Dad Got Mill

With his wife’s urging, a middle-aged man musters the courage to open a luxury men’s store on the brink of the pandemic.

Dad Got Mill

a short story
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

Soundtrack: Dad Got Mill on Spotify

DGM

Kathy Fessenden and I were on our daily walk around the Silver Lake Reservoir to exercise and throw out ideas.

Raised in a small North Dakota town, founded by her family, my wife worked as a Senior Financial Analyst at Disney, her only employer for the last 25 years. Kathy was the reason we could afford a house, a private academy for Nikolas, and last year’s trip to Sardinia. She was frugal. And we were well off from that.

By contrast, I stayed at home, listening to my large collection of jazz records, trading mutual funds, auditioning for voice acting jobs, researching out-of-state houses for sale.

Decades earlier, in New York, I was a junior analyst at Goldman Sachs, then a trader at Morgan Stanley, then a portfolio manager at Fidelity. At no point did I progress at those jobs.

My secret dream was to own a men’s clothing shop.
My reality was pursuing imaginary creative endeavors past 50.

Yet Kathy Fessenden loved me no matter what.
We had a strange, but successful marriage.


Go Forth!

That morning, we stopped on the west side of the lake, near a stark, flat-roofed Gregory Ain house. It was perched on a hill with a row of tall windows overlooking the reservoir.

As she spoke, I looked up at that house, floating back down to her words.

“Listen to me! You love Las Colinas Rojas and Winchester Arcade. You said if you had one place to make a store it would be there. It has all your requirements: glass roofed, English, charming.

“Am I foolish? Am I dreaming? Can we afford it?” I asked.

“We’ve had this discussion so many times. Go forth and manifest what you want in life!” she said.

“Bottom line. I’m a failure. I can’t earn a living. I’m torn up because I’m too afraid to sign a lease and open a little men’s store. I’m a wimp,” I said.

“You have my support and resources. Make 2018 your year of action. Sign the lease. Buy the goods, and get on it,” she said.

We walked, the sun came out, my mood lifted.

“Do you like the name August? I read a novel by that name when I was young, about the month when the therapists go out of town, and since I’m always in therapy with Myra Rubin, it fits,” I said.

“I like it. Nik goes back to school in late August. He can help you set up the store,” she said.

“Maybe I should discuss it with Myra first,” I said.

“She won’t give you an answer. She’ll just ask you what you think,” she said.

“I think I’ll paint the shelves Farrow and Ball Green Smoke. I’ll have perfumes from DS & Durga and dad’s favorite, St. John’s Bay Rum. And handmade socks from Japan, great khakis, nice oxfords, Irish woolen caps, Italian silk neckties, crested navy blazers, and rugby shirts. A traditional men’s store with whiskey, tweed jackets and jazz music,” I said.

“I love it. There’s your answer. You came up with it yourself, without your therapist’s help,” she said.

We hugged and then continued up the steep hill to our dark green 1938 ranch house on Kenilworth Avenue.

It stretched along the sidewalk, garage near the street, stub driveway, no front lawn.

In the back, on our enormous wooden deck, we spent many hours enjoying our expansive views over Silverlake.


Lease

I signed the lease!

Move in date was three months away, August 1, 2018. I spent the summer buying stock for the store, nervous, but excited.

$70,000 on Kathy’s credit card.

Boxes came to Kenilworth Avenue: Trucker’s English brogues, Scottish cashmeres, J Press oxfords, Ralph Lauren neckties; perfumes, wool scarves, tweed jackets, tennis sweaters, university sweatshirts, lambswool caps, brushed cotton flannels.

Nik watched me open a box of Norwegian wool sweater vests.

“Who’s going to wear that in LA?” he laughed.

“People with money go places, they don’t stay in one place. They ski in Switzerland, or they have a winter lodge in Vermont. Those are the customers who will shop at August,” I said.

He chuckled at my Farrow and Ball paint samples, picked up two cans, read the labels.

“Duck Green and Lake Red. Sounds like your new customers. Nobody buys clothes in stores anymore,” he said.


Shad Mill/ Dad Got Mill

The only thing I didn’t have were old style rugbies.

One of my 57 followers was Shad Mill of Dad Got Mill clothing, made in Los Angeles.

He had fine hashtags: #Slow fashion, #handmade, #traditional, #organic, #heirlooms, #rugby.

Shad was a former New Yorker, about my age, now living here in Los Angeles.

Blond models in striped rugby shirts populated his page.

He had a long resume in fashion, most recently as head designer at Chuck Fagan. And he made high end rugby shirts, precisely tailored khakis with old Hollywood names (“Spencer” and “Montgomery”), and unconstructed wool blazers.

He had a vaguely preposterous persona, quite pretentious, but characteristic of his age and profession. I invited him to the opening party at the store.


Colin

Again, on Instagram, I found Colin Chu, a 27-year-old vintage menswear dealer who lived with his parents in Alhambra.

We met for coffee at a little cafe in the Winchester Arcade, weeks before the store opened.

He wore high waisted jodhpurs, tucked in ivory cashmere sweater and cordovan lace up boots. Thin, smooth faced, articulate, he spoke fluently and easily in grosgrain, merino, foulard, lapel, angora and alpaca.

He talked about his eBay store, selling vintage neckties, tweed jackets, oxford shirts, wool caps, and rowing blazers. I liked his positive energy, boyish and eager.

He was active in influencer walks in Los Angeles, groups of guys who walked around men’s stores trying on expensive clothes they never purchased and photographing themselves wearing luxury goods.

I told Colin about my life: growing up in Suffolk County, New York, my love of traditional clothing, my unhappy years commuting to jobs on Wall Street, and my eventual rescue by Kathy, who convinced me to go west to get married, escape finance, and pursue voice acting.

After I spoke, I felt letdown by my autobiography.

My abridged life story was like wood floating down a river: pulled by the current, past landmarks beyond reach, moving along with no direction.

“You gave up voice acting? Why not keep working to achieve your dream?” he asked.

“Good question. No answer. I ended up as a day trader, which was more lucrative, and then I invested in real estate,” I said.

“Owning property is always a good move. One day I’ll own a house, or two,” he said.

I felt old. I referenced the golden age of Hollywood: Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, Steve McQueen, The Thomas Crown Affair, Sabrina, The Philadelphia Story, Holiday, The Birds.

All elicited a blank stare.

Bewildered, he looked at me like a father. We had nothing in common, but love, for clothes.

But he had youth and I had none. I needed him.

He would pull in young clientele, beef up social media, sell online.

He seemed ethical, honest, and trustworthy. He wouldn’t steal or lie. I could leave him in the store, go on vacation, no worries.

“I would be into working with you. I live not too far from here. Commuting is fine. I can borrow my mom’s car. How much can you pay?” he asked.

“$20 bucks an hour. 30 hours a week,” I said.
“Ok. I’ll take it,” he said.

As a placeholder I offered him a bottle of 18-year-old Scotch.

“No, thank you. My parents don’t allow liquor in the house. Our church prohibits it,” he said.


Opening

Kathy, Nik and I drove to Las Colinas Rojas early Sunday morning on the day of the store’s opening party.

The queen city of the San Gabriel Valley was in a mist. We came up through a mansion lined road of sprawling lawns and mature oaks, clouds hiding the sun, and emerged into the shopping district as the fog receeded.

We parked in back, stood in the glass ceilinged arcade, outside the store entrance, viewing it like tourists.

August was painted in Old English Monotype on the window. Behind the sign, a body form wore a double-breasted blue blazer. Spread below it were my jazz albums from the 1950s and 60s: Miles Davis, Art Blakely, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk.

Colin was inside, holding a small paint can and brush, finishing off a cabinet shelf.

He had meticulously hung the Japanese tailored Ring Jackets in the back room, alternating the coats with rigidly ironed dress shirts, grouped by colors, in a rhythm of light blue, navy, and white.

He had steamed, iron and folded.

“Have a donut,” he said, pointing to an open box.

On a round, dark wood table were an assortment of tartan scarves. A chrome liquor cart on wheels held various spirits, wine and highball glasses.

A feather duster rested against a bottle of Dewar’s.

Vintage watches were arrayed under glass at checkout. On the wall behind the register hung framed and matted black and white photographs of defunct New York jazz clubs.

“How did you learn to do all this?” Kathy asked.

“Ralph Lauren. I worked in the Beverly Hills store for two years when I was at UCLA,” he said.

Kathy leafed through a colorful assortment of rugby shirts on wooden hangers.

“Hey, these are nice. Very heavy, weighty cotton,” she said.

I walked over, concerned.

“I don’t know those rugbies. Where did these come from?” I asked Colin.

“Some man dropped a box off yesterday. I thought you ordered them,” Colin answered.

I looked at the labels: Dad Got Mill.

Kathy checked Disney Visa on her phone.

“Yep. Here’s $4,320 on the card by Dad Got Mill,” Kathy said.

“Oh, so I did. My mistake,” I said.


The Party

Trumpeter Kenny Dorham played on LP. Guests drank scotch and craft beer. They looked through the wares, admired the clothes, took photos.

They were Asian-American friends of Colin, young guys, in collared shirts, knit beanies, selvedge jean jackets, expensive rolled up denim, and dark leather shoes.

A good-looking Black man rode up on a Harley-Davidson, parked along the curb, came inside.

I sipped my iced whiskey and walked around.
Kathy and Nik smiled. The party was going well.
I met Shad.

He was a white middle-aged male, possibly fat or thin, 5’10, covered in orange turtleneck, blue and gray flannel shirt, houndstooth tweed jacket, striped university scarf, horn rimmed glasses, and green tweed driving cap, the quintessence of eastern seaboard docked at the liquor cart in Las Colinas Rojas, California.

“Dad Got Mill! Wonderful clothes. Welcome to August. I’m so delighted to have you here,” I said.

“Yes, yes. I’m still getting used to LA. Finding my way. Almost got lost coming here,” he said, toasting with his gin and tonic.

“Delighted you came. You worked for some great designers in New York,” I said.

“Yes, yes. I was the head designer for Chuck Fagan and I also worked ten years for Ralph Lauren. Things change in fashion. When I was hired at Polo in 1999, people there still looked like me. When I left they were already into diversity. Dad Got Mill is my salute to our family mill that once stood on the Merrimac River in Massachusetts,” he said.

“Oh, lovely. You take your family heritage and create a brand out of that,” I said.

“I’m the real article. So many pretend to have my heritage. I mean Ralph is an example of that,” he said.

“Well, my family worked in fishing, trucking, farming, and I was the first to go to college,” I said.

“Yes, yes,” he answered, seemingly bored, sipping his drink.

“Are you relocating to California permanently?” I asked.

“I think so. But the problem is nowhere do I really feel at home. I moved to a gorgeous 1929 Spanish duplex apartment near Sycamore and 2nd. I would have killed for something like it in New York. It’s tree lined, quaint, charming. My place has French doors, balcony, wood floors, perfect for my watercolors,” he said.

“Like the West Village,” I said.

“A few days after I moved in, I sat down with my nightly Negroni. I was jolted by loud noise. Upstairs moved an Orthodox Jewish family, The Moskowitz Bunch. They are horrendous. Three brats in yarmulkes, pounding on the floors. The noise is insane. I went up to knock on their door when they got loud, and they wouldn’t open it. They pray all the time. They won’t answer the phone on Friday or Saturday! I hear Hebrew melodies until midnight. They boil everything and the smell comes into my apartment. It’s repulsive,” Shad said.

“Maybe you should look for a place in Las Colinas Rojas,” I said.

“I don’t think I’d like it here either. Las Colinas Rojas is way too Asian, like Flushing, Queens. I’m a normal American guy. I want to live in a normal American place. Every place in LA is infested with Armenians, Asians, Mexicans, Jews. Can you advise me on where not to go?” Shad asked.

I looked around to see if anyone else could hear.

His openly expressed hatreds were startling. That he considered me an empathetic ear was unsettling.

“Please excuse me. Look in your email for the agreement on Monday,” I said.

I watched from a distance as Chad inspected his rugbies.

Colin came over, beaming.

“We have our first sale! Two Dad Got Mill rugbies. $400. And they bought a Drake’s scarf for $375, and Orslow khakis for $225!” he said.

“That’s great news! I just had a talk with Shad Mill. I like his shirts. I like his style. I like his business acumen. But I really don’t like him,” I said.

“Why?” Colin asked.

“He’s an old-style bigot, in the exact mode of his 1940s clothing,” I whispered.

“Ok. Gotcha. Let’s talk later. I see someone at the register,” Colin said, patting my shoulder reassuringly.

Shad was across the room. He sipped his drink, put it down on the tie table, left the store. I wondered how sloshed he was and if he was driving home.

The athletic, good-looking Black man came over.
“Hey, I’m Joshua. I want to shake your hand. I absolutely adore your store. This Dad Got Mill rugby is the best quality I’ve come across. How come it took so long for a shop like this to open in LA?” he asked.

His teeth glistened. His handshake was iron.

“It’s my fault. I procrastinated for twenty years until my wife told me to get my ass in gear,” I joked.

“I’m glad you did. Seriously, this is so pristinely elegant and well-merchandized. And very welcoming and diverse. I feel the love you have for all people, all the glorious rainbows in this city. You have my blessings. I’m going to post myself in this shirt tonight. I only have 43,000 followers but my wife has over 100,000,” he said.


Christmas Season

Kathy and I had planned a three weeklong, family trip to Scotland in December.

I went ahead with our vacation plans and decided to close up the store for nearly 8 weeks, from Thanksgiving to the middle of January.

A working trip.

That was my official line.

Colin was surprised.

“I can’t imagine closing down before Christmas. That’s the prime shopping season. I really need the income. I’m helping my folks with their property taxes,” Colin said.

“I’m going to source goods. I have a trip planned to visit Inis Meáin Knitting Company in the Aran Islands,” I said, half truthfully.

“It’s like throwing money away. This is your first Christmas. What are you thinking? What about all those potential customers who wander in a few days before Christmas looking for gifts?” he asked.

I had no answer.

“Enjoy your time off and come back in mid- January, refreshed,” I said.

“Refreshed? If I am not working here, I’m working at my mom’s dry cleaners. If she doesn’t need me, I’m selling clothes on eBay. And if I don’t sell on eBay, I’ll work at my father’s hardware store. I told them I’ll be working with you for the holidays,” he said.

“Ok, I’ll let you keep the store open. I trust you. Keys will be in your hands and you’ll do it all,” I said.

“Yes! That’s a good plan. We are bursting with inventory now. I counted five dozen cashmeres,” he said.


Elation

We went to Scotland. And we had a grand time. I was calm and relaxed with honest, hard-working Colin minding the store.

We spent a week in Edinburgh. We went to festive Christmas markets, Jenners department store, and the Scottish market in St. Andrew’s Square.

I purchased a $450 oil cloth, corduroy collared, tartan lined coat at Barbour Edinburgh. And a matching one for Nik.

Kathy abstained.

“I don’t want one. We’ll all look ridiculous walking around in the same jacket,” she said.

We traveled to Braemar and spent Christmas at the Fife Arms, a 19th-century inn. We ate smoked salmon, venison burgers, drank scotch and local ale. We drove further and ended up in Glencoe, along the steep sided mountains, with waterfalls and trails, red deer and golden eagles, and spent New Years at the Isle of Mull Hotel along the sound.

We visited the Isle of Iona with her Benedictine abbey and St Oran’s Cemetery, burial grounds for many Scottish kings.

We never made it to the Aran Islands. We went back to Edinburgh, and stayed our last two nights at The Balmoral, a palatial Victorian hotel.

It was a long, tiring trip back to Los Angeles.

After a day and night of insomnia and napping, still high on Scotland, I went to see Colin at August.

The store looked perfect, as usual. The soundtrack was Ahmad Jamal’s Happy Moods.

A Diptyque fig candle burned.

The pressed shirts hung in formation, the sweaters were precisely stacked, the antique wristwatches were laid diagonally across purple velvet under clear glass.

Gone was all holiday décor. Soon the spring shirts would arrive, linen and madras would replace wool and flannel.

“How was business?” I asked.

“We had some good numbers. I sent you daily updates by email. Didn’t you see them?” he asked.

“I didn’t open my email. I apologize,” I said.

“Really? You didn’t look at any of the sales figures for your store for the last two months?” he asked.


s-l1600

Valentine’s Day

I was working alone, one Friday in early February, when model man Joshua Fuhrman came in, smiling, ebullient.

At no angle was he ever imperfect.

“A little Valentine’s present since you weren’t here for Christmas,” he said as he handed me a 1956 collector’s LP: Jazz at Cal Tech, Bud Shank Quartet in Concert.

“My gosh! This is wonderful. Can I hug you?” I asked, throwing myself around his knotty physique and sea green cashmere.

“This record belonged to my dad. I honestly have no reason to keep it, as I have nothing to play it on,” he said.

I admired his outfit.

“Lovely sweater. 6 ply? One of ours?” I asked.

“Oh man you caught me. I saw the Johnston’s label here. I actually got it on eBay. Brother, I’m looking for a tweed coat,” he said.

“Come right this way, sir,” I said.

I showed him a $1,300 jacket, gray Donegal tweed, two button, notch lapel, black buttons. The way he slipped into it was graceful, though a bit tight in the shoulders.

“I work out too much. That’s why I can’t get hired. You have something less pricey?” he asked.

“Dad Got Mill has a less expensive, unconstructed jacket in blue worsted,” I said.

“Absolutely not. Don’t mention Dad Got Mill. Hate that fucker,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“He blocked me on Instagram. Did the same to your boy Colin. Maybe he’s a white supremacist. Why block me? I’m a god damned Ford Model. Wouldn’t you want me wearing your clothes? For free?” he asked.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“You have bigots out there who want to keep Ivy Trad for their own kind,” he said.

“I hope you feel welcome here. I don’t countenance any bigotry,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be back. Probably this weekend,” he said.

I thanked him again for the jazz album as he left empty handed.


Numbers

I began to fear my association with Shad Mill. Maybe Joshua was right. I thought of removing Dad Got Mill.

Colin objected. He brought up our Shopify dashboard. A multi-colored circle was divided into percentages pertaining to each vendor.

“Dad Got Mill is 14% of our sales. That’s the largest of any brand we carry. And when the clients buy rugby shirts, they usually get khakis or denim, or both. Dad Got Mill pulls in other labels. It’s not good business to stop selling it,” Colin said.

