They Didn’t Believe Me


a short story
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

30 minute read

Spotify soundtrack

A young political assistant is unwittingly drawn into a plot to poison her boss with a toxic perfume.


For two years I had a dream job: Chief of Staff for Councilwoman Hilary Flores, 6th District.

She had recruited me, fresh out of college, and entrusted me with a high, prestigious position.

I ran her re-election campaign, scheduled her talks in community centers, crafted her online posts. I strategized, negotiated and persuaded.

By Halloween, Hilary Flores was comfortably ahead. Her every word was well-considered and pleasing to the ears of her constituents. Equality, honesty, tolerance, accountability, and transparency were sprinkled inside every speech and post.

Walkville, our $800 million dollar redevelopment project, was praised for its sensitive, inclusive, thoughtful green design. Thousands of jobs, affordable housing, small businesses, organic markets; fresh foods, grown on-site. An urban farm town, walkable, humane, visionary.

Then, a few days before the election, a strange and unbelievable set of events happened.

Looking back, I was naïve.

I was selected as the perfect, unwitting agent to carry out a malign and vicious act against an elected official, my boss, the incumbent.

The weapons were a niche perfume and three Hermès scarves.

Innocent and eager, driven by ambition, I sprayed lies, invisible aerosol lies, smelling like roses and oud, lies infused into the fibers of silk scarves tied to her neck, perfumed with brain altering toxins.

These malign aromas, chemically altered with neurologically persuasive notes, floated through her skin, mouth and nostrils into her brain.

They numbed her self-control, unleashed her id, took command of her words, released her inhibitions.

Bedecked in poisoned silk, she said what she thought.

A death sentence for any politician.

Her loose utterances, obscene and bizarre, alienated and offended.

Her outbursts proved, beyond a doubt, her complete mental breakdown.

A politician can say crazy things. But only if her supporters think the same. When a leader goes against party orthodoxy they are doomed.

She was the Democratic incumbent, the most powerful Latina on the City Council, the leader of the largest affordable housing development project in city history.

She was one of seven children, a daughter of immigrants from El Salvador; a fighter. Her whole career was defending the exploited, the trafficked, the abused, and the undocumented.

For over two decades, in her impressive climb to the pinnacle of local politics, she fought to gain influence to help those who were most vulnerable. Nobody was more respected or popular than Hilary.

In Magnolia Park, that last night before the election, she stood on the pitcher’s mound with a wireless mike.

From the dugout I watched her, pathetic and pleading, alone, under a spotlight, performing to nearly empty bleachers, shamed and castigated.

“The bad words that came out of me were not my words. I had a reaction to prescription drugs. I still stand for all I have fought for! What I tell you is the truth. I ask you to believe me,” she said.

Crying and pleading, begging for forgiveness.
Nobody cared.

“Aw, go home Hilary!”

“Estúpido coño mentiroso!”

“How dare you lie to us!” a woman shouted.

“Everything you said is on YouTube. Nobody made
you say it!”

“You’re a sexual predator!”

I turned the spotlight off.

The evening wind blew across the park, kicking up dust. Hilary wiped her face with a tissue, walked back, head down, wounded. She sat down on the ballplayer’s bench, at the end, furthest from me. We both looked out in silence to the field.

I had watched it all unfold, helpless to stop it.
It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault.

We were victims of Damon Samson.

It was early September, Tuesday after Labor Day. We were set up in a community conference room, inside city hall.

“Damon’s standing in the back. I’ll speak to him before I leave,” she said.

The subject was Walkville.

We had presented architectural renderings showing a 10-acre site of grass, trees, gardens and courtyard apartments where the California sun shone on solar paneled rooftops.

The pre-assembled housing would be constructed in an old Navy shipyard, converted into peacetime production for thousands of engineered apartment containers, economical, mass-produced.

Ours was the exemplar of urban renewal, right in the center of the 6th District, alongside the old train tracks, a crowded and poor area of violence and low opportunity, exploited by slumlords, teeming with undocumented immigrants, splattered with shady operators in small shops who laundered bad money.

There was a shoe repair shop where it took a week to shine a pair of shoes, a “psychic” Indian barber working behind bricked up windows, a cannabis testing laboratory, several bail bond offices, a Pentecostal church, and dozens of Armenian owned auto and towing shops where battered, unclaimed junks were parked on the street for years at a time.

Walkville was my idea, born in a college thesis paper. For Councilwoman Hilary Flores, it was a way to inspire voters with a dream of what their surroundings could be under her continuing leadership.

Vote for Hilary! Build Walkville!

Only a few had shown up in person for our public presentation. I was disappointed.

Our architect was Alfredo Perez, mid 30s, long haired, Salvadoran born, a former Wilhelmina model and once shirtless actor in a 2014 Lana Del Ray video. He was Hilary’s choice. I presumed they shared intimacy but I kept silent.

Alfredo and his handsome designs impregnated everything with sex appeal, vigor and multi-culturalism. His long black hair shone, his teeth sparkled, his jaw was a sharp slice of perfection.

Like Hilary he was Salvadoran-American, and he dutifully recited his humble-to-greatness story at every appearance, reminding all his enraptured listeners that anything was possible in America.

If you looked as good as him opportunity beckoned.

Hilary and Alfredo enjoyed the glory of one another. He stood near the podium, towering over her, his tan, cable knit sweater seemingly painted onto his sculpted body as she introduced him to our appreciative audience of six.

When you said the name “Alfredo” it was like “Kobe” or “Madonna”, everyone knew whom you meant. His starring role as our architect helped push the project forward.

Reclusive Damon Samson owned the land near the abandoned freight tracks. It had been in his family since before WWII.

It was once an orange grove, then a building supply company, Samson Lumber, where everyone bought their tools, barbecues, propane tanks and vinyl windows. There was asphalt parking for 3,000 cars, a lumber yard, a garden center, even a sandlot playground where the kids played while the parents shopped.

The store lasted 40 years.

Home Depot and Lowe’s killed it off.

Samson Lumber, the yard, the lot, and the building, was vacant for 25 years. The area around it got rattier, seedier and poorer. The old white families packed up and moved farther west.

At UCLA, I wrote my graduation thesis on the rise and fall of Samson Lumber. I envisioned an idea to transform it into something architecturally and socially exceptional. I thought it could revive the 6th District. I got interviewed on KPCC public radio. Hilary Flores heard me and hired me.

Only the young are ever struck with luck.

“If you can get the community behind this, the owners, the planners, and the financiers, you will launch your career. It will catapult you into the stratosphere,” she said, at the close of my third interview.

My concept, of course, would benefit her.

Damon Samson saw my thesis, posted online at KPCC. He loved the 1950s archival photographs of his father, his childhood, the customers, the store. He interpreted my project as more than a vision for the future.

He felt it was nostalgic, an unspoken yearning for the way it had been. And as he detected that longing in my heart, so he too fell in love with my proposal.

I was only 22. I knew nothing except how to use the internet. Which made me an expert.

After the on-screen projections, the CGI video, the speeches by my boss and the architect, there was a quick emptying out of the room. It was after 9 pm. The half dozen tired, hard-working people who cared enough to show up went home.

They were exhausted. I was exhausted. I smiled and swallowed a breath mint.

Damon stood near the exit door: quiet, tall, cropped white hair, hands in jean pockets. He had sun baked skin, squinty blue eyes, a movie westerner.

He nodded as I approached.

“Thank you for coming. Hilary will be right over. I think we did good tonight,” I said, smiling.

He leaned over. And rather, unexpectedly, smelled my hair.

“I beg your pardon,” I said, perturbed, in cheery self-possession of my faux diplomacy.

“Neroli, marigold, mandarin orange,” he said.

“Yes! Itasca by Lubin,” I said, relieved he was only appreciating my perfume.

Hilary came over.

“Hello there,” she said, grazing his cheek with hers.

“I just complimented Elizabeth. But I may have stepped over the line. Like old Joe Biden,” he said.

“Oh?” she laughed.

“I stuck my nose in her hair to admire her perfume,” he said.

“That sounds innocent enough,” she said.

Hilary wore a Hermès scarf: orange cashmere and silk, artfully tied around her neck.

“Your scarf is divine,” Damon said.

“May I?” he asked as he sampled her aroma.

“Your scent is Chris Rusak’s Beast Mode,” he said.

“Yes! I do love Chris. He’s a local, up in Newhall. But imported Hermès scarves are my thing, my trademark,” she said.

“You seem to like black pepper, licorice, and tuberose as well. My husband has connections inside Hermès,” Damon said.

“Your husband?” I asked.
“Peter,” he said.

“Damon is a man of many talents. Secretive and inventive. He has an atelier, an artist’s lab, right over on Aetna, and he is creating a custom scent, just for me,” Hilary said.

“Peter is the perfumer. I just smell it. He approved it for you. It’s nearly complete. And very shortly, the scent that Hilary has inspired will be unveiled. But only for a select, few noses,” he said.

“Gosh, exciting! Hilary must be honored. Damon you astonish me,” I said, perhaps too effusively.

“Let’s keep Peter’s perfume and my $600 scarves between us. It wouldn’t be a good thing if this leaked out to my constituents struggling to pay rent and buy food,” she said.

“Alfredo’s good looks seem to be pushing things along,” Damon remarked.

“Guapo knows his shit,” she said.

“When he talks, people just look at him. They don’t hear a word he is saying,” Damon said.

We all laughed.

Hilary stressed Alfredo’s astuteness and professionalism.

“Alfredo is a fastidious and detail-oriented architect,” she said in job review English.

“He’s hot, yes. But can he design a house?” Damon joked.

“He’s passionate about his passions. Seriously, I’m thrilled that we have the commitment from the state to dedicate a third of it to low-income units, and to reduce the parking area so people can use bicycles and public transit to get around,” Hilary said.

“Walking and biking are good. You see so many obese people now, especially in this area,” Damon said.

She thought that unkind.

“We all live in a food desert. Fast food all around. People don’t have a choice. If you are on limited income and they sell two burgers, fries and coke for $3, you eat it, especially families,” she said.

“The fatties do have a choice. You don’t walk in the middle of the street just because there are cars all around you,” he said.

“Fatties is judgmental and shaming. Fresh food challenged is better,” she advised.

I mediated with an agreeable interjection.

“That’s why we have organic fruits and vegetables at Walkville. A large area will also have chili peppers which Hilary insisted upon,” I said.

“In Salvadoran cuisine it’s a necessity,” she said.

“Why did they get rid of the police station?” he asked.

“Too controversial. With the nice amenities we are proposing, I foresee very little crime,” she said.

“Remarkable. You envision a community of 5,000 residents without law enforcement?” he asked.

“I know my own community. These are good people. When people are given hope they flourish,” she said.

“That won’t do when you are held up by banditos,” he said.

“With this project we’re going to turn around things in our area. I’ve been waiting for my Facebook commenters to call me an innovator– instead of that bitch,” she exclaimed.

“You are a bitch. Peter tells me that all the time,” he said.

“That bitch should shut his mouth. I kept him afloat paying off his student loans. Now he’s your responsibility,” she said.

“Peter calls Walkville Disneyland,” he said.

“Peter always had a sarcastic comment about everything. His cynicism made him unemployable. This isn’t Disneyland. Real people will live here. This isn’t a production with Snow White and her dancing dwarfs,” Hilary said.

    Damon smiled but said nothing.

“Elizabeth can stop over at your studio before she comes into the office. We have our meeting with the planning board at 10am. Do you want to join? Alfredo will be there,” she said.

“No. I prefer to stay clear of politics and planning boards. Environmental impacts, irritating public comments, people showing up to gripe about things they know nothing about. That crazy, fat, old lady who comes to all the meetings in her nightgown and slippers and gulps all the Subway sandwiches. She is reason enough not to show up,” he said.

Hilary laughed loudly.

“If only I could insult like you do! Of course, I’d be out of a job. Finished! Destroyed! That’s the occupational hazard of politics. You have to be totally committed to follow through on all the lies you said the day before. But I guess I have to keep going,” she said.

“Maybe, one day, you won’t have to lie any longer. You’ll stand at the podium in your elegantly strangling scarf, smelling exquisitely, and the truth will spin out of you, uncontrollably, like a roulette wheel. Who knows where your number will end up?” he asked.

“That sounds frightening. Are you planning my demise?” she asked.

“I don’t use deadly weapons. I manipulate and control through scents. Good night ladies. I will see Liz tomorrow morning, say 8am,” he said.

He saluted as he walked out into the night.

Hilary had a look of horror.

“Why are the people with money always so fucking bizarre? Sometimes I wonder about his politics, whether there is a bit of a reactionary in him,” she said.

“He always says something shocking. I just learned tonight that he’s gay. How did I miss that?” I asked.

“Gay is good. Gay is on our team. Gay is my ex-husband! By the way, have you set up next week’s meeting with that non-profit group fighting human trafficking? I need that on Facebook. Also how are we doing against Julie Abraham?” she asked her opponent.

“Latest poll: less than three percent knew her name. You have high name recognition in our district. 38% of eligible voters know you,” I said.

“Anything else?” I asked.

“Buy another 3,000 followers on Instagram. Go to that company with the Latinx surnames. I think Alfredo has a brother who became his sister or a sister who became his brother. Find a photo of them together, post-op, and post it on Facebook,” she said as she walked out of the meeting hall.

The Atelier Samson was a handsome, pitched roof, gray and blue steel building with industrial windows and a metal gated entrance near the old train tracks. Like its neighbors, it was utilitarian, but sleeker, polished. Money had laid its hands here.

I had passed it before, many times, hardly noticing it. But now it loomed, in the early morning fog, enigmatic and secure. There was no sign, just a steel gate, discreet cameras and a video bell.

I buzzed and the gate unlocked. I walked down a long, concrete sidewalk and gravel border that ran alongside galvanized steel walls. Automatic security lights lit up, silent night sentries, still on duty in the dim of dawn.

Damon, sock footed, black turtleneck, black joggers, welcomed me into his atelier.

Inside it was bright: skylights and steel windows, exposed roof trusses and rafters that ran diagonally along the ceiling, HVAC ducts and vents bolted to beams. There were polished concrete floors, bouncing illumination; and two, long, gray metal tables that had nothing on them, like art pieces.

The air had no smell, only the purity of subtraction.

A tall steel shelf next to one of the tables held various glass laboratory beakers, flasks, measurement labeled cylinders, and plastic bottles. All the glasses were clean. I saw no dust.

I had a sense that all had been cleared of evidence before I arrived, and all that remained was staged.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Please, sit down,” he said.

I sat on a wood bench. He brought out a Japanese coffee maker. It was stainless steel, u-footed with two u-arms holding two glass bulbs, one high, one low, the lower one heated by a flaming alcohol burner. He placed the contraption atop our long table.

He ground beans, put them into the top glass. The boiled water underneath shot up into the ground coffee and dripped back down. It was a theatrical display, mesmerizing and ridiculous, executed for a teachable reason.

“You probably wonder why I don’t pour hot water from the top. This mechanism functions completely opposite from how you suppose things work. The bottom is the water, the top is the beans, yet together it all works. Here is the coffee,” he said.

