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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Carmelita”

Just north of tony Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, within breathing distance of the ocean, an interview with a LA Times reporter was taking place in an elegant old Spanish hacienda home.

The lifestyle reporter, Liza Palazzo, sat in the living room of Margarita Lopez-Camilla, a Santa Monica film producer. They were talking about Margarita’s friend and housekeeper, Carmelita Sanchez. The Columbian born domestic worker was the founder of a successful health care program begun at one of LA’s poorest clinics.

“How does Carmelita feel about being honored tonight at the Biltmore Hotel for her work at the Crenshaw Clinic?”

The aristocratic Margarita put her teacup down on the glass coffee table. 46 years old, also a native of Columbia, she was born in privilege to the head of a coffee plantation. She studied film at UCLA 25 years ago and decided to stay in the City of Angels. She was now head of Caustic Productions, a film making company here in Santa Monica.

“Oh, it’s the highlight of her life. She is absolutely thrilled to be honored. Only 10 years ago in the little mountain village of Ciudad Sana, she started “La Flora” and look at what has been accomplished,” said Margarita.

Carmelita, the nueva Americana, worked for Lopez-Camilla as a maid, nanny, housekeeper, cook and chauffeur. Carmelita, the Columbian had trained as a nurse, and in Ciudad Sana she had started a health clinic financed by the sale of coffee, a tax paid by the growers to finance the hospitalization and medical care of their workers.

“May I ask Carmelita a question?” asked the reporter, a solicitous and still young acting girl of 33. Palazzo, with red hair, faded jeans, 70’s sneakers and fashionably quirky gelled hair tousled in every direction emitted the very essence of hip in contrast to Margarita’s patrician being.

“Of course. Carmelita, can you come in here?” Lopez Camilla yelled .

The French doors, which led out into the lavender bush and lemon tree garden, burst open and five year old Zoe ran in with Abraham, a lethargic Basset hound. “Mommy, mommy Carmelita is going to take me to get ice cream!” Carmelita ran behind the child, breathless. “Sinõra, I told her no. But she wants to go.”

The reporter smiled at the child, a courtesy so often extended without sincerity, to impress a parent. “What’s your favorite flavor Zoe?” the reporter asked as if the question were of supreme philosophical import. “I don’t know” Zoe answered.
“That’s not very nice Zoe.” Lopez Camilla instructed. “You like Rocky road. Tell Ms. Palazzo that’s what you like.”

“I don’t know if this is a good time for your Carmelita,” said Palazzo.

“It’s a fine time for her. She doesn’t start dinner until 5.30,” said Margarita. “Zoe–Go play with your Barbie dolls honey. You cannot have ice cream before dinner. Let the grown ups have some private time.” Zoe nodded in compliance with the request and walked out sucking her index finger and dragging a pink security blanket.

Carmelita was sweating and felt embarrassed. She entered the high sanctuary of the living room with its tea service, high-beamed ceiling, floral sofas, and symmetry in a filthy t-shirt and dusty jeans. She grabbed a napkin and wiped her face and poured herself a glass of water. There were parcels stacked atop a rigid high back chair against the wall. Margarita removed them and sat down. “Yes ma’am. What would you like to know?” Carmelita asked.

“How long have you worked with the clinic?” the reporter asked.

“Oh, let’s see. I think five years,” she answered.

“No dear,” Lopez-Camilla interrupted. “You came to the US in 1993 and you worked there only six months when I met you.”

“Oh, you’re right Madam. It’s over eight years.”

Palazzo wrote down Carmelita’s answer. “How did you approach Councilwoman Herrera and convince her to enact “La Flora” in that community?”

“I introduced her to Councilwoman Herrera.” Lopez-Camilla answered.

“So next Friday you and the Councilwoman and the entire clinic are going to be honored at the Biltmore and you will receive an award for outstanding community service. How does that feel?”

“An honor. I feel not so big for so great a recommendation,” Carmelita said.

A child’s piercing scream filled the room. Carmelita bolted from the room and ran to find Zoe while the mother sat calmly. She came back holding Zoe who was crying and holding her nanny tightly. “I’m sorry. She fell down and hurt her knee. I have to go put band-aid on it. Don’t cry honey. Don’t cry my little Zoe!” Nanny and child left the room while Lopez-Camilla poured honey into a fresh cup of Earl Gray. “More tea Liza?”

“Oh, no thank you. I feel like I’m here on the worst day of your life!” the reporter said.

“You’re almost right! First my husband smashed his new Audi as he was pulling out of the driveway. He was on his way to a meeting with Arturo Herrera to discuss a new Angelina Jolie project. Of course, he missed the meeting. He was so upset. Now I have an injured daughter. Can you forgive me?”

