrow.”

“Can I think it over and give you an answer in a few days?” Steven said.

“Of course. My chief concern and my constant worry is my son. I fret that he will turn on, tune in, drop out in that Timothy Leary way. Drugs, moping around, self-destruction. I won’t have it!” Howard railed.

“I can assure you he is not on that path. He’s very industrious and self-directed,” Steven said.

“I will give him freedom only if he obeys my rules. That’s what they do here in Singapore. I’m trying to be a responsible long-distance parent. Please help me, Steve,” he said.

The screen went dark. Only the halo of his words remained.

Howard had supported the Professor because he saw a fellow dissenter, an antagonist fighting political correctness, an insurrectionist whose teaching of old, white, male writers was anathema to the progressive sanctimony of liberals.

Steven never aspired to ideology, he really did not have a side, yet, once again, a faction had chosen him as their representation of their ally or their enemy.

Through Wrigley’s embrace, Steven had gone on a brief hiatus, escaping the debacle and the shame, reappearing as an old version of his young self, a 20-year-old preppy with great hair, in Brooks Brothers clothes, all hope and potential vested in him.

He was a student again, in changed and charged times, embraced by the young for a strange reason: his sartorial style. But his ascension to deity was accidental and artificial, so he pondered leaving, rejecting Howard’s generous offer.

But tethering him to stay, to accept Howard’s proposal, was young Wrigley, another victim of circumstance, manipulated by parent.

Steven recalled how the approval of a parent was the foremost pillar of self-esteem or the foundation for futility, resentment and bitterness.

Here was an opportunity to correct Steven’s mistakes by freeing Wrigley from parental entanglements to pursue his own path.

Wrigley made Steven feel better, wanted, redeemed, that too was inarguable. Not a son, not a friend, not a lover, not anything one could name, yet from the time he walked up the driveway he brought hope and transformation.

Steven was made a hero through an accident of Instagram, put on a pedestal by McCormick, father and son, who built him back up into paternal, pedagogical, and ministering roles.

“Well?” Wrigley asked, biting his lower lip, fists clenched.

He stood in the bedroom doorway, in Steven’s light blue cable knit sweater and gray New Trier sweats.

That was the sweater Steven wore on that day in 1988 when he told his mother he loved acting, wanted to make a career of it and she told him it was killing his father, he had to quit, get a master’s degree or a real job, so he weakly capitulated.

That sweater had shame and surrender in its fibers yet worn by Wrigley it was cleansed in forgiveness.

“I like your dad. I think he’s concerned. But I think you and I should do what we want. And I want to teach, and you want me to teach, and this could be fun,” Steven said.

“Hooray! I’m so happy!” Wrigley shouted and ran into the room and threw his arms around Steven. And then broke into sobs.

The professor found his face buried in the wool sweater, a pounding heart, warmth and gratitude, held in the arms of one who needed love and guidance.

“Oh, thank you. You are saving me. I don’t want to leave Evanston! I have been praying for this. You won’t leave me alone in this house. I need you. And this is the greatest gift. You will stay here, in father’s room, won’t you?” he said.

“Yes. I have to. No furniture at my old house. No clothes either. I have one favor to ask of you,” Steven said.

Wrigley waited.

“Take me off social media. I want to live for myself, without sharing it with the world. I want to walk in the rain, eat warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and never post about it on Instagram. I don’t want strangers to comment, condemn or control. Nothing is more precious than privacy and freedom and they go together. When you give up privacy, you give up freedom. In time you will understand,” Steven said.

“Yes, yes. Delete! Delete!” Wrigley said.
“My only hope of escaping death is to get offline,” Steven said.

“Let’s go out and get breakfast. Walker Brothers on Green Bay Road. I’m starved for pancakes. I’ve been so worried. And now it’s just utter relief. Have you had their German Pancakes?” Wrigley asked.


One by one Steven wiped away all presence of his online life. He took down Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr. It was liberating, walking into enlightenment, freed of ignorance and prejudice and all the harm and stupidity of virtuality.

The morons, who counted their wisdom by counting followers, were all banished to hell.

He paid a service, ClearName, to clean up his reputation, and all the hateful online commentary about Professor Steven Goodman went missing.

He put his house on the market and sold it in a few days to a young Korean American family.

Freed at last, he walked out of the ranch house for the last time and rode his bicycle down Lincolnwood Drive, and pedaled out of the neighborhood forever.

There was now a healthy amount of money in his account from his $476,000 house sale, a $3,800 a week teaching salary, rent-free accommodations, and his retirement investments.

No longer constrained by the rules of school administrators and post-modern censorship he could teach as he wanted.

He chose Elizabeth Spencer’s short story, “The Business Venture”, a tale set in a 1970s small Southern town riveted by racial fears and sexual promiscuity.

In the tale, Eileen, the protagonist and narrator, is a young white woman, recently married, who describes the promiscuity and casual sex of her husband Charlie who sleeps with Nellie Townshend, an unmarried white woman who owns a dry-cleaning business with Robin, a Black man.

But the town scandal is not her promiscuity, or Charlie’s, but the fact that Nellie has a close professional and business relationship with a Black man.

Steven and his students discussed Spencer’s story, as they sat on the grass, under the trees, just like Alfred Eisenstaedt photographs of New Trier High School in 1950.

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life Magazine, 1950.

To Wrigley the South was like his father, cordial and polite but full of hate. The Nelson Brothers wondered how Black people like them put up with treatment from white folk, how they kept their rage under control while enduring dehumanization and cruelty. Saira Pirie thought modern day America had progressed even as racism persisted. Others disagreed with her, but everyone spoke their mind respectfully without fear of offending.

They read and quoted that noxious word which described Black human beings, but they did not recoil from that word but understood it as a gruesome part of language that had to be spoken in an honest confrontation with the American experience.

Before enrollment, all had signed a contract with Steven in which they agreed that what they said would stay within their “classroom”. They would not post about Steven’s class, or him, or discuss any of it online.

Their protected, private discourse would open their minds to explore the world in a way that the internet had denied, that social media-controlled schools would never sanction.

Thanksgiving was nearing, they had just finished reading Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” a play about a Black family in segregated Chicago who buys a house in a white neighborhood, igniting family conflict.

Steven Wrigley, Saira, Dylan, Tyler and Brandon went for a drive in the Buick LeSabre on a field trip to the city.

They stopped first at the University of Chicago, near 55th and Drexel, to hear the story of the Manhattan Project, where on December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi, Harold C. Urey and Leo Szilard built a radioactive pile that yielded the first nuclear chain reaction.

“Do you know what month and year the United States dropped two atom bombs, one on Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki, effectively ending WWII through the surrender of Japan?” Steven asked.

There was dead silence. Nobody knew.

They went for a walk along historic Greenwood Avenue, past the Obama Family Home, which the future president and his family purchased in 2005.

They walked to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, a premier example of prairie architecture, and they strolled into the University of Chicago down to the Midway Plaisance, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1871, the year of the great Chicago Fire.

The students were impressed with the Gothic buildings on the campus.

“It feels like England,” Dylan Wieboldt remarked.
“Harry Potter!” Saira said.
“Yes exactly!” Dylan said.

Steven educated them on some ugly history.

In the 1920s and 30s, the school had barred Black students from living on campus, Black fraternities were illegal, even the barbers in Reynolds Hall refused to cut Black hair, and as the Black area expanded, the school furiously bought up private properties around the campus to preserve it as a white enclave.

They finished their walking tour at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave.

Here, in 1938, Carl Augustus Hansberry, father of 8-year-old Lorraine, purchased a house in the white section of town, an act which brought out violent mobs. He fought for his family’s right to live here, to own property in spite of racial covenants, a case which he eventually won in the Supreme Court of the United States.

The fiction class took their history class on location. And, abiding by their agreement with Steven, nobody took photos, nobody posted on Instagram, they just listened and learned.

“This is torturous, having my phone shut down all afternoon,” said Brandon.

“Nice photos all around. But we have to go cold turkey,” Tyler said.

“No exceptions?” Brandon asked.
“Nope. Honor your agreement. Keep your word,” Steven said.
“Harsh!” Brandon said laughing.

They ended their adventure with a walk across the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River. The festive season was here. Up and down the boulevard thousands of white lights bedecked the trees in a magnificent display of civic grandeur.

In the cold dark night the electric lights shone all around.

The white terra cotta of the Wrigley Building was illuminated in its ornate, classical glory, shimmering in the sky, across from the Tribune Tower, another lit up landmark erected in the early 1920s by publisher Robert McCormick, Wrigley’s relative, a conservative isolationist who was also a free speech champion and founder of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.

The students and the professor huddled on the sidewalk bridge over the Chicago River. Steven told them how engineers had reversed the flow of water so sewage from Lake Michigan would go into the river and keep the drinking water of the lake clean and pure.

Two cops on their beat walked past and the Nelson Brothers moved aside to the railing to let them through, in tandem with fear.

“What are those two awesome buildings?” Wrigley asked, pointing to the two which gave him their names.

“Name them,” Steven said.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” Wrigley said.

“These are yours! These two crowning structures, erected by your ancestors! The Wrigley Building and McCormick’s Chicago Tribune! Didn’t your father ever bring you here?” Steven asked.

“He was afraid to walk downtown,” Wrigley said.

Emma

“Emma from the Shorefront Legacy Center called me,” Wrigley said.

“Who?” Steven asked.

“They record, document, and archive Black history in the North Shore. She wanted to meet me, and invited me to her home. Weird. She said my family and hers are connected. Can you go with me? Impart your academic credentials?” he asked.

“Do you think it’s about me? My classroom scandal?” Steven asked.

“The n-word meltdown? I don’t know. She sounds old, like she wouldn’t know how to use the internet. She lives in West Evanston near Church St. practically in your old hood but on the Black side of town,” Wrigley said.

Steven seemed worried.

Wrigley looked online.

“It looks like they are involved in that reparations movement. Probably angry about my family. My mom’s grandfather was a bank president. He kicked Blacks off this very street in the 1920s. He built houses for rich whites on land they confiscated from Blacks. Pushed them all over to that area near the sewage canal,” Wrigley said.

“And you inherited a mansion. Funny how events from 100 years ago benefit you today,” Steven remarked.

“I know. I’m kept alive by enterprising, devious, exploitative, bigoted robber barons and their spoils,” Wrigley said.

Steven was lost in thought.

“We once knew an artist, Emma Floyd, who lived nearby. She was a friend of my father’s. Beautiful Black woman, stylish, artsy, painted. She had a little boy I played with a few times. Then we stopped visiting, I don’t know why. I don’t think she could still be alive,” Steven said.

“Let’s set something up. You can borrow one of your tweed jackets to make you look more professorial,” Wrigley said.

They sat in the blue walled living room of the little ranch home on Leland Avenue, like the one Steven grew up in, a yellow brick number with a postage stamp sized lawn.

On every wall hung framed art, Modigliani like portraits of Black men and women, painted 60 or 70 years ago.

Sprightly, trim, 88-years-old, Emma Floyd carried herself like a ballet dancer, serving beers on a silver tray, set out on a spider legged brass coffee table.

On either side of the plastic covered tan sofa were two dark green table lamps on blond wood tables stacked with books.

Wrigley and Steven waited politely as she flurried about. Then she carefully sat down in an armchair.

“For a long time, I wanted to tell someone who made movies about my life. And then I found you, Dear Wrigley,” she said.

“Crazy. How did that happen?” Wrigley asked.

“I was looking online for the mailing address of my friend Millie who lives in an assisted living facility on McCormick. That’s McCormick, the boulevard, not you,” she said.

“I understand,” he said, suppressing laughter.
“I do know how to use a computer,” she said.
“Of course you do,” Wrigley said.

