Four short stories
Four police SUVS are parked on the corner of Lincoln and Avenue 50. No flashing lights, but two of the officers are going door to door, while the other male and female officer lean against the car with their arms crossed. It’s 100 degrees. I’m in a white cotton dress with a sweat-corset around my ribs. I wave to the stylish couple whom I’m meeting about renting a room. Ben looks exactly like his picture: floppy hair, soft features with an adolescent frame. The first word that comes to mind is gentle. His girlfriend, Aria, is taller than him in flip-flops. She wears lavender lingerie with black smeared eye-makeup that looks Wes Anderson-chic. Before I can say Hello, the police officer steps in our path.
“Which one of you live here?” He says.
All three of us look at each other.
“None of us do,” Ben says. It’s true. He already lives with Aria. He’s been subletting the room for months. Aria smiles at the officer. She is an actress. Ben’s a musician. I’m a poet. He’s renting the laundry room for $550 dollars. I wonder if he’s keeping the room for insurance, in case things don’t work out with Aria, or if he’s making an extra $50 bucks a month for subletting it. Probably both. Three people live in the house. Two work office jobs and one works from home. If I get the room, I will have my own sink and toilet, but all four of us will share the shower upstairs.
“Let me get this straight,” the officer pulls out a pencil and tiny notebook. “None of you live here.”
“That’s true,” I say. “I’ve never been here before in my life.”
“Were either of you here last night?”
“No.” Aria says. “We just pulled up.”
“Do any of you recognize that car?” He points to an older red car.
We all shake our heads.
“What happened?” I ask, knowing that I would take the room regardless of the answer. Knowing that this is the only room I can afford. Knowing that I’ve already been priced out of San Francisco and it’s probably too late for Los Angeles, but everyone has told me Highland Park is the last place to get cheap rent. The officer’s radio makes a sound and his partner calls him over. As he walks away from us he mutters, “He didn’t make it.”
“What did he say?” I look at Ben and Aria. We all know what he said. The red car door is left open and a rotting smell permeates the hot air.
“I’ve never seen police on this street before,” Aria says. “I’ve always felt safe here.”
“I run by the school every night,” Ben chimes in.
They must need the rent as much as I need the room.
“It’s back here.” Benextends his arm.
We walk past a Beware of Dogsign in the front house, down a long driveway to anotherhouse in the back. A German Shepard heavily pants as he runs alongside us and lungesat the fence. Baredteeth on metal,I startle. “He’s actually a teddy bear,” Aria says.
“Aria’s a Gemini, too,” Ben voice is chipper.
“May or June?” I ask.
“Me, too. I’ve always heard June Gemini’s are the crazy ones.”
“Same!” She squeals. “We Gemini’s get a bad rap.”
We share unconvincing smiles.
“You have your own entrance to the house,” Ben says, opening the door. We walk through a mosquito net to a windowless room with a burning Frankincense stick, masking the damp smell. “I never lock the door,” hefrowns. “The natural light is nice.” Heunlocksthe cabinets above the futon. A bottle of Tide and bleach still reside on the highest shelf. “You can store your clothes in here.”
“Have you ever hit your head on that?” I point to the faucet over the bed.
“No, but you can drink from the tap lying down,” he jokes.
“You never have to wash a glass,” I reply.
“We call that the love fountain,” Aria smiles. “Actually, we’ve never called it that at all.”
“I’ve had a lot of romantic mornings in this room.” Ben gestures to his writing desk that is a piece of plywood over the laundry basin.
“We fell in love in this room,” Aria says sincerely, as if to say we’ve made lovemany timesin this room. Maybe you will be as lucky.
“We have a house show once a month,” Ben says. “I told my roommates that you are a poet and they’d love to have you read.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Is this the bathroom?”
I open the door to a toilet and a sink. It has a smallwindow with spider webs and no toilet paper. I’ve dyed my hair blond before I drove down here and my newhighlightscatch me off guard.Is this what I look like now?I pull the faucet on,and hold my hand beneath the cold water. “It’s great,” I say through the door.
We don’t see the rest of the house. I only plan on going in there to shower. I will probably just buy a cooler, a lamp, and some Palo Santo. I don’t need much anymore. We walk through the mosquito net and into the blistering heat, the Teddy Bear growls and jumps,but this time,I don’t flinch. The police lights are flashing now. “So, do you think you will take it?” Ben runs his fingers through hishair. Aria puts on her oversizedsunglassesand I can almost place the miniseries I have seen her in.Across the street,the police officers tackle a man. He’s face down in the grass. They cuff his hands and place a shoe on his neck.
“I will take it,” I reply.
