It was 20 years ago that British photographer Russell Young first lent his eye to celebrity culture. The assignment was photographing George Michael for the sleeve of an album called Faith. That job launched a career and soon Russell was shooting musicians like Morrissey, Bjork, Springsteen, Dylan, REM, New Order, The Smiths, Diana Ross, and many other celebrities. The next natural step was directing music videos; Russell directed a hundred music videos during the heyday of MTV.
Russell Young’s art works are currently on show at London Gallery, Whisper Gallery, 27/28 EastCastle Street, W1W 8DH, by appointment only.
Kele Okereke – His First Dead Body
He wasn’t sure if it was rude or not, leaving the club mid-conversation, but that stupid fucking song about being a firework had just started to play again and he knew that this was a sign that he should not be here. That song had been following him around New York for the whole week, blasting from car stereos to the bodegas up and down the West Village where he was staying. It didn’t make any sense, what did it mean to be a firework? Why did she sound so carefree singing that lyric about being on fire? It just made him angry. [private]So he told Derek, or Daniel, or David the eager young consultant who was talking to him (not the other way around) that he was going for a cigarette. He carefully descended the stairs of the club, making sure not to touch any of the sweaty shirtless bodies of the wide-eyed men. The surly blonde twink did not look him in the eye as he handed him back his leather jacket at the coat-check. Thank you, he muttered to himself. A perfect end to a perfect evening.
Out on the sidewalk he bristled as he felt the first blast of cold air. It was supposed to be warmer here; he had only brought one thin leather jacket to last him for the four weeks and he was already starting to get a cold. Yesterday it had rained all day, from the moment he woke up to the time he stumbled back to his apartment in the early hours of the morning. He might as well still be in London. If he was in London now, he would probably be doing the exact same thing, walking home on his own from the Joiner’s Arms, his local gay bar, semi-drunk and in a bad mood. If he was feeling particularly desperate he would probably call his ex Ruben, who would most probably ignore his call. He stopped himself mid-thought; there was no point thinking like this. He was here now, and he had to make it work.
For months he had thought of nothing but yellow taxis, brownstones and Times Square. New York was going to be his awakening; he would forget about Ruben and he would forget that he hated his job and everything and for four weeks he would feel life again. But so far it hadn’t really panned out like that. The only person he’d spoken to yesterday that he thought was nice was the girl in pizza shop at the end of his road. She called him honey as she gave him a lukewarm slice from the display counter. He’d liked how it had rolled off her tongue. During the week he had met people in bars, started conversations with strangers, but it always ended in the same way. He had to stop telling people where he was from because they always said the same thing, that they loved London and they wanted to come and live there. At first he tried to tell them that they were wrong and that life in London could be grey and fast and sometimes it could be so lonely that it would make you want to stab out your own eyes out with a fork but they didn’t seem to understand him, so he just nodded his head and waited for them to stop.
He was starting to think that maybe he had made a massive mistake in spending his savings on coming to NY. There had been no epiphany, no burning bush, just more of the same; busy people with fast lives and he still felt the way that he always did. Maybe his best friend Chris had been right: his demons would follow him no matter where he went.
He had to get out of the habit of taking taxis everywhere but it was too cold to walk the sixteen blocks home, his ears were starting to go numb. So he promised himself as he walked to corner of Eleventh Avenue that this would be the last yellow taxi for a while. Luckily there were four taxis all parked in a row. All the drivers were staring into the road with their windows and doors open. In front of them two heavily wrapped up figures were standing in the middle of the road. They were crouching over a bundle of rags, all grey and blue. He could sense that something was wrong with this picture. His pace quickened. As he got closer he could make out that the two figures in the middle of road were girls. One of them was now crouching down in the road over the bundle, but it wasn’t a bundle of rags, it was a body.
The panic starts to move in him, like wildfire at the edge of a forest. Without thinking, his legs accelerate towards them. Everything is in slow motion and for the first time he realises how drunk he is.
What happened? What happened?
We don’t know. We came out of a party and he was just stumbling in the road. We thought maybe he was drunk and then he just collapsed in the road.
He can hear in her accent that she is French, although he thinks she looks more Scandinavian with her blonde hair and Elvis Costello glasses. He can tell that she’s worried but she plays it cool. Her voice is calm and detached and he wishes that he had some of her insouciance right now. He is frantic as his words trip over themselves.
The other girl is kneeling on the pavement; she has a kinder face, light brown eyes and olive skin. She is gently slapping the boy’s face.
Hey man, stay with us, stay with us.
He can hear in her voice that she is not coping as well as her friend. There is a quaver that betrays her and he can tell she’s close to tears.
The boy on the floor is young, in his early twenties, light-skinned and handsome. His jeans are low and his cotton drawers are hanging out. In another life he could be a basketball player or a young rapper.
It’s the stillness of the boy’s body that he finds most terrifying. He lies crumpled like a marionette with the strings cut. His brown eyes are wide open and staring at the sky. He is lying lifeless, like a waxwork, with lips that are already starting to go blue.
Come on man, please stay with us.
There are no marks on his face so it can’t have been a fight and he doesn’t smell like alcohol so it must be drugs. He sighs: another party-boy casualty. He wonders if this boy could have been at the same club he was at moments before? Could he have walked right past him in the dark or waited outside a bathroom stall as he locked himself in and got high?
Why are none of these rubbernecking taxi drivers helping? He is starting to get angry. They probably see this all the time and have learned not to care. He wonders if he and the French girls had been American, not European tourists would they be avoiding this dying black boy on the streets too?
Even though the boy’s eyes are blank his chest is moving slowly, like a crawl. He is in there somewhere. There must be something he can do more than just wishing, there must be something practical?
He thinks back to the first aid training he received when he was in the Boy Scouts almost twenty years ago, but it’s all fuzzy. The only thing that he can recall is about head trauma, if a motorcyclist has been in an accident you shouldn’t move them or remove their helmet as it might make it worse. But this boy hasn’t been in an accident and there isn’t a helmet to be removed. Why didn’t he pay more attention as a child?
Have you called an ambulance?
Yes, just now before you got here, they said they’re on their way.
Oh OK. Maybe we should call his friends, find out what happened to him. Does he have a phone?
I don’t know, check.
He goes into the pockets of the boy’s jeans and pulls out an iPhone with a cranberry coloured rubber sleeve. Maybe his friends will know what he has taken so they can tell the medics when they get here. It might make all the difference, it might.
But he must be the only person in the world that doesn’t own an iPhone, he was always put off by their touch screens. With frozen fingers he manages to unlock the screen but he doesn’t know how to access the last number dialled. He feels like smashing the phone against the ground. Why won’t it co-operate? But it’s all right, he starts to hear the stuttering sirens in the distance, as he looks south down the block he sees the flashing red and white and disco lights lighting up Eleventh Avenue. He raises the iPhone in his hand and flags the ambulance down.
The kind French girl has started to cry.
Amadine, he’s not breathing, he’s not.
Come on buddy, stay with us, they are here now, he says but something has changed about the boy, his lips are completely blue and his chest has stopped moving. He has never seen a dead body before, never looked death in the eye. It chills him as he looks at the still boy: all he can think about his is his family somewhere. He thinks about his own mother crying in the airport as she saw him off. She told him to be careful and to come back in one piece. He had laughed at her as she cried. She was always thinking the worst.
The ambulance crew take over. They are well drilled and they move as one. A short butch female Italian-American paramedic comes up to him and he hands her the phone. She must have seen this a thousand times, there is no drama in her voice, just another day at the office. She asks him if the boy was his friend.
No, I don’t know him.
Well, we have it from here now, it’s time for you all to go.
There is something firm in her voice and he doesn’t realise until halfway down the block that she did not give him a choice. The French girls have already disappeared and he cannot feel his hands or his ears any more. Halfway down the block he turns back to look at the paramedics and sees that they have put a tarp over the boy’s body. Their work here is done.
It isn’t until he gets into the taxi that he realises he is shaking. All he can think about is the boy’s eyes, dead like marbles. He needs some sort of reassurance so he turns to the taxi driver as they speed down Eighth Avenue.
Can I ask you a question?
Have you ever seen a dead body before?
Yes I have … my grandmother.
I just saw someone die on the street. Does it happen often here?
The taxi driver snorted.
People die everywhere buddy, it’s got nothing to do with New York.
I know but I’ve never seen anything like that before.
There was a pause.
Well, it’s life buddy, you gotta toughen up.
The taxi driver turned on the radio and he got he message that the conversation had ended. He sank back into his seat.