“When I moved back to my hometown with my boy Andy, it was right after King died ‘68 or ‘69. We were down in Hyde Park and I loved it, with the art community, music, university and the creative fervor of that time. But then things got chaotic, burning down, riots, so I moved back here. And I became a quiet, studious mom and librarian in Evanston. Yet I never quite stopped hating this hypocritical town,” she said.

“You grew up here?” Steven asked.

“Yes. My parents came up from Clarksville, Tennessee during the First World War. Papa had a successful plastering business here. You know they built a lot of houses in the 1920s. He built us a house a few blocks from the lake. We were doing well, this was before I was born, so I heard. Then Evanston came and rezoned our land for commercial buildings. Black families were only allowed to live in the 5th Ward. My father paid $130 and they moved our house over here where there were unpaved streets, far from everything, near the sanitary canal. No water, no electricity, that came later. But my father never recovered. The Depression came. No business. He drank. We had no money. We had to take in colored soldiers and students for rent. Excuse my outdated words, I’m just going back in time,” she said.

“This happened to your family, here, in Evanston?” Wrigley asked.

She nodded yes. She put on her glasses and read from a printed document.

“According to my research, Wrigley’s great-grandfather on his mom’s side, John F. Hahn, was Evanston City Clerk from 1899-1925. He was president of Commercial Trust and Savings Bank of Evanston. Not only did he facilitate discriminatory zoning laws but his bank financed many Black homeowners and charged us higher interest rates for inferior housing. He was a man responsible for herding us into a zone. And ripping us off when we could least afford it,” she said.

“What can I do?” Wrigley asked.

“Just listen and learn,” she said.

“I went to Foster, a segregated school. In the 1940s, they wouldn’t let Blacks into theaters, stores, restaurants, even Marshall Fields was off limits. We had our own YMCA. We had our own hospital, our own doctors! Apartheid, here! Can you imagine an intelligent, exploring, curious, questioning child like me coming up against a system of hate like that? After we just won the war against Nazism? Why even Black soldiers and their families were kept out of houses built for all GIs in Evanston,” she said.

“I never knew this,” Steven said.

“I loved painting. Moved to Hyde Park. I exhibited at 57th Street Art Show for 20 years. I was very pretty. I was independent. I did what I wanted. Then I met a man at the art show. He was a German Jew, blue eyed, sensitive. He painted, he was well-read, a pianist. We fell in love. But it had to be secret. He was married. Then I had a child named Andy with him. And I moved back here to be closer to him. Isn’t that a story?” she said.

“Was the man you loved Gene Goodman?” Steven asked.

“Yes. And so here we are. I am Gene’s mistress. Or maybe I’m just forgotten, or perhaps I will die and nobody will care about anything I have accomplished or endured. That’s why I need a movie” she said.

Wrigley clenched tightly Steven’s hand.

“Did you know Gene was my father? Or that I would be coming here today?” Steven asked.

“How would I know that? I saw your car outside and it was just like one Gene drove. I thought it was my old mind playing tricks, because sometimes he would come here on the pretext of fixing my plumbing and we’d be together, Sundays usually. You must have come here too, a couple of times,” she said.

She opened a photo album and showed the men a photograph of teenage Andy, about 16, an athletic boy with blue eyes, curly light brown hair, milk coffee complexion.

“Handsome boy. Where does he live now?” Wrigley asked.

“Live? He was killed. Shot dead after he raked the leaves in the front yard. I had been on him for weeks to tidy up the garden. Halloween 1990. All the fallen leaves were tied up in plastic bags, and he put them up along the curb for trash collection. A car drove by for no reason shot him in cold blood,” she said.

“Did they catch the killers?” Steven asked.

“Yes. It was bad people who hated him for looking white. Andy wasn’t white. Not really. The ache of it. My child was taken. I don’t know how to talk about it. I should have taken my last breath a long time ago. Just to get some peace and rest. Can I get you two more beers?” she asked.

The second round of beers were not refreshment but sedation.

After meeting Emma, Wrigley found another vocation.

Juicy Fruit Productions went into documentary film production.

The subject was the life of Emma Floyd.

Emma came to the mansion with mountains of scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries, family movies. These were added to the already existent Goodman Collection. Connections were established with the Shorefront Legacy Center, and the Evanston History Center.

The Nelson Brothers, Dylan Wieboldt, and Saira Pirie were now $1200 a week segment producers.

They amassed oral transcripts of Black residents, many now deceased, who spoke about their lives in 20th Century Evanston. B-roll was shot, all around Evanston, and once the police were called when the Nelson Brothers walked Sheridan Road shooting video. But they had business cards from Juicy Fruit to show cops so they were left to wander like free people.

The life of Emma coincided with the 1950s jazz scene, she had worked at the Blue Note, knew and befriended Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing. She dated singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine.

There was music to license, for surely it also had to be in her film.

Wrigley hired a production accountant and editor.

He set up $500 a month donations to Shorefront to cement goodwill and cooperation.

With money all things are possible.

For Steven, the revelations about his father and Emma were startling, yet strangely comforting.

His father was more human than he knew, less severe and dogmatic, open to vice, pleasure, sensuality, danger. The autocratic and prescriptive Germanness defanged; replaced with tenderness, adventurism, romanticism, repainting Gene into a man of love and nonconformity.

But Steven mourned for Andy, a brother he never knew, a younger sibling who lived only blocks away, who might have lived on the other side of the world, who died before Steven could know or love him.


He and Howard Face Timed, their first meeting in many months.

Howard’s face was even redder, his mood even brighter, his talk more emphatic, garrulous, sparkling, enthusiastic.

“Hello from Taman Plastik! Yes, we are here on an island, on the east coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea, with beautiful coral reefs, beaches and tropical sunshine. Don’t mean to torture you enduring late winter in Chicago!” Howard said.

“Are you there on holiday?” Steven asked.

“Oh no. Our company is building a resort property here. It’s going to be gorgeous: five-stars, gourmet food, three swimming pools, shopping mall, championship golf course, brand new highway from the airport, all on an ecological preserve with indigenous plants and native creatures. As I finish my almond croissant, I’m watching FedEx deliver two handcuffed orangutans,” he said.

“Sounds marvelous. I wanted to ask you about my contract. What is my role now that your son is producing a film? Should I stay on? Do you want to pay me as an advisor or in some capacity?” Steven asked.

“Absolutely! You are the force behind this project. I’ll keep paying you for at least 12 more months. Wrigley must finish what he’s started, and you need to manage or cajole him! It’s going to be quite a story” he said.

“This dynamo was a gorgeous artist, jazz aficionado, painter, sexpot from the 1950s. And your father and Emma, well, that’s quite a story,” he said.

It was jarring to hear a family secret, punctuated by tragedy and loss, aired so glibly.

But that was Howard, a promoter.

Steven was pleasantly surprised at Howard’s reaction to a documentary exploring a Black woman and her life within the prickly confines of race, segregation and Evanston history.

“I think you have to stress the positive changes for the Black people in Evanston. They got a raw deal, that’s for sure. But we live in different times. This movie is going to create a new image for West Evanston, always a shitty part of town. I think you have to get Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and the big money in Chicago involved. Promote the film online,” he said.

“Do you know Michael Sacks, CEO Grosvenor Capital Management? Graduated Niles West, lives in Glencoe, worth billions. I’ve met him socially. He is a kind of force to get developers interested in that area, tear down the shabby houses, put up lofts, live/work spaces, glass towers, Starbucks, yoga and even a film studio. Evanston can work with private developers. Show it off as an example of how enterprise and innovation can transcend racism,” he said.

Steven listened in silence, aghast, then spoke.

“That’s where you’re wrong! It’s a marvelous story of endurance, determination and grit. You can either make it sad and nobody will watch it. Or you can jazz it up, pun intended, and make it a journey of hope and redemption with a happy ending. Because happy endings are the only endings that sell in America,” he said.

END

They Didn’t Believe Me


a short story
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

30 minute read

Spotify soundtrack

A young political assistant is unwittingly drawn into a plot to poison her boss with a toxic perfume.


For two years I had a dream job: Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Hilary Flores, 6th District.

She had recruited me, fresh out of college, and entrusted me with a high, prestigious position.

I ran her re-election campaign, scheduled her talks in community centers, crafted her online posts. I strategized, negotiated and persuaded.

By Halloween, Hilary Flores was comfortably ahead. Her every word was well-considered and pleasing to the ears of her constituents. Equality, honesty, tolerance, accountability, and transparency were sprinkled inside every speech and post.

Walkville, our $800 million dollar redevelopment project, was praised for its sensitive, inclusive, thoughtful green design. Thousands of jobs, affordable housing, small businesses, organic markets; fresh foods, grown on-site. An urban farm town, walkable, humane, visionary.

Then, a few days before the election, a strange and unbelievable set of events happened.

Looking back, I was naïve.

I was selected as the perfect, unwitting agent to carry out a malign and vicious act against an elected official, my boss, the incumbent.

The weapons were a niche perfume and three Hermès scarves.

Innocent and eager, driven by ambition, I sprayed lies, invisible aerosol lies, smelling like roses and oud, lies infused into the fibers of silk scarves tied to her neck, perfumed with brain altering toxins.

These malign aromas, chemically altered with neurologically persuasive notes, floated through her skin, mouth and nostrils into her brain.

They numbed her self-control, unleashed her id, took command of her words, released her inhibitions.

Bedecked in poisoned silk, she said what she thought.

A death sentence for any politician.

Her loose utterances, obscene and bizarre, alienated and offended.

Her outbursts proved, beyond a doubt, her complete mental breakdown.

A politician can say crazy things. But only if her supporters think the same. When a leader goes against party orthodoxy they are doomed.

She was the Democratic incumbent, the most powerful Latina on the City Council, the leader of the largest affordable housing development project in city history.

She was one of seven children, a daughter of immigrants from El Salvador; a fighter. Her whole career was defending the exploited, the trafficked, the abused, and the undocumented.

For over two decades, in her impressive climb to the pinnacle of local politics, she fought to gain influence to help those who were most vulnerable. Nobody was more respected or popular than Hilary.

In Magnolia Park, that last night before the election, she stood on the pitcher’s mound with a wireless mike.

From the dugout I watched her, pathetic and pleading, alone, under a spotlight, performing to nearly empty bleachers, shamed and castigated.

“The bad words that came out of me were not my words. I had a reaction to prescription drugs. I still stand for all I have fought for! What I tell you is the truth. I ask you to believe me,” she said.

Crying and pleading, begging for forgiveness.
Nobody cared.

“Aw, go home Hilary!”

“Estúpido coño mentiroso!”

“How dare you lie to us!” a woman shouted.

“Everything you said is on YouTube. Nobody made
you say it!”

“You’re a sexual predator!”

I turned the spotlight off.

The evening wind blew across the park, kicking up dust. Hilary wiped her face with a tissue, walked back, head down, wounded. She sat down on the ballplayer’s bench, at the end, furthest from me. We both looked out in silence to the field.

I had watched it all unfold, helpless to stop it.
It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault.

We were victims of Damon Samson.

It was early September, Tuesday after Labor Day. We were set up in a community conference room, inside city hall.

“Damon’s standing in the back. I’ll speak to him before I leave,” she said.

The subject was Walkville.

We had presented architectural renderings showing a 10-acre site of grass, trees, gardens and courtyard apartments where the California sun shone on solar paneled rooftops.

The pre-assembled housing would be constructed in an old Navy shipyard, converted into peacetime production for thousands of engineered apartment containers, economical, mass-produced.

Ours was the exemplar of urban renewal, right in the center of the 6th District, alongside the old train tracks, a crowded and poor area of violence and low opportunity, exploited by slumlords, teeming with undocumented immigrants, splattered with shady operators in small shops who laundered bad money.

There was a shoe repair shop where it took a week to shine a pair of shoes, a “psychic” Indian barber working behind bricked up windows, a cannabis testing laboratory, several bail bond offices, a Pentecostal church, and dozens of Armenian owned auto and towing shops where battered, unclaimed junks were parked on the street for years at a time.