“Do you have any other questions?” Aria asks, already on her phone. “We just adopted a rescue dog and we can’t leave him for very long.”
“Is there any laundry?”
They look at me strangely.
“I mean, not in the house…”
“On York Blvd,” Benrecovers. “There’s a great laundry mat on York!”
Families walk out on the sidewalk to see the commotion. Sweat drips down the back of my legs. A man is being forced in the back seat of the cop car. I smile at my new neighbors.
Violent. Passionate. Surrogate.
His hands are on my throat. I am against the wall of my apartment. I recognize this is a pattern. I’ve angered the jealous monster. All of his rage and fear is directed at me and I shrink into my heartbeat. Originally, I’d found his inability to control his emotions to be, well, honest. I’d always crammed mine down. Hid the way I felt to pacify others. When I first met him, he was playing guitar in an alley with spit flying, strings breaking, bloody fingers, channeling an otherness that awoken something inside of me. I wanted him to do that, to me. Now his arms are locked and he holds me against the wall. I watch the vein spread into a V across his forehead.
In the beginning, his life seemed more truthful than mine. He never went to college, risked everything for music. I went to from college to graduate school to residencies, “honing my craft” while he had raw untainted talent. It took me draft-after-draft to get to the deeper meaning of my work, while he would sit down, tear a page from my notebook, write for fifteen minutes, and there it was. I envied him. Looking at him now with his jaw clenched, purple veins pulsing, I only see insecurity. My eyes plea for him to stop.
We only play violent, right? He’s not really going to hurt me, but he is hurting me. I feel my Adam’s apple like it’s the first time I’ve ever noticed it. I wonder if I’m going to faint, like that game I played when I was a kid, and just as my tongue tingles, he releases my throat. I gasp for air and we stand there fearing each other, breathing like animals.
One Ton Prop, Richard Serra 1969
The first thing she smells as she steps off the elevator into their loft on the Lower East Side is marijuana. It is even more potent than the burnt rubber and molten lead.She takes off her knit poncho and slides two thick bracelets high on her left bicep. Her tall red boots echo down the hallway.
“Did you order Thai?” She yells.
He twists out his joint. “I thought we might go out.”
“On Fridays, it can take hours for delivery.”
He watches her strut down the hall. More equestrian than artist. Still wearing that damn Camel cigarettes t-shirt. He waits for her reaction like a child coming home to a litup Christmas tree. She places her forearms on the table and cocks her hip.
“So, you didn’t order anything?”
“I was busy,” he smiles, waiting.
She says nothing. He appears, as he always had, self-satisfied with a consuming intensity in his black eyes. He places his hands in the pockets of his hooded sweatshirt.Then kicks his work boots together. A clump of mud falls on the floor. There is a loud silence between them.
She walks around the steel box: four lead plates, leaning against the other. No top. An open container. The size of an adult playpen. If she stood in it, it would be up to her waist. Yet, it’s not sturdy enough to crawl over. You can see light coming through the cracks. She wonders if she will ever see him and not it again?
“Let me guess. Low-Rate Movers.”
“Philip, Chuck, and Spalding helped me carry it in.”
“Jesus, you guys aren’t kids anymore.” She stands far enough away from it, in case it collapses. “I hope it doesn’t fall through the ceiling.”
“It looks unstable.”
“Do want to guess the verb?”
“To prop,” she says, flatly.
“Nance, I’ve finally found it. What I’ve been waiting for.”
“It’s a fucking box, Richard!”
His eyes shift between her and the sculpture. He wants to kick it with his steel-toe boot, just to show her how secure it is, but what if she’s right? What if it falls intoitself like a house of cards? It’s not supposed to have function. He’s not an architect. He’s an artist and artists are supposed to take risks! He had to do something. Something that held weight. That would be a nod to his father who was a pipe fitter in a shipyard. That brought him back to his roots, working in a steel mill all those teenage summers. He’s a blue-collar guy! Not like her, an heir to the Crane paper family. He needed to stand out from his older brother, Tony. The famous civil right’s lawyer who’s defending Huey Newton in a murder trail. What can an artist do that is bigger than that?
“You would see it that way,” he says, yanking the window open. Sirens and warm-garbage-wind fills the loft.He glares at the full moon.
“You were just throwing molton lead around like Hephaestus. Now you are a minimalist?”
“At least it doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” She feels heat rise to her face. She wonders who is supporting whom in their relationship. “Do you mean me?”
“I’m talking about the art.”
“Are you saying my work pretends to be taxidermy?”
“I’m saying that I don’t want to be another rock on a wall. I need to clear away the clutter. Become the wall.”
Become the wall?! Is she the clutter?