“How many DGM pieces do we have?” I asked.

“You have 40 rugby shirts, 19 pairs of khakis, 12 sport coats. See your net costs here, and your retail here. If you remove Dad Got Mill that potentially is nearly $20,000 in sales. Keep it. Don’t pull it. You will thank me for this,” he said.


Social Media

On days we worked together Colin was like a therapist. He listened carefully to all my gripes, personal and business. He always had logical advice for my childlike mind.

Colin was also my salesman, my accountant, my merchandiser, my stylist, my social media guru. He brought in new customers. And August got some fame for reviving traditional men’s clothing stores in Los Angeles.

Nowhere in the Southland was anyone else selling handmade velvet slippers with embroidered bulldogs for $550. I fantasized that tweed suits, angora turtlenecks and camel hair coats belonged on men who lived year-round on sunny, palm lined streets.

Even with the hype and Colin’s industriousness, most days we sold nothing.

I cut back store hours. That gave me more time to audition for voice work and browse vintage record stores in Hollywood.

Now Colin came in only two days a week.

I needed him most on Saturdays and Sundays, for the weekends brought social media stragglers, crowds and chaos, nothing but mess. And Colin was highly skilled at clean-up and containment.

They arrived in packs, an obnoxious, unprofitable procession of juvenile influencer pilgrims who never spent a dime. They photographed themselves in everything. They pulled items off hangars and shelves, tried on shirts, sweaters, hats, jackets. They drank my Japanese scotch. They hung out for hours, often congregating in the arcade smoking pot. I had to make sure nobody shoplifted.

Their presence was an ordeal.

What could keep the vicarious pigs out? Something expensive, exclusionary and custom.

I proceeded with posh plans for a made-to-measure clothing event with Mr. Ian Humphries of Bosworth Woolens. I fortified our bar with a few bottles of Balvenie 21 Year Scotch at $249 each.

He flew in from London and brought his famed two button jackets with the trademark CelticCross© lapel buttonhole, and several thick books of Irish, Scottish and English fabrics. We invited everyone on our mailing list to a custom fitted weekend of woolens.

It was a dud. We made not a single sale.

It was humiliating to watch Ian run into the parking lot chasing after a young customer, begging him, unsuccessfully, to try on a $1,400 tartan wool jacket.

“You can have it for $1,300,” Ian shouted as the buyer drove off.


The Pandemic

I first heard of Covid-19 on Friday, January 24, 2020 when Nik read aloud a tweet from epidemiologist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding.

“We are now faced with the most virulent virus epidemic the world has ever seen,” Nik quoted.

“Don’t believe everything you read on Twitter,” I said.

“Dad they’re closing down cities in China and people can’t leave their houses,” he said.

“It’s in Asia. They sound like they have it under control. Relax,” I said, never imagining the war to come.


Discovery

Colin had asked for the weekend off to attend a family reunion in Big Bear. Nik came to work with me.

I was happy, for I had a foreboding about the last days of August.

Late morning at the store, Laura F., a petite young tourist with close-cropped blond hair, tried on a medium Viyella tartan button down. She came from Chicago, followed us on Instagram and was excited to shop here.

“I only wear small,” she said.

“We have six different colored small ones in in back,” I answered and asked Nik to retrieve.

He came out empty handed.
“I couldn’t find any,” he said.
“What? We have them in stock. Look at our Shopify,” I said.

Laura picked up a $275 Harley of Scotland wheat-colored Shetland sweater.

“I love this. Do you have it in small?” she asked.

I checked our online inventory.

“Yes, you’re lucky. We have red, navy, forest green and rust, all in small,” I said.

Nik went to get them.
He came out with nothing.

“Sorry, Laura. Missing those too,” he said.

I apologized to the customer.

“This is disappointing. I thought for sure I would be walking out with a few items,” she said.

Nik sat at the laptop, concentrating, jotting down items on paper. He went in back, spent a half hour there, and came out with his verdict.

“Dad you have a theft problem. There are many jackets, shirts, and sweaters that are supposed to be unsold, in stock, but are not in storage,” he said.

“That’s impossible. Colin knows everything. He’s on top of sales to the last penny,” I said.

“Maybe he’s your problem,” Nik said.

I looked onscreen at our inventory.

“Have you checked Dad Got Mill’s khakis? We should have twenty pairs,” I asked.

“I checked that too. You have six pairs in back. What’s your boy’s eBay store?” he asked.

“I can’t remember,” I said.

“Your only employee and you don’t know?” Nik asked, as he pushed me aside to look up Colin’s eBay.

Within thirty seconds, Nik found Colin Chu Superb Vintage Menswear.

IMG_7773

There were many items from August: tweed jackets, khakis, socks, t-shirts, neckties, flannel shirts, dress shoes.

Our $600 cashmeres for $450 each.

My trusted employee was stealing and selling stolen goods.

I was diminished, degraded, betrayed.

“Please don’t tell your mother,” I begged.

“Mom should know. She’s your wife and co-investor,” he said.

“Let me handle it. Say nothing to her. I never thought that respectful, churchgoing young man would steal,” I said.

“He has half your inventory. Mom’s credit card is paying for his eBay,” he said.

“Just shut-up! Show some sensitivity. You don’t have to utter every dumb thing that comes into your head!” I shouted.

“Fuck you,” he said.

He stormed out into the arcade, passing by Joshua, the male model arriving for his weekly no buy visit.

“Hey there. Did I come at an awkward time?” Joshua asked.

“No, no. Just teenage hormones. You know how that works,” I said.

“Indeed, I do. I was there 20 years ago,” he said.

He went straight to the Italian motorcycle jacket, a $1,400 black lambskin number with an asymmetric zipper. He put it on, walked to the mirror to admire.

“Damn, I look good,” he said.
“Last one,” I said.

“I’ll think about it. It looks great over these Dad Got Mill khakis,” he said as he left.

It was always the same routine with him. Never a sale.

Next thing I heard was his motor revving. I looked out the window as he sped off on his Harley.

Nik came back with two cappuccinos.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that earlier. I didn’t mean it dad. I was wrong. I mouthed off,” he said.

“Ok. Apology accepted,” I said.

“Did he buy anything?” he asked.

I took a sip of coffee.

“Nope. He comes in every weekend. Never a sale,” I said.

“He probably sees what he likes, and buys it from Colin on eBay,” Nik said.

“I’ve got bad news. I’m afraid today will be it,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“I have half my inventory stolen, my buyers are gone from the pandemic, what reason is there to keep this store open?” I asked.

“I wonder what Mom will say,” Nik said.

“Use Covid as the excuse. She doesn’t need to know about my ignorance concerning Colin and the stealing,” I said.


Covid

The world collapsed and we went to hide in our house, to order groceries online and wash them outside under the garden hose, to wear masks on our morning walk, to conduct work and school online, to look out the window and observe streets without cars and skies without planes.

A month had passed since I found out about the theft. I fired Colin. He left the store keys in our home mailbox.

Kathy commandeered the dining room table for her home office. Nik stayed in bed attending school.

I was going out of my mind, unable to escape them, or myself. I had nowhere to go. Everything was shut down.

While I languished Kathy still had a job. Our entire prosperity rested upon her diligence and hard work.

She was colder, distant, bothered by something she never uttered. I probably knew exactly what that something was. But I had no guts to say it.

While she worked, I slithered out to the deck to work on the New York Times crossword puzzles and browse houses on Zillow and Redfin. Anything to distract.

After 5, I drank bourbon, whiskey or wine. I sat in self-pity, staring across the lake. That was my routine. How long could this go on?

One day I heard the floorboards shake.

Kathy marched out of the house, onto the deck, and stood over me, looming.

“You’ve been lying to me. Colin stole from you. Nik said that he found out the day he went to work with you. That’s why you fired Colin. Yet you came home and said nothing. All these weeks have passed. I knew the whole story. I waited for you to tell me. Nik is worried, terrified of you, and I’m god damned furious,” she said.

“If I had paid attention to inventory and sales, this wouldn’t have happened. My ego has been destroyed by this. It confirms every rotten thing I’ve thought about my own ineptitude. I couldn’t face you. I made an appointment to discuss this on Zoom with Myra Rubin,” I said, referring to my old therapist.

“Myra? Were you going to tell her before me? I don’t care about your oblivious mismanagement. I care about the cover-up. You lied and told our son to lie. What about Nik? When I asked him to be honest, he thought he was snitching. I trusted you. I supported you in every sense. How could you lie to me? How could you recruit him to lie?” she asked.

“I know, I know,” I said.

“How much did Colin steal?” she asked.

“Maybe $20,000 or $30,000,” I answered.

“Did you file a police report?” she asked.

“Of course not. I’m not putting him jail,” I said.

“Then how are we supposed to file a claim? Nik can’t go to college next year. We don’t have the money,” she said.

“Another calamity I brought on us,” I said.

“Do you think of anyone but yourself? All I hear is how bad this makes you feel. What about me? And our son?” she asked.

“What can I do?” I asked.

“I don’t know. You told Nik to keep a secret. It put him in pain. It put our family in jeopardy. And a crime you didn’t report to me or law enforcement. You had to know that eventually the truth would come out. You had no right, no right at all,” she said, as she broke down sobbing.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” I said.

“You took all my love and trust and destroyed it. I despise you. I wish I could leave you. But we can’t go anywhere now. The pandemic took that away. The world is shut down. We are trapped. We must muddle through our pain and heartbreak here under one roof, day by day. Tonight, go sleep in the guest room,” she said.


Blue Star

Thrown out of our bed, I felt, in some way, homeless, tortured by my own histrionics.

Those who had no home, the ones who lived in the Griffith Park, set it afire. Around the city, people moved into RVs, they slept under bridges, pitched tents on the sidewalk, turned the public lands into their private campsites.

I slept in the guest room, fearful and alone, imagining home invaders. Lost was sound sleep and the old reassurances of work and wife.

There was no happiness or peace. Everywhere was catastrophe: mind, marriage and country.

People recorded a man murdered by cop in Minneapolis and every city in the United States rioted. The police were attacked, stores were looted, the President walked through smoke cleared crowds and held a Bible aloft.

There were sick and dying people around the world. The days and nights got hotter.

And everything true was a lie.


Clearance

Nik and I cleared out the store and brought the stock into the garage on Kenilworth Avenue to lay in its crypt on steel shelves behind my Lexus.

Our daily walk was conducted in silence, a masked march around the lake, timed at 45 minutes on the Nike App which always ecstatically cheered:

“This is Coach Sally! Congratulations on another amazing run, you are killing it!”


Alhambra

In August, the month, not the store, Colin texted me.

“I have money to pay you, along with some clothes in the garage. Would you consider coming by my house so I can make good to set things right?”

I drove to Alhambra, to South Monterey off Valley Boulevard, a straight street of Spanish cottages and two bed ranches, steel guarded windows, workaday shrubs, bright annuals, white sedans and garden gnomes.

I parked in front of the Chu Home, a little, yellow, stucco house with metal awnings, red tile roof, and detached garage in back, probably built for some returning veteran of WWII.

Colin, masked, in blue Dodgers cap, black t-shirt, black basketball shorts and sock footed rubber sandals, came out to the curb.

How young he was, how fresh and clean, washed and dried in Tide and Downy.

“Hi,” he said, head down, contrite.

I kept my hands in my pockets and grunted behind sunglasses and N-95 mask.

“You have something of mine?” I asked, coldly.

“Stay here and I’ll bring the clothes to your car. I have four containers. My parents are inside. I told them you were coming. They don’t know nothing, so please just wave if you feel like it. My dad is sick, my mom too,” he said.

“Covid?” I asked.
“Yes. Thank God they are not worse,” he said.
“And you?” I asked.
“Nothing. Only God knows why,” he said, scurrying up the driveway to retrieve the illegal goods.

Mr. and Mrs. Chu came to wave at the picture window. I waved back to the old parents, born in Taiwan, the father and the mother in face masks, pajamas and bathrobes.

I was heartbroken. Seeing them I lost pity for my own life of inherited advantage.

They were sick but alive, their faith and their son keeping them going.

I lost my anger too.

I thought my judgment was sound in not going to the police.

Sometimes, for the sake of justice, silence is the superior testimony.

I opened the car trunk, and Colin came down the driveway with a hand truck and boxes. He loaded in the garments, fitting the containers in neatly, the remaining inventory of August.

“Can you come over to the other side of the car?” he asked.

We stepped to the driver’s side, to hide from the watchful eyes of the parents, as Colin opened a large manila envelope thick with banded cash.

“This is all the money I made selling on eBay. I won’t keep none of it. $15,000. I pay you everything. I’m taking down my store for now. I’m applying to business school at UCLA.” he said.

“How are you able to afford graduate school?” I asked.

“I have a Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. Undergrad and grad school. Fully paid,” he said.

“You must make your parents proud,” I said.

“They think well of me. If you can find it in your heart to also forgive me, that would be the biggest gift,” he said.

“I do forgive you, Colin. You and I are settled. Good luck with your future. I think you will do very well. Please give your parents my best wishes. When times are normal again, maybe we can all meet for dim sum,” I said.

“Goodbye boss. Thank you for the wonderful opportunity you gave me, truly, you believed in me,” he said.

His mother and father remained at the window. I was the big V.I.P. who had employed their son. Perhaps they stood there to honor me, another elder, like attendees at a parade.

If they looked upon me with admiration, surely, I was undeserving of their respect.

I got into my car, opened the windows, and waved good-bye to Colin on the lawn, and to his mother and father behind the glass, all of us in our masks, all making life in pandemic time.


Home

I drove back to my street, my house at the end came into view.

Kathy was outside, dressed in a cotton top and yoga pants, leaning against the garage, cold and shivering. From a distance she was again a young woman.

I parked along the curb and got out.

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?” I asked.

“No. I locked myself out of the house. Nik rode off somewhere on his bike. I don’t have my phone. Where were you?” she asked.

“Colin’s house, Alhambra. He gave me back what he has. Clothes and 15 grand. Let me get a sweater out of the car for you,” I said.

“You’re kidding? Cash and clothes? I guess that’s good news,” she said.

I pulled out a white woolen cardigan, brought it over and placed it across her shoulders. Her teeth were chattering.

“Thank you. I was so dumb. I closed the garage, because I wasn’t thinking, and then you were out somewhere, and Nik was gone, and I was alone and freezing and had nowhere to go. I couldn’t break into our house you know,” she said, and then she cracked a smile.

“No, that wouldn’t work,” I said.

Nik rode up on his bike.

“What the hell? My parents have to come outside to wait for me! What am I like 7-years-old? So fuckin’ embarrassing,” he said.

“It’s not what you think. We are just here, quite accidentally,” I said.

“You didn’t know the code?” I asked Kathy.

“I always use the car opener to drive in. I never needed to enter it,” she said.

Nik opened the garage with the key code and rode his bike in.

We parents stayed out front.

“He made a virtual August store on eBay for you. I think he’s already had some sales,” she said.

“That’s a hopeful development,” I said.

“I think he feels some responsibility. And he knows how expensive college is,” she said.

“Colin has a full scholarship to UCLA business school,” I said.

“No kidding. Business school. That figures,” she said.

“I thought he was an angel. Then he was the devil. Now he’s redeemed. He was only trying to help his parents,” I said.

“Everyone has a motive,” she said.


Unpacked

I was happy to see a yellow and black striped Dad Got Mill rugby with white collar and the DGM monogram.

It was the last one. I made it mine.

I looked at Dad Got Mill’s webpage on Instagram.

There were black squares to honor Black people, and a Black person in every post of Dad Got Mill. All the blond men were gone, now replaced by Black men, and texts decrying racism, standing for justice, saluting tolerance, promising inclusion, remembering George Floyd.

It was the new dawn of civil rights for rugby shirts.


Epilogue

The store has been closed for over a year now.

Sometimes I’ll go into the garage and unpack the dwindling supply of sweaters and shirts and colognes and debate whether I should keep any as souvenirs.

Every so often I make a sale on eBay. Nik showed me how to use it.

I have time on my hands. We all got vaccinated. Kathy went back to work at Disney in Burbank.

Nik moved to Riverside and is in his sophomore year of college.

I am wary of going out, but tired of staying in, my life is in lived in limbo. Perhaps that is all I can ask for.

END

Blueprint, Blueprint: a story of Castle Green

Blueprint, Blueprint
by Andrew B. Hurvitz

Early afternoon, Angela and Adam, in their red Ford F-150 pickup truck, exited I-10 at Blythe, into a dust blown asphalt lot beside 7-Eleven.

She turned the engine off.

“What do you want? I’m getting Red Vines and a Coke,” she asked as she got out. Denim shorts, sandals, strapped top, blond spiky hair, coral lipstick, plastic necklace, she outfitted herself like a 42-year-old teen.

“We’ve been driving five hours and that’s your lunch? Can’t you wait another two? You want to eat licorice? Now?” her son Adam asked.

“Fuck it. I’m hungry. I promised you Sushi Michi, Pasadena’s best. This will tie me over,” she said.

He watched her hurry in. His mother. He turned the cold air on, slumped, and shut his eyes. His lanky frame and long legs curled in fetal posture.

After a while, he heard the door open. She got in, poked him.

“Stop it! You’re so irritating. Like a 7-year-old girl,” Adam said.

“Take one. You’ll be sorry if you don’t eat something,” she said, offering red licorice from a freshly torn bag.

Late afternoon, they arrived in Pasadena and parked along Raymond Avenue in front of the 7-story Castle Green and its expanse of turgid Victoriana: iron balconies, awnings, turrets, cornices and ornate embellishments, curved windows. And a deep, elongated, Doric columned porch running under a red-tiled overhang, amongst a wooded garden of many flowers, shrubs, plants, mature trees and well-watered lawn.


“This is your horrible, 19th Century home of Dickensian deprivation and cruelty that you ran away from?” he asked.
“Oh, shut up. I know it’s very grand. I need to pee, so bad, let me out!” she said.
“Go in. I’ll wait here,” he said.
“Please come. What if I bump into Aunt Denise?” she asked.
“First you have to pay the meter,” he said.

“Fuck meters. I parked here free in high school,” she said.

“Twenty-five years ago! Now they have an app to pay for parking. Look at the sign!” he said.

“This ain’t Tuscon. The Southland, as they call it, has no cops, no laws, and no parking tickets,” she said.

“Angela, use your common sense,” he yelled.
But she was on her way.

