The Model is Not Your Friend

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Used with permission of koiladecallisto

 

The Model is Not Your Friend

 

By Andrew B. Hurvitz

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


 

There are some talented people here in Van Nuys.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 Revival Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

Judge Judy

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

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

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

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

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


 

Projection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One Day They’ll Save Me

He went into the bathroom. I heard him pee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

The Killer Held a Can of Spray Paint

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

Hector called me at midnight. He had been crying.

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

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

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

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

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

“This is L.A.,” I said.

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

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

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

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


 El Velatorio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hector kissed her.

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

I wish I could help. Our grief is unbearable.

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

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

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

Nothing could nullify the obscenity of loss.

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


The Mercurial Model

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Thank you,” I said.

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

“Why is the floor wet?” Hector asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just get out now,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took a towel and wiped the bedroom floor.

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


Angus Muir Ale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Basil Floor Cleaner

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Hector left, Kathy approached me.

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

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

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


Bowls of Chips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


9 O’Clock High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t care,” I said.

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

 


Silver Shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s Jesse?” Ingrid asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

THE END

 

Dry Wind

Dry Wind

/Manipulated by Hollywood promises, an indebted editor, working on a pop star video, suffers blinding headaches, red eyes, and debilitating depression;and is sent on a fool’s errand to take stolen money to an old woman in San Angelo, Texas; confronting tragedy, memory and love’s delusions.

“The All-American Car Wash”

A dark brown BMW sedan sped down Ventura Boulevard past the sprawling mess of commercial Sepulveda Hills. Bronx born Larry Rivers, 40ish, a still aspiring screenwriter, was on his way to an appointment with a free-lance producer, Mark Evans. Passing the All American Car Wash, a booming business near the intersection of Casa Endora and Ventura, Larry turned into the car wash. A large, black Lincoln Navigator parked behind him. Rail thin Nathalie Newman and her four-year-old daughter Zola stepped out of the SUV.

Larry exited his car. The cell phone rang. He answered.

“Rivers here….Hi, Mark….Oh, you can’t make it. Listen no problem. Let’s do it again next week. I think you’re gonna love my idea. Ok. Bye.”

With hands full of orders for specialized car cleaning, Iraqi native Ali Hassan approached Larry. Ali Hassan is a charming man, one who easily persuades his customers to purchase vanilla air fresheners, tire detailing, hot wax protection, and steam spraying under the hood.

“My friend, my friend how have you been? Your BMW is what model? It looks like a custom car no?”

“Give me the $5.99 special Ali.”

“Larry, you say that every week. How am I supposed to make a living on $5.99?”

“Hey, I’m just a struggling writer. Give me a break.”

“Struggle? You are the best man! I saw your episode of Law and Order last week. Very clever!”

“You liked it? I worked my butt off for that.”

“It shows. Hey, how about I throw in the windshield protection? When it rains, the water will just drop off. Much safer driving.”

”OK, Ali. You always get your way!”

Inside the car wash viewing area, the procession entered under each owner’s watchful eyes. Larry watched as spray guns and brushes sprayed chemicals against the gleaming surfaces of chrome and metal. The electric conveyer chain grabbed the tires of the Lincoln Navigator, the car ahead of his. For a moment, Larry looked at the brushes, the soap, the blowing air and thought of Auschwitz. The passive march of the affluent vehicles as they entered a sterilization room………………..

A little girl with a reassuring blond and fresh face ran towards Larry. Her mother was running after her.

“Zola! Come here. You can’t run wild in the car wash!”

Nathalie swooped up the laughing daughter in her arms and looked at Larry with empathetic eyes.

“Larry, hi. I haven’t seen you in a while. As you can see, I have my hands full. Stop that young lady or you won’t go to day care!”

“She’s big enough for day care?”

“Yep. Right next door to the car wash!”

Larry asked, “ Are you and Eddie still living in Tarzana?”

