Authors: Steve Erickson
We got in my car. Viv and Jasper sat in back. North of Baghdadville the second ring was burning so I headed out Pico Boulevard and then cut up to Sixth Street, driving east on Sixth through the dark knolls of Hancock Park and slipping through a Black Passage just beyond MacArthur Park. On into Downtown we continued past the Glow Lofts to the industrial veldt of the switching yard that lay before the old gothic stone bridges of East Los Angeles. The smell of the ocean fell behind us, the smell of backfires wafted through the window. … Half a mile from Jasper’s house we could see it, growing alone out of the wasteland of the railroad tracks next to a junkyard of twisted metal, disposed concrete beams and the abandoned hulls of tanker trucks, in the middle of a circle of low but constant fire. The fire never rose more than a couple of feet, and never went out. I could feel the heat a couple of hundred yards away and it was blasting in through the body of the car when we pulled to a stop. Jasper got out to voice-activate the huge iron door that let us into a concrete tunnel, which led the remaining fifty feet to the house itself. “We keep the fire burning,” she muttered from the back seat of the car, when she got back in, “to discourage the vandals and gangs. …”
“We?” I said.
At the entryway of the house a small parking foyer opened up. An antique car shone in waiting. “Let’s drink something!” Viv chirped, launching herself from the car before it came to a complete stop. Jasper had become much quieter since the house came into view. We followed her in; the front door was small and unassuming, like a service entrance. Immediately beyond it rose a concrete stairway to the second level, where the whole house opened up into a skyward-spiraling mass of turrets and gussets and beams shooting off in diagonals and parabolas, so that you were inside when you thought you were outside and outside when you thought you were inside, except for when you were both at the same time. This level forked off into several other directions, including a kitchen, another set of stairs and an elevated outdoor patio; disappearing another direction out into the open air, from where we could feel the heat of the fire moat, a metal catwalk curled around the outer circumference of the house. The stairs led up to a study from where came a light, and then the bedroom, and from there another series of stairs again led out into the night and up the side of the house’s tower to the top. By my count there were about four levels to the house in all, except for all the half-levels in between, the top two overlooking a huge circular living space on the second level that was lined by glass from one end to the next. The glass alternated between window and mirrors that ran from the ceiling to the floor, each window confronted on the opposite side of the room by a mirror so you could look out on the city and see your own face floating above it. In the middle of the room, where the floor was slightly sunken, a low black sofa and two matching black chairs surrounded a low black table, and the whole room was filled by an icy blue light like the color of Jasper’s lip gloss. Shooting up the middle of the house like a metal spine was the disembodied hull of a tanker truck, an open chute that exposed the night far above us.
The house must have been eighty feet high. From the windows of the living room was a panorama of the scrapyards, the surrounding hills, the ravine cut through by the black Los Angeles River, the old baseball stadium that had been taken over by coyotes and homeless people and fourth-generation descendants of the blacks and latinos who had been displaced by the stadium in the first place, and just beyond the flames of the house’s moat the trains that slithered through the switching yard in the dark, one coiling silently by just at the edge of the fire. We stood over a pool that invaded the living room from the elevated patio outside. This too was made from the tank of a fuel truck, a narrow oblong canal of water leading out to a much larger pool. The pool lights were on and the water was red with the light of the fires; the reflection of the distant city skyline floated on the surface. Hovering just beneath the skyline and the surface of the water, in the middle of the larger pool, was a large module, with aortas and ventricles like a huge mechanical heart, roomy enough from all appearances to hold a couple of people. There appeared to be portholes on all sides. Through the water I could see on top of the module a glass hatch. “What is that?” I said.
“It’s a bathysphere,” Jasper answered. She was now distinctly sullen, and made her way straight to the table in the center of the room that held glasses, several crystal liquor bottles, and an ice bucket full of melted ice. She kept looking over her shoulder at the pool and then up at the stairs toward the study where the light was coming from the doorway. Viv was humming and dancing from window to mirror while Jasper poured her a drink; she handed the drink to Viv and asked if I wanted anything, and I said no. “Where did you find this house?” asked Viv.