He didn’t know what to do when he got back into his apartment, it seemed so small now. He felt so naive, the words of the taxi driver reverberating in his head. The skin of the world had been pulled back; he could see the blood, the flesh and bones and he did not like it. He called his mother back in London: it would be about 7am on a Sunday morning so he knew that she probably wouldn’t answer but he left a message on her answering machine. He told her not to worry, that he loved her and he missed her, and that everything was OK here. Everything was OK.[/private]
Kele Okereke lives in London and New York. He is the singer/guitarist of British indie band Bloc Party. He has had stories printed in Punk Fiction, Five Dials, and Attitude magazine. He is currently writing a collection of short stories called Midnight on a Bicycle. He has a blog atiamkele.com/blog.
Paul Beckman – Whatchamacallit
Mirsky was working in his home office writing ad copy for a housing brochure and for the life of him couldn’t think of the word for the bump that went from the road surface to the sidewalk. Driveway. Divider. Edging. These words came flying back and forth into his head and he knew they were wrong, and he also knew that he had thought of the right word when he began to write the copy but the harder he tried to think of it now, the farther from his grasp it slipped.
[private]He felt the spasm of an anxiety attack. Mirsky was only fifty-five years old and this was another in a series of words that he’d been forgetting lately. About six months ago he noticed his wife Elaine was finishing his sentences for him. Mirsky had always been a fast thinker and a fairly rapid talker so while he’d observed this behaviour in other couples, it was a new experience for him. He laughed about it with Elaine when it started, and even later on when friends or co-workers began doing it to him too. No one thinks much of tossing a word into another’s sentence; it’s a common phenomenon, and has been forever, probably.
But at his age, when friends and relatives are talking about their parents’ dementia or Alzheimer’s, Mirsky has started to worry. Until this moment with the sidewalk word, he hadn’t shared his thoughts with anyone. Putting his pen down, he reflected on what was happening, and why people were finishing his sentences. Mirsky thought that perhaps his voice trailed off, or he spoke slower as he came to the end of a sentence. Then he realized that he’d really and truly been having difficulty thinking of last words.
As Elaine walked by his office door and smiled at him, Mirsky waved her in. She had a great smile and used it often. “What do you call this part of the subdivision road?” he asked, pointing to the line on the plot plan. “The curb?” she asked without hesitation, as if he’d sprung a surprise quiz on her. “Why? Are you looking for another word for curb? Have you tried the thesaurus?”
She must have noticed the sad look on his face as he grabbed the pen and quickly wrote curb before forgetting it again. Elaine, his wife of almost thirty years, and proud that she was still able to fit into her prom gown, walked over and kissed the top of his head.
“I’m worried,” Mirsky said softly. “This isn’t funny any more.”
“It never was,” she said.
“There’s something wrong.”
“You’re just over-worked and tired,” she said, kissing his head again and throwing a little extra wiggle into her walk as she left the room. Mirsky knew her ‘follow me’ wiggle when he saw it, so he quickly capped his pen, turned out the office light, and headed for the bedroom.
As he was walking by the kitchen Mirsky saw a loaf of rye bread on the counter. He paused and tried to remember why he was standing outside the kitchen. Automatically his hand moved up and his thumb and forefinger massaged the creases between his eyes as if that would answer the question. How nice a salami sandwich would be, he thought, so he put together a dandy one with stone ground mustard, Muenster cheese, and a huge hunk of lettuce on that seeded rye. As he was opening a can of Coke Elaine walked into the kitchen in her ‘take me’ nightgown.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“Bite?” Mirsky offered, holding out his sandwich.[/private]
Paul Beckman is a real estate salesman. Sometimes his fiction writing sneaks into his real estate ads. He earned his MFA from Bennington College. Some publishing credits: The Connecticut Review, Playboy, Onthebus, Short Story Library, 5 Trope, The Scruffy Dog Review, Fiction Warehouse, Web del Sol, Long Story Short, Pittsburgh Flash Fiction Gazette, Riverbabble, Exquisite Corpse, Collectedstories.com, and Postcard Shorts.
Louise Phillips – Keeping Up
December 31, 1900
The New Year was celebrated outside the city hall. An extra force of police had been detailed to prevent a crush. Circulation was difficult, but everyone remained in high spirits. The crowds stretched down Broadway and Park Row. The dailies will report that several women were said to have been frightened, and two or three fainted.
‘The advance of the human race during the past 100 years has not been equalled by the progress of man within any of the preceding ages.’
The President of the Council spoke. [private]The city hall was strung with red, white, and blue electric lights. Music was provided by John Philip Sousa and his military band. The Choral Union sang America, God Bless America, and the Hallelujah Chorus. Men blew on tin horns and passed each other flasks of homemade spirits. Some of them got a bit tight. Women wore blouses with bone-stiffened collars which restricted the movement of their necks; in the finer homes it is still unthinkable to be seen leaving the lavatory by anyone but an intimate relation.
‘We shall soon not only be citizens of a Nation recognised throughout the world as the greatest of a State pre-eminent among States, and of a city not only the metropolis of the Western world, but of the whole world.’
The choir stopped singing and the lights went out just before twelve. The crowds were silent as the denouement of the Gilded Age unfolded in the cold night. The bells in the clock rang out the hour. The lights went back on and fireworks exploded over the city. Ships in the harbour blew their horns. The staff at The New York Times went up to the roof of their Park Row offices to set off Roman candles and write down descriptions of the pyrotechnics.
The crowds had dispersed by one o’clock. The elevated trains going up-town and to Brooklyn were packed. It smelled like sulphur. An illuminated sign across the façade of City Hall read ‘Welcome 20th Century.’
Metz Pap told his grandchildren about Efim the Boy Prophet, who wrote a secret letter warning their people in 1852. He told them about the persecution and the massacres in 1894. He said the instructions in Efim’s letter had been to move to California, where Armenians began immigrating at the end of the 19th century.
Metz Pap was twelve when he crossed over on a steamship, just before WW1 – just in time. They slept in bunks above the engine room, with a cloth divider separating the women and the men. He remembers the noise of the firemen shovelling coals into the furnaces and the dull churn of the engines. They ate bread and sardines every day. It was difficult to think of anything but food. The passengers went up to the deck for air and talked in their groups. A vagrant albatross roamed over the ship then disappeared into the empty sky. Metz Pap befriended an Irish boy and started learning English. ‘Hello.’ ‘What is that?’ ‘This is the ocean.’ ‘This is a boat.’ His friend handed him a postcard of an actual topless woman in stockings reclining on a divan. ‘She’s French.’ She smiled and held a cigarette in a holder and didn’t seem to mind being photographed naked.
They reached New York City after eighteen days at sea. Everyone came up to the deck with their bundles and trunks. Metz Pap will say to his grandchildren: ‘There is nothing you will experience in your lifetimes which can compare to the sight of the Statue of Liberty from the deck of that ship. Most of us had never left our villages or seen ocean before. There is nothing you will experience in your lifetime which could compare to that sight.’
The aliens debarked at Ellis Island. They lined up outside the main building, clutching valises and clippings from vineyards. Most of the women wore headscarves. The men wore suits and scuffed work boots, everyone was trying to look smart. No pushing or shoving. ‘We were all scared’, he tells his grandchildren. ‘We asked God to keep us safe. Everyone knew somebody who had been sent back.’
The arrivals climbed the stairs to the Great Hall, the first test. Doctors standing at the top marked the entry cards of the people who had trouble climbing. They lined up for another medical exam, row after row of hopeful faces creased with stress.
The doctor flipped back Metz Pap’s eyelids with a hook. He held them for a long time, until tears started streaming down Metz Pap’s cheeks. The doctor marked an “E” on his entry chart. He had failed the medical.
‘I had noticed in large crowds that adults don’t pay as much mind to children,’ Metz Pap will recall with a wink at his grandchildren, ‘So I tucked the entry card under my sweater and hid the results of the test.’
He watched the guards and the people he needed to join filing past him. He waited to join the crowd, like someone looking for the perfect moment to jump between two skipping ropes.
‘Did you get past the guards Metz Pap?’
‘What a question! Where are you sitting right now?’
The officials at Ellis Island did not baptise immigrants with American names. They used the names from the manifests the employees of Holland America, Cunard, and White Star Line had compiled at the other end of the Atlantic. Metz Pap’s surname does not appear in the Port of New York Passenger Records. There is a ‘Kardachian,’ and a ‘Cardashian,’ but there are no names with the Latin alphabet spelling that Metz Pap and his descendants will use: ‘Kardashian.’
‘What is your name?’
‘Orenthal James Simpson.’
‘What is your address?’
‘360 North Rockingham Avenue.’
‘Did you drive to 875 South Bundy Drive on the evening of June 13, 1994?’
The retired football player and broadcaster O.J. Simpson takes a polygraph test two days after the murder of his ex-wife Nicole. She was stabbed to death alongside her friend Ronald Goldman at the entrance of her Brentwood condominium while her children slept inside.