Walkville was my idea, born in a college thesis paper. For Councilwoman Hilary Flores, it was a way to inspire voters with a dream of what their surroundings could be under her continuing leadership.

Vote for Hilary! Build Walkville!

Only a few had shown up in person for our public presentation. I was disappointed.

Our architect was Alfredo Perez, mid 30s, long haired, Salvadoran born, a former Wilhelmina model and once shirtless actor in a 2014 Lana Del Ray video. He was Hilary’s choice. I presumed they shared intimacy but I kept silent.

Alfredo and his handsome designs impregnated everything with sex appeal, vigor and multi-culturalism. His long black hair shone, his teeth sparkled, his jaw was a sharp slice of perfection.

Like Hilary he was Salvadoran-American, and he dutifully recited his humble-to-greatness story at every appearance, reminding all his enraptured listeners that anything was possible in America.

If you looked as good as him opportunity beckoned.

Hilary and Alfredo enjoyed the glory of one another. He stood near the podium, towering over her, his tan, cable knit sweater seemingly painted onto his sculpted body as she introduced him to our appreciative audience of six.

When you said the name “Alfredo” it was like “Kobe” or “Madonna”, everyone knew whom you meant. His starring role as our architect helped push the project forward.

Reclusive Damon Samson owned the land near the abandoned freight tracks. It had been in his family since before WWII.

It was once an orange grove, then a building supply company, Samson Lumber, where everyone bought their tools, barbecues, propane tanks and vinyl windows. There was asphalt parking for 3,000 cars, a lumber yard, a garden center, even a sandlot playground where the kids played while the parents shopped.

The store lasted 40 years.

Home Depot and Lowe’s killed it off.

Samson Lumber, the yard, the lot, and the building, was vacant for 25 years. The area around it got rattier, seedier and poorer. The old white families packed up and moved farther west.

At UCLA, I wrote my graduation thesis on the rise and fall of Samson Lumber. I envisioned an idea to transform it into something architecturally and socially exceptional. I thought it could revive the 6th District. I got interviewed on KPCC public radio. Hilary Flores heard me and hired me.

Only the young are ever struck with luck.

“If you can get the community behind this, the owners, the planners, and the financiers, you will launch your career. It will catapult you into the stratosphere,” she said, at the close of my third interview.

My concept, of course, would benefit her.

Damon Samson saw my thesis, posted online at KPCC. He loved the 1950s archival photographs of his father, his childhood, the customers, the store. He interpreted my project as more than a vision for the future.

He felt it was nostalgic, an unspoken yearning for the way it had been. And as he detected that longing in my heart, so he too fell in love with my proposal.

I was only 22. I knew nothing except how to use the internet. Which made me an expert.

After the on-screen projections, the CGI video, the speeches by my boss and the architect, there was a quick emptying out of the room. It was after 9 pm. The half dozen tired, hard-working people who cared enough to show up went home.

They were exhausted. I was exhausted. I smiled and swallowed a breath mint.

Damon stood near the exit door: quiet, tall, cropped white hair, hands in jean pockets. He had sun baked skin, squinty blue eyes, a movie westerner.

He nodded as I approached.

“Thank you for coming. Hilary will be right over. I think we did good tonight,” I said, smiling.

He leaned over. And rather, unexpectedly, smelled my hair.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, perturbed, in cheery self-possession of my faux diplomacy.

“Neroli, marigold, mandarin orange,” he said.

“Yes! Itasca by Lubin,” I said, relieved he was only appreciating my perfume.

Hilary came over.

“Hello there,” she said, grazing his cheek with hers.

“I just complimented Elizabeth. But I may have stepped over the line. Like old Joe Biden,” he said.

“Oh?” she laughed.

“I stuck my nose in her hair to admire her perfume,” he said.

“That sounds innocent enough,” she said.

Hilary wore a Hermès scarf: orange cashmere and silk, artfully tied around her neck.

“Your scarf is divine,” Damon said.

“May I?” he asked as he sampled her aroma.

“Your scent is Chris Rusak’s Beast Mode,” he said.

“Yes! I do love Chris. He’s a local, up in Newhall. But imported Hermès scarves are my thing, my trademark,” she said.

“You seem to like black pepper, licorice, and tuberose as well. My husband has connections inside Hermès,” Damon said.

“Your husband?” I asked.
“Peter,” he said.

“Damon is a man of many talents. Secretive and inventive. He has an atelier, an artist’s lab, right over on Aetna, and he is creating a custom scent, just for me,” Hilary said.

“Peter is the perfumer. I just smell it. He approved it for you. It’s nearly complete. And very shortly, the scent that Hilary has inspired will be unveiled. But only for a select, few noses,” he said.

“Gosh, exciting! Hilary must be honored. Damon you astonish me,” I said, perhaps too effusively.

“Let’s keep Peter’s perfume and my $600 scarves between us. It wouldn’t be a good thing if this leaked out to my constituents struggling to pay rent and buy food,” she said.

“Alfredo’s good looks seem to be pushing things along,” Damon remarked.

“Guapo knows his shit,” she said.

“When he talks, people just look at him. They don’t hear a word he is saying,” Damon said.

We all laughed.

Hilary stressed Alfredo’s astuteness and professionalism.

“Alfredo is a fastidious and detail-oriented architect,” she said in job review English.

“He’s hot, yes. But can he design a house?” Damon joked.

“He’s passionate about his passions. Seriously, I’m thrilled that we have the commitment from the state to dedicate a third of it to low-income units, and to reduce the parking area so people can use bicycles and public transit to get around,” Hilary said.

“Walking and biking are good. You see so many obese people now, especially in this area,” Damon said.

She thought that unkind.

“We all live in a food desert. Fast food all around. People don’t have a choice. If you are on limited income and they sell two burgers, fries and coke for $3, you eat it, especially families,” she said.

“The fatties do have a choice. You don’t walk in the middle of the street just because there are cars all around you,” he said.

“Fatties is judgmental and shaming. Fresh food challenged is better,” she advised.

I mediated with an agreeable interjection.

“That’s why we have organic fruits and vegetables at Walkville. A large area will also have chili peppers which Hilary insisted upon,” I said.

“In Salvadoran cuisine it’s a necessity,” she said.

“Why did they get rid of the police station?” he asked.

“Too controversial. With the nice amenities we are proposing, I foresee very little crime,” she said.

“Remarkable. You envision a community of 5,000 residents without law enforcement?” he asked.

“I know my own community. These are good people. When people are given hope they flourish,” she said.

“That won’t do when you are held up by banditos,” he said.

“With this project we’re going to turn around things in our area. I’ve been waiting for my Facebook commenters to call me an innovator– instead of that bitch,” she exclaimed.

“You are a bitch. Peter tells me that all the time,” he said.

“That bitch should shut his mouth. I kept him afloat paying off his student loans. Now he’s your responsibility,” she said.

“Peter calls Walkville Disneyland,” he said.

“Peter always had a sarcastic comment about everything. His cynicism made him unemployable. This isn’t Disneyland. Real people will live here. This isn’t a production with Snow White and her dancing dwarfs,” Hilary said.

    Damon smiled but said nothing.

“Elizabeth can stop over at your studio before she comes into the office. We have our meeting with the planning board at 10am. Do you want to join? Alfredo will be there,” she said.

“No. I prefer to stay clear of politics and planning boards. Environmental impacts, irritating public comments, people showing up to gripe about things they know nothing about. That crazy, fat, old lady who comes to all the meetings in her nightgown and slippers and gulps all the Subway sandwiches. She is reason enough not to show up,” he said.

Hilary laughed loudly.

“If only I could insult like you do! Of course, I’d be out of a job. Finished! Destroyed! That’s the occupational hazard of politics. You have to be totally committed to follow through on all the lies you said the day before. But I guess I have to keep going,” she said.

“Maybe, one day, you won’t have to lie any longer. You’ll stand at the podium in your elegantly strangling scarf, smelling exquisitely, and the truth will spin out of you, uncontrollably, like a roulette wheel. Who knows where your number will end up?” he asked.

“That sounds frightening. Are you planning my demise?” she asked.

“I don’t use deadly weapons. I manipulate and control through scents. Good night ladies. I will see Liz tomorrow morning, say 8am,” he said.

He saluted as he walked out into the night.

Hilary had a look of horror.

“Why are the people with money always so fucking bizarre? Sometimes I wonder about his politics, whether there is a bit of a reactionary in him,” she said.

“He always says something shocking. I just learned tonight that he’s gay. How did I miss that?” I asked.

“Gay is good. Gay is on our team. Gay is my ex-husband! By the way, have you set up next week’s meeting with that non-profit group fighting human trafficking? I need that on Facebook. Also how are we doing against Julie Abraham?” she asked her opponent.

“Latest poll: less than three percent knew her name. You have high name recognition in our district. 38% of eligible voters know you,” I said.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Buy another 3,000 followers on Instagram. Go to that company with the Latinx surnames. I think Alfredo has a brother who became his sister or a sister who became his brother. Find a photo of them together, post-op, and post it on Facebook,” she said as she walked out of the meeting hall.

The Atelier Samson was a handsome, pitched roof, gray and blue steel building with industrial windows and a metal gated entrance near the old train tracks. Like its neighbors, it was utilitarian, but sleeker, polished. Money had laid its hands here.

I had passed it before, many times, hardly noticing it. But now it loomed, in the early morning fog, enigmatic and secure. There was no sign, just a steel gate, discreet cameras and a video bell.

I buzzed and the gate unlocked. I walked down a long, concrete sidewalk and gravel border that ran alongside galvanized steel walls. Automatic security lights lit up, silent night sentries, still on duty in the dim of dawn.

Damon, sock footed, black turtleneck, black joggers, welcomed me into his atelier.

Inside it was bright: skylights and steel windows, exposed roof trusses and rafters that ran diagonally along the ceiling, HVAC ducts and vents bolted to beams. There were polished concrete floors, bouncing illumination; and two, long, gray metal tables that had nothing on them, like art pieces.

The air had no smell, only the purity of subtraction.

A tall steel shelf next to one of the tables held various glass laboratory beakers, flasks, measurement labeled cylinders, and plastic bottles. All the glasses were clean. I saw no dust.

I had a sense that all had been cleared of evidence before I arrived, and all that remained was staged.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Please, sit down,” he said.

I sat on a wood bench. He brought out a Japanese coffee maker. It was stainless steel, u-footed with two u-arms holding two glass bulbs, one high, one low, the lower one heated by a flaming alcohol burner. He placed the contraption atop our long table.

He ground beans, put them into the top glass. The boiled water underneath shot up into the ground coffee and dripped back down. It was a theatrical display, mesmerizing and ridiculous, executed for a teachable reason.

“You probably wonder why I don’t pour hot water from the top. This mechanism functions completely opposite from how you suppose things work. The bottom is the water, the top is the beans, yet together it all works. Here is the coffee,” he said.

He removed the top glass and poured coffee from the bulb into two tiny, white porcelain cups.

He spoke next of my academic achievements.

He praised my summa cum laude at UCLA, my ambitious majors: political science, urban planning, business administration. And my MBA, $200,000 scholarship, and my thesis paper and original concept: Walkville.

He also criticized me.

He knew my salary, $44,560, which was public record. But he compared it, unfavorably, to others in my same position, who made $99,000 and $125,000.

“You’re grossly underpaid. Forty-Four Grand Loser,” he said.

“I disagree. My true compensation is more than money” I answered.

“Arguably, your boss is the most powerful councilwoman in the city. You have been key in promoting her agenda. With this enormous project you are embossing her reputation with an idea that you dreamed up in college. Aren’t you worth more?” he asked.

“No, you don’t understand. I’m only 25. I have only worked for her for two years. I’m a baby. She is working for all women, to promote equality,” I said.

