“What does it say?”
His gloomy face is answer enough.
Bank of America ATM on Larchmont. The two of them – a regular pair of pagan worshipers in front of the oracle. It’s a weekly ritual, and the news is never good. Through the process of bizarre financial alchemy they managed to transform ten thousand dollars into seven thousand, seven thousand into six. Now they have five. $ 5.064,78 to be exact. None of it is even their money. It’s her parents’. The subtle similarity between what they’re doing and a bank robbery is intensified by the sound of the sirens coming from the distance.
“Okay, so how much this time? Forty?”
She fidgets. “Sixty.”
“We’ll need to buy gas.” He opens his palms like a check book.
“Okay, a hundred, but you’ll have to make it last.”
The ATM squeaks and growls in protest but coughs out the dough. As he crumples the twenties and stuffs them into his pocket, the sirens fill the street. It’s only firemen.
A silver black crow jumps from the curb and runs across the street, like a chicken that has stolen a piece of luck from somebody’s back yard. The heat stills the afternoon into an oil painting, colors melt and mix from too much light. The crow moves fast, it’s a secret agent in a black raincoat, only it never rains in Southern California, and things remain secret only if they are worthless to all parties concerned. Yes, like little Sonny Bono in a black silk kimono the crow crosses the street, too lazy to fly, or too proud. On the other side, under the shade of a magnolia tree, the crow will lull itself to sleep and dream what make of a car it would drive if it were a man. Or a woman. Something slick and shiny, something foreign, a Lexus, no, a Mercedes…
O: Stop it.
N: Stop what?
O: Stop scratching yourself.
Stop it, you hear? I’m not telling you again. (yes, he is)
O: Stop scratching. Your legs will be covered with scabs like last winter.
No, they won’t.
O: Stop it, you’ll get blood poisoning, your sores will get infected, they’ll have to cut both of your legs to save you.
N: Shut up, you idiot!
O: Stop it, you hear.
N: Why don’t you give your mother a call.
O: Stop scratching.
N: You haven’t call her since we got here.
Yes, I did. (no, he didn’t)
N: You’re really weird, you know that. What’s the big deal, why don’t you call her?
O: You’re weird. Stop scratching.
N: You should call her.
Okay, I will. (no, he won’t)
It’s a Californian house, meaning one cannot describe it by using those simplifying names one finds in art history and urban architecture books. It’s made of red bricks and if it weren't for the evergreen palm trees across the street one might think it's an old 18th century Bostonian building, maybe the very one in which, one gloomy fall around five in the afternoon, the Tea Party plot had started. But if you look a bit closer you'll notice the bricks form a thin skin over the prosaic wooden frame (pine from Canada, or California red-wood). There is a gothic porch and a rococo chandelier at the entrance. The hall is adorned with a giant pseudo-Van Gogh bowl-headed sunflowers, khaki-colored carpet, twenty creaky stairs to the upper floor. Plastic flowers in the vase, humidity in the spent air, a line of doors with gilded numbers on them, like cells in a meticulously arranged correctional facility. The nervous sound of a deadbolt unlocking. A black Labrador jumps out and barks at the empty hall. There’s no one to stop him. The dog notices the main entrance is open and slowly, very slowly, shifting the weight of his heavy dark body from one leg to the other, in a repeated four-step sequence, exits the building.
Dogs observe the world only in black and white, maybe that’s why he’s so unimpressed with the view. Because it’s a nice neighborhood, every half-decent real-estate agent would tell you so, it’s ideal for people who don’t have money for a place of their own and yet can’t afford to live in a poor neighborhood. A stretch of two-story houses with eclectic gardens and solid second-hand cars. Only a couple of hundred yards down south spreads the rich area of Larchmont villas. But not here. People are modest here, the only expensive things are their dreams.
Hey, what’s that? A big fat orange cat perched in the middle of the sidewalk. C’mon, dog, what are you waiting for? C’mon, man!
The cat spots him. But she doesn’t move.
Neither does the Labrador, he just lifts up his hind left leg and waters an abandoned cigarette butt. The amber fizzles out with a hiss.
The cat yawns. The dog returns back to his apartment. It must be because he’s colorblind.
The very next moment a person enters the building from the back exit. The iron door is stuck open with black pebbles by people who regularly go out for a smoke at the parking lot or let their pets out for a walk. A flower box filled with these pebbles is right next to the exit, nothing’s been growing in it for years. The man, it must be a man, otherwise it’s a too tall and ungraceful woman, the man walks in as nothing but a dark, disfigured shadow, his sides torn by the sun’s radiance pouring in from the end of the tunnel-like hall behind him. Walks up to one of the apartments, presses his ear to the door. Listens. After a while, after he’s heard all he wanted to hear, or after he makes sure there’s nothing to be heard, he skulks away the same way he came in.
“Jagua'!” A male voice, as British as pop-corn, croons over the radio. “Bo'n to po'f'om!”