The attorneys Robert Shapiro, Robert Kardashian, and Leroy ‘Skip’ Taft wait for their client in a reception room with fluorescent light panels and chairs which hiss when they shift their weight. Robert Kardashian has his elbows on his knees and he’s holding his head in his hands.
‘There are degrees of guilt,’ Shapiro says. ‘If Nicole was seeing this kid. If OJ was pushed to the edge …’
The discordant notes intensify the silence. A source close to the investigation has told the Los Angeles Times that an arrest of their client is imminent. There are rumours the police have found a ski mask and a bloody glove. Taft is Simpson’s business manager and Kardashian has been O.J.’s friend for twenty-five years. O.J. is the godfather of Robert’s daughter Kimberly. Yesterday Nicole was supposed to have lunch with Robert’s ex-wife Kris.
Shapiro has asked Kardashian to reactivate his expired law licence. He only went into law to avoid the family business. The Kardashians owned the largest meat-packing firm in Southern California. His father Arthur can tell what colour the beef will be when he looks at a calf. When Robert was little his dad took him on to the floor of the production line in rubber boots and a mesh apron to watch the workers hacking at the sides hanging from a trolley. They stood outside and watched the cows entering the building in single file, then drove home in Arthur’s Rolls Royce.
‘Your grandfather came here with nothing,’ Arthur told him. ‘This is the greatest country in the world.’
Nicole’s American father met her mother in West Germany when he was the circulation manager for Stars and Stripes. Lou and Juditha. Robert’s met them many times. Nicole appears to Robert in a constant stream of unbidden memories. The LAPD source told the Los Angeles Times that an arrest was being delayed until forensic tests are completed. Robert rakes his fingers through his hair.
The polygraph takes half an hour. Simpson joins them in the waiting room while the examiner grades the test. He sits beside Kardashian.
‘That was tough. I hope those things are true blue. Every time he said Nicole’s name my heart started pounding and I could see the dial bouncing.’
‘O.J. this test is for our own purposes. Nothing will leave this room,’ Shapiro says.
Kardashian turns to face his friend. Years ago, the two men had opened a frozen yoghurt store in Westwood and lost money in a business called Concert Cinema. It hadn’t affected their friendship. Robert has always thought you really get to know someone when you lose money together.
‘There were two Nicoles. When she was beefing with me I was like a battered husband.’
Simpson’s legs, tucked into rhombic angles, bounce wildly. He perforates the electric hum of the room with avowals of innocence and a stream of consciousness monologue directed at his ex-wife.
‘What were you trying to prove? I understand, you were going through that thirties thing. But I was worried about the people you had around the kids! I always tried to do the right thing, Bobby.’
‘I know you did Juice.’
The examiner calls the lawyers into his office to tell them their client has failed with a minus 22.
‘That is an extremely poor result. However … Mr. Simpson’s test was administered at a time of great stress. Changes in heartbeat and blood pressure can have multiple causes.’
When Simpson finds out he failed he wants to schedule a re-test. Shapiro is unruffled and unsurprised. He takes the envelope with the results. The examiner walks them to the elevator lobby. The six-story Harbor Building went up in the late 1950s and the walls are marble. It was built on the site of the old Getty mansion, which appeared in the movies Rebel Without a Cause and Sunset Boulevard; it’s where William Holden was found in the pool.
The elevator arrives. Simpson says he wants to take another polygraph. Skip Taft holds the door open while the examiner shakes everyone’s hand. The examiner noticed several gashes on Simpson’s left knuckles during the examination. Simpson’s palm is moist and Kardashian’s is frigid.
Simpson is staying with Kardashian and his fiancée Denice at their rented house in the San Fernando Valley. It is the first time O.J. has visited. The men drifted apart after their divorces but when Robert heard about Nicole he’d driven straight to Rockingham.
‘I’m a close friend of Mr. Simpson’s,’ he’d told the police. ‘I’m one of Mr. Simpson’s oldest friends.’
In April, Robert felt hurt when he heard that O.J. and Nicole were in Los Cabos with Kris, her new husband Bruce Jenner and the kids. Jenner was nicknamed ‘the World’s Greatest Athlete’ after the 1976 Olympics when he reclaimed the decathlon from the Soviets. Kris stars with him in infomercials for a line of portable stair-climbing machines, ‘Superfit with Bruce Jenner.’ The Jenners were on the cover of American Fitness magazine in January and Kris said their dream is to co-host a show.
The sun is setting when Robert pulls out of the lot. Every time he drives past the white art moderne building on Wilshire Boulevard he will remember what happened inside. Simpson pulls a visor over his eyes. They pass billboards for the movies Speed, The Mask, and Clear and Present Danger.
‘Why wasn’t I there to protect her Bobby? Oh Nicole! Nicole!’
The highway lights pop on along the 101. A sound like the roar of a crowd just inside Robert’s ears blocks out most of Simpson’s dirge for his late ex-wife. They do not listen to the radio. Robert avoids looking at his friend.
‘We met these pure, innocent girls and we gave them furs and showed them Hollywood. And look what happened,’ Simpson laments.
‘God is in charge, O.J.’ Robert says.
One hundred million people will watch Robert Kardashian standing beside his friend when the verdict in his televised murder trial is delivered. Simpson is one head taller, so initially only Robert’s nose, wire glasses, and white streaked pompadour will be visible in the left-hand corner of the screen. Robert will blink hard when the first verdict is read. He will turn three times to face his famous friend, but Simpson will not notice him. The camera will pull back and Simpson will grin and mouth, Thank you, to the jury, but Robert will not smile.
Proctor & Gamble Co.’s Charmin brand name toilet paper operates public restrooms in Times Square during the holidays. Photographers begin arriving an hour before the 5th Annual Charmin Restrooms Ribbon Cutting Ceremony. Metal barricades and a velvet rope are set up on the pavement adjacent to the Gap. The Naked Cowboy wanders over to have his picture taken wearing Charmin underwear. People come up to the gates to ask what’s going on, then say, ‘Only in New York.’ Private security guards with radio earpieces wait on the red carpet by the doors. They can see the news ticker crawling around One Times Square: North and South Korea Have Exchanged Artillery Fire. Pakistan Has Stopped an Al-Qaeda Offensive. U.S. Corporate Profits Rose in Third Quarter.
In a hotel suite in Lower Manhattan, a personal assistant uses a hairdryer to warm the hooks on a pair of earrings. A makeup artist tells Kimberly Kardashian to hold her breath. He uses an airbrush gun to spray foundation on her nose. Her beautiful face is swollen from the wrinkle plumping injections which restrict the movement of her features. She is in Manhattan with her sister Kourtney shooting a spin-off of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, the reality show which turned their blended family into America’s pre-eminent professional celebrities. One hundred hushed courtiers watched Louis XIV breakfasting on broth during his Grand Levée at Versailles; three million Americans will watch the sisters eat room service sausages and trade vulgar quips in jaded fructose upspeak. The shows are a marketing platform for their products and endorsements. The sisters promote fast food, diet pills, athletic wear, cupcakes, prepaid debit cards and jewellery inspired by their Armenian heritage. Kim is partnered with Robert Shapiro in an online shoe club; Kris Jenner funds a church in Calabasas.
The makeup artist glues lashes onto Kim’s eyelids. He accidentally pokes her in the corner of her eye but she doesn’t flinch. He steps out of the way so she can examine herself in the mirror. She extends her right arm, snaps a self-portrait, checks the image, and hands the phone to her assistant
‘Can you post this?’ she asks. Her website receives 6.7 million page views a month.
‘Look at the hustle!’ the makeup artist says.
‘Work is like an addiction for me,’ Kim explains.
At the Charmin Restrooms twenty themed stalls represent iconic U.S. locations. The Arizona stall is covered in a photo mural of the Grand Canyon. A stock ticker scrolls through Charmin slogans in the Wall Street stall. There is a social media kiosk next to the restrooms and an over-sized toilet photo-op. A souvenir stand sells mugs and sweatshirts with the Charmin Bears mascots and pricey Charmin letterman jackets. There is a ‘Potty Dance Stage’ where employees with pom-poms will inveigle patrons to dance. A song about Charmin products and human waste plays on a loop. A manager outlines employee conduct guidelines to the uniformed attendants who will cheer and clean the stalls after every use.
A half dozen paparazzi are waiting for Kim outside the hotel. They scream ‘Looking good!’ when she steps into their strobe-lit hive. It’s a warm day in late November and she isn’t wearing a coat. Her fitted grey dress attracts yelps of admiration. They ask her if she’s enjoying being thirty. The paparazzi have a comprehensive knowledge of her personal life. They compliment Kim’s outfits and notice when she’s done something different with her hair. Sometimes they mock her, and when they’re cross they mention her bestselling homemade pornographic tape Kim Kardashian Superstar Featuring Ray J.