He removed the top glass and poured coffee from the bulb into two tiny, white porcelain cups.

He spoke next of my academic achievements.

He praised my summa cum laude at UCLA, my ambitious majors: political science, urban planning, business administration. And my MBA, $200,000 scholarship, and my thesis paper and original concept: Walkville.

He also criticized me.

He knew my salary, $44,560, which was public record. But he compared it, unfavorably, to others in my same position, who made $99,000 and $125,000.

“You’re grossly underpaid. Forty-Four Grand Loser,” he said.

“I disagree. My true compensation is more than money” I answered.

“Arguably, your boss is the most powerful councilwoman in the city. You have been key in promoting her agenda. With this enormous project you are embossing her reputation with an idea that you dreamed up in college. Aren’t you worth more?” he asked.

“No, you don’t understand. I’m only 25. I have only worked for her for two years. I’m a baby. She is working for all women, to promote equality,” I said.

“Bullshit. Charity begins at home. I know Hilary. She dropped out of high school. Her resume says she graduated from Stanford University. She says ain’t for isn’t. She’s basically a working-class Latina who wears expensive scarves and presents herself as a champion of the people. But aren’t you instrumental in marketing her? Don’t you agree?” he said.

“I thought you were our biggest supporter,” I said.

“Miss Renata, I am your biggest supporter. You saw the potential in my property as Sepulveda saw California. You’re another explorer. You are smart, able, resourceful and brilliant. Your mother drank, your father left you impoverished, yet you overcame. You are a little prodigy with a big idea called Walkville,” he said.

“Those aren’t your parents. That’s my private life,” I said.

“I’m sorry dear. I needed to look into your background. But what we discuss today will stay here within these steel walls, a vault of secrecy,” he said.

“I don’t have anything to hide,” I said.

“I have a god-damned cash offer for you. A lucrative sum you will accept,” he said.

“A job? I have a job,” I said.

He was relentless, aggressive, and rude.

“Nothing says you can’t work for me as a side gig. I will pay you well,” he said.

“This is not sex. I know you are not soliciting sex,” I said, fishing, for reassurance.

“You think I’m a piggy boomer. But you are all wrong. I’m your guardian angel. I’m here to push you even higher,” he said.

He put a leather bag on the table, opened it, and pulled out three silk scarves, one blue, one orange, one multi-colored. Each wrapped in clear plastic boxes, each one tied with a silk ribbon, which he carefully laid out, in a line, along the table.

“Take $20,000 from me, today, in cash, and deliver these scarves and the perfume to your boss which my husband Peter has created,” he said.

“That’s all? I don’t need to be paid. I will do it for free,” I said.

Was this a joke, a trick, another bizarre Damon performance?

“I’ll open one box of an infused scarf for you to examine. Just look at it. Don’t touch. And don’t inhale or exhale. It must be clean,” he said.

He gave me plastic gloves and an N95 mask to wear over my mouth and nose. I put on protective gear.

He opened the box with the blue scarf, took it out of its container and handed it to me for inspection.

It was emblazoned with the El Salvador coat of arms: a triangle with the sea, five volcanoes and the words, “Dios, Union, Libertad.” There was the white Flor de Izote and the red-eyed, blue and green feathered Motmot bird from the rainforest, all knitted in a fine piece of silk artistry.

“When Hilary sees this, she will cry,” I said.

“I hope so. These are made in Lyon, France. And each one cost four times what Hilary paid for her $600 scarf,” he said.

“Splendid. Are you sure you aren’t in love with my boss?” I asked.

“Not at all. I’m quite sure I hate her,” he said.

I let out a wildly ridiculous laugh.

Yet his face and his expression were unyielding, dead serious. And penetrating, with policing eyes, reading, evaluating and monitoring.

“This silk is infused with our menticidal fragrance. It is a chemically powerful garment that interacts with the brain chemistry of its wearer. That is the secret of these scarves’ power,” he said.

I laughed, a laugh triggered by anxiety, fear and terror.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.

He stood over the table, pressing his weight into it, looming over, dominating.

“The DNA of your boss is in these scarves. The fragrant notes in these will interact with her pheromones to induce a chemically powerful narcotic effect on her brain!” he said.

I laughed hard. His deadpan wit was so serious it was hilarious.

“You don’t have to embellish an outlandish tale to ask a favor from me. I happily will give your gift to her. And I’m sure she will be flattered and delighted,” I said.

“This is a patented invention. Impregnating fabric with scent. Your boss is everything that matters now. She is an outspoken Latina, a leader, a woman who will probably be President of the United States. If she is seen in my scarves it will mean millions in sales. And you will be well-compensated,” he said.

“Here is one more thing. A small tester. Do not ever spray this on yourself or smell it. It is highly sensitive and uniquely blended to conform with Hilary’s body chemistry. Her DNA is in here. Never spray it on her directly, only on these scarves. That’s all,” he said.

He put the scarves and the little tester into the leather bag. And zipped it up and ushered me out the door.

“If you accept my payment it means you accept my terms. If you don’t you can kiss Walkville good-bye. I will end it,” he said.

“You can trust me. I want Walkville to succeed,” I said.

“There’s cash inside. Don’t leave it in your car. Especially in this neighborhood,” he said as he watched me down the walk and out the gate.

I left bewildered, pulled into something nebulous, overwhelming and confoundingly obtuse.

Those last, lachrymose days before Election Day were a whirl of events that began happily when Hilary opened the boxes of scarves.

She was riveted by the design of the El Salvador one. Touched, she held it up to her mouth and nose, her eyes in tears, beholding the symbols.

“This is incredible. Dios, Unión, Libertad,” she said.

“The way he spoke of you was adoring. He envisions you as the future leader of the free world. And he wasn’t joking,” I said.

“He’s got money. He’s got the best interests of our city in mind. He wants to improve the area and make a giant investment to spur other wealthy elites to do the same. As do I,” she said.

“I think this is his silent male way of saying he is on your side 100%,” I said.

“I completely agree!” she said as she looked closely at the El Salvador scarf.

“The motto of my homeland is also what I dream of for this area. One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. This scarf is something I will always treasure. I feel so guilty now,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I was wrong about him. I thought he was a right-wing crank. And he married my despicable Peter. But this shows Damon is a deep, thoughtful, considerate philanthropist who profoundly understands me! This is a scarf of love, brotherhood, and friendship. I’m deeply moved by his gesture. It truly comes from his heart. You must write a sincere note of thanks from me to him,” she said.

She walked over to a mirror and admired herself in the El Salvador scarf, now tied around her neck. She patted it, fussed it into a bow.

“It even smells lovely, like roses and oud, peanuts, green tea, mimosa,” she said, taking in a deep breath.

“Ah! Yes there’s also notes of tuberose, black pepper, lilacs. I’ve never smelled anything so beautiful. It reminds me…. of me,” she said.

Then she grimaced. Her mouth curled into a sour bitterness, and she made a sick face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Headache. Something tastes awful. Gosh, my head suddenly exploded. I guess I didn’t eat, running around, no sleep. Such a weird sensation, ditzy, loopy, out-of-body. I better eat something. Do we still have donuts?” she asked.

“No. You said to keep junk food out of the office. There are some raisins and oranges,” I said.

Acidly, she turned to me from the mirror, furious.

“Who the hell are you to take that junk food line to heart! I said I don’t eat donuts so my staff would hear me say it. I was setting an example for them. Get me a dozen donuts and get the hell out of here, now! Your obsequiousness is disgusting!” she screamed.

A first encounter with her new madness.

In the late afternoon, under golden light and flattering tones, we had a groundbreaking event at Samson Lumber with Hilary, Damon and Alfredo.

A crew from KCAL’s local news was on hand to record the beginning of Walkville.

I brought a gold-plated ceremonial shovel for Hilary to hold and to pose with Damon and Alfredo: the politician, the landowner and the architect.

Intern Ava DeSilva, lovely, lanky and violet eyed, was a UCLA student with the incensed, impatient political passion of the young. Quietly assertive, she would often whisper to me correcting or suggesting.

Now she saw Hilary, hair blowing in the wind, out-of-control, bad for TV.

“Maybe she should wear another scarf to hold her hair down,” Ava said.

“Yes, perfect. Get the orange one around her for the TV crew,” I said.

We two rushed over to Hilary and tied a second scarf around her head, which calmed her hair. Now she was enveloped in Damon’s scarves and Damon’s perfume. The interview with the reporter began.

“It will be a transformative project. In three years, this area will be unrecognizable. Residents will bike, stroll, pick fresh vegetables, in a moderately priced, safe, vibrant, creative community,” she said.

Alfredo nodded in agreement. And then he spoke.

“And we are particularly proud that our diverse and multicultural residents will comprise all kinds of people, all ages and ethnicities living together in green harmony. Vivir en armonía y felicidad,” Alfredo said.

“Our housing is pre-assembled, computer designed, carbon neutral, employing hundreds of workers in well-paying jobs with comprehensive health benefits,” she added.

Damon observed from a distance.

“Can you hold the gold shovel Hilary?” a photographer asked.

The sun was setting. A beam of light from the sun’s last, glorious rays bounced off the glistening golden shovel.

Then Hilary snapped.

“This fucking thing is too heavy. Everything I do is for the cameras. What are those fucking homeless doing over there?” she said.

“Are you OK?” Alfredo asked, as they were recorded by the news crew and many mobile phones.

“I’m a shoo-in. All this bullshit! All of the people here know I’m going to be the next councilwoman. Get rid of the derelicts! Get rid of the taggers and the gangs! That’s my plan! Go home everyone! Shows over! Good night! Get the hell out of my face!” she barked.

KCAL kept their cameras rolling and recording this bonus wacko performance.

Her convulsive change of mood alarmed the crowd. People sensed danger and moved away. She looked crazy.

She threw the shovel down, turned her back to the shooters, and walked away, swearing, arms flailing, spitting and gesticulating.

Alfredo rushed over to me. He asked if I knew what just happened. I had no answer.

“Should I bring her some bottled water?” Ava asked.

“Here she comes,” I said.

Hilary, orange scarf on head, blue scarf on neck, sprinted over like a horse bolting out of a burning barn.

“Ava get away from him! He’s mine!” she yelled as she pushed the startled intern out of our group and jammed herself into Alfredo.

“Take me home! Let’s get drunk and make love and turn off our phones and tell the whole world to go to hell!” she said.

She hugged Alfredo passionately, kissed his neck, ran her fingers through his hair, pressed her body against his, rubbing hard, mad with desire. He tried pushing her away, shaking her up to shame her public lasciviousness, but it only emboldened her. She dug her nails hard and sharp into his back and bit his neck like a vampire.

“Stop it! Stop it! Get off! And you’re stabbing my lats! Get a hold of yourself!” he said.

I watched helplessly as she attacked Alfredo, smothering him with violent sexual force. Then he lost it.

Furiously, he ripped off her two scarves, threw them down, grabbed her hair and restrained her head, pulling it hard, like reins. She cried out in pain.

“Get back and get off!” he commanded.

She continued to pound on his chest.

“Take me home! Take me home! I love the pain! Fuck me, fuck me!” she screamed.

In disbelief, we watched her demonic tantrum, frozen in fear, afraid of our boss, terrified of letting her go on.

Then she collapsed onto the dirt near the sidewalk. The insanity stopped. We all crouched over her, as Alfredo stepped in, picked her up in his powerful arms, and carried her back to his car.

Ava grabbed the two scarves from the ground and handed them to me.

“Oh, my God. What just happened?” Ava asked.

I answered with parental calm.

“She is unwell. Could be a reaction to medication. Wrap up things and make it a day. She needs rest,” I said.

Ava went home. The TV crew left.

I stood there with my clipboard and my laptop, dazed and confused and looked back at the empty site.

Damon stood at the far edge of his property beside a 10’ high dumpster. He smoked a cigar. His face floated behind a glow of orange and a miasma of smoke.

Now it was dark.

I got into my car, started the engine, turned on the headlights, and drove off.

The morning after, she lay in her bed, under the blankets. And we stood there, Ava and I, holding a deli bag with a pint of chicken soup and expressions of comfort.

“How do I look?” Hilary asked.
“Wiped out,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Are you cold? Do you want me to open a window? Turn on the fire? Soup will make you feel better,” I said.
“No. Just fine,” she said.

At her townhouse on Tujunga, in Studio City, the master bedroom, en suite, was on the top floor. It was a 90s design with diagonal walls everywhere, a marker of modernity back then. There was a gas fireplace jammed into one corner, pastel flowered sofa and loveseat, the kind they advertise on the 10 PM news, piles of clothes on hangers scattered over the seating, and plug-in nightlight air fresheners.

A blond, ornate, wood, Indonesian coffee table held many silver framed family photos, pictures of deceased relatives and her ex-husband, and large candles on iron stands, fancy touches from the last decade of the last century.

On the pink carpet, Ava kneeled reverently at the foot of the bed.

I was up and around, feigning professionalism, wondering what I could do in the aftermath of last night’s debacle.

“I haven’t looked online. I suppose videos of me went viral,” she said.

“No, not at all. It wasn’t as bad as you think,” I said.

“It was catastrophic. I have to apologize to Damon and Alfredo. They were blindsided,” she said.

I threw up my hands in a what-can-I-say gesture.

“Before I lost control, everything was so perfect. Girls, when you are flying high that’s the most dangerous time. Like those glorious days in Southern California when the blue skies are clear, everything sparkles, the jasmine blooms, a breeze blows. And then a deadly fire erupts,” she said.

Ava listened, sweetly, without comment.
Hilary spoke to her.

“I suppose you are now seeing the ugly side of politics. They won’t teach you this at UCLA. Irrationality. You’ve figured out how to grease the wheel, turn the levers of power, push to get great things done. And in the end your biggest enemy is always crazy you,” she said.

“Like my nonna says, you’ll fight again. You’ll rest and get stronger. And tomorrow you’ll wake up and do your job and move ahead. Because you have no other choice,” Ava said.

“Wise and inspirational words. This 20-year-old is smarter than the 48-year-old. I wish I had your smarts when I was young. I wouldn’t have married. If you don’t want to divorce, don’t marry! Peter haunts me,” she said.

“Peter?” Ava asked.

“My ex-husband. Now someone else’s husband,” she said.

“Is there anything else you need?” I asked.

“No. I suppose I should get up and shower, brush my teeth, comb my hair. They say when you start to groom yourself you are regaining mental health. I wish I had some of that perfume. That would lift my mood,” she said.

“Sorry. It’s in the office. We sent your two scarves to the dry cleaners. You have one unworn one left in a box on your desk,” I said.

“Let’s plan my resurrection. I can wear my big gold cross! And a cheerful, bright green St. John suit and the blue Hermès scarf. I will get back up there on the podium, the night before the election, rally my supporters, and let them know that nothing will defeat Hilary. She is in control of her words and thoughts. And she is determined to fight on!” she said.

Ava went over to Hilary and kissed her on the forehead. Hilary took Ava’s hand.

“Sweet, beautiful child. We women have to stand up for each other. Men will always betray us. But women must stay united. We are sisters and we are strong. Remember that,” Hilary said, caressing Ava’s face.

