Authors: Steve Erickson
Veroneek lived in an old wooden red house in Ocean Park. It survived the Quake while all the newer buildings around it crumbled. I slept in the basement, to the wolf’s irritation, although eventually we had a meeting of the minds. Veroneek had a deep dark secret about a terminally ill friend who died under mysterious circumstances, and when she told me about it she looked right at Joe as though her late friend was riding inside the wolf; every once in a while she would pry open his jaws with her bare hands and bellow into his mouth, “Joe, are you in there?” When we slept together I was the first man she had been with in a long time, after affairs with women. When I kissed her between her legs it was the first man’s mouth that had ever been there; it may be I was nearly as good for her as a woman was. Veroneek was trying to start a broadcasting station in L.A. and saw the Quake not as a setback but a golden opportunity, as though it had brought the airwaves crashing to earth along with everything else and now she could gather them up and launch them back into the sky on her own terms. She stared mesmerized at my laundered white shirt as it hung from a ceiling lamp in the front room of her house, turning in the breeze and glittering in the sun. Finally one afternoon she asked me whose message I was waiting for her to call in the tent down on the beach, and I told her about Sally; I just sort of assumed that, though we weren’t together anymore, Sally would try and get in touch. Though it had been some time, I assumed she would just want to know I was all right, or would want me to know that she wanted to know. But as the days had passed and neither my name nor Sally’s flickered across the monitor in the tent, my mild surprise had slowly transformed to relief: “So I guess,” I told Veroneek, “it really is over then. So I guess I’m not really waiting to hear from her after all.”
“Ah,” Veroneek smiled, with that intense stare, “but now there’s another.”
And that was when I skipped into the present. I don’t think it even occurred to me she might mean herself; I just assumed she meant Viv, and for all I know, she did. I went on waiting in the tent, watching the ocean waves through the flap and listening for my name over the speakers, and when it wasn’t called I stood for hours before the monitors looking for my name anyway. Others waited too, with no reason to stare up at the monitor but to try and will into being a communication from beyond the wreckage. Finally, to no one in particular, I said, “I’m l-l-leaving,” and was on my way out the tent heading down toward the waves when I heard Veroneek’s voice over the speakers. The message wasn’t for me specifically but rather any party that answered to the name Seacastle, signed by an anonymous party that answered to the name Bunker. Wh-Wh-Where is the Bunker, I asked everyone I met, and it was nearly midnight when I tracked it down, a huge white concrete conglomeration of artists’ spaces on the edge of Baghdadville. I took the freight elevator up from the loading docks to the first level and walked down each hall in the dark, trying each door. None opened, nor any on the second level, and it wasn’t until I reached the fourth door on the third level that one gave way. I had decided I would take whoever was behind any door that wasn’t locked to me.
The loft inside was dark. Through a window on the other side I could see the glow of the distant bonfires on the freeway. Groping around in the dark I found a circular staircase and made my way up to a smaller loft that overhung the larger one. She said nothing from the bed and I said nothing back. She didn’t stir at all. It was only later, twenty minutes, maybe thirty, looking up from her thighs, that I was sure I identified the gold of her hair in the bonfire light from the window behind me. Up inside her, my tongue touched the tip of the long thin web of her climax. I saw her orgasm in the distance, somewhere beyond her shoulders; I inhaled it. She groaned and lurched. Her vulva burst with the last No left from the Seacastle, and I swallowed it. I still carry it inside me, like the note in a bottle.
For a long time we didn’t say a word. That No from her vulva was the last sound between us except our moans. We rode in taxis down Crescent Heights, the sound of shakuhachi flutes drifting in through the open window. Headlights severed the trunks of the arching white trees and siamese-twin lizards joined at the head slithered up into the street from the sunken subways. Over the black shores of Wilshire Boulevard the caged nudes of the La Brea Tar Pits dangled in the wind; they watched from behind their wooden bars as we watched back. Viv and I had a silent agreement each of us would take of the other whatever we wanted whenever we wanted it. …
We’ve been together over two years now. Every once in a while this astonishes one or both of us, since not long after we met Viv made it clear she didn’t need a mute for a lover, and I wasn’t sure I could say anything at all, let alone whatever it was she wanted to hear. I was just being stubborn, is the way she looks at it now. Our last and most hostile separation was over a year ago, when I woke in the middle of the night to find her walking around the loft naked, searching for that last No she had given up so easily. Late one night four months later she showed up at my door a little drunk in her white lace top and little white boots; I think she just wanted to catch me at my most unsuspecting, see for herself if I had any women stashed away in the closet or under the bed. We went up on the hotel roof. Watching the fires in the distance we drank tequila and she told me about all the men she had known that summer or almost knew; she held the night close to her like armor. After an hour we went back downstairs and sat in her truck and talked a little longer, and I tried to explain how I had come to realize, over those four months, that I loved her, though I still couldn’t explain to either her or myself exactly what that meant or, for the moment, make any great claims for it. For a while she didn’t say a thing and then finally answered, angrily, “I didn’t know you felt that way about me.”