He got out, grumbling, following her to the security gate. She punched a code on the panel. A door buzzed open, and they rushed into the garden, along the sidewalk, up the steps, into the building.

She hurried to a bathroom off the grand ballroom, stayed in there a while, came out. And then he went in.

At the sink he wet his longish blond hair and threw water on his face to wake up.

Out in the lobby, she brushed the hair of her tall young man, pushed it back, away from his eyes.

“You look tired,” she said.

“I’m not looking forward to picking through your father’s apartment to gather souvenirs tomorrow,” he said.

“You knew we had to come here to sign the papers, to ready the place for sale. It’s not like you do this every weekend,” she said.

“I’m sorry. I’ve just always heard how you hate coming here and how Aunt Denise makes you feel inadequate. You roped me in,” he said.

“Yeah, she does provoke my insecurity. But she’s also done a great deal for me, for us, over the years: supporting grandpa, sending us money. When this place sells, we also get half the proceeds. I think that’s a pretty sweet deal, don’t you?” Angela asked.

Casual dressers, in bright Puma; suede sneakers, cheap backpacks, water bottles, bucket hats; they stood amidst the ornate elegance of an 1899 former hotel, incongruous to the setting.

An entryway floor was paved in black and white decorative tile bordered in Greek key. There were potted palms, marble stairs, decorative iron railings, ceilings with inlaid wood painted in green and gold. A grand piano was tucked under the stairs, next to an illuminated, multi globe light mounted atop an iron newel post.

“Looks like an old western bordello. Where’s madam and her ladies?” Adam asked.

“Madam Angela! Let me show you around sir,” Angela said, licking lips, eyelashes batting, hands on hips, sauntering into the maze.

“Thank God nobody is around to see you walk. Can’t you ever act like a proper mother?” he asked.

He followed her to a beamed sitting room with an expansive fireplace framed in black glossy tiles, decorative fire screen, and stacks of wood logs in two symmetrical brass containers. There were two red velvet armchairs. And a high backed, Empire style sofa with mahogany carved arms.

There was a patterned rug. And gold, green and red walls. Shiny red drapes draped every single doorway.

“A 1990s condo board interpretation of 1890s décor,” he said.

“Don’t insult it. I love this place. This was my youthful reverie,” she said.

“They need to hire design professionals. Like me,” he said.

She led them both to a spartan sunroom, enclosed in tall, dark framed windows covered in creamy lace curtains. There were wicker seats, black metal pendant Mission lights hanging above.

“Look at this room, isn’t it exquisite? You can feel the happy presence of spirits,” she said.

He didn’t see it. The room was colorless, empty of people, silent.

“When we moved here in 1988, artists came almost every month and performed. Werner and Giovanna were in heaven. A French flutist played baroque music. Another month a quintet performed Bach and Richard Strauss,” Angela said.

“Your parents were cultured Europeans. Unlike their white trash runaway daughter,” he said.

She ignored his insult. This room evoked her memories. She recalled her mother.

“Nobody could sing like your grandmother, Giovanna Tommaso, coloratura soprano from Sacile, Italy. When we moved from El Monte to Castle Green she was delighted. This would cure her sadness, or so we thought. She could walk to the symphony, the Norton Simon and Asia Pacific Museums, the library, the post office, Vroman’s bookstore. We were all so happy. Because she was so happy,” Angela said.

Here was the retelling of the tragic story of his maternal grandmother, who had thrown herself off the Colorado Street Bridge in 1991. He heard the story many times before but let his mother tell it again.

“I was 12, reading Nancy Drew on my bed. The phone rang out in the kitchen. Pasadena Police. Daddy screamed, “No, no!” I ran in. He was on the floor, bawling. Denise was a freshman at USC, in class. Then Daddy had to leave to go to the coroner. Before he left, he said, ‘Don’t worry my angel. This is a mistake. I’m sure she’s alive. She wouldn’t suicide.’ Then he went to identify her body. I was all alone. 12 years old. Can you imagine? I barely remember her. I lost my mother when I was a girl,” she said.

“You’ve suffered. I’m sorry. I wish I could have been there to console you. You never told me about the way Werner left you there,” he said.

“He was a wartime father. He didn’t bring his daughter into battle. I stayed at home. Crying alone,” she said.

Adam hugged her.

“What was that funny story you once told me about a harpist who played the Bewitched theme?” he asked, stroking her hair, diverting to cheerful.

“Ah yes. JoAnn Turofsky. Superb harpist. Played here on New Year’s Eve, 1989. I was giddy when she performed the Bewitched theme in the style of Debussy. Daddy was appalled after he learned it was a TV show theme song. But he adored JoAnn. And Debussy,” Angela said.

“Didn’t you have a boyfriend, a singer, you met here?” Adam asked.

“Denny Walters. Handsome, muscular Black tenor, Juilliard voice student. Magnificent voice. And body. Everything. I met him when he performed at a Gay 90s event, in the summer of ‘95,” Angela said.

“Gay 90s?” Adam laughed.

“Castle Green was bedecked in flowers, bowls of punch, women in long dresses, Fuller Theological Seminary boys in blue seersucker suits, madras neckties, white bucks, straw hats. I think Talbots or Brooks Brothers sponsored it. There were hundreds of red, white and blue balloons throughout the rooms. They strung white lights on the porch, and put tea lights in paper bags along the garden paths,” Angela said.

“I drank too much gin and champagne punch. I hooked up with Denny after the show ended. He was wonderful, passionate, and insatiable. We did it in the utility closet. We met there several times on other nights that summer,” Angela said.

“An Only Fans conversation with my own mother. Stop sharing everything!” Adam said.

“I’m truthful. Give me that. Denny started my downfall,” she said.

“How so?” Adam said.

“Someone at the front desk learned about me and Denny and told Werner. My father proclaimed, verboten,” Angela said.

“Because he was Black?” Adam asked.

“Yes, of course. And because I was loose, of course. And Denny was older and I wasn’t legal yet. Werner was protecting my virtue, which only promoted my promiscuity,” she said.

They went into a red room with rounded walls, Moroccan tables and chairs, and Marrakesh dark wood cabinets hung on walls, softly illuminated by a hanging Fortuny floral light fixture, shaped like an inverted pagoda, strung with Murano glass beads.

“This place never ends. Every room is another story, another space, to wander and dream. Why did you run away?” he asked.

“After I got into drugs, music and men, after the Denny debacle, this place seemed old and confining. I had to escape,” she said.

“Zunk-382?” he asked.

“I was a Zunk groupie from 16 to 19. I met them in Solana Beach. I was dating their lead singer Drew. Louis was a drummer in their band who also lived with Drew. I started dating Louis. Drew was actually OK with that. I went on the road with Zunk. Louis drank. We fought constantly. Louis was fired. I got pregnant. Louis went to rehab and we broke up. Wonderful story of your loser mother,” she said.

“I hate how you put yourself down. Every single time. You don’t give yourself any credit. Raising a kid by yourself, working as a waitress, nail salons, making leather belts at home. Teaching me to ride a bike, walking me to school. You did more for me than Louis ever did. Why can’t you be easier on yourself?” he asked.

“Because I come back here and it’s like I never left. Aunt Denise still runs the show. I still compare myself to her. Perfect student. Full scholarship to USC. Law degree. Tax attorney. Century City office. Framed diplomas up the wazoo,” she said.

“So, what! If I gave you a framed award for great mother you would be her equal!” Adam said.

Angela hugged him.

“Thank you,” she said.

“We better go upstairs. Are we going to eat Sushi Michi with her? Take her out?” he asked.

“Oh shit. The truck. We left it on the street. I’m sure it’s fine. Let me go out and move it,” she said.

He stood alone in the red room with the Moroccan chairs. He examined the Moorish tiles and Art Nouveau woodwork bedecking yet another fireplace.

She ran back in, breathless, white ticket in hand.

“I knew it. I knew it. Damn! You just don’t listen!” he said.

“Fucking parking ticket. $75. That could pay for sushi. How could I have been so dumb? Why do I always do the wrong thing?” she asked.

The Apartment

The unit was unchanged since the late 1980s.

Especially the kitchen.

Angela turned on the ceiling light: fluorescent tubes with plastic cover, many little bugs trapped inside.

Brown Formica cabinets, tile counters and tile backsplash adorned with Mexican scene of a woman making tamales; electric Kenmore stove and oven, orange vinyl floor, white Maytag double door fridge and freezer.

The rest of the musty apartment had bare brick walls, beige carpeting, oversized floral sofa, yellow tiled bathroom and pink pedestal sink. The primary bedroom was dark paneled with a king bed and fur bedspread. The second bedroom, like a nunnery, had two iron beds where the two sisters once slept. A cross hung over a shared night table. Moth eaten pink curtains covered a big plate glass window.

Angela parted the curtains. On the sill was a dusty ceramic German beer stein decorated with a village scene of Rothenberg.

“Daddy brought this from Germany,” she said.

“This whole apartment is truly ugly. Can this be a landmark? No air con?” Adam asked.

“Daddy believed in fresh air. He died before global warming,” Angela said.

“Great. Hot and dusty apartment. Ugly. How will it sell?” Adam asked.

“Pasadena is very sought after,” she said.

“Just not in here,” Adam said.

“Wait ‘til Aunt Denise gets here. She will talk, ad nauseum, about her time on the condo board, how she saved the building from collapse, how she examined all the books and balanced the budget, and how important she was in officially registering Castle Green to get fed money for rehab. She considers herself the savior of this property. Wonders why nobody appreciates her,” Angela said.

“She saved historic Castle Green. But forgot this unit,” Adam said.

Out in the living room, Adam found his grandfather’s framed paintings stacked against a wall.

He bent down to examine them, flipping through.

Auschwitz, Hiroshima, nuclear war, dead bodies in war scenes, slaughter, atrocities, corpses, hangings, gassings, burnings.

All the catastrophes of the mid-20th Century.

Surrealism painted in petrochemical colors.

“Cheerful stuff here,” Adam said.

“I know. I’ve wanted for years to take something- but somehow- I’m always revolted by his work. Daddy saw many dark things during the war. I guess he was fighting injustice through his art. But it never sold. Rich people don’t want to hang genocide over their fireplace,” she said.

“Art isn’t always pretty. I think these are extraordinary,” Adam said.

“Denise has a friend, Tommy, who is an amateur art appraiser. He thinks this can fetch a fortune. Along with the $49,000 condo, now worth nearly a million, we may come out all right,” Angela said.

“He didn’t sell any paintings when he was alive. Yet he was so talented,” Adam said.

“He scrimped by. Mostly he made money by translating German into English for American publishers. He gave up after mom died. Denise stepped in to pay for the condo. She paid for his mortgage, utilities, HOA. Wait ‘til she gets here. She’ll let you know all that!” Angela said.

“Where is she already? I’m starving. I want Sushi Michi,” Adam said.

“She works late. She is very industrious, very prosperous, works very long hours in the law office, and is very, very busy. She is married to her profession. Please be understanding of her very important needs!” Angela said, laughing.

“I’m already sick of her and I haven’t even seen her yet,” Adam said.

“She is an overachiever. We must give her that,” Angela said.

Denise and Tommy

The door burst open. Aunt Denise in blue pants suit and high heels, and her friend Tommy Stompanato, 55, a short, fat man carrying trays of silver foiled food and a bag of wine and dessert, with a big camera and long lens hanging on his neck.

Aunt Denise reminded Adam of Hillary Clinton: a lined, legal face, sensible blonde bob, probing blue eyes.

“Tommy, please meet my gorgeous sister Angela and her extremely handsome son Adam!” Denise said.

Denise threw her arms around Angela, hugged and kissed Adam. Then she went to the bathroom.

Tommy was piled high with his trays, anxious to unload.

“Hi, hi! Nice to meet you Angela, Adam. Let me drop off dinner first!” he said, rushing into the kitchen with his delivery.

“What’s all that for?” Angela asked.

Denise yelled from the open-doored bathroom as the faucet ran.

“A feast awaits! Tommy brought it down from San Francisco. He drove seven hours. Can you smell that garlic?” she asked.

“We also drove seven hours. I know you don’t tolerate lateness. From others,” Angela said loudly.

“No sushi?” Adam asked.
“Sorry,” Angela said.

Denise walked back in, shaking the water off her hands.

“Your hair is nice sis. I never know what color it will be. Blue, purple, shaved head,” Denise said.

“I’ve never shaved my head,” Angela said.

Denise looked Adam up and down.

“University of Arizona! College of Landscape Architecture! You must be what six feet tall? Don’t believe everything your mother says about me,” Denise said.

“Yeah, I’ve grown. Tommy thinks Gramps’ artwork is valuable, huh?” Adam asked.

“He is certain of it. He has been invaluable in researching price points for Daddy’s art. He also found our realtor, got the condo appraised. He wants to talk to Angela about investing in real estate. He has half a dozen properties in several states earning rental income. He’s a genius. Oh, and he has a very successful blog, Tommy Knows Best, with 18,000 subscribers who each pay $49 a year,” Denise said.

“What a go-getter. And he brought food too. We were going to take you out for sushi,” Angela said.

“Sushi tomorrow. Tommy brought some delicious food from North Beach. They have the best Italian food up there,” Denise said.

She went to set the dining room table, with an old lace tablecloth. She took a box of silver out of a drawer, opened the glass cabinet and took down the daffodil Heinrich and Co. plates, the frumpy German made china they grew up with.

“I came here yesterday after Tommy told me he was bringing food. And I hand washed all this last night,” Denise said.

“Thank you. That must have been a chore,” Angela said.

“I don’t mind. I was excited for you to meet Tommy. He has worked at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco for 25 years. I met him when I stayed there in the 90s. You could say he is their Senior Concierge. Wisely and strategically, he buys cheap properties in forgotten places, and advises friends on where to invest. And he’s nearly never wrong. Or so he says,” Denise said.

“Are you two dating?” Adam asked.

“My boy, are you that naïve? Don’t they educate you about the birds and bees in landscape architecture school? Tommy is gayer than these daffodil plates. Sit down everyone. Tommy is serving,” Denise said.

Adam leaned over to his mother.
“No sushi,” he whispered.
“Sssh!” she said.

Tommy wore a flowered apron tied around big dad sized Lee jeans, his blue oxford cloth shirt sleeves were rolled up and each hand was covered in acid green oven mitts. He laid down platters of steaming Molinari’s meat lasagna and eggplant parmesan. He uncorked a bottle of Sangiovese wine, arranged a basket of warm garlic bread, and a tray of roasted onions and clams.

The food smells clashed with his perfume.

Tommy was drenched in Diptyque Olene. An odiously fem swarm of jasmine, wisteria, and honeysuckle. His fragrance dominated the room.

“This is from a great bakery in my town. Stella’s cannoli and rum soaked sponge cake. That’s for dessert, of course,” he said as he removed a lens cover and put the camera up to this eyes.

Without asking, he began to photograph the food and the guests.

He moved and advanced, arranged and directed.
Like the host in his own apartment.

“I’ll probably post these on my Tommy Knows Best blog. I love to write about my good friends and old buildings,” he said.

Adam saw his mother’s pained expression. He got up and opened a window for ventilation.

But the stagnant outside air knew better and refused to come in.

After dinner, Tommy dozed on the sofa with his neck strapped Nikon DSLR camera and telephoto lens. It rested on him like Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill. His white leather elevator sneakers, comically bulbous, pointed upwards, amusing Adam who saw him as the sartorial embodiment of a baby boomer.

But Angela seethed. The intrusion of this overzealous zealot into her private family visit was unsettling.

He reigned over them, even as he snoozed.

For Angela, it was strange, indeed, to sit in her parents’ living room waiting for the evening to end. The purpose of the visit was to sort out personal belongings, take anything she wanted, and then sign off on selling the condo. Tommy upset all those plans.

As Tommy snored, Adam fell asleep in a chair.

Impatient, Angela got up, went into the kitchen to talk to Denise who was cleaning up.

“We have to go to the Luster Inn Motel on East Colorado and check in before 10,” Angela said.

“What do you think of Tommy?” Denise asked.

“Oh gosh. I’m so tired. What does my opinion of him have to do with anything?” Angela asked.

Denise put a tied-up bag of garbage down.

“He’s been very helpful. I’ve been so busy at work. And he has come here and priced everything in the condo for the estate sale. He worked with a realtor to appraise the unit. He brought in an art dealer to estimate daddy’s paintings. Tommy flew down from San Francisco three separate times to make this work. You can’t buy a friend like him,” Denise said.

“He sure knows a lot. About art, property, and every personal thing. I didn’t know he would be here. It’s a lot for me and Adam to absorb. It’s like Tommy is taking over. Is that right? Shouldn’t you have asked me first? This is our family’s condo. Our inheritance,” Angela said.

“Now you show an interest! Where have you been for, like, the last 20 years?” Denise said.

“Raising my son! Working jobs, surviving!” Angela screamed.

“And not getting child support from that Zunk-382 fool. Who walked out on you! Who left you destitute! Only your foolish sister cared. I picked up the pieces for Daddy and you, I never wavered or hesitated,” Denise asked.

“Not again. Not another accounting of all your expenditures and sacrifices! Haven’t I told you a thousand times I was grateful? You didn’t have a kid to raise,” Angela said.

Denise sprayed, wiped, dried and lectured.

“30 years of property taxes. Who paid the HOA every month? Who paid for Daddy’s dental implants? Nursing home? Ethan Allen leather sofas, cable TV, mobile phone, Mr. Coffee? Who bought the kitchen set at K-Mart? Who paid for water and electricity?” Denise asked.

“You just can’t stop. I know all this! Can I change history? Should I live it all over again? Should I write a check to you with my proceeds from the property sale? Let’s ask Tommy!” Angela said.

“Tommy has been a rock to me. Like a brother I never had. Like a sister too. You should kiss the ground he walks on. He’s only got our best interests at heart!” Denise said.

“He’s too much. He doesn’t own me, run my life, tell me what to do. Maybe yours, not mine!” Angela said.

“You could never stand any guy who didn’t want you,” Denise said.

“How low!” Angela said.

Adam heard the arguing, got up and hid behind the wall listening to the fight.

Aunt Denise sobbed, and her voice broke.

“Daddy called you Mein Kleiner Engel until the day he died. Tender, loving. And what did he say to me? He told me to keep my life in order. Like a file cabinet. Halte dein leben in ordnung,” Denise said.

“And you called me tramp, slut, drunk, druggie, whore, loser, self-destructive, selfish!” Angela said.

