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

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