“I didn’t know either,” I said.
“Well, it just seems like you should have known.” When we wouldn’t or couldn’t say anything more, when I figured I was just wasting my time, when I didn’t have a clue what had brought her to me that night besides too much wine, I got out of the truck and was about to disappear into the hotel when she rolled down the window and called my name. We went back up to my apartment. It’s still not exactly clear whether we had sex that night; I’m positive we did and she insists we didn’t. Men and women apparently have entirely different ideas about what actually constitutes sex, but we won’t go into that now. It doesn’t really matter anyway, not as much as the fact that Viv was still there the next morning, or that we were together again the next night and we’ve been together since. Viv is quite sure all of this turmoil was my fault, and since she’s more right than wrong, the details aren’t worth quibbling about. I’m as disinclined to make excuses here as anywhere else. I accept that it’s Viv’s version of events we’ve decided to live by, and if you pin her down, Viv will allow that her version may not always be
reliable. I remember one night in a gallery out in the Glow Loft District a conversation she had with the curator and how later, as we drove home, from the back seat she recounted the conversation line by line and, very calmly, not wanting to alarm her, I pulled the car over to the side of the road and explained with as little panic in my voice as possible that I had been standing right there when she had this conversation and that in fact it was nothing like she described now. He had not said any such thing to her and she had not said any such thing back; rather Viv’s version was the subtitled version, the version between the lines as she read it. Of course, while Viv’s version of reality may not always be entirely accurate, that doesn’t mean it’s
. It has just become Vivified or, if you will, Vivid.
Now our relationship feels oddly durable, as though having for the time being set aside the past and the future, we could just go on forever in the present. Every once in a while she likes to look at me and say, “Well, I guess you’re not such a bad guy after all.” I hope this is meant as a joke. I hope it’s not meant to be reassuring. The defining moment of Viv’s life may have come when she was five years old and, on a field trip to a farm with her kindergarten glass, was advised by the teacher that under no circumstances should she or anyone else touch the electric barbed wire fence, to which Viv of course responded by marching right up and grabbing a good hold of it. About half an hour later they finally revived her, and she’s been pretty much electrified ever since. Years afterward, when too many people told her that under no circumstances should she abandon her unhappy marriage to one of the richest men in Los Angeles, she walked out on the marriage and the money to go climb Mount Kilimanjaro; and she’s still the kind of woman who, feeling slightly neglected, can wake up one morning and announce she’s leaving that afternoon for Tuva, when you don’t even know where the hell Tuva is, or catch the next train out of Union Station regardless of where it’s heading, staying up all night through the Mojave drinking Jack Daniel’s with the porter.
