Emma Smith-Stevens: The Boulevard
Kat took a faint bit of pleasure in dialing Mark’s number, a man whom she’d never met, from inside of his own home. She was lying on his loveseat, legs draped over its wooden arm. She wondered where he was, but knew she wouldn’t ask, and what he looked like, because there were no pictures of anyone, anywhere in his studio apartment. The only interactions they’d had were a few emails exchanged after she’d responded to his ad for a one-month sublet, posted on Internet classifieds.
“How’s the place holding up?” he asked. His voice was muffled by the whirr of traffic and wind.
There was a disturbing odor in bathroom. Whenever Kat took a shower, the smell steamed from the faux bamboo floor-mat, but she wasn’t yet ready to say so. “I hadn’t realized you lived on the Walk of Fame,” she said instead.
“Watch out for Gene Simmons,” he said. “From KISS. The impersonator, I mean. He’s a total lunatic, always right on the corner of Hollywood and Orange.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Suddenly she felt shy, sprawled the way she was. As she dragged her legs over the armrest so that she might sit properly, a tiny splinter entered the soft flesh of her calf.
While she picked at the shard, Mark kept talking about his neighborhood. His voice was soothing in the way that déjà vu can be soothing—a queer sensation of rightness. As soon as she became conscious of this, she realized that she’d expected it, by virtue of knowing so much about him. She knew what brand of trash bag he preferred, that he only owned two forks, and that he kept a blindfolded mannequin head next to his bed. She knew he had two dogs, because their bowls were on the floor, and she knew their names—Susie and Cerberus—because they were engraved on the bowls. He cleaned his ears with Q-Tips frequently, perhaps every day, burned sandalwood incense, and was fond of P&G Tips, England’s favorite tea. Mark was a screenwriter, a technophile, a bondage enthusiast. He wanted to get fit, expending the minimum amount of energy in the minimum amount of time, and that he either believed in God, or really wanted to.
Mark told Kat what grocery store to go to, and the location of the building’s laundry room. He gave her tips for driving on the freeways, and warned her about rush-hour traffic. She rallied her courage and told him about the floor-mat. “My dogs must’ve peed on it,” he said, not at all embarrassed. “You can just throw it away.” She could hear him walking, and then in an instant the background noises were gone. They talked some more—about Los Angeles, a city that was strange to her, where she would live perhaps forever. He told her about vegan restaurants, taco trucks, and the Santa Monica Pier. He cautioned her not to judge LA by his Hollywood neighborhood, and she wondered how she’d betrayed her distaste for it. She hadn’t meant to.
“Do you know anyone in town?” he asked.
“Just my boss. I’m here to work at an art gallery in West Hollywood.”
“Is she your friend?”
“Yes,” said Kat, a lie. “We are very close.”
She realized how alone she sounded, despite trying to not to, like a child who is clearly injured, but the accident itself is a source of shame, and so she denies it. And gradually, as she studied Mark’s apartment, she became aware of his loneliness. He had too many collections: film posters, samurai swords, glass display cases full of little figurines. She walked to the head of his bed to study them up close. Inside were row upon row of tiny wooden soldiers, meticulously hand-painted. In the bathroom, she found two-dozen vials of nail-polish beneath the sink, perhaps evidence of a woman long gone. Still on the phone, Kat climbed into Mark’s bed.
That first night, Mark explained the mannequin head. “It belonged to my ex,” he said. “Stacey. She had no self-esteem and I humored her. We split a few months ago. I kicked her out.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kat.
“Don’t be sorry. She’s a bad person.”
“I don’t believe in bad people,” she said. “At least no one is born bad.”
“She was born bad. Like that little girl in that movie, you know what I mean.”
“The Bad Seed.”
When Mark called the next night, Kat was sitting on a deck-chair, smoking, watching bugs float in the apartment complex’s pool. She listened to him, flicking her ashes in the general direction of a potted plant. He called her a third night, and a fourth. He talked mostly about Stacey. Kat learned to wait for him. She would touch his things—his towels, his blankets, his throw pillows—closing her eyes and imagining him knocking on the door. Would he knock on the door? Or would he just use his key?