“Bullshit. Charity begins at home. I know Hilary. She dropped out of high school. Her resume says she graduated from Stanford University. She says ain’t for isn’t. She’s basically a working-class Latina who wears expensive scarves and presents herself as a champion of the people. But aren’t you instrumental in marketing her? Don’t you agree?” he said.

“I thought you were our biggest supporter,” I said.

“Miss Renata, I am your biggest supporter. You saw the potential in my property as Sepulveda saw California. You’re another explorer. You are smart, able, resourceful and brilliant. Your mother drank, your father left you impoverished, yet you overcame. You are a little prodigy with a big idea called Walkville,” he said.

“Those aren’t your parents. That’s my private life,” I said.

“I’m sorry dear. I needed to look into your background. But what we discuss today will stay here within these steel walls, a vault of secrecy,” he said.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” I said.

“I have a god-damned cash offer for you. A lucrative sum you will accept,” he said.

“A job? I have a job,” I said.

He was relentless, aggressive, and rude.

“Nothing says you can’t work for me as a side gig. I will pay you well,” he said.

“This is not sex. I know you are not soliciting sex,” I said, fishing, for reassurance.

“You think I’m a piggy boomer. But you are all wrong. I’m your guardian angel. I’m here to push you even higher,” he said.

He put a leather bag on the table, opened it, and pulled out three silk scarves, one blue, one orange, one multi-colored. Each wrapped in clear plastic boxes, each one tied with a silk ribbon, which he carefully laid out, in a line, along the table.

“Take $20,000 from me, today, in cash, and deliver these scarves and the perfume to your boss which my husband Peter has created,” he said.

“That’s all? I don’t need to be paid. I will do it for free,” I said.

Was this a joke, a trick, another bizarre Damon performance?

“I’ll open one box of an infused scarf for you to examine. Just look at it. Don’t touch. And don’t inhale or exhale. It must be clean,” he said.

He gave me plastic gloves and an N95 mask to wear over my mouth and nose. I put on protective gear.

He opened the box with the blue scarf, took it out of its container and handed it to me for inspection.

It was emblazoned with the El Salvador coat of arms: a triangle with the sea, five volcanoes and the words, “Dios, Union, Libertad.” There was the white Flor de Izote and the red-eyed, blue and green feathered Motmot bird from the rainforest, all knitted in a fine piece of silk artistry.

“When Hilary sees this, she will cry,” I said.

“I hope so. These are made in Lyon, France. And each one cost four times what Hilary paid for her $600 scarf,” he said.

“Splendid. Are you sure you aren’t in love with my boss?” I asked.

“Not at all. I’m quite sure I hate her,” he said.

I let out a wildly ridiculous laugh.

Yet his face and his expression were unyielding, dead serious. And penetrating, with policing eyes, reading, evaluating and monitoring.

“This silk is infused with our menticidal fragrance. It is a chemically powerful garment that interacts with the brain chemistry of its wearer. That is the secret of these scarves’ power,” he said.

I laughed, a laugh triggered by anxiety, fear and terror.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

He stood over the table, pressing his weight into it, looming over, dominating.

“The DNA of your boss is in these scarves. The fragrant notes in these will interact with her pheromones to induce a chemically powerful narcotic effect on her brain!” he said.

I laughed hard. His deadpan wit was so serious it was hilarious.

“You don’t have to embellish an outlandish tale to ask a favor from me. I happily will give your gift to her. And I’m sure she will be flattered and delighted,” I said.

“This is a patented invention. Impregnating fabric with scent. Your boss is everything that matters now. She is an outspoken Latina, a leader, a woman who will probably be President of the United States. If she is seen in my scarves it will mean millions in sales. And you will be well-compensated,” he said.

“Here is one more thing. A small tester. Do not ever spray this on yourself or smell it. It is highly sensitive and uniquely blended to conform with Hilary’s body chemistry. Her DNA is in here. Never spray it on her directly, only on these scarves. That’s all,” he said.

He put the scarves and the little tester into the leather bag. And zipped it up and ushered me out the door.

“If you accept my payment it means you accept my terms. If you don’t you can kiss Walkville good-bye. I will end it,” he said.

“You can trust me. I want Walkville to succeed,” I said.

“There’s cash inside. Don’t leave it in your car. Especially in this neighborhood,” he said as he watched me down the walk and out the gate.

I left bewildered, pulled into something nebulous, overwhelming and confoundingly obtuse.

Those last, lachrymose days before Election Day were a whirl of events that began happily when Hilary opened the boxes of scarves.

She was riveted by the design of the El Salvador one. Touched, she held it up to her mouth and nose, her eyes in tears, beholding the symbols.

“This is incredible. Dios, Unión, Libertad,” she said.

“The way he spoke of you was adoring. He envisions you as the future leader of the free world. And he wasn’t joking,” I said.

“He’s got money. He’s got the best interests of our city in mind. He wants to improve the area and make a giant investment to spur other wealthy elites to do the same. As do I,” she said.

“I think this is his silent male way of saying he is on your side 100%,” I said.

“I completely agree!” she said as she looked closely at the El Salvador scarf.

“The motto of my homeland is also what I dream of for this area. One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. This scarf is something I will always treasure. I feel so guilty now,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I was wrong about him. I thought he was a right-wing crank. And he married my despicable Peter. But this shows Damon is a deep, thoughtful, considerate philanthropist who profoundly understands me! This is a scarf of love, brotherhood, and friendship. I’m deeply moved by his gesture. It truly comes from his heart. You must write a sincere note of thanks from me to him,” she said.

She walked over to a mirror and admired herself in the El Salvador scarf, now tied around her neck. She patted it, fussed it into a bow.

“It even smells lovely, like roses and oud, peanuts, green tea, mimosa,” she said, taking in a deep breath.

“Ah! Yes there’s also notes of tuberose, black pepper, lilacs. I’ve never smelled anything so beautiful. It reminds me…. of me,” she said.

Then she grimaced. Her mouth curled into a sour bitterness, and she made a sick face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Headache. Something tastes awful. Gosh, my head suddenly exploded. I guess I didn’t eat, running around, no sleep. Such a weird sensation, ditzy, loopy, out-of-body. I better eat something. Do we still have donuts?” she asked.

“No. You said to keep junk food out of the office. There are some raisins and oranges,” I said.

Acidly, she turned to me from the mirror, furious.

“Who the hell are you to take that junk food line to heart! I said I don’t eat donuts so my staff would hear me say it. I was setting an example for them. Get me a dozen donuts and get the hell out of here, now! Your obsequiousness is disgusting!” she screamed.

A first encounter with her new madness.

In the late afternoon, under golden light and flattering tones, we had a groundbreaking event at Samson Lumber with Hilary, Damon and Alfredo.

A crew from KCAL’s local news was on hand to record the beginning of Walkville.

I brought a gold-plated ceremonial shovel for Hilary to hold and to pose with Damon and Alfredo: the politician, the landowner and the architect.

Intern Ava DeSilva, lovely, lanky and violet eyed, was a UCLA student with the incensed, impatient political passion of the young. Quietly assertive, she would often whisper to me correcting or suggesting.

Now she saw Hilary, hair blowing in the wind, out-of-control, bad for TV.

“Maybe she should wear another scarf to hold her hair down,” Ava said.

“Yes, perfect. Get the orange one around her for the TV crew,” I said.

We two rushed over to Hilary and tied a second scarf around her head, which calmed her hair. Now she was enveloped in Damon’s scarves and Damon’s perfume. The interview with the reporter began.

“It will be a transformative project. In three years, this area will be unrecognizable. Residents will bike, stroll, pick fresh vegetables, in a moderately priced, safe, vibrant, creative community,” she said.

Alfredo nodded in agreement. And then he spoke.

“And we are particularly proud that our diverse and multicultural residents will comprise all kinds of people, all ages and ethnicities living together in green harmony. Vivir en armonía y felicidad,” Alfredo said.

“Our housing is pre-assembled, computer designed, carbon neutral, employing hundreds of workers in well-paying jobs with comprehensive health benefits,” she added.

Damon observed from a distance.

“Can you hold the gold shovel Hilary?” a photographer asked.

The sun was setting. A beam of light from the sun’s last, glorious rays bounced off the glistening golden shovel.

Then Hilary snapped.

“This fucking thing is too heavy. Everything I do is for the cameras. What are those fucking homeless doing over there?” she said.

“Are you OK?” Alfredo asked, as they were recorded by the news crew and many mobile phones.

“I’m a shoo-in. All this bullshit! All of the people here know I’m going to be the next councilwoman. Get rid of the derelicts! Get rid of the taggers and the gangs! That’s my plan! Go home everyone! Shows over! Good night! Get the hell out of my face!” she barked.

KCAL kept their cameras rolling and recording this bonus wacko performance.

Her convulsive change of mood alarmed the crowd. People sensed danger and moved away. She looked crazy.

She threw the shovel down, turned her back to the shooters, and walked away, swearing, arms flailing, spitting and gesticulating.

Alfredo rushed over to me. He asked if I knew what just happened. I had no answer.

“Should I bring her some bottled water?” Ava asked.

“Here she comes,” I said.

Hilary, orange scarf on head, blue scarf on neck, sprinted over like a horse bolting out of a burning barn.

“Ava get away from him! He’s mine!” she yelled as she pushed the startled intern out of our group and jammed herself into Alfredo.

“Take me home! Let’s get drunk and make love and turn off our phones and tell the whole world to go to hell!” she said.

She hugged Alfredo passionately, kissed his neck, ran her fingers through his hair, pressed her body against his, rubbing hard, mad with desire. He tried pushing her away, shaking her up to shame her public lasciviousness, but it only emboldened her. She dug her nails hard and sharp into his back and bit his neck like a vampire.

“Stop it! Stop it! Get off! And you’re stabbing my lats! Get a hold of yourself!” he said.

I watched helplessly as she attacked Alfredo, smothering him with violent sexual force. Then he lost it.

Furiously, he ripped off her two scarves, threw them down, grabbed her hair and restrained her head, pulling it hard, like reins. She cried out in pain.

“Get back and get off!” he commanded.

She continued to pound on his chest.

“Take me home! Take me home! I love the pain! Fuck me, fuck me!” she screamed.

In disbelief, we watched her demonic tantrum, frozen in fear, afraid of our boss, terrified of letting her go on.

Then she collapsed onto the dirt near the sidewalk. The insanity stopped. We all crouched over her, as Alfredo stepped in, picked her up in his powerful arms, and carried her back to his car.

Ava grabbed the two scarves from the ground and handed them to me.

“Oh, my God. What just happened?” Ava asked.

I answered with parental calm.

“She is unwell. Could be a reaction to medication. Wrap up things and make it a day. She needs rest,” I said.

Ava went home. The TV crew left.

I stood there with my clipboard and my laptop, dazed and confused and looked back at the empty site.

Damon stood at the far edge of his property beside a 10’ high dumpster. He smoked a cigar. His face floated behind a glow of orange and a miasma of smoke.

Now it was dark.

I got into my car, started the engine, turned on the headlights, and drove off.

The morning after, she lay in her bed, under the blankets. And we stood there, Ava and I, holding a deli bag with a pint of chicken soup and expressions of comfort.

“How do I look?” Hilary asked.
“Wiped out,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Are you cold? Do you want me to open a window? Turn on the fire? Soup will make you feel better,” I said.
“No. Just fine,” she said.

At her townhouse on Tujunga, in Studio City, the master bedroom, en suite, was on the top floor. It was a 90s design with diagonal walls everywhere, a marker of modernity back then. There was a gas fireplace jammed into one corner, pastel flowered sofa and loveseat, the kind they advertise on the 10 PM news, piles of clothes on hangers scattered over the seating, and plug-in nightlight air fresheners.