“I will. Don’t worry,” Ava reassured.

We left her in bed, with her tablet, her down comforter, and chicken soup. We walked down three flights of stairs, through the quiet, empty townhouse of diagonal walls and shuttered windows, out into the daylight and the trees and the traffic of Tujunga Avenue.

Sunday morning, I met Damon at a scenic overlook on Muholland. We parked our cars. We both got out and I handed him his leather bag with $20,000 inside.

“I can’t take this,” I said.

“Ok. Not a problem. Let’s move forward and move on and see to it that Hilary wins on Tuesday,” he said.

Bubbly, upbeat, rested.

Monday Morning Hilary was raring to go. She wore that bright green linen suit, some clangy bracelets and high heels. And her gold cross necklace.

We gathered our staff. She spoke about her bad reaction to hormonal progesterone cream. Her doctor allegedly said her wild mood swings were due to an absorption of the drug from her skin into her bloodstream causing confusion, temporary depression and mood swings.

She spoke of her legislative battles to make drug companies liable for side effects of medications, and how fatal drug overdoses were affecting our community.

She tailored her dark and unfortunate episode to suit her sunny political agenda.

After the speech, she ushered me into her office to speak, privately.

Trouble was evident, immediately, as she stood, arms folded, behind her bunker-like desk.

“Bettina, Alfredo’s sister, sent me a text and said you misgendered her on a Facebook post when you wrote: “Bettina is Alfredo’s only sibling, and he has always adored his baby brother.”

“Oh, my goodness. Well, that was dumb. I must have rush jobbed that. Brother, sister, easily confused the two. Truthfully, until last year Bettina was still his brother Bruno. Let me correct it,” I said.

“Too late. You burned us badly. She is furious. And so is Alfredo. I don’t even think he wants to work on Walkville now. You did something so careless and insensitive that I might have to fire you. I will wait until the end of the week to make my decision. But misgendering, a lethal misuse of pronoun, is a shockingly cruel and bigoted thing, whether intentional or accidental,” she said.

“Hilary, I’m sorry. What can I say? This is not something I did to hurt anyone,” I said.

“We’ve said enough. I have to make my decision and weigh not only the truth and ethics, but public opinion. This could die down or explode. But your hasty and careless post might come up again in a few years and then I will have no defense for it,” she said.

I felt the earth shake under me, betrayed by everything and everyone.

She had turned on me. I thought she needed me, but now the office doors shut, people walked past me with their heads down. I felt like a fly trapped inside a window screen.

Later, I went out alone and disturbed into the doggy run park behind our municipal building, walking and perplexing, through the littered desiccation.

A text from Damon.

Alfredo’s sister and the whole PC gang are upset, huh? Do you think this will affect the election?

I didn’t reply. We had one last event to attend at Magnolia Park. If he didn’t come, I didn’t care.

I had moved into his court of ill feeling against Hilary. But I hoped for her understanding. She had been through some rough days.

    Another Damon text came in.

Peter said she will turn on you. She only looks out for herself. She spouts pieties but believes in nothing but her own ambition. For Hilary there is no truth, only strategy to hang onto power yet another day.

Why did he write this? What was his agenda? He had money and security, he had Peter. What on Earth did he lack?

I went back into the building lobby. Ava came out of the elevator.

“You don’t want to go up there,” Ava said.

“What?” I asked.

“She’s screaming about God and the Devil and how some fucking Mexican dumped a sofa in front of her house. She is out-of-control again, so we are all running out of the office. Something is very sick with her. I don’t know if it’s the medication, but she is attacking and yelling and swearing like a madwoman. I’m terrified. I need to go home!” Ava said.

We descended the steps into the street.

“When did it start?” I asked as we hurried to her car.

“She was perfectly calm. I was in her office. She was putting on make-up, combing her hair. And I was straightening up her desk. I opened a drawer to get out a hairbrush for her and found some perfume and gave it to her. She sprayed it and I swear the next minute she went ballistic,” Ava said.

“You better go home. Are you OK?” I asked.

“I’m fine. I think someone called security and they are dealing with her. They have body cams so I’m sure they will handle her with care. She needs help. She is not normal. She will hurt someone, if not herself,” Ava said.

Ava and I walked towards her car. We stopped and I asked her one last thing.

“You say she sprayed the perfume on and then she lost control?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ava said.

After a miserable, sleepless night, I woke up adrift. It was Election Day morning. Unneeded in the office, unwanted by my boss, theoretically unemployed, I went for a bike ride.

I rode around the old streets with the bungalow houses, dilapidated apartments, taco trucks, and homeless camps, and crossed into the industrial district.

I biked through a broken and wounded world. I passed the stretching emptiness of Samson Lumber, a retail wasteland I had sought to transform through prodigal feats of persuasion and alliances with the powerful and the political.

I rode past the spy-like Atelier Samson, the steel building and its master inside, undoubtedly surveilling and recording me on bike, to what end I wondered; me futilely riding, me like a rebel, me riding against the wind and fate.

On that bike, I only cared to clear my head. I thought of nothing, forgetting that until yesterday, the most important thing in my life was the re-election of Hilary Flores.

On Friday, after Hilary won her re-election, she fired me for the Facebook post erroneously misgendering Bettina Perez.

“By a miracle of God hardly anyone showed up to vote. For that we can be thankful. My enemies did not bother. You’ve done a lot of remarkable things. And I will surely give you a high recommendation. But I cannot, in good conscience, keep you on with your offensive post on record,” she said.

I wept at the unfairness of it. Hard work, good intentions, prodigious ideas, cleverness and loyalty, none of it mattered.

But I talked back.

“You said some heinous things only a few days ago, and people were angry at you, yet you stood in front of your staff and made excuses and blamed it on drugs. You apologized with half-truths. I stood by you, even though I didn’t quite believe you, and I worked hard to make you win again, which you did, and now you’ve repaid my hard work by firing me. Aren’t you just a hypocrite?” I asked.

“In politics there is no such thing as hypocrisy,” she said.

“Don’t I deserve a second chance like you do? I’m just expendable? I had true gratitude for you, my first employer after college. I truly believed in our mission, together, building a better 6th District, and only now do I learn that I am disposable, like a used condom thrown onto the curb,” I said.

“You’re young and resilient. You weren’t thrown into the gutter,” she said.

“You’ve discarded an ally and a loyal friend. And worse, you’ve made an enemy. I won’t forget your vileness,” I said.

There is no empty satisfaction quite as satisfactory as telling off a boss who is firing you. To you will come nothing but the memory of rebellion.

I collected unemployment and grievances.

I had a lot of free time after my dismissal. I worked on myself as the cliché goes.

One morning I rode an exercise bike at the gym.
A well-built, good-looking guy waved to me.

It was Alfredo Perez. I meekly waved back. He walked over, grinning, licking his lips, and grabbed my handlebars, rubbing them.

“Good to see you! I had no idea if you were still around. Walkville is coming along. Units are going up fast. I miss your input and ideas. I know you had a falling out with Hilary, and I don’t know all the details, but you were the heart and soul of this project. What are you doing now? Conquering the world?” he asked.

“You don’t know? You don’t know what happened? I offended you and your sister. I was fired for misgendering her. Aren’t you furious with me? Doesn’t your sister hate me? I lost my job for posting brother for sister on Facebook,” I said.

“Huh? I don’t understand anything you just said. You were fired for calling my sister my brother? We would never be angry about that. Bettina is a tolerant, funny, cool person. She is a stand-up comedian. She doesn’t hold grudges. She wouldn’t ask for you to lose your job for using the wrong pronoun. That is bullshit,” he said.

“Are you still friends with Hilary?” I asked.

“I see her occasionally, professionally. I wasn’t dating her. We had a mutual interest to work together. And we don’t have much in common other than Walkville. I’m just flabbergasted, really hurt that my sister and I would be used as the reason for your firing. There is no truth to it whatsoever. Well good luck and see you later,” he said.

I got off the bike. And walked into the bathroom and threw cold water on my face.

I went back up to Mulholland, along the ridge of the mountains, and met with Damon, in a park near his house. We sat on a bench with a panoramic view that stretched to Walkville and beyond.

“Beautiful day,” he said.

“The view is beautiful. My life is miserable,” I said.

“What can Los Angeles offer the young anymore? It’s finished, rotten, a hindrance. Would you consider moving somewhere else?” he asked.

“I guess. I have friends who moved to Phoenix, Austin, Denver, all the usual places,” I said.

“Cleveland?” he asked.
“Cleveland? Hell no!” I said.

“If you had the opportunity to do another Walkville, but six times the size, with 30,000 residents in a green community would you consider it?” he asked.

“Of course, that’s what I want,” I said.

“I own some half million square feet in East Cleveland, the poorest and most neglected part of that city. But I have been in negotiations with city, state and federal agencies to build another Walkville in Ohio. This one is $1.5 billion dollars, nearly all government funded. It will tie into a new, regional industrial and transportation plan, and take 10 to 20 years to complete,” he said.

“Cleveland? Cleveland, Ohio?” I asked.

“They have no hurricanes, hardly any tornadoes, the climate is moderate, and it will never be as hot as the South or as cold as Canada. It is close to so much, the furthest east in the Midwest, the furthest west in the East. They have wineries in Western New York, historic towns, and you’re a couple hours drive to Kentucky’s bourbon and whiskey distilleries,” he said.

“You are offering me a job to head up the Ohio project?” I asked.

“I will have a 7-bedroom mansion, built in 1925, fully furnished, set up for you to live in, rent free, private chef on premises, right in a gorgeous, historic section of Cleveland Heights. You will live five minutes from the job site. And I will pay you, out of pocket, $400,000 a year with a ten-year contract,” he said.

“But I have to move to Cleveland?” I asked.

“Wait until you tell your friends where you are moving. Wait until you tell them how much you are going to earn,” he said.

“I lost faith after I was fired. You are hiring a wounded person,” I said.

“With faith all things are possible,” he said.

“$400,000 a year. In Cleveland. No rent. That is a lot of money. They didn’t believe me when I got my job with Hilary. They won’t believe this. What about your scarves and your perfumes, your other business?” I asked.

“Peter is working on new perfumed scarves for Hilary. He is determined to come up with an even stronger scent for her. He considers it his life’s mission to do this. She told him she plans to run for Governor in three years. Peter is planning furiously to design new scarves for her to wear when she reaches that office,” he said.

Damon and I hung out at the park for a bit longer, and then we went for a Japanese lunch in Studio City. We drank hot sake and ate a $150 lunch of omakase sushi: Mackerel, Scallop, Barracuda, Uni, Trout, Snapper, Halibut, Toro, Tamago egg, raw pieces of delectably fresh and expensive fish, dipped in ginger and soy sauce.

I think I was overcome with the sake when I told him that I didn’t want to move to Ohio.

“You do what you want. Lightning only strikes once. If you don’t take it when it hits it will never hit again,” he said.

“But giving up California. Is that a wise move?” I asked.
“You aren’t giving up on California,” he said.
“No?” I asked.
“California gave up on you. Find your dream elsewhere,” he said.
I sipped more sake.
“I know what you did,” I said.
“I told you what I did,” he corrected.
“How can that be right? Subliminal manipulation
of Hilary?” I asked.
“How is it wrong? She only spoke her mind,” he asked.
“What if you do the same to me?” I asked.
“What if you tell the truth? Is that something
to fear?” he asked.
“This is a big thing you are offering me. Can I
go home and consider it?” I asked.
“You are free. The only one who controls you is you,” he said.

He paid the bill and we went outside to give the parking attendant our tickets. We stood inebriated and satiated and waited for our cars to come to our feet. And we drove off, each in our own cars, back to our own houses, back to ponder and plan for tomorrow.

END

The White Defeatist

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A progressive architect is forced to confront his assumptions about himself, his family and his city.

After our mother’s funeral, I flew in a plane, from Little Rock to Los Angeles, accompanied by my older sister Stephanie and her catatonic, teenage son Norman.

Over Arizona, I looked out at the vast, unpopulated desert below and remarked.

“All that space, all that enormous emptiness.”

That comment induced a reaction from Stephanie, who told me about some vacant land for sale in Van Nuys near the house she rented. Perhaps she was trying to distract me from grief.

“I know you don’t like to visit me or Norman or Van Nuys, but perhaps I can lure you there for other reasons,” she said.

I hated their dirty house. It made me feel unclean.

She and her son lived in dilapidation: pet urine, hair in the drain, flies, animal hair, the stink of cat litter.

On rare occasions, I came over, and I numbed myself, on their love and their alcohol.

Often I was just down. I had yet to make a solid living as an architect. I hid out from my family.

But I had plans bursting in my head. Now, when she talked of an empty lot, my sputtering motivation ignited.


Death Money

We had both inherited a few hundred thousand dollars each: a pittance in Los Angeles, a goodly sum in Arkansas. It was just enough to induce the promise of future prosperity without granting it.

“You have to see the property Zeke. It used to be a farm. They grew walnuts and oranges here back in the 1940s. My friend Alisa Grumpfel, bought it from Martin Boyagian, an Armenian who stored stolen vehicles and rented out to illegals. Now she owns it all. An acre. She could build four houses there,” she said.

“Undocumented. Not illegals,” I corrected.

“Yes. So sorry for my use of that word,” she said.

The plane landed at LAX. We walked through the concourse, and onto a conveyer belt, gliding back with luggage, into life without mother.


Working Architect

Three years ago, I lived above a bodega on Temple St. alongside the Hollywood Freeway, near downtown Los Angeles, designing slant-roofed houses for liberal tattoos and social-minded beards of all genders.

In that insular, hilly community of tight jeans and slim shirts, I had a bit of a following. Some of my architectural renderings were framed and sold on Sunset at Marketplace.

The artist Moby photographed a house I designed and put it on Instagram. He later hired me to design a Viennese style doghouse. Miranda July wrote a poem about me and performed it at Intelligensia. Thousands of dollars blew by like winds.

Many late mornings, I went into The Drawing Room on Hillhurst, carrying my laptop, and sliding into a red vinyl booth, prepping and laying out floor plans, ordering whisky, diluting it with ice, slipping, into numbness.


Motherland

After she died, Mom came back in a dream.

She floated, laid down, in an iron bed escorted by angels.

We were in my childhood home on Maple Street in Conway, Arkansas, in the old back room.

Windows were open, sheer curtains blowing. An electric fan pulled in pink scents in notes of magnolia and dogwood.

Her silver hair was tied back and groomed in coconut oil. And a white cotton blanket inched up to her chin. I sat next to her, holding her hand, listening to her.

In her dying voice, still charged by the sputtering, electrified current of motherly love, she asked me about my plans for work, and life and staying in Los Angeles. She had a hard time believing I would settle there.

“You don’t like LA. So why live there?” she asked

“I really don’t know Mom,” I said.

“If you don’t know who does?” she asked.

“Do you want an answer on deadline?” I asked.

“Deadline. There’s a word,” she said.


Erroneous Assumptions

After our parents die we are left alone in silence with own erroneous perceptions.

Mine was always about failure, and fucking up.