After what seemed a long moment Jasper said, “It’s my stepfather’s. He built it. He’s an architect.” She added, rather caustically, “His bathysphere, too.”
“You mean he built the bathysphere?” I asked. Almost in response a flurry of bubbles exploded on the surface of the pool. The three of us watched from the dark of the house as the bathysphere surfaced in the bubbles’ wake, where a motor kicked on and navigated the craft to the side of the pool. The motor shut off and after a minute the glass door on the top of the bathysphere opened and a distinguished looking man in his early fifties got out, fully dressed. Even in the light of the pool his tawny resemblance to Jasper was unmistakable. Stepfather? I was thinking, watching the two of them, when he looked over to the living room from beyond the glass and now seemed to notice there was someone in the house. “Jasper,” he said, not like a question or even a greeting but a perfunctory accusation, with a demeanor that rendered everything an accusation. He circled the pool, ascended the outer steps and entered the house on the next level up, looking down at us. There was no rail; I had already noticed that none of the landings or stairs had rails, as though rails had been deliberately omitted from the design so no one could ever get completely comfortable or secure. In front of the light from the study, the man’s frame was silhouetted. Viv staggered a little but not particularly engaged by the moment; both she and Jasper had been naked enough of the evening to have seemingly forgotten about it. The man on the balcony also appeared not to notice that standing in his living room was a blonde in nothing but slightly askew stockings, wobbling on a pair of high heels, and another blonde, his stepdaughter, saluting him with a plastic penis, the only thing about the evening that hadn’t begun to wilt.
He looked from me to Viv back to me with clear disdain, and then back to Jasper, who returned his look and then turned her back on him, walking around the end of the black sofa and plopping herself down, staring out into the night at the ring of flames in the distance and drinking her drink. From the top of the stairs the man looked at me again, and then vanished back into the study.
“What’s happening,” Viv slurred vaguely. She was a little pickled.
“Nothing,” Jasper answered, and then, after a minute, suddenly brightened, in one of her now familiar psychotic shifts. She leapt up from the sofa so fast her dildo nearly knocked over a bottle of scotch, and grabbing Viv she pulled her giggling toward another room beneath the stairs. For the next half hour I could overhear Jasper showing Viv her life. She was hauling out yearbooks and poetry journals and glossy magazine photo layouts from younger days, and newspaper stories of beauty competitions where triumph was only a smile away, though it sounded like it usually wound up being some other girl’s smile. The recounting had about it the desperate wistfulness of a valediction to a life that was already over. At one point, very clearly and soberly, Viv said, “Jasper, don’t do this,” and then after a few minutes they returned. I was sitting in one of the chairs and Viv and Jasper were slouching on the sofa.
For a few minutes we were quiet in the dark. Viv sipped another drink and Jasper absently flicked her phallus with her thumb, lost in thought. “My father is not a good person,” she finally felt compelled to explain, breaking the silence. “That’s why I was rude. I didn’t know he would be here tonight, I thought he was out of town.”
Neither Viv nor I was sure what to say. “Your stepfather,” I finally clarified.
“What?” said Jasper.
“Your stepfather, you mean.”
“That’s what I said.”
Viv turned to me. “That’s what she said.”