A blond, ornate, wood, Indonesian coffee table held many silver framed family photos, pictures of deceased relatives and her ex-husband, and large candles on iron stands, fancy touches from the last decade of the last century.

On the pink carpet, Ava kneeled reverently at the foot of the bed.

I was up and around, feigning professionalism, wondering what I could do in the aftermath of last night’s debacle.

“I haven’t looked online. I suppose videos of me went viral,” she said.

“No, not at all. It wasn’t as bad as you think,” I said.

“It was catastrophic. I have to apologize to Damon and Alfredo. They were blindsided,” she said.

I threw up my hands in a what-can-I-say gesture.

“Before I lost control, everything was so perfect. Girls, when you are flying high that’s the most dangerous time. Like those glorious days in Southern California when the blue skies are clear, everything sparkles, the jasmine blooms, a breeze blows. And then a deadly fire erupts,” she said.

Ava listened, sweetly, without comment.
Hilary spoke to her.

“I suppose you are now seeing the ugly side of politics. They won’t teach you this at UCLA. Irrationality. You’ve figured out how to grease the wheel, turn the levers of power, push to get great things done. And in the end your biggest enemy is always crazy you,” she said.

“Like my nonna says, you’ll fight again. You’ll rest and get stronger. And tomorrow you’ll wake up and do your job and move ahead. Because you have no other choice,” Ava said.

“Wise and inspirational words. This 20-year-old is smarter than the 48-year-old. I wish I had your smarts when I was young. I wouldn’t have married. If you don’t want to divorce, don’t marry! Peter haunts me,” she said.

“Peter?” Ava asked.

“My ex-husband. Now someone else’s husband,” she said.

“Is there anything else you need?” I asked.

“No. I suppose I should get up and shower, brush my teeth, comb my hair. They say when you start to groom yourself you are regaining mental health. I wish I had some of that perfume. That would lift my mood,” she said.

“Sorry. It’s in the office. We sent your two scarves to the dry cleaners. You have one unworn one left in a box on your desk,” I said.

“Let’s plan my resurrection. I can wear my big gold cross! And a cheerful, bright green St. John suit and the blue Hermès scarf. I will get back up there on the podium, the night before the election, rally my supporters, and let them know that nothing will defeat Hilary. She is in control of her words and thoughts. And she is determined to fight on!” she said.

Ava went over to Hilary and kissed her on the forehead. Hilary took Ava’s hand.

“Sweet, beautiful child. We women have to stand up for each other. Men will always betray us. But women must stay united. We are sisters and we are strong. Remember that,” Hilary said, caressing Ava’s face.

“I will. Don’t worry,” Ava reassured.

We left her in bed, with her tablet, her down comforter, and chicken soup. We walked down three flights of stairs, through the quiet, empty townhouse of diagonal walls and shuttered windows, out into the daylight and the trees and the traffic of Tujunga Avenue.

Sunday morning, I met Damon at a scenic overlook on Muholland. We parked our cars. We both got out and I handed him his leather bag with $20,000 inside.

“I can’t take this,” I said.

“Ok. Not a problem. Let’s move forward and move on and see to it that Hilary wins on Tuesday,” he said.

Bubbly, upbeat, rested.

Monday Morning Hilary was raring to go. She wore that bright green linen suit, some clangy bracelets and high heels. And her gold cross necklace.

We gathered our staff. She spoke about her bad reaction to hormonal progesterone cream. Her doctor allegedly said her wild mood swings were due to an absorption of the drug from her skin into her bloodstream causing confusion, temporary depression and mood swings.

She spoke of her legislative battles to make drug companies liable for side effects of medications, and how fatal drug overdoses were affecting our community.

She tailored her dark and unfortunate episode to suit her sunny political agenda.

After the speech, she ushered me into her office to speak, privately.

Trouble was evident, immediately, as she stood, arms folded, behind her bunker-like desk.

“Bettina, Alfredo’s sister, sent me a text and said you misgendered her on a Facebook post when you wrote: “Bettina is Alfredo’s only sibling, and he has always adored his baby brother.”

“Oh, my goodness. Well, that was dumb. I must have rush jobbed that. Brother, sister, easily confused the two. Truthfully, until last year Bettina was still his brother Bruno. Let me correct it,” I said.

“Too late. You burned us badly. She is furious. And so is Alfredo. I don’t even think he wants to work on Walkville now. You did something so careless and insensitive that I might have to fire you. I will wait until the end of the week to make my decision. But misgendering, a lethal misuse of pronoun, is a shockingly cruel and bigoted thing, whether intentional or accidental,” she said.

“Hilary, I’m sorry. What can I say? This is not something I did to hurt anyone,” I said.

“We’ve said enough. I have to make my decision and weigh not only the truth and ethics, but public opinion. This could die down or explode. But your hasty and careless post might come up again in a few years and then I will have no defense for it,” she said.

I felt the earth shake under me, betrayed by everything and everyone.

She had turned on me. I thought she needed me, but now the office doors shut, people walked past me with their heads down. I felt like a fly trapped inside a window screen.

Later, I went out alone and disturbed into the doggy run park behind our municipal building, walking and perplexing, through the littered desiccation.

A text from Damon.

Alfredo’s sister and the whole PC gang are upset, huh? Do you think this will affect the election?

I didn’t reply. We had one last event to attend at Magnolia Park. If he didn’t come, I didn’t care.

I had moved into his court of ill feeling against Hilary. But I hoped for her understanding. She had been through some rough days.

    Another Damon text came in.

Peter said she will turn on you. She only looks out for herself. She spouts pieties but believes in nothing but her own ambition. For Hilary there is no truth, only strategy to hang onto power yet another day.

Why did he write this? What was his agenda? He had money and security, he had Peter. What on Earth did he lack?

I went back into the building lobby. Ava came out of the elevator.

“You don’t want to go up there,” Ava said.

“What?” I asked.

“She’s screaming about God and the Devil and how some fucking Mexican dumped a sofa in front of her house. She is out-of-control again, so we are all running out of the office. Something is very sick with her. I don’t know if it’s the medication, but she is attacking and yelling and swearing like a madwoman. I’m terrified. I need to go home!” Ava said.

We descended the steps into the street.

“When did it start?” I asked as we hurried to her car.

“She was perfectly calm. I was in her office. She was putting on make-up, combing her hair. And I was straightening up her desk. I opened a drawer to get out a hairbrush for her and found some perfume and gave it to her. She sprayed it and I swear the next minute she went ballistic,” Ava said.

“You better go home. Are you OK?” I asked.

“I’m fine. I think someone called security and they are dealing with her. They have body cams so I’m sure they will handle her with care. She needs help. She is not normal. She will hurt someone, if not herself,” Ava said.

Ava and I walked towards her car. We stopped and I asked her one last thing.

“You say she sprayed the perfume on and then she lost control?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ava said.

After a miserable, sleepless night, I woke up adrift. It was Election Day morning. Unneeded in the office, unwanted by my boss, theoretically unemployed, I went for a bike ride.

I rode around the old streets with the bungalow houses, dilapidated apartments, taco trucks, and homeless camps, and crossed into the industrial district.

I biked through a broken and wounded world. I passed the stretching emptiness of Samson Lumber, a retail wasteland I had sought to transform through prodigal feats of persuasion and alliances with the powerful and the political.

I rode past the spy-like Atelier Samson, the steel building and its master inside, undoubtedly surveilling and recording me on bike, to what end I wondered; me futilely riding, me like a rebel, me riding against the wind and fate.

On that bike, I only cared to clear my head. I thought of nothing, forgetting that until yesterday, the most important thing in my life was the re-election of Hilary Flores.

On Friday, after Hilary won her re-election, she fired me for the Facebook post erroneously misgendering Bettina Perez.

“By a miracle of God hardly anyone showed up to vote. For that we can be thankful. My enemies did not bother. You’ve done a lot of remarkable things. And I will surely give you a high recommendation. But I cannot, in good conscience, keep you on with your offensive post on record,” she said.

I wept at the unfairness of it. Hard work, good intentions, prodigious ideas, cleverness and loyalty, none of it mattered.

But I talked back.

“You said some heinous things only a few days ago, and people were angry at you, yet you stood in front of your staff and made excuses and blamed it on drugs. You apologized with half-truths. I stood by you, even though I didn’t quite believe you, and I worked hard to make you win again, which you did, and now you’ve repaid my hard work by firing me. Aren’t you just a hypocrite?” I asked.

“In politics there is no such thing as hypocrisy,” she said.

“Don’t I deserve a second chance like you do? I’m just expendable? I had true gratitude for you, my first employer after college. I truly believed in our mission, together, building a better 6th District, and only now do I learn that I am disposable, like a used condom thrown onto the curb,” I said.

“You’re young and resilient. You weren’t thrown into the gutter,” she said.

“You’ve discarded an ally and a loyal friend. And worse, you’ve made an enemy. I won’t forget your vileness,” I said.

There is no empty satisfaction quite as satisfactory as telling off a boss who is firing you. To you will come nothing but the memory of rebellion.

I collected unemployment and grievances.

I had a lot of free time after my dismissal. I worked on myself as the cliché goes.

One morning I rode an exercise bike at the gym.
A well-built, good-looking guy waved to me.

It was Alfredo Perez. I meekly waved back. He walked over, grinning, licking his lips, and grabbed my handlebars, rubbing them.

“Good to see you! I had no idea if you were still around. Walkville is coming along. Units are going up fast. I miss your input and ideas. I know you had a falling out with Hilary, and I don’t know all the details, but you were the heart and soul of this project. What are you doing now? Conquering the world?” he asked.

“You don’t know? You don’t know what happened? I offended you and your sister. I was fired for misgendering her. Aren’t you furious with me? Doesn’t your sister hate me? I lost my job for posting brother for sister on Facebook,” I said.

“Huh? I don’t understand anything you just said. You were fired for calling my sister my brother? We would never be angry about that. Bettina is a tolerant, funny, cool person. She is a stand-up comedian. She doesn’t hold grudges. She wouldn’t ask for you to lose your job for using the wrong pronoun. That is bullshit,” he said.

“Are you still friends with Hilary?” I asked.

“I see her occasionally, professionally. I wasn’t dating her. We had a mutual interest to work together. And we don’t have much in common other than Walkville. I’m just flabbergasted, really hurt that my sister and I would be used as the reason for your firing. There is no truth to it whatsoever. Well good luck and see you later,” he said.

I got off the bike. And walked into the bathroom and threw cold water on my face.

I went back up to Mulholland, along the ridge of the mountains, and met with Damon, in a park near his house. We sat on a bench with a panoramic view that stretched to Walkville and beyond.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

“The view is beautiful. My life is miserable,” I said.

“What can Los Angeles offer the young anymore? It’s finished, rotten, a hindrance. Would you consider moving somewhere else?” he asked.

“I guess. I have friends who moved to Phoenix, Austin, Denver, all the usual places,” I said.

“Cleveland?” he asked.
“Cleveland? Hell no!” I said.

“If you had the opportunity to do another Walkville, but six times the size, with 30,000 residents in a green community would you consider it?” he asked.

“Of course, that’s what I want,” I said.

“I own some half million square feet in East Cleveland, the poorest and most neglected part of that city. But I have been in negotiations with city, state and federal agencies to build another Walkville in Ohio. This one is $1.5 billion dollars, nearly all government funded. It will tie into a new, regional industrial and transportation plan, and take 10 to 20 years to complete,” he said.

“Cleveland? Cleveland, Ohio?” I asked.

“They have no hurricanes, hardly any tornadoes, the climate is moderate, and it will never be as hot as the South or as cold as Canada. It is close to so much, the furthest east in the Midwest, the furthest west in the East. They have wineries in Western New York, historic towns, and you’re a couple hours drive to Kentucky’s bourbon and whiskey distilleries,” he said.

“You are offering me a job to head up the Ohio project?” I asked.

