22.

It started with vodka. Mikhail Daneevich wanted a matryoshka bottle holder. Zarko came up with a doll so lovely Mikhail ordered a set of dozen for the entertainment room of his five-million-dollar home. They were all masterfully crafted, painted and japanned. Fat and fertile, wide and welcoming, faces shining with different degrees of imbecility or wisdom, all much alike except for the one Mikhail wanted to show bare her left breast. They were lined with cork and big enough to hold a bucket of ice. Mikhail, a bear of a man, admired Zarko, even if he was a Catholic. Good carpenters are hard to find. Like a good priest or a good woman or a good car. Something one can rely on. Bottle holders Zarko made for him made Mikhail think big. Zarko objected. In an inconspicuous manner. He tried to excuse himself with too much work at the college where he was a full-time campus handy man. He even considered inventing a serious health problem for Ana, his wife, something delicate, an awkward female ailment even Mikhail wouldn’t want to discuss. But he decided against it. Too superstitious. So, Mikhail started coming around for fittings to the wood-shop Zarko had set up in his garage. He’d bring a bottle of vodka and a problem or two, of the kind Zarko didn’t want to know anything about but was forced to nevertheless. There was this incident with the Armenians. Most of them were born here, in America, in LA. They were too soft, too used to having it easy, Mikhail would say, there’s nothing worse than a good life. I want to do business with people who are hungry, he said. It made Zarko decide to skip dinner from then on. It also made him work faster, spend sleepless nights finishing up the project. And it was a masterpiece. Almost eight feet tall. Surface not only painted, but carved to the most delicate detail, inside lined with rich red velvet. But Mikhail inspected it with a scowl. It wouldn’t do. They would have to start all over. So they did. To ensure everything was as agreed upon Mikhail dropped by every evening. Two sinister looking Lincolns and a limo would be parked in front of Zarko and Ana’s mortgaged Glendale home. Because now Mikhail Daneevich wanted a TV set with a DVD player in his matryoshka. He wanted an alarm system, a mini bar, a phone and a fax machine. He wanted to be able to sit in it. Eternity’s a long time to spend on one’s feet. So he sat in it, in its stifling womb, at times for hours before coming out with new suggestions, like peepholes in place of eyes, or a portable toilet. Zarko despaired, but to no avail.  Did I tell you my grandfather lived to be a hundred and three, Mikhail would ask. Yep, I’m only fifty-three, wouldn’t be needing this baby for a good while! Then he’d pat the coffin playfully, and reach for the bottle.

 

23.

Nasia and Oren identify their neighbors by the noises they make. There’s Tom from 106 who when stoned goes around the building knocking on everyone’s door like a wound-down woodpecker collecting coupons for pizza or Thai-food deliveries. Dimitri, black guy directly above them, is a DJ, takes his work seriously, usually on Saturdays. Kristy and Maureen at the end of the hall share a birthday, share parties, and tend to monopolize the laundry utilities. Harvey from across the hall doesn’t speak to anyone in the building, just talks to his dog, a black Lab named Manic and smiles a lot.

Of course there are the Taters from the next building, main vegetables of the neighborhood, and the Arabs who are moving in more and more. The rest of the people never stay much longer than it takes to carry bookshelves and pianos up the staircase and down again. Although the names on the mailboxes never change, some of them belong to people who haven’t inhabited the fair city of LA for years. Or our beautiful planet, for that matter. Which gives the building a sort of metaphysical or supernatural atmosphere. Makes it a halfway house, as in between here and the next world. People move in, people move out. People change. All that is left, all that’s the same is the noise they used to make.

Nasia comes into the room carrying her socks like two dead fish, water still dripping. “Go tell Dimitri he flooded our bathroom.”

Oren’s on the bed, eating yogurt-covered raisins with a spoon. “I’m busy, you go tell him.”

“I don’t think so, it’s your turn.” She lets the socks dribble on his naked feet.

 

24.  

