It would have been both ironic and glamorous to be finished off by a four-foot glitter ball. But I have survived and Iím still here, although my back is aching like anything. It caught my ear, which is really sore as well.
—Boy George, 1999
Farris wakes up thinking about Boy George. Did he dream about him? He may have dreamed the entire 1980s. He spent them in New York and London, largely with Boy George. Farris was doing makeup for one of his videos, which was shooting in London, and—one thing leading to another—they ended up under a table together. Nothing scandalous, it just seemed fun. A drip of opaque sweat (opaque because of the makeup) was making its way down the side of Boy Georgeís face. It was from the studio lights, but it seemed ominous to Farris. It magnified the moment, gave it import, which is always frightening, Farris being busy, at the time, crafting one of those carefree-queen personae for himself. The drip of sweat in the important moment gave him the sense that they were both hardworking and fragile. Such embarrassing traits. And their sub-table status gave the scene an aura of hiding. As if they were in the trenches. Two men—one who did makeup and one who wore makeup—crouching to stay beneath the gunfireís latitude. It was the Ď80s and people had begun to drop all around them. Farris felt unprepared for it. It wasnít so long ago that he was a journalism major at El Camino College, hating the grays of Torrance, California, and the small dreams the college encouraged: Maybe one day you can write for the Torrance Daily Breeze! It was not quite fair for the bright colors of the East Village and the West End to betray him so quickly.
The Boy George that lingers in his head this morning (late Autumn, Echo Park doing its best impression of deciduousness, the air thinning) is translucent. Farris imagines him clown-like on a shiny page, not the fleshy human that he was. Boy George smiles as Farris guzzles coffee in his tiny kitchen and makes a witty remark at the expense of Farrisí black motorcycle boots. Farris canít quite shake the fog of it, nor can he figure out a reason for it.
He has recently acquired a car from a rather bewildered Asian girl at Farmers Market. The car is on its last legs, or tires, but the story makes it worth it. Farris does things for the story. How many people have a free car? Especially one with a license plate frame that says "Iíd rather beÖat ballet class"? Brilliant. The poor little thing shivers and jitters. The alignment is all off, probably having hit many curbs. It was probably many peopleís first experience with a manual transmission. Itís not his; he is where the car has been put out to pasture. Gentle hands and complimentary grain as small reward for a life of extremely hard labor. He likes this analogy, the concrete feel of it in a world that has not seen manual labor for some time. Well, people are working hard all around him, he supposes, but that does not mean they live in the same world that he does.
Despite the availability of his car, Farris decides against going into work today. When he took the bus, it was true, about getting there being half the fun. He would leave his apartment at dawn, the early morning winds pushing him down the hill to the bus stop, where he would board with bakery workers in their white garments, still smelling of yeast and salt from the day before. He would put in a few hours of work until the other Fashion Victim staff members trickled in: the style editor with his hundreds of shoes, the style coordinator with his daily doughnuts, Zrinka his intern with her thrift store versions of Victim styles. Heíd spend the next seven or eight hours goofing and flirting, taking people out to long lunches, chatting up the occasional publicist. Only as the sun dipped below the Hollywood hills—onto which the grungy, half-empty east Santa Monica Boulevard office building looked—would he hunch over his computer and begin to think of words for this world. GLOW, he would type. BUZZ. WATERMARKED. COLLECTION. TEXTURE. RADIANCE.
Since the acquisition of the car, however, work doesnít hold the same ritual. It is no longer a place to which he journeys, but a place he too easily transitions into. There is no triumph in parking his car in the overgrown parking lot, between the publisherís silver sports car and the dumpster from which the same homeless man departs empty handed every day. Half-empty buildings do not consume much in the way of soda cans. We are so poor, Farris thinks, but no one has more detailed knowledge of this seasonís tennis bracelets than us.
He works from home. He calls Zrinka and tells her his plan to do this. Is it possible for a voice to sound both disappointed and relieved? She is so skittish. Her motel-curtain skirts and tendency to apply just the right amount of lipstick should endow her with more confidence. He sees the adventurer in her, but he canít fish it out. He wants to tell her to go to New York. He imagines her as a singer at some retro cabaret. It would be darling.
In the living room, at the desk he rescued from a condemned building two doors down and painted black (the splatters still on the pair of jeans he wears today and nearly every day), he types. DIAMOND. HARMONIOUS. POST-. Itís hard to feel it here. He is writing an article about Tam Perla, An Up-And-Coming American Designer. He looks at his white fingertips on the keyboard. Where is the crisscross frankness of cotton? The southern belle sway of satin? The preppy lesbian hip-jut of plaid wool? He believes Tam Perla accesses these things—he sensed it in their lunch at the Winged Dollar, the warm, fertile cafť at the western mouth of Sunset where he takes all of his interviews. They ate sushi and something billed as Bi-Coastal Risotto beneath the long eaves on the patio, and Perla, a slightly absurd fashion type, talked about being a lifestyle, about fashion as a forum for expression. Farris knows itís not about that. It is about texture, a bit, and light. It is intangible. It sings who you are back to you—the rest is what they all make up to justify a life devoted to details and hence likely to be seen as frivolous. It is both more and less important than what people in the industry say it is. But there was a moment when Perla paused to study the stitching on his napkin: white thread perforating coarse black cotton. Farris sensed craftsmanship, then watched as Perla released the napkin into his lap. The piece of cloth became hidden by the burled walnut table. How long had it been since Perla picked up a needle? It was different when it was all in your head. Sketches had a vibe as well, the way the charcoal line of a hypothetical hip grew thicker between the hip bone and buttocks. But that vibe was impossible to translate into cloth. They were different worlds.
Perla named celebrities who wore his creations to awards ceremonies.
A corner of napkin peaked above the table. It blushed a pink so pale it might have been attributed to the lighting had they not been outdoors, then rubbed its face in a smudge of pasta sauce.
In his head, Farris holds the Tam Perla skirt that hangs over the back of his chair in the office. It is red with a diagonal hem and a flamenco ruffle. Left over from a photo shoot—models cavorting with woolly mammoth statues at the tar pits. He can see it, but he canít weigh it in his hands, canít picture what young woman might fill it out, so he goes for a walk.
Echo Park is one of several pseudo-cities cupped in the hills of east Los Angeles. Once, Farris read a book by a woman with