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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Lady on the Horse

photo by Andy Hurvitz
photo by Andy Hurvitz

That foggy day was her last moment of childhood frolic. When she rode Charlie home to her parent’s house in the late afternoon, she saw her mother being carried out on a stretcher. Two white suited men loaded her into the back of an ambulance.

She pulled the horse and tied him up to a front porch pillar. Running up to her father, she couldn’t catch her breath to speak.

“Oh, my God! What is this? Dad please tell me she’s all right! What is it?”

He only stood there with teary blue eyes. He stared at the ambulance and clutched an empty bottle of lithium in his left hand.

Continue reading “The Lady on the Horse”

“Such Happiness!”

Isabelle/Model/2017


A beautiful and privileged young girl is blissfully unaware of a shy man’s affection for her.

My mother told me that I’m one of those young men with low self-esteem who will always be grateful for the attention that any young woman throws my way. My mother told me that I did not have athletic ability, or the greatest mind, but that I was the most loyal friend anyone could have. “Women only love one man”: the last words I remember my mother telling me when I got on the bus in Omaha on my way to become a nobody in Los Angeles. Was Mom telling me to be faithful to my next love–or to remember Mom always?

Nobody ever said they knew me from anywhere. I was transparent, average, just a John Doe from the Great Plains. When I was in high school, people said I looked like Jeff Bridges. In College, they said I looked liked Beau Bridges. I had only one question for those people: Who are Jeff and Beau Bridges?

“I know I know you from somewhere…..Don’t I look familiar to you?”

One day I met Julie Cadogan, a tall, thin, regal looking young woman who had just joined our television production as a supervising producer.

“Honestly, I don’t think so. Where do you think we could have met?”

She was looking me over intensely. Her 5’10 frame and waspish waist was dressed in a long Indian print skirt and tight short sleeve burgundy sweater. Ingrid Bergman at a Grateful Dead concert. In the frantic light of a Monday morning at the office, this new arrival was taking her time.

“I think maybe….did you ever attend NYU?”

“No. BU.”

“Oh. Well, did you rent a house in San Luis Obispo, or Palm Springs last summer?”

“I did!”

“Right! Well I stayed in a house in Palm Springs last year with my best friend Bridget and she loved to go out and maybe we saw you at some bar out there!”

“I did grow up in Omaha, Nebraska.”

”No!”

“Why? Do you come from Omaha also?”

“No! But I lived in Omaha for a year after graduation and worked at WOMA TV! That had to be where I saw you!”

“When was that?”

“Last year!”

“I moved out of Nebraska in 1992.”

“Oh.”

It was late November in Los Angeles and I had been working on a horrendously stupid television show, “Beat Me.” It was an MTV program where young, dumb men posed questions to young, dumb women and if the woman answered right they got to date the young, dumb man. It was my job to go out and recruit young, dumb and good looking people. Fortunately, this was easy because I lived in Los Angeles.

We lived on a quiet, conservative street in Omaha. It was so law abiding, church going and upright that my mother once called the police when a poodle peed on our lawn. Three cruisers came out in about 4 minutes to arrest the poodle. “People should keep their dogs on a tight leash” my mother said, the next day on her way to church. I remember another thing about growing up in Omaha: I was never awakened once during the night. It was so quiet, so peaceful, so dead.

“Hi ya Charlie!” It was Julie waking me up at 2 am. I was sound asleep and pulled the covers over my head when the phone rang so horribly loud one early Saturday morning.

“Who is this?”

“Julie! I’m in your neighborhood and I have a big favor to ask! Could you pick me up? My car broke down on Fairfax and Beverly and I know you live right around here and I was wondering if I could crash at your place and then in the morning I could call a tow truck company to come and get it…Please, please, don’t say no!”

I grabbed my jeans off the floor, wacked some Vaseline on my electrocuted hair and ran out with my keys, sandals and wallet. I drove only 4 blocks to where Julie said she would be waiting.

At the corner of Fairfax and Beverly: 2:45 am and Julie was nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t stay awake much longer. I had been waiting 45 minutes, didn’t have a phone and was losing my patience. I went home.

On Monday morning we were having a production meeting at 9 am and the news was pretty good. “Beat Me” was doing well in the ratings and it looked like we were going to go to a full hour. This meant more work and more weeks of work. But it was lousy because I would have to get more contestants. My job would be harder but my pay would stay the same.

Julie came in smiling. She was dressed in a beautiful suede skirt with a cream-colored angora sweater and a stainless steel jewelry—bracelet. She hardly looked like a cad, a liar, or that disturbing bitch who woke me up in the middle of the night and got me into the cold to pick her up.

“I’m so sorry Charlie! I got back into my car and it started and then I didn’t know how to tell you, because I called your house and the machine wasn’t on and there was no way to leave a message. So here is a present.”

She handed me a small box of Godiva chocolates.
“You’re probably furious at me. You really have a right to be furious. I would be just as mad!”

“I’m not mad Julie!”

“Are you sure?”

“Uh-huh!”

“Women who grew up with money love to talk about themselves son. Just remember to listen if you ever get involved with a rich girl.”-my father’s sage advice which he wrote down in a letter to me after he lost his job at the Ford plant.

Six months after Julie started, we had become the type of friends who go out to lunch and talk about work. But there was nothing else going on there. She would talk about her boyfriend and I would listen. I looked at my watch more than her eyes.

“He won’t commit to marriage because he is scared. So I told him that he has three weeks to decide—because if I don’t get a ring on my finger I’m going to move back to New York and work on my documentary! I told him I had a life before him and I meant it!”

How fortunate her life was, I could not have guessed. But I found out that her father was Anton Cadogan. He is a New York developer who built such landmarks as One Park Plaza Place and that enormous post-collegiate cellblock apartment complex known as Devonshire Court on Second Avenue in the 90’s. Julie didn’t like to talk about her family. Yet there was something in the ease and carefree way she talked about leaving jobs and leaving boyfriends and leaving town that let me know that she would never be down to her last nickel.

“I used to have an apartment on Second Avenue and it was so wonderful! Such happiness! A typical day for me would be…wake up, go to the gym, meet my friend Heather for lunch. We would hang out at the Met, go for a walk in Central Park, shop at Barneys, go to this fabulous cheese shop on Jones Street….Oh, I’m getting so depressed, I just wish I could move back to New York! Los Angeles is just not a city!”

“Oh, I agree. I’d like to move back to Manhattan myself. But it just isn’t easy with apartments so expensive. I think I read that some studio apartments start at $3500!”

“Well if it’s just an apartment that’s holding you back—they’re easy to get. I could find you one like that.”

She was so young. So used to luxury. Her work was just a hobby to fill time. What did she know about earning a living? I had graduated college 13 years ago and I was still paying student loans! Why did God create it so that some people have it so easy and still think it’s so tough for them?

When I think of people who have had it easy I think of people who have never shoveled snow. Yes, Julie Cadogan never shoveled snow in her entire god-damned life.

“Hello, handsome!”

“Hi.”

Julie was standing in front of my desk as I entered the list of possible contestants on the show. It was 4 O’Clock, an awful hour in the awful part of the day at work. She was smiling with just the widest grin this side of Montana.
“Look at what I’m wearing! Notice anything?”

I looked at her blue silk blouse, the grey nylon sweats, the open toed $250 dollar shoes…..Absolutely nothing unique. Expensive, yes. Different, no.

Then she extended her right hand in a screw like fashion aimed right for my nose. A glistening, enormous diamond ring was living atop the smoothest, longest, most polished fingers and nails I had ever seen.

“He did it. Wow. You must be happy.”

“Oh, my God! Charlie, I’m so happy! I have been waiting for this forever! We’re getting married in exactly six months on October 7th and I’ve got to get everything together and I just don’t know how I’m going to do it!”

“Wow. Julie, I’m so happy for you.”

“Thanks Charlie. I’m going to go and show this to the receptionist. Isn’t it gorgeous?”

I was ready to quit my job the day that Sean the producer yelled at me after I forgot to write down the age of that stupid blonde from Witchita. I was through with the crap of television, with the utter mindlessness of the program. I wanted to be somewhere important, doing something brainy, getting somewhere. I was standing still, earning nothing, without health insurance, a car, a life. I was a free lance, hand out taking, goatee wearing, slouchy, sloppy, slob with no self esteem…. handing out vouchers to strangers on the Santa Monica promenade (and hoping that they would think that my smile was cute enough to come down to the fuckin’ studio) and stand in line just to be rejected for the stupidest program on earth. Why did I do this kind of work? To what end?

I finally got up enough courage to walk down to Sean’s office and tell him that I was leaving.
“Hi Charlie.”

It was Julie. She intercepted me as I was on my way to ruin my career. She looked upset. Her eyes were watery, puffy.
“I need to talk to you. Could we go for a walk down to Ben and Jerry’s? I’ll buy you an ice cream.”