Mark told Kat how some nights he went to bars where cocktail waitresses waited to become starlets. While they were waiting, they brought him whiskey sours and sometimes went home with him. That was how he’d met Stacey. He’d been intrigued because she’d known right away that he was part Native American—his father had been Iroquois—and he was sick of people telling him that he was tall for a Mexican. Stacey knew the names of different tribes. The truth was that Mark didn’t know much about his heritage; his father had died of stomach cancer when he was four. But he made up answers to her questions. He was good at reading people, and Stacey was begging to be impressed.
The next thing that became clear about Stacey was that she lacked tact altogether. Mark found this both aggravating and arousing. She had implants, and was always demanding that people touch them. At fourteen, she’d run away from her alcoholic father, and had been a prostitute for a while. In her early twenties, she’d moved from Sacramento to LA to become an actress. She’d landed a series of auditions, all of them fruitless. By the time Mark met her, she’d come to the conclusion that if fame was really meant to happen to her, it would find her in that bar. She repeatedly embarrassed him in front of his friends with her liberal use of the word “cunt.” However, her past had been extraordinarily educational. “She was,” said Mark, “the best lay I’ve ever had.”
He confessed that, despite months of separation, Stacey still appeared in his fantasies with a frequency that disturbed him. Even when he was watching porn, his mind slipped through the pixels and found her. The image of her was not from when he could still see her beauty, or any other good time. It was the moment he was most ashamed of her. Stacey had spilled a drink on her white halter-top. Her rust colored nipples stabbed against the transparent fabric, and she just sat there, not covering herself, laughing. She was exposed—she might as well have been naked. Mark’s friends shifted their glances to other objects. It was the shame of her entire life, in one moment.
It was the middle of a scorching afternoon, the air bone-dry at the peak of a heat-wave. Kat was walking down Hollywood Boulevard to get an iced coffee. She’d moved early in order to give herself time to settle, and her job wouldn’t start for weeks. Aside from looking for a permanent place, she had little to do. She ambled down the Walk of Fame, weaving through the tourists who were transfixed by the sidewalk. From even a short distance, reverence can easily be mistaken for shame. Each star was engraved with the name of a celebrity and a corresponding emblem: radio, record, movie camera. The tourists knelt in the sparkling grit, beaming up at the camera. They were dressed up as if in anticipation of being kidnapped and forced to attend the MTV Video Music Awards—sequined tube tops, black stretch pants, perspiration.
With each step, Kat felt a faint throb in her calf. Although she’d promptly removed the splinter, now nearly a week ago, the point of entry had become infected. Above her, the sun beat hard and yellow. Los Angeles appeared in such high definition that the entire city seemed pornographic. She’d set up an appointment to view an apartment for the following day, but felt resistant to it. She didn’t want to stop watering Mark’s plants or using his shower. She liked cooking in his kitchen.
Kat imagined that she was Mark, walking the dogs. Susie and Cerberus’ leashes would get tangled in the legs of the mob. She wondered how many home videos he’d been in over the years, how many mantle pieces he was displayed on the background of a memory. He’d directed a music video in the mid-nineties and had worked post-production on the few dead-end pilots. For the past several years he’d worked in IT, but with the recession, jobs had become scarce. Sometimes he delivered camera equipment in the middle of the night. He didn’t tell his friends about it, because he was embarrassed. “When I talk about my life,” he’d said, “I leave a lot out.”
Kat got to Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf and ordered her iced coffee. She stood drinking it on the sidewalk, watching two Sleeping Beauties argue over the last cigarette in a pack. She thought about Mark—she imagined herself as him, again—making his way through the crowds and the heat. She experienced people as entities without mass. It was as if she could walk right through them, like a ghost. The people whose names were on the stars were the other ghosts. She could dip into the supernatural realm. The actors, directors, the screenwriters—they weren’t just remembered; they were conjured. Mark was conjured too. He was the fatigue and failure written on the backs of the stars.
The streets were empty, littered with plastic cups and fliers. Kat was walking at night, on the phone with Mark. Here and there, couples wandered hand in hand, to see the lights of the Chinese Theater in the darkness.
“Before college,” he said, “I was a sniper in the Special Forces. The Marines. We were fighting in the drug wars in Central America. I was an idiot. I just wanted to get away from Ohio.”