“No. We moved to Sherman Oaks. We bought a house on Valley Vista. I love it there. Eddie is fifteen minutes from Universal.”

“Great. Is he still……”

Nathalie deepened her voice: “ He’s Vice President of Non-Fiction Television Development”

“That’s right. I remember pitching a show to him once. Did he ever do anything with that History of Ice Cream show?”

“No. I think they put it into the maybe category….. Zola! Stop pulling my hair!”

“I’m just getting done with a screenplay I wrote. It’s a suspense thriller about terrorists in LA.”

“Oh, pleasant” , was her disinterested reply.

Larry’s BMW entered the purification ritual, following the usual steps of detox prescribed by the car wash. Larry walked along the glass windows and kept pace as his transport vehicle moved along, dumb, mute and progressively prettier.

Fifteen years earlier, Larry had arrived from the Bronx determined to make a name for himself in the entertainment industry. He had answered an ad for a one bedroom guest house rental in Tarzana, and was awestruck when he arrived at the one acre estate with its orange groves, swimming pool and circular drive-way . The owners: Nathalie and Eddie.

Larry moved in and in that old Hollywood tradition of making friends to make it, began to “hang out” with Eddie. The good times turned bad. Larry struggled to write, becoming poorer as his output of words increased. He couldn’t pay his rent. The deep relationship between tenant and landlord turned hostile. Larry was thrown out and had to leave after six months. He vowed to never forgive the Newman’s cruelty, until the day he found out that Eddie had become a somebody in the senseless entertainment industry.

Now it was the new millennium—times were different—and the American dream still lurked beyond the next corner, even as its pursuer turned 40.

Nathalie stepped up to the cashier and handed her a coupon for the $4.99 special. Dark haired Leila Hassan looked at Nathalie harshly.

“I’m sorry. This coupon has expired.”

“What! I just got it in the mail last week.”

“Are you sure Miss? It says it’s good until July. This is November.”

“I want the $4.99 special. That’s what I told Ali outside!”

“I can’t help you. We don’t take expired coupons!”

“OK. How much is it then?”

“$8.99”

“$8.99! I only have five bucks in my wallet!”

“Do you have a credit card? We take Visa, American Express….”

“No! I don’t use credit cards! I have a debit card!”

“No debit cards. Do you have a check book?”

Larry stepped into the conversation. He handed the cashier a twenty-dollar bill.

“No. Larry you can’t pay for my car wash. This is ridiculous”

“No problem. You are my friend Nathalie. I don’t mind paying at all. And look I have a coupon here that hasn’t expired yet.”

“Thank you Larry,” Said she with due politeness.

Fifteen years after they had thrown Larry out for late-payment of rent, he paid for Nathalie’s car wash. Maybe she would go and tell Eddie about the newly Christened good Samaritan.

On this sunny and hot December morning, Larry was on his way to Starbucks to once again meet the free-lance producer Mark Evans. It was 9.30 am and Evans said he would be at Starbucks “around 9.30”. Larry ordered a decaf coffee and sat down. He had brought along his script: “Poison 818”.

818 is the area code for the San Fernando Valley. Larry had convinced himself that this special numeral would become the theme for a script based on Arab-American espionage and terror directed against the Jews in the San Fernando Valley.
“Poison 818” was the code used by the main protagonist, Ibrahim Abdulla, a Muslim fundamentalist who hides behind a seemingly placid façade though he is the head of an international terror cell.

“A timely and frightening story!”

“A bite-your- nails to the end saga”

“Do you know who your neighbor is?”

Larry ran the imaginary film slogans in his head. He pictured himself on stage at the Oscars thanking his widowed mother on Pelham Parkway for her patience and understanding.

In the real world, at Starbucks, the intended meeting looked again as if it were cancelled. Mark didn’t ring, but in the time-honored etiquette of Hollywood, he simply did not show. Larry was left drinking his coffee alone. All around him were customers; many of them black haired men with black mustaches living on their own diet of coffee, conversation, cigarettes and cell phones.