My dad was quite cynical. He told me to never trust a woman that offers to buy YOU something. “They always are after you. They all want to be taken care of. So if any broad offers to buy you something…..watch out!”

We walked out into the eye squinting brightness of the palm-lined boulevard and she took my hand. Her gesture was so unexpected. Its intimacy broke down my natural inclination to believe that everyone is full of shit.
“I just got into the worst fight with Van Ness.”

“Who is Van Ness?”

“My fiancee! Oh, I thought you knew that. Anyway, Van Ness wants to move to San Francisco. And I don’t.”

“Some people have to be all fancy and give their kids last names for first names”, my father cautioned. “Don’t expect anyone who is called Henderson or Langley to be a good friend. You’ll find your friends in people with plain names like Steve, Bill or Bob!”
“O.K. Why does he want to move there?”

“He wants it because Michaelfish wants it.”

“Michaelfish?”

“His band.”

“Oh.”

“I said that just because your band is leaving doesn’t mean that you can leave your fiancee behind. He thinks that his career will suffer and Michaelfish will go on and become famous and he will lose if he doesn’t go!”

Then she broke down into tears on Ventura Boulevard.

“But what about me! What about us! I tried to talk to him, but he said I was selfish! I don’t think I’m selfish if I ask him to stay in the same city and that city is Los Angeles. I would go with him, but my life is right here! Oh, my god! What should I do Charlie?”

“What should I do?”, she asks! Geez, who the hell knows what anyone should do! I’ve been trying to figure out what I should do for my whole life. I moved out to Los Angeles, the most lost city on earth, to find out some definitive things about myself. What I found is that I hate the sun and hate work. What kind of an answer is that?

Ben and Jerry’s was just ahead. I put my hand around her graceful and swanlike neck and guided her into the cool parlor of flavours. Her tears seemed to dissipate slightly when she saw the round, cold, chocolate mound of Cherry Garcia ice cream.
“Julie, let me buy this for you.”

“Oh, thank you.”

She was so tender, fragile and sweet. The unwrinkled and dewy complexion, the sudden emotion of a young woman afraid of losing her lover, the appealing vision of a virgin-like creature spooning down the creamiest and fattiest desert known to mankind…..A large Maraschino cherry stood atop the mounds of ice cream as the chocolate dripped down the sides and gathered lava like at the bottom of the dish. I wanted to kiss her and make love right there. This moment had cost me all of $3.50 but it was worth every penny.

“I think I want to go home Charlie.”

“You mean back to Hollywood?”

“No. I mean my parent’s house in New York.”

A House! A 17 room penthouse on Fifth Avenue! You call that a house?

“Do you think I should go? I mean my mother has already hired a wedding consultant and they might rent out this church in Pacific Palisades and then if I decide to hold the reception at the garden in back, they want a deposit. Oh, all these decisions! I just can’t stand it.”

“Your mother and I got married at the VFW hall just outside of Fort Pierce. We’ve been happily married for 34 years! We didn’t have no money, but hell, we were in love. Don’t think that you have to get married in some mansion on a cliff in Malibu! One expensive party never kept anyone happy for life!”
“My advice is not to do anything drastic. Just stay put. Don’t run away.”

“Ok. Ok. You’re right.”

I took a napkin, dipped it in water and dabbed away some chocolate under her lower lip.
“Michaelfish is playing at the Gardena Room tonight! Please come!”

It was Julie pleading for me to attend Van Ness and Michaelfish. She had made up with him, after he found out that he could rent rehearsal space cheaper in L.A. and convinced the band that economically it was better if they stayed in the Southland.
Julie was convinced that LOVE had won over Van Ness. She was so enchanted with Van Ness, so excited about staying in Los Angeles, so ecstatic about the impending wedding—that it seemed senseless and cruel to point out that $4 a square foot had won Van Ness over and preserved the sanctity of their relationship.

I’ve always thought that my clothes were among the homeliest ever. I mostly wear plaid shirts, with short sleeves and button down collars. I have a paunchy stomach that accentuates the cheapness of the fabrics I wear. My glasses look like something that an insurance adjuster would wear in Omaha-say about 1955. I have a chipped front tooth which I’ve never bothered to fix. I am not cool, not at all.

Outside of the Gardena Room, stood a crowd of black draped, gothic styled, cigarette inhaling young people. Many of them were tall, thin like models on speed. They were waiting to be picked to enter the exalted space where Michaelfish was to perform. Two enormous Black men dressed in woolen over coats, searched patrons for concealed weapons and illicit drugs.

A light rain was falling on a late Friday night in early December. Los Angeles, which had remained dry for six months, was inexplicably thrust into a new, temporary, chilly and wet season where the air was pure and such Northern inclinations as sweaters, red wine and contemplation come into fashion. The city, which wore a sunburned and gregarious face, now was forced to don waterproof rain-jackets and subdued emotion.

Inside the Gardena Room, it was dark, smoky and the band was warming up. The no-smoking policy was, as is customary, broken in defiance of state law. Julie sat in a corner, smoking a cigarette. I walked over to see her.
“Hi! I’m so glad you came.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t miss it. Have you found work?”

“No. I’ve been so busy with the wedding—buying a dress, choosing a caterer, flying back to New York to pick out invitations….I just don’t have time to earn money right now. How about you?”

My father once offered me this financial advice: “Just save a quarter every day. At the end of the week you’ll have $1.75, at the end of the month $7, and at the end of the year $84. In ten years, you’ll have $840, and in fifty years it will be worth $4200.”

“Well, it’s Christmas. Not too easy to get a job this time of year.”

“Right. Have you talked to MTV? Do they have anything else?”

“No. I’m mean yes…I heard they’re starting up a new show called BUSTED. It’s supposed to be about men who cheat or women who cheat on men and they catch them on tape. I think they need someone to find the cheaters so that’s the position. But I don’t think I’ll take it….And then I had…..”

Van Ness walked in. He was dressed in a black leather vest, cowboy buckled belt, tight jeans covering a wide load ass. A bald spotted ego with long hair, overweight, tattoos, mid 30’s. He smelled like the inside of a refrigerator filled with old meat loaf that hadn’t been cleaned out for three months. His biceps were big—but not muscular, merely wide. They were covered with eagles, Jesus ,the twelve apostles, and some Chinese letters. He gave me a great big bear hug.
“Nice to see you man! Julie’s been talkin’ you up man! Says you gotta meet my buddy Charlie! Shit, I need a light. Julie can you run out to the car and grab my lighter?”

“Sure honey! Charlie, you’ll still be here when I get back right?”

“Right!”

Julie ran out to the car. Van Ness sneezed loudly. He looked at me salaciously and wiped some mucus off his beard with his left forearm.
“Hey Charlie. I have to run backstage. Thanks for coming.”

I sat down at the darkened table, waiting for the opening number of Michaelfish. A waitress came by. I ordered a Becks and waited for the effervescent Julie to come back inside.

“Last Summer I Worked at the Reagan Library”

My name was Ronald Reagan. I’m a lighting designer. 33 years old. Manhattan resident. A conservative talk show host and writer almost embraced me to suffocation a few years ago when I told her my name. I’m not the real Reagan, but I guess I was real enough for Peggy Naron.

Two winters ago, I designed and installed new lighting for a dim and dated old little French restaurant, owned by a chef named Monique, around the corner from my apartment on Madison Avenue.

I installed dimmers, down lights, and pinkish translucent directional lights near the entrance. Low wattage lights make the matrons look appealing.

On a bright and frigid January afternoon, a coolly elegant middle-aged woman stopped into the restaurant in the middle of construction. My workers were on ladders, drilling, hammering. I was elegantly dressed in a Brooks Brothers blazer, white oxford shirt and silk tie. I must have looked like the maitre d’.

“Is my friend Monique here?” The lady asked.

“Monique is in the back. Let me get her,” I answered.

The visitor was in her late 40’s, blonde, sexy, wearing a dark gray skirt that outlined a pert behind. A white silk blouse draped over her luscious tits. She had the glazed and happy aura of a Christian evangelist, one who already knew the answers to all the mysteries of life. I realized she was the famous Peggy Naron, a conservative columnist and commentator. She wrote for the Wall Street Journal. She also was a professional hater of the William Jefferson Clintons, among other accomplishments. Her biggest life long love was Ronald Reagan. I wanted her carnally even as I despised her politically.

Just a few days earlier I had seen Peggy on CNN talking about how unmarried mothers didn’t deserve health care benefits because “they had violated the social contract”. She also said, “during the Reagan era it had been established that food stamps were a contributor to obesity.”

Today there were hardly any diners in the restaurant. Back in the kitchen the chefs were busy chopping, sautéing, frying, baking, chopping, washing. I ran back to find Monique instructing a chef, Karen, in the art of slicing.