My sister saw through me, kindly, empathetically.

She said she had a secret, inside scoop on the property that might benefit me. “You are the favorite architect. I know it. Don’t ask me how,” she said.

“Okay. I’ll come up to Van Nuys and look at it,” I promised.

“Not tomorrow though. I have to go pay some bills that are past due at DWP and The Gas Company. If it weren’t for a lovely friend my water and power would have been shut off yesterday,” she said.


Jardín Olvidado Avenue

The next Monday, I rode the Red Line up to North Hollywood, took a bus west, out to Van Nuys. I got off at Sepulveda.

That gentle morning, nature, after I stepped off the sealed bus, seemed so clean and earnest that it felt like a dirty trick.

I walked in sunshine, past sparkling curbs. The wind and the warm gusts felt so light, so breezy, so unburdened of Van Nuys. The public realm, so often abused, looked fastidious.

I stopped off at CVS on Erwin.

I picked up a bottle of Pine Sol, and a plastic container of bleach wipes. Housewarming presents for my sister.

 


Good Enough

Her stucco workman’s shack beckoned up an unpaved dirt path connecting Hamlin St. to Haynes St.

Stefanie never cleaned. And took pride in it. “We call it good enough, Norman and I. The dogs don’t care if you vacuum. And they love a little pee around the toilet,” she said.

But she had other worries besides housework.

She was chronically short of money.

Until now when a relief pitcher named Death stepped in and left funds.


Mrs. Grumpfel

At Haynes and Noble, I encountered a lumbering, middle-aged woman walking her well-groomed German Shepherd. The owner wore a black parka, men’s cargo pants, work boots and a face full of aggravation.

“I’m Alisa Grumpfel. You’re Zeke Kittridge,” she said. Her de-saturated blond hair was braided in two and pinned down. She had the demeanor of an affable prison guard at Dachau.

“Oh, hi—nice-to-meet-you. How the heck did you identify me?” I asked her.

“Facebook,” she said. “Around here you recognize a white face right away because they’re so rare!”

“Sit Rudolph sit!” she screamed. The dog licked my hand.

“Last night they arrested some homeless men sleeping on my property at 6517 Jardín Olvidado. Mexican scum. Illegals. Like rats in the sewer. Everywhere! Nobody reported it! All the Latinos saw them. They don’t talk to the police. We had helicopters flying over,” she said.

“How terrible for you,” I said.

“My great-grandfather Heinrich came from Bavarian royalty. He ran away from military service. But he came to America legally. He settled in Detroit and invented the windshield wiper! He made a contribution to his country! Now his granddaughter is a landlord for illegals!  Somebody has to speak up. Those animals think they have a right to graze on my land but they don’t! That’s what private property is! They aren’t Americans! But they throw THEIR rights in OUR face!”

“It’s a good piece of land. I could work with you,” I said.

“I’ve seen your Facebook page. I like your houses. I like your likes,” she said.

“Let’s talk soon,” I said, attempting to disentangle.

I walked into the house, leaving Mrs. Grumpfel and dog at the curb.


Mrs. Grumpfel’s Plan

Stefanie fixed me some over-cooked eggs with buttered, blackened toast. She served instant coffee in a red, lipstick rimmed, white mug. Flies circled around the breakfast table.

I sat, and she stood, leaning against the counter and speaking of the local tragedies: a waitress who had bypass surgery, an alcoholic screenwriter next door, a texting plumber crashing his truck into a cinderblock wall at Home Depot. Hers were stories of mediocrity squashed, potential wasted. Rote lives pounded under by the foot of fate.

I wondered if these tales were told to me as precaution or prediction.

After breakfast, we left the dirty plates on the table and walked over to 6517 Jardín Olvidado Avenue and climbed over a cyclone fence.

We beheld an abandoned lot with dead fruit trees, and a hollowed out ranch home with broken windows.

“Depressing,” she said. “I bet this was once a beautiful farm. What is wrong with this country?”

“I don’t know. I can see building a sustainable, lovely little group of houses around a common garden,” I said. “It’s not unique but it could work.”

“The owner might like that. It sounds quaint. But subversively modern,” she said.

“Alisa’s grandfather was the original inventor of the windshield wiper,” she said unexpectedly.

“She told me earlier. It must be quite an honor to come from that lineage,” I said.

She picked up a tree branch and waved it like a scepter. “Be gone ugliness!” she commanded.

“How long have you been friends with Alisa?” I asked.

“Since I moved here. I thought she was a mean lady at first. I had months where I couldn’t pay the rent and she gave me money. I never encountered such generosity and kindness. She was like a sister,” she said.

“She has a lot of friends in high places. She thinks of herself as quite an aesthete. She is a leader in Spiritual Formation & Soul Care at Bel Air Presbyterian.”


An Offer

As we walked back her house, my sister stopped. She turned to me and caressed my face. “You could move up here. Save money. Help me pay my rent. Get work with Alisa building and designing houses. Norman would like a man around here too. Consider it an offer that may expire soon,” she said opening her front door.

I stayed outside for a few minutes, near the front door, alone with my thoughts about the property and my plans. And I had yet another unpleasant conversation with defeat.

Then I wiped my shoes and went into the house, and grabbed a cold can of beer. I went into the backyard and sat down on a fat tree stump.

I decided, right there, to move up to Van Nuys. If I was going to dive in, I had to dive in.

Looking back now, I think I was driven that night more by masochism than ambition.


Movement

I painted my new bedroom in a tentative, non-committal gray-beige (Sherwin Williams’s Crushed Ice).

My days in La La Van were leisurely, lonely, and improvisational.

Norman went to school, Stephanie worked as an administrator at the VA, and I stayed in my room and drew up plans for houses.

I ate dinners with Norman. My sister often ate at McDonalds and went to evening meetings with the Planning and Land Use Committee of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council.

She came home with fantastical tales of how Van Nuys Boulevard was soon to be remade by enormous light rail systems, lush landscaping, and organic markets. She spoke of decorative lighting and historic buildings. The rebirth of Van Nuys was prophesised by Reverend John Hainey, a retired postman and ordained minister who lorded over the VNNC.

Clearly, she, along with other spiritualists had some unfulfilled desire to make over the community as Stephanie was making over her brother.

Beyond her dirty dishes, her unmade bed, the dead mouse on the patio, and the wet leaves at the bottom of the refrigerator; beyond it all, she was a true beautification enthusiast.

 


Interludio Extraño

Alisa Grumpfel invited me to dinner at Interludio Extraño, a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles.

We ate strange little flatbreads covered in braised sweetbreads, flavored with stewed prunes, infused with weird vinegars, festooned with flowers, dropped atop the plate deliberately, feigning randomness.

Alisa wore a red baseball cap, silver cross, wide-ass denim jeans, and a green Christmas sweater with an embroidered Santa. Her sandals showed off cracked heels and purple painted toenails.

I was petrified other diners might out us as visitors from Van Nuys.

After three highballs, she began to pour seductive compliments on me.

“You’re a good-looking white man. You’re smart. You’re an artist. Let me help you build your dream.”

The dream dialogue came out of a woman’s mouth I had no intention of ever kissing. I smiled, and acted gentlemanly, knowing she might hire me.

After sharing a piece of hot chocolate cake and a melted scoop of almond ice cream, Alisa asked me if I would partner with her to build houses.

We walked, arm in arm, down 7th Street and stopped in front of an old stone and brick building with the name “Van Nuys” carved into a pediment above the entrance.

“I admire the way the old timers built,” she said.

I looked at my suburban benefactor in her Christmas sweater. I tried to separate my low opinion of her tackiness from her high architectural aims.


Walking with Norman

When the sun was hottest, I’d pull down the window shades and nap. I’d wake up for Norman when he got back from school around 3:30.

After cookies and milk, we often walked around the neighborhood conversing.

He was a taciturn boy, tall, thin and slouchy. He strode, looking down, with his hands in his pockets.

His father, craggy Don Paver, was gone for good, a pipe-smoking, wife-abusing, drug-injecting rebel from western Kentucky. When Norman was two, Don broke out of fatherhood like an escaping convict. After he tossed his duties along the road, he never returned, never sent a dime, never dropped a word of love or regret or explanation to his only son.

So here I was, a virtuous stand-in for Don Paver, in the fatherly role, pushed into it, performing like an amateur actor.

I had been just like Norman once: sullen and pissed off, aware of every single hypocrite and mad at anyone who didn’t get me. Somehow, now, the petulance of youth seemed wise to me, untarnished by the fake, cheery opportunism of adults.

“Did you know my dream is to get the fuck out of here? When I’m 18 I am going to move to New York City. Mom doesn’t know it. I’m leaving for good. I’ll wait tables since she can’t afford college,” he said.

We walked past houses with old cars, hoods open, parked in withered and neglected yards full of dogs on speed.

Obese teenagers in black stretch pants sat on the curb smoking pot; their plastic marijuana containers and food wrappers littered the street. Nothing was properly maintained: machine or human.

I looked at the surroundings and empathized with my nephew’s defeatism. But I, as an adult, had the duty, the noble duty, to deny the truth and blow out bromides.

“You’re young. You’ve got time. You’ll get out, but try to study and get good grades. Don’t you want to go to college? I think you’ve got lots of talent in so many things. Math, music, video editing,” I said.

I don’t want to die in obscurity in Van Nuys!” he said.

At Burnet St. we passed a rare sight: an LAPD car with a lone female officer parked along the curb.

It was Officer Samantha Sanchez, black hair tied back, latte colored skin, red lipstick and blue uniform. Her window was open, her manner was languid and disarming, she waved hello and we waved back.

“Hi Norman! Good to see you!” she said.

“Hello Officer Sanchez. Have a nice day,” he said. We walked on.

“That dear, sweet woman with a badge and a loaded gun,” he remarked acidly. “Last year I was drinking beer with a girl in Mom’s car and she busted us. Mom was not happy. I think Grumpfel called the police cause we were parked in front of her mansion.”

“You don’t like Alisa Grumpfel?” I asked.

“I know she has a crush on you. But she’s nothing but a rich cunt. She has everything, all the money in the world. But she has no man. So she’s bitter. Nobody is fucking her. So she hates all the minorities. She takes out her sexual frustration by being a bigot,” he said.

“But she gave your mom help when your mom needed it. She isn’t all bad,” I said.

“She’s like, here’s money for food. Now at least you don’t have to take food stamps. That would be degrading for a white woman. Seriously, she said that,” he said.

“I think she helped us because it made her feel virtuous. And she has this idea that all the minorities are lazy and if a white person is in trouble it must be an act of God. I have a horrible father who walked out on us. And now Mom and I are in debt to Grumpfel,” he said.

I had no answer for him. “I just have to be on good terms with her until the houses get built and we can sell them. I’m going to be fine. If you see her just smile and be polite,” I counseled.


The Next Door App

Grumpfel and I had formed Valley Time Homes, LLC, a name she chose which sounded to me like a bowling league. My whole world of work and family was now confined to a few blocks in Van Nuys.

Nine months into the project, I posted some preliminary drawings of the houses on Monday at 2:40pm.

Walkable, sensitively sited, each home was solar-powered with water saving plants. I thought, from my vantage point behind my laptop, I would be showered with compliments.

“Where is the parking?” was the first comment by Becky Shlockhaus.

“I hope not on my street!” added Mark Holdupp.

Kellie Barfolo complained about little houses as a drag on property values.

“You put this up in the middle of the day? My son and his wife work two jobs and have no time to post on Next Door at two in the afternoon! Maybe you need to work at a real job. Try Target or Costco!” Miranda Beagle-Pinscher wrote.

Tam Sinkdrayne said organic gardens attracted rats. She did not like the idea of planting orange and walnut trees. “First you plant fruit trees and the next thing you’ll want pigs and we’ll have a hog farm around the corner!”

Yves Dropper-Hopp, a “Deputized Government Monitor”, whose avatar was a smoking cigar, said zoning law required bigger homes with “at least three car garages.”

Martin Guerrero, a self-described “traditional Hispanic Catholic working man” said it sounded like a liberal commune and “anti-family.”

Rhonda Peevosky and Jackie DeZay objected to the idea of a communal area. “If you have a bunch of people sharing a garden who is going to pay for the gardeners? And where is everyone going to park? What if there is a party? You’ll have cars spilling out everywhere!”

After all my months of working, planning, and designing, my first foray into public comment was demoralizing.

Stefanie, tired, red-eyed, back from work, walked in the house and looked at my face. “What’s wrong?”

“A lot of angry comments about the houses on Next Door,” I said.

She threw her backpack on the couch and took off her shoes.

“I’m not surprised. Nobody is happy these days. They all hate their work. Even if a project benefits them they want to destroy it. Especially if they think someone else can make a profit. Did you hear from Miranda Beagle-Pinscher? She is the worst,” she said.

“Didn’t people, I mean Americans, used to believe in making things better? Better houses, better schools, better communities?” I asked.

“Now you just sound naïve brother,” she said.

She went into the bathroom and slammed the door.

 


Bulldozers and Champagne

“Tonight I have a little green something for you,” Alisa told me as we sat on the patio around her pool drinking champagne.  She handed me an envelope with my name on it and poured more champagne into our glasses.

We had started construction of the houses, and, per our agreement, she had paid me a few thousand for design. I was now acting as general contractor, hiring out electricians, plumbers, carpenters.

“Let us toast to the progress we are making. And let us sell some homes!” she said.

“I finally feel like a real Californian. Building houses, putting down roots, it feels good,” I said.

“Nobody really knows what makes a real Californian,” she said wistfully. “It used to be you knew a real man, a real woman, a real Westerner. Now it’s all muddled,” she said.

“They usually are beautiful and disturbed. At least in Los Angeles,” I joked. But it was nervous laughter.

It was windy that night.

The air was desert dry, and somewhere someone was burning wood.

Distant sirens rode in on the wind.

A premonition of danger, disquieting the evening, hit me with unease.

Old reckless me, younger, had been through nights like this before, when I went out drinking, and came home thirsty, passing out and awakening to broken glass and some woman screaming out in the alley.

Alisa sensed me. She looked at me. So I looked away at the swimming pool, at the underwater lights, at the pumped-in bubbles.

“I’m worried. I don’t think we’ll sell these houses,” I said.

“I’m rich. So I’m used to worrying about money,” she said.

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.

“There is a terrible fragility to privilege. You think it’s a breeze to be born into money? It isn’t. It has its own kind of suffering,” she said. “You might have money in the bank but you don’t have love at home.”

I hoped this was not leading to a proposal. My instincts to degrade myself kicked in.

“What do you see in me?” I asked her. “I think I’m inconsequential. I’m surprised you wanted to hire me.”

She folded her arms and shook her head.

“You want to screw up. You want things to turn out badly. That way you confirm that you aren’t any good. You have been a defeatist all along. You believe any rotten thing people say about our homes. You don’t defend the good ideas you have. Now you come to me and tell me you think nobody will buy them,” she said.

“If you think I’m a negative person, why did you come after me and lure me into our partnership?” I asked.