“I will have a 7-bedroom mansion, built in 1925, fully furnished, set up for you to live in, rent free, private chef on premises, right in a gorgeous, historic section of Cleveland Heights. You will live five minutes from the job site. And I will pay you, out of pocket, $400,000 a year with a ten-year contract,” he said.

“But I have to move to Cleveland?” I asked.

“Wait until you tell your friends where you are moving. Wait until you tell them how much you are going to earn,” he said.

“I lost faith after I was fired. You are hiring a wounded person,” I said.

“With faith all things are possible,” he said.

“$400,000 a year. In Cleveland. No rent. That is a lot of money. They didn’t believe me when I got my job with Hilary. They won’t believe this. What about your scarves and your perfumes, your other business?” I asked.

“Peter is working on new perfumed scarves for Hilary. He is determined to come up with an even stronger scent for her. He considers it his life’s mission to do this. She told him she plans to run for Governor in three years. Peter is planning furiously to design new scarves for her to wear when she reaches that office,” he said.

Damon and I hung out at the park for a bit longer, and then we went for a Japanese lunch in Studio City. We drank hot sake and ate a $150 lunch of omakase sushi: Mackerel, Scallop, Barracuda, Uni, Trout, Snapper, Halibut, Toro, Tamago egg, raw pieces of delectably fresh and expensive fish, dipped in ginger and soy sauce.

I think I was overcome with the sake when I told him that I didn’t want to move to Ohio.

“You do what you want. Lightning only strikes once. If you don’t take it when it hits it will never hit again,” he said.

“But giving up California. Is that a wise move?” I asked.
“You aren’t giving up on California,” he said.
“No?” I asked.
“California gave up on you. Find your dream elsewhere,” he said.
I sipped more sake.
“I know what you did,” I said.
“I told you what I did,” he corrected.
“How can that be right? Subliminal manipulation
of Hilary?” I asked.
“How is it wrong? She only spoke her mind,” he asked.
“What if you do the same to me?” I asked.
“What if you tell the truth? Is that something
to fear?” he asked.
“This is a big thing you are offering me. Can I
go home and consider it?” I asked.
“You are free. The only one who controls you is you,” he said.

He paid the bill and we went outside to give the parking attendant our tickets. We stood inebriated and satiated and waited for our cars to come to our feet. And we drove off, each in our own cars, back to our own houses, back to ponder and plan for tomorrow.

END

The Model is Not Your Friend

Screen Shot 2017-06-27 at 10.12.27 AM
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

Entwined.

 

Illustration used with the express permission of Anne Watkins.  http://annewatkins.com
Illustration used with the express permission of Anne Watkins. http://annewatkins.com

Last year, I met an older woman.

Donna Buckwalt, an illustrator from New York City, had contacted me on Facebook.

She found my photos online. And she complimented me.

MatthewJMcCarthyPhotoYonkers

She said she we shared a mutual friend, Candy Stafford. Candy lived in Paris writing about food.

I had photographed Candy’s cookbook, “Me and the Croissant”, published in 2001.

Entwined

Photos by

Matthew

Joseph

McCarthy

Ms. Buckwalt told me she was re-organizing her Riverside Drive apartment and office, and asked me to come down from Yonkers to work with her.
I wasn’t working. Regularly.

My last corporate job was in 2004. I had been fired from the New York Press for digitally altered photographs of homeless people. I freely admit I added bruises, cuts and blackened teeth to their faces. It was more compelling.

I have since lived hand-to-mouth. I suppose I should not elicit pity, but I’m also HIV positive. I take medicines to forestall death. My parents died in the late 1990s. I have no children.

I came from that last generation to believe work edifying and productive. My high school graduating class, 1984, went off to college and many went up into the endless elevators of Wall Street and finance.

I never went anywhere.

Which is why Ms.Buckwalt’s offer, paying for my train ticket, round-trip, seemed tempting.

I emailed Candy in Paris to ask her about our  mutual friend.
She told me to watch out. She said Donna had “entwining ways.”

Donna’s building, 37 Riverside, was about 13 stories tall, red brick upper body and limestone base, a solid mass of traditional style with a doorman, green awning and a brass door.

It stood on a hilly part of Riverside along the park, the Hudson in near view.

It was a hot, humid Monday in May. I rode the train down to Grand Central. I wore, illogically, a denim jacket and back strapped a camera case, and had walked, from Park and 45th, through Central Park, exiting greenery, moving west to Riverside, trekking through the mugginess up to 76th.

New York, I have observed, gets richer every year, even as I stay poor. But the lobby of 37; antiquated, dim, stuffy; old elevator and old ladies, seemed not so rich. Amongst its gentle decay I felt, strangely, at home.

The rapacious and rude city, was not evident, at this building, at this corner, at 76th and Riverside. It seemed almost courtly and humble.

New York City. So convinced it is on the cutting edge. Yet I know it as an old worn friend.

Old, it stays, so comforting, New York, old in its uniformed doormen, old in its regular dog-walking residents, old in its self-regard for the order of high to low, of doctors, lawyers, financiers, the Ivy League, Columbia-Presbyterian, the Metropolitan Museum. Old it stays, in its ancient tunnels going under the river, its bridges, its legends of success and its abhorrence of failure. Old it stays in trusting wealth, guarding power, sanctifying inequality. Old, it stays, in names, in neighborhoods, in zoning, in teams, in theaters, in hotels, in distinctions: East and West, Uptown, Midtown, Downtown, Jersey. Old it goes as it builds, slowly, over many decades: parks, highways, tunnels, subways, schools.

1920 was only yesterday. I was old too, made lethargic and cynical by accident.

I had come down here, 50 years old, factually and demonstrably failed in every sense of the word, yet imagining that this strange woman’s invitation to her apartment might be the start of something better: to get me out of poverty and earning a living again.

Apartment #602: just to the left of the elevator.

I rang the bell and could hear the yap of a small dog and the master’s footsteps on a wood floor.

A brown steel door opened. I shook the hand and introduced myself to a sun-fried dame in headscarf. She ushered me into a cluttered living room stacked with books alongside mismatched chairs. She pulled an oil painting off the sofa, offered me tea, sat me down. We talked about her. She loved playing tennis, sailing on Long Island Sound, and riding her bike down to Battery Park City.

“I’m good at my illustrations but fucked up in organizing my life. I need help. I’ve been a mess since I left Wellesley,” she said. A phone rang and she went to answer it, an old kind plugged into a wall. I had entered an apartment from the last century.

Around the apartment there were things people don’t use anymore: books, record albums, a tape recorder, an answering machine, a typewriter, and a hot plate. Plants sat on a radiator. A fan caked with grease and dust whirled on a desk near an open window.

I asked her what she wanted me to do. She brought me into her bedroom, where a double bed, covered in a white duvet, took up the whole room. She pushed the mattress back and opened a single closet door. Clothes, boxes, and books were packed into it.

“This is my main obstacle. I want to clear it out and get it on Etsy,” she said. “I have cashmere sweaters from I Magnin and Bonwit Teller,” she said, referencing fancy women’s stores from the 1950s and 60s.

The piles seemed to agitate her. She said they were suffocating her. Everything lying around unused could make money she said.

She was enormously buried under her clutter; pulled together and petite in denim shirt and rolled up khaki. She anxiously picked up litter scattered on the floor, magnetized and energized like a rapidly spinning gyroscope.

Dignified, youthful, wrinkled, frantic, graceful.
Worried, self-assured, elegant, loony, intellectual, creative, consumed.
Her personal contradictions were her city’s contradictions.

I observed her and she became self-conscious. “You think I’m crazy don’t you?” she asked. Then she started scrubbing her toilet. “I’m out of bleach damn it!”

She came out of the bathroom and smiled at me.

With blue-eyes she looked at me, alternating between severity and empathy, her thin, bony arms and bony cage moving around the apartment. Then she collapsed on her bed, laid down on her back and began to free associate.

“I spent $50,000 investing in my 25-year-old son’s start up company. I must be crazy!” she said. “I’m 66-years-old. I have to watch my money!”

Why did she tell me that? So I would work for free?

I was down on my knees, inside the closet. She went into the living room. I heard a man’s voice, low and grumbling. Then summer sweat and labored breathing came into the air-conditioned bedroom.

“Teddy meet Matthew. He’s helping me organize,” she said.

“Mother you always create drama. Problems invented to solve,” he said, dropping his backpack on the bed.

“Do you live here too?” I asked.
“No. I wouldn’t risk it. I’m in Brooklyn,” he said.

He had his mother’s blue eyes, freckled face and long, reddish hair hanging wet and limp on either side of a tongue that hung out of his mouth like a dehydrated pup. He wore loose and sloppy, walking as he dressed.

“In school?” I asked.

“What?” he said.

“Are you in school?” I asked.

“I work if that’s what you are asking. I don’t believe in college. It’s a waste of time,” he said.

Donna came in with cold water in ball jars.

“Pickle Paradise,” Donna said.

“Mom stop it!” he said.

“My son has a very successful online pickle business that is expanding. He needs to build up his website. Pictures of pickles are what he needs! And he is too lazy to go out and get a photographer!” she said.

She suggested we leave the bedroom and its closet  and go into the living room.

I learned that Teddy needed photos of his pickles. I had once shot photos of croissants. Mother and son wanted to know: could I now make images for Pickle Paradise?

I came down with a cold a week after I left Donna’s apartment. The cold turned into pneumonia. And I was put on medication and into bed where I stayed for much of June. Serena, a Medi-Cal nurse and native of Belize, stopped in two days a week to take my temperature. She made sure I was taking my medications.

I lost 7 pounds. My cheekbones came through. My eyes, always big, became bigger, and sunken, and tired, and glassy. I lost my appetite and my energy. A dull fever moved in and kept me in torpor.

It rained most of my sick days, lessening the appeal of the outdoors, lessening the motivation to recover faster.

I sat in bed. I watched TV. I listened to the rain. I read The New Yorker.

I got out of bed several times a day, and went into the bathroom, brushing and gargling, shitting and showering, attending minimally to my upkeep.

After three weeks, I was again strong enough to get up and walk. I went out of my apartment and over to Epstein’s Kosher Deli for chicken noodle soup, praying to each healing bowl.

This was the seventh time I had pneumonia since the onset of HIV. And each time, in each episode, after it passed, I went forward, weakened and saddened,  alive and fighting.

Candy called me from Paris. She wanted to know how I was doing. I had not spoken to her since I started working for Donna.  I omitted my latest sickness from the conversation.

I spoke as if I were engaged in a new project: as a personal assistant to an artist. My morale rose as I spoke about photographing pickles, organizing the artist’s closet, helping her son get his food business off the ground.

In July I was well enough to go back to Donna’s apartment. She now had a new task. She asked me to photograph her fashion illustrations, which she wanted to put up on Etsy.

“I won’t pay you up front. But every print that sells, you will get 50%, which should inspire you to photograph. I have hundreds, if not thousands of illustrations,” she said.

Starvation would be the motivation in anticipation of a payoff.

“What about your son’s pickles?” I asked.

“He and I are not on speaking terms,” she said. “He went to Bratislava with his girlfriend and they are living in a castle with her parents until September. And he left his pickle business up in the air. Irresponsible!”

She also told me she had ordered a new medium format camera for herself. She wanted lessons in how to use it. She would, of course, pay me to teach her, after I organized the closet and photographed her illustrations for Etsy.

On the days, and there were many, when I was not working, I would go down to Chelsea and walk Fifth Avenue, past the Flatiron and eventually end up on 17th Street.

I wandered there in search of wandering ghosts.

During my halcyon youth, two and half decades ago, 17th Street contained a strange lure of secret sex rendezvous meet-ups. I would meet men, from every walk of life; professors and taxi drivers, waiters and gallery owners, students and sales clerks; on the street, follow them, and eventually get naked with them.