Monique stood next to her, like a film director instructing an actor how to play a scene. I sensed that they did not want to be disturbed. She was showing Karen how to hold a knife correctly.

“Take the blade and hold the handle like you want to KILL the chicken. You have to stab the bird.” Monique took a sharp blade and pierced the poultry skin. Karen followed.

“Good”, Monique said, “keep the angle.”

“Careful. Don’t look at me”, she cautioned, “You need to watch what you are doing.”
“Monique. You have a customer who needs a table,” I interrupted. Monique looked at me with fierce annoyance.

“Je ne suis pas hereux! Please don’t interrupt my lesson! Can’t you see that I am directing this scene?”

She was born and raised in Scarsdale, but fell into French whenever she wanted to blow up her importance.

She bossed me with Gallic aplomb. “Just go out there, grab a menu and lead her to her seat”, she said.

I ran back into the front of the restaurant. Peggy was sitting on a bench reading LE MONDE. Her legs were crossed and chin pointed toward heaven. She seemed to be inspecting her left hand. Nothing looked amiss. I imagined she had just had her nails buffed.

I grabbed a menu and approached her. “Please follow me”, I said. We walked over to a table near the red curtained window. “May I get you something to drink?” I asked.

“Yes. Do you have Chardonnay?” she asked.

“I’m sure we do,” I answered. I went to the bar, took down a wine glass and filled it. Bending down behind the bar counter, where nobody could see me, I spit into her glass.

Smiling and ever so politely, I brought the contaminated wine to her table. It felt so good when the glass and the white fermented juice touched her polished, glistening lips.

Peggy had once famously written, in her Wall Street news column, that poor people tended to get sicker “because they had poor hygiene.” She had faulted “welfare moms” for their lack of good housekeeping skills and praised conservative moms who stayed at home and knew “how to use bleach, brooms and dustpans.”

Motioning to me, she looked ready to order. I grabbed a pen and paper and pretended to be a server. Peggy ordered salad with Roquefort cheese, walnuts and spinach.
Ten minutes later, the chef completed the salad. He placed it on the counter. I went back to get it. I secretly brought the salad into the bathroom, put it on the sink counter, grabbed some Lysol and sprayed it over the greens. Then I carried the plate back to her table. Digging into the morsels with her fork, she seemed to enjoy the exotically flavored dressing.

I played the part of waiter a little longer. When she finished her meal I asked her if she wanted dessert.

She ordered a chocolate cake with lemon sauce. I won’t describe what I added to the yellow colored topping.

“You were just wonderful young man,” she said as I brought her the check. “How come I haven’t seen you here before?”

“I have to be honest with you,” I said, “I am actually a lighting designer and today we are installing new lights in the restaurant.”

“No kidding. You seem like a natural waiter. What’s your name?”

“I’m Ron Reagan,” I said.

She arched her back and folded her hands on the table, like a little princess in a play. “Well, this is quite an honor Mr. Reagan. I just think you have a simply marvelous name!” Her cheeks were red, either from the wine or intense attraction.

I laughed, but it was a laugh of unease. “Oh, thank you. It’s just a name ma’am.”

“Please. Call me Peggy,” she said. Then she raised her index finger and pedantically pointed it right at my face. “You don’t just have any name. You have the name of a saint. There was only one Ronald Reagan, and he was the greatest president who ever lived. He ended the cold war and brought a new pride to our nation. Don’t EVER take your name for granted.”

I tried to differentiate myself from her icon. “He was a great man, but don’t you think his administration harmed a lot of poor people? The homeless, crack babies and the AIDS crisis. It all started during Reagan.”

She put down a twenty-dollar bill, got up and grabbed her cardigan from the chair. Gingerly buttoning her sweater, she explained how the poor came to be. “Its God’s way to remind us that suffering must be confronted not with handouts but with hardness. Most of these afflictions of the underclass were created by the poor themselves.”

“But you don’t think government has a right and a duty to alleviate suffering?” I asked.

“Success is up to each person,” she explained, “ We have to want it. Look at you for example. You have a beautiful haircut. Worn in the 50’s style of our 40th President. You smile and say please and thank you. You dress elegantly. If everyone behaved as well as you, we wouldn’t even need welfare because everyone would be working!”
It was utterly illogical, but in her crisp delivery she created a plausible solution to ending poverty.

She walked out of the restaurant but I followed closely behind. “I’m a liberal I tell you. I’m a liberal!”

She put her arm up to hail a cab. A yellow car pulled up and she opened the door and got in. I stood over her at the curb. She rolled down the window. “Give me your business card and email address Mr. Reagan. You have tremendous passion and a delightful speaking voice. I’m going to call you and set you on the right track!”

The cabbie and the passenger sped up Madison Avenue as I sat open mouthed on the sidewalk.

A certain Email

One morning, a week later, I opened up my email. There was a message from Peggy.

“Enjoyed meeting you last week at La Marché restaurant. Would you be available tonight? If so, please come around 6pm to my home at 720 Park Avenue.”

I was flattered and flustered. Yet I accepted her invitation, hoping that it might lead to a lighting job, something more sensual or possibly both.

I arrived at the marble and limestone lobby fifteen minutes early. A doorman dialed the rotary telephone and announced me. I walked over to the mahogany paneled elevator with the leather bench. The brass doors closed and lifted me up to the 12th floor penthouse.

Peggy opened the door. She was wearing a navy silk pleated cocktail dress with tan hose and high-heeled shoes. “Nice to see you again Mr. Reagan. Won’t you come in?” I stepped inside a spacious, pre-war apartment hall. Polished limestone floors, brass sconces and a graceful staircase led up to the bedrooms.

We walked into the living room and stepped over to a bar. “Would you like something to drink?” she asked. Red candles glowed on top of the mantle, next to the bookcase, on glass tables. An enormous blue Persian rug with ornate stitching covered the parquet floors. “Do you have any Merlot?” I asked. “Of course. President Reagan loved Merlot!” She poured me a glass of wine.

“The reason I invited you over here,” she explained, “is to ask you to work on the Reagan library in California this summer. The lighting system is terribly out of date and we need to remodel.” We both sank into cushy cushions on a downy sofa with embroidered pillows trimmed in alabaster and gold. Her powdery French perfume matched the aroma of the scented candles. I started to feel queasy.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“No. I haven’t eaten all day and…..this wine. It’s gone to my head,” I explained.
“Are you politically opposed to working at the library?” she asked,“ I could make it worth your while.”

“I’m a liberal, but I’m not dumb,” I said.

“I might make a joke out of that line,” she said.

“I’m flattered that you want me Peggy. But how do you know if I’m good?”

“I asked Monique. She adores you.” She got up from the sofa and twirled around the floor flirtatiously.

“Let me refresh your drink Mr. Reagan.”

I felt really bad. I was accepting her hospitality and considering the job offer, as I sat trapped in her salmon colored salon on a down filled sofa. I really couldn’t get up and stand on my own two feet. Indeed I had poisoned her food and drink, because her elite type had poisoned the political waters of America. Still, she was an elegant, well-mannered woman. I wondered if I could ever work in the enemy’s lair, the Reagan Library, just to make a buck.

She came back with a full glass and the March issue of RETAIL LIGHTING.

“Well, how does $50,000 for two weeks work sound? All traveling expenses paid, and room and board included.” She sat down, placed the wine on the table, and opened the magazine. “Just look at the sushi bar lights you designed in Soho! If you could make raw fish look alive, imagine how you could bring life to the exhibits at the Reagan Library!” She brushed my hair with a motherly touch.

“Ron, please say yes. You and I will go to California. It will be a golden moment. Let’s leave everyone in New York behind and have an adventure” For a moment, I thought we were planning an elopement. Then I remembered that this was a job offer. Right?

Slush

Six weeks after my cocktail meeting, I was still out of work and had not given Peggy an answer. It was February, a dreadful month. The city was bleak. Slush and snow flurries, the cheap anti-climatic toys of late Winter, filled the sky. One desolate Sunday evening, I walked with Monique up Broadway from West 73rd Street.

“Peggy is one powerful woman”, Monique said, “she can open doors for you. I would take whatever offer she makes.”

“But I don’t like her god-damned right wing bullshit.” I protested. We stopped to get pretzels from a sidewalk vendor. She poured mustard on the X shaped steamy treat and shoved it into her mouth.

“Who the fuck cares?” she said with a mustard yellow tongue. “ If you can steal money from the Reagans by installing a couple of halogen lights—maybe you’ll actually be performing a liberal good deed.”

The next morning, I was downtown talking to a prospective client, an older, witty Irish Catholic priest.

“I’m sorry Mr. Reagan, we’re going to have to put off construction at St. Theresa’s. You know, our congregation isn’t doing as well this year as last. I can’t afford your services,” said Father Jeff Stryker.