Kim travels to the ceremony in an SUV with tinted windows, scrolling through images on her phone. Taciturn, she favours declarative sentences and contradictory statements in the present continuous tense.
‘We’re like, totally stuck in traffic,’ she says. ‘I am so mad at my mom for booking this, I like, can’t even describe what I’m feeling.’
The first subway line opened in 1904, the year The New York Times relocated to 1475 Broadway and its proprietor convinced the city to rename Longacre Square. The paper hosted a fireworks display in Times Square on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the new headquarters. The news ticker went up near the base of the building in 1928. It used 14,800 light bulbs and the first bulletin was ‘Herbert Hoover Defeats Al Smith.’ The ticker had constant updates when O.J. Simpson sped away from Robert Kardashian’s house in a Bronco: Cup-Winning N.Y. Rangers Parade Through Financial District. Friend Reads Simpson Suicide Note. World Cup Opens in Chicago. LAPD Pursue Simpson Bronco for 5 Hours. The news of Robert’s passing probably zipped around One Times Square in 2003: Air France and KLM Complete Merger. Justice Department to Investigate CIA Leak. Former O.J. Simpson Lawyer Kardashian Dies at 59.
Two Charmin bear mascots lead a marching band through Times Square. The guest of honour disembarks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. She signs autographs for the people waiting by the gates. She adopts a contrapposto stance on the red carpet. One of the Charmin bears marches up and presents her with an oversize key on a red velvet pillow. Kim commands a personal appearance fee of $100,000 to $250,000 per event, and Proctor & Gamble Co. will have its pound of flesh. Kim poses with the key. She poses in between the Charmin bears, who are wearing signs which say ‘Charmin Nation Enjoy the Go.’ She gives interviews. She uses giant scissors to cut the ribbon in front of the Empire State Building-themed restroom. Her half-smile is unyielding.[/private]
Louise Phillips lives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in Dream Catcher, 3AM Magazine, The Copperfield Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Delinquent, The Dirty Napkin, 34th Parallel, and Monkeybicycle. She can be reached at [email protected]
Mark Saba – View
At the crest of a small hill, a hill that has not always been regarded in its long history, sits an heirloom building made of wood, two-storey, long, low, with a front porch that spans the length of it. The building hovers over a commercial street, a busy street that leads in one direction to the outer suburbs, and in the other to more seasoned neighbourhoods of the city. Most of the other buildings, in either direction, are of brick.
[private]From this viewpoint, this hovering porch, patrons of the bar it holds may wander about in heated discussion, or laughter, or solitary despair. There is nothing this porch hasn’t heard or seen, no conversation that doesn’t echo another, no ghost that is unwelcome, though some of its ghosts go unnoticed – timid ghosts, like those who first travelled there from fear and longing long ago.
These were the slaves who hid in the building’s cavernous basement, aided by a few local souls, who stole by night to points further north along the route of freedom. They wrapped themselves in fading quilts and slept by quiet streams in the heart of the Appalachians at the break of dawn, dreaming of Big Dippers and the dotted lights of northern towns. They traded their quilts with every conductor, and read the secret route that was handed to them in each new pattern. They brought a lifetime’s store of memories with them as they lay in the basement of the solitary wooden house, some only in their teens, others not much older but broken into an early, deep maturity.
They roam, wrapped in their quilts, along the porch after midnight, after the house’s newest guests have left, drunken, near-sighted, and oblivious to the past.
At two A.M., then, a boy walks by, a boy of fifteen on his way home from a soul-searching evening he has spent with his love, an evening of storm and calm set against the inescapable hum and life of a party. His heart has been opened, and everything he sees and feels pours in and out of it as he walks home in the cool, early-morning air.
She has started not to look at him when she speaks to him; her eyes, once two deep brown wells of mystery, are now tense and withdrawn, as if belonging to someone he has never known. He doesn’t know what to make of it, or her, or his fifteen-year-old world. Everything has become for him uncertain, unclear, unpredictable.
In this limbo-like state he looks up at the house, its empty, wide porch, and notes that it is not empty. A lonely figure stands there, wrapped in an old blanket, looking either at him or past him – he couldn’t tell which. Then another figure walks out of a shadow, looking in the same direction, and then another. Though it is night the boy can tell they are black men, all three of them; he has never seen a black man in this part of town before. He looks down, then, and keeps walking. But he cannot forget them.
The next day our tavern’s owner, Bill Steeps, comes out at noon to sweep the porch of its first fall leaves. The broom, tattered and discoloured, loses more of itself each time it is used. Bill wonders what he is sweeping more of: leaves or stray broom. The last few nights’ revellers have left beer stains on the porch’s dusty floor. Bill stops and regards the floor, feeling its ancient weight and history, wondering if he will ever get it clean. He unexpectedly feels that he has never been able to keep it clean.
“Bill!” his wife calls through the open door. “Someone on the phone wants to talk to you. Get in here!”
Bill drops the broom to take the phone call. He knows he has been late paying his draught beer company, and has already rehearsed his excuse. Rita holds the phone up with her left hand, and uses the right to flip through a little notebook.
“No, no. I already know what they want,” Bill says. “Here.” He reaches out for the phone.
For the next ten minutes Rita moves about the bar, straightening chairs and re-organizing the counter, while Bill reassures the beer company. Then she steps outside for a breath of autumn air, and notices two cops making their way up to the porch.
“Hey guys. What’s up?”
“Hey Rita,” the thick-boned, sandy-haired one says. “Seen any suspicious activity on the street?”
“Like a couple a black guys in a stolen Lexus – dark red – with a lot of cash to burn?”
He appears on the porch.
“They’re looking for a stolen car. Blacks.”
“Never,” Bill says.
“What’s that?” says the cop.
“I said you’d never find them here. It’s not usual, not since I’ve been alive anyway. I got nothing against them, but you know as well as I do –”
“We just got a report from Russ Kramer. They were in his store, bought two of his best audio systems with cash.”
“Oh? When was that?”
“About two hours ago.”
“Well, we haven’t seen them. Rita – right?”
She shakes her head and frowns. The cops nod, unfold their arms, and say they’ll be by on Saturday night for a beer. Bill and Rita go back to their work.
It’s a warm Saturday night for October, a freak of fall weather, bringing summer up again from the south, and sending more than the season’s share of revellers to the tavern. They spill from the body-warmed room out to the porch, where the air is also still, but less used. Their voices carry evenly far into the night, up and down the busy street – commingling with the sounds of big engines, footsteps, and distant laughter – as if breaking through time.
Rita and Bill step outside too, leaving the night-work to hired help. There’s not much that can go wrong on a night like this, with the lingering warm weather, the loyal clientèle, and money in the drawer. Even that morning’s argument has evaporated, leaving them both free to enjoy their accomplishments, their people, and each other.
“Bill –” Rita puts an arm around his thick waist. He tenses, then turns to her and feels relaxed.
“Len and Cookie want us to go to Las Vegas with them next summer.”
“That’s a long way off. But why not? Sure. We’ve never been to Vegas. Hell, we deserve to go to Las Vegas!”
“Do you think we can afford it?”
“We can make sure we can afford it. This is America.”
Bill feels a hand on his back. It belongs to his buddy, Ray, who speaks low into Bill’s ear.
“I didn’t know you were expanding the business to include other neighbourhoods of the city.”
Bill looks inquisitively at Ray, who nods in the direction of the bar. A small group of black Americans has just been served a round of drinks. They laugh and toast one another, unaware that they have been noted.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Bill says. “I can’t refuse business, can I?”
Ray’s eyebrows rise, but he doesn’t respond. A brief chill passes between them.
Our adolescent friend is walking with his love, walking again along the road that has been lonely for him more than once in his past. They are deeply involved in one another, the warm autumn breeze defining nothing but themselves, their worries, their situation, their love. It is approaching midnight, and they are nearing the tavern house. He has forgotten everything for the moment – all he can smell is her cherry-scented perfume; all he can see is the balance of pain and contentment in her eyes; all he can hear is her words:
“So what do you think we should do?”
He can almost feel her breath, though he is not looking at her.
“I don’t know. What’s wrong with the way things are?”
He takes her hand; she squeezes once and lets go. Then he looks up and sees them again, wrapped in their quilts, standing in the shadows at the far ends of the porch. They do not move, or speak, but he knows they are looking past the few remaining patrons, at him.
“Did you hear it?”
“What –” She freezes.
“They must be gun shots,” he says.
“Oh my God. Where?”