I was good looking then, an Irish runner from Yonkers, looking somewhat like Matt Dillon, dressed in tight jeans, black leather jacket, black boots. I was cocky. I had an aura of risk. I sought it. I emitted it.

My time, in 1980s New York, was spent in a dangerous, broken, bankrupt, criminal, racial, contentious, argumentative, violent city. The Bronx burned, trains were pissed in and painted on, muggings and killings exploded. The whites were running away, the dark and the wild were ascending.

And twenty-five years ago, the empty buildings on 17th Street had old dry goods stores, old needle trades, old suppliers selling things nobody needed anymore. And between the dying off industries of old New York, we rebels poured in: new, vital and sexual. We got high, we fucked, we traded tricks at night, we wandered vacant spaces unclothed. We impregnated manufacturing dead lands with life’s perversions and pleasures.

By December, I had shot some 150 photos of Donna’s fashion illustrations. I created an Etsy page, and uploaded them. They ranged in price from $75 to $300 each.

Only three sold in two months. My share of the profit was $100.

I rode the train down to her apartment a few times a week. I paid for my transportation. I had a job, but I was going broke doing her work.

But she had even more ideas for me. She wanted to know if I would be interested in designing a gallery for her in Soho. She would rent out a back room and hang her work on the walls. She asked me if I would consider the gallery assignment.

And while I was deciding she brought up another idea of hers.

She was making a homemade hair crème out of coconut oil. She knew someone who was a graphic designer and packager and Donna was intent on selling this hair product. Would I be interested in photographing the coconut hair product and put it up on the Etsy page alongside the non-selling fashion illustrations?

She proposed to let me shoot the hair glob for free and earn a commission on every container sold.

Every offer she made was a new web of potential, a sticky web that enveloped me in her ideas, her inventions, her imaginations.

Yet, I was haunted, sometimes, often, usually, by the utter futility of being her low paid go-to-man.

I found out in early February that my Yonkers apartment was getting torn down. It was a room in an old wooden house that was on land near the river redevelopment. Let it be torn down. I hated it anyway.

I thought about leaving Yonkers and moving down to Boca Raton where my friend Juan Lindo worked at Neiman-Marcus. Might he take me in as a roomie? I thought of migrating away from the certain fate of dying poor and unrecognized in New York, an old man in cold weather, sick and alive, drugged for life, surviving on handouts, charity, luck and coincidence.

“My son is in Berlin,” Donna said. He had a teaching job and an offer from Siemens in Zurich to work as a software consultant. He was waiting there, expectant and certain of work.

Somehow youth, directionless, always, it seems, lands in money.

Donna had taken me out for pizza lunch on Broadway, a rarity, as her idea of sustenance was unwrapping a rice cake in her apartment and offering me bottled water. I was starving and devoured sausage and garlic and mozzarella and tomatoes.

She asked me if I wanted to sublet her apartment. She had a summer offer to go to France to teach illustration to retired people on a Loire River cruise boat.

“I have to go,” she said, “I have my co-op, which I’ve been lucky enough to inherit, but one has to work, and this is a fabulous opportunity to live in France, and get paid for what I love to do!”

On Broadway, outside the windows of the pizzeria, the women pushed baby carriages, the old people went by on walker and cane, and the young carried yoga mats.

Donna sat across from me, contented. She sipped iced tea, unsweetened. And did not touch her pizza, at all. Not eating for her was a deliberate choice.

I asked, with some low-grade resentment, how she thought I could afford to sublet her apartment. She smiled.

“I thought I was being generous in asking,” she said.

Last September she went off to France. I stayed in Yonkers.
On September 11th, I went into Manhattan down to Ground Zero.

I remembered it as it once was: two enormous towers, ugly gigantic blocks 110 stories tall. I once hated their brutality of form. Now I recalled their brutal destruction.
I felt again, in this sacred place, 9/11/01, a cataclysm of fire and flesh.

On that day, and the days after, the city stank of death. My city.


After I lost my job I never went downtown. My last memory of the World Trade Center: when all of the New York Press went for breakfast at Windows on the World.
Tuesday, January 4, 2000.

Publisher Russ Smith brought us there for our first day back at work in the new 21st Century.
Replaced now by resurrected architecture.
A skyscraper: 1,776 feet tall.

A workplace: Freedom Tower.

That is what they named it.
Symbolism, everywhere: packaged, sold, memorialized, edified, and consecrated. Shed a tear, buy a souvenir.

Cascading waters, names of the dead engraved on stone, trees and pathways, spaces for thinking about death. A museum for memories…

This is where I came one day last September. On one of my many free days wandering the city, free at last from the strange and distracting interlude of work and play with Ms. Donna Buckwalt at 37 Riverside Drive.

END

 

 

 

 

Placidia Avenue

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Walter sought to get work as a paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.

Nariko was asleep at 5am when a text message awoke her.

She lay in a dark bedroom next to her husband Eric, inside a warmly furnished ranch house, somewhere in the shadows of the mountains in Toluca Lake.

They lived in an affluent, tony district of clean windows, mowed lawns, and large, tinted glass cars carrying schoolchildren.

She dropped out from blanket onto carpet and sat on the floor. In her hand were illuminated words: “I love you. See you soon. Walt.”

She tiptoed out, walked down the hall, and reached into a closet laundry hamper, clutching a stained shirt and elastic shorts.

After exercise, still in the dark before the dawn, she set out granola, almond milk, sliced bananas, coffee and boiled-eggs for Eric and little Lillian.

Eric came out of the bedroom. He stood near the coffee maker, in a white t-shirt and blue boxers. He was in a cloudy, Monday morning kitchen, a decade past his youth, hurling into mid-life.

He worked at nearby Warner Brothers Studio. His office was a trailer in his own production company, staffed by interns who spent all day online inventing tales, a business of no security and no importance, whose attributes and contracts were purchased ten years earlier with his late father’s money. Something Southern and scatalogical was always in development and just about to get green lit.

At night, after work, Eric pedaled out into the dark. He rode home through Burbank and Toluca Lake, taking wrong roads, turning down unfamiliar streets, places he rode through with no clear direction, in a frenzy of sweat and physicality; elated, invigorated.

In low gear, passing other houses and inhabitants, he processed and archived life with no intention beyond sensation.

Back home on Placidia Avenue, Trader Joe’s food waited: pre-cooked turkey meatballs, plastic bag risotto, and bottles of cheap red wine. Dessert was always those waxed tangerines and tiny containers of Greek yogurt.

His income was largely a trust fund depositing enough for mortgage, dinner and a movie into his account.

His wife was cheating and he knew it but he didn’t.

This particular morning she was naked and locked in the bathroom seated on the toilet texting Walt, a hired photographer from back east whose visit was platonic in purpose. She sat on the throne for fifteen minutes and then wiped up, made up her face, threw on a shirt and slipped like a virgin into bleached white jeans.

Nariko Araki worked inside a converted garage, in back of her well-groomed Toluca Lake garden. Thin, dark-haired, and industrious, she commanded a small textile studio, printing and producing organic cloth whose aura was tactile, natural, handcrafted, and sensual.

She used a lot of blues and whites, careful not to suffocate in pattern. Every marking and shape had plenty of room around it. In her creations objects floated separately in vast white seas.

She looked cool and smelled smoky like cedar.

She mixed brown dyes in a large steel can, standing on a small step ladder, stirring it with a plastic oar as Eric stood by plaintively, like a boy watching his mother make dinner.

She told him that his car payment, house taxes, mortgage payment and credit card bills were due and he had to pay them all. Head down, he turned and walked out, stomping on fallen gold maple leaves.

Back to work she went, tugging, folding, tucking, rolling and lifting fabric. Bolts of linen cloth, in hues of walnut, sage, saffron and henna, were laid down and stacked on the concrete floor. Inks, dyes, industrial poisons and metal stamps congregated atop rectangular wooden tables.

In a corner, a pile of corrugated boxes, packed with fabrics, pasted in mailing labels, waited in silence for the UPS man atop the Dutch door ledge.

In the open air of the workshop Nariko’s mercurial moods moved from anxiety to tranquility, acidic and rancid from chemicals, benignly seductive in rose, jasmine and lavender.

Self-taught, she had taken a home hobby and built it into a thriving little enterprise supplying fabrics for home furnishings, bedding, clothing and tabletops.

In long sleeve black spandex top and dark jeans, Eric came back into the studio with Lillian on his arm. He asked for the car keys and some gas money to drive the child to school.

“I think we are going to have a meeting at Paramount next week. New exec there used to go to Syracuse with Cody Soldinger,” he said.

“Take a hundred out of my purse,” she directed, holding and cutting orange and black fishes printed on white cotton.

On the driveway, he put Lillian into a seat, belted her in and stopped to look up at the sky. Cirrus clouds, wisps of white, blown by a cold north wind, moved across the sky like kinetic sculpture from God’s mobile.

The unfathomable enormity of the blue and beyond was terrifying.

He stopped looking up and got down into the car.

The Photographer

A week before Thanksgiving, Walter W. Simmons was inside Nariko’s studio.

Prematurely gray, he favored his old Nikon F, coffee in a mug, and menthol lozenges that he sucked all day turning his kisses cool and hot.

Lean, up and down, he favored dark denim, turtleneck sweaters, Red Wing boots, and aviator sunglasses.

He moved around the studio, on his knees, lens aimed up. Perched on a ladder looking down.

Nariko wore a long black cotton scarf whirling about her neck. She stood next to the Dutch door, resting her elbow on the ledge, and held a cup of green tea in a gray ceramic mug.

Walter sought to get work as paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.

Nariko guessed that Walter saw in her something that fit into his own marketing plan.

Walter set up a mise en scène plate of oatmeal cookies atop the oatmeal dyed linen.  He was a master of the subtly obvious.

He went into the garden and took close-ups of lambs ears and succulents, jasmine vines and hanging lanterns. He went back in and grabbed her from behind, kissing her on the neck.

Before he jumped in a cab to Burbank Airport he had both hands under her blouse, clasping her breasts, rubbing against her, man to woman, breathing into her ears, sticking his probing tongue into the ridges and spirals of her sonic hinterlands.

He aimed to dominate. But he wrapped his industrial sized dreams in benign sustainability.

Walter’s visits invigorated her. He found sunlight and shadow in her Southern California studio as only a visitor from a dark, northern place could.

The conjugation of her printed fabric and his printed photographs bore real emotion and sentiment, connection and intimacy. His departures left her empty, sullen, and morose.

She needed activity and threw herself back into projects, chores, and work.

On the studio wall she had a large chalkboard grid for the year, scheduling each month’s production goals and deadlines.

Two years ago none of this existed.

Last year she called it a hobby.

And this year it was a business.

And some of it was an affair: illicit, dangerous, exciting and energizing.

Auntie Tammy

In a little yellow VW, 80-year-old Auntie Tammy sped up the 405 and across the 101 for her once-a-month visitation with her niece.

Tammy Shibuya was the youngest and only survivor of a family of four who had lived in Mountain View, CA before WWII. Rounded up after Pearl Harbor they endured more than three years in an internment camp, returning back home to a looted hardware store.  Unable to rebuild on land stolen, the Shibuya clan went south. They joined family in Oxnard, farming strawberries and asparagus, later migrating southward into West Los Angeles property development in the 1950s.

Auntie Tammy never married and worked managing apartments. She was tough, able to get under a leaking sink and clear pipes, wire fixtures and hang doors. She scoffed at spendthrifts who wasted money on plumbers and electricians. Thin and fastidious, she ate carrots and ramen soup, washed her hair in bar soap, and kept her furniture for 40 years. She barked out orders to tradesman, and knew her way around blueprints, drains, circuit breakers and lathe saws too.

