Exiles Under the Bridge, a novel

Exiles Under the Bridge, a novel

Exiles Under the Bridge

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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The novel is available to read FREE on Apple Books.

Or in the PDF below:

Trade For Print

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Placidia Avenue

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Walter sought to get work as a paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.

Nariko was asleep at 5am when a text message awoke her.

She lay in a dark bedroom next to her husband Eric, inside a warmly furnished ranch house, somewhere in the shadows of the mountains in Toluca Lake.

They lived in an affluent, tony district of clean windows, mowed lawns, and large, tinted glass cars carrying schoolchildren.

She dropped out from blanket onto carpet and sat on the floor. In her hand were illuminated words: “I love you. See you soon. Walt.”

She tiptoed out, walked down the hall, and reached into a closet laundry hamper, clutching a stained shirt and elastic shorts.

After exercise, still in the dark before the dawn, she set out granola, almond milk, sliced bananas, coffee and boiled-eggs for Eric and little Lillian.

Eric came out of the bedroom. He stood near the coffee maker, in a white t-shirt and blue boxers. He was in a cloudy, Monday morning kitchen, a decade past his youth, hurling into mid-life.

He worked at nearby Warner Brothers Studio. His office was a trailer in his own production company, staffed by interns who spent all day online inventing tales, a business of no security and no importance, whose attributes and contracts were purchased ten years earlier with his late father’s money. Something Southern and scatalogical was always in development and just about to get green lit.

At night, after work, Eric pedaled out into the dark. He rode home through Burbank and Toluca Lake, taking wrong roads, turning down unfamiliar streets, places he rode through with no clear direction, in a frenzy of sweat and physicality; elated, invigorated.

In low gear, passing other houses and inhabitants, he processed and archived life with no intention beyond sensation.

Back home on Placidia Avenue, Trader Joe’s food waited: pre-cooked turkey meatballs, plastic bag risotto, and bottles of cheap red wine. Dessert was always those waxed tangerines and tiny containers of Greek yogurt.

His income was largely a trust fund depositing enough for mortgage, dinner and a movie into his account.

His wife was cheating and he knew it but he didn’t.

This particular morning she was naked and locked in the bathroom seated on the toilet texting Walt, a hired photographer from back east whose visit was platonic in purpose. She sat on the throne for fifteen minutes and then wiped up, made up her face, threw on a shirt and slipped like a virgin into bleached white jeans.

Nariko Araki worked inside a converted garage, in back of her well-groomed Toluca Lake garden. Thin, dark-haired, and industrious, she commanded a small textile studio, printing and producing organic cloth whose aura was tactile, natural, handcrafted, and sensual.

She used a lot of blues and whites, careful not to suffocate in pattern. Every marking and shape had plenty of room around it. In her creations objects floated separately in vast white seas.

She looked cool and smelled smoky like cedar.

She mixed brown dyes in a large steel can, standing on a small step ladder, stirring it with a plastic oar as Eric stood by plaintively, like a boy watching his mother make dinner.

She told him that his car payment, house taxes, mortgage payment and credit card bills were due and he had to pay them all. Head down, he turned and walked out, stomping on fallen gold maple leaves.

Back to work she went, tugging, folding, tucking, rolling and lifting fabric. Bolts of linen cloth, in hues of walnut, sage, saffron and henna, were laid down and stacked on the concrete floor. Inks, dyes, industrial poisons and metal stamps congregated atop rectangular wooden tables.

In a corner, a pile of corrugated boxes, packed with fabrics, pasted in mailing labels, waited in silence for the UPS man atop the Dutch door ledge.

In the open air of the workshop Nariko’s mercurial moods moved from anxiety to tranquility, acidic and rancid from chemicals, benignly seductive in rose, jasmine and lavender.

Self-taught, she had taken a home hobby and built it into a thriving little enterprise supplying fabrics for home furnishings, bedding, clothing and tabletops.