Kat stopped under the awning of a liquor store and lit a cigarette. His voice sounded mechanical, prerecorded. Sometimes she wondered if he was honest, if it mattered if he were honest.
“I never talk about this,” he said. “The cartels had packs of attack dogs infected with rabies. They were like the front line, let loose to attack us all around the compounds. It was my job to set up first, in the brush, or sometimes up a tree. The other five stayed behind. The dogs had mange. They were starved and insane from the virus. They foamed at the mouth, spinning for days inside a whirling funnel of black flies. One time I saw a dog chew off its own paw.”
Mark told her how he would track the dogs in his scope, waiting for the right moment, and how quickly he realized there was no right moment. He learned to plow through them with bullets, picking them off: ping ping ping. It was like surrender to the urge to vomit. It all came pouring out of him.
He paused for a long time. “You don’t think bad people exist,” he said. “But I know they do.”
“You’re not a bad person,” said Kat.
“I know I’m not a bad person.” He sounded frustrated. “Stacey is a bad person.”
“What does this have to do with Stacey?”
Mark told Kat that after living with Stacey for two years, he’d decided to ask her to marry him. He’d wanted her to know everything before he asked. They’d been in bed, with Susie and Cerberus between them. “She was usually gentler for ten minutes after sex,” Mark explained. He told Stacey the whole story of Guatemala, which he hadn’t spoken of in years. She seemed sympathetic, attentive. She cradled his head in her arms, kissing his face as he spoke.
“I have a lot of regrets,” he said. “I regret giving up on screenwriting and I regret not being in Ohio when my mother died. But my biggest regret is joining the Marines. There was no point to what we did. Nothing. That’s why I gave my pension away.”
Stacey dropped Mark’s head on the mattress. She demanded to know how much money it was. “It was a long time ago,” he said. “What does it matter?” Furious, she got out of bed, wiping off his very presence from her t-shirt like filthy crumbs. “That’s a lot of money,” she said. “That was a pretty retarded thing to do.”
Kat finally went to see an apartment. It was on Mariposa Avenue in Little Armenia, across the street from a private school. It was walking distance to Los Feliz, which had a good art supply store, a bookstore, some cafes. The apartment was old, with so many layers of paint that the walls seemed to be bubbling. A thin film of soot dusted over everything. The counters and windowsills looked like the surface of the moon. The soot had come in through the open windows from a fire in the hills. Kat could see a billow of smoke in the pale blue distance.
“Charles Bukowski used to live here,” said the building manager.
“When he was a postman?” She could feel heat radiating from the infection in her calf. It throbbed as she stood there, making her eager to leave.
“Yeah. This place used to be, like, a boarding house for alcoholics or something. Look it up, seriously. He lived here.”
She agreed to take the place, signing the lease up against the wall in the long hallway. When she got back to Mark’s she looked it up on his computer. Bukowski really had lived there, from 1959 to 1963. Of his time at that address, the article’s timeline read: Attempts suicide by gas. Wakes up with headache. Opens windows.
Kat had just gotten out of the shower when Mark called that night. She was standing in front of the air conditioner, letting it dry her skin. She immediately felt shy, as though he could see her naked. If he could, if there were cameras, or peepholes, wouldn’t the shame be on him? Or did he have the right to do whatever he wanted, because she was living his life?
“You’re an interesting girl,” he said.
“People often find a person interesting who’s willing to listen.” She felt her skin damp and cold against the seat of his wooden chair.
Mark ignored her and began to talk about work. He was in Palm Springs, setting up a new networking system for a Bank of America. “This job should’ve put me ahead,” he said. “But the goddamn tech firm that contracted me—it looks like they’re going to fold.”
“Don’t they still have to pay you?”
“They do,” he said. “But they won’t. This has happened to me before. I’m fucking screwed.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kat. Her skin was drying, the wood warming beneath the weight of her. She could feel him listening to her breath.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault. They’re just assholes. Anyway, enough of my complaining. How’s your apartment search going?”
“It’s going,” she said. “Still looking,” she added, more breathlessly than she meant to.
Afterwards, Kat felt dirty. It occurred to her that she might be a bad person. She reproached herself for lying to Mark about the Mariposa apartment, but she just couldn’t tell him. It was like a stone in her mouth, too heavy to spit.