Viv explodes with ideas and visions, which she writes down on her hand or arm to remind herself of them later. Soon she’s a mass of notes, a five-foot-two memo to herself, which turns the bubbles of her bubble-bath blue, from which she emerges a blue blur. Not long after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro she returned to the United States intent on becoming either a film director or a metal sculptor, only to become both. … On the walls of her loft in the Bunker are dead insects. Ocean-colored butterflies, golden-winged beetles, flaming orange ladybugs, all encased in … hell, I don’t know what they’re encased in, some polyethylene something-or-other; there’s also a Chinese chest, a pile of old hat boxes from the 1930s, a bottle of melted Kilimanjaro snow and blue mercury orbs hanging from the ceiling, an ostrich egg perched precariously on a stand, mannequins with neither heads nor legs mounted on wire frames, and the train of a Ziegfeld Girl’s wedding dress hanging behind a lovely antique bed that threatens to collapse with every turn of one’s body, which makes for an interesting night’s sleep. There are also Viv’s metal sculptures, geometric monoliths in the shapes of pyramids and obelisks and coffins and fortresses and sanctuaries with little slits that peer into tufts of fur and nests of bird feathers, and tiny doors that open on pearls coiled seductively in barely ajar pods that look like vaginas. One of Viv’s sculptures is a six-foot-high tower with a stained glass window that, on closer examination, turns out not to be glass at all but small bits and pieces of butterfly wings Viv meticulously rendered in a stained glass pattern; for weeks after chopping up the wings of dead butterflies, Viv had nightmares of thousands of butterflies outside her windows flapping their wings maniacally at the glass. The stainless steel for these sculptures is fabricated by the same factory that makes the time capsules for Black Clock Park, and in the ocean sunlight Viv’s monoliths gleam blindingly, and after nightfall their forms stand in the dark with the headless and legless mannequins like the street signs of a demonic topography. Viv isn’t always entirely practical: there’s no kitchen, for instance. When she found the loft and decided to take it, she said, Oh I like the space, oh I like the view of the ocean, oh look there’s room for all my metal pieces; and then about the third or fourth week after moving in, she started looking for the kitchen and noticed there wasn’t one.
After that first year and all the pain I caused her, I think I remain a somewhat dubious person in the eyes of Viv’s family and friends. It’s a wide circle, as opposed to my own family that now just includes my mother, and my friends that, with the exception of Viv and my pal Carl in New York and a few others, are limited to the Cabal. The Cabal is the subject of the newspaper’s most prevalent and ludicrous gossip. The Cabal Theory, as articulated by the paper’s resentful proles, is that the paper is run by four people, of whom I am supposedly one. The others are Shale Marquette, Dr. Billy O’Forte, and Ventura. The Cabal Theory has it that the four of us get together in the dead of night and hatch out various schemes and notions. None of us can remember when more than two were last in a room together, but this hasn’t shaken the Cabal Theory by a single bitter whisper. As it happens Shale is the editor-in-chief, so one might expect he’d have some ideas from time to time about what the newspaper is going to publish. He came to L.A. from Boston by way of New York, or maybe it was New York by way of Boston, instantly sizing up the city and immersing himself in its history. I’m not entirely sure at what point he had been here long enough to finally understand that if there was ever a city where history counts for nothing it’s Los Angeles, that in Los Angeles history is one of those things that will obscure your vision more than illuminate it. But at any rate he got to be a fucking expert about Los Angeles in short fucking order and sometimes it gets on everyone’s nerves.
Of the Cabal, Shale is in fact the youngest. But he has that grown-up authority natural leaders have; when I’m talking to him I always feel I’m confiding in an older brother. He has a dark beard flecked with white, and a smile that affectionately tolerates your nonsense without being totally patronizing—though later you think maybe it
have been patronizing. Once Shale asked me what my great dream in life was, back when I still had one that was recognizable; when I asked him his, he answered, “To run a newspaper.” Thus by the insistent light of his dreams he is incapable of running this newspaper with anything but complete dedication. Of course within twenty hours of his arrival the staff started griping about Shale: he was too familiar, he was too remote. He was too democratic, he was too autocratic. He was too attentive, he wasn’t attentive enough. Those on the paper who had been around awhile quickly forgot that the editor before Shale was a certifiable psychotic who made even Freud N. Johnson look stable, while the adolescents who came after Shale’s arrival never had a boss before and apparently think some of the things he does are de rigueur for a boss. If, for instance, someone is having a mental breakdown, Shale is the kind of boss who will give him or her time off with pay and have the newspaper pick up the psychiatric tab. Shale is the kind of boss who will refuse the publisher’s order to lay off the pregnant fashion writer—even though he knows she’s not really pulling her weight and that if he doesn’t cut costs sooner or later,
the one who will be laid off—because the father of the child just walked out on her and she has no other prospects for work. Shale is the kind of boss who routinely throws his body before the bullets from the higher-ups, protecting those below him and putting his own job on the line, just because he believes that’s what a boss is supposed to do. The children not only seem to believe all bosses do this but, by the time it gets around to the cynical noir blonde in the advertising department I slept with, rumor has it that Shale is actually trying to get the pregnant fashion writer fired.