He looks around, trying to locate where the sirens are coming from, to let himself slip back into the world. But before he can answer her, before he can let go of their insular life, he sees lights flashing far ahead. Sirens ring in all directions. Car doors slam; quick footsteps staccato the air.
They killed a black man, someone in the community said. And then another said it, and another. They all repeated these words: They killed a black man. The phrase went to sleep with everyone that night, and woke up with them in the morning. The phrase would not go away. It made the twelve o’clock news, and then the next morning’s news, and the national news.
Bill and Rita started the day in each other’s arms, something they had not done in a long time. Usually they started the day in confidence, already preparing their mental lists of things to be done. But this day brought an unfamiliar sense of caution to them: plans escaped them, and they ended up dreaming. It was the phone ringing that finally coaxed Bill out of bed. Rita allowed her empty embrace to linger, as she closed her eyes again and reascended to her dream-cloud, though Bill’s words on the phone burned through:
“Yeah, Len. I don’t know what – it happened so fast. Everything was gone from the drawer. Everything.”
“It had to be – I guess – who else could it have been? I know just about everyone who comes in that place, you know.”
“You’re right, Len. What can we do?”
There was little left to say. Bill listened another minute to Len’s tirade, then hung up, shaking his head.
“Well?” asked Rita, by now very awake.
“Was it them?”
“No one knows.”
“Len seems to know.”
“Len is being Len about this.”
“He might be right.”
“Look – what difference does it make? They were speeding and went through a red light.”
“And they were carrying a lot of cash.”
“All right, all right,” he said.
She grew quiet.
“Sorry, honey. Come back to bed.”
“No, I can’t. I’m up now.”
“Why should I be upset?” he shot back.
“I don’t know. It’s not your fault,” she said.
“It’s nobody’s fault. Things happen. And we’re out eight hundred bucks.”
“Yes. Eight hundred thirty-five.” He stopped. “But how –”
“How did they do it? Right under our noses.”
“I don’t know, Len. It was pretty crowded that night. Talk to Doug.”
“He doesn’t remember anything. He says he just turned around and it was gone.”
“Sounds like Doug. Are you sure he’s not drinking back there again?”
“No. I’m not sure of anything with him.”
Bill heard on the evening news that the man had died instantly. The police reported that he and the others had run the red light, appeared drunken, drove recklessly, and disregarded their pursuit, which ended in a car chase and warning shots. After coming to a halt in somebody’s yard the driver stumbled out yelling vulgarities and reaching for something inside his coat. That was when they fired on him.
The reporter said that he had been reaching for a cell phone. The others in the car came out when called, cowering and whimpering. Together they were three young men and one woman. They said that they were not familiar with the neighbourhood. They had been drinking, yes, but not locally. They had been invited to a late-night party in the area but had taken a few wrong turns.
This version of the story was new to Bill, who had relied on Len and a couple of other friends in the neighbourhood to provide details of the incident. Ray was certain that they had been the ones in Bill’s bar that night; he said he recognized the coat on the ground when he saw it on the news. He said Bill should call the police right now and let them know where they got the cash. Bill was mostly quiet; he felt as if he had been appointed judge against his will. After hanging up the phone Bill sat in his armchair watching television, whatever was on, whatever might draw his attention away from the incident.
On Monday night the bar was nearly empty. Bill kept the door open until eleven, then he told Doug to clean up and lock the drawer. Rita had already gone upstairs to bed; Bill spent the next hour rocking on the wide, empty porch. Monday nights on the porch were so still, it seemed, as if there had been no history but the history of stillness. The street was even quiet, offering only sporadic movement, the quick anonymity of occasional moving cars. No one was out walking that night; there was no wind.
Bill had been sitting on that porch for twenty years, and for twenty years that porch view had felt the same, withstanding renovations and alterations in the commercial scenery. Bill had come to feel, on late Monday nights, that he and that porch had a secret, a chunk of dedicated time that no one else knew. During this time he could step outside of Bill and see him at another angle. It was an important time for Bill, and an important time for the ghosts.
Until now they had no reason for getting to know him – they saw him only as the latest occupant in their spiritual home, no less a product of contemporary culture than the others. What could they do with him? What difference could they possibly make? Their presence was sometimes noted, yes, but only by those who were willing and able to see beyond the limitations of their own narrow world and time. Until now, Bill did not belong to that small group.
As he sat rocking, making the only sound, a steady pattern of footsteps reached his ears. He looked up and saw a boy coming toward him.
“Hi Mister Steeps,” the boy said.
“Hey. Aren’t you Jake’s boy?”
“Yeah. I walk by here a lot.”
“My girlfriend lives down the road.”
“What can I do for you, son?”
“Nothing. I was just wondering – I wanted to ask you – if it’s true what they said on the news.”
Bill stopped rocking. He looked the boy cold in the eye. “They were here, yes. And just after they left, the money was gone. Now I don’t know if those officers were justified in what they did. But one thing I’ll tell you: those blacks were criminals, pure and simple.”
The boy looked puzzled.
“But they’re regulars here, aren’t they?”
“No, no, no. Never. At least not that I know of. And I know who comes to this place. I live here – ” He pointed to the second storey. “Everyone who comes to this bar is a guest in my house. My father lived here too, you know. This house has been in the family for generations. My honour and reputation are tied to this house –” He stopped, because the boy was looking off in another direction, not listening to him any more.
“What?” said Bill.
“Who are they then?” The boy turned his head toward the far end of the porch, where the ex-slaves stood under shadow, as still as the night, wearing quilts that were as translucent as October clouds over the moon.
“Hey now!” Bill shouted. He looked around and thought they had gone. Was he seeing things? Had they been there all along with him, his private time violated, trespassers on his thoughts?
What if they were criminals too, avengers of those that had been caught? He jumped out of his seat and headed to the door. Once inside the bar, he flicked on the overhead lights. The money drawer was not fully closed! He had caught them this time. Should he call for help, yell, run after them? He made his way to the drawer, pulled it open and lost his breath. All of the stolen bills had been returned. Not one was even out of place.
The boy, left alone on the porch, backed down the steps. While heading home, carrying the weight of his full heart, he turned and saw them standing there again, this time waving, under a shimmering moonlight, until he waved back.[/private]
Mark Saba is the author of two short novels,The Landscapes of Pater (The Vineyard Press, New York, 2004) and Thaddeus Olsen (in the volume Desperate Remedies, Apis Books, London, 2008), as well as other stories, poems, and essays which have appeared in literary magazines. He is also a painter. See: marksabawriter.com
S. E. Cohn – ( )
Maya spoke to him in a parenthetical tone. It was all very tongue-in-cheek. But maybe her whole life had been that way; encased in parentheses. Her father was a famous Broadway playwright and her mother a socialite. A child was their parentheses. A sort of whisper to their Jewish parents (to get off their backs), a proof (that they loved each other) and a reminder (to be better to one another). And she grew up during the 70s in an Upper East Side house of decadent parties where couples came over and dropped their keys into a bowl. She was told to stay in her room and read books (but sometimes she peeked). Most couples rejoined hands at dawn and watched the sun rise before leaving.
And ten years later, like she preferred, Maya was with a stray. Men passing through town offered her the best love. It was always romantic and capricious. Like the men she spied on years ago from her bedroom door, they were passionate, desperate and loved to whisper.
“Tell them you found a lover,” he whispered into her ear after he came. He wanted her to call her parents and get some dough for the two of them to hit the road together. “My brother has a place in Florida.”
She snickered and raised her eyes suggestively.
“Who says you’re the only one?” She reached for the bottle of beer on the nightstand and lipped it playfully, tilting her head back as she swallowed.
“Oh c’mon!” he pleaded. “The things you said! We can be together!” He tried taking her into his arms, but she turned her back towards him and replied, “And do what? (Watch the sun rise?)”
S.E. Cohn is a writer from Ventura, California. His work has appeared in Word Riot and Wanderlust Review, as well as weekly newspapers throughout California and Idaho. He had a two-year stint in a semi-pro Mexican hardball league. He played catcher and batted .347, but threw out only one runner. He is also the frontman for The Pullmen, a Southern California rock band.
Janice Shapiro – Night and Day
Baxter is crying on the phone. He is a new client and very young, not yet twenty, so I am being patient. It is one in the morning and I stare out the bedroom window at the dark surf, mainly black with rising lines of ghostly white.
“Jewel’s left me,” Baxter somehow manages to cough out between sobs.
“That’s terrible, baby,” I say, and since my light is now on, check the bedside BlackBerry to see what’s lined up for the next day – well, technically that day, Saturday. [private]It’s pretty open until a late afternoon barbeque at a studio exec’s house, a concert with a casting agent, and then a party at the home of a not-so-important-at-the-moment-but-could-become-big producer.