Kat’s boxes arrived after she’d been at Mark’s for two weeks. They crowded the tiny apartment so that there was no space to move. She wondered how Stacey had lived there with him, if she’d had any things of her own, aside from nail polish. That night, the infection in her calf suddenly blossomed into a large, stiff boil. By the morning the redness has spread, streaking down to her ankle. Hoping to find a cheap doctor, she called Mark but couldn’t reach him. Frightened, she called the only other person she knew in LA—the gallery owner, whom she’d never met.
“Go to the emergency room,” the woman said, exasperated.
“I don’t know, “ said Kat. “Maybe it will just go away.”
“Just go,” she said. “Please.”
Kat compromised and went to a walk-in clinic in East Hollywood. In the waiting room, she watched an instructional DVD on wound-care for people with diabetes. A nurse looked at her leg and rushed her in ahead of the other patients. A thin Indian doctor diagnosed her with a staph infection, and swabbed the lump with iodine. Then he left, leaving Kat sitting on the cold table. A few minutes later, he reappeared with a small blue tray of surgical instruments. In one smooth motion, he cut a tiny slit in her leg with a scalpel. He squeezed the puss out of the infection, then stuffed the hole with gauze. Finally, he sent her home with Vicodin and three bottles of antibiotics.
“What did you do today?” asked Mark that night. “Apartment hunting?”
“I’m sleepy,” said Kat. She’d taken several of the Vicodin. “I’m sleepy and I’m in your bed.”
“I’m drugged,” she said. “I went to a clinic. I have an infection in my leg.”
“Are you getting disease on my apartment?”
“No,” she laughed. “Of course not.”
“I feel a little nervous that you’re in my bed. Are you using my blanket?”
“No.” She pulled the sheet up under her chin.
“Are you sure? Are you keeping it bandaged?” His voice was taut, high-pitched and ready to snap.
Kat assured him that it was bandaged, that he was safe, but still he persisted.
“How do you know I won’t catch this thing once I’m home?” he hissed, betraying a revulsion that bordered on hatred. “Are you absolutely sure you’re not contagious? Did the doctor say that? Did he say the words, ‘You’re not contagious?’”
In one of their first conversations, Mark had told Kat that he’d kicked Stacey out after he caught her trying to sell Susie and Cerberus over the Internet for two thousand dollars. Kat had felt sad for Stacey. She’d tried to explain to him that Stacey was damaged—she’d been dealt a brutal hand, she’d had no one to turn to. “My mother was an alcoholic,” he’d said. “Do you see me selling my ass on the corner?” When he caught her, Stacey had begged him not to throw her out. “I have nowhere else to go,” she cried. He took all of her things and put them in black trash bags, which he put out onto the street. Kat never agreed with Mark that Stacey was a bad person, but she couldn’t believe that he was bad either—because she didn’t believe in that, and because he was the only person she really knew in Los Angeles.
Kat had come to believe that if she ever saw Stacey, she would recognize her instantly. On her walks down the boulevard, she’d almost come to expect it. She had supposed she’d know her by virtue of knowing Mark, coming into focus through the shaming lens of his disdain. But now Kat had experienced his disdain too. It was not a lens through which anything came into focus. Instead it shrunk people to figurines, so that he could keep them to touch, to remind him of something else or somewhere else.
When Kat hung up the phone she lit a cigarette inside the apartment, disturbing the musky aroma of sandalwood that still permeated everything. It would be one more week until she could move to Mariposa Avenue. In the bathroom, she flicked her lit cigarette into the tub and knelt before the cabinet. She opened it, pulling out the teal plastic basket containing Stacey’s nail polish. The pills had made her dizzy, her fingers heavy and slow. A faint smell of urine still clung to the tile where the faux bamboo floor-mat had been. She sat down, unscrewing one of the bottles. Now more than ever, she wished Mark would come home. As she painted her toenails, she wondered what these weeks might’ve been like for him—to be away, to be gone. She supposed it might be something like walking down the boulevard during a heat-wave. This city, thought Kat, can make a person feel gone. Her toenails were now a startling shade of orange. The refrigerator hummed, the air conditioner groaned. She waited for the key in the lock, for Mark to finally make his entrance, thinking: I am the opposite of gone.