“I lured you? You were lost. I’ve befriended your sister for years. I saw her rotten marriage crumble. I saw her cry. I saw her struggle. And I never once saw you visit her. You didn’t come out to comfort her, you never thought about her troubles,” she said.

Her charges were exasperating.

“All you women! All you do is call out men for what they are!” I said in a fit.

“I’m just speaking the truth,” she said.

She went over to the barbecue, opened the hatch, removed the grate and dumped a bag of charcoal in. She poured on lighter fluid, poked the coals, lit a match, and stood back from the flames.

And then she handed me a plate of raw hamburger patties.

“You do the grill,” she said.


 You’re the Enemy!

“You wonder why I sound racist. Even though I’m the most tolerant woman on Earth,” Alisa said the next morning.

We were standing, with LAPD Officer Sanchez and Hector Garbanzo from Councilwoman Felicia Romero’s office, in front of our construction site, looking at spray painted gang signs (“BVN”) on the fence.

Young, stocky Hector was dressed in a tucked-in blue shirt stuffed into poly-cotton khakis, black hair slicked over his tanned head. He spoke apologetically and officiously.

“We don’t tolerate this. You are building some fine homes. We completely support you. And now, you have to deal with destruction and vandalism. I’m ashamed, quite honestly as a community leader and as a Hispanic. This is not what Van Nuys represents,” he said.

“You said you have a security camera video that may have captured the incident?” Officer Sanchez asked Alisa.

“Yep. I sure do. I know this happened last night sometime before dark. I drove by here at 6pm on my way to eat dinner and it wasn’t there. Then when I went past at 8pm it was up here,” Alisa said.

“Can I look at the video?” Officer Sanchez asked.

“I’ll email it. Right now,” Alisa said pounding her mobile.  “After you identify the garbage I hope you march right over to his house and arrest him. No doubt he is an illegal! And I’m sure his parents are too and they can all be deported! I’m not racist! I’m a law-abiding citizen. I’m sick of all the crap they bring here.”

Officer Sanchez’s phone beeped. “Ok. Let me go over to my car, sit down and look at the video.” She walked back to her squad car as we waited.

“Once again my apology. I’m going to talk to Councilwoman Romero and see how we can protect property owners from this. You shouldn’t have to put up with it,” Hector said.

He extended his hand to me and we shook.

Alisa turned away, folded her arms and ignored him.

He left and waved at me and made a thumbs up gesture.

Alisa eyed him with malice.

“Sanchez, Garbanzo, Romero! A lot of good it will do having them on our side. I remember when the only time you spoke about Garbanzo was when you were opening a can of beans,” Alisa said.

Officer Sanchez walked back and rejoined us.

“I am quite certain I know the boy who tagged your fence,” she said. “As a matter of fact he lives a few houses from here. Would you like to come with me to talk to him?”

“Oh you are the answer to my prayers! I want to press charges. If possible I’ll bring a lawsuit against his parents if he has any! I’ll make them pay for this!” Alisa said.

We walked down Haynes Street, with Alisa leading the way, and walked like vigilantes, ready to pull the suspect out, and hang him up, by rope, on the tree.

My heart beat faster anticipating a confrontation with the lawbreaker.

And then we stopped in front of my sister’s rental home, my current home. Officer Sanchez turned to me and Alisa.

“That boy on the video is Norman. Do you want me to proceed?” Sanchez asked.

Alisa gasped and covered her mouth in horror.

“It can’t be! Let me hear it out of that boy’s mouth! He’s a good kid. He has had a little trouble but he is no gang member!” Alisa protested.

“Let me bring him out,” I said.

I went into the house, alone, and found Norman sitting in the dark, on the living room floor, looking out the window, watching Alisa and the cop.

“Fuck both of them! I hope they arrest me,” he said.

“Why did you do that? Why? Don’t you know you’re hurting me too?” I asked.

“I’m trying to hurt everyone! Especially bigots, and especially cops! You shouldn’t be pals with them. You aren’t your own man! You build houses with a Nazi. And I am fighting gentrification, fighting people who want to improve Van Nuys and throw me and Mom out on the streets!” he said.

“You and your mom are going to be the new owners of one of the houses! You are the beneficiary of my good fortune. You God-Damned, spoiled, ignorant brat! You are luckier than 99% of all the people in Van Nuys!”

Alisa walked into the living room. “Norman Kittridge. Get up. Stand up and tell me why you vandalized and ruined our fence! Get up and answer me!” She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up, pushed him against the wall and whacked him across the face with a furious slap.

He started to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I have my reasons. I am fighting for justice and against developers. You’re the enemy. I’m sorry to say it,” he said.

And then he ran out of the room.

Alisa looked at me and shook her head. “This is what happens when you take God out of the public schools. I’m just going to pray for him. And let his mother take a leather belt to him,” she said.


My Own Epitaph

Stephanie and Norman bought into one of the four houses, and the other three eventually sold.

It was a drawn out couple of years, an experience that thrust a single, childless, semi-employed man into a family drama that yielded something some call progress.

I went to see Stephanie one Sunday after she had moved into her new house. My sister was living in my architectural creation. I was proud. But I knew how she lived. She was no rendering. She was a slob.

And in the high ceilinged room I saw spider webs on the beams above. The bamboo wood floors were caked with mud and there were French fries crushed underfoot. The 30’ long seamless white countertop was cluttered in newspapers, sliding glass doors were filthy with fingerprints, and window screens torn by dog paws.

I tried to suppress my architectural imagination and enter into reality.

“Are you happy here sis?” I asked

“Oh, it’s so wonderful. Look at it. It’s a dream. So clean and modern and functional,” she said.

“What else is new?” I asked.

“Well Alisa is in love,” she said.

“No kidding. Well some man is going to be very well taken care of,” I said.

“Man?” she laughed. “Alisa is gay. She has a new girlfriend!”

“No way! The whole time we worked together I thought she was after me. I thought I knew her!” I said.

“You are so naïve brother. There’s more to people than just surfaces,” she said.


Everything Once Looked So Ideal

I was driving in my convertible in West Los Angeles last October around dusk. And I passed a new white school not far from the light rail along Olympic. The building was smooth and glossy, low and long, and punctuated by a tall, rectangular tower.

There were solar paneled overhangs installed over the parking area. And graduated, curving paths for the disabled slithered into landscaped mounds wrapped around water fountains and polymer illuminated bollards.

It looked so ideal.

My project in Van Nuys was long completed and I had moved to Venice. I met a blond woman who wore chambray shirts. She owned a hair salon near the beach. She needed a lover and an architect so I was hired.

I drew up plans for her place and proposed a photo studio, a coffee bar, and a garden in back. It was going to be so chic and so private, and so exclusive. I was in a new place, professionally, geographically and romantically.

We lived together for a few months and then we had a falling out. We broke up over sushi.

Everything once looked so ideal.

I was recruited for work, saved from indolence, promised rewards.

But here I was again.

In the car, and looking out.

END

3/17/17

 

 

 

 

Trade For Print

trade-for-print-photo-1

Trade For Print

a short story

 By Andrew B. Hurvitz

 

An unscrupulous photographer lures a postal worker into fraud by offering young love for sale.

There was a photographer who lived and worked at the Tri-Pines Manor apartment on Chandler Bl. in North Hollywood.

After leaving work at the post office I’d see him, in the late afternoon, from the windows of my moving bus. He stood outside, smoking a cigarette, staring out somewhere, camera around his neck.

He had short gray hair and a handsome tan. He favored dark, cuffed jeans, and black lace shoes worn sockless. And, white t-shirts with sleeves rolled up, in pre-determined casualness, around muscular arms.

If my bus stopped at the red light at Colfax, I might get to see him shooting a young, fit person leaning against a decrepit, shabby apartment building.

Seeing him work with sparkling young people was a vicarious pleasure for me, neither erotic nor spiritual; but uplifting, like a bubbly, lemony gin and tonic.

The Woman at the Counter

Once a week, on Friday mornings, Luisa Lopez visited the post office. She was old and proper. Her silver hair was tied in a bun. She always wore a wooden cross around her neck, a belted cotton dress and black safety shoes.

She brought packages for her son, Sr. Guillermo Calderon Lopez, who lived at the Hotel De Mendoza on the Calle Venustiano Carranza in Guadalajara, Mexico.

One day, for no particular reason, I put one of her un-mailed packages into my backpack, waited until my 4:45pm release and left work with it.

Something dark and imperceptibly wrong propelled me to act badly. I have no other explanation.

Mediocrity

Dina, my ex-girlfriend, who still works at the North Hollywood Post Office, told me I was a mediocre man who never did well at anything. She said my joy was watching other people fail.

For an excuse I offered my childhood in celebrity-saturated Studio City. I grew up with gorgeous parents all around me: blonde mothers who booked shampoo commercials and drove convertibles in dark sunglasses. They were married to heroic fathers who coached Little League and squinted into the sun like Clint Eastwood. My own family compared unfavorably to these perfect nuclear units.

My parents were not good looking. They ran a lock and key shop on Sherman Way. Later on they expanded to sell fireproof safes and burglar alarms.

In pursuit of not failing and not succeeding I went through North Hollywood High School, Valley College, a stint at Ralph’s Market, a four-year sojourn living in Idaho working at Walmart, then back to North Hollywood. I took a civil service exam and got into the Post Office before thirty.

I also had a secret routine at work involving my breaks.

I would go outside into my blue, vinyl upholstered Chevy Nova, turn on the air-conditioning, open the glove compartment, take out and swig some Old Smuggler Blended Scotch Whiskey. I’d stay there for ten minutes and go back into work.

Buzzed, selling stamps, sorting mail, pushing carts full of packages, the clock moved quickly, the day was over and I had completed my tasks.

Accomplished nothing but earned money.

 At Work

There was a kitchen in the back of our workplace, adjacent to the loading dock, where they had industrial strength coffee and those powdered packets to flavor it.

On Fridays, we ordered pizza from Little Toni’s. Dina was there too. Unfortunately.

She wore a frumpy blue uniform to compliment her bleached streaked hair and goldfish shaped brown eyes.

One day she accused me of grabbing the last greasy slice of cheese and sausage.

“You’re a lonely, self-centered drunk. So I wouldn’t expect you to think about common courtesy,” she said.

“I’m glad you think I’m selfish, lonely and drunk. Now I can be like everyone else,” I said.

Her summing up against me felt good, for now I mattered again.

After that I had to blow off some steam. So I walked home on the sidewalk, under the shade trees, beside the Busway, along Chandler Blvd.

As I reached the red light at Colfax, I passed the two-story tall Tri-Pines Manor Apartments. It had no pines, no plants, no grass, no charm.

The photographer was outside, smoking a cigarette, talking on his mobile phone, gesticulating, arguing in Hebrew, pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.

I had empathy for his angst. I thought, maybe, he was screaming at a woman.

I stopped, smiled at him and waited for the light. He looked back at me, nodded and walked over.

“The only people who are worse than the Jews are the Armenians! And I’m a Jew so I can say that! My landlady won’t let me back in my apartment and she lives next door!”

“Are you locked out?” I asked.

“Of course I am! Ani is angry because a few times a week I lock myself out. I come outside to smoke, so I don’t dirty the apartment, make the carpet smell, turn the walls yellow. I do it out of consideration for her! And now she is making me wait out here. To punish me!”

He threw his butt over a frayed rope fence enclosing a drought-murdered dirt yard. It landed in a yellow porcelain toilet next to the sidewalk. “I have to call her and she lives next door!”

“Now she comes,” he said motioning to the landlady on the second floor. “Ok. See you later Mr. Postman.” He ran upstairs into his unit.

He must have recognized me from the post office.

 A Confession

On Saturday’s, my half-day at work, there was a North Hollywood Farmer’s Market set up on Bakman Avenue near the post office. Stalls of produce, along with unbearably ugly crafts, jockeyed for dollars.

Well-meaning people were always there under tents peddling brochures for CPR training, massage therapy, welding internships, immigration services, pre-natal care, and nighttime biking outings for the transgendered.

It was an attempt, along with a recently constructed subway train, to hobble together a real town and a real place amidst the wasteful, sprawling discordance of the San Fernando Valley.

South of Sunrise Ford, there was an imaginatively named “Arts District”, without much art, but plenty of bars. In Los Angeles, some people believe that imaginary names, like Little Tehran or Little Tokyo, create actual places resembling their antecedents.

I had come to the outdoor market with my recyclable bag to load up on provisions, such as turnip greens, parsnips and jicama, foods whose preparations were beyond my abilities.

But I didn’t go there just for food. I had placed myself where gorgeous people gathered. My homely invisibility allowed me to watch, without being watched.

After buying some yellow tomatoes, I sat under a shaded canopy on the steps of SGI Buddhist Center.

A lean, tall, young Asian man in white t-shirt and 1950s rolled-up Levi’s approached me. He had extraordinarily wide-set eyes set symmetrically into a high cheek-boned face. His black hair was pomaded back, brushed high, and parted straight. His cinematic handsomeness reminded me of an old Kinoshita directed melodrama.

“Are you waiting to get in?” he asked, holding his head inquisitively. He spoke with a Japanese accent.

“No. Just sitting,” I answered.

“I am waiting to go into the center. Do you want to come inside with me when the doors open?” he asked.

His manner, so gentle, so caressing, traversed some strange territory of inquiry I could not ascertain. Was he hitting on me? Was he being kind? What were his motives?

He extended a hand to introduce himself.

“My name is Sora Kumo. And yours?”

“Al Stephenson,” I said.

“You must come in Mr. Al. Join us in chanting. We are a very special place. We are a community. We welcome all people. You will like it. We will surround you in love.” He spoke mechanically, like Siri on iphone.

He chop-sticked two long fingers into his wallet and slid out a card, handing it to me.

It said, “Chant the words Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo every day and you will find bliss and harmony and a place without worry.”

He leaned his wiry frame along an angled steel bannister beckoning me to follow. He continued to look into me as if he were trying to pull truth out.

“Sometimes I am lost in the grip of sadness. You see my mother in Japan died last year. She wore wooden shoes and had beautiful feet. She fell down on the rocks near the sea. And I was very sad. I cried because she was gone so young. I was only 25. Now I have no mother. Chanting gives me serenity,” he said.

My induction into the cult was stalled by a new arrival. The photographer.

“Mr. Postman. Are you shopping for fresh foods?”

He carried a camera hung around his neck and a backpack.

“I see you and Sora are friends. Hello Sora,” he said.

“Hello Amir. Good to see you again,” said Sora.

A woman inside the center unlocked the doors to the Buddhist facility. Sora made his way up the steps.

“Please come in Al,” he said and then turned icily towards Amir. “You reject our community so I won’t ask you.”

“Nice meeting you Sora,” I said, declining an invitation into a world of magical transformation.

After Sora left, the photographer smiled at me and shook his head. “He was a big model a few years ago. I shot a campaign with him for Levi’s. Then he got into this place. And all he talks about is chanting. Praying to what? I don’t know. And he doesn’t even want to model now. I got out of Israel because I couldn’t stand all the religion. And in LA you have it even worse. They pull in all the weak people. Tell them lies and they believe it,” he said.