The All American Car Wash, with its thirteen American flags planted on thirteen pillars, might have earned praise for its vernacular style. In the land of the hot dog shaped hot dog stand, and the donut shop shaped liked a donut—the All American was simply another wonderful example of the triumph of commercialism over symmetry.

It was impossible to pass by the wash and miss its patriotic theme. Here, a family named Hassan had fled Baghdad and by way of Damascus had emigrated to Los Angeles. Six brothers: Ali, Hisham, Jordan, Saddam, Esu, and Abdullah had settled with their wives and children into a section of the US that had once been Mexican territory. The newly arrived men, looking for a sure way to ingratiate themselves with other transplanted customers, chose the red, white and blue for their business.

They had struggled to find the capital, the $150,000 it took to open the car wash. They had to deal with enormous bills—the water alone amounted to $4,500 dollars a month. Working 12-14 hour days, these brothers had unique personalities, interests and ambitions that ran beyond the car wash.

Ali, the oldest, wanted a stable business for his brothers. Hisham was the good-looking one, who hoped that his exposure in the car wash, might lead to an acting career. Jordan was the intellectual, he had once hoped to study physics, but his sudden flight from Baghdad had dashed his hopes of scientific higher education. Saddam was a liberally political man, who read every book he could on the American Revolution. He hoped that rational and enlightened thought might help him understand his new and weird surroundings. Esu was a lost child, he smoked pot and came to work without ambition to progress to either affluence or self-worth. Abdullah was the angry one. He had a quick temper and resented the power his older brothers had over him. He longed to make a name for himself outside of the car wash. He hated American life, with its promise of material wealth. He imagined himself as a spokesman for the powerless, the downtrodden, the ones without education, money or political freedom.

It didn’t escape the brother’s notice that Abdullah was sullen and withdrawn. Many times Ali had tried to talk to him, only to have Abdullah lash out at Ali with charges that his brother had hijacked the family to pursue a worthless American life. Why did they have to leave Iraq, Abdullah demanded? They had been there for hundreds of years, and now they lived in America and worked washing cars. What humiliation! Ali did not have an answer for his youngest sibling. It was simply inconceivable to Ali that Abdullah would fight against betterment and riches. What was so bad in America? All six brothers and their wives had s, they drove nice cars . Only last year the entire Hassan clan took a vacation in Arizona, where the desert environment recalled the Mesopotamian plain in Iraq.

Larry read the trade magazines with envy. There was a recent item concerning a story that had been optioned for “the low six figures”. It described a plot about “a college guy who hides out in the broom closet of a sorority for the weekend.” The idea was written by a 24 year old recent college grad named Dylan Weed. Larry felt himself in the grip of the old low self-esteem.

On lonely Friday evenings, the 40-year old man would walk around the plastic and insipid confines of Sherman Oaks, dodging skateboarders and stroller-pushing couples. Hamburger eating punks –who wore oversize pants exposing their ass crack– sat on the sidewalk in front of McDonalds.

It had been a decade and half of wandering around in an arid wilderness and still there was no deliverance. Los Angeles was Egypt without God, crowds of faithful without a Moses. The miracle of fame and fortune, was a special effect, like that cheap trick of parting the Red Sea they performed for the tourists at Universal City.

He couldn’t hide his anger anymore when he met “successful” people. Almost everyone seemed more fulfilled than he. If they were younger, they might be unemployed, but they had six pack abs and 30 inch waists. If they were older, they had children , a wife or a career. He had none of the above. He could go on pretending to take calls from important people who might be interested, but eventually he was just fooling himself.

He thought once of just leaving Los Angeles and returning back to New York. But the metropolis on the East Coast was a dangerous place. It had old memories and people who knew who you really were. He couldn’t hide out and affect achievement. The jaded facades which run so deep on the West Coast, seem like stage make-up to the battle hardened veterans of the Bronx, Brooklyn and New Jersey.