They learned that the offices of The Divisions magazine are right in their neighborhood. Why waste money on postage, they just turn up at a tiny second-floor ex-apartment on the crossing of Beverly and Van Ness, only to discover that it harbors the giant ego of Holden Heckler, the magazine’s youthful editor. They catch him right in the middle of what he usually does. Must be secretary’s year off, cleaning lady’s five-year unpaid leave. Heckler sits alone doing an impression of Marlon Brando from Apocalypse Now surrounded by a jungle of manuscripts, back issues and dust divided into neat coke lines.  Keeps scanning the first page of their story about zoo-animals building a space ship to escape from Earth. 

“I must say I’m distrustful of writers who change their mother tongue like a dirty shirt.”

“So are we.” Nasia refused to sit. In the story the animals fashion the craft out of soda cans, disposable cameras and left-behind baby carriages. They distill fuel from elephant dung.

Holden looks up. “For a writer, it’s suicide.”

“Don’t worry about it, it’s our rope.” Oren pretends he’s bored. A young zookeeper discovers the plan just before the take off. He blackmails the animals into taking him along. Uses his spare key to let them into the food storage and prove he’s worthy. Lions and tigers eat him up before they reach Jupiter. Lions and tigers eat the last elephant before they reach Uranus.

“But you had a good thing started, I mean, you published a novel and all.”

“Who told you that?” Nasia frowns.

“You did, in your cover letter.” Holden reads the last line again. There they run out of fuel.

“I wouldn’t know anything about that, she wrote the letter.” Oren shrugs his shoulders.

“Liar,” Nasia cuts in, says to Holden, “You shouldn’t believe everything you read.”

Their next story is about a married couple taking a walk. A car runs into them at the crossing. The wife dies at the site. Husband lives to find out there was no one driving the car. Just one of those freak accidents. He buys the car at the police auction, fixes it up, drives off a cliff. The end.

“Look, guys, I can’t promise anything, you’re just too ordinary to be strange, and too strange—

“We won’t beg.” Nasia clenches her fists. “We need money.”

The two of them aim their stares like double-barreled shotguns, Holden blushes. If only he had a buzzer now, like in James Bond movies, to summon Miss Moneypenny.

Finally they’re leaving. Holden walks them to the door because he’s too embarrassed. For them. He promises to get back to them within a week. He promises he won’t forget them. It sounds like a threat. 

 

25.

Mary Simmons hadn’t gone out of her house for the last five years. Actually the last time she had seen her house from the outside was the first time she had seen the house from the outside, the day her husband brought her here, to Los Feliz just under the Griffith Observatory, showed her the place, and informed her he had bought it. For them to live in. With their children.

Five years had given Mary plenty of time to get to know the inside of the house. Five years had also given her time enough to realize she didn’t want children. But they stayed in Los Feliz anyhow.

It’s a big house, most of the time. A bit less big when Mary’s husband is around. Only he works too much. But as big as the house is, it is still much smaller than the world. And it’s the world that kept getting bigger and bigger for Mary until she decided it would be safer to confine herself exclusively to the house.

Mary’s world began growing when she met her husband. Soon after they got married, his job made them move to the West Coast, to San Diego, then LA, first West Hollywood, then here, to Los Feliz. Their home grew, from a rented apartment to a villa, their car grew too, grew and multiplied. The whole world grew tenfold in less than two years, scared the hell out of Mary, made her wary, especially because in that time she had met a lot of people she didn’t trust.

It made her be on her toes, all the time, the size of the world. Made her order self-motivation tapes, and fitness tapes, and martial arts tapes, and old movies with Charles Bronson in one of which he makes a deadly dart-gun out of a lamp, some paper and nails. Mary developed a routine, working out, eating right, swimming in their indoor pool, watching maybe too much television. But she’s fit, she’s in great shape, women admire her figure when they have people over, men have involuntary erections around Mary’s body. Makes her self-aware, extremely self-aware.

Usually during the day Mary puts herself in a scenario. There’s an intruder in the house. A burglar. A murderer. Maybe a rapist, a man with a violent erection. She’ll hide behind the couch and barely breathe, both hands clutching her dart-gun. There’ll be some slight noise coming from the kitchen. That’s the passage she prepared for the intruder. A pan she placed on the floor rattles. The man shows up at the kitchen door. Mary blows a nine-inch nail dart in his direction.