He spoke in muscular, sweeping pronouncements, delivered in a guttural, militaristic, unsentimental way. He verged on steely obnoxiousness, but it was tempered by a kind of fatherly kindness, and weary wisdom. He seemed accepting and tolerant. When he spoke of all the weak people I felt he understood me.

“On the day I met you I stole something from work. I have been torn up and destroying myself over my misdeed. I guess I’m weak too,” I said.

“Do you still have the stolen item?” he asked.

“Yes. I didn’t open it. I put it under my bed,” I said.

“So go home and take it back to work. Mail it out. If you don’t interfere with the delivery you are fine. Everyone knows the mail is slow,” he said.

“Yeah but why would I steal in the first place?” I asked.

He lit a cigarette, inhaled, and slowly, intentionally, exhaled.

“Don’t ask why. We don’t live long enough to know,” he said. I had no response.

We sat silently, lost in the torrid, heavy air of Los Angeles, marooned in wordless speech.

That hot afternoon, the sky was full of wispy cirrus clouds so feathery, so brushed, in streaks of cream on blue flying by fast on desert winds; powerful winds that assaulted the ground and bent the palm trees into frightened old men and blew street trash out of town.

“You want to get a beer?” Amir asked. And I agreed.

We walked to The Federal Bar, a brown-brick, former bank building restored in stylish dilapidation. Inside were many craft beers on tap, and many stools and chairs occupied by pretty people who examined everyone who entered, except me.

We sat down on green velvet sofas, away from the crowds, in a wood paneled, grimy windowed, dark back room. We drank, for two hours, chasing obliteration before sundown.

An Offer

 We left the bar at dusk and walked down Wellington, stopping to chat at an empty lot. He took out a pack of Marlboro’s.

“Do you mind?” he asked.

“No. Go ahead. I grew up with cigarettes. When I’m in their haze I feel like a kid again,” I said.

“Tell me. Are you satisfied?” he asked.

“Not really,” I answered.

“What’s missing?” he asked.

“Sex. I make enough money to get by but I really want sex. I’m lonely, starving,” I said.

As we talked, three teen-aged girls walked by.

“Like them?” he asked.

“Who wouldn’t? I haven’t kissed a 16-year-old girl since I was 17. I try to stay innocent,” I said.

“You Americans are guilty of too much innocence!” he said.

“And you? What is your angle?” I asked.

“I photograph young women. They’re school kids walking from high school past my apartment. I get them right in the door,” he said, as if he were recounting the capture of fireflies in a glass jar.

“I tell them I’ll make them famous. 9 out of 10 do it for free. I call it “trade for print,” he explained.

“Do you have a website?” I asked, intensely curious to see his work.

“I never use the internet. I shoot film. I print up magazines. I have subscribers around the world who subscribe to Junior Pussy. It’s the name of the publication. It costs $110 a year, it’s published quarterly and I have 16,000 subscribers,” he said.

His journals were sent out internationally the old fashioned way, through the mail.

I asked him if he were afraid of getting caught.

He was sanguine in his response.

“My work is artistic. I’m contributing to the self-confidence of young people. Some of the girls are very sophisticated. They are sexually promiscuous. They take money for sex. Not for modeling. I never pay them to model. That would be wrong.”

He made an offer to me. He said he would pay me a few hundred dollars a month if I would help mail his items to international destinations by officially falsifying the contents.

“What do I get out of it besides money? I’m pretty satisfied with my income,” I told him.

“If I showed you a few girls who are open to meeting you, I mean really gorgeous, precious, soft, kissable, hot young things, you would melt and get down on your knees and thank me. They are like manna from heaven,” he said.

“I don’t think I’m the right person for this. Sorry Bud,” I said.

His smile turned acrid. He now looked at me with derision and disgust.

“You’re a paunchy, middle-aged man with a bald spot and an average face. I’m offering you opportunities you can only dream of,” he said poking my gut. “Look at you. What woman would consider you? I’m giving you a free pass to ecstasy.”

“Thanks. But insulting me isn’t winning me over,” I said. He was not dissuaded.

“You told me something today you shouldn’t have. If I wanted to I could contact your supervisor and get you fired. Or worse,” he said.

He was referring to my earlier admission of mail fraud. And now he made me an offer to commit more of it.

“I’m only human. I told you something because I trusted you. Why do you want to hold that over me?” I asked.

He told me that financially and sexually he was helping me in two ways. Why would I stand in the way when there was so much mutual benefit?

He wrapped his arm around my shoulder and gave me a friendly, thumbing massage.

“Relax. Don’t try to be so human. It will destroy your life,” he said. We crossed Bakman and passed the SGI Buddhist Center where we again sat down on the steps.

“Keep repeating nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,” he said.

He had co-opted that sacred chant for nefarious purposes.

I began to repeat it to calm myself. Words to soothe my guilt over future crimes. Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

 

The Law

In our postal cafeteria, tacked to a corkboard, was the following notice:

 “Section 1470 of Title 18, United States Code, prohibits any individual from knowingly transferring or attempting to transfer obscene matter using the U.S. mail or any means or facility of interstate or foreign commerce to a minor under 16 years of age. Convicted offenders face fines and imprisonment for up to 10 years.

In addition, Section 1466A of Title 18, United State Code, makes it illegal for any person to knowingly produce, distribute, receive, or possess with intent to transfer or distribute visual representations, such as drawings, cartoons, or paintings that appear to depict minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct and are deemed obscene.”

 On lunch break, drinking my usual pint of chocolate milk, I’d stand near the vending machine and review the US Federal Obscenity Laws, taped to a wall, while casually and quickly denying any of them applied to me. Often a milk mustache would walk out of the cafeteria with me indicating my carelessness and disregard for detail.

I wasn’t sending obscene materials to minors. I certainly wasn’t sending illustrations such as drawings, cartoons or paintings. My reading of the law was selective.

So I continued my arrangements with Amir.

I walked over to his apartment, a couple times a week, and went upstairs, into stale smoke, trampled shag carpeting, and yellow curtains, pulled shut against invasive, blinding afternoon sun.

In his living room, he set up a soft-box light, camera on tripod, and sheets pinned to the walls and the ceiling. The young and pretty students came, undressed, and sat on the sofa, naked, under our gaze. Amir directed them to curl up, spread out and seduce.

After the shoot, he’d hand some of them two-hundred bills and guide the girls into another room, a bedroom, where they would climb under a white comforter, pulled up to their naked necks, and wait for me to enter.

Every week I had a new, young delight. After exhausting myself in sexual intercourse I’d marvel that I had somehow stepped into a world of fantasy that few middle-aged men experience.

After the client had left, I’d hang around Amir’s apartment. He handed me dozens of brown, soft packages, ready to mail to Dubai, Russia, Chile, Germany, Japan, Greece, Sweden and Israel.

I sent out his subscription magazines at work. He became my second employer, turning me into a shadow broker of sorts between him and the US Postal Service.

Renata

One day Amir asked me to go by myself to meet a new client, 18-year-old Renata Lopez. After work, I walked over to North Hollywood High School, wearing a red cap as an identifier. I was there to bring her to a hair stylist for a pre-shoot blowout.

At 5pm she walked out of the school, down the steps, and shyly said hello. She was short, with brownish reddish hair, deep brown eyes and pouty lips that curled into a sardonic smile. She effused wholesomeness in a petite blue cardigan and pleated gray skirt. I introduced myself and we crossed Colfax over to Rita’s Salon.

Rita, a stout Vaca Negra about 40, with cherry red lips and linear eyebrows, ushered Rita into a chair. I sat down on a bench amidst old copies of Men’s Journal, Esquire and dog-eared National Enquirers.

I watched as Rita enrobed Renata in a white cotton smock. Its angelic countenance flattered her dark, brooding beauty. Adjectives danced around inside my head.

Mesmerizing

Soft

Alluring

Pure

Girlish

The procedure began with washing, then blow dryer and brushing, more blowing; and then the combing, the fluffing and the drying. The hot air lifted the young woman’s hair up, like the windy, fluttering tail on a galloping horse.

The shop got hot. Rita turned on a tall, metal floor fan. It blew out chemical, childish, adult scents of baby powder, peroxide and hair spray.

I had placed the LA Times sports page over my crotch, covering a growing erection. I was quite ready to explode.

And then the blowout ended.

Renata was un-buttoned, brushed all over. She sauntered over to the register. I paid $40 plus $5 tip. We walked out and proceeded to Amir’s apartment.

The Fruit Cart

At Chandler and Colfax, Cesar operated his snack cart. Renata and I stopped there. She ordered fresh fruits seasoned with red chili powder.

“Hola Cesar! Me gustaría melón, pepino, melón, sandía, plátano, piña, aguacate y un poco de chile en polvo y cal por favor,” she said. And then turning to me, “Would you like one too Al?” I declined but watched her partake.

Wistfully observing this Latina, I thought of how I grew up in this state, thinking my ethnicity the norm, only to find myself living in another country.

We white, monolingual fools who were born, work and live in [I wrote this down on a slip of paper] “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula”, who are we but Anglo aliens in Latino heaven? We are wandering, plastic, pale, dumb, blank-faced, insensate orphans of language, faith and culture. We are lost, dreadfully marooned, and insignificant in a sea of Spanish.

The young, beautiful girl next to me spoke it and I didn’t. She knew something deeper, felt it, and consumed it. Something I could not. I realized all this at Cesar’s Fruit Cart.

Box City

We walked up to Amir’s apartment and knocked on the door. I also rang the doorbell to no affect. I texted him, and called him. No answer.

“I can’t wait too long. My grandma is cooking dinner. I have to leave by 6:30,” Renata said.

“This is strange. He told me to go meet you, to take you to the hair salon, and then walk over here,” I said, attempting to stall her.

She sat down on the steps and I tried his number again. It was a strange evening of events, of actions undertook under weird directions, and I was here, with an underage girl, waiting for an appointment from a man I did not trust.

“It’s raining,” Renata said. She held out her hand to catch the first few raindrops. I was in disbelief not imagining it was real.

“I’m so happy. I’ve been waiting for the rain since March,” she said.

“I’ve been waiting for 25 years,” I answered.

Under the building overhang, we waited and we watched the trickling rain. We heard the car tires on Chandler as they slushed through puddles and slid. We were periodically deafened by the timed regularity of planes landing at Burbank Airport, their acoustics amplified by mountains and clouds.

For now we stayed still, but all around us, on road and sky, movement.

I wanted more of a hard, cleansing rain, but it never came. And that begrudging, stingy deity who reigns over Los Angeles withheld his baptizing showers, again.

Renata said good-bye and we both left Tri-Pines.

Waiting

A strange interlude of silence, a malignant calm, descended upon my life.

I went to work as usual, riding the bus to the post office. I processed packages, pushed baskets of mail on the floor, waited on familiar faces. Reliably, assuredly, I stayed inside of my routine, unaware of impending events.

I stopped at Amir’s place and bumped into Ani, the building manager. She told me her tenant had cut out of town and moved back to Tel Aviv. “He has a lot of money. He owes me three months of rent. I bet he screwed you too,” she said.

Back at work, on Friday, Luisa Lopez came in. She walked up to my counter, but she had no package in her hand. Her face was full of sorrow and grief.

“My friend I come to tell you that my dear, sweet, wonderful granddaughter was killed. Crossing the street in front of the bus. Just like that. She is no more. So I have no reason to come here. Her father, my son, has come back from Mexico and is staying with me. I am in such pain you can’t know. I hope you don’t suffer as I am suffering,” she said.

I reached for some quick words to comfort her, but I was lost and blindsided by self-pity.

“What can I possibly do?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just nothing. I did not want you to worry. Now you know why I don’t come here any more. Please go to the church or wherever you worship, and say a prayer,” she said. And she elbowed out of the building, through the old wood and glass doors, a black shawl draped around her shoulders.

Under the Bed/Beyond the Window

That night I went back to my apartment, dug deep under the bed and pulled out the taped package stolen from Luisa. I sliced it open with a steak knife.

I found printed photographs of a young woman, 4 x 6 snapshots paper clipped together. And a cheery looking letter, in Spanish, hand written on yellow stationary decorated with white daisies.

I perused each picture. I saw a young woman at Disneyland, then she was on the beach, then sitting at a picnic bench surrounded by family, in another holding a small white dog.

All this was useless to me. What did I care?

Then I looked closer at the girl in the photos.

It was Renata Lopez.

Return

The next morning on my way to work, I followed the return address on the envelope and found myself on Lemp Avenue, a street of pleasant homes next to the Hollywood Freeway. I held the package with the photos inside and walked up the street, feeling as if I were falsely impersonating a postman.

As I neared a small 1940s ranch house, there was Luisa, corn broom in hand, cleaning her driveway. Lost in grief, she was assured in her chores. Leaves were swept aside, a reassertion of woman over nature. How many times in history have brooms assisted in the rebuilding of ravaged lives?

“My goodness. Now you deliver the mail too!” she said.

“Actually I came to give you your package which ended up in our lost and found. I apologize for this,” I said.

She took the package from me and examined it in frank heartbreak. Her eyes swelled up again. Her frail hands pried open the tape. She removed the photos, cautiously, for they were irreplaceable. Yet she did not look at them.

“God bless you. You are the one who brought me something beyond words. This is holy. This is sacred. This is my Renata and here she is alive. She is young and full of hope. This is whom I lost. Such love and innocence. When she walked in the house the first thing she would say is, “Hola mi querida abuela estoy en casa!”

Mi querida abuela.

My dear grandma.

Heard no more.

 Epilogue

After my scene with Luisa, I walked down Chandler, past the park, past the fire station, and into the post office parking lot. A small world taken for granted, mine enjoyed in liberty.

Outside of the back entrance were four men and a woman, officials from the Office of the Inspector General. I walked past all of them standing mutely, emitting their static electricity of suspicion.

Dina stood in the doorway, arms folded, almost blocking it.

She looked at me and shook her head. “These people are here for you,” she said. I turned around and saw law enforcement walk up the stairs, onto the loading dock and surround me.

A navy shirted woman, armed, with badge, approached me. She informed me that I was under arrest on suspicion of fraud and intentional misuse and violation of international mails, of sending indecent materials related to child pornography.

You have the right to remain silent, to consult an attorney. It all rushed past my ears like wind.

I was handcuffed. Then Dina came out and stood in front of me. “I knew you would get it bad. I just didn’t know how or when or why,” she said.

I could sink no lower. Her newest appraisal of me now rested on empiricism not emotion. But nothing she said mattered really. I was, admittedly, loathsome.

They led me into a vehicle and I was taken downtown. And that is how I will end this part of my story.

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Decline Press

“Decline Press”

Short Story/Fiction

by Andrew B. Hurvitz


 

After the horrific events of April 20th I buried my feelings, like socks in a dark dresser drawer.

I tried to elude pain but it stalked me so.
I spent hours hiding: at the gym, on the treadmill, on the bike.
I wore red headphones. It was the color of the rage I felt inside.

When a cop dies, and, if you are somehow connected to it, you are left dazed, morose, and unshakably sad. Someone should have shot me dead that day.