“Poison 818—-how far will they go to destroy America?”

“Poison 818—one psychopath who could murder children unless he is stopped.”

“Ok, enough already. I get your point!”

Sally Sheinman sat behind the glass-tabled desk with the white orchids. A polished and no-nonsense William Morris agent, she had been pushed by her mother Ida to meet with cousin Larry.

“What else do you have Larry?”

“What do you mean, what else?”

“What ELSE do you want to pitch?” she screeched.

“That’s it. I wrote a 110 page screenplay and I want you to take it and sell it!”

“Larry, darling…..I only work with clients who can bring me a lot of great material! I can’t just go out and sell one thing. You haven’t even sold one thing!”

“You know what Sally? I thought you would have a little heart. I come here and pitch my heart out and you slam the door in my face.”

“I’m not slamming the door! I’m trying to OPEN it!’

“Just because your Uncle Dan’s daughter, you grew up in Scarsdale and you came out here with a silver spoon in your mouth…..”

“Good bye! I said get out of here. I don’t need to have me or my father insulted!”

“Fine! I knew you would never help me. You’re too self-centered. It runs in all the Sheinmans!”

He walked out of her office and to the elevator where he punched the button so hard that his thumb almost broke off from the hand. Inside the mirrored elevator on the descent to the parking garage he muttered to himself: “Fuck you! Fuck you!”

At the car wash, Abdullah was the vacuum man. He had first entry into his customer’s cars. In the affluent world of Sepulveda Hills, he could temporarily sit inside a procession of recent model Jaguars, BMW’s, Infinitis , Lexuses, Lincolns and Mercedes. These cars came with a variety of gadgets: GPS navigation system, DVD / CD players, and speaker phones. The smell of leather often mixed with French perfume. On the seats of these cars, errant and forgetful men and women might leave behind Armani glasses, Dior scarves and even $100 dollar bills.

He was a good Muslim. He did not steal. He left everything where he saw it. He knew that God was watching.

Next to the Car Wash, was a day care center operated by the Jewish reformed Sepulveda Hills Congregation. In the rounds of chores performed by mothers in their 30’s and 40’s, was the depositing of children at the center, kids who ranged in age from 3 to 6 years old. A steel fence, about 10 feet high, separated the day care center from the end point of the car wash. As the dried autos exited, the children often stood on the other side of the fence, their hands grasping the metal, as Mommy’s car emerged with a temporary hydro facelift.

To those who think they know what Jews look like, the Southern Californian experiment in assimilation and inter-marriage has produced some surprisingly varied offspring. Many of the wives are Non-Jewish, as a result some of the kids look Scandinavian. For many months, Abdullah had smiled at the children, just thinking they were sweet young innocents. He stopped grinning when he found out that the day care center was operated by a Zionist entity.

It bothered him that these Jews had money. Here they had everything—beautiful wives, fancy cars, and they seemed to live in a world where politics was somebody else’s problem. For the Hollywood elite, the only things that mattered were self-empowerment. He felt pity for himself, his Iraqi people, and for the persecution of the Palestinians. How could the world ignore the suffering that existed in the Middle East? Surely it was not the fault of the good works of Islam that kept people impoverished. A malevolent force had to be working to keep the Arabs down.

He also “knew” that the Jews conspired, especially in the entertainment industry, to help one another. He “knew” that the Jews looked out, for family members, and helped to promote “their own kind” to influence in the media. Their goal was eventually world domination.

As Abdullah ruminated on those thoughts of the evil Jews, up drove Larry Rivers, one of the great beneficiaries of Hollywood family benevolence.

“Hi,” Larry said. He handed a coupon to Abdullah.

“This has expired sir.”

“Oh. Is your manager around?”

“Yes sir.”

Abdullah motioned to Ali, who came over with his widest smile.

“Hello, Larry! My friend, what can I do for you?”