Ms. Palazzo stood up. “No. I’ve been here too long. I think I’ve gotten enough. Thank you so much for your time. I know the Chandlers appreciate this. They really think the world of you.”

“I hope,” added Margarita, “that we’ll see you at the Hollywood Film Awards on Sunday. My husband is getting an award as well for ‘The New Hee Haw Show.’ Lopez Herrera could not resist the plug.

Ms. Palazzo slipped into her cardigan sweater. “That’s the funniest show on TV. I watch it all the time. What channel is on it again?

Mornings

Carmelita always woke up first in the household. She could barely sleep past 5.30am, her dreams tortured with kidnappings, killings and other unspeakable horrors of her Colombian past. She had come to Los Angeles to escape that. Though her bedroom was above the garage, to Carmelita it was a palace. It was in the back of the property, and between her and the main house stood a yard with a pool, surrounded by lemons, oranges, olive trees, lavender, jasmine, palms, a brilliant red Bougainvillea and an always gurgling fountain. It was a Garden of Eden. A devout Catholic, she prayed just as the sun was rising and the first droplets of orange light freckled the lawn.

After she put the good book down, it was the beginning of a long day full of chores and busy work. She had to take Abraham for a walk. Then she fed the dog.

Carmelita fixed breakfast for the little girl, and attended to Zoe’s needs—like changing her from pajamas into clothes, cleaning her up in the bathroom. Lopez Camilla did not allow Zoe to wear clothing that had been in the dryer. She claimed that allergies from fabric softeners might harm the child. These were one of the many prohibitions the mistress of the home legislated.

Carmelita dodged a minefield of laws that made her role onerous at times. She cooked breakfast, for example, but could not microwave because that was “dangerous” to Lopez Camilla. Jorge, the husband, only drank filtered water, and Carmelita had to lug the enormous 5-gallon Sparkletts container from the curb to the dispenser. When the owners awoke, Carmelita had to again watch over Zoe as both Mr. and Mrs. exercised on step masters and watched Matt Laurer (an old friend from NBC) on the “Today” show. As Jorge showered, Carmelita had to lay out his freshly ironed suit, tie and dress shirt on the bed and slip quickly out of his room before the half-naked master emerged from the toilet.

In addition to the domestic routine, Carmelita worked three days a week at the Crenshaw clinic. Latina-American Congresswoman Hilde Herrera took a special interest in Crenshaw. Carmelita’s work with involved her in the politician’s rising career. The clinic had become a symbol of liberal complaints against so called Republican cuts in health care.

The Los Angeles Times had editorialized that the Crenshaw Health Clinic’s “La Flora” program was “perhaps the most promising vision of health care financing for poorer people enacted in the last decade.” The name was intoxicating, too, with its promise of fertility, hope and holistic lyricism. What Carmelita had given birth to in Columbia, had come to maturity in the Golden State. The powerful had quickly adopted this child whose true parentage was fast becoming vague.

A fight

“I don’t give a shit about her!” Margarita was screaming at Jorge just outside Whole Foods on Montana.

“Keep your voice down Margarita!” Jorge begged with clenched teeth. A red Lincoln Navigator swerved to avoid the feud in the back parking lot of the gourmet food store.

“I don’t have $45 to spend on a cake for her. How come she has a birthday and you remember and you forgot my birthday?” she asked.

That red SUV pulled up and a 35 ish blonde woman leaned out the window. “Hello Margarita!” she said with a perfectly capped smile.

Margarita broadcast an ear- to ear grin. “Hi Joanie! How ya doin’ kiddo?” Joanie waved a fingery good-bye and sped off. The argument continued.

“I just think we should treat her to a cake! What’s wrong with that?” Jorge asked.

“Isn’t it enough that she’s having a party at the Biltmore? My god. She’s lucky to live in our home. That’s how I look at it. I’m too god-damned busy to make nicey nice with her.”

The Park along the Palisades

Blocks from the Lopez-Camilla home, along the Palisades of Santa Monica, runs a sweeping park promenade that overlooks the Pacific. Carmelita would often take Zoe for walks along the palm lined, tree-shaded expanse with its sunset views, mountain vistas, joggers, strollers, and bicyclists. Despite the beauty, the carefully groomed vegetation, and the aura of groomed greenery, a sinister social illness plagued the paradise.

Scores of homeless slept on the grass, wandered the park. They pushed carts, muttering, lost, alcoholic, or in drug induced confusion. Who were these people she wondered? Where were they from? Had they once been young and loved and taken care of? How did they lose grip and fall out of society and how could they be saved? She thought of Jesus and his ministration. With mercy in her heart, Carmelita walked amongst the poor along these verdant paths at the edge of the American continent.

Walking in anger

Margarita walked home in anger. She would not ride back in the car with Jorge. He had made her very angry and to top it off, had taken his bruised Audi into the repair shop and had rented a white Toyota Celica. It was a cheap piece of crap, and she wondered if he had deliberately taken a poor man’s car to embarrass her.