In long sleeve black spandex top and dark jeans, Eric came back into the studio with Lillian on his arm. He asked for the car keys and some gas money to drive the child to school.

“I think we are going to have a meeting at Paramount next week. New exec there used to go to Syracuse with Cody Soldinger,” he said.

“Take a hundred out of my purse,” she directed, holding and cutting orange and black fishes printed on white cotton.

On the driveway, he put Lillian into a seat, belted her in and stopped to look up at the sky. Cirrus clouds, wisps of white, blown by a cold north wind, moved across the sky like kinetic sculpture from God’s mobile.

The unfathomable enormity of the blue and beyond was terrifying.

He stopped looking up and got down into the car.

The Photographer

A week before Thanksgiving, Walter W. Simmons was inside Nariko’s studio.

Prematurely gray, he favored his old Nikon F, coffee in a mug, and menthol lozenges that he sucked all day turning his kisses cool and hot.

Lean, up and down, he favored dark denim, turtleneck sweaters, Red Wing boots, and aviator sunglasses.

He moved around the studio, on his knees, lens aimed up. Perched on a ladder looking down.

Nariko wore a long black cotton scarf whirling about her neck. She stood next to the Dutch door, resting her elbow on the ledge, and held a cup of green tea in a gray ceramic mug.

Walter sought to get work as paid photographer. Recognition and status drove him, a name and a company established him. Cunningly and strategically, he attached himself to aesthetic and sustainable projects whose products infused his public image goals. He employed soulful sentiment as a marketing tool.

Nariko guessed that Walter saw in her something that fit into his own marketing plan.

Walter set up a mise en scène plate of oatmeal cookies atop the oatmeal dyed linen.  He was a master of the subtly obvious.

He went into the garden and took close-ups of lambs ears and succulents, jasmine vines and hanging lanterns. He went back in and grabbed her from behind, kissing her on the neck.

Before he jumped in a cab to Burbank Airport he had both hands under her blouse, clasping her breasts, rubbing against her, man to woman, breathing into her ears, sticking his probing tongue into the ridges and spirals of her sonic hinterlands.

He aimed to dominate. But he wrapped his industrial sized dreams in benign sustainability.

Walter’s visits invigorated her. He found sunlight and shadow in her Southern California studio as only a visitor from a dark, northern place could.

The conjugation of her printed fabric and his printed photographs bore real emotion and sentiment, connection and intimacy. His departures left her empty, sullen, and morose.

She needed activity and threw herself back into projects, chores, and work.

On the studio wall she had a large chalkboard grid for the year, scheduling each month’s production goals and deadlines.

Two years ago none of this existed.

Last year she called it a hobby.

And this year it was a business.

And some of it was an affair: illicit, dangerous, exciting and energizing.

Auntie Tammy

In a little yellow VW, 80-year-old Auntie Tammy sped up the 405 and across the 101 for her once-a-month visitation with her niece.

Tammy Shibuya was the youngest and only survivor of a family of four who had lived in Mountain View, CA before WWII. Rounded up after Pearl Harbor they endured more than three years in an internment camp, returning back home to a looted hardware store.  Unable to rebuild on land stolen, the Shibuya clan went south. They joined family in Oxnard, farming strawberries and asparagus, later migrating southward into West Los Angeles property development in the 1950s.

Auntie Tammy never married and worked managing apartments. She was tough, able to get under a leaking sink and clear pipes, wire fixtures and hang doors. She scoffed at spendthrifts who wasted money on plumbers and electricians. Thin and fastidious, she ate carrots and ramen soup, washed her hair in bar soap, and kept her furniture for 40 years. She barked out orders to tradesman, and knew her way around blueprints, drains, circuit breakers and lathe saws too.

Unreligious, unromantic and clear-eyed, she spoke the truth, making many enemies. If you were fat, indebted, bored, failing school, falling into self-pity, she let you know. Hardy, blunt and clear-eyed, she lead a life of flinty independence and self-reliance.

Nariko and her aunt walked around the brightly illuminated studio as ductless air-conditioning blew, and a new 55-inch smart TV played.