“I think my coupon has expired.”

“How about a special? I have the $11.99 herbal car wash. We put retinol on your leather seats to preserve the youthful appearance. We also have aloe vera for the dashboard. You should see how beautiful and sexy a moisture rich car can look!”

“No thanks. I’m not feeling too rich today!”

“Oh, c’mon, you’re a successful screenwriter!”

On the seat of Larry’s car was a copy of “Poison 818”. Ali smiled as he looked at the script.

“I bet you gonna sell the script my friend. Come, let’s get a real car wash for you!”

Before Larry could answer, the hulking mass of the Newman family’s SUV pulled alongside the gentlemen. Eddie Newman, not seen since 1986, flew out of the car and shook Larry’s hand.

“How are you doing! Nathalie told me that she ran into you here! My gosh, it’s been what– ten years?”

“Fifteen!”

“Well, I’ll be damned. What are you doing these days? Still working free lance?”

“Yes. But I’ve got a couple of deals that may come through…..”

Eddie was tanned, trim and dressed in ninety eight dollar Lucky Brand jeans. Nathalie sat in the passenger seat and waved daintily to Larry. Ali looked to lock this newest deal.

Eddie pulled out his calfskin wallet. “Let me pay for Mr. Larry’s car wash. What kind of specials do you have Ali?”

Ali beamed, “I have a two for one! I’ll do both your cars, detail work with the herbal wash and the aloe vera. The works! Normally, this would be forty dollars—you two together, I give you for twenty five!”

“Wonderful!”

As Ali wrote up the receipt, Larry briefly protested.

“This isn’t necessary Eddie. Really.”

“No. I think it’s the least I could do for you. You took care of my wife and little girl. And now I’m repaying you. Besides you’re poor!”

Larry immediately felt reduced and gratified. As Eddie sauntered happily into the car wash viewing area, with wife and tyke in tow, Larry slouched outside with hands in his pockets.

Meanwhile, Abdullah watched everything from his seat against the wall. The mind hummed. Those people stick together, they even pay for each other’s car wash.

Abdullah grabbed the long plastic vacuum tube and started to clean Larry’s car. “Poison 818” sat on the front seat. Abdullah felt annoyed and insulted that Larry had gone over his head and asked for Ali. In revenge, just slight revenge, Abdullah took the script and put it into his pocket.

Fifteen minutes later, the cars emerged freshly washed and ready for a mating dance on the streets of the San Fernando Valley. Eddie hugged Larry, a physical bond ten times more real than the emotional connection.

Eddie bit his lower lip Clintonly, “In all sincerity. I really missed hanging out with you. I’m going to have you over to our new . You should see what we’ve done with the kitchen, Lar—“

Larry waved good-bye to his old friends. He got into his car and looked for his script. It was gone. Oh well, the hard copy was on his PC at . No biggie.

Leila Hassan was worried. For six months, her brother-in-law Abdullah had been back in Iraq. He also sent post cards from Hamburg, Germany; Turkey and one from Damascus. She didn’t understand how her husband Ali could allow his brother to take so much time off from work.

“He should be here in the US! He is supposed to be an American citizen. Why is he all over the Middle East! Why don’t his own brothers know where he is?”

Ali was staring blankly at the large screen TV. In a living room with thirty-foot high ceilings, the black box and the man watching it looked miniature.

“I don’t have the answers my wife. He said he needed a break. Too much stress.”

“What about his older brother? What about your worries?”

Handsome Hisham walked into the room wearing a muscle t-shirt and basketball shoes.

“I just got an email from Abdullah. He is flying back to New York this Sunday and will be in LA on Monday afternoon!”

“You see Leila. You worry about nothing!”

Spring came to Los Angeles, but nobody was sure when it had actually arrived. The roses had bloomed in December. By January the trees were sprouting buds, and in February the nurseries displayed racks of geraniums, marigolds, and vegetables for planting.