“I mean, like … like … like … she’s really gone …” Baxter says with that pathetic sincerity common to so many of the newly signed – the beautiful young men whose acting careers I manage. “She even took the panda, man.”
“What panda?” I toss the BlackBerry back on the night-table and pick up the mirror to see if I’d been sleeping weird.
“The black-and-white one.”
“All pandas are black and white, darling,” I say, and am relieved to see my cheeks are crease free and eyes not too hideously puffy.
“Ling-Ling. Jewel always sleeps with Ling-Ling … That’s like, how I know she isn’t coming back …”
“Got it,” I say, and think these kids are so much younger than I remember being when I was their age. What the fuck did their parents do to retard this generation’s emotional development so uniformly?
“What should I do, Peg? I mean, like, really, I think I love her … What should I do?” Baxter asks, and the sweet thing is he really wants to know. He wants me to tell him.
I shake my head and say quietly, “Why don’t you just come over, baby?”
He hesitates and in that hesitation I find myself reconsidering. Although he is a stunning young man, sometimes, at my age, forty-one, a good night’s sleep is more tempting than sex and I am just about to retract the invitation when he says softly, like an obedient child, “Okay.”
Checking the refrigerator, I see there are still a couple of bottles of root beer, Baxter’s drink of choice. If Leon only knew, I think, he would be utterly disgusted. Even seven years ago, he used to bemoan the fact that “the boys” just didn’t know how to have a good time any more.
“Ecstasy! Raves! Snowboarding!” he would shout. “Give me a good old-fashioned revolutionary, any day!”
“Yes, but there is no revolution at the minute, Leon,” I would be forced to remind him.
“Oh, Louie,” he’d say wistfully, and drape his arm around my shoulder, and because it was Leon, it always felt sexy because everything he did was sexy. “The boys I used to meet at People’s Park, you would not believe …”
I was twenty-two, just out of college when I was sent by a temp agency to work for Leon, one of the biggest personal managers in Hollywood, and I remember thinking I couldn’t be luckier. I mean, Leon was gorgeous, funny, smart, and gay, so basically it was safe to ask him things I felt every young woman starting a career in Hollywood needed to know, like how do you make a studio executive return your phone calls, and what exactly constitutes a good blow job. I don’t know if he was as immediately taken with me, but after I worked for him a few days and it was revealed I had been a history major at Barnard and written my thesis on the Chinese Revolution, he decided to keep me on as a permanent employee.
“Louie,” he nicknamed me, in a nod to Casablanca, “this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Considering his heartbroken state, it doesn’t take me long to get Baxter in the sack, or rather for him to think he got me in the sack. That’s the game: I pretend to be seduced while, all along, I’m doing the seducing. It works, what can I tell you? Baxter is a beautiful boy as, I guess, they all are. Blond, tall, with a perfect, hairless body – your ideal SS candidate, the one Hitler would definitely have thrown into that mass-producing Aryan babies program. When I kiss him I can still taste the blandness of his boyhood spent in Kansas or Ohio or some other flat state that conjures images of corn dogs, white church steeples, and weekends of heart-stopping boredom.
“Think of it as part of your overall benefits package,” Leon said when I doubted the ethical correctness of our almost-routine practice of sleeping with the clients. “And it’s a hell of a lot more fun than full dental.”
Still, sometimes I feel funny doing what I am doing in what was once Leon’s bed, in what was once Leon’s house, everything almost exactly the way he left it seven years ago, furniture, sheets, towels, art – except I took down all the pictures of Leon and put them in milk crates that are in storage in my sister’s garage in Culver City. And it’s not like I think he would mind me sleeping with the boys in his bed – quite the opposite really – but it’s more like I sometimes worry I can’t live up to the achievements of the bed’s previous occupant, that I am not, nor ever will be, as good as Leon was rumoured to be in everything, business, sex, everything, even death.
“You’re amazing,” Baxter whispers as he hugs me close from behind in a postcoital cuddle.
“No, sweetie, you’re the amazing one,” I say because, mainly, it is my job to say shit like that.
“Yeah?” he asks so shyly that if I still had a heart, it might actually crumble, but instead, I turn over and lightly kiss the top of his head like you would to comfort a scared child in the middle of the night.
“Oh, totally,” I say and sigh. “Totally.”
Baxter relaxes in my arms and I can tell he is almost asleep when I ask in a studied casual way, “By the way. You never called. How’d that audition go today?”
“Huh?” He blinks and stiffens slightly.
“The one at Fox,” I say in a still relatively nice but focused way. “The comedy the Zankermans are producing.”
“Oh … yeah … that one. They said I was … good,” he mumbles, and I know he is lying.
“Oh, really?” I say, because when they’re new and young, that’s all I have to say. They still fear me on a certain level and won’t try to pass the untrue off, which I’ve noticed these young actors do routinely after they’ve been around the proverbial block.
“Well … you know what, actually?” Baxter curls his legs up to his chin in a fetal position. “I kind of, like, missed it.”
“You kind of, like, missed it?” I repeat.
“Yeah … well, Jewel wanted to go ice skating so …” His voice trails off to nothingness, into the world of all guilty little boys.
“Not good, Baxter,” I say very quietly. “We can’t start missing interviews. Do you know how fast that kind of reputation gets around? Pretty, pretty fast. And at this point, they’re doing us a favour by seeing you. Until they need you, sweetheart, nobody in this town needs you.”
To demonstrate how disappointed I am, I slowly roll out of bed and wrap a robe, Leon’s old silk robe to be precise, around myself. I step over to the French doors and stare past the deck at the dark restless water. I have lived here so long that I don’t even smell the energizing scent of the sea and all of its hidden life or hear the constant but varied beat of the surf any more. To take notice, I have to make a concerted effort, and I wonder vaguely, what else have I stopped noticing?
“Oh, Peggy, don’t be mad,” Baxter practically whines as he jumps out of bed. I turn away from the dark ocean and just stare at the kid who stands completely naked, so young I can almost smell the newness of the muscles that have appeared on his little boy frame. Slowly, his arms open like a bird preparing for flight or a martyr about to be hammered, pathetically offering up the only things he has that are of any value to me – his beauty, his youth, his promise – in penance.
“Please,” he whispers, and I, standing in the darkness, the cool silk of Leon’s faded black robe brushing against my body, covering what I know is no longer anyone’s standard of perfection, cross my arms and do what Leon taught me to maintain the power – because that is all we have: a kind of power over these kids, these boys, these beautiful specimens that I’m hoping will make me rich, or, more truthfully, richer.
“Keep ’em guessing,” Leon used to say. “Never ever give your hand away, Louie …”
When Leon took me firmly under his wing and made me a partner in the management firm, he said, “Congratulations. Too bad, one day you’re going to hate me for this.”
“I’ll never hate you,” I said, but he had just smiled knowingly and shook his head before picking up a gay S&M magazine and going into his office and closing the door. That was exactly the kind of thing he always did when he sensed I might be on the verge of declaring my love, which I actually managed to do a couple of times, and each time I told him I loved him, Leon responded in the exact same way.
“I know,” he would say with both sadness and annoyance.
Taking a small sip of champagne, I recline on one of the deck’s lounge chairs and stare out into the horizon, trying to catch the first signs of daylight, an almost imperceptible brightening, the gradual appearance of details. Even though this is the West Coast, the house is built on some kind of curve, so the sun rises over the water and sets behind my back. Baxter is snoring in the bedroom and I can smell his scent on my skin. It is pleasant and I am not eager to wash it off, although I soon will. That is what I do. Once they leave, I go into the ocean for a quick dip. Even in winter.
One of the things that has changed as I get older is I no longer like to sleep with the boys – I mean, really sleep. I find it disorienting, a feeling akin to seasickness, to wake up beside someone whose name I sometimes cannot remember. When I was younger I used to think that lapse of memory was funny, almost empowering, but that was when I still had Leon to laugh about it with.
What is funny – not ha-ha funny, the other kind – is that once clients leave me for another manager, I can suddenly remember everything about them. My dreams are over- populated with gorgeous young men whose fingers have not touched my skin in years. I taste their sweat, watch their nipples pucker, listen to a chorus of hoarse cries of ecstasy, and wake up filled with longing for those boys I never really had even when they were so briefly mine.
“Easy come, easy go,” Leon used to say when a client left us, and as with most things, he was right. Some of the boys left because they thought they were too big, and some left because they never took off, and some because they lost interest in playing the game and wanted to do something else with their lives. I remember all of them, but the boys who gave the finger to Hollywood are the only ones I respect.