Her Aunt stood glumly, shaking her head.

“You spend too much. Air-conditioning? New TV? New computer? How much are you selling and how much are you spending?” she asked.

Nariko had expected the assault. She was armed with figures and produced an optimistic report. Tammy did not budge.

“I’m no spoil sport Niki. You have a creative mind and you do good work. But keep your ego in check. Don’t overdo it, don’t try to impress with a big fancy operation,” Tammy said.

Nariko attempted to get up from the tackle and threw parental responsibility and wifely duty back at the old childless woman without a husband.

“Who is talking about your kid or your husband? I’m speaking about your money. Spending it like you have so much to spend. One day you might be in trouble. Or your husband loses his job. Or God forbid you have to go into the hospital. Save money. Save money. That’s what I tell you. I didn’t buy a TV until I was 40 years old!”

Tammy asked about Eric’s work.

“He’s got some promising leads at Paramount,” Nariko said quietly.

“Ha! The so-called industry! The business! I’ve lived in Los Angeles long enough to see generations of young men and women go broke trying to catch fire in Hollywood. I think your husband is headed for calamity. He’s too old to play that fucking game,” she said.

The Virtual Dog

Walter emailed his edited photographs to Nariko. She waited until Eric came home that night to unveil them to him. It had been a long day with Tammy ignoring putdowns and hiding wounds.

She fortified herself with several large glasses of Cabernet, numbing potential joy and carnal guilt.

It was dark, about 8pm. Drenched in bike sweat, Eric came through the back door. He soaped up his hands, washed his face, poured himself a glass of red wine and kissed milk-lipped Lillian.

“Daddy is home. Aren’t you happy?” he asked, wetting a paper towel and dabbing his daughter’s chin. She smiled and turned away to the hopping rabbit cartoon.

Husband and wife walked out into the studio and sat down at the desktop monitor. Before receiving her digital photos, Nariko sprayed the screen with glass cleaner, as if preparing to receive a holy sacrament.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“My aunt was here today spreading her joy,” she said.

“Let’s look at these photos from Walter. I think they might distract me.”

Scrolling down the selections, andante, reverently, Nariko put her finger on the screen each time a new photograph born into being.

Walter’s camera had captured and enhanced the textures, the linens and cottons, and the richly dyed silks. Next to the fabrics, he contrasted food and color: red wet cranberries, blue soaked blueberries, rinsed romaine lettuce, green and alive.

Her print making, drudgery in reality, was transformed in his images to an artistic blur of human at razor-sharp machine. Her specter brushed across his wide angled shots, morphing into a dark form floating across a bright white room.

“I’m dazzled,” she said. “I can’t believe how wonderful these are. I wish I could send these to Aunt Tammy but she doesn’t use a computer!”

She was breathless and exhausted from excitement and got up to get a glass of water.  As she stood at the tap, Eric inspected each photograph.

Schooled in the falsehoods of the edit bay, he stared closely at the photographs, one in particular. “Whose dog is this?” he asked as he pointed to a lovely, shiny Golden Retriever online.  She sat down quizzically.

“That’s so weird. He must have put that in,” she said.

“Photoshop.” he said. “That CG dog is so real he probably barks.”

“I’m baffled,” she said.  They looked at another image of the patio. Instead of a few pots of succulents, there were perhaps two-dozen pots of succulents, and many flowered vines.

In several close-ups of her, her dark eye circles had been removed, something she did not mind. But magenta lipstick floated across her virtual lips and her teeth were as white as a just scoured ceramic sink.

“I guess he thinks he can make you look better,” Eric said without malice.

“The whole reason I hired him was honesty. That’s what I wanted from Walter,” she told Eric.

Did she look old in real life? Were her teeth yellow? What else was Walter not telling her? Why did he not ask her before mangling reality?

The photographer’s uninvited artifice, the redrawing of her face and space, violated her integrity and trust. His godlike belief in overt digital correction sickened her.