Unreligious, unromantic and clear-eyed, she spoke the truth, making many enemies. If you were fat, indebted, bored, failing school, falling into self-pity, she let you know. Hardy, blunt and clear-eyed, she lead a life of flinty independence and self-reliance.

Nariko and her aunt walked around the brightly illuminated studio as ductless air-conditioning blew, and a new 55-inch smart TV played.

Her Aunt stood glumly, shaking her head.

“You spend too much. Air-conditioning? New TV? New computer? How much are you selling and how much are you spending?” she asked.

Nariko had expected the assault. She was armed with figures and produced an optimistic report. Tammy did not budge.

“I’m no spoil sport Niki. You have a creative mind and you do good work. But keep your ego in check. Don’t overdo it, don’t try to impress with a big fancy operation,” Tammy said.

Nariko attempted to get up from the tackle and threw parental responsibility and wifely duty back at the old childless woman without a husband.

“Who is talking about your kid or your husband? I’m speaking about your money. Spending it like you have so much to spend. One day you might be in trouble. Or your husband loses his job. Or God forbid you have to go into the hospital. Save money. Save money. That’s what I tell you. I didn’t buy a TV until I was 40 years old!”

Tammy asked about Eric’s work.

“He’s got some promising leads at Paramount,” Nariko said quietly.

“Ha! The so-called industry! The business! I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to see generations of young men and women go broke trying to catch fire in Hollywood. I think your husband is headed for calamity. He’s too old to play that fucking game,” she said.

The Virtual Dog

Walter emailed his edited photographs to Nariko. She waited until Eric came home that night to unveil them to him. It had been a long day with Tammy ignoring putdowns and hiding wounds.

She fortified herself with several large glasses of Cabernet, numbing potential joy and carnal guilt.

It was dark, about 8pm. Drenched in bike sweat, Eric came through the back door. He soaped up his hands, washed his face, poured himself a glass of red wine and kissed milk-lipped Lillian.

“Daddy is home. Aren’t you happy?” he asked, wetting a paper towel and dabbing his daughter’s chin. She smiled and turned away to the hopping rabbit cartoon.

Husband and wife walked out into the studio and sat down at the desktop monitor. Before receiving her digital photos, Nariko sprayed the screen with glass cleaner, as if preparing to receive a holy sacrament.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“My aunt was here today spreading her joy,” she said.

“Let’s look at these photos from Walter. I think they might distract me.”

Scrolling down the selections, andante, reverently, Nariko put her finger on the screen each time a new photograph born into being.

Walter’s camera had captured and enhanced the textures, the linens and cottons, and the richly dyed silks. Next to the fabrics, he contrasted food and color: red wet cranberries, blue soaked blueberries, rinsed romaine lettuce, green and alive.

Her print making, drudgery in reality, was transformed in his images to an artistic blur of human at razor-sharp machine. Her specter brushed across his wide angled shots, morphing into a dark form floating across a bright white room.

“I’m dazzled,” she said. “I can’t believe how wonderful these are. I wish I could send these to Aunt Tammy but she doesn’t use a computer!”

She was breathless and exhausted from excitement and got up to get a glass of water.  As she stood at the tap, Eric inspected each photograph.

Schooled in the falsehoods of the edit bay, he stared closely at the photographs, one in particular. “Whose dog is this?” he asked as he pointed to a lovely, shiny Golden Retriever online.  She sat down quizzically.

“That’s so weird. He must have put that in,” she said.

“Photoshop.” he said. “That CG dog is so real he probably barks.”

“I’m baffled,” she said.  They looked at another image of the patio. Instead of a few pots of succulents, there were perhaps two-dozen pots of succulents, and many flowered vines.

In several close-ups of her, her dark eye circles had been removed, something she did not mind. But magenta lipstick floated across her virtual lips and her teeth were as white as a just scoured ceramic sink.

“I guess he thinks he can make you look better,” Eric said without malice.

“The whole reason I hired him was honesty. That’s what I wanted from Walter,” she told Eric.

Did she look old in real life? Were her teeth yellow? What else was Walter not telling her? Why did he not ask her before mangling reality?

The photographer’s uninvited artifice, the redrawing of her face and space, violated her integrity and trust. His godlike belief in overt digital correction sickened her.

And then there was the $4,000 invoice.

“Are you going to say something to him?” Eric asked.

“Not yet. He knows many editors and people in New York. If I confront him he may break up with me. Let me think about this,” she said.

“Break up?” Eric asked laughing. “Are you two dating?”

“Of course not!” she answered.

Walter’s methods had exposed client and vendor, in flattery rendered dishonestly. Eric had uncovered it, as baldly as if he had walked in on her with another man.

Before the discovery of the artifice, she held Walter on a higher plane.  She believed in his moody, faded photographs of tin crosses, rough hewn wood beams, long haired bearded men, brick warehouses on the waterfront, ales poured, cows milked, corn shucked.

Eric consoled. “This is what they all do. Do you want to play the game? Don’t you want your work presented professionally? You’re going to get a lot of orders from these,” he said.

Ash Ritual

New orders grew.

Hits and tweats, posts and emails multiplied. Bloggers blogged.

Nariko hired a part-time student assistant.

Lillian graduated from Kindergarten, and Nariko threw a little party with some local children and parents. Walter was in Pacific Palisades photographing designer Ross Cassidy’s mud room.

He came over to Toluca Lake to photograph the Kindergarten graduation party. He had hoped, and was delighted upon arriving, to see Eric absent.

Eric knew the end was coming for his production company. His partner dropped the news that he would no longer look for investors. Eric was leaving entertainment for good.

But God, how he loved the make believe land of Warner Brothers back lot.

He biked around the empty, dark studio streets, an ersatz neighborhood of parks, lampposts, carousels, brownstones and gracious brick homes planted with plastic flowers and portable trees.

Riding out of studio gate, on his evening bike ride home, Eric stopped to pick up some wine at Trader Joe’s. He saw an old classmate from Ramaz, attorney Theodore Gettelman, tall and middle-aged, but dressed boyishly in blue crew neck and khakis, backpack slung over one shoulder.

Eric observed him silently. It was too much, now, to catch up in banalities and wrap-ups with someone from that era. Gettelman was that former cool kid, snarky; amused when someone tripped on ice at Wollman Rink.

Pity, not envy, came to Eric’s mind as he imagined Gettelman, now entangled in Los Angeles and her hothouse fictions, an urban magnet for deluded idiots, insane ambition and unavoidable disappointment.

Eric bought a $4 bottle, paying without speaking. On the sidewalk, he watched Gettelman drive east on Riverside in a black Tesla, no doubt on his way to a meeting with someone behind a guardhouse.

Cars sped by as Eric unlocked his bike.  He walked it into an alley without prying eyes. And leaned against a dumpster wall to cry. He stayed within his sadness for a few minutes.

A dry wind picked up. Eric got back on the bike and rode home against it.

Little LEDs

It was a backyard Kindergarten graduation party. Arthur Rubinstein played Bach on Bose.

A small group of neighbors, parents, and a few children who attended school with Lillian, ate gluten free cakes and drank organic juices. The decorations were Japanese lanterns and Nariko’s linens and napkins.

Walter reveled in the waning sunlight and cinematic colors of the hanging lights. He could be seduced by naturalism but only if it had some payoff. And this event, he told Nariko, reminded him of one of Ina Garten’s East Hampton summer parties.

Nariko walked into the kitchen where Auntie Tammy conservatively turned off kitchen lights. “Everyone is in the backyard!” Tammy protested. Nariko turned the lights back on and guided her aunt into the yard.

Auntie Tammy carried a large glass of red wine in her hand, carefully stepping over the irregular stones, making her way over to Walter. “I hear you are a lawyer who gave up practice to do photography,” she said.

Walter smiled. “Yes, and I hear that you are the terror of Toluca Lake,” he said.

“Oh, I am. But I don’t live here. I’m in West LA.  Tell me, why do you want to make your living doing something everyone on Earth can do for free?”

“I don’t understand. Are you saying there is no such thing as a professional photographer?” he asked.

“Not any more. Maybe when I was young. I think it’s pure economics young man. What you do anyone can do,” she said.

He was constrained in his response by her oldness. Swimming in his own photographic imagination, this old lady shark had bit off his leg.

“I intend to make a living at my work. I love photography. And I do have more and more clients and more and more recognition for my work. So thank you for your advice,” he said and walked away.

She had picked up on his brittle insecurity and exposed it.

Inside the house, Eric, freshly showered, dressed in a blue chambray shirt, slim tan corduroys, and dark brown suede boots, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife. Nariko told him he looked handsome.

Walter walked in distressed and visibly agitated. He asked Nariko if he could speak to her privately.  She moved with him into a corner, behind a refrigerator, inside a narrow hall between a bathroom and the washer and dryer.

“I’m not enjoying this evening,” he said. “I want to wrap it up and get a check from you if possible.”

“Did something happen?” she asked.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it. I am a professional. Diligence, integrity and honesty—that’s who I am. I don’t need any elderly messengers giving me advice. If you want to insult me do it to my face,” he said.

“What on Earth are you talking about?” she asked, completely mystified.

Someone opened the powder room door behind Nariko. She was pushed and thrust, face first, into the photographer’s chest and arms. He tried to step back, but there was nowhere to move. Three screaming children ran between Nariko and Walter’s legs.

“Your Aunt insulted me. Questioned my professional dedication and career. I don’t even know her. But you do. So she was obviously put up to it by you,” he said.

“She insults you and I’m at fault?” Nariko asked.

“Did she speak the truth? Did it sting and hurt? Be a man.”

“Like your husband?” Walter asked.

It came out of nowhere, anger and raw feeling.

“What do I owe you Walter?” she asked.

He had crossed that third rail of the Asian family, insulting an old relative.

“My rate is $300 an hour. I’ve been here three hours so that would be nine-hundred,” he said.

“For a children’s party? For your friend’s kid you rip me off with almost a thousand dollar fee? You pretentious piece of shit!”

“Oh man. You started something that we are going to have to settle legally,” he said and stormed out of the house.

Legal Entanglement

Walter sent a letter advising her, legally, to remove his name and photos from her website. She complied.

Despite his character deficits, Walter’s artistry, his reading of light and capture of mood and matter was peerless. Divorcing him from the last year of her nascent business, under threat of lawsuit, wounded. For she had formed and built in the backyard, by her own hand and heart, something tangible, recorded for posterity, creatively photographed in collaboration, and now cruelly stolen.

Walter’s erasure also robbed her of a man who was her equal, a self-made artist who made a profit doing what he loved. She still had Eric at home, a husband, a father and a breadwinner, deficient in all these titles.

He still went on his errands, taking Lillian to school, training her to ride a bike, painting the kitchen, even making love as if they were still in love.

Eric joined a swim club that met weekly in Van Nuys, and he rode his bike on Saturdays with other guys in Griffith Park, finishing off his ride with a meet up at the Golden Road Brewery where the men’s talk was always about what it might take to open and operate a brewery.

In pursuit of opportunity he sat many hours alone at Starbucks staring at digital devices while mimicking paid work. Unemployed and content, he was relieved to be outside the walls of Warner Brothers.

Another year had passed and the chill returned to Los Angeles.

The clock fell back one hour into long dark nights anesthetized in wine, burning logs and pine.

Alone on Christmas Eve, the family watched The World of Susie Wong.

Nariko looked around her den, and saw that she was taken care of, surrounded by love and nice things. Eric lay on a fur rug playing checkers with Lillian near the tinsel tree. They were laughing and making up nonsensical words, roughhousing, kissing, hugging and playing together. Nothing Walter might ever add into his photographic fakery could top this.

She got up and walked into her studio to check her email. She had a calendar to work on, and shipments to check up on. She also was conjuring up, in her head, a future of even better things to come.

Her habit of constantly trying to improve, to dream of more, to push into imagined triumphs, deadened these living and tender and fleeting times.

THE END.