A television was on in his office. He turned away from me and glanced at the TV. He grabbed the remote and turned up the volume. The voice of Peggy Naron filled the room. She was a guest on Larry King.

“So you think Americans can learn how to talk to God by studying the life of the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan?” King asked her.

“Oh, yes Larry! I think one of the reasons Reagan was so happy is that he knew all the answers from his talks with the Lord.” The priest rolled his eyes at her answer.

“Excuse me Mr. Reagan. I’m sorry. I do have one question. Do halogen lights or incandescent best express the post Vatican II style?” he asked.

Decision

I applied for unemployment and starting collecting the
paltry benefits. At home I watched the news with its never ending stories of murder, terror, financial catastrophes, war and impending doom.

New York smelled bad. My apartment, with the windows closed for six months to block out the cold air, began to stink of chicken soup, cigarettes and sewer gas carried through the common vent from other apartments.

I had to escape the darkness, cold, pessimism, joblessness and anomie of the city. I needed warm light and cash, friendly faces and a rest. I was going to accept the Monique’s advice and say yes to the offer. I called Peggy to tell her the good news.

She was delighted with my answer. “Why don’t you come over to my apartment and we’ll celebrate!” I got a guilty erection just hearing her voice.

A Woman Possessed

We were standing on Peggy’s terrace overlooking the Upper East Side. The sun was falling quickly in the West, casting a pinkish glow upon us. “You look so damn handsome,” she said holding a martini. I took a sip of wine and put my arms around her waist.

“What do you think of Monica Lewinsky?” she asked.

“I think she was a nice girl who did a naughty thing.” I answered.
She laughed. She put her drink on the ledge next to mine. My hands were clasped against her spine as she leaned back. I opened my mouth and placed it against hers. “I think you are my daddy,” She said.

“Daddy?” I asked. She nodded her head childishly. “Daddy Reagan.”

“I don’t get it. Are you being funny?”

“Completely darling. Do you think I’m delusional?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I just know you feel good.”

“Ronnie”, she asked, “Did you spit in my wine glass in the restaurant?” I let go of her and stepped back.

“What? What kind of question is that?” I asked with mock honor.

“I saw you spit into my glass. I could see you in the mirror above the bar. It was perfectly marvelous. Like you were giving me a part of you. Bodily fluids. A touch of your genetic material.”

“I think you’re crazy,” I said half jokingly. She picked up her drink and took a ladylike sip. “Oh, I am. I’m simply crazy about you Mr. Reagan. I want to fuck your brains out. I want to make passionate love with you all night and be your girl! When you told me your name in the restaurant I got chills. I almost couldn’t eat. When you spit in my drink, it was like you almost ejaculated right into my….”

Her transformation from schoolteacher into seductress startled me. She threw herself at me and pushed her tongue into my ear. I wanted to take her inside and fuck her right on the tufted ottoman.

“You love me like you loved Nancy,” she said, “Leave her and marry me.”

“Nancy? Who’s Nancy?”
 “She’s your wife silly! She doesn’t love you the way I love you!” She was possessed, like Reagan’s failed assassin John Hinckley imagining his fictional lover Jodie Foster.

I wanted to be rational about it. This was about my work. Wasn’t it? I decided to leave her place before we stripped down into love and insanity.

“I’m going Peggy, I said, “I have to pack my bags and get up early tomorrow.”

“Don’t leave yet. Mr. President, we haven’t even gotten to second base,” She pleaded. I kissed her politely on the forehead and then grabbed my coat.

“Goodbye Peggy. I’ll call you when I get to Simi Valley.”

“Don’t bother,” she yelled, “I’ll be at your hotel in California tomorrow night. I love you.”

Simi Cry

The next day, I woke up early and took a cab to cold and rainy Newark Airport. I hadn’t slept well. I was tired and cranky and just a bit scared of what I had gotten into. I was going to California, hired by a woman who cast me as her Ronald Reagan to work in the library of the real Ronald Reagan.

Five hours later, I landed at sunny LAX. I rented a car and got on the road. Passing through the Santa Susana Pass into the Simi Valley, I entered a humble and undisturbed land of sunlit white clouds, red tiled roofs and regimented housing estates. Just off the freeway exit, on a local street, a carved wood sign read: Welcome to the Simi Valley. Relax and slow down.

At the front desk of the Hispano-Corporate style Reagan Library, a kindly docent, Ethel, seemed to anticipate my arrival.

“Hello,” I said, “I think Peggy is expecting me.”

“I know exactly who you are”, she said, “Your hair is combed up in a pompadour. Just like Peggy described. It’s gorgeous.”

“Thank you”, I said, bewildered and self-consciousness, brushing my hair off my forehead.

“I see you’re wearing a brown pin striped suit. Very handsome. Peggy said you were an exquisite dresser. President Reagan had a suit just like the one you’re wearing. Would you like to see it?” she asked.

“Oh, no thank you. I’m a bit tired. Do you have any water?”

“I’m sorry Mr. Reagan. Let me get you a glass. Please have a seat,” she said.

Ethel left the room. She returned a few minutes later, carrying my glass of water. Three elderly ladies followed her. They gathered in front of me, like they were having an audience with the Pope. “This is Mr. Reagan. He is a special guest of Peggy and will be working on our lighting system. Please give him anything he needs,” Ethel announced to the gathering.

One by one, the little beaming ladies stepped forward to shake my hand and introduced themselves.

Leaning on a cane, was lovely Lillie Lavandula. “Peggy was right. You’re the real thing,” she said with evident delight.

Next came Bertha Oleander. “The Little Brown Church, where Ronnie married Nancy, is still available for weddings,” she said.

“Peggy wanted me to tell you she will be late today. She stopped off at the chapel in Studio City to talk to the Reverend,” Ethel said.

This was getting weirder and weirder. I was barely in California two hours and already was possibly on my way to the altar. I had to find a way to escape Peggy. I also needed to get away from these cloying biddies.

“Excuse me ladies,” I said politely, “I think I’ll walk around the library a bit.”
“By all means sir. We’re here if you need us.”

I smiled and waved at them as I walked toward a room that was a replica of the Oval Office just as Ronald Reagan had left it. A recorded voice trembled with emotion above the empty Presidential desk chair, “Tear down that wall Mr. Gorbachev! Tear down that wall!”

Nancy

In the late afternoon, I went back to my hotel room to unpack my bags and shower. Just as I turned off the water, someone knocked loudly on my door. I put on a terry cloth bathrobe and opened the handle. Peggy was standing there in a wash and wear Chanel suit and holding a leather suitcase. She kissed me on the lips.

“Darling, she said, “I’m sorry to be late. I just found out that we have to get dressed and go back to the library. Mrs. Reagan is visiting tonight. She would like to meet you. Frankly, I can’t stand the bitch. Oh, excuse my crude tone. But Nahn-cee has to have her way on everything.”

I sat my wet body down on the bed. My bathrobe fell open, accidentally exposing my clean and fully erect penis to Peggy’s bulging pupils. She dropped her Mark Cross leather bag, got down on her knees and started sucking me. “Oh Ronnie, oh Ronnie! I couldn’t wait any longer!”

We made love. During our intercourse, she moaned and moaned, “Oh Ronnie, oh Ronnie!” It was exhausting, but we finished, showered, dressed and left to drive back to the library.

As we pulled into the parking lot, Peggy spoke. “I have plans for you tomorrow. You can work on the lighting, and I’ll go shopping. Later in the afternoon, we can meet up at a nearby stable. They have two wonderful Arabian stallions quartered there. You’ll get your saddle and we’ll explore the mountains, just like we did up at the ranch in Santa Barbara.”

“OK darling, whatever you say,” I said.

I got out of the car, and went around to open Peggy’s
door. We followed a group of older suited gentleman and coiffed ladies into the library garden. Waiters carried appetizers and champagne on the terrace. Peggy was polite to all, but she would not release her hand from mine.

We crouched into a corner. Peggy whispered, “There she is. Bitchy little Nancy. See how she walks into the room? Like she is someone important. Still wearing Adolfo! Doesn’t she ever change?”

Mrs. Reagan was small, frail, but still elegant and gracious. Secret Service men fanned out across the crowd. Nancy recognized Peggy and walked over to her. Peggy smiled at her, lips closed and fists clenched.

“Peggy dear,” Nancy intoned, “You look lovely. Is this the lighting man?”
Peggy grimaced. “Yes, this is Ronald Reagan.”

Mrs. Reagan extended her hand. I shook it. “Nice to meet you,” I said stupidly, “ I hope that I can be of great benefit to the library”.

“I’m sure you will be,” Nancy said, “ We have short circuits and power problems. And my Adolfos look awful in the cases. I hope you can illuminate them better. I want to talk to you alone later if you have the time,” she said.