Adam felt a tug at his shirt. Tommy ushered him out the front door, into the common hall.

So, in Love

“Let’s go up to the roof. The sun is setting. Fresh air! It’s glorious up there!” Tommy said.

“Ok. I was sort of entertained listening to them fight,” Adam said.

“You are better off not hearing,” Tommy advised.

They took the stairs. Adam bounded up the steps, two at a time, his powerful legs and young lungs no match for the labored, slow, climbing Tommy and his large swinging camera and oversized lens.

Up there, all around, was Pasadena, bathed in hues of the setting sun, pinks and salmons, cirrus clouds in the sky.

Castle Green was adorned with twin-turreted, red-tiled, conical pagodas, supported by embellished stone columns which encircled shaded, open-aired lookouts.

There was a tower, with a red observatory shaped top, adorned with three Islamic styled horseshoe windows and Fleur-des-Lis carvings.

“Is this Pasadena or Morocco?” Adam asked.

Tommy gazed at him. Adam’s beauty was evident, his portrait inevitable.

“Stand over there. I’ll take your picture,” Tommy commanded.

Adam, flattered by favorable light and temporal youth, leaned against a railing on the east side of the rooftop as Tommy shot photos.

“Oh, so beautiful. You and the light. You should model. I know talent agents in San Francisco. Come up and stay in my hotel. I’ll get you a free room. You could be on the cover of Vogue Hommes,” Tommy said over rapid shutter firings.

Then Angela arrived.

“What is this? What are you two doing?” she asked.

“We’re just enjoying some fresh air,” Adam said.

“Adam you’re done! We’re going back to the hotel. We’ll come back tomorrow to see what we want to take from the condo. I’m very tired. I don’t understand why you two are up here doing this!” she said.

“I assure you we are only innocently enjoying the evening. Relax,” Tommy said.

“You don’t have permission to photograph my son. We don’t want to be a post on your blog. We don’t want to read Tommy Knows Best and see photos and a story about our family. Delete everything!” she said.

“I see you’re reliving your own bad days at Castle Green and projecting them onto your boy. He’s done nothing wrong. And neither have I,” Tommy said.

“Thank you for dinner. And for your other services. But we are done here,” she said.

“Good night,” Tommy said, leaving the rooftop to ring his elevator man for a pickup.

Her nemesis gone from sight, Angela looked at Adam in anger and disgust.

“He’s a manipulator. I don’t trust him. He is after something. Or everything. Just stay away from him,” Angela said.

“Now you’re being an Aunt Denise,” Adam said.

They left the roof in silence and fury. And trudged down the stairs.

In descent, near the second floor, they heard music: an operatic melody and poetic lyrics.

A woman and a man sang a duet, accompanied by a piano player.

Angela and Adam stopped at the landing and watched the singers. It melted their icy mood.

Angela was stunned by the sight of the well-built, middle-aged male singer, a handsome Black man. It was her old boyfriend, Denny.

“So taunt me, and hurt me,
Deceive me, desert me,
I’m yours, till I die…
So in love… So in love…
So in love with you, my love… am I.”

The song was “So in Love” from the musical, “Kiss Me Kate.”

“Denny! Oh, my goodness! Denny Walters! That was beautiful. This is my son Adam,” Angela said.

“Angela Pfade! Lolita and her grown-up son! How can this be? Nice to meet you, Adam. This is our soprano Mei Lan, and pianist Sean Liu. We are rehearsing the songs of Cole Porter for a show next Friday evening. Will you be there?” Denny asked.

“I’m sorry. We are leaving tomorrow afternoon,” Angela said.

“Angela and I dated in high school and college,” Denny explained to Sean and Mei.

“So young looking. You can’t be older than 29,” Mei Lan said.

“The lighting flatters me in this space. In daylight I’m old, but thank you,” Angela said.

“I hope I see you again,” Denny said.

“Yes, perhaps. We are late checking into our motel. It’s wonderful to see you again Denny. And nice meeting you all,” Angela said as she and Adam left.

Garden Walk

Morning fog, gray sky, damp grass.

In that gentle hour, they walked in the east garden with takeout coffee and croissants.

Adam ran his fingers over the wood pecked trunk of a tall, stately Japanese Oak.

They strolled past profuse pittosporum hedges, ballooning in groups, against the long veranda wall on Castle Green’s east front.

“They must have big water bills here. You wouldn’t plant all these thirsty varieties and moisture starved lawn now. It drinks up money. Xeriscaping fits the Moroccan architecture better. This design looks like it belongs in rain-soaked England,” he said.

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to a two-story high structure jutting out from the building, an enclosed bridge sweeping high over the garden, abruptly stopping at the edge of Raymond Avenue. It was long, multi-arched, a promontory in stucco, with Romanesque framed windows and decorative columns, red tile roof, copper gutters.

It culminated in a pentagonal lookout embellished by an Arts and Crafts frieze.

“It was connected to the now demolished Hotel Green on the east side of Raymond. Guests would arrive on the Santa Fe Railroad. And their luggage would come across the bridge, wheeled in carts, riding on steel tracks that are still imbedded in the floor,” Angela said.

“You do know some history. I guess it wasn’t all drugs and sex,” he said.

“Werner taught me a lot. We would come down here, sit on the porch and talk. He was often a great father. When I was young, I would sit on a stool, and watch him paint, astonished by his skill, asking how he chose colors, why he held his brush just so, why he got up and stood back, examining his half-completed work,” she said.

Adam looked at his phone.

“I wish we could stay and chat but I’d like to head over to Huntington Garden. I should be back by mid-afternoon,” he said, disposing of his coffee and pastry bag in a trash bin.

“Great. Leave your mother to the wolves. Just kidding. Enjoy yourself. Drive safely!” she said.

She kissed him, watched him walk to the street gate.

He was nearly out when he stopped, turned around and jogged back to her.

“We need to talk,” he said.

They sat in two wicker chairs on the shaded porch, facing the garden.

“After graduation, next spring, I have a job offer with Yanez Architects in Culver City, Sophia’s dad. I know this is crazy, but please don’t sell the condo. It’s paid off. I could live here, alone, affordably,” Adam said.

“Well, that’s quite a request. I know you are serious with Sophia, but I didn’t know you wanted to work for her father,” Angela said.

“I don’t’ tell you everything. But that’s my plan for future employment,” Adam said.

“Aunt Denise does everything by the book. It has to be 100%, legal and proper. And it doesn’t sound like anything is wrong with your proposal. But she is stubborn. I’m not exactly on her good side. Our unit is worth nearly a million,” Angela said.

“She has money. She has her own condo in Beverly Hills. Partner in a Century City law firm. She’s not hurting,” Adam said.

His expression was pleading. He clasped his hands under his chin, devoutly, tentatively, waiting for her answer.

“This is all I ran away from. Would you be happy here?” Angela said.

“That was your life. This is mine,” he said.

“True, true. Your Aunt Denise still holds the cards. Why the sudden spark of enthusiasm for Castle Green?” Angela said.

“I’m mad for this place, for LA and Pasadena. There’s so much to do! I really love it here. You had to know I would be seduced by the architecture and garden. It would be tragic if you gave it all up. I don’t want to graduate and live my whole life in Tuscon,” Adam said.

“I will take your request into consideration. I want you to be secure and happy,” she said.

“Promise?” he asked.
“Yes. Go and enjoy yourself,” she said.

Watching from a distance was Denny Walters. He walked up to Angela who sat alone, lost in thought.

“Oh Denny! You scared me,” she said.

He sat down.

He wore a denim shirt and golden khakis, work boots, an ensemble of solidity and masculinity.

“You scared me! Last night! I didn’t think 45-year-old me would be rehearsing Cole Porter and have an old flame, from 25 years ago, walk down the stairs with her son to watch me sing,” he said.

“How have you been?” she asked.

“Oh, pretty good. Juilliard graduate, Broadway, Lincoln Center, on stage, working. Then 9/11. A wife, a daughter and a divorce. She gets Julia. I get AA, auditions, tours, stinky motels in worn down towns. The usual American dream,” he said.

“I’m also sort of divorced. Well, I never quite got married. But you met Adam. He’s studying landscape architecture. We came back here to sell my late father’s apartment,” she said.

“Ah, Werner. Yeah, remember the man. Darn it. I wish you still lived here. You look good. Fit, sexy,” he said.

“Thank you. Why are you here so early? You must rehearse long hours,” she said.

“I live here. Bought a place in 2004. Thank God. I couldn’t afford it now. Still can’t afford it. But this is the right place for me. A lot of creative people. A lot of big dreamers. That’s Castle Green. Most people have small dreams. If, once in their life, they make it to Disney World they are happy. The people who live at Castle Green, even if their jobs are small, their dreams are big,” Denny said.

“You are still so handsome. How did a man of your size fit into a tiny utility closet with me?” she asked.

“My hard-on pushed the door open,” he said.
“You’re embarrassing me,” she said.

“If you want to see something a lot bigger, if you have the time, come upstairs to my spacious condo,” he said.

“I have to meet my sister at 10,” she said.

“It’s 7:30. I think you can spare a couple of hours. C’mon Angela,” Denny said, standing up, extending his hands to raise her up and out of the chair.

They walked with his arm around her. He radiated warmth and gentleness. And he still spoke with that sonorous voice: arousing, stimulating, authoritative, comforting.

They entered the cast-iron lift.

Jimmy Loh, the elderly operator, ushered them into the open-air machine, oldest on the west coast. They rode up to Denny’s fourth-floor apartment, up to adventure, excitement, passion and intimacy.

Briefly, that morning, she again found youth, freedom, and joy.

But it was their talk that made her happiest. He was interested in her. He seemed to crave her company. He listened, he laughed. He was gentlemanly and complimentary. And a good kisser.

Tutankhamun Throne Chair

After the unexpected romantic encounter came the drudgery of Denise and Tommy.

Tommy had appraised and tagged all of the apartment furniture, accessories and artwork.

Angela walked around the unit as Tommy arranged and dusted.

“If you want anything else in the apartment just carry it into our old bedroom. How about Daddy’s 1949 oil painting of refugees on a train fleeing Pakistan?” Denise asked.

“Not that one! Let her have a lithograph. The oils are our cash cow,” Tommy said.

Tommy arranged a Tutankhamun Throne Chair in Aztec fabric next to a brick wall, polishing its arms, examining it for flaws.

It definitely was not here last night. It came from the card room downstairs.

“What’s this?” Angela asked, forgetting the refugee painting.

Denise interjected.

“Oh, it’s just that Egyptian chair. I told Tommy to bring it up here. The board is getting rid of a lot of junk from down there,” Denise said, offering an excuse.

“You stole furniture from the lobby to sell up here? That’s unreal,” Angela said.

Tommy quickly slipped out of the apartment, anticipating another argument.

“I have to get his approval for which paintings I can keep? Unbelievable,” Angela said.

“He wants us to make money. You never think of money, do you? Do you know what pro bono is?” Denise asked.

“Yes. I’m not a lawyer but I understand that term,” Angela said.

“That’s right. I’ve spent hundreds of hours and my considerable legal skills assisting this building in the documentation of historical items, not to mention zoning issues, as well as federal, state and local tax write-offs and subsidies. I worked with architects, engineers, designers, all in my spare time, without pay, to help preserve Castle Green. If I take a fake Egyptian chair from the lobby and sell it for $799 it wouldn’t begin to cover what they owe me!” Denise said.

“That is disgusting. You don’t remove historic items from a landmark! It is a small thing to you, but hugely unethical. I think you could be disbarred for this. I’m serious. What malign influence does this Tommy have on you?” Angela asked.

“I don’t have time for all this pettiness. The estate sale is for our benefit, selling the unit is for our benefit. Who cares if Tommy is in charge?” Denise asked.

“Someone is always in charge at Castle Green. It’s just never me! How I wish you could understand that!” Angela said.

“And I wish you could see I brought him into this to relieve our burdens, and contribute to a successful outcome,” Denise said.

“And skim off a percentage into his own pockets!” Angela said.

“He’s a stand-up guy! Stop attacking him!” Denise screamed.

Now Denise was infuriated. She walked out and slammed the door. Angela had paranoid visions of Tommy and her sister conspiring.

But Tommy walked right back in. He smiled and evinced a gentle, conciliatory demeanor.

“You and Denise need to work collectively to solve pressing problems. Or are you obsessed about how the other side is evil while your sibling problems fester?” he asked.

“It’s hopeless. She and I are too different,” Angela said.

“You’ll make out all right. Especially when you sell the condo and your father’s art. I know. I had it all appraised. You have one and a half million here. Trust me dear. I’m your ally,” he said.

“I don’t mean this disrespectfully, but just curiously, how do you come in and establish dominion over our family? The condo? The art? You are not a relative. I didn’t hire you. What professional training do you possess to proclaim yourself an expert on everything?” Angela said.

“Life experience. I’ve worked at the Mark Hopkins for 25 years. Bellhop, concierge, tour director. I’ll die with a pension. I got top notch health care too. Not bad for a high school dropout from Fresno. I’m smart. I buy cheap property. I earn income owning and renting houses. And organizing estates and transforming lives. My good friend Elaine on Nob Hill is 88 years old. She had a fortune left to her by her husband. She gave me complete control over her portfolio, wrote me into her will. She calls me the unheralded genius of the Hotel Mark Hopkins,” he said, like an infomercial.

“Ok. Great. So happy for you. I’m fine. I don’t need a guru or genius,” Angela said.

“And I have a very successful blog: Tommy Knows Best with 18,900 subscribers. They each pay $49 a year. Nearly a million a year from that blog! Does your home business making Navajo hipster belts earn you that income?” Tommy asked.

“Navajo hipster? I’ve had it up to here with your smarminess. Your presence is very disturbing, quite intrusive, thoroughly unsolicited, arrogant and rude,” Angela said.

He heard nothing and persisted.

“I have an idea. Why not take some of your winnings when you sell here and invest with me? You can buy a beautiful home in Akron, Ohio for $99,000, rent it out and pay it off in ten years. Think about the future. Renting an apartment in Tuscon? How long can that go on? What about your boy? He’s got to have something when you’ve passed on,” Tommy said.

His products and services pitch was relentless.

When she didn’t buy it, he went on the attack.

“You fucked up and you live on the edge of ruin. I’m secure. Let me help you become secure too,” Tommy said.

“Oh, fuck off. You don’t know anything about me! What do you know about me or my family! Nothing!” Angela screamed.

“Your mother jumped off a bridge. Are you going to do the same with your finances? You fucked boys in the broom closet. You were a groupie who did drugs and got pregnant. Had a kid at twenty. Denise stepped in to save your father and you from destitution,” Tommy said.

“You dare to speak of my mother’s death? And tell me I fucked boys in the broom closet? You spill out personal, hurtful, vile things to win your argument? What a fine friend of the family you are!” Angela said.

She left the apartment.

Alone in the hall, walking through the corridor, she wept.

Restitution

Adam drove up to the guard house at Huntington Garden in San Marino. A sign said the grounds were closed for a television production, “Antiques Roadshow.”

Disappointed, he drove back to Pasadena, stopped in Old Town for an iced coffee.

He sat in a chair, under an umbrella, in a restored, slate-stoned alley, Mills Place, enclosed with repurposed brick buildings, softened by shade trees and container flowers, not far from Castle Green.

Passing the hours, avoiding an early return to Castle Green, he looked at his smartphone, checked the weather, texted his girlfriend, browsed shoes on Amazon, looked at his photos, Googled his family name.

And he came across a Pfade item.

Former Tax Lawyer, Denise A. Pfade, 49, Facing Five Years in Federal Prison for Evading Back Taxes Owed to IRS.

“Oh Jesus,” he said, covering his mouth in shock.

He read the facts of the case.

$1.5 million embezzled from clients of the law firm. $778,000 owed to the IRS. Two shell companies to evade taxes. Phony bank accounts opened in other people’s names to deposit money and cheat on taxes. A judge ordering Ms. Pfade to repay $1.9 million in restitution and to surrender her law license. Five years in Federal Prison. Sentencing next month.

He sat there, dumbfounded.

Aunt Denise was going to jail.

He looked up from his phone just as his mother walked past him, unaware of her son. Her head was down, she seemed to be talking to herself, shuffling along the alley like a lost soul.

“Angela! Angela!” he called. He rose from his chair and hurried over to her.

She turned to him, swollen red eyes.

“What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at Huntington Garden?” she asked.

“They were closed today. Why do you look so upset? Aunt Denise?” he asked, caressing her hair.

“The other monster. He said some vile things to me, crushing, personal, hateful. I feel so low, so rotten,” she said.

Adam hugged her. He spoke softly.

“I know something about Aunt Denise that you won’t believe. You might feel differently about her when you hear it,” he said.

“I have had enough. I’ve been attacked. Mentally assaulted. I have no strength left. I can’t stop crying. All the cruel things are true. I’m the cause of all our misery! Just let me walk to the bridge like mother and die,” she said.

He let go of her and looked her dead in the eye.

“You’re going to kill yourself because a pompous ass said some mean things?” Adam asked, sneering, mocking.

“No, no, no! Can’t you let me be immature for once?” she said. She burst out laughing, releasing despair into air, a relief.

“Immature? For once? For once? I’ve got something big to blow your mind,” he said.

He guided her out of the sun, to a large awning at the Burke Williams spa, tucked into a shaded corner.

“I just read a few news stories about your sister. She is a convicted felon. She is going to prison for five years. She lost her license to practice law. She owes millions. It’s in the LA Times. And the Wall Street Journal. And KTLA,” he said.

“I don’t believe it. Are you sure it’s not fake news? Maybe an enemy planted it,” she said.

“Fake news? Are you insane? She has been convicted in a court of law. Angela wake up! Stop punishing yourself. Denise is in turmoil. She needed Tommy for support. That is the truth,” Adam said.

“Tell me everything. Let’s go back to the castle,” Angela said.

They walked as he read the crime story aloud.

They went down Green Street, past the old brick stables and carriage houses matured into high priced retail stores.

At Fair Oaks, they stopped to wait for the walk light. She looked up to her son, towering over her, the young guardian, in loco parentis.

“This is unbelievable. She was the one to emulate. She was the gold standard. A perfectionist. The higher she went, the lower I fell. She had a blueprint for life. I floated like a leaf down a river of no return,” Angela said.

“She is wounded. You have the upper hand. We both do,” he said as they crossed the street.