One passable Tuesday, many months after the tragedy, I was at the gym pedaling a stationary bike. And a font of mid-century wisdom, Steve, red-faced, sharp-nosed, white-haired, came over. He carried a plastic water bottle and a Bible. He put his hand over mine on the handlebar grip.

“I am so sorry about what happened to you. That was truly a tragedy. And that cop who died. My heart breaks for her family.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“What’s important is getting into a routine. Stay busy. You’ll feel better. Be positive,” he said.

“Thank you. I appreciate it,” I said.

“Your friend was a loser. Even if your own life is crap, you don’t have a right to kill a cop. I thought your friend was a jerk from what I heard on the news. Wasn’t he a Marine too?”

His last question implied that there was honor and stature in a Marine. Something we both agreed on.

“He was a good man. Everything fell apart for him in rapid succession,” I said, attempting suture for my dead friend’s torn character.

Old Steve shook his head, muttered good man and walked away.


Smoky or Sweet

Early last year, before any of the bad business began, I worked as a stylist for fashion photographers. My specialty was boxer shorts and briefs. They paid me about $150 a day. I worked 2 days a week on average.

One night, after a jockstrap shoot in Echo Park, I rode out to Van Nuys and disembarked with the rest of Las Vacas Negras near LA Fitness, across from Costco.

I biked over to Bevmo on Sepulveda. There was a 5 Cent for a Second Bottle Wine Sale going on. But I was there not for wine, but whisky.

I ended up in front of a locked glass cabinet holding expensive Scotch, teasingly alluring and expensively unreachable. My eyes were locked on the labels beyond my budget.  And then a deep, male voice spoke.

“You like it smoky or sweet? You could spend up to $250,” he said.

“Can’t do it. I’m low paid. My job is kind of futile. I’m a lowly fashion stylist. I pick out boxer shorts for models to wear. There’s nothing lower than that,” I said.

“Yamazaki from Japan. It’s our last one. It was voted best whisky in the world last year.”

“If it’s under $100 I’ll take it.”

“I’ll give you a 5% off coupon. And if you join Bevmo you’ll get it for $89.99. Good deal huh?”

At the checkout line, shy eyes down, earphones on, I did glance up briefly.

A name badge pinned to his red company shirt, a shirt tucked into his plain front khakis:

Derek Moss, Store Manager.


Good Child

Frank Young Loh, also known as Dad, taught me humility and to never think of myself as above anyone else. “See the woman at Starbucks sweeping up the sidewalk? She has a job to do too,” Dad once said as we parked outside of a coffee shop near our home in Bountiful, Utah.

He had grown up in Taiwan. He was converted and later fished off that island by Mormon missionaries. He came to Salt Lake City, graduated from Brigham Young, married a white girl from Provo, had a kid, me; got widowed and later took Mom’s life insurance payout and opened a hardware store.

He had an Asian work ethic, nose to the grindstone. He had the pure heart of a believing Mormon and the coldly indifferent soul of an ice pick. He was ready made for Utah: flinty, bland and obedient.

We were two men living together. Yet we were all alone. Carol Brady never came around.

My ambition, under his tutelage, was to reach for the average. Make no waves. Broach no controversy.

I thought I got along OK by not challenging him. And then my dick got in the way.

I told my father I was gay and I was ejaculated into exile.

“Get your bag or your purse and get the hell out of this house. There is no place for this in my home,” he said.

I quickly stuffed a backpack with underwear, socks and a toothbrush and ran out of the house on S 50 W.

S 50 W. Does that sound like a human place, a loving home? I think it sounds like coordinates for a place on Mars.

That’s the last I saw of him. People ask me if I miss him.

Nope.

I lost my virginity through honesty.


 Decline Press

Along the mirrored wall at LA Fitness in Van Nuys, are men and women staring at their reflections as they move weights. I never went into their area. I was too intimidated.

Then one day I said fuck it. I’m going in. 5’8, 148 pounds, determined.

I entered their space and laid down on their Decline Press. I started out light and put two, ten-pound plates on each side and got into position on the padded bench. I wrapped my sneakers under the cushioned poles. Supine, low angled, head lower than feet, I felt light-headed, blood rushing down.

I grabbed the bar and tried to raise it but it lost balance as the right side plates slipped down.

Quickly, a solidly built black man in a blue spandex shirt stood over me and held his palms open under the steel, leaning over and smiling.

“Slow-ly. Raise it up, breathe brutha. Let it down. I got you. Up, slow, bring it down, slow. Good. Keep going young man. I’m right here. Ok. Get it up, up, push. You got it. You did it.”

The voice was smooth, like Nat King Cole, sonorous, soothing. His encouragement was gentle and kind.

“Thank you,” I said. He had an earnest gaze, a wide smile and broad shoulders. He walked over and extended his hand.

“I’m Derek. If you need me I’ll be over there.”
“Conner,” I said.

He went to the chinning bar and raised himself up and down. He stretched his arms out and raised them overhead. His lats opened like butterfly wings. He dismounted and wiped his mouth and walked over to the water fountain. I thought of a panther, an acrobat, a dancer.

I watched him in his tall, assured dexterity, an adroit form of athleticism touched with decorum.

I wanted to know him.
He looked back at me and smiled.
I felt a chill.
Recognition for the lonely is dear.


Why Don’t People Have Respect?

Later on, I walked out the door of the gym, into the sun. I encountered him in the expansive parking lot picking up discarded bottles and trash, in between shrubs, the people’s plantings of Van Nuys.

“They dump shit everywhere. Why don’t people have respect?” he asked me, taking a handful of crap and dropping it in a wastebasket.

The ground was dirty, the air was smoggy; and that day, a mushroom cloud of fire in Santa Clarita pumped toxins into the atmosphere: thick, black, toxic, ashy, smelling of burnt wood.

“I think there’s a fire out in Santa Clarita,” I said.

He laughed. “I drove through there five years ago What a lost place of look-alike houses. Every house alike! Tens of thousands!”

“Were you going somewhere?” I asked.

“I left Los Angeles in search of California. Then I took a job in San Francisco. I went to work in a tech start up. They had a program for vets to learn coding,” he said.

“Why didn’t you stay there?” I asked.

“I had dreams of greatness. Then I realized I was doomed. I tried to concentrate. But I was no coder. I was working in a tall high rise on Market St. I rode the elevator up to my office on the 32nd Floor. One day I ran out of the building screaming. Right on Market St. I had a complete collapse. I could not go back in an office building in an earthquake zone. It might collapse on me. I had a building fall on me in Iraq,” he said.

“San Francisco scared me. But down here in the heat I think about it. What I miss most is the rain. And that cold, blowing fog.”

I tried to empathize with him.
“People live and die in LA for no good reason,” I said.
“I won’t dispute that. But my life has been on the upswing since I settled here,” he said.

He got into a new, red Ford Focus. It looked like a just licked lollipop. It made me salivate.
He opened the window and looked out at me.
“Aren’t you tired of walking across this endless stretch of asphalt? Too hot to walk. You want a ride?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure. Can you drop me off on Burbank and Kester?”
“Get in,” he ordered.

We were stopped at Sepulveda and Oxnard. He looked at me. “I know how I know you. You came into Bevmo and bought some Yamazaki whisky. Smooth and Asian.”

“Me?” I asked.
“No the whisky,” he said.

He reached into his glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of Diptyque’s Tam Dao fragrance.  He sprayed it on his neck.

It smelled like sandalwood and cedar, like the fire burning in the mountains north of Los Angeles. It enkindled desire.

We parked, in front of the mini-mall donut shop at Kester and Burbank, and sat in the car, air-conditioning blasting.

“Tam Dao keeps me calm,” he said holding the bottle in front of a chilled air vent.
“I got it in Fallujah. My buddy gave it to me. He had the bottle on him,” he said.

“It was a hot day. Just like today. But Iraq hot in war hot. We were resting on a bench inside a walled, arid garden courtyard. It was house-to-house combat but this place seemed quiet. A family lived there. My buddy, Lance Corporal Jose Martinez, was talking with me. We were both scout snipers. He had this bottle of Tam Dao in his pocket. He said it made him calm. Then, out of nowhere, but actually up on a roof, an enemy shooter hit him, right in the heart, and he collapsed. He died quick. No scream, just death. Lord, mercy, no. I had no time to think. I dove behind a wall and started shooting at everything around me in the air. I think I hit that sniper on a roof. I stayed there until I was rescued. It was three hours. See that black and white Tam Dao label? It was covered in his red blood. I felt ashamed to wash it off. Somehow dishonoring him,” he said.

“I never saw someone die. I never fought in a war. I respect you. How do you, how do you deal with death?” I asked.

He looked at me and took his hand and rubbed my shoulder.

“You think it will all go on but it won’t. Once the heart stops it’s over. I never went looking for death. It just finds you.”


Last Year in Van Nuys

He became my workout buddy. He took care of me on the machines, especially on the Decline Press. On there I felt most vulnerable, most in need of support and encouragement.

One of my favorite lines was “I can’t do it.”
But he would challenge me and shame me in a joking way.

“C’mon Loh you ain’t so Loh. Get it up!”

I’d push and surprise myself in getting it back up.
I’d daydream when I had to spot him. I’d look around at other men on the floor and he’d tease me.

“Stop looking at the chicks. Concentrate. Look at me Loh and say I Concentrate on You!”Inadvertently, I’m sure, he named a song I loved, a song once sung by Sinatra.

Whenever skies look gray to me, and trouble begins to brew
Whenever the winter winds become too strong
I concentrate on you

When fortune cries “Nay, nay” to me
And people declare “You’re through”
Whenever the blues become my only songs
I concentrate on you

On your smile, so sweet, so tender
When at first my kiss you do decline
On the light in your eyes when you surrender
And once again our arms intertwine

And so when wise men say to me
That love’s young dream never comes true
To prove that even the wise men can be wrong
I concentrate on you[1]

[1] Cole Porter, Songwriter. © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

I listened to that song, covertly; hummed that song, secretly; absorbed the lyrics, furtively; and never confessed it anyone. It was too soft, too romantic, too tender. To admit to liking or believing it, was to surrender myself to persecution and ridicule.


Fatburger Confessions

One night, under the red neon Fatburger sign, we devoured turkey burgers after the gym. He twirled a fry and divulged a secret about having a kid and an ex-wife back in the Bronx.

“She wanted to instantly shape me up: job, attitude, love-making. Men are sometimes lethal. But woman are always toxic. She was too much,” he said.

“I used to be irresponsible. But hey, look at me now.  I’ve changed. I got on my feet! I manage a liquor store. I bought a new Ford Focus. I go to the gym. I put it all together,” he said.

He leaned back in his chair, patted his stomach and laughed like the Devil.


Styling Men’s Socks

One day last year, Polo Ralph Lauren hired me to assist on a shoot for men’s socks, a step up for me as a stylist. I earned two grand.

I remember the day well. I wanted to celebrate my good fortune. I met Derek at MacLeod Ale Brewery on Calvert Street and we played golden hour darts, and drank beer in the large room with the open-to-the-sky garage door before sunset. The setting sun bathed the room in an amorous glow: rose and amber on cinderblock and concrete.

I hadn’t eaten at all that day, and I was quickly drunk. My tongue was loose and I said whatever came to mind.

“I’m glad we are buddies,” I said. He threw a dart that missed the board and hit the wall. He looked annoyed.

“Did I say something wrong?” I asked.
“I got a parking ticket before you got here,” he said.
“I’m sorry.”
“The back tires were barely in the red zone. And the parking enforcement dude, fat white guy, he knew my Ford Focus. He wanted to aim his $75 dart at me. I don’t have to tell you why,” he said.
“I’ve had parking tickets too,” I said.
“Dude I’m telling you this was not normal. Sometimes only revenge makes you feel like there’s justice in the world. I have a semi-automatic rifle at home, a Saiga AK-74. Only my excellent self-control as a man and a Marine prevents me from turning lethal.”

He took a sip of the pint. He smiled at me benignly and patted me on the back. Then he stepped out of the room onto the driveway.

He looked out across the chain link fence, out across the auto repair shops, the parked tow trucks and the darkly silhouetted palm trees along Calvert Street marching tall against the orange sky.

There was lament and sadness in his eyes.

“Was anyone ever happy in Van Nuys? Why do they come here? Why the hell do they stay?” he asked.

We sat on a ledge. “At least today I’m happy. I made some good money. I’m going to give you $75 for your ticket. It’s my fault you were waiting for me,” I said.

“Silly little boy. You ain’t got nothing to atone for. Keep your money. Or use it for dinner Tuesday night. My place. Bring some prime meat. We can cook on the balcony. You can see my pink building on Kittridge and Sepulveda where the whores hang out.”


Up Tempo

I wanted to be loved that Tuesday night.

I walked into Whole Foods and picked up two, solid, meaty pork chops, bone-in, a bottle of Woodford Reserve Bourbon, a crusty, fresh baked apple pie and a pint of high fat vanilla ice cream.

At home, I showered and dried, picked out navy cotton trousers, a white oxford cloth shirt and suede wing tip shoes. I pomaded my hair and parted it precisely.

It was Tuesday, April 1st. A day when I last fooled myself into imagining happiness.

There was something in the cool air that spring night: a sense of expectation, wonderment, mystery, and desire. I rode my bike, hopefully, up Sepulveda, with a backpack full of food and liquor.

It was one of those evenings when the ocean breezes blow up into the valley, slithering through the passes, over the brake lights, and lay onto the land a soothing blanket of coolness. Ecstasy is when you are alive, and aware, and intoxicated, at the hour your events align with meteorological events.

I had arrived at my destination on Kittridge.

He was up on the balcony, shirtless, in shorts, surveying the sky. His carved arms were clenched on the bar of the steel rail. He looked out onto the street, and beyond, with that same faraway look he had on Calvert Street, at the brewery, the night before. He did not see me down below.

I waited and watched, in silence, on my bike, admiring him, not wanting to end our moment of separate but equal gazing.


A Lost Place

I carried my bike into the elevator, wheeled it up to his apartment door and knocked. He opened it wearing only green paisley silk boxers. I smiled and handed him my food and booze. He put it up on the counter, examining it. And frowning.

“Why pork chops?” he asked.
“I thought you would like that instead of beef,” I said.
“Yeah, I always eat pork chops. Did you get collard greens too?”

He left the items on the counter and walked over to his chinning bar/dip station in the living room, lifting himself up and down.

He was the trained soldier and the focused athlete up for inspection: advertising his fineness, keeping me away.

He went over to the kitchen counter and opened the bourbon. “You drink it straight or with ice or water?”

“Water please. No ice,” I said.  He poured water into a glass, added bourbon and gave me the drink. I sipped it and waited for the sedation to soothe my rattling.  “Do you want to see my Saiga AK-74?” he asked non-chalantly.

“You mean your gun?” I asked. “Ok.”

“Semi automatic rifle,” he said picking it up and carefully pointing it down towards the floor. He brought it closer to me and I reached over and touched it.

Ignorant of its uses, it appeared to me like a three-foot long, black metal toy.

“Obama stopped importation of these after Putin invaded Ukraine. But I got this ten years ago. It’s the same folks who make Kalashnikov,” he explained placing the gun back carefully on the floor, sliding it under the sofa.