That’s what had happened when Mary’s husband tried to surprise her on their anniversary. She shot him clean through the right earlobe. He bled so much it took two hand towels to stop the bleeding. But her husband is a reasonable man. Mary hovered above him like an angered school teacher while he whimpered on the floor. She convinced him not to go to the hospital. Persuaded him against calling the police too. In fact, she makes him quit his job and stay home with her to prepare for the impending intruder attack. In return he makes her promise if no intruder shows up in the next three months, she’ll start going out again.

“Hell,” says Mary, propped on her dart gun, “if no one rapes either of us in the next three months, I’ll run the fucking LA marathon!”  

 

26.

Oren is taking a shower. Nasia is reading. The only difference is he can have a shower without the help of a fat red Webster. The dictionary is lying in her lap, it’s heavy and it never opens to the page it’s supposed to. She’s not sure what book is she reading, but it’s supposed to be fun. Only there’s no fun with Webster around. So smug, so calculated and so damn patronizing, it makes her feel stupid. She hates Webster. Next time she has to look for a word, she’ll rip out the page and eat it.

… and I resent your officious deportment!

What the fuck is officious?

It pisses her off. Strange sounds with no meaning, fragmenting her thoughts. Bloody language, foreigners are supposed to stutter, lisp, mumble, sound retarded, tongue-tied. One is limited to the use of only the most modest set of words, the simplest, most frequent ones. Yes, no, thank you. And maybe maybe.

She clutches the dictionary to tear it in half. But it’s an aged and stubborn book, refuses to give in, so she reaches between hard red covers, grabs a dozen or so pages, pulls them out like strands of gray hair. The paper shreds with a mournful purr but gives her no satisfaction, it’s the blood she’s after. So she takes a pen and stabs it into the heart of the old vampire, turns it inside the volume’s innards for a better effect, plows with it over the covers till it breaks in her hand, bleeding ink all over books, shirt and bed. There, it’s done. She kicks Webster’s body under the bed. Frantically rubs her hands with paper tissue while trying to take off her shirt. Picks up the phone. Marches to the bathroom. Pushes the wet plastic curtain aside. “Your mother died.”

He’s standing under the steaming stream, foam in his armpits, in his hair, under his balls. Her face bare of clues she points at him with the phone as black as a nightstick. “They just called.”

“Who called?”

“Zoran. Your father was too weak. They’re afraid for him too. We’ll have to go back now, for the funeral.” Hot water sprays on the phone still extended in her hand.

“I’m not going back.” He’s fighting nausea with clenched teeth. It doesn’t seem to be working. The black phone grows into a hole offered to him to disappear in. Sweat breaking across his forehead gets immediately washed away by the rush of water, any trace of thought or coherence with it.

“I told you to call them, I was feeling something was going on, I did, in here.” She pokes at her chest looking at him with bright, sincere eyes. His feet squeak in the wet bathtub, his head drops, sways uncontrollably, his mouth fills with water, bubbles with soap.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re right. You’re always right. That’s the most important thing, you being right. You’re right. You’re right.”

She lets him, has a deep breath of hot shower mist. “I understand, just let it out, it’s alright.”

He fumbles with the tap unable to turn it off. She crosses her arms. “She was waiting for you to call, and now she’s dead.”

He looks up in time to catch her face dry, disinterested. “You, you—”

The sudden attention bothers her. “What? What? It could happen. I told you, call your fucking mother!” She pushes the phone at him, but he knocks it out of her hand. It drops on the floor, hits the tiles breaking in two, baring red and green, blue and yellow electronic intestines.

“You sick little bitch!” He throws a sponge at her.

It bounces heavy off her forehead leaving it wet. Looks as if she’s been crying. But she just takes a towel, dries her face, then crouches, gathers the pieces of the phone in it. “It’s okay, we’ll tape it back together, it’ll be like new again.”