And then there was the $4,000 invoice.

“Are you going to say something to him?” Eric asked.

“Not yet. He knows many editors and people in New York. If I confront him he may break up with me. Let me think about this,” she said.

“Break up?” Eric asked laughing. “Are you two dating?”

“Of course not!” she answered.

Walter’s methods had exposed client and vendor, in flattery rendered dishonestly. Eric had uncovered it, as baldly as if he had walked in on her with another man.

Before the discovery of the artifice, she held Walter on a higher plane.  She believed in his moody, faded photographs of tin crosses, rough hewn wood beams, long haired bearded men, brick warehouses on the waterfront, ales poured, cows milked, corn shucked.

Eric consoled. “This is what they all do. Do you want to play the game? Don’t you want your work presented professionally? You’re going to get a lot of orders from these,” he said.

Ash Ritual

New orders grew.

Hits and tweats, posts and emails multiplied. Bloggers blogged.

Nariko hired a part-time student assistant.

Lillian graduated from Kindergarten, and Nariko threw a little party with some local children and parents. Walter was in Pacific Palisades photographing designer Ross Cassidy’s mud room.

He came over to Toluca Lake to photograph the Kindergarten graduation party. He had hoped, and was delighted upon arriving, to see Eric absent.

Eric knew the end was coming for his production company. His partner dropped the news that he would no longer look for investors. Eric was leaving entertainment for good.

But God, how he loved the make believe land of Warner Brothers back lot.

He biked around the empty, dark studio streets, an ersatz neighborhood of parks, lampposts, carousels, brownstones and gracious brick homes planted with plastic flowers and portable trees.

Riding out of studio gate, on his evening bike ride home, Eric stopped to pick up some wine at Trader Joe’s. He saw an old classmate from Ramaz, attorney Theodore Gettelman, tall and middle-aged, but dressed boyishly in blue crew neck and khakis, backpack slung over one shoulder.

Eric observed him silently. It was too much, now, to catch up in banalities and wrap-ups with someone from that era. Gettelman was that former cool kid, snarky; amused when someone tripped on ice at Wollman Rink.

Pity, not envy, came to Eric’s mind as he imagined Gettelman, now entangled in Los Angeles and her hothouse fictions, an urban magnet for deluded idiots, insane ambition and unavoidable disappointment.

Eric bought a $4 bottle, paying without speaking. On the sidewalk, he watched Gettelman drive east on Riverside in a black Tesla, no doubt on his way to a meeting with someone behind a guardhouse.

Cars sped by as Eric unlocked his bike.  He walked it into an alley without prying eyes. And leaned against a dumpster wall to cry. He stayed within his sadness for a few minutes.

A dry wind picked up. Eric got back on the bike and rode home against it.

Little LEDs

It was a backyard Kindergarten graduation party. Arthur Rubinstein played Bach on Bose.

A small group of neighbors, parents, and a few children who attended school with Lillian, ate gluten free cakes and drank organic juices. The decorations were Japanese lanterns and Nariko’s linens and napkins.

Walter reveled in the waning sunlight and cinematic colors of the hanging lights. He could be seduced by naturalism but only if it had some payoff. And this event, he told Nariko, reminded him of one of Ina Garten’s East Hampton summer parties.

Nariko walked into the kitchen where Auntie Tammy conservatively turned off kitchen lights. “Everyone is in the backyard!” Tammy protested. Nariko turned the lights back on and guided her aunt into the yard.

Auntie Tammy carried a large glass of red wine in her hand, carefully stepping over the irregular stones, making her way over to Walter. “I hear you are a lawyer who gave up practice to do photography,” she said.

Walter smiled. “Yes, and I hear that you are the terror of Toluca Lake,” he said.

“Oh, I am. But I don’t live here. I’m in West LA.  Tell me, why do you want to make your living doing something everyone on Earth can do for free?”

“I don’t understand. Are you saying there is no such thing as a professional photographer?” he asked.