Another season had passed, and emerging from winter, Larry felt as if he were on the verge of some new possibility. He had been tough on himself, lonely and despondent—but now he knew that if he were to succeed he’d have to marshal his strengths once again.

Before his latest rerun episode of self -confidence wore off, he made a phone call to free lance producer Mark Evans. To Larry’s surprise, Evans agreed to meet him at Starbucks because “it’s on the way to my dentist’s office”.

Almost nobody in Hollywood had really read Larry’s work. If they did, it was in a cursory, dismissive way. But one reader took every last word of Larry’s and absorbed it totally: Abdullah Hassan.

“Poison 818” was to him the ultimate story of terrorist glory. He imagined himself as the lead character who poisons and kills hundreds of innocents and is remembered in America as the man “who let the Jews have it”. While Larry wrote with the intent of illuminating evil, Abdullah fashioned the screenplay as his own life story. With Larry’s blueprint, Abdullah could fashion one of the most heinous crimes in American terror—and earn the respect of people the world over.

A short, slight and meek looking man, Mark Evans seemed the polar opposite of what Larry had imagined him to be. He seemed to be the quintessential nebbish. He actually had washed his hand with sanitizer before he picked up his mug of latte. He looked to be anywhere from 25-40, and might be gay—but again might not be. The important thing is that he showed up and kept the appointment.

“Larry I’m so sorry about last fall. I was busy with a million things—and you unfortunately came off my to do list!”

“That’s cool. I understand.”

”I read your script, Poison 911….”

“818”

“I mean 818.”

“It’s just too…..I don’t know….weird. I mean you’ve got a lot of good points: the terrorism, the domestic underground. It just doesn’t fit any type of genre. You look at the best movies, like Armageddon or The Rock—they fit into a pattern. Yours is just almost like a science fiction comedy drama suspense mystery. Life isn’t like that. Neither are movies.”

“I’m sorry that you didn’t like it. I kind of hoped that our meeting would be more productive.”

“No. I liked it. I just don’t think it’s right for me.”

As they talked, loud police sirens and fire engines raced west down Ventura Boulevard. Mark tried to speak, but the emergency vehicles seemed to be endless. Helicopters flew above.

“What the hell is going on out there?”

People inside Starbucks looked nervously at one another. The sick feeling of impending doom entered the cozy confines of the café. Mark’s phone rang.

“Hello…..”

Just as Mark was speaking, a screaming middle-aged woman spilled her hot coffee as she ran through the door.

“They’ve bombed the day school! The children! Oh, my god! The children!”

“Hello. Jennifer, what’s the matter? Oh, my God! Oh, my God. This isn’t true! Oh, my God!”

Mark stood up. His face was a ghastly alabaster.

“You said it in your script! What you said came true!”

“Where? What happened?”

“A car wash attendant detonated himself in the temple children’s playground! There must have been a hundred children there. It was suicide. Just like you said………”

Days later, the normally placid sunshine ennui of Los Angeles was covered in a blanket of mourning. The nation looked to the Golden State and wept. One actor in a script of destruction had died, hundreds of innocents had been murdered. The obscure writer who couldn’t sell a screenplay became infamous, not for his movie, but for the collateral damage it caused.

“Hated Hill House”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, not really.”

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

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

“Yes ma’am.”

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

“Yes ma’am. I mean Annie……”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you! Fuck off bitches!”

“Fuck you loser!”

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

“I hate this town.” I said.

“I know. I hate it too.”

“Then why did you move here?”

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

“But its so dinky here.”

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

“Why did you take me in?”

“Why not?”

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

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

“Great. You think I’m a freak!”

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

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

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

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

“How do you do Mr. Geary?”

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

“Yep.”

“Tell me why you hate it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was getting angry. My teenage temper burst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looks like a tornado hit it.”

“Ugly as sin.”

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

“Fascinating.”

“Where are the loonies?”

“Does that weird kid still live there?”

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

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

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