“Denise was Phi Beta Kappa. USC JD Business Law & Master of Business of Taxation. Partner at age 34, six years after joining her firm, youngest ever, only woman, $900 an hour. Beverly Hills condo. Did her life of accomplishment really come to an end on your smartphone?” Angela asked.

Now they stood outside the gate at Castle Green.

“Go in. Don’t say a word. We know the truth,” Adam said as they entered.

Redemption

By accident, they reunited under the arches of the disconnected bridge.

Stripped of virtue, associated with crime, naked stood the convicted sister.

Seeing Adam, Denise was pacified. She carried a small, white papered, box of candies.

“Adam came back early. The Huntington is closed for a TV show,” Angela said.

“Good. I can spend more time with him. I want to hear about your school, your plans for work,” Denise said.

“Is Tommy upstairs? If he is, I won’t go in,” Angela said.

“I sent him away. He told me some of what he said to you. He’s insulted me on many occasions, but I drew the line when he attacked you. I made him put the Tutankhamun Throne Chair back in the card room and he left for good,” she said.

They walked into the garden and coalesced under the shade of the Japanese Oak.

“I heartily and sincerely apologize. I was wrong. Tommy shouldn’t have come here. His presence was disruptive. He’s a blunt Calabrian. He’s crude and bare knuckles. I didn’t anticipate he would turn his venom on you,” Denise said.

Angela stood silent, stone-faced, wounded.

“All the fighting we did was about him. He’s gone and now we have peace. I love you my little angel. Don’t keep me incarcerated in your grudge. Comme ça?” Denise said.

“I accept your apology. I’m relieved he’s gone,” Angela said.

“I recruited him because I thought his managerial skills would support us. I didn’t trust you or I to make decisions. And frankly I still thought of you as the party girl. Not the woman you really are. You and Adam are solid and grounded,” Denise said.

“Thank you, Aunt Denise,” Adam said.

“Well maybe one thing about you hasn’t changed. This is a box of chocolates from See’s Candies. With a lovely note card. Left at our front door,” Denise said.

Angela took the box and opened the card.

“Dark chocolate. So, in love, Denny.”

She burst out laughing, stuffing the card into her pocket.

Adam shook his head. “What trouble have you gotten into now?” he asked.

“Don’t you have something important to discuss with your aunt?” Angela said.

He took a deep breath, now presenting his case.

“I’m graduating next year. And this may sound nuts. But I wonder if you and Angela would consider not selling the condo?” he asked.

“Are you planning to get a job down here?” Denise asked.

“Yes, that’s the plan. I want to work in LA and move into Castle Green,” he said.

“I see nothing wrong with that. I only wanted to sell to help you and your mother. But if this condo can give you a fresh start in life, and if your mother agrees, why of course you can live here. As you know the mortgage is fully paid off,” Denise said.

“I researched salaries and the average starting salary for a landscape architect is high 40s, low 50s,” he said.

“Your HOA is about $1,000 a month. With utilities add another $300. Property taxes come out to about $80 a month. If you can swing $17,000 a year you can afford to live here,” Denise said.

He hugged her.

“Thank you so much. I will be super responsible and you won’t have any trouble from me. This is so exciting! My own apartment in a new city! I have an offer with Yanez Architects, in Culver City, next to the Expo Line light rail. I won’t even need a car. I date the owner’s daughter, Sophia,” he said.

Angela bunted Adam’s pitch.

“Adam is also minoring in Real Estate Development, and has taken courses in finance and land development,” she said, tag teaming his ambition, diligence and business minded strategy.

“I like what I hear,” Denise said in firm corner office voice, evincing family pride.

“I’m making some changes in my own life. I plan to leave the firm, sell my Beverly Hills condo, and explore other options. I discovered, after nearly 20 years, that I despise working as a tax attorney. Hate it. I tried to get out of it, into entrepreneurial ventures that crashed and burned,” Denise said.

“Anything else happening in your life?” Angela asked.

“Isn’t that enough? Let me treat you both to Sushi Michi,” Denise said.

Brenda

On the road back to Tuscon, he drove, she slept.

He timed it, so they came across the state line at golden hour, as glorious light washed over the Sonoran Desert, the furious heat surrendering to dusk, dry wind, and the coming of night.

He exited I-10, in the red pickup, onto slower US-60, window opened, elbow resting, steering one handed, peering over the land, surveying the natural inhabitants he knew by name: cactuses saguaro, yucca, organ pipe, ocotillo, prickly pear, pin cushion, staghorn, buckhorn and rainbow.

And Joshua Tree.

He needed to grab some food before they got home.

He pulled into Buckaroos Country Store and Sandwich Shop, a false fronted western market with cold drinks and hearty portions near Brenda, Arizona.

The gravel on the tires was loud. But Angela slept.

He parked, took his wallet and keys, locked the door, and went inside.

She woke up, disoriented, looked around, and saw the store sign.

Everything from their two-day visit to Castle Green imploded in her mind: Adam, Denny, Denise, Werner, Giovanna and Tommy.

Everything was unsettled.

Only love remained: bruised, battered, resilient.

She just had a wonderful, sensual dream, fresh in her mind, lovemaking with Denny, set to soundtrack: so in love, so in love, so in love with you am I.

Long ago and far away, she had run away from Castle Green and woke up in Solana Beach with the boys from Zunk-382, Drew and Louis.

Thoughts flew past.

Adam should get a DNA test.
Denise is going to prison.
I will visit her.
I will never stop loving her.
She did everything for me and dad.
Sometimes I acted like a spoiled child, resenting and comparing.
Denny might be my new boyfriend.
Adam will live at Castle Green.

What else are you hiding, my Castle Green?

All the random things, all the men, all the myths, yesterday would never be the same.

Night fell, flood lights went on, the parking lot was orange and strange.

Adam come out with a paper bag of groceries, like her parent.

She quickly closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, laying her head along the closed window, giving him that attitude he had in Blythe when she brought him red vines and coke.

He stood outside her door, bent down and peered into the passenger window. His shadow fell over her. She kept her eyes shut, bit her lip to hold it in, but her deceit failed.

“I know you’re awake,” he shouted.

And then she opened her eyes, and they both laughed, through the glass, knowing the game.

END

Wrigley McCormick

Wrigley McCormick

Wrigley McCormick

by Andrew B. Hurvitz

In a tense time of academic purges and social media bullying, a newly fired, nearly retired professor from Northwestern University is befriended and taken in by a wealthy young benefactor hungry for a father figure and style muse.


Note: This story contains a racial term which is considering insulting but is necessary in the telling of this fictional tale. There are also documented historical events which may be painful for some readers.


Sunday, weekend of Labor Day, Professor Steven Goodman walked at dawn down the driveway alongside his small ranch house in West Evanston, IL. He pushed a metal clothes rack, hung with garments, and a “$10” sign, taped on end.

It was the third day of his four-day estate sale.

Items included a cherry wood glass cabinet and six dining room chairs arranged around a Queen Anne table covered in stacked piles of folded towels and linens.

Down near the curb, on a large Oriental rug, was a seating arrangement from the 1960s, a rust-colored tweed couch, brown vinyl recliner, and three Giotto Stoppino orange stackable plastic tables.

Board games of Chutes and Ladders, Candy Land, Monopoly, Lost in Space and The Game of Life sat on a scuffed, steel-legged card table.

There were LPs of Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Stan Getz, Henry Mancini, and Bill Evans (“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”).

Parked on the back end of the driveway, headlights facing out, was a gold ‘75 Buick LeSabre with a $1,900 or Best Offer sign taped to the windshield. Doris and Gene had driven it for 25 years.

An ebony wood Baldwin Grand Piano sat on the asphalt, its closed keyboard lined with caps from Chicago sports teams: Cubs, Sox, Black Hawks, Bulls.

“A boy who plays the piano also has to play sports,” his German born father had instructed him.

He watched the sky, crowded with fast-moving clouds, traveling with their shadows east to the lake.

His father liked to watch the skies, observing light.

Gene Goodman, born in Nuremberg in 1933, had once dreamed of becoming an artist, but, more practically, sold restaurant supplies for 50 years.

Gene’s surviving paintings were out here, framed in gold, surveys of locations never visited: Yellowstone, Eiffel Tower, Fiji, and Jerusalem.

The oils were copied from torn out National Geographics, subjects chosen for his Oakton Community College night classes, homework painted in the basement under bare bulb, near the washer and dryer.

Painting was a hobby to his late father the way acting had been for Steven.

Professor Goodman took some photos and posted on Instagram with the hashtags: #garagesale, #vintage, #clothes, #estate, #Evanston, #Skokie.

Then he went down to the curb to survey.

The yellow brick house was homely, pitiful and plain: squared hedges, straight walk, and scallop edged shades in the front window. Gene and Doris bought it in 1958 for $14,000. A steel fence in the backyard neatly divided the property from the alley in back where the garbage cans lived.

He was 61, alone, orphaned, nearly as old as his house, wounded and demoralized since his firing last year from Northwestern, his alma mater and lifetime employer.

On Redfin he found his new house, a 950 square foot stucco ranch in Tuscon near the Catalina Foothills. He would join all the other old Chicagoans, retired exiles in the desert, kept cool, fresh and alive on air-conditioning and prescription pharmaceuticals.

Farewell to snow, winter coats, ice, chapped hands, rain, fog, and overcast weather.

Home had always been Lincolnwood Drive. He thought of Doris, dish towel in hand, shouting from the side door to come in for dinner. Meat loaf, spaghetti and meatballs, lemon bars, ice cream sundaes, Hi-C.

“Lincolnwood Drive is wonderful because it dead ends before Church St. You boys can play ball in the street and no cars will come down here. That’s why we moved here. It’s safe and closed off.”


People trickled in, perused, browsed, left.

In late afternoon, an older Black woman, cardigan and denim, banded gray hair, librarianlike, walked up the driveway.

She stopped at a table to inspect the Kodak projector and boxes of slide carousels. Some were labelled in magic marker: Miami, 1967, Door County, WISC. 1971, Michigan, 1973.

“Don’t sell these. This is your family history,” she said.

That night, he pushed the piano back into the garage and dragged the furniture and dry goods behind the gate.

He went inside, made a bologna sandwich, poured a glass of milk, sat down, and opened his phone.

There was an email from Erica McCarthy, a colleague at Northwestern, an eminent and esteemed professor of English.

Her NY Times bestseller, “Our Eternal Debt”, about white culpability in the failure of Black contentment, was the talk of the nation last year.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it. You didn’t say that disgusting word. A student in your class said it, a word used so often by Twain. The student who said the word was not expelled. And you were. I know it was unjust. You are too honest. This is no time to defend great authors or freedom of speech. You should have gone public to say you would stop teaching that book. That would have calmed it,” she said.

Her words were safe, curated, bullet proof.

She was still employed, she still had her salary and her title, her agent, her royalties, her fellowships. Her husband, Hubbard Woods III, was an investment banker. They had a large house in Lake Forest. She was good until death, and beyond.

One time he Googled her address and saw her 2018 property taxes: $92,000. She was rich and beloved, privileged and adored.

By contrast, he was a pariah; condemned, rejected and reviled. The haters had come after him for many months. Nobody defended him. All the administration joined in the phony piety, alliances of parents, students, faculty and strangers online standing up for social justice.

Exhausting

Thirty years teaching. Once loved and respected, honored, tenured. Now an old, white, male oppressor.

Twain, James, Wharton, Hemingway, Stein, Pound, Hughes, Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Spencer. Some of the authors he loved and assigned, now enemies of the university, purged from the curriculum.

It seemed the happiest people lived in white rooms without books, sparkling empty ones, ones with the most likes on Instagram.

Labor Day he awoke for work before the sun.

He made coffee at 5am, went out, unlocked the gate, and opened the garage. For two hours he wheeled, carried, and pushed all the merchandise back onto the driveway.

Today was selling.
Tomorrow was the reinvention of life.

No more school, no more semesters, no more students, no more talks with young and open minds, no debates, discussions or stimulating talks.

His commute had been a leisurely, dreamy, leafy way east, biking for fifteen minutes on East Prairie Rd and Emerson, across the Sanitary Canal, under the El, over Green Bay Road, into University Hall.

No more.

One word, spoken by one student, one day in class, ended his life.

Serena Chan, Lululemon influencer, biking instructor, owner of a popular yoga studio, Chanfit on Dempster, jaunted up the driveway with her infant girl and $900 UPPA baby stroller. She lived in the fiberboard house with solar roof, orange door and electric charging station.

He had seen her on morning power walks many times. She wore high waisted seaweed yoga pants and a midriff top.

She took off her sunglasses, exposing a thin, strained face.

He smiled back.

“Good morning, nice day, huh” he said, wincing a look at one-year-old Pela, wrapped in a baby blanket.

Pela Chan, Pela Chan. Like an exercise bike.

“I haven’t seen you in years. Hardly recognize you,” she said.

“I’m old. Now I regret never having a child. Your daughter is gorgeous,” he said, wistfully.

“Maybe you are childless for a good reason,” she said.

“Huh?”

She broke into malice and anger.

“You are a low piece of shit. I came down here to tell you that to your face. I know your story professor! I grieve for your wounded students. You’ll do all right. You inherited this little house. You won’t be out on the streets. I’m happy you’re suffering! Happy you’re leaving this neighborhood. In our community we don’t tolerate intolerance! I say that as an ally of all who are oppressed,” she said.

Then she turned around, mission finished. Her confidently sculpted ass, muscular legs and toned arms strode back onto Lincolnwood Drive pushing the stroller in workout.

She had blackened his day.

After she left, the afternoon lasted a long time.

He distracted himself on Instagram and posted his 1984 acting headshot, longish hair gelled and combed back when he was 21, taking classes at Second City, having fun, meeting people, joking, and creating.

His parents advised against his “hobby” and had refused to come to any of his performances.

“Nobody makes money in that,” his father said.

“You’ll be poor and struggling,” his mother said.

“Working at night in a smoky room and begging for applause in Old Town? Miserable. Where will you be at 35?” his father asked.

“And where will we be when you’re 35?” his mother asked.

He followed their fears and gave up. He went back to Northwestern and earned a master’s degree in English Literature.

Decades flew past. The ones who urged practicality were dead.

Now he was the white-haired man on the driveway selling their old junk.


Near sunset the air was thick with barbecue smells, chicken, ribs, burgers, music, laughter and the thumping of speakers. People walked from cars into houses and yards.

It was time to wrap up.
An Uber arrived.

A white man, model handsome, got out, holding a rattan picnic basket. He had close cropped brown hair, athletic body. He wore purple shorts and a pink t-shirt, striped knee socks, and unlaced high tops.

He stumbled and seemed intoxicated with a goofy, funny, lost expression, headlight wide eyes, angled, thick eyebrows two or three inches long.

He walked up the driveway, bewitched, staring all around, entranced.

He said nothing.

Then he grabbed two blankets off the table, a sheet and a pillow, and he walked over to the grass and made himself a bed on the front lawn, shaking out the sheets, taking a nap.

“Hey, hey, what are you doing?” Steven asked, rushing over to apprehend the miscreant.

“Hey Pro! I’m Wrigley McCormick and I’m fucking exhausted. Let me nap. Please? I’m so tired. I know you were about to close up, just let me rest,” he said.

“I follow your gram. I want to buy everything. Everything. I have cash. I love your style too. Just let me chill out here and sleep. I’ll get to you in like 30,” he said, closing his eyes, curling up under the blanket, on the grass.

A bottle of Sauvignon Blanc rolled out of his rattan basket.

Steven watched, thought to call the police, and decided not to. He moved the sale items off the driveway, back into the garage, working deliberately, continually, as if his last customer asleep on the grass were not there.

Now it was dark. The lawn lights went on. Wrigley dozed. Steven went over, bent down, gently jarred and awakened him.

Groggily, innocently, he sat up like a child, blanket clenched under his chin.

“Are you OK? Should I call your parents?” Steven asked.

He laughed.

“Parents? Father lives overseas with his wife. Mother killed herself,” Wrigley said.

“Can I get you water or coffee?” Steven asked.

“I need to use your bathroom,” he said, standing up, grabbing his wine, insouciant.

Steven guided him into the side door near the kitchen. He slipped into the bathroom like a lumber board, enviably thin, hard, lean.

He came back out, face washed, shaking his wet hands.

“I had to shit. Sorry. I opened the window, though, and sprayed Lysol. Here’s a couple thousand,” Wrigley said, pulling a wad of bills out of his shorts and slapping his rubber-banded money on the counter.

“I’m buying everything Prof. I’m summoning an Uber now. I’ll see you mañana with my crew and our U-Hauls,” he said.

He had come here, slept, woke up in the dark, said he was buying everything. It didn’t make sense.

“Do you want to take a second look?” Steven asked.

“I had my eye on your posts, Professor. Didn’t you see all my likes? I want it all. Aren’t you delighted I showed up here?” Wrigley asked.

“You work? Go to school?” Steven asked.

“I work from home. I’m not going to college. You don’t learn anything there,” he said.

“Perhaps you’re correct,” Steven said.

“All of my friends love you, love your hair, your vintage sweaters. And those light blue poplin pants, green Izod shirt and red whale belt. Stunning. Your 1980s are what we aspire to: your jackets and your smile, your boat shoes,” Wrigley said.

He had made a study of the professor.

“That picture of you in August 1986 with your hair blowing in the wind on the dock at Montrose Harbor. And the photos Suzanne took of you at Lighthouse Beach that fall. We all wish we lived back then. I’m buying your whole life and putting you and your looks online, that’s my plan,” Wrigley exclaimed.

Wrigley had learned the historical dates, memorized the places, devoured the throwaway snapshots, curated the images, like an archaeologist discovering and cataloguing the treasures of a long-buried Etruscan tomb.

“My crew is Dylan Wieboldt, Carson Field, and Saira Pirie. And the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon. We talk about you constantly. And we all adore John Hughes movies: Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller and Pretty in Pink. And Tom Cruise in Risky Business! Chicago in the 1980s is our kingdom. And you are our king!” he said.

The professor was made adjacent to trivia and pop culture, connected to John Hughes and Hollywood films set on the North Shore. He was flattered yet befuddled.

“My windblown hair and 1982 Members Only jacket was not how I expected to earn kudos,” Steven said.

“Members Only” was 1983. July 23rd. You and Suzanne were at Comiskey Park at The Police Synchronicity Tour,” Wrigley said.

“Oh man. Stop,” Steven said, laughing.