What Leon lost in the year or so before he died was any belief he’d ever had in success. It just became clear to him that the goal, the finish line we were forever racing the clients toward, was just one big Xanadu, a never-to-be-completed monument to actual fulfilment. That was when he started to talk a lot about his ex-radical days in Berkeley and wanting me to tell him about Mao’s Long March and the miraculous defeat of the KMT, and only when I told him these stories would his eyes light up again in the same way they used to when he got to negotiate a seven-figure deal.
“Vietnam,” Leon said one day, out of the blue. I was sitting on the black leather sofa in his office, supposedly reading the trades, but really daydreaming about one of the boys, Jock Kent, the star of a nighttime soap about a kind of Club Med–like resort where, of course, everyone sleeps with everyone before, both figuratively and literally, stabbing them in the back.
“Is Oliver Stone casting?” I asked, forcing myself to shove away the fantasy (in which, if you must know, Jock and I were having incredible sex in the Hollywood Bowl fountain.)
“You want to go, Louie?” Leon asked, and looked at me in a way that instantly made me uncomfortable.
“Vietnam?” I replied, truly startled, because although I hung out with Leon a lot at his house, he never, never asked me to go anywhere with him. I was the one always asking him to go places with me, to screenings, dinners at producers’ homes, clients’ birthday parties at bowling alleys, invitations that he invariably refused, saying, “Oh Jesus! Don’t we see more than enough of each other, Louie?”
“What’s in Vietnam?” I asked, suspiciously, and wondered if he was trying to use me to lure some actor (straight) to our agency, a task I had performed gladly when I first started the job, but no longer felt so glad to do.
“Amazing architecture, delicious food, deserted beaches, unspoiled boys …” The words came out hard and fast from Leon’s mouth like handfuls of pennies thrown onto a side- walk. There was definitely a desperate quality to his speech, a quality that was absolutely verboten in our line of work where the golden rule is to never act like you want anything, because it’ll all but guarantee that you won’t get it.
“Yeah. And about a billion tons of bad karma,” I said, still convinced there was some underlying motive for this invitation, anxious to put the whole idea to rest.
“Leon, think about it. The karmic implications for Americans in Vietnam can’t be good.”
“But I was always on the Vietcong’s side! I have clippings from my student protest days to prove it!”
“The Vietnamese aren’t going to look at your clippings, Leon. To them you’re just going to be another middle-aged Ugly American Capitalist Pig. I mean, come on, whether you like it or not, that’s who you now are.”
I was returning my attention to the trades when I happened to see, out of the corner of my eyes, Leon’s expression. In the years I’d known him, I had never seen a look like that. He appeared to be stricken, absolutely stricken, and I immediately regretted what I had said. I should have known better, but it was as if I no longer had that gate inside my brain that stops a person from saying horrible, hurtful things. Whatever that gate is called, mine was gone.
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, forcing the almost forgotten feelings of remorse to come up from inside me. “Oh, Leon. I’m really sorry.”
“Forget it,” he said, and pointedly put his headset on and turned his chair away from me, fixing his gaze on the computer screen. “File it under Another Bad Idea, Louie. Scratch it. Now let me get some work done, for a change.”
I rose and moved towards the door and didn’t look back even when I thought I might have heard Leon start to cry.
If I knew my colours better I could tell you what that strip is on the horizon – maybe a royal blue – and how it is subtly different from the rest of the sky and in a very short time, it will grow and expand, making all the stars disappear. Just like Hollywood, right? Stars come and stars go. Maybe Baxter will be a star, but he will have to toughen up first. Before he went to sleep he told me what he and his girlfriend, Jewel, had fought about.
“She doesn’t believe in me,” he had whispered. “Not like you, Peg. You believe in me, don’t you?”
Well, the truth is, of course, I don’t believe in anyone. Oh yeah, I lay my money on the line and wait for the wheel to stop, but that’s different from believing. But how can I tell them that? So instead I murmured the same words I’ve murmured into countless young men’s ears, a tuneless lullaby promising him riches and fame and power and love. All things nobody can promise anyone because, excepting love, they are not anything anyone really has to give. But for some reason, they all believe me, and soon Baxter’s breath became steady and his bones almost softened as he lost himself in what I took to be a confident sleep.
“Today, Baxter will win back his Jewel,” I whisper, as if saying it will make it so. I like to think of myself as being kind, even if I am hard of heart.
The first seagulls have started to squawk, reminding me it was about this time roughly seven years ago that I watched Leon dive under a not particularly large wave and never resurface. We had spent the night together at what was then his place, but is now mine, drinking Cristal, doing coke, and listening to Hendrix. I was thirty-four years old at the time, which did not seem young to me then, but sounds young to me now. My breasts were just beginning to fall, and the first fine lines spiked out around my eyes. Leon was forty-one. My age now.
“Past forty, your tolerance for bullshit takes an alarming dip, Louie,” he had told me that night.
I was sitting next to him on the couch, listening to Electric Ladyland, when he suddenly got very quiet and just stared out at the ocean, and I don’t know if it was the Cristal or the coke or the overly familiar music or just the proximity of Leon, the intoxicating warmth of his always-beautiful smell that was reminiscent of sawdust and pearls, but something pulled me firmly into what seemed like a deep, dark blue sleep that was too busy to actually be called rest, and when I came out of whatever it was I was in, maybe an hour later, maybe not even that, my head was plastered against Leon’s shirt, and his arm was firmly around my shoulder.
I stayed as quiet as I could, because at that moment I could not think of anywhere I wanted to be but right there, so close to the only man I have ever loved.
“You awake?” he asked so softly a shiver shook up my spine, and when I nodded, he slowly pulled away, and that was when I saw the wet spot on his shirt.
“Oh God. I’m sorry. I drooled all over you …” I said, feeling heavy and slow from uncompleted dreams and too much wine and drugs.
Leon shrugged as he stood up and stretched.
“That’s not drool,” he said in a voice I imagined he used with the new boys when he was alone with them. And that’s when I felt the dampness around my eyes and an odd heat on my cheeks, and in a rush of horror and shame I realized I had been crying in my sleep. Crying was one of those things I’d had to give up when I became a big power broker in Hollywood.
“Blood in the water! Blood in the water!” Leon used to yell when I expressed any negative emotions. “Good God, Louie! Pull yourself together! You’ll attract the sharks!”
But instead of chiding me that night, he just said in that same sweetly hopeless way, “Give me an ideal, Louie.”
“What?” I asked, wiping my eyes.
“An ideal. Any one will do,” he said, even softer.
“Okay,” I said, but then could not think of a single thing to tell him. I picked up a bottle of Perrier off the floor and took a long drink, hoping to wash the heavy drowsiness out of me; the bubbles felt funny going through my body, more like lightning than liquid.
Leon took off his wet shirt and laid it carefully against the back of the sofa. Then he kneeled down and did something he had never done before, and that was to lightly stroke my cheek with the back of his warm, warm hand. And looking into Leon’s beautiful face, so close to mine, I remember it felt like I was in one of those weird movie special effects when the lights suddenly brighten and dim at the same time, putting me at once extremely on edge.
“Guess what, Louie? All this time, we’ve been playing the wrong parts in the wrong story,” Leon said, looking right into my eyes. “Fuck Casablanca.”
Then Leon kissed me – a chaste, gentle, almost what one could call pretty kiss, before dropping his pants and going out to the beach. Alone.
The sky is now pale and the water no longer black but partly a dark, I guess what you might call sea green. It’s going to be a cold swim today, but I have no choice. Another split of champagne gone, and I can hear Baxter shifting in the bed. He’s a definite type, and if he sticks with the acting lessons and has a few good breaks, he could make it in a Tom Cruise kind of a way, but he could just as easily not. He’s sweet, but I don’t think I want to sleep with him any more. I’ve had my share of sweetness. I need some real nourishment.
The boys I signed right after Leon’s death used to ask me about him. I mean, he was a legend in the industry, having launched the careers of many very big stars, but after a while nobody seemed to talk about him any more because, really, it’s pointless to be a legend in Hollywood. You have no value, dead or alive, if you’re not somehow making somebody a lot of money.
My thesis on the Chinese Revolution did not go into the dark years that followed the CCP attaining control of the country. I didn’t delve into the Cultural Revolution, Gang of Four, One Hundred Flowers. That was a conscious choice because I wanted to come out of college high on hope. Leon, on the other hand, left Berkeley with the radical left already in ruins. He came to Hollywood a cynic, anxious to make a living off the only other thing he was good at besides organizing student demonstrations, which was picking up beautiful boys. Two different starting points, yet here I am, almost in the same spot as Leon when he took the big dive under.
“Beware,” I whisper to both no one and everyone. “All roads in Hollywood lead here.”