I didn’t argue with them. I waited for Jasper to go on but instead, after several more minutes, she started to talk about when she had lived in Berlin with a man named Rudi, during the time when all the animals from the Berlin Zoo were running wild in the streets. One night, when Rudi was out, she had picked up the phone and started dialing numbers at random. She kept dialing until she reached someone who didn’t hang up on her; they had sex on the phone and a couple of nights later she called another number and did it again, and went on doing this for weeks until finally she got an American who lived in a nearby hotel. As with all the other numbers, she had just pulled this one out of the air, and then pulled out of the air a room number when the concierge answered. The American was shy, not at all sure what to say when she told him she wanted to take him in her mouth. He asked if she would wait while he closed the window shutters. On the phone his orgasm was frightening and, for the sound of that frightening orgasm, she called him back, always around the same time of the evening until, finally, he insisted he would no longer do it on the telephone. There and then, by sheer impulse, she agreed to meet him in the most anonymous of circumstances: she would go to a hotel the next night and take a room, and call him from the room with the name of the hotel and the room number, and leave the door unlocked for him, with all the lights off. They would say nothing to each other. He would fuck her and then they would leave, first one, then the other. And that, Jasper said, is exactly what happened. When she called him the next night, from a hotel not far from his, he answered the phone without saying a word; a little less than an hour later, waiting for him in the dark naked on the hotel bed, she heard the door open and shut, followed by his approach. Never saying a word, nothing but a dark form, he waited by the side of the bed as she unbuckled his pants and slipped him into her mouth, and just when she could feel he was about to come, she turned on her hands and knees and knelt before him, and reached behind her and put him inside her. As he was fucking her, she realized she was going to leave Rudi. “There was no doubt in my mind,” Jasper said, “that I would rather feel the hands and cock of a complete stranger than Rudi’s dead heart for another single minute. When I cried out I could feel his excitement. He was a beast, of course—I could have told that from the wound in his voice on the phone. But you know, when the heart is broken and the dream is gone, annihilation is delicious. All I really wanted was to feel whether his orgasm was as frightening as it sounded on the telephone.”
“Was it?” Viv said.
“How do you know,” I said, swallowing hard, “that it was the same man?”
For the first time since I had known her, Jasper seemed profoundly bewildered. “What?”
“The same man as the one you talked to on the phone.”
“What do you mean?” she said. Viv looked confused too.
“How do you know the man in the room was the same as the man on the phone—?”
“How do I know it was the same man?” The question almost incensed her.
“It’s a very strange question,” she said, upset.
“Yes,” Viv said, looking at me, “it is a very strange question.”
“Why wouldn’t it have been the same man?” Jasper asked. Both she and Viv were looking at me, waiting for an answer that made sense.
“Well … it was dark,” was the best I could offer.
Viv said to Jasper, “But he must have said something. Afterward.”
“He never said anything,” Jasper answered, disoriented. “He finished and I got up and dressed in the dark, and left him there.”
“So you never saw him at all,” Viv said.
“No. I tried to call the next night, and … no one answered. And then I called the night after that, and the night after that. And I never talked to him again.”
After that, none of us said anything. We all sat in the dark staring out the windows where the flames in the distance had begun to smear in the dark fog that blows in from the sea every night and turns the sky red. The blue light of the room and the pool outside where the abandoned bathysphere now bobbed mixed with the red to turn the night to wine; from the house, sitting in this low chair in the middle of the sunken floor, there was no sense, gazing at the windows and mirrors, of any city out there whatsoever. Closing my eyes I thought of Berlin. I hadn’t thought about Berlin for a long time, and now I was trying to remember exactly how long it had been since I was there: was it right before my father died, or right after my marriage? Was it right after the end with Sally, or right before I went to work for the newspaper? I had lived in a little hotel in Savignyplatz where every night I waited in my room for the ring of the telephone, which had so shocked me the first time, since I didn’t know anyone in the city and no one in the city knew me. Lying on the couch in Jasper’s house now, I was trying to remember why I had gone to Berlin in the first place, and all I could think of was that I had gone for the very thing that happened there, so that the part of me I couldn’t live with anymore could die there, without witnesses. I had gone to Berlin because it was as far east of L.A. as I could get before the millennium came roaring down the autobahn. …
Next thing I realized I had drifted off awhile. Maybe it was minutes and maybe it was an hour; but the light in the door at the top of the stairs had gone off, and someone had turned off the light of the pool, where the bathysphere floated like a dark tumor. Looking around I was a little surprised to find myself alone in the living room, and I got up and started wandering around, peering into the unlit room where Jasper had shown off to Viv her mementos of the past. I made my way up the stairs. I passed the dark study where Jasper’s father or stepfather or whoever he was had disappeared, and kept moving up the stairs toward the bedroom at the top, just barely conscious that there was no rail to catch me if I misstepped and tumbled down some random shaft that would deposit me God knows where, in a field of flames or off the side of a cliff or somewhere north of San Luis Obispo.