“Let’s go out on the balcony and cool off,” he said.

“When I was in the Marines they would make us drink bourbon out of the bottle. We had contests to see who was toughest, who could hold out the longest,” he said sipping his bourbon in his boxers.

I went to move closer to him. But I dared not touch him. “You’re so lucky cause you were born with such a great, natural body. I have to work for mine. And I still could never look like you,” I said.

“That’s a shitty thing to say,” he said. “I’ll go inside and get the pork chops.”

He brought the pork chops out to the barbecue, dropping them on the gas grill.  They sizzled, smoked, burned up with black marks.

We forked them done, went back inside, and ate them on the couch, watching “The Bachelorette” in distracted silence.

I had spent an evening with him. A first date really. I had seen his home, his gun, his body, and his hospitality. And it left me in a suspended state of frustration and incomprehension. Was it all for show? He was so undressed, yet so hidden.

Front door open, I paused before closing and looked back. He sat on the leather couch, eating his bowl of vanilla ice cream and laughing at the blue flickering light without acknowledging my departure. I closed the door, slowly.

I rode back home on the sidewalk, like a boy on a bike, sulking and morose, in the brightly lit night along Sepulveda Boulevard, a high wattage ugliness of billboards, burgers, and cheap motels, where everything worthless on earth was for sale.


 French Toast With Butter and Syrup

The French Toast was soft, soaked in butter and maple syrup. The bacon was crisp and crunchy. The hot coffee was roasted dark and diluted in vanilla cream.

It was Sunday morning and I ate at Nat’s Early Bite on Burbank and Hazeltine. Above me, along the wall near the ceiling, a long shelf held dusty plastic trinkets, artificial plants and imitation flowers. The walls were hung with photos of actors who once acted.

And then he entered the restaurant. We hadn’t spoken for weeks. He saw me sitting alone at a two-man table near the door and walked up to me.

“Can I sit with you?” he asked.
“Of course,” I answered.
“Where have you been?” I asked.
“I had a lot of bad problems,” he said.
“What?” I asked.

“I got fired. I forgot to ask a company spy for her ID and she purchased some alcoholic lemonade that looked like regular lemonade but had vodka in it. The minute I rang her up, I was called back into the office and dismissed that very second. Bevmo is mean and cruel,” he said.

“Oh my God. I’m sorry,” I said.

“And with no income I missed a car payment and then I thought I ain’t going to get no $45,000 a year job like Bevmo so I turned in my car and I owe money on that car but I don’t have no car,” he said.

“My ex-wife’s been texting me for child support but I have nothing to send her. I can’t pay the rent so that will be the next thing to collapse. I’m sorry I’m telling you every woe in my life,” he said burying his face into his hands.

“Let me get you something to eat,” I said.
“No I couldn’t let you do that,” he said.

A waitress walked over. “Please bring my friend the same breakfast you brought me. French Toast with well done bacon and a cup of coffee,” I said.

“You’re a good man. I mean you are a good man. You know what I mean!” he said and laughed.

His weary eyes were open, focused on me, singularly and poignantly.

“I went to return the car to Galpin Ford. I was pulled over on Roscoe by a cop, LAPD Officer Veronica Montez, a Latina bitch with her hair in a bun. She said I was going too close to the car in front of me. She wrote me a ticket, a moving violation, just as I was heading into the dealership driveway to dispose of the vehicle. Am I cursed or something?” he said.

“No. I think you’re blessed,” I said.

The Second French Toast with butter, syrup and bacon arrived. Derek tore into the bread, plastered it with butter and drowned it in syrup. He looked grateful for a meal.


Clearing Out

On another very hot day I told him he could stay with me.

We went over to his apartment, packed his clothing, Frosted Flakes, pillows, sheets, towels, and toiletries into heavy plastic garbage bags. He did not seem sad until he went back out on the balcony, sat down on a plastic stool and started to cry.

“I see those homeless people living in their cars. And I think, God, I don’t want to end up like that,” he said.

“You’re going to climb out of this sad time. I’m not going to abandon you,” I said.
“Just when you think you are winning you fail. Nobody ever escapes enslavement,” he said.

I took a cold bottle of water out of cooler and rolled it up and down the back of his sweaty neck.

Here was the battlefield Los Angeles. Here was the heartbreak of a war vet struck down by life.

I found that bottle of Tam Dao, the one that belonged to the dead soldier, and I brought it out as an offering, out to the wounded man on the balcony. I sprayed it on the side of his neck.

“Breathe deep. You’re going to win again. You’re a King, ” I said, saying those hyperbolic words as if I were administering an anecdote against suicide.

He unhooked his silver cross chain, put it in his hand and rubbed his finger on it. Rubbed it as if its essence, its power to confer eternity, justice, and compassion could come to life in his palm.

“Sometimes I think God’s gone away. Do you believe in Jesus?” he asked.
“I left Jesus back in Bountiful,” I answered.

I hugged him and pressed my head against his chest. I wanted this for so long but it was affection conceived in mourning, not joy.

“Should we continue packing?” I asked as we went back in.

There was a Holy Bible with a bookmark in it. He brought it over to me.

“Look here. This is something I want you to read,” he said. I read it aloud.

“We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”-2 Corinthians 4:8-9

“You didn’t leave Jesus back in Utah. He is here in Van Nuys.”


 Covert Operation

After Midnight, under cover of darkness, he came into my apartment, tiptoeing along the exterior hall and sliding into my studio.

I spoke softly. “You can sleep on my bed, or you can sleep on the sofa. House rules. No dirty dishes in the sink. Hang up your wet towel on the door so it dries and doesn’t get musty. I have an extra toothbrush for you. It’s red. Don’t forget. And don’t pee on the toilet seat. Lift it up before you urinate. Ok?”

“I’m going to crash on the couch buddy. Thank you for extracting me from desperation,” he said.

I laid out a bed of bleached, fragrant, white sheets.  His Saiga, covered in its own protective wrapping, slept next to him.

“I have my protection here. I just keep it here. I won’t take my eyes off it. You understand right?”
“Of course,” I said.

Around 3am, I got up to piss, and looked out into the living room to see him asleep in the nude, fan blowing, but uncovered, and resting comfortably.

I tiptoed next to him and bent down on my knees and with no trepidation, kissed him softly on his lips.  He stayed asleep and again I laid my head down on the pillow and kissed him on the neck. And he didn’t awaken. I raised myself up and went back in my room.

At 6am, I was up for good, already showered and dressed.  I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. He turned over and spoke. “You going out Conner?” he asked.

“Yeah. Sorry to wake you. I got a job in Hollywood. Make yourself at home. If you go out just make sure to avoid the building manager Jen Broadbent. You’ll recognize her. She’s a fat blond lady about 40. She waters the plants with a hose and wears a red hat. Try and be quiet and don’t tell anyone you are staying here,” I instructed.

As I grabbed my keys he spoke up. “I know what you did to me last night,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You took some liberties with me when I was sleeping. Or you thought I was sleeping. I didn’t say anything,” he said.
“Are you mad?” I asked.
“I’m not mad for the reason you may think. I’m mad because you took advantage of me without asking,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And then I walked out.

I left for work with an uneasy feeling tempered and jolted by an electric surge of eroticism and guilt.


 House Rules

I worked on a breath mint commercial in Hollywood and picked out the skateboards and t-shirts for young actors who ate mints, rode boards downhill and smiled for multiple takes.

When I got back to the apartment, he was in the bathroom. The countertop was full of open Styrofoam food from Zankou Chicken smelling of garlic and grease.

A wet towel was crunched up on the couch and his clothes were thrown onto the floor and across the coffee table. Open cans of Diet Coke sat atop the TV. In one day it had all turned slummy.

He walked out of the bathroom, trailing a shit smell that leaked out into the living room.

“How you doing dude?” he asked.
“Tired man. You need to clean up this room. This is my home,” I said.
“Hey I’m sorry. I was online trying to get work. I walked next door to the Laundromat to do my laundry and they had a help wanted sign so I applied,” he said.
“Close the bathroom door please,” I said. I wasn’t pleased.

“I’m sorry to get on your ass about cleaning up. I had a long day at work and when I come back I like things orderly and clean,” I said.
“I know man. You’re in command here. I will obey you. You have my respect. I’ll shape up,” he said smiling.
“I’m still in the mood for Lido Pizza if you want to grab dinner. My treat,” I said, attempting some reconciliation and niceness.

“Yeah sure,” he said.


Incident at Lido Pizza

We were in the rococo red sauce and vinyl booth restaurant on Victory, eating plates of spaghetti with clam sauce and drinking glasses of ordinary red wine.

The earlier confrontation in the apartment dissolved as we twirled pasta and soaked bread in the clam sauce, forgetting the problems in our entangled and undefined relationship.

Three LAPD officers, two men and a woman, came in and sat at a booth across from ours. Derek’s expression changed into agitation.

“That’s the bitch who pulled me over on Roscoe. Sgt. Veronica Montez. The enemy,” he said.

“Have another glass of wine,” I said.
“I need some air,” he said as he got up and rushed out the front door. I followed.

Derek, furious and gasping, pounded his fist against a steel sign pole in the parking lot.

A fire truck passed with deafening sirens, and Derek let out a scream. I held onto him as he screamed more. He fell down on his knees and cried out.

“I can’t stand it! I can’t be around this war, these cops, and all these people trying to kill me! What if the building falls down? What if the cops kill me? This is war! This isn’t Van Nuys. This is a war zone!”

In the midst of the asphalt melodrama, our gallant waiter came out to the parking lot with a glass of water on a silver tray.

Derek took it and he drank it. The waiter stood back observing.

“He just found out that his mother died. That is why he was so upset. If you could bring me the check I can pay you,” I said.

“Yes, of course,” he said and went back into Lido Pizza.

I took a cloth napkin, dipped it in the water glass and wiped Derek’s forehead. And then I lightly kissed him where I had dabbed him as he lay seated on the ground, his back against the steel sign.

“How do you feel now?” I asked him after he had thrown off his uncontrollable emotional convulsions.

“I realize now I tried to superimpose happiness upon this sad city but it never truly worked. I either have to leave here. Or I will die here,” he said.

“We can go to the VA tomorrow. Maybe they have some medication for you. We need to get some help,” I said.

“Lorazepam. I need that drug. If you can get that from the VA,” he said.
“I will,” I said, stroking his arm.

It was a night of emergencies. Another red LAFD fire truck, lights flashing, sirens blasting, sped down Victory west towards the 405. Something was on fire somewhere, out there beyond our view.


What We See Is What We Want to See

The next morning I carried a bag of just cleaned laundry and said good morning to Jen Broadbent who was out in the courtyard watering her clay pot plants. She wore her red cap and a satisfied smile, resonating confidence in her small triumphs of apartment management and horticultural husbandry.

“What are you up to today Conner?” she asked.
“I’m trying to get my buddy an appointment at the VA Hospital in Westwood,” I said.
“Your buddy a vet?” she asked.
“Yes. He’s a Marine who served in Iraq. He desperately needs some medication. I wish I had a car,” I said.

She turned the water off and dried her hands on a rag and looked at me with compassion.

“Take my car if you want to drive your friend down to the VA,” she said.
“Oh that is too much to ask,” I said.
“My father served in Korea, my older brother served in Vietnam. I come from a family of service members. We help each other out!” she said.

She pulled a set of keys out of her pocket and handed me a black one. “It’s the Toyota Yaris parked right across Burbank. Go move it by 10 O’clock cause they’re street cleaning today. Use it for today and bring it back in one piece. I’m proud of you for caring for a veteran. We don’t do enough for them. God Bless you!”


Appointment At Noon

He cleaned up the apartment, put his dirty clothes in the basket, and wiped down the toilet, even turning down the seat.

I came back with the laundered clothes and placed them near my bed. “Let me fold them for you,” he offered.

“We have to be there by Noon,” I said. “I have to move her car by 10. And I need to shower,” I said.

“Let me get the car. I’ll drive it over to this side of the street,” he said.
I handed him her car keys and he went out.

In a few minutes my phone rang. It was Jen. “I just saw a black guy in the courtyard and asked him who he was and he said he was your friend. Is that true?”

“Yes, that’s Derek the vet. He is moving your car because I need to shower,” I said.
“Ok,” she said.

He couldn’t even go out of the apartment to do an errand without arousing suspicion.

I went to take a clean, quick, water conserving, shower.

Rinsing the shampoo out, I heard, over the running water, shouting. I turned the faucet off, grabbed a towel, tied it around my waist and ran out into the living room.

“The bitch! The bitch! She’s out there. That cop I told you about! The one we saw at Lido! She pulled me over for an illegal U-turn right in front of the building. I swear that bitch she gonna die! She gonna die!”

“Ok. We can’t let her get to us!” I said. But he wasn’t hearing me. He was lost in wrath. He pulled off his rifle cover, grabbed the gun, loaded it, cocked it, aimed it, and defended his position in the apartment.

I pulled the drapes shut, sealing in heat and fear. The room was daylight dark, encased in danger, sparsely oxygenated. A lone goldfish swam in her bowl obliviously.

Derek stood ramrod, next to the door, no longer a civilian, but now, monstrously transformed into a sniper. The air in the apartment was still- then shaken- as a police helicopter circled and sliced in concentric menace.

A megaphone voice, a pounding on the door. We were in the siege of my house, the closing in of law enforcement, the sounds of police sirens, voices in the courtyard, panic all around, panic inside and outside. I pleaded with him.

“Don’t escalate this any more! Put the gun down. Let’s open the door and put our hands up!”

“This is the only honorable way to finish it!” he said.

I could see cops down in the courtyard. I motioned to Derek with my thumb their location. He moved away from the door, over to the sliding doors on the balcony. He stood behind the drapes aiming his weapon down to the courtyard.

He let loose maybe a dozen rounds.  I screamed and ran over to the bathroom and locked the door. In my own deluded and crazed insanity I grabbed the holy bottle of Tam Dao and curled up into the bathtub. I heard more gunfire and then nothing.

I opened the bathroom door slowly into smoke, glass, death and carnage.

Glass shattering the sliding door; and Derek hit. The white drapes pulled off their rod, grotesquely splashed with blood. His brains blown out, his skull ripped open, his body on the balcony.

I crawled on the carpet, right up to the Saiga, grabbed it and pulled the trigger, and aimed it at my windowless front door, shooting furiously.

The bullets I engaged killed LAPD Officer Veronica Montez, 32-years-old, married mother of two, on the force for 4 years.

Who was the cop killer? Who cares? The answer was already officially adjudicated. I was never charged. Only God knows the truth.

After the horrific events of April 20th I buried my feelings, like socks in a dark dresser drawer.

I tried to elude pain but it stalked me so.

When fortune cries “Nay, nay” to me

And people declare “You’re through”

Whenever the blues become my only songs

I concentrate on you.

END

The Fitness Guru

 

The Fitness Guru

/At Oxnard Fitness in the San Fernando Valley, I see the same people doing the same dumb things for several years.

If there is a badly conceived exercise, they still blindly do it and never cease doing it.