Party in Hancock Park

A few nights after the fight in the parking lot, the Herreras held an invitation only party at their home in Hancock Park. It was an affair with black tie and valet parking, caterers, cocktails and scented candles. A backyard pool glowed with blue underwater lights and a pianist on the veranda played Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.”

Margarita was bi-polar about parties. On the one hand, she could get drunk, dress up and forget her regular cares as she slipped in and out of banalities and polite talk with the hoi polloi of Los Angeles. On the other hand, it was deadly serious work, making friends and alliances with producers who could finance her films, and make things happen. Then there was the necessary work of pretending to care about causes, about the less fortunate, which earned her added respect in the community and increased her stature.

Margarita stood in the middle of a speeding intersection of political power desperate to catch a ride to the top. Scanning the room, she could see Nicole Kidman and Cardinal Mahoney, Mayor Hahn and Jennifer Lopez. Dolly Parton was flirtatiously conversing with UCLA’s Dr. Harvey Fishbein, who perfected cosmetic surgery for transsexuals in the late 1960’s.
Jorge walked up to his legal wife. “I just spoke to Hilde. She’s said KCAL wants to do a story with Carmelita.”

“Carmelita? Why would they want to talk to her?” she asked with one eye on the chopped liver and Michael Eisner spreading it on a cracker.

“Stop looking at him,” Jorge said. “Listen to me. Carmelita is the reason La Flora is working. Do you want to deny her that?”

“I’m not listening to you. You want to start up trouble here? You’re not gonna get me into a fucking argument.” She walked away and went over to shake the hand of Michael Eisner. She then segued into a conversation between Councilwoman Herrera and the head of the Crenshaw Clinic, Glen Kirsch.

“Hi there Margarita,” Glen said. “ How is Caustic? I read in Variety that you may get Salma Hayek for a project next year?”
She stuffed an olive tapenade topped wheat cracker into her mouth. “You read Variety? The head of a health clinic reads Variety? Ridiculous. Only in LA!”

He didn’t seem offended. “Of course I read it. Do you know before I ran the clinic I was a screenwriter? I think I have about six screenplays in my closet in West Hollywood. I would love to show you one sometime. I mean maybe when we all meet next week at the Biltmore.”

“I was just kidding,” Margarita answered. “ I’d love to read them. Why don’t you send them over to my assistant Jenny? We’re right on the Sony lot.”

“Did you hear that KCAL wants to do a story on Carmelita?” he asked. “Isn’t that fantastic! The clinic needs the publicity.”

“Why don’t you write a screenplay about a big phony social climber who uses your health clinic to seize political power and make a name for herself!” she said with drunken abandon.

“I don’t understand what you mean.” He said.

“I don’t either!” she said laughing and walked away.

Biltmore

On the day of the party at the Biltmore, Margarita Lopez Camilla had a million things to do. She could only think of her hair, her shoes, her nails and her aching shoulders. She needed to get a massage, but then she had to be at Caustic because the editor was working on a 7-minute short film about Carmelita and “La Flora” and Councilwoman Herrera was the narrator. Editorial changes were made at the last minute. Margarita told the Councilwoman that the politician who was the adopted mother of “La Flora” should be the star of the film. The poor housekeeper would now be demoted on-screen to supporting player.

That day Carmelita was her usual happy and calm self. She barely thought about her impending moment of fame on the stage that night.

Other domestic crises occupied her. The dog had shit on the leather sofa in the library. Carmelita was rushed to clean it up and spray disinfectant on the stain.

At 4 pm, Lopez-Camilla called from the 405 freeway and asked Carmelita to run out to the drugstore to buy a Lancome powder. At 5.30pm they all were supposed to leave to go downtown to the ceremony, and time was running out. Carmelita carried the cell phone with her and got into the car to drive over to buy the missing make up. As she pulled into the parking lot, the phone rang again and Lopez-Camilla said Carmelita would have to stop off at a shoe repair shop to retrieve Madam’s shoes and then to the dry cleaners to pick up the freshly cleaned gown. All of these orders came in the final hours. and Carmelita would have almost no time and preparation for her own night of honor.


A Little Bowl of Soup

As Margarita Lopez-Camilla dressed, Carmelita heated up some vegetable soup in the kitchen. Little Zoe was with Daddy in the den. The aroma of food soon filled the house. Carmelita eagerly poured herself a bowl and sat down to hurriedly ingest a few spoonfuls. It was the first time she had eaten all day.

Lopez-Camilla emerged in an exquisite black sequined gown, her red glossy lips contrasting with slicked back hair and a powdery face. She sniffed the air. “What are you doing Carmelita?”