Up till a moment ago Oren was singing to Nasia how she makes him feel like a natural woman. It’s their third time around the block in search of a parking space, but the sun is still high enough in the sky - they have time. People are funny animals. Good times are never as memorable as the bad times. Never as intense. A person has to win the lottery or give birth to a child to remember. Other good times just dissolve in time, like aspirin in water. They are never as sharp as the bad things. Good things are like a mild summer day. Bad things are the coldest day of the winter, they don’t compare. Good things don’t stand the chance of being remembered. It’s the bad ones you remember. Good ones you either live or you don’t.
“Look, there’s one!” He swerves into an empty slot, right front wheel humping the curb.
She just says. “We won’t remember this tomorrow.” Taps the dashboard with her fingernails, he’s trying not to notice it, it’s that Morse code of hers, right now she’s in the middle of sending a message to universe and the radio booms. “Free world! Free world!” with a cartoon cackle, “Well, if it’s free, then eeeeeverybody should join in!”
When they get home there’s a message on their machine. “Shalom, Nasia and Oren…” It’s just Elad. Inviting them to his show.
They respond with fake enthusiasm. One should never try to contact a
pair of writers with any news other than that of a publication contract.
It would be good if the word about some money would be involved too. For
some strange reason writers like money. They can never have enough of
But then they feel ashamed. Elad’s okay. They met him when he tried to break into their ’93 Nissan Altima. He had mistaken it for his own Altima. It’s beige like theirs, only a year older. They thought it was some sort of a sign and decided to immediately become friends with Elad. It was just after they had bought their car, they were proud and nervous about it at the same time. They had bought it from a nice Russian Jew by the name of Greenberg. Elad was a nice Hebrew Jew by the name of Gilbom. It was a sign.
Only later did they discover there are thousands of beige Altimas in LA. At least a half of those are driven by nice Jews whose last names start with a “G”. Nevertheless, they had decided to be friends just with Elad.
She has no idea when did it actually start, at what precise moment of her life did she develop this need, this irresistible yen to touch, chairs and tables, door knobs, bed posts, shelves, books. She’ll cover the whiteness of a wall with the drumming of her dancing fingers, imbuing it with the music of inner imbalance, looking for the right sequence, golden pattern, seeking the equilibrium of non-existing truths. As if with a built-in Geiger counter she’s detecting loose radioactivity to feed her mind into a calm.
He reads Fante’s Ask the Dust and after a couple of pages comes across the line where Fante worries about going blind like Joyce. Sitting on the toilet he flips to the last page of the book. Fante did go blind, from diabetes. His wife’s name was Joyce. Oren starts to worry about his own eyes, thinks he might develop diabetes – maybe it’s caused by something transmitted through the words, thoughts?
There’s a Modigliani exhibition at LACMA. Nasia and Oren have never seen any of his work in the original. As they stand in front of the portrait of a servant girl, a broken whisper reaches them from a small hallway to the right. It’s hard not to overhear.
“Now don’t get upset. Let’s be honest. You want to be honest, right?” The male voice creeps over the marble like spilled honey.
The woman wheezes in agreement.
“Good.” The man is pleased. “Then let’s be honest. I… it’s like this, the whole thing reminds me of this place, a museum, lots of beautiful memories, but there’s nothing alive here any more. I’m sure you feel this way too.”
“What do you mean?” The female voice quivers in anticipation.
“But you know, you understand, I mean, how much longer can it go on, let’s not make a scene, I’ll… I’ll always be there for you, but, and I’ll need you to return my keys, after all—”
Here Nasia rolls her eyes in disbelief, Oren points with two fingers to his mouth as if he’ll force himself to vomit.
“Oh, it’s all so sudden, do you think—”
“Please, you’re, eh, too good for me anyway, and here I am making an ass of myself, really, I hope no one’s listening, but—”
The servant girl on the painting is slanting her head to the point where it appears it might fall off her bottleneck. What depressive brew does she contain, Nasia thinks. Premature and phthisical, Modigliani’s women are melancholic containers of life about to go stale, new wine going sour without ever reaching its rightly deserved age.
There’s a subtle rattle of keys.
“Would you let go, would you, please, let go?” The man strains to keep his voice down. “I need those. Okay, suit yourself, it’s been, whatever.”
Brutal sound of steps dissolves towards the main exit.
When they turn there’s a Modigliani woman sitting on a museum bench too, her knuckles white from clenching a set of keys in the black nest of her lap, her head slightly cocked, her eyes canceled with sadness one could frame and sell for a million.
Law and order. How to get by?
First day of the week one side of the street gets cleaned. Park your car on the other. Nine till eleven a.m. Next day the other side gets cleaned. Park on the side that got cleaned yesterday. Nine till eleven a.m.
Lock the door, unlock the door.
Eat three meals a day, less if you’re past twenty five.
Wash the dishes, dry the dishes. Wash the clothes, dry the clothes. But not before you break your dollar into quarters. Or before others do their laundry.
Pay your bills. Electricity. Phone. Internet access. Car insurance. Water. Something else that escapes your mind right this moment.
Listen to complaints: it’s not poetry, got no rhythm. Not prose either. Needs firm ideas, concept, structure, plot.
Buy newspapers to cover your head. Tell everyone you’re sleeping. Disconnect.
Let the ocean hum in the distance. Even if you can’t hear it.