“Sure. Anything you need Mrs. Reagan.”

“Call me Nancy.”

She walked over to another group of distinguished white haired dinosaurs in dinner jackets. Peggy looked at me with anger.

“What did she mean alone?” she asked.

“I guess she wants to speak to me alone,” I answered.

“Why can’t I be there?” she said.

“I really don’t know. But I look forward to talking to her,” I said. Peggy turned her back to me and walked away.

I followed her and tried to grab her left arm, but I accidentally caused her to drop a champagne glass on the gray slate. Her face froze. People turned their heads to look.

“Get away from me,” she yelled, “you lied to me! You still love her!” I was terrified. This nutcase might cause me to lose my $50,000 job. But I had to play along with her lunacy.

“I do. You’re right! I love my Nancy and will always love her!” I screamed.

“Either you leave her, or I’m leaving you!” she said.

Ethel rushed over to us. “My dear Peggy. Are you unwell? Let me take you inside. I think these crazy winds and the heat are upsetting you.”

“Ethel, I’m perfectly able to conduct myself in public. I’ve spent my whole life in the public eye. Mr. Mayer once told me that I was the best behaved actress on the whole lot!”

Ethel looked at me with bewilderment. I tried to smile. Peggy’s eyes opened wide, like Gloria Swanson as she descended the staircase in Sunset Boulevard. “I know exactly who I am. I know just where I’m going. My man and I are going to stay right here.”
 “Well, OK.” Ethel said. “I’ll leave you alone if Mr. Reagan says he can take care of you.”
 “I’m fine Ethel.” I said. Peggy grabbed my arm to steady herself. We walked back to the crowd and went along with our charade.

The well-behaved donors and patrons of the library continued their polite ignorance of our situation. We drank and ate and went back to the hotel around 10pm.

At the hotel I told Peggy we should sleep in separate rooms, because “The President” was restless. She agreed and we said good night.

The Next Morning

The next morning I arrived at the Reagan Library at 8am and was greeted by Mrs. Reagan. Ethel and Mr. Illini Dixon, a white haired decorator friend of the former First Lady. Dixon was there to offer his certain opinions on matters of taste.

We walked through the library, eyeing one display case that had a red Adolfo suit once worn by Nancy in 1983. “This is perfectly dreadful Nancy,” Dixon intoned, “Your suit looks like JC Penneys in this cheap illumination. Ronald make a note of it please.”

I had expected Peggy to be there on my first day at the library, but she was quite absent. “Has anyone seen Ms. Naron?” I asked. Nancy looked at Dixon who rolled his eyes. “She will not be joining us,” he said.

The walk continued. Nancy asked, “What about Ronnie’s favorite football from college? Shouldn’t that be in this case with his other student memorabilia?” Dixon answered, “Dear, people can only take so much football. Your husband had other interests. We need to have one section for just your place settings of White House China. Don’t you agree Mr. Reagan?” He asked.

“Sure,” I answered.

The walking tour lasted another twenty minutes. Then Mrs. Reagan said good-bye to all of us, and said that Mr. Dixon and I would get along fabulously.

“Will you excuse us Ethel?” Dixon asked.

“Certainly,” She said as she left us in a dark hallway.

“Young man, you almost lost your job last night,” He said.

“Why? What did I do?” I asked.

“You embarrassed Mrs. Reagan by not dancing with her.”

“But I was with Peggy,” I said.

“Oh, I know the whole story. You don’t have to tell me a thing,” he said.

“You know? About Peggy? How crazy she is? That she thinks I’m something other than who I am?” I asked.

“Yes. You can trust me,” he said, “I spoke to Peggy and she was telling me such a bunch of bull. How in love with her you were. How you made love in your bathrobe. How big your cock is! She told me everything.”

“I am so relieved. I just want to enjoy my time here in the library. Do my job. I came to California to escape the stress. I’m so happy you understand me,” I said.

“Not only will you enjoy the library,” he said, “ But I want you to spend the weekend with me at my house in Palm Springs. It’s gorgeous. Filled with the most stylish mid-century furniture. Do you like 50’s stuff? I’ve got oodles of it.”

“Yes I love the 50’s,” I answered.
“I sent Peggy back to New York. The bitch. Let her find her own Ronald Reagan at the bottom of a highball glass. She can drink, that lush. Mrs. Reagan thinks she is poison with a capital P.”
He grabbed the back of my arm, digging his fingers into my triceps. “Oh, I see you go to the gym. Very nice. We’ve got a fully equipped spa at my home. You’re going to love it at my home Mr. Reagan.”
Two Weeks Later
I had spent the weekdays designing and supervising the installation of new lighting at the library. Everyone was so sweet to me, so considerate. My hours were quite regular, mostly from 8am-5pm. My only problem was the persistent presence of Mr. Dixon.
He was in the library offering me suggestions. He told me which items Mrs. Reagan wanted to highlight. He carried a phone and constantly called Nancy to tell her how the renovations were progressing. He became a royal pain in the butt. But his most egregious habit was patting me on the shoulder and the butt. Finally, I had had enough of his touchiness.
I was standing on top of the President’s desk in the Oval Office reaching up to the ceiling to adjust a spotlight. Illini grabbed my thigh, ostensibly to keep me balanced, but it was dangerously close to my balls. “Would you take your hand off my leg?” I asked.
He stepped back and leered at me. “My you certainly are testy today! I was just trying to keep you from falling off,” he said.
“Listen, I was hired to do the lighting here. I don’t need an assistant. I certainly appreciate your help, but you’re invading my space!” I screamed.
“No, you take your Manhattan attitude and shove it up your ass! How dare you reject my help and my authority! Who the fuck do you think you are!” he said.
We both stood there, not budging. He huffed and walked out of the Oval Office.

Help
In the last few days at the end of the project, I was rid of both Illini and Peggy. Free of those annoying people, I had begun to learn something about Reagan’s life, and started to appreciate those achievements in his presidency that I had once dismissed.
For example, the library showed how Reagan ended the cold war, and that was swell. He also had fired the air traffic controllers, and put an end to union domination of national politics. I saw how kind he was to old friends like Jimmy Stewart and Claudette Colbert, and I was charmed by his loyalty. He loved horses, and riding, and chopping wood. The confused mind, the psychoanalyzed mind, the liberal fogginess of my own thinking was purified in the conservative clarity of California’s Reagan Library.
It was Nancy who called me ask me out to lunch. She told me to drive down to Los Angeles and meet her at the Bel Air Hotel. She wanted to thank me for my kindness, and I was thrilled to be invited.
But when I spoke to her on the phone, something in her voice frightened me. “We’re going to have lunch and I’ve also invited Peggy Naron and Illini Dixon. They speak so highly of you. They told me that you have some political aspirations that we should discuss. I think you’re going to be a big hit in the new Republican Party and I want to introduce you to all the right people.”
No matter what I did, I couldn’t somehow offend these fans of mine. I remained a shining figment of their imagination in the blinding light of the Golden State.
I politely declined Nancy’s offer and told her to give my best to Illini and Peggy.

The End

“Incidental in Studio City”

It was a clear, sparkling, blue-sky morning in Los Angeles. Ned Le Reve of Studio City went out for a walk.

Ned, his wife Stacey and daughter Kirsten lived on the quaint Cantura Street just south of Ventura Boulevard. Their house was rented, but it felt like home with its double hung windows, black shutters, white washed picket fence and Iceberg roses in the front yard.

Ned, born in Chicago, had moved out to Los Angeles some twenty years earlier to work as a production assistant on the TV pilot “Twenty Lashes” which starred Potter Palmer, an obscure Chicago comedian who was briefly popular in the latter half of 1984. Ned considered himself a real Chicagoan who grew up in Rogers Park, went to Senn High School and the University of Illinois.

Everyone Lives Near the Beverly Center

In the 1980’s, many young Chicagoans and New Yorkers who emigrated to LA moved to that section of Los Angeles near the brown concrete mass of the Beverly Center. The straight, ambitious, cunning, aggressive and creative aspiring sycophants…all of them… were drawn to an area built up largely in the 1930’s and 40’s with Spanish and Art Moderne flats in gardens of green lawns, ficus trees and Birds of Paradise.

Ned found a 1939 vintage two-bedroom apartment on Orlando, just north of Beverly. His roommate was Alan Blockkopf (block-off), a short red haired and wiry nerd from Skokie, Illinois. Alan had been in Ned’s Secrets of Sitcom Writing class at U of I. He was a connection of sorts. He had just secured a job as a runner on The Cosby Show and was full of advice.

Ned soon found out that Alan never shut up with his helpful hints about making it in Hollywood. A typical Alan comment: “What you want to do in Hollywood is send a postcard to any person you meet at a party and thank them for talking to you.” He was full of career, dating, eating, carnal, social, family and financial recommendations.