“Not any more. Maybe when I was young. I think it’s pure economics young man. What you do anyone can do,” she said.

He was constrained in his response by her oldness. Swimming in his own photographic imagination, this old lady shark had bit off his leg.

“I intend to make a living at my work. I love photography. And I do have more and more clients and more and more recognition for my work. So thank you for your advice,” he said and walked away.

She had picked up on his brittle insecurity and exposed it.

Inside the house, Eric, freshly showered, dressed in a blue chambray shirt, slim tan corduroys, and dark brown suede boots, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife. Nariko told him he looked handsome.

Walter walked in distressed and visibly agitated. He asked Nariko if he could speak to her privately.  She moved with him into a corner, behind a refrigerator, inside a narrow hall between a bathroom and the washer and dryer.

“I’m not enjoying this evening,” he said. “I want to wrap it up and get a check from you if possible.”

“Did something happen?” she asked.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss it. I am a professional. Diligence, integrity and honesty—that’s who I am. I don’t need any elderly messengers giving me advice. If you want to insult me do it to my face,” he said.

“What on Earth are you talking about?” she asked, completely mystified.

Someone opened the powder room door behind Nariko. She was pushed and thrust, face first, into the photographer’s chest and arms. He tried to step back, but there was nowhere to move. Three screaming children ran between Nariko and Walter’s legs.

“Your Aunt insulted me. Questioned my professional dedication and career. I don’t even know her. But you do. So she was obviously put up to it by you,” he said.

“She insults you and I’m at fault?” Nariko asked.

“Did she speak the truth? Did it sting and hurt? Be a man.”

“Like your husband?” Walter asked.

It came out of nowhere, anger and raw feeling.

“What do I owe you Walter?” she asked.

He had crossed that third rail of the Asian family, insulting an old relative.

“My rate is $300 an hour. I’ve been here three hours so that would be nine-hundred,” he said.

“For a children’s party? For your friend’s kid you rip me off with almost a thousand dollar fee? You pretentious piece of shit!”

“Oh man. You started something that we are going to have to settle legally,” he said and stormed out of the house.

Legal Entanglement

Walter sent a letter advising her, legally, to remove his name and photos from her website. She complied.

Despite his character deficits, Walter’s artistry, his reading of light and capture of mood and matter was peerless. Divorcing him from the last year of her nascent business, under threat of lawsuit, wounded. For she had formed and built in the backyard, by her own hand and heart, something tangible, recorded for posterity, creatively photographed in collaboration, and now cruelly stolen.

Walter’s erasure also robbed her of a man who was her equal, a self-made artist who made a profit doing what he loved. She still had Eric at home, a husband, a father and a breadwinner, deficient in all these titles.

He still went on his errands, taking Lillian to school, training her to ride a bike, painting the kitchen, even making love as if they were still in love.

Eric joined a swim club that met weekly in Van Nuys, and he rode his bike on Saturdays with other guys in Griffith Park, finishing off his ride with a meet up at the Golden Road Brewery where the men’s talk was always about what it might take to open and operate a brewery.

In pursuit of opportunity he sat many hours alone at Starbucks staring at digital devices while mimicking paid work. Unemployed and content, he was relieved to be outside the walls of Warner Brothers.

Another year had passed and the chill returned to Los Angeles.

The clock fell back one hour into long dark nights anesthetized in wine, burning logs and pine.

Alone on Christmas Eve, the family watched The World of Susie Wong.

Nariko looked around her den, and saw that she was taken care of, surrounded by love and nice things. Eric lay on a fur rug playing checkers with Lillian near the tinsel tree. They were laughing and making up nonsensical words, roughhousing, kissing, hugging and playing together. Nothing Walter might ever add into his photographic fakery could top this.

She got up and walked into her studio to check her email. She had a calendar to work on, and shipments to check up on. She also was conjuring up, in her head, a future of even better things to come.

Her habit of constantly trying to improve, to dream of more, to push into imagined triumphs, deadened these living and tender and fleeting times.

THE END.

“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