“Uber is here. I’m outta here. We’ll get some German pancakes at Walker Brothers. I will give you a tour of my house, of what I plan to do with your furniture, your piano, and, of course, all of your clothes. You are going to die when you see it all in my house! Bye,” Wrigley said, running out.

Left behind: an unopened bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.


Next morning, several young men and women arrived with three U-Haul trucks. Under Wrigley’s direction, they went up and down the driveway and moved everything into the vehicles: piano, furniture, books, clothes, kitchenware, textiles, rugs, linens, glassware, LPs and Steven’s clothes. They were strong and fast and packed up quick.

Wrigley knocked at the side door.

“Morning Professor. Here are another three grand. I want to get the car too. Do you have the papers? I’ll go up to the DMV in Waukegan tomorrow and we can transfer ownership. My friends will die to see me driving a 1975 Buick LeSabre,” he said.

“Do you want to come in and see the house? Maybe there is something else in here to buy? Please call me Steven. I’m no longer a professor” Steven said.

“Sure Steven,” Wrigley said.

They walked through the tiny rooms carpeted in beige, stripped of furniture. The scalloped shade in the living room picture window caught Wrigley’s eye. He went and pulled it up. Light came into the empty space and he saw a still functioning white dial telephone on the floor, 312-DA8-3020.

“Know how to use that?” Steven asked.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” he said.
“You don’t know how to use a rotary telephone?” Steven asked.
“No,” Wrigley said.
Now he felt old.


A week later, Steven sat in the massive dark-paneled library of a mansion off Sheridan Road, a 1911 Tudor pile of stone and brick with seven bedrooms, wine cellar, servants quarters, and a 70-foot-long terrace overlooking Lake Michigan. There was a verdant, green backyard with many native American Basswood trees, a type of Linden with heart shaped leaves, fragrant and shading.

The library with its empty bookshelves was now a studio for Wrigley and his friends, furnished with the Goldman Family couch, dining table, vinyl lounge chair, and racks of 1970s and 80s clothes from Steven’s youth.

This was Juicy Fruit Productions, a filming studio, with muslin backdrop, softbox lights on stands with sandbags, and Fuji GFX camera on tripod wired to a laptop. There was a floor length mirror, a director’s chair for makeup, and grooming products scattered on the floor.

A 10-foot-long, yellow, painted sign of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit Chewing Gum endowed the room in corporate identity.

Howard McCormick, Wrigley’s father, lived in Singapore and ran a property development company there with his second wife Julia.

Goodman met the crew: multi-racial, wealthy, liberal youth who were performers, assistants, gaffers, writers, comedians, influencers, stylists, cooks and cleaners. They drank beer, got high, ate sushi and frozen popsicles, and chuckled at their phones.

Whatever they felt like doing, or not doing, was okay at Juicy Fruit Productions.

All around the room were reminders of Lincolnwood Drive scattered like shabbily dressed interlopers at a black-tie affair: the rust-colored sofa, the Oriental rug, the Queen Anne dining table and chairs, the vinyl recliner, Doris’s floral pillows and macrame blanket.

But high respect was accorded Steven’s old clothes, revered and worshipped by Wrigley and friends. The vintage garments were neatly hung on hangers on metal racks. T-shirts and sweaters were folded and stacked on the mahogany bookshelves. Dress shirts had been pressed and starched. Iron and ironing board were on duty.

It was 90 degrees, humid, torrid, summer. The opulent estate had no air-conditioning. Floor fans blew hot air around the house.

Six French doors in the library were wide open to the terrace and the garden, the sight and sound of Lake Michigan; waves, seagulls, foghorns; accompanied by the scissor-grinder mashing of the dog-day cicadas, an unending drone of faint noise.

Wrigley had asked the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie to dress up in Steven’s clothes, and film Steven reacting to their looks.

Wrigley and Steven went out to the terrace under threatening skies. One-by-one, the three kids came out for the video. Sara was in Steven’s sweatpants and madras shirt.

Then the Nelson Brothers, Tyler and Brandon, two handsome, preppy Black twins about 20, came out in Harvard and Yale t-shirts, and 1980s jeans.

“Professor was skinny. These are so tight,” Brandon said, tugging at his waistband, choking his own throat.

Steven sat on a stone bench. He remarked how good the burgundy shirt looked on Brandon.

“Good line Steven. Keep going,” said Wrigley filming and directing.

“You can come on to me, anytime,” Saira Pirie said to Tyler.

Brandon threw his arms around her. Tyler did too. They all fell down on the lawn, laughing and acting for the video.

“Cut. Take a break,” Wrigley directed.

They were hot and sweating, drinking cold bottles of water, wiping their foreheads with paper towels.

Out in the distance there was the rumble of thunder. Leaves blew off the trees. The atmosphere was charged. The yard was cast in greenish light before the impending rain.

The thunder got louder and nearer, but only Steven seemed to notice. For the cast and crew were oblivious to the weather, immersed in their activities, prime age beings supreme.

“We should move inside,” Steven advised as he walked into the house.

The merry makers followed him into the house. Wrigley hurried to shut the doors and push their brass steel floor locks into place. Steven sat back down on his parents’ rust sofa.

Wrigley looked at his phone. He was ecstatic.

“I checked your gram days ago and there was nobody. Now it’s exploding! I think they just love looking at me in your clothes. Okay let’s shoot something else. Nelson Brothers change into Steven’s pajamas! And put on his hunting slippers!” Wrigley said.

Brandon and Tyler stripped down to their underwear and changed into two vintage Brooks Brothers pajamas, one blue, one white.

Saira changed into Steven’s 1982 red flannel men’s nightshirt.

Steven spoke about his first sexual experience in the nightshirt as Wrigley recorded.

He recalled its quick sexual convenience, his first time wearing it, losing his virginity to Suzanne at her uncle’s condo in Northbrook, the easy way he could slip into the nightshirt with no underwear and fuck away on the fur bedspread at the brown-bricked Villas Salceda on Willow Road. He remembered the balcony that looked out to the artificial lake with the fountain, the mowed mounds of lawn, the parking lots sprinkled around, the spindly developers’ trees that never grew up, the lifestyle of the 1980s: malls, office parks, tennis, movies, sex anytime.

As he talked, the Nelson Brothers and Saira Pirie came and sat on the couch, next to him, intimately, suggestively, looking at him as he commented on his 40-year-old carnal milestones.

The young, gathering on the couch, talking sex with the old teacher, it was salacious, exactly what Wrigley wanted.

The rains came, the thunder and lightning exploded, the showers pounded the glass doors. To the English professor pathetic fallacy had joined the party.

Now was that seminal Midwestern moment, that great cleansing glory in the storm’s release, that summer moment when the temperature drops and blood pressure rises through anticipation and fear; fear of hail and lightning; fear of tornadoes knocking over trees, shattering windows, ripping off roofs, hurling cars through the air; storms of decapitation and electrocution, bodily injury and death; storms to hide and cower from, storms like this.

The players watched the weather, went back to their phones. Wrigley shouted to get back to shooting.

He fetched an ancient bottle of English Leather cologne, buried inside its original wooden box. He opened the fragrance and splashed it over the Nelson Brothers to elicit their reaction and revulsion.

“That shit is nasty!” Brandon said.
“Professor, you say you wore this back in the day?” Tyler asked.
“Yep. We thought it was sexy,” Steven said.
“Cheap and trashy, smell like a whore’s bedroom,” Brandon taunted as he stood up and unbuttoned his pajama top and threw it on the floor. Tyler grabbed the English Leather and doused it onto his brother. Wrigley’s phone captured it all.

“No way. Nigger get that off me! You a dumb fucking nigger piece of shit!” Brandon screamed at Tyler.

Saira laughed uproariously.

Steven stood up.

“Don’t you dare put that online with me in it!” he screamed.

He grabbed Brandon by the shoulders and shook him.

“Don’t ever say that word in front of me! Do you hear me? I despise that word, it’s the worst thing you can ever say. It destroys lives. When you speak it you bring calumny onto others!” Steven screamed.

He stormed out of the library.

“What the hell was that?” Brandon asked.
“What you said homie,” Tyler answered.
“The N word,” Saira said.
“What’s calumny? I need to swallow that word,” Brandon said.
“Why does that white ass fool care?” Brandon asked.
“Shut up Brandon,” Wrigley said.


The storm knocked the lights off and on. Wrigley left the room to find Steven.

Steven sat on the carpeted entry hall stairs next to the carved wood banister and newel post lamp.

Face down, hands behind head, all was quiet.

The weakening rains fell against the stained-glass Tiffany window emitting a dreary light onto the staircase.

He was tired and angry, enraged at these ignorant, reckless, careless youth who fired off words like deadly weapons.

This house added to his futility, for he found himself there without direction, recruited by an accident of fate and chance, a participant in juvenile nonsense, performed in his honor, disgracing his honor.

He laughed bitterly. He was played, again.

Wrigley came over and sat on the stairs next to Steven.

“Are you OK?” Wrigley asked, rubbing Steven’s shoulder.

“Yeah, I’m alright. I guess the Nelson Brothers hate me,” he said.

“No. The Nelson Brothers love me. And they love you too,” he said.

Steven told him about the incident that got him fired. Now Wrigley understood.

“Feel better?” Wrigley asked.

“Take my clothes and everything you bought and do what you want. But please don’t put me on camera. You don’t need to make me an internet star. You bought me out at the estate sale. That should be enough. Perhaps I need to go home now,” Steven said.

He stood up and stretched.

“Looks like the rain stopped. I might even walk home,” Steven said, peering out a front hall window into the clearing light and water dripping from the trees.

“Let’s go outside. This hall is haunted. This is where they carried my dead mother down the stairs for the last time. I never come in here,” Wrigley said.

They opened the front door to the freshness and stood out on the brick stoop between the two pots of drenched geraniums.

“My father and I chatted last night. He is worried about me. He and Julia want me to move to Singapore, to their mansion in Bukit Timah, and work in their property development company,” he said.

“Abandon Juicy Fruit?” Steven asked.

“Yeah. Give up production and become a responsible son. Wear a necktie and marry a rich girl and work for my father. I hate the weather over there. Julia is bossy. They both expect too much. I asked if I could stay here. He said he would consider it if I presented a plan. Father said education is vital. I suggested you as my live-in tutor,” Wrigley said.

“I would work for you? Become your personal tutor? How could I live on that hourly wage?” Steven asked.

“You’d be exceptionally well-paid. We are tragically rich. You could teach literature and writing. Maybe we could have classes outdoors, under the Basswoods, a few days a week. With my crew. I found a photograph. New Trier High School in 1950. Students and teachers studied on the lawn,” Wrigley said. He opened his phone to show it.

“I was planning to move to Tucson,” Steven said.

“Tucson is even hotter than Singapore. And the food isn’t even as good. Let me set up a Facetime with you and father,” Wrigley said.

With a potential job and his home empty, the plan to sell went on hold.

Steven found himself, like a royal, set up in a wing of the McCormick Mansion, in Howard’s bedroom suite with its own adjoining private library and gentleman’s bathroom of monogrammed towels, tartan covered toilet seat, and etchings of Scottish barons and noblemen.

He slept in the master’s bedroom for a night. He woke up and borrowed the master’s robe as he awaited a call from Singapore to discuss matters impending.

Wrigley knocked at 7am. He came in and put a cup of tea on the desk, opened the drapes, turned on the desktop computer in the adjoining library to connect his father and Steven, and left the room.

In the early morning light, the beaming, bald, smiling man in a dark plaid sports jacket and light blue shirt came up in living color.

“Good morning Steve! How are things in Evanston?” Howard asked.

His accent was familiar, like an old friend, flat, nasal, familial, true to Chicago.

“Oh, fine. Very kind of you to be so hospitable,” Steven said.

“My pleasure. My son is ebullient about you. And I am tickled pink. I’m a Northwestern man myself, on the board. I heard about your troubles. And my hearty condolences on your job loss. But I hope you will consider our offer,” he said.

“Go on. I’m open to ideas,” Steven said.

“Wrigley does not want to live in Singapore. I understand. My wife Julia is Straits Chinese, her extended family is here, our development company is here. It’s an adjustment. I can’t even legally chew gum here. Imagine a Wrigley under that law! Our projects take us all over Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Hainan Island, Bali and Vietnam. I haven’t been to Chicago in five years. And the goddamned property taxes ensure I’ll never move back. I need a pedagogical and parental rector for my son. I wish to assign his care to you,” he said.

“I am pleased Howard. But for how long? Under what conditions? Who will decide the curriculum? I only teach literature. That’s not a fully rounded college education for your son,” Steven said.

“I don’t want him in college. Ever. He’s not going to invent the grain reaper or start a theological seminary like his great-great grandad. But if he can write well and think logically by studying classic American writing, and he’s not exposed to all these leftist, multicultural, gender ideologies, he will have a free mind and a mind freed,” Howard said.

The proposal was for a year contract, $200,000 to teach Wrigley and his four friends American Classics. And to live, rent free, at the house. And to work three days a week, four days off.

The offer was irresistible, tailored to make it impossible to say no.

“Do you think, without having met me, without references, I have all the necessary qualifications?” Steven asked.

“Come now old sport. You are thoroughly vetted. Last year I told Wrigley about you and the cancel culture that came after your hide. Multiculturalism, leftism, racism, gender, capitalism, colonialism, diversity, patriarchy, heteronormativity, LGBTQ. These crazies only teach victimhood. I’m fine with my son un-polluted by modern radicals who run these schools,” he said.

“I thought your boy followed me on Instagram because he liked my 1980s pictures,” Steven said.

Howard laughed.

“If that’s what he told you, go with it. I’m the one who first heard about you last year. He probably looked you up and got hooked on your fashion. He’s got that influencer business and I think he’s determined to be the next Ralph La Wren or Paris Paltrow.”

“Can I think it over and give you an answer in a few days?” Steven said.

“Of course. My chief concern and my constant worry is my son. I fret that he will turn on, tune in, drop out in that Timothy Leary way. Drugs, moping around, self-destruction. I won’t have it!” Howard railed.

“I can assure you he is not on that path. He’s very industrious and self-directed,” Steven said.

“I will give him freedom only if he obeys my rules. That’s what they do here in Singapore. I’m trying to be a responsible long-distance parent. Please help me, Steve,” he said.

The screen went dark. Only the halo of his words remained.

Howard had supported the Professor because he saw a fellow dissenter, an antagonist fighting political correctness, an insurrectionist whose teaching of old, white, male writers was anathema to the progressive sanctimony of liberals.

Steven never aspired to ideology, he really did not have a side, yet, once again, a faction had chosen him as their representation of their ally or their enemy.

Through Wrigley’s embrace, Steven had gone on a brief hiatus, escaping the debacle and the shame, reappearing as an old version of his young self, a 20-year-old preppy with great hair, in Brooks Brothers clothes, all hope and potential vested in him.

He was a student again, in changed and charged times, embraced by the young for a strange reason: his sartorial style. But his ascension to deity was accidental and artificial, so he pondered leaving, rejecting Howard’s generous offer.

But tethering him to stay, to accept Howard’s proposal, was young Wrigley, another victim of circumstance, manipulated by parent.

Steven recalled how the approval of a parent was the foremost pillar of self-esteem or the foundation for futility, resentment and bitterness.

Here was an opportunity to correct Steven’s mistakes by freeing Wrigley from parental entanglements to pursue his own path.

Wrigley made Steven feel better, wanted, redeemed, that too was inarguable. Not a son, not a friend, not a lover, not anything one could name, yet from the time he walked up the driveway he brought hope and transformation.

Steven was made a hero through an accident of Instagram, put on a pedestal by McCormick, father and son, who built him back up into paternal, pedagogical, and ministering roles.

“Well?” Wrigley asked, biting his lower lip, fists clenched.

He stood in the bedroom doorway, in Steven’s light blue cable knit sweater and gray New Trier sweats.

That was the sweater Steven wore on that day in 1988 when he told his mother he loved acting, wanted to make a career of it and she told him it was killing his father, he had to quit, get a master’s degree or a real job, so he weakly capitulated.

That sweater had shame and surrender in its fibers yet worn by Wrigley it was cleansed in forgiveness.

“I like your dad. I think he’s concerned. But I think you and I should do what we want. And I want to teach, and you want me to teach, and this could be fun,” Steven said.

“Hooray! I’m so happy!” Wrigley shouted and ran into the room and threw his arms around Steven. And then broke into sobs.

The professor found his face buried in the wool sweater, a pounding heart, warmth and gratitude, held in the arms of one who needed love and guidance.

“Oh, thank you. You are saving me. I don’t want to leave Evanston! I have been praying for this. You won’t leave me alone in this house. I need you. And this is the greatest gift. You will stay here, in father’s room, won’t you?” he said.

“Yes. I have to. No furniture at my old house. No clothes either. I have one favor to ask of you,” Steven said.

Wrigley waited.

“Take me off social media. I want to live for myself, without sharing it with the world. I want to walk in the rain, eat warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream, and never post about it on Instagram. I don’t want strangers to comment, condemn or control. Nothing is more precious than privacy and freedom and they go together. When you give up privacy, you give up freedom. In time you will understand,” Steven said.

“Yes, yes. Delete! Delete!” Wrigley said.
“My only hope of escaping death is to get offline,” Steven said.

“Let’s go out and get breakfast. Walker Brothers on Green Bay Road. I’m starved for pancakes. I’ve been so worried. And now it’s just utter relief. Have you had their German Pancakes?” Wrigley asked.


One by one Steven wiped away all presence of his online life. He took down Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr. It was liberating, walking into enlightenment, freed of ignorance and prejudice and all the harm and stupidity of virtuality.

The morons, who counted their wisdom by counting followers, were all banished to hell.

He paid a service, ClearName, to clean up his reputation, and all the hateful online commentary about Professor Steven Goodman went missing.

He put his house on the market and sold it in a few days to a young Korean American family.

Freed at last, he walked out of the ranch house for the last time and rode his bicycle down Lincolnwood Drive, and pedaled out of the neighborhood forever.

There was now a healthy amount of money in his account from his $476,000 house sale, a $3,800 a week teaching salary, rent-free accommodations, and his retirement investments.

No longer constrained by the rules of school administrators and post-modern censorship he could teach as he wanted.

He chose Elizabeth Spencer’s short story, “The Business Venture”, a tale set in a 1970s small Southern town riveted by racial fears and sexual promiscuity.