As Ned reached into the refrigerator to prepare himself a tuna sandwich he felt Alan’s hand on his left shoulder.” I never eat tuna salad the day after I make it,” Alan said. “Oh, Ok,” was Ned’s reply.

“ Your mother called today,” Alan said. He then added, “You should probably tell her to stop calling you more than once a week. You’re 23 now and she’s treating you like a baby.”

Alan had his way in the apartment with the arrangement of: the closets (he had two of three); the bookshelves (he had all of them for his own books); the keys (he had many keys but allowed Ned only one to get into the front door). Alan used electric air freshners in his bathroom. He asked Ned to used shower gel (not soap because it clogs drains). He paid his bills on the first Sunday of every month at 10am and expected Ned to do the same.

Alan imagined himself as a comedy writer, and he was hard at working writing pilot episodes for Mr. Cosby himself, though Mr. Cosby never read any of Alan’s work. Alan adored the sludgy Cosby’s humor and was especially fond of quoting the droll Jello gelatin commercials verbatim.

In 1985, popular music was recorded on “LP’s” (a long playing phonograph record). Ned would throw his LP albums around his bedroom. Tidy Alan stacked his music alphabetically in the dining room bookcase. If Ned wanted to find a favorite album of his own, he would merely get down on the floor and sweep his hands over the record covers. Eventually he would find what he was looking for.

This disorder was too much for Alan. He asked Ned to find a place to store the albums correctly. Ned said, “Like fuck I will.” The next day Alan asked Ned to move out. Ned was unemployed, directionless, single and had no place to live. In a sense, he was on equal ground with every other 23 year old in Los Angeles.

Liza O’Neil of Studio City

“People suck, you know what I mean?” Ned was having a dreadful conversation with another college friend, Liza O’Neil, a Los Angeles native who worked in TV and was fond of such phrases as “you know what I mean” and “people suck…. you know what I mean?”

Liza was 5’10 and had blunt cut brown hair which complimented her big brown eyes and tiny little ears. She was tall and wore baggy men’s oxford shirts and torn jeans. In Ned’s naive assessment of Liza, she was laid back. Unlike girls back in Chicago, Liza never wore make-up and the only tailored clothing she owned was a vintage man’s formal jacket and trousers which she wore to very fancy occasions like Dodger’s games.

Her beauty was compromised by her character. She was self-centered, self-absorbed, a slob who chain smoked and only dated successful fat comedians whom she judged were on their way up in Hollywood. Her leisure time was spent talking on the phone about herself and her failed relationships.

“If you want a place to stay…..” Liza paused after exhaling smoke, “…Then you can stay in my extra bedroom and pay me $200 a month. I live on North Golf Course Drive in Studio City and I have a really nice little gray house that I rent. I’m going to be working on a televised concert in Vancouver this summer. I insist that you move out when I get back in Septmember.”

This was Ned’s second taste of hospitality in LA. You were always welcome as long as you were needed. You were always welcome as long as you were useful. You could be cut out or fired or dropped, simply at a moment’s notice. The one in power reserved all of the rights to dismiss you. It was a tradition dating back to Joan Crawford and her poor, oppressed daughter Christina.

Love in Toluca Lake

One hot Tuesday in May, while Liza worked in Vancouver, Ned was unemployed and bored in Studio City. He had opened up the Hollywood Reporter and sent out his resumes. He had made some calls to his “connections” but found that he had none. He locked up the house and started walking east down Moorpark.

He passed Whitsett, and then Laurel Canyon, Colfax, Tujunga, Vineland, Lankershim, Cahuenga. Two hours later he had entered Toluca Lake, the picturesque and prosperous district– where the institution and sometimes human– Bob Hope lived. In this fairy land, mountains caressed rose covered cottages where little blonde tykes were watched over by benevolent nannies and au pairs and Mom never looked any older than 40 even on her 75th birthday.

It was hot, maybe 99 degrees, so Ned stopped at a gas station and bought a Coca-Cola. He almost didn’t make it to the soda machine. A young woman in a 1986 Taurus came screaching through pump area, her foot on the accelerator. Ned was merely an insect at the end of the woman’s hood ornament. He might have died right there, but he jumped on top of her hood. The woman slammed on her brakes with an expression stunned and sorry. She ran over to Ned on top of her windshield. “Oh, I’m so embarassed. I could have killed you. Let me help you down. ” She was an attractive if innocent looking sandy haired gal with a light blue t-shirt. “It’s so hot,” she said, “that I just wasn’t thinking. The sun got in my eyes.”

“My name is Ned, ” he said. “Stacey, pleased to meet you.”

They exchanged numbers and a few days later they were laughing at a French bakery on Riverside Drive that reminded Ned of the one his mom had back home. Stacey was really funny he found out. She was a Phoenix girl, who moved here to work as a comedy writer, but was supporting herself as a receptionist in a medical office in Toluca Lake.

Crossing Liza O’Neil

Three months after Ned met Stacey, he proposed marriage to her. But he was still staying at Liza’s house. The owner had blown back into town after an exciting summer supplying the refreshments at a crafts services table in Vancouver backstage at U2 Concerts. She had seen wealth and fame and power. She seemed to possess a new philosophical maturation.

“You know what I mean about working in our industry, she opined, as she smoked away on the back porch with Ned, “We work a few months out of the year, and then we are free but we have no money. So it sucks. You know what I mean? I wish I was living in Paris like I did in college. My parents gave me $500 a month. Now they don’t give me anything. You know what I mean? I mean they did buy me that white BMW but so what? I still have to work. You know what I mean?”

Ned broke the news to Liza about Stacey, a girl he really liked and now intended to marry. “That’s really cool. I’m happy for you. We all need someone. You know?” Liza was almost thoughtful. “So when are you moving out Ned?” She asked.

Only Yesterday

Ned had been in Los Angeles for 19 years. He had left Liza’s house at 24, and woke up at 41 with a 40 year-old wife and a 16 year-old daughter. What had he accomplished in the decade and a half since he moved here to work in “TV”? Or was it “FILM”?

One year he was a writer’s assistant on a game show. He hated the hours spent locked up in white walled windowless offices coming up with trivia questions. He quit.

He worked as a researcher on documentaries and checked facts for producers who wrote it into one hour History Channel shows like, “Noah’s Ark: The Mystery Rises” and “Hoover: A Man and a Dam”.

He worked in a producer’s office sorting headshots. He tried acting and ended up in a cult acting class where the teacher, Boris, fell in love with him because his stage presence was so natural and unaffected (and untaught and unpracticed and inexperienced).

Kirsten was a lovely child, and he doted on her. But Stacey had grown into a morose woman who resented Ned’s stagnant career and looked around at other women who enjoyed vacations, cosmetic surgery and weekends in Manhattan. Ned felt that he was lacking in masculine energy, drive or cruelty.

Softball

The only real progress he made was on the softball field. Every Sunday, he met Dick Raymond and other past primers for a men’s only game of softball at the Studio City Park athletic field. Dick was a bearded rebel who grew up in Berkeley in the 1960’s and was forever in search of the meaning of life as experienced between those three bases and home plate. “Ned”, Dick told him one day, “The only thing you need for happiness in this world is a good baseball bat.”

The Good Bat

Ned took Dick’s advice and went out to buy the best bat he could find. At the Sports Store on Ventura Boulevard, he pushed his way past the 11 and 12-year old boys and their dads to lay his hands on a solid man’s bat. A glossy label hung seductively on one of the biggest and best-looking bat models stacked against the wall:

“The Amateur Softball Association of America, headquarters in Oklahoma City, OK certifies that this “Louisville Slugger” model bat meets our standards for ASA Bat Performance.”

Ned immediately made eye contact with one bat. It was the “TPS GENESIS” whose advertising bragged about its aerospace applications and graphite, carbon, and tensile strengths. Lightning bolt graphics in enormous exploding letters promised the ultimate in power hitting for slow pitch softball.

Ned was about to take that item to the cashier. Then he spotted the $159.00 TPS POWER RESPONSE. A glossy brochure attached to the bat explained the enormous technological advances that went into this product:

“The strongest and toughest alloy ever developed for aluminum bats. In aluminum bat construction, the alloy’s “yield strength” is key to bat design, performance and durability. GEN1X, the strongest alloy on the market, is the first aluminum bat alloy to measure over 100 ksi (THE MEASUREMENT OF AN ALLOY’S STRENGTH). The result is the most technologically advanced line of aluminum bats to ever be developed. Years in the development process, Alcoa Research and Development Engineers formulated a breakthrough combination of Aluminum, Zinc, Copper, Zirconium, Magnesium and traces of Titanium to obtain this incredible strength.”