“Huh?” asked Carmelita.

“I asked WHAT- ARE- YOU- DOING!” she yelled. “It smells awful!”

Jorge came into the kitchen. “What’s wrong? Why are you yelling at her Margarita?” he asked.

“She is cooking! My clothes, your clothes, are all going to smell like soup! How can you be so STUPID to cook food when we are all dressed and ready to go to an event at the Biltmore! My god, when people kiss me they will smell god-damned food!”

“I’m sorry ma’am. I haven’t eaten a thing. I run around all day, and I’m hungry.” She said.

Margarita grabbed a dish-towel off the counter and shoved it into Carmelita’s nose. “That’s what you smell like. A cook in a kitchen! That’s what we all smell like.”

The Moment

A hundred people were gathered in a mini-ballroom of the Biltmore Hotel. Some came from the clinic, working class Latinos, wearing glitzy dresses with big shoulder pads and enormous sparkling jewelry. There were also political people: Councilwoman Herrera and her husband, the Mayor and a couple of news people from TV and the print world. The esteemed publicist Gretchen Ungar was there. She had been hired by Margarita to promote “La Flora” and orchestrate a campaign to promote the Caustic Films and it’s pet cause—health care for the poor.

Later on, Councilwoman Herrera spoke of La Flora and the exciting new concept of financing health care clinics in Los Angeles and eventually in every state. “We are simply too poor in funding to continue our wasteful ways of the past and La Flora returns to the working people the care they so rightly deserve.” This line drew great applause from the crowd.

Margarita Lopez-Camilla addressed the audience. “My dear little friend Carmelita whose idea has now founded a movement to be led by the great Councilwoman Hilde Herrera.” She then introduced the short film with its quick cuts of Ciudad Sana. The audience viewed images of poor men and women of Columbia entering a health clinic, getting inoculated, filling prescriptions and smiling. A few remarked uncharitably that it looked like a propaganda piece.

At the end of the evening, Carmelita went to the rest room and emerged in a back hall behind the ballroom. Glen Kirsch ran up to her and kissed her. “You look beautiful tonight. You really deserve this honor. Thank you for what you’ve done.”

“Oh, Glen. My pleasure. I cannot take all the credit. You, the clinic and Ms. Herrera and Margarita; you all share in this honor,” she said.

“Did you like the film?” he asked.

“Oh, very much,” she answered. “Why do you ask?”

“I just thought they would talk more about you. I think most of it was about the Councilwoman,” he said. Glen patted Carmelita on the shoulder and walked back into the ballroom.

He went straight over to Margarita, sitting on the edge of the stage and smiling wearily into space.

“I just spoke to Carmelita”, he said. “I hope I’m not going to upset you. But I think she thought she should have been the star and that you didn’t feature enough of her in the movie. That’s what she thinks.”

Lopez-Camilla froze up. Her smile and tightly pressed lips went into defense mode. “Oh, I think she’s tired. She’s done so much for us. I wouldn’t worry about it. Where is she by the way?”

“I saw her back near the janitor’s area or the rest room,” he said.

Lopez-Camilla, poisoned with Glen’s indictment, went looking for Carmelita. The guests were now leaving, and Councilwoman Herrera stopped by to say good night. “I’m leaving Glen. Thank you for everything. Where’s my little Carmelita? I want to see her before I leave?” she said.

Glen answered, “She’s with Margarita back there.” Lopez-Camilla was indeed sighted talking to Carmelita. As Ms. Herrera drew closer she could sense unpleasantness.

Lopez Camilla yelled at Carmelita. “We’ll discuss it later! You’re not going to ruin my evening. I know what Glen told me so don’t lie to me!” Margarita grabbed Carmelita’s ear and pulled her against the cinder block wall.

“You’re hurting me! I don’t know what you’re talking about! Stop it!” Margarita maintained her sharp nailed hold on Carmelita’s lobe. In desperation to free herself, Carmelita took her rigid and powerful right hand and slapped Margarita across the face.

Margarita looked stunned and dropped her hand.

“May the Lord forgive me and have mercy on you. You are a fucking bitch. You will not treat me this way again,” said Carmelita. The shaken socialite almost lost her balance in the assault. Carmelita hit and ran out of the ballroom. The Councilwoman arrived just as the incident ended.

“What’s going on? Are you all right Margarita?” asked the Councilwoman.

“Yes, yes. It’s OK.” Margarita said. “I guess if you don’t make a film they like then you get a slap in the face. That’s how friends in Hollywood repay you. Well, we know what we’ve done for her and this is her moment of fame so I guess she feels entitled.”

Ms. Herrera took Margarita’s hand. “Oh, I’m sorry Margarita. Let’s talk in the morning. I spoke to David Geffen last night and he is very interested in La Flora. Let’s talk tomorrow.”