I had no idea how rich Leon was until he died and left everything to me, and I have given a lot, a lot, a lot of that money to political causes I think Leon would want to support, but lately, I find myself thinking of ways I could’ve saved Leon with all of the money he had, that is now mine. My current favourite is one in which Leon and I buy a big hunk of land in Montana, and become the Ma and Pa of the dude ranch and sleep with all the gorgeous cowboys, who wouldn’t ever have to be told how gorgeous they are because that isn’t the point with real cowboys, and we’d ride horses and learn to fish, and every day we’d decide on something new and delicious to cook before opening the fridge and finding it filled with a seemingly endless supply of fresh, red meat.[/private]
Janice Shapiro’s stories have been published in The North American Review, The Santa Monica Review, and The Seattle Review. A screenwriter, she co-wrote the cult filmDead Beat. Night and Day is taken from her latest collection Bummer, published by Soft Skull Press. She is currently working on another collection of short stories and a graphic memoir, Crushable: My Life in Crushes from Ricky Nelson to Viggo Mortensen. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, son, and dog.
Song of the Busboy by Ryan Buynak
in the eyes of senator strangers,
they are help, just.
they are not blue-collar,
but they are not parking lot attendants.
no one wants to hear their stories any more,
omelettes and cigarettes,
maintenance and tv sets,
who has time for romance?
in these United States
along this Gulf of Mexico,
going to Community College,
illegal as can be.
this is the song of the busboy
playing five nights a week
sometimes six, depending
if someone needs a shift covered.
Ryan Buynak is a very good-looking young man who happens to be the future of American poetics.
How to Have a Relationship with God
Listings: Jul-Aug 2011
From opera for beggars to dance for Latin-lovers, via festivals, comedy, Prohibition, classic film, free theatre and live literature.
Until23rd July: The Beggars’ Opera, Regents Park Open Air Theatre, £17-44. A musical comedy of highwaymen, hangmen and harlots comes to the Open Air Theatre this summer. Join Macheath and his partners in crime in John Gay’s ageless comic opera. See: openairtheatre.com
1st to 2nd July: Hop on The Farm, Kent, prices vary. A stunning lineup of literary and music genius – including headliners the Eagles and Morrissey alongside the likes of Iggy & The Stooges, Bryan Ferry, Newton Faulkner and Brandon Flowers, this event offers a relaxed vibe set against the stunning backdrop of the Hop Farm Country Park in Kent. It’s run by former Mean Fiddler (Reading and Leeds, Glastonbury etc) chief Vince Power and came about after festival fans became disillusioned with the mainstream events. See: hopfarmfestival.com
2nd July: Velvet Lounge, secret private venue, Dalston, see website for prices. The Baron Von Sanderson invites you for one night only to “The Velvet Lounge” a night of easy listening, champagne cocktails and live beat poetry. This is a one off pop up eventt, dedicated to the easier face of 60’s pop music encompassing sounds from Burt Bacharach to Jimmy Webb via the swinging sounds of the French Ye Ye beat. Ladies put on those maxi dresses and diamanté, boys take that velvet suit to the cleaners. Throw your car keys into the onyx ashtray and swing like it’s 1968, but don’t tell your parents. See: diefrechemuse.co.uk
7th July: Between the Lines – Bill Harry Mersey Beat 50th Anniversary, O2 Bubble. A special evening is in store as Mersey Beat creator Bill Harry recounts the beginnings of Mersey Sound magazine and how it helped shaped rock journalism 50 years ago. Liverpool legend and childhood friend of John Lennon, Bill Harry was the creator of Mersey Beat, the hugely influential and significant music paper of the 1960’s. Launched in 1961, Mersey Beat focused on the booming Liverpool scene and successfully built relationships with the Mersey bands, especially the Beatles. See: theo2.co.uk
12th to 16th July: Slapdash at the Old Vic Tunnels, London, £11/6. Slapdash is London’s festival of impro, featuring 15 of the country’s best improvisation groups in a weeklong celebration of the spontaneous. Sometimes funny, sometimes touching and always totally unpredictable, impro is theatrical alchemy. Each night, three groups show off their individual styles, before coming together at the end of the evening for the infamous Slapdash Jam! See: slapdashfestival.co.uk
14th to 17th July: Latitude Festival, Henham Park, Southwold, prices vary. Latitude offers an amazing line-up of the best in music, literature, film, theatre, cabaret and comedy as ever, including Paolo Nutini, Suede, Eels, Omid Djalili, Duckie, Ralph Fiennes, Tim Key, and the intriguingly named Modern Toss Activity Centre in Pandora’s Playground. Bust out your bikini, don’t forget your wellies, and head to Suffolk. See: latitudefestival.co.uk
15th to 24th July: Shoreditch Festival, Regent’s Canal and surrounding spaces. Shoreditch Festival is an annual highlight of the East London cultural calendar that celebrates the network of canals linking communities from Shoreditch and beyond through to the Olympic Park. The festival will bring to life the waterside with film screenings, live music, dance performances, art commissions, fashion, literature and spoken word, health hubs, theatre shows, heritage trails, podcast expeditions, food markets and plenty more. See: shoreditchfestival.org.uk
23rd July: Prohibition, Grand Hall, Euston, £15. Prepare to step back in time as we revisit the roaring twenties! Swigging cunningly concealed cocktails and contraband liquor from teacups is the order of the day as we strive to evade the ever-beady eye of the law and indulge in a spot of illegal drinking, gambling and Charleston dancing. Live bands and cabaret acts are at hand to entertain even the most particular of cads and good time girls. See: prohibition1920s.com
21st to 24th July: Port Eliot Literary Festival, Port Eliot, Cornwall, £35 to £140. One of the most beautiful literary festivals in the world, Port Eliot is a weekend in Cornwall with a varied line-up of big names in music, fashion, food, film and literature. The open-air cinema is curated by Martin Scorsese, and includes classics The Red Shoes and The Leopard. Music comes from the likes of British Sea Power and Hannah Peel; the word line-up features John Cooper Clarke and Hanif Kureishi. The Idler Academy is organised by Tom Hodgkinson, and includes a playwriting class from Jerusalem author Jez Butterworth. See: porteliotfestival.com
JULY & AUGUST
All July to September: Rooftop Film Club, Queen of Hoxton, £10. An exciting outdoor film experience showing classic, cult and recent film releases on the rooftop of the Queen of Hoxton. Our big screen, wireless headphones and comfy chairs will mean you can sit back, relax and experience film like never before in this completely unique urban environment, until September, five nights a week. For full film listings, tickets and further information see: thequeenofhoxton.co.uk
2nd July to 5th August: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St Paul’s Churchyard, £15/10. A promenade production of Shakespeare’s magic-and-faeries romantic comedy. See: actorschurch.org or iristheatre.com
27th July to 7th August: Film 4 Summer Screen, Somerset House, £16-20. Taking over the big screen at Somerset House again for July and August 2011, the Film 4 Summer Screen series brings a variety of classics and brand new films to audiences in the capital. The enormous open air screen takes up the whole of the fountain square in front of the Somerset House facade, and shows an inspired range of movies with something to please everyone. DJs will also be playing some of the best in new music, plus there are behind the screen talks hosted by BAFTA. See: somersethouse.org.uk/film
2nd to 6th August: Great British Beer Festival, Earls Court, £6-23. Get some yeasty culture at this annual Beer Festival, and sup the UK’s finest ales from small breweries to some of Britain’s best-known beers. See: gbbf.camra.org.uk/home
3rd August, 7.30pm : YARN presents The Special Relationship, Concrete Bar, Shoreditch, £5. The Special Relationship literary variety night features turns from regulars Jarred McGinnis and Sam Taradash, plus guests Nii Ayikwei Parkes and award-winning cartoonist Harry Venning, who will be teaching audience memebers … well, how to be a cartoonist. See: yarnfest.com
4th August to 4th September: Free Theatre at The Scoop, South Bank, FREE. Get your thesp on at The Scoop throughout August 2011 when both kids’ and adults’ shows are put on every week, including Brecht’s The Mother and Around the World in 80 Days. Lucky theatre-loving Londoners can catch free shows at The Scoop as part of the More London Free Festival. See: morelondon.co.uk/scoop.html
19th to 29th August: London Latin Festival, various venues and prices. Celebrate the passion and excitement of Latin dance at this ten-day festival, featuring everything from salsa to bachata, via Latin Hustle and Zouk-Kizomba-Lambada … See: thelondonlatinfest.com
28th August: 3pm, Storytails, The Drop, Stoke Newington, FREE. The Sunday afternoon literary event returns in August with readings of short stories and novel extracts from up and coming London authors you’ll wonder why you haven’t heard of. The vibe is relaxed and entry is free, so just turn up and enjoy. See: storytails.org