Ned picked up the softball bat. In a dance like configuration of ass out, knees bent he got into a batter’s stance. It felt good, him and the big bat. He carefully swung it and imagined himself as the greatest softball hitter in the world. Like Viagra it put a new virility into Ned. He had to buy it. He ran up to the counter and handed the cashier two hundred dollar bills. This bat might just change his life.

Unnerving

Alan Blockkopf had eventually become the executive producer and creator of “Whoremobile”. The MTB reality show starred a beautiful Playboy bunny who would pick one lucky male winner to ride (and do much more) in her car all night. The winner was selected from three guys who had to eat dead cat meat or drink pig’s blood in order to win a date with her. The supervising producer, just under Blockkopf , was Liza O’Neil. Here were two old friends of Ned who were now in distinguished positions were they could earn accolades and honors.

Ned felt diminished. College friends of Ned’s became neurosurgeons and Congressmen, CEO’s and Engineers, diplomats, designers and producers of “Whoremobile” but where was he? Ned was still poor Ned stuck outside with his hungry nose against the window watching the lucky ones inside.

He was desperate to prove something to himself. He would ask Alan or Liza for a job on “Whoremobile”. He just had to.

Nose Ring Central

“Of course you can come in and talk to us.” Thus, Liza O’Neil invited Ned Le Reve to visit her production offices at MTB in Santa Monica.

MTB (Music Tele-Broadcasting) was housed in a long, low slung brown brick building in a flat and uninteresting section of West Los Angeles.

Ned arrived dressed in his best “I’m still young, cool and hip” style that looked hopelessly out of date to those MTB employees who were not yet born when Ned graduated College. He was wearing a red 50’s style rayon camp shirt with the tails untucked, baggy jeans and leather Steve Madden sneakers. His hair was cut short and frosted blonde in parts to block out the gray. The receptionist was an Asian tattooed young man with nose rings and a laptop on his lap. Ned was buzzed into the offices of “Whoremobile”.

MTB’s architecture in Los Angeles is a circus side-show, a commercially calculating carnival of deception and pretense. Interior design here is fun, crazy and lunatic with an infant’s sense of decorum and the quiet subtlety of a Marine drill sergeant. Acid green walls and unadorned bare bulbs were accentuated by psychedelic carpets and linoleum violently mismatched. The intent: to express how free and cool it is at MTB. The result: it only served to make the Ned feel ill at ease and unsure. Big-framed posters of shirtless and muscular black men grabbing their crotches were advertisements for the best debauchery and merrymaking. This land of MTB: whores and thugs, killers and sluts, singers and salesmen, hell and hucksterism. This is what middle aged, white and nerdy Ned Le Reve saw as he walked down the hall to Liza’s office.

On the 10

It was 5 O’clock and Ned was stuck on the freeway. He was driving his wife’s 1986 Taurus, the one that had almost killed him years ago. He was hot, hungry and tired. He couldn’t stop replaying the ridiculous and sickening interview with Liza O’Neil.

“We like to talk about sex and food. You know what I mean? I mean do you know anything about the new MTB food channel FTV?” Liza said.

“I’ve been working in documentaries,” Ned said.

“We are going to Vegas to do a special with Paris Hilton. You know her?” Liza asked.

“Yes.”

“Well I mean if you want to move to Vegas, I could probably use someone as my assistant there. Do you have a car?” Liza asked.

She had put a tape of the show in the VCR and they had watched it. A tan, 22 year-old blond girl with orange skin peeled off her top and three guys jumped on top of her and the whole scene was blacked out by sensors.

“Why do you bother to show what you can’t show?” Ned asked.

“It’s the idea. They’re jumping on top of her and the audience knows she’s topless and everyone uses their imagination. You-know-what-I-mean?” She said.

“I do. And I think it’s asinine to tease your viewers with explicit sex and not make it explicit!” He answered. He lost his chances right there. Not that he wanted to win the job anyway.

“Well it’s been great seeing you again. I’ll say hi to Alan. He’s so busy. He wanted to come by and say hello but he just doesn’t have time. You-know-what-I-mean?” Liza said goodbye and walked out of the room. MTB had cooked her brain like a TV dinner left too long in the microwave.

North on Laurel Canyon

Ned was crawling up the one lane Laurel Canyon at the height of the rush hour. He looked out his rear view mirror and could see a brown haired young woman in a Lincoln Navigator. She was on the phone, putting on lipstick, driving, and drinking coffee.

His phone rang. It was Dick Raymond, “Hey Ned. I just called to tell you that the game is cancelled tomorrow. I was invited to spend the weekend with my friend Alan and his wife at their beach house in Newport Beach.”

“Oh, that’s OK,” answered Ned.

“Are you all right kid?” Dick asked.

“No. I just had a horrible interview and now I’m stuck in traffic. Nothing out of the ordinary,” answered Ned.

“Interview?” Dick asked.

“Yes. Some fuckin’ idiotic show called “Whoremobile”. I mean can you imagine me on a show like that? It’s like one step above porn.” Ned said.

“But very profitable. My friend Alan is the executive producer of that show. That’s the Alan my wife are going to spend the weekend with in Newport!” he said.

“Hey. I didn’t mean to take a swipe at your friend.” Ned said.

“No. I agree with you. It’s garbage, but I wouldn’t tell him that. Do you know he just bought a nine million dollar house in Brentwood?” Alan said.

“No, I didn’t.” Ned said.

“Well. He’s enjoying every minute of it. The United Jewish Appeal voted him Citizen of the Year. He’s a big guy now. So long. Have a good weekend Ned.” Alan said.

At last Ned reached the top of Mulholland, the mountain summit road that separates Los Angeles from the San Fernando Valley. The golden haze of the sun was closing on a day full of ambiguity and yearning.

What he wanted now, more than anything, he thought, was to go to the park and hit a few balls.

“Hated Hill House”

More than 30 years ago, in a town halfway between Los Encinos, CA and Riverside, Mr. and Mrs. Hill bought a modest ranch house in the sleepy Santa Tara Valley.

The newly named Hill House was a white clapboard ranch set back about 200 feet from Highway 14, along a beautiful apple orchard nestled beneath the Santa Tara Mountains. In its rustic and gentle unpretentiousness, the ranch looked like it might have once been a set piece for a 1940’s cowboy movie.

Santa Tara had only about 1,300 residents back then, most of whom were farmers, small business owners, retirees and migrant workers.

When Larry and Annie Hill moved into Santa Tara, they were a different type. Larry was a rugged, long-haired sculptor who looked something like the 60’s radical Abby Hoffman. Annie was the Joan Baez wife, who wore her long black hair with a headband, and drove a Ford pick-up around town with her three black Dalmatians. She hid her wealthy origins well. Her father had been a publisher of a San Francisco newspaper, it was alleged.

They had moved from somewhere else, perhaps San Francisco, possibly Berkeley, maybe Portland, nobody knew for sure.

They might have had anti-war connections, experimented with drugs, conducted all night orgies, or maybe they weren’t even married. They just looked strange.

I was 12 year old Edgar Evens, a boy who rode my bike past their house and wondered why such artsy folk would move to such a dusty dry town far removed from urban sophisticates.

I looked at those people and I wished my parents looked that cool. But my mom and dad were fat and Baptist, listened to Lawrence Welk and said grace before every single meal.

One blistering July afternoon, I came into my parent’s bedroom to find them lying lifeless on top of their king- sized bed. They had been shot up, and my mother was full of blood and holes. My father lay there with his eyes wide open and a red-river of liquid pouring out of his stunned mouth and onto the soaking crimson pillows.

The Sheriff came. Then the ambulance, and then the coroner. My seventh grade teacher, Mona McKinsey came, and she brought Pastor Clark, and pretty soon the good Pastor took me back to his place and I never went back to my parent’s house again.

The funeral was a week later. My Uncle Russ, Aunt Betty, and tons of cousins from Kentucky, Oklahoma and Oregon showed up. They said that my father had shot my mother and then turned the gun on himself.

KTLA-TV sent a reporter to interview me, but Pastor Clark wouldn’t let me talk. The Los Angeles Times called once, but then they didn’t call again. The Santa Tara Gazette reported the killing on its front page. That was something.

I went back to school, and finished the seventh grade. Then Pastor Clark asked me if I wanted to move into Hill House. The Hills wanted to become my guardian. I said yes, and moved into the white ranch house in the apple orchards.

Larry played The Doors, Joni Mitchell, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. He had a studio where he kept sheets of metal, tools, paints and poisons and fashioned bizarre beings out of steel.

Annie worked as a guidance counselor at the high school, but at night, she drove 20 miles to study architecture at the local college. Her drafting tools, papers, and architecture books took up one corner of Larry’s studio.

A few days after I had moved in, Annie knocked on my bedroom door and sat on the edge of my bed. Outside, crows were circling the fields and causing a ruckus. In late afternoon, the gentle orange tints of the setting sun washed against the bedspread.