In the tale, Eileen, the protagonist and narrator, is a young white woman, recently married, who describes the promiscuity and casual sex of her husband Charlie who sleeps with Nellie Townshend, an unmarried white woman who owns a dry-cleaning business with Robin, a Black man.

But the town scandal is not her promiscuity, or Charlie’s, but the fact that Nellie has a close professional and business relationship with a Black man.

Steven and his students discussed Spencer’s story, as they sat on the grass, under the trees, just like Alfred Eisenstaedt photographs of New Trier High School in 1950.

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt, Life Magazine, 1950.

To Wrigley the South was like his father, cordial and polite but full of hate. The Nelson Brothers wondered how Black people like them put up with treatment from white folk, how they kept their rage under control while enduring dehumanization and cruelty. Saira Pirie thought modern day America had progressed even as racism persisted. Others disagreed with her, but everyone spoke their mind respectfully without fear of offending.

They read and quoted that noxious word which described Black human beings, but they did not recoil from that word but understood it as a gruesome part of language that had to be spoken in an honest confrontation with the American experience.

Before enrollment, all had signed a contract with Steven in which they agreed that what they said would stay within their “classroom”. They would not post about Steven’s class, or him, or discuss any of it online.

Their protected, private discourse would open their minds to explore the world in a way that the internet had denied, that social media-controlled schools would never sanction.

Thanksgiving was nearing, they had just finished reading Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” a play about a Black family in segregated Chicago who buys a house in a white neighborhood, igniting family conflict.

Steven Wrigley, Saira, Dylan, Tyler and Brandon went for a drive in the Buick LeSabre on a field trip to the city.

They stopped first at the University of Chicago, near 55th and Drexel, to hear the story of the Manhattan Project, where on December 2, 1942, Enrico Fermi, Harold C. Urey and Leo Szilard built a radioactive pile that yielded the first nuclear chain reaction.

“Do you know what month and year the United States dropped two atom bombs, one on Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki, effectively ending WWII through the surrender of Japan?” Steven asked.

There was dead silence. Nobody knew.

They went for a walk along historic Greenwood Avenue, past the Obama Family Home, which the future president and his family purchased in 2005.

They walked to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House, a premier example of prairie architecture, and they strolled into the University of Chicago down to the Midway Plaisance, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1871, the year of the great Chicago Fire.

The students were impressed with the Gothic buildings on the campus.

“It feels like England,” Dylan Wieboldt remarked.
“Harry Potter!” Saira said.
“Yes exactly!” Dylan said.

Steven educated them on some ugly history.

In the 1920s and 30s, the school had barred Black students from living on campus, Black fraternities were illegal, even the barbers in Reynolds Hall refused to cut Black hair, and as the Black area expanded, the school furiously bought up private properties around the campus to preserve it as a white enclave.

They finished their walking tour at 6140 S. Rhodes Ave.

Here, in 1938, Carl Augustus Hansberry, father of 8-year-old Lorraine, purchased a house in the white section of town, an act which brought out violent mobs. He fought for his family’s right to live here, to own property in spite of racial covenants, a case which he eventually won in the Supreme Court of the United States.

The fiction class took their history class on location. And, abiding by their agreement with Steven, nobody took photos, nobody posted on Instagram, they just listened and learned.

“This is torturous, having my phone shut down all afternoon,” said Brandon.

“Nice photos all around. But we have to go cold turkey,” Tyler said.

“No exceptions?” Brandon asked.
“Nope. Honor your agreement. Keep your word,” Steven said.
“Harsh!” Brandon said laughing.

They ended their adventure with a walk across the Michigan Avenue Bridge over the Chicago River. The festive season was here. Up and down the boulevard thousands of white lights bedecked the trees in a magnificent display of civic grandeur.

In the cold dark night the electric lights shone all around.

The white terra cotta of the Wrigley Building was illuminated in its ornate, classical glory, shimmering in the sky, across from the Tribune Tower, another lit up landmark erected in the early 1920s by publisher Robert McCormick, Wrigley’s relative, a conservative isolationist who was also a free speech champion and founder of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.

The students and the professor huddled on the sidewalk bridge over the Chicago River. Steven told them how engineers had reversed the flow of water so sewage from Lake Michigan would go into the river and keep the drinking water of the lake clean and pure.

Two cops on their beat walked past and the Nelson Brothers moved aside to the railing to let them through, in tandem with fear.

“What are those two awesome buildings?” Wrigley asked, pointing to the two which gave him their names.

“Name them,” Steven said.
“I haven’t a fucking clue,” Wrigley said.

“These are yours! These two crowning structures, erected by your ancestors! The Wrigley Building and McCormick’s Chicago Tribune! Didn’t your father ever bring you here?” Steven asked.

“He was afraid to walk downtown,” Wrigley said.

Emma

“Emma from the Shorefront Legacy Center called me,” Wrigley said.

“Who?” Steven asked.

“They record, document, and archive Black history in the North Shore. She wanted to meet me, and invited me to her home. Weird. She said my family and hers are connected. Can you go with me? Impart your academic credentials?” he asked.

“Do you think it’s about me? My classroom scandal?” Steven asked.

“The n-word meltdown? I don’t know. She sounds old, like she wouldn’t know how to use the internet. She lives in West Evanston near Church St. practically in your old hood but on the Black side of town,” Wrigley said.

Steven seemed worried.

Wrigley looked online.

“It looks like they are involved in that reparations movement. Probably angry about my family. My mom’s grandfather was a bank president. He kicked Blacks off this very street in the 1920s. He built houses for rich whites on land they confiscated from Blacks. Pushed them all over to that area near the sewage canal,” Wrigley said.

“And you inherited a mansion. Funny how events from 100 years ago benefit you today,” Steven remarked.

“I know. I’m kept alive by enterprising, devious, exploitative, bigoted robber barons and their spoils,” Wrigley said.

Steven was lost in thought.

“We once knew an artist, Emma Floyd, who lived nearby. She was a friend of my father’s. Beautiful Black woman, stylish, artsy, painted. She had a little boy I played with a few times. Then we stopped visiting, I don’t know why. I don’t think she could still be alive,” Steven said.

“Let’s set something up. You can borrow one of your tweed jackets to make you look more professorial,” Wrigley said.

They sat in the blue walled living room of the little ranch home on Leland Avenue, like the one Steven grew up in, a yellow brick number with a postage stamp sized lawn.

On every wall hung framed art, Modigliani like portraits of Black men and women, painted 60 or 70 years ago.

Sprightly, trim, 88-years-old, Emma Floyd carried herself like a ballet dancer, serving beers on a silver tray, set out on a spider legged brass coffee table.

On either side of the plastic covered tan sofa were two dark green table lamps on blond wood tables stacked with books.

Wrigley and Steven waited politely as she flurried about. Then she carefully sat down in an armchair.

“For a long time, I wanted to tell someone who made movies about my life. And then I found you, Dear Wrigley,” she said.

“Crazy. How did that happen?” Wrigley asked.

“I was looking online for the mailing address of my friend Millie who lives in an assisted living facility on McCormick. That’s McCormick, the boulevard, not you,” she said.

“I understand,” he said, suppressing laughter.
“I do know how to use a computer,” she said.
“Of course you do,” Wrigley said.

“When I moved back to my hometown with my boy Andy, it was right after King died ‘68 or ‘69. We were down in Hyde Park and I loved it, with the art community, music, university and the creative fervor of that time. But then things got chaotic, burning down, riots, so I moved back here. And I became a quiet, studious mom and librarian in Evanston. Yet I never quite stopped hating this hypocritical town,” she said.

“You grew up here?” Steven asked.

“Yes. My parents came up from Clarksville, Tennessee during the First World War. Papa had a successful plastering business here. You know they built a lot of houses in the 1920s. He built us a house a few blocks from the lake. We were doing well, this was before I was born, so I heard. Then Evanston came and rezoned our land for commercial buildings. Black families were only allowed to live in the 5th Ward. My father paid $130 and they moved our house over here where there were unpaved streets, far from everything, near the sanitary canal. No water, no electricity, that came later. But my father never recovered. The Depression came. No business. He drank. We had no money. We had to take in colored soldiers and students for rent. Excuse my outdated words, I’m just going back in time,” she said.

“This happened to your family, here, in Evanston?” Wrigley asked.

She nodded yes. She put on her glasses and read from a printed document.

“According to my research, Wrigley’s great-grandfather on his mom’s side, John F. Hahn, was Evanston City Clerk from 1899-1925. He was president of Commercial Trust and Savings Bank of Evanston. Not only did he facilitate discriminatory zoning laws but his bank financed many Black homeowners and charged us higher interest rates for inferior housing. He was a man responsible for herding us into a zone. And ripping us off when we could least afford it,” she said.

“What can I do?” Wrigley asked.

“Just listen and learn,” she said.

“I went to Foster, a segregated school. In the 1940s, they wouldn’t let Blacks into theaters, stores, restaurants, even Marshall Fields was off limits. We had our own YMCA. We had our own hospital, our own doctors! Apartheid, here! Can you imagine an intelligent, exploring, curious, questioning child like me coming up against a system of hate like that? After we just won the war against Nazism? Why even Black soldiers and their families were kept out of houses built for all GIs in Evanston,” she said.

“I never knew this,” Steven said.

“I loved painting. Moved to Hyde Park. I exhibited at 57th Street Art Show for 20 years. I was very pretty. I was independent. I did what I wanted. Then I met a man at the art show. He was a German Jew, blue eyed, sensitive. He painted, he was well-read, a pianist. We fell in love. But it had to be secret. He was married. Then I had a child named Andy with him. And I moved back here to be closer to him. Isn’t that a story?” she said.

“Was the man you loved Gene Goodman?” Steven asked.

“Yes. And so here we are. I am Gene’s mistress. Or maybe I’m just forgotten, or perhaps I will die and nobody will care about anything I have accomplished or endured. That’s why I need a movie” she said.

Wrigley clenched tightly Steven’s hand.

“Did you know Gene was my father? Or that I would be coming here today?” Steven asked.

“How would I know that? I saw your car outside and it was just like one Gene drove. I thought it was my old mind playing tricks, because sometimes he would come here on the pretext of fixing my plumbing and we’d be together, Sundays usually. You must have come here too, a couple of times,” she said.

She opened a photo album and showed the men a photograph of teenage Andy, about 16, an athletic boy with blue eyes, curly light brown hair, milk coffee complexion.

“Handsome boy. Where does he live now?” Wrigley asked.

“Live? He was killed. Shot dead after he raked the leaves in the front yard. I had been on him for weeks to tidy up the garden. Halloween 1990. All the fallen leaves were tied up in plastic bags, and he put them up along the curb for trash collection. A car drove by for no reason shot him in cold blood,” she said.

“Did they catch the killers?” Steven asked.

“Yes. It was bad people who hated him for looking white. Andy wasn’t white. Not really. The ache of it. My child was taken. I don’t know how to talk about it. I should have taken my last breath a long time ago. Just to get some peace and rest. Can I get you two more beers?” she asked.

The second round of beers were not refreshment but sedation.

After meeting Emma, Wrigley found another vocation.

Juicy Fruit Productions went into documentary film production.

The subject was the life of Emma Floyd.

Emma came to the mansion with mountains of scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries, family movies. These were added to the already existent Goodman Collection. Connections were established with the Shorefront Legacy Center, and the Evanston History Center.

The Nelson Brothers, Dylan Wieboldt, and Saira Pirie were now $1200 a week segment producers.

They amassed oral transcripts of Black residents, many now deceased, who spoke about their lives in 20th Century Evanston. B-roll was shot, all around Evanston, and once the police were called when the Nelson Brothers walked Sheridan Road shooting video. But they had business cards from Juicy Fruit to show cops so they were left to wander like free people.

The life of Emma coincided with the 1950s jazz scene, she had worked at the Blue Note, knew and befriended Sarah Vaughan, Dave Brubeck, Charlie Parker, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing. She dated singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine.

There was music to license, for surely it also had to be in her film.

Wrigley hired a production accountant and editor.

He set up $500 a month donations to Shorefront to cement goodwill and cooperation.

With money all things are possible.

For Steven, the revelations about his father and Emma were startling, yet strangely comforting.

His father was more human than he knew, less severe and dogmatic, open to vice, pleasure, sensuality, danger. The autocratic and prescriptive Germanness defanged; replaced with tenderness, adventurism, romanticism, repainting Gene into a man of love and nonconformity.

But Steven mourned for Andy, a brother he never knew, a younger sibling who lived only blocks away, who might have lived on the other side of the world, who died before Steven could know or love him.


He and Howard Face Timed, their first meeting in many months.

Howard’s face was even redder, his mood even brighter, his talk more emphatic, garrulous, sparkling, enthusiastic.

“Hello from Taman Plastik! Yes, we are here on an island, on the east coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea, with beautiful coral reefs, beaches and tropical sunshine. Don’t mean to torture you enduring late winter in Chicago!” Howard said.

“Are you there on holiday?” Steven asked.

“Oh no. Our company is building a resort property here. It’s going to be gorgeous: five-stars, gourmet food, three swimming pools, shopping mall, championship golf course, brand new highway from the airport, all on an ecological preserve with indigenous plants and native creatures. As I finish my almond croissant, I’m watching FedEx deliver two handcuffed orangutans,” he said.

“Sounds marvelous. I wanted to ask you about my contract. What is my role now that your son is producing a film? Should I stay on? Do you want to pay me as an advisor or in some capacity?” Steven asked.

“Absolutely! You are the force behind this project. I’ll keep paying you for at least 12 more months. Wrigley must finish what he’s started, and you need to manage or cajole him! It’s going to be quite a story” he said.

“This dynamo was a gorgeous artist, jazz aficionado, painter, sexpot from the 1950s. And your father and Emma, well, that’s quite a story,” he said.

It was jarring to hear a family secret, punctuated by tragedy and loss, aired so glibly.

But that was Howard, a promoter.

Steven was pleasantly surprised at Howard’s reaction to a documentary exploring a Black woman and her life within the prickly confines of race, segregation and Evanston history.

“I think you have to stress the positive changes for the Black people in Evanston. They got a raw deal, that’s for sure. But we live in different times. This movie is going to create a new image for West Evanston, always a shitty part of town. I think you have to get Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey and the big money in Chicago involved. Promote the film online,” he said.

Howard emerged, unleashed.

“Do you know Michael Sacks, CEO Grosvenor Capital Management? Graduated Niles West, lives in Glencoe, worth billions. I’ve met him socially. He is a kind of force to get developers interested in that area, tear down the shabby houses, put up lofts, live/work spaces, glass towers, Starbucks, yoga and even a film studio. Evanston can work with private developers. Show it off as an example of how enterprise and innovation can transcend racism,” he said.

Steven listened in silence, aghast, then spoke.

“This is a documentary about Black life in Evanston as seen through the life of an accomplished Black woman who experienced discrimination, who lost a child shot dead in her front yard, who lived the whole history of racial upheavals in the last 88 years. It’s not a happy tale,” Steven said.

“That’s where you’re wrong! It’s a marvelous story of endurance, determination and grit. You can either make it sad and nobody will watch it. Or you can jazz it up, pun intended, and make it a journey of hope and redemption with a happy ending. Because happy endings are the only endings that sell in America,” he said.

END

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

Placidia Avenue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked cool and smelled smoky like cedar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unfathomable enormity of the blue and beyond was terrifying.

He stopped looking up and got down into the car.

The Photographer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years ago none of this existed.

Last year she called it a hobby.

And this year it was a business.

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

Auntie Tammy

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

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

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

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

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

Her Aunt stood glumly, shaking her head.

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

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

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

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

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

Tammy asked about Eric’s work.

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

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

The Virtual Dog

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was the $4,000 invoice.

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

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

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

“Of course not!” she answered.

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

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

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

Ash Ritual

New orders grew.

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

Nariko hired a part-time student assistant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little LEDs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did something happen?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like your husband?” Walter asked.

It came out of nowhere, anger and raw feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Entanglement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE END.

Project Tokyo.

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A tired LA talent agent escapes client abuse and seeks solace abroad in Japan.

Project Tokyo (Downloadable PDF)

I was walking around the Hollywood Farmers Market one Sunday in July when I went into an alley to sit down and smoke a joint. A tall, gym-toned,light-skinned black man, in an orange tank top and khaki shorts sat down next to me. “Can I get a drag?” he asked. I gave him my smoke and watched him suck: high cheekbones, full lips, wide open eyes.

He looked down at his phone and started playing a video. It was his Instagram. “WB11. Model, actor, but more a performer than anything,” he said.

I told him that I was a talent manager, but in truth, I was really a failed actor who came from Boston 20 years ago, never getting hired, paid or laid.

“Do you know Matan Sharon?” I asked him. That was my highest performing client.

“Is she somebody big?” he asked.

“Matan is a man. Yes. He’s doing well. He’s on CBS’s The Big Noodle,” I said.

He took another drag, stood up and thanked me again. I never thought I would see him again.

Then it was late October- dried leaves, paper goblins taped to windows, an extra blanket at night.

Alone, after a Woody Allen movie at the Arclight, I walked into the lobby and saw WB11.

His shiny black hair fell in waves on the back of his head. He carried himself in cocky ease, his long eyelashes slightly effeminizing, his broad shoulders and muscled arms disarmingly manly. He smelled like lime and tobacco.

“WB11! How ya doin?” I asked as if he were my best friend. I patted him the on the back, reminded him of the shared joint, congratulated him on Instagram, invited him to get coffee.

“Man, I would but I am waiting for my girl. You know YoungDoll?”

“Young Doll?” I asked. “Is she someone I should know?”

“Yeah. She’s the one I posted the video dancing with Rachel the Sriracha Lady at Spice Alley!”

I could only remember him…..in still images, his blue eyes and peanut butter complexion, his carved and chiseled body, his shirtless hikes atop Runyon Canyon. Everything concerning his face and body was in my mind, and I forgot anyone else connected to him.

“I’m an agent,” I blurted out, a line that functions as a stun gun to disable frantic and fast-moving narcissists.

“I’m 37. You know I was a model for 15 years and I want to transition to acting. Everyone thinks I’m 26,” he said.

“Do you want to sit down and talk?” I asked.

“Sure. Let’s go over to the restaurant and grab a beer,” he said. His previous appointment was forgotten, as quickly as a mosquito flies and lands on its next arm.