“I need to do something more truthful,” he said.
She wants to reply, I’m sick of all of you men who are constantly bragging about truthfulness! How does anyoneknow the truth when it’s always changing? Wasn’t Paris the truth? Yes, their landlady threatened to kick them out when she realized they weren’t married, but weren’t they mad for each other when they finally said those stupid vows? Richard had stopped painting and started working with live and stuffed animals. That picture of him with his shit-eating-grin, one arm in the pig’s trough. So willing to play. To explore. Wasn’t that true? She, already a Fulbright, helped him with his application, and then he became a Scholar himself. Now he resented her for her pedigree. But weren’t they the same? Both coming from Yale, then Paris, then Italy. Didn’t they have the same dream—once?
“Is this about The Whitney? Because if it makes your feel better The Times referred to me as Ms. Richard Serra.”
“No, it’s about me wanting to be the greatest sculptorin the world!”
She laughs. “You’re going to kill someone with that thing.”
He shoves his wallet into his pocket. “I’m heading over to Judson’s.”
“Who’s dancing tonight?”
Everyone knew Joan Jonas was dancing, it was the talk of Max’s all week.
“Don’t know,” he replied. “Spalding and Phillip are going.”
“I’m starving,” she said, walking to the window. “I wish you would’ve ordered takeout. At least I would have had something to eat.”
As he locked the door, she studied the moon’s splotchy face. Its rough topography, riddled with innumerable shadows. One day, she’d paint the tiny grains of lunar dust with acrylics on canvas. One day, those paintings will hang in yet another museum. But tonight she will go back to one of her camel sculptures without eating.And when she is up to her forearms in feathers and clay, she will think: Isn’t it funny how some people use relationships to satisfy what’s blocked inside of them while others use art?
He bought the new iPhone X as an earlybirthday present for himself. I’m brushing my teeth and listening to him talk about all the hours of research that led him to purchase the X over the 8 Plus.
“The telephoto lens has optical image stabilization.” He says over the running water.
“What’s so great about telephoto lensanyway? Can you really see a difference?”
“Of course you can!” He replies. “It brings things closer, puts the background out of focus.”
I spit into the sink, wipe my mouth on his roommate’s towel, and stand in the doorway in his band t-shirt.
“That makes sense… telepathic, telephone, telephoto…the Greek root must mean ‘far away from something.’ Does anyone say telephone anymore? Seriously, when was the last time you’ve heard it? It’s just phone or cell now. ”
“The images look sharper on the X.” He replies, cupping it in his hand and flicking through photos and pausing to watch one of the videos he had made of Ocean Beach. I sit next to him on the futon and reach my arms behind my back to take off my bra.
“Look at the screen, its edge-to-edge, top-to-bottom. It’s so curvy. It’s beautiful.”“Not really,” I say, crossing my unshaved legs. Maybe he would be looking at my legs if I shaved them? Probably not. “What’s that tab in the center of the screen?”
“It’s The Notch.”
“It looks odd,” I say. “Unnecessary. Not pretty at all.”
“I hardly notice it,” he says. “When I change my wallpaper to black it doesn’t disrupt the symmetry.”
I lean in to see it. My arm pressing against his arm.
“The X feels different,” he says, “it’s the perfect weight. It just feels good in my hand.”
I put my face closer to his face. “Show me howface recognition works.”
Instantly, he gazes into the smooth glass. He appears so open. So interested. Is it his ownreflection? Or the fact that he finally feels seen? The device scans his face and magically his color-coded-apps popup on the home screen. Then helocks the phone and shines it at me. I look into it like he did. Eyes open. Small smile. But it only bounces at me. I swear it made one of those (X)-sounds like on Family Feud. Access denied. Five-fingers-to-the-face. I am really starting to hate this thing.
“Telescreens!” I exclaim.
“What?” he replies.
“Don’t you remember telescreens from 1984?”
“Never read it,” he says.
“Really?” I try not to sound too disappointed. “Their televisions are security cameras except for at night. I don’t think it had night vision or something.”
“This camera has infrared technology,” he says like he was one of the engineers who built it.
“So it even works in the dark! How creepy.”
I turn off the light. He picks up his perfect weight phone and it cherishes his face. I roll over and get my Rose Gold 7 and admire its white border. I hug my fingers around its thick edges and pull it close enough until everything around me blurs out of focus.
Jennifer Lewis is the editor of Red Light Lit. Her fiction has been published in Cosmonaut’s Avenue, Eleven Eleven, Fourteen Hills Press, Midnight Breakfast, sPARKLE & bLINK and X-Ray Lit Mag. She received her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University and she teaches at The Writing Salon in San Francisco.