“Do you think of your parents, son?” she asked.

“No, not really.”

She fastened her deep brown eyes into mine. Her breath smelled of red wine and rosemary. The scent of chicken in the pot perfumed her hair.

“I’m cooking downstairs, and we’ll have some dinner. Just know that no matter what, I’m here for you to talk. Understand?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Yes ma’am! You don’t have to call me that. How about Annie?”

“Yes ma’am. I mean Annie……”

The eighth grade started again, and I went back to school. The Mexican workers came into town to pick the ripened apples. I would pass straw hatted kids my age in the fields while sitting on the bus dreaming of running away from Santa Tara.

Mona McKinsey was again my teacher and this year she began class by saying that everyone was so sorry about the death of my parents and how much I was loved by everyone in town.

I had once liked school, but the eighth grade was horrible. We had to study trigonometry and algebra. We had to memorize English and American history, and we were drilled in grammar and sentence structure. Every night, I spent two or three hours struggling with math, and I never seemed to catch up to the other kids. I was falling behind, and then I began to feel shy.

I started eating alone at lunchtime. In gym class, I was picked last for sports teams. My skin began to break out and every morning I would wake up and find that my cheeks were sore and ruptured with pimples and blackheads.

Girls were now growing breasts and getting bitchier. They ganged up in large groups and walked around the playground picking out targets like game hunters on an African safari.

I remember one bitch, Lisa Gettleman, who had freckles and brown teeth, but acted as if she were Cheryl Tiegs.

“Well, if it isn’t the town weirdo. When are you going to act normal again? You’re not the only kid whose parents are dead!”

Six of these girls were glued together, laughing and chewing gum and taunting me.

“I think he’s gay. That’s what he is. Do you know what a HOMO is?”

“Fuck you! Fuck off bitches!”

“Fuck you loser!”

They fled the scene of the crime and I ran to the other side of the playground and hid my head behind the thorny bushes under the cafeteria windows.

Larry took me for a walk with the three Dalmatians: Missy, Matador and Marvin. We walked up behind the barn, and into the hills behind the house. A couple of hundred feet along the trail, you could stop and see the whole town below. The air was cooler and the settlement down there seemed small and unimportant.

“It’s a toy town. Toy town with toy folks.” He said.

“What do you mean?”

“Little minds like dolls. They go about their lives and their small matters. You have to come up here and breathe some fresh air sometimes. Don’t swim in the town without coming up for air.”

“I hate this town.” I said.

“I know. I hate it too.”

“Then why did you move here?”

“I wanted to get out of the city. I had my art, and my wife. We just thought it would be better to concentrate on creating something. So Santa Tara seemed to beckon.”

“But its so dinky here.”

“But that’s the point. Annie wants to be a big fish in a small pond.”

“Why did you take me in?”

“Why not?”

“That’s not a good answer. You don’t just take a strange kid into your home just because he has no parents.”

“You were an outcast. That’s why. We took you in because we don’t like it when people are outcasted.”

“Great. You think I’m a freak!”

“An outcast. Not a freak! You can be different and come from difficulty and it don’t make you a freak!”

Annie got her degree and now she was an architect. She threw a party and invited some of the townsfolk. Her diploma stood proudly atop the fireplace mantle.

She didn’t design houses though. There weren’t any people who would hire her. Larry did, however, know of a man in Santa Monica, a radical architect who did weird projects like building homes out of sheet metal, plywood, fencing, and old tires. This future design celebrity came out to Santa Tara one day and sat out on the front porch drinking red wine in his faded jeans and dirty ostrich boots.

“This is our boy. Sort of. Edgar come and meet Frank T. Geary.”

“How do you do Mr. Geary?”

“Just fine. Larry tells me that you hate this house.”

“Yep.”

“Tell me why you hate it?”

“Look at it. It’s just plain and doesn’t say anything. It looks like boring people live here. These people aren’t boring—but their house looks like hell.”

Everyone laughed. Annie poured herself a glass of wine, and then Larry brought out some avocado dip. The architect dipped his potato chip into the bowl and sat down on the wooden steps of the porch, petting Missy.

Annie spoke. “We don’t want you to improve this house. We want you to transform it. I want people to drive out to Santa Tara and look at my house and say, “What were they thinking!”

“Now you don’t want all that publicity do you Annie?”

“I want whatever is going to make a name for all of us. I have a husband who needs to sell his sculptures. I need to find work at least as a draftsman and you need to get your name on TV.”

“Something for everyone, huh?” sneered the architect.

“We ought to be famous for something good here. The last time our town was in the news…….”

They had spoken the unspeakable. Crossed the line. The air turned sticky and silent. Larry took Annie aside and she went into the house.

Larry came out and exclaimed with renewed confidence:”If Santa Tara becomes famous it’s going to be from the new Hill House.”

There was talk of money in the house. Larry had an inheritance and a little cash to play around with. The architect was going to take on the project, and charge very little commission in the hope that Hill House would put his name on the map.

After I graduated from the eighth grade, Larry asked me to work with him in construction. He was going to help build the home, with guidance from his wife and the architect, and I could be the intern on the project.

The drawings for the house arrived in the mail. Annie laid the giant manila envelope on the dining room table, sliced open the cover and pulled out the blueprints.

“What is that?” I asked. I was looking at a window that was not round or square, but a trapezoid with cartoonish angles set against a façade of corrugated steel, plywood, plastic and aluminum.

“That’s our new house, Edgar. Isn’t it fantastic?”

“That’s the house? That’s the ugliest thing I have ever seen! How could you even build that!”

She laughed. She picked up the drawings and went outside to show her husband.

“Edgar thinks it’s ugly. That’s the point. We want them to hate Hill House. Then we’ll be famous.”

“You want to be so obvious! I don’t want to live in something that people make fun of.”

Larry put his hand on my shoulder. “All great art is despised when it’s first shown. I’m going to tell you about the French impressionists. Why, do you know the first time Renoir painted, people spit at his paintings? Van Gogh died broke. Picasso was despised. So were the Beatles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marlon Brando. People– I mean average people– don’t understand great artists!”

I was getting angry. My teenage temper burst.

“You’re not building art! You’re building a house and it’s ugly and you’re pretending that you have something artful and it’s just so you can fool people so you can make money. It’s dishonest and you want to trick people!”

“Now don’t be a jerk! You don’t have the knowledge to talk about art. You will learn, but right now you have to accept that we are telling you the truth.”

Just as I entered freshman year, Annie quit her job at the high school. She had gotten some work from the architect, and had managed to build up a clientele based upon her association with the radical builder. The projects were money, they weren’t fun and they bored her. One of the assignments was to design a chicken coop for a neighbor.

But Annie and Larry’s house was now nearing completion. Just as the town had once driven by another house to see where the dead victims were, they now pulled up to gawk, to take pictures, to comment on our house. We were conspicuous and I was ashamed. Annie and Larry were town celebrities though, and they knew they had hit a nerve.

Larry came home one night, ran into the den and turned on the TV.

“Look, everyone get in here! KTLA has something about Frank’s new house in Venice. Robert Redford might move into it.”

“It looks like a retarded person’s playhouse.” I said.

Annie came in holding her glass of wine. “Yes, yes, yes! If that house can be on TV, so can ours!”

Workmen arrived every morning at 6am. It was impossible to sleep through the hammering, drilling, screaming, cussing, dust, trucks and sawing.

Mr. Geary hardly came out to the house. Great architects worked like that, Annie explained. They created, and then others did the building.

Finally, the house was complete. Standing alone in the apple orchards, with the blue-mountains as a backdrop, stood the architectural sensation of the year.

Folks could not believe the “genius” of the building. Some thought it was ridiculous, but most believers convinced the skeptical and very soon almost everyone knew that something amazing had come to Santa Tara.

“Looks like a tornado hit it.”

“Ugly as sin.”

“You don’t know beauty when you see it.”

“Fascinating.”

“Where are the loonies?”

“Does that weird kid still live there?”

Mr. Geary, Larry, Annie and dozens of friends came over for the housewarming. Vegetarian chili, white wine, reefer, scented candles and the barking dogs, it was California hospitality at its most sincere. I was a part of a new wave, like Surrealism or Expressionism or Method acting, and where I slept and shit now was a hallowed ground for the aesthetes of Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Soho.

They had taken me once after my parents died, into a home which was a sanctuary from violent America. I had been ripped open, left alone, orphaned, and these two rescuers had brought me into their lives. They would protect me, and nourish me, and teach me those great values that might insure my success in life.

I had seen greatness in the new art, the house that looked like an insane asylum, but who was I to judge? As unanimous opinion spread like a virus, I realized that I was destined to live in a home that was now on the map of celebrity residences. I could not object to what I hated, I had to learn to love what everyone else desired, and eventually I would desire it myself.