We sat down and ordered two ales. I drank mine fast as he ran down his bio. Born in Milwaukee, mom was German, dad was African-American, dropped out of Northern Illinois to model in New York, lived and in NYC for ten years, moved to Hollywood. Never acted, only modeled, had one son. “I’m really an actor,” he said.

I asked him if he studied acting. No.

Had he been on stage, in a theater group? No.

Was he a member of Actor’s Equity, AFTRA-SAG? No.

What writers or playwrights did he admire? None.

What movies or TV shows had he seen? He couldn’t recall any.

What books did he read? What productions had he auditioned for? What did he do all day with his time and in pursuit of his goals?  He said he lived healthily and spiritually.

“What I really want to do Mario,” he said to me as he leaned over, “Is go to Japan. More than acting, more than modeling, more than money, I just dream of Japan.”

He spoke of his simple apartment, his barefoot walks atop freshly swept floors, his futon and white comforter on the floor, his burning Cedarwood incense, his daily drinks of green tea, his paper shaded lamps, his dinners of ramen and grilled salmon and noodles, his teenage forays into karate and judo.

He spoke angrily about LA. He hated trash on the street, loud neighbors, rude drivers, stolen bicycles, tagged walls, nightly sirens; helicopters cutting and slicing air, shining down beams of light that woke him up.

He described, in contrast, the peace he imagined in Japan, the civilization he knew existed over there. He was ready and willing to become an exile, to leave Los Angeles.

He licked his lips, dipped two fingers into his water and moistened his hair back. “I shower with Yuzu gel. I rub it into a sponge and then I put it all over my body. I turn the water up, nice and hot, and let it run all over. The suds go down the drain and the whole bathroom smells like grapefruit. I’m relaxed and rejuvenated.”

He told me about hanging copper rain chains from his fire escape and collecting the water in barrels as they do in Japan.

Ye shall know a man by his purchases.

Our curious session was over. He had asked no questions about me. We shook hands. And then, in the modern way, he leaned over, hugging and patting me in void intimacy.

I walked back through the blowing trash along Sunset, crossing Vine, and turned right on North El Centro, a winding, dark and atmospheric old street of worn down stucco apartments and cheap nostalgic sentiment, scented in jasmine and wan gloom.

Matan Sharon

Matan Sharon, my 27-year-old client, born in Israel, destroyed in Los Angeles, got a role on a CBS sitcom three years ago. He was well paid, and I skimmed 15% off and kept 85% of it in the bank and put 15% in the market.

Hollowed eyed, chain smoking, the most compelling young actor on television and the dullest in person, Matan was a manic depressive with wild mood swings and sudden fits of anger. He would tell me that I changed his life and made his dreams possible. And then he’d slam the phone down and say he hated my guts.

Matan introduced me to another actor, red-haired Dominique Mitterand, a Paris born model who came to Hollywood in 2009. She worked in a Silver Lake wine bar, and I signed her. Johnny Depp came into the shop to buy a case of wine, took her number, and within a week she was cast in a tentpole animated/live action squirrel movie eventually strung out into four sequels.

Larry Sheinbaum from Newton, MA was my childhood buddy. He dropped out of rabbinical school, moved to Hollywood, and created and produced “Little F-kn Bitches” a hit TV comedy show. When his son Mark graduated BU, I signed him and within six months Mark was the co-star of “Little F-kn Bastards”, his father’s new TV show.  I took 20% off the top of Mark’s salary and bought my parents a vacation home on Cape Cod.

In 2011, I was approached by Breakfast Plate Productions, Inc. and asked to come on as Executive Producer on a new reality show about people stranded in the Arctic who struggle to find hot breakfast in a sea of snow.  Two months after I joined, I had a falling out with Martin Kampfer because I criticized his choice of shoes before an important meeting with executives.

I was making money.

Yet I was empty, so empty, so fed up, so tired, so utterly tired.

Sun Down Days

Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, the three holiest days in the American calendar, came and went, and again I found myself pushed into another 21st Century year. January, fresh, untested, unsullied, born free of blood, conflict or tears, came out of the womb of time, enveloping mankind as a tangible measurement of life’s passing and eternity.

I sat at my desk under a skylight into which poured the mockingly happy sun that illuminates all of Los Angeles, daring a city to cry.

I opened the glass casement doors onto my balcony and walked into a living dead winter garden of white roses and pots of lavender, hummingbirds dancing above the electric water fountain, indestructible mossy green succulents, and preternaturally red geraniums from the Home Depot, grown in Supersoil, sold in six pack.

I had grown old.

Now I lived in the new land of online and passed from my late 30s into my early 50s watching a computer screen.

I thought of my old Italian grandmother, Martina, sitting at her window sill at 150 Salem Street in the North End of Boston, a smart, strong lady who raised six children and read one book in her life, chewing rhubarb candy, resting her meaty arm on a pillow surveying the street, every day, for many hours. “Look Mario they put a parking ticket on that car!”

Life is time passed mostly in looking out.

I could not sit and watch my street as nobody walked down it. Instead, I sat out on the balcony in the afternoon sun, resolute only in my will not to walk back inside.

I pulled out my telephone, as men once pulled out their cigarette; my security device, my reassurance, my prop to steady a life unsure of its next step.

Walter Benton had texted me: Come to the Hollywood Farmer’s Market at Spice Alley on Sunday at 11am.

Sunday in Los Angeles

I ran on the treadmill Saturday night, ate a healthy dinner and went to bed at 11 O’Clock. I awoke at 7am, showered and cleaned the apartment, dusting the floors, bleaching the bathroom, washing my laundry and hanging up t-shirts to dry in the wind.

Something existential had bothered me the day before, but I had shaken it off the next morning. As an added insurance of happiness, I checked my Fidelity investment account and it had gained $4,560 in the last three months.

I vowed to eat healthy. I opened a yogurt and poured granola into a bowl, mixing it with a banana and fresh strawberries.

I arrived at the market around 10:30 and made my way over to the landscaped brick alley where the city government and private enterprise startled the City of Angels with pavers, plantings and LED lighting.  As I walked passed Velvet Margarita’s patio, Matan sat and drank a frozen margarita with my other client Dominique.

I walked over to say hello.  Matan smoked illegally and ignored me. Icy eyed Dominique looked over.  Again I said hello.

“I heard you the first time!” Matan shouted. “Get the fuck out of our space Mario!”

“Don’t you know we are sick of you?” Dominique yelled. “Sick of your bullshit, your self-centeredness, your uppity Hollywood attitude. We are eating alone and just want to be left alone!”

“Don’t call me again Mario!” Matan screamed. “We’re finished and we are getting the fuck out of your clutches! We’re having a meeting to figure out how to destroy you!”

Between them both they had both earned almost $10 million dollars in the last five years.  I somehow, against all reason, had considered them friends. For years, I had fought for their successes, covered up their failures, made up excuses for their behaviors.

I walked up the alley shaking and humiliated. And then, I, still bruised, at the Hepps Salt Bar, saw Walter Benton with his phone, filming himself singing to the salt.

I came closer. He was unaware as I watched him dance a trance of mono-choreography.

“You see you just take a little of the spicy salt, the chipotle and sprinkle it on the avocado and then you chop, like this, the tomato, and you take your fork and you mash it around, like this, like this…”

His hips and legs swerved and his arms were akimbo. He sang and rapped a capella, lyrical and lithe, on his feet, his tight tank top and tanned arms performing for his smart phone.  “Come to me, come to me salt, make me happy and give me pleasure!”  It made me laugh and think of Harry Belafonte.

I had walked down that Hollywood alley, for only 10 minutes. But in that time I had passed through satisfaction, assault, degradation, rejection, humiliation and, now, finally, laughter.

“Hey, Walter! I’m here!” I said aloud, almost assuring myself as surely as I was alerting him.  He kept dancing, looked over and nodded.

After he stopped, we went down the alley, sat on a stoop in the sun and smoked a joint. He had invited me, expressly and exclusively, for just this moment. 

Christa McCarthy

After the actors’ alley attack I needed to get away. Revenge of some sort, the subtlest kind, came into my head. I booked a Tokyo flight and hotel.  Before my trip, I erected some talent to bolster my roster.

With Matan and Dominique plotting something evil, I hunkered down and met a very fat and homely 38-year-old comedian, Christa McCarthy, from Lawrence, MA. She had come by and cried about her bad luck and broken dreams. She grabbed my Bay State heart and I signed her.

Christa booked a recurring role on Fox’s “87”, a sci-fi series about zombies living in Palm Springs. Christa played a fitness instructor who worked undercover as a government agent. She eventually won an Emmy and her salary increased to $500,000 an episode. I took 15% and invested most of it in Asian Mutual Funds.

When I called Christa to congratulate her on the Emmy, she burst out in tears and said, “You were the whole reason that I am who I am today! I really thank you from the bottom of my heart Mario!”

I was touched, and finally felt some measure of gratitude, appreciation and loyalty from one of my most successful clients.

A week later, I received a letter from Christa’s attorney, Rita Kleinfelder, informing me that I was no longer representing her client.

To understand, comprehend or reason why is not for the Angeleno to know. Our city, like Baghdad or Damascus, is cursed by sudden and inexplicable explosions of fraternal disorder, irrational and cruel, inhuman and inane, permanent shearing of ties between lovers, friends and family. In their wake, the victims pick up the shards of love and memory and place them into an emotional suitcase, tied together with frayed string, shoved into the back seat on a journey riding the freeways and potholed streets over and over again. They drive until death, in search of some sure sign, safe exit and smooth pavement, accelerating in futility into eternity.

Hotel Celestine 

The lady clerk bowed when I entered the elevator at Tokyo’s Hotel Celestine. Silently, I glided up to my little white room overlooking the skyscrapers, a room entered into with a key card, a green light, a waiting pair of slippers, terry cloth bathrobe and the comforting hum of the Panasonic remote controlled air-conditioner.

I sat on the toilet, pushed a button and felt a spray of warm water shoot up into my anus.  I walked into the shower and turned the perfectly tuned hot-cold faucet to 40 C.  I worked a foamy menthol shower gel into my jet-fatigued body and stood under the spray for a good fifteen minutes.

I fell down on the bed and curled up under the blanket. I awoke at 3:30am and having nothing to do, decided to get up, wide-awake, put on my khakis, white t-shirt, blue sweater and go downstairs and walk out onto the dark and uninhabited streets of Minato.

Occasionally, at 4am, a taxi drove by. I walked passed a man sweeping an office lobby. But mostly the city was asleep. And I was alone, in an exquisitely safe landscape, without real danger, save for the one in my imagination.

I took a walk, a far walk, into the Ginza, where the lights on the stores and the buildings still burned brightly with energy, vitality, freedom, prosperity and pride.

Just before dawn, I reached Tsukiji Fish Market in the dark, busy as hell, with trucks, workers, and a flood of tourists inside. The air smelled marine, fishy and salty and smoked in diesel.

I entered one of the busy alleys, where boxes and men on wheels, pushing and driving, steering fish and fish parts, passed me in flashes. They hauled large and small cargoes of the sea, loading and unloading, stacking and uncrating oceanic produce: freshly killed, still swimming, captured and sold against their will.

I took out my Fujifilm camera and aimed it at two young guys in vinyl suits, joyfully riding past me in a yellow Komatsu Forklift. “Take more photos!” they exuberantly yelled in English.

A faint sun came over. I walked into a sushi stall, sat down and devoured a dish of fresh shrimp, mackerel, yellowtail, sea urchin, salmon roe; washed down with a hot cup of green tea.

The chefs and owners bowed and thanked me as I left. I walked out of the market and back towards the Ginza and beyond, until, six hours later, I reached the Marunouchi, between Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace.

It was a Friday afternoon, around lunch, and suits and dresses poured out of office buildings, an army of homogeneity, not only in race but dress. Gray haired bankers and smooth faced women with designer bags hurried along into basement food courts. I got carried into their crowd and descended into low ceilinged halls of mouth-masked hawkers with plastic gloves selling box lunches of beef stew, rice, fried fish, pickled vegetables.  Skinny men in suits stood at magazine stands reading comics. It was a clean crowd, packed in politeness, energetic, unflappable, professional, but the indoor air was suffocating.

I came up again, into the fresh air of day, and passed along the sidewalk exquisite luxury clothing in the windows: fur collared cashmere coats, tweed jackets, handmade leather shoes, colorful sweaters, gray wool men’s suits, retailers Beams, Tomorrowland, Prada, Tom Ford, Paul Smith. Behind every freshly wiped and dust free plate glass, shop girls and shop guys, waiting and bowing, walking and folding. The servers smiled upon the served, a theater of national manners enhancing the products, living people and dead products: seductive, elegant, tailored and merchandised.

At a sculpture garden carved between tall towers, a trio played for an attentive audience as water dripped through a stream bed of plantings, under the watchful eye of navy suited security guards. Along the perimeter, surrounding the enclosure, people sat at tables drinking wine and coffee.

An old cane-carrying man, in plaid wool pants, tight knit shirt and straw hat, sat on a bench next to me. He discreetly took his little camera up to his eyes and aimed it at me.

I was in that strange, enchanted land where strangers considered me special and photograph worthy.

I walked to Yurakucho Station and rode up to the platform, standing in line behind two women waiting for the next train arriving in two minutes, which it did.  On board, I stood silent with the other silent riders.  I watched a young girl, maybe 5 years old, bow to an older seated woman as the younger child disembarked with her mom at Hamamatsucho Station.  It was a touching moment of interaction and civility.

Near Tamachi Station, I purchased a bottle of water at a convenience store and paid with a handful of coins. The clerk took my money and laid it out on a tray as if they were diamonds. With his straightedge, he lined them up and separated the denominations, gently guiding them into his till. Then he bowed and thanked me.

I, an American, passed people on the street on the way back to my hotel, people who walked in security and were unworried about getting accidentally shot or mugged, people who worked at jobs without fear of dismissal, people who ate small portions and stayed thin until death, people who saved money but dressed well, people who lived in unlocked houses and apartments, people who knew if they fell sick they would not die from bankruptcy.

When calamity struck the nation, in typhoon or quake, and people died or suffered, it came from nature, not the Republican Party.

My last hours in Japan were spent on the roof of Narita Airport in the sunset watching the planes take off on the tarmac.  My baggage was already loaded onto the plane, yet I thought, I fantasized, about walking back down to the train and riding back into Tokyo, so in love was I with Japan and so in dread of returning to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

No Gifts 

I had never before taken a trip overseas without buying something to take back to a friend.  Yet this time I vowed to come home with nothing. Nobody would receive anything thoughtful or sentimental. No one.

Ten hours later I was descending into the new international terminal at LAX, a place of soaring spaces and dirty windows, striking architecture and slow luggage. I waited an hour for my one small case to come around the conveyer belt. And then I got in line to go through customs, with all the other citizens of the world yelled at and screamed at in English (the only language!) and told to hand their papers to an fat monster immigration lady strapped and stuffed in tight trousers and black holster.

I turned my phone back on and saw twenty likes on my Instagram page from WB11. I was as delighted as if he had come in person to the airport and thrown his arms around me to welcome me back.

I got in a cab and we drove onto the 405. There was traffic of course and the driver had his radio on. He looked back at me, “Some dude is attempting to kill himself and jump off the 105 bridge,” he said.

“God I’m so tired. I just want to go to sleep,” I said as I slumped into the back seat.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Japan,” I said.

“Oh, Japan. That’s like the world capital of suicide. I heard they kill themselves as easily as we blow our noses.  Why are they so miserable? Is it because they all live so close together?”

A Foreign City

Sanguine, harmonious, unbothered, I came back into town resolved to drop the bitter tics pulling me into inclement alliances, tempestuous furies, thundering madness.  Maybe my peace would come from drinking hot sake, or perhaps from cutting off anyone who wronged me. I would search no more for love and seek no solace in friends.

I bought a blue glass Buddha and placed it on my desk near the south-facing window, dreaming that the light pouring into it might materialize into atmospheric tranquility to breathe into my soul.

For weeks I hardly went online and I put my many phones on vibrate. Clients sent me emails and I answered in rote brevity: yes, no, yes, no, yes, no. 

I went for train rides into the innards of Los Angeles, taking the Metro into East Los Angeles, up to Pasadena, down to Long Beach, over to North Hollywood. I walked and rode and biked and hardly took my Jag out of the garage. I grew a beard and wore a wool driving cap indoors and out.

One night I was alone, at The Federal on Lankershim drinking an Ommegang Ale. Matan Sharon, in black leather motorcycle jacket, white jeans, suede boots, red scarf and perfectly coiffed windswept gelled hair, walked into the bar and sat down next me, apparently unaware that I was there.

I didn’t say a word to him. The new me was silent, observant, full of compassion. I had infused the calm acceptance of Japan into my life.

I ordered another beer, and still Matan was seemingly unaware of me. The full beer came and before I could drink it he turned to me and said, “I’m sorry. I acted like a jerk.”

I looked at him for a moment and smiled.

And then I picked up the full pint and dumped it on his head.  I left the bar, walked across the street, and got on the train.

Nobody genuinely sorry ever apologizes in Los Angeles. They want something for their remorse. Remember that if you think I was wrong.

Walter Benton

Walter Benton was busy renovating his body online. He had fast little shirtless videos- of six seconds each- pumping weights and breathing hard. He posted his Photoshopped face, shaven and unshaven, his hair straightened and kinky, his complexion white one day, black the next. He uploaded a saying: “Seek Respect Not Attention.”

He would probably never make me a dime, but I signed him. He became my client: gigantically insignificant, remotely unpromising, touched with multi-racialism, rap, abs, a tinge of gayness; a synthetic (his description) “semi-nigger” of no particular origin or destination whose streaming form danced on my phone entertaining and titillating me.

He stomped online in cut off shorts, bobbed up and down in the gym, ran fast down the alley, dropping to his knees and raising his hairy armpits in victorious fists.

A year passed and I never spoke to him. We only communicated with hearts.

I wonder if he ever got over to Tokyo.

END

 

Dry Wind

Dry Wind

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

Day of the Deltoid


A married woman renovates her love life while renovating her kitchen in Day of the Deltoid.

Day of the Deltoid  (PDF)

 

Journal of American Progress

photo by author

 

Colton Banning is back.

He is living, near the Venice canals, in a messy house full of conflicted characters.

Surrounded by dirt, disorder and self-absorption, he is lusted after by an older woman and taken into a poet’s suffering.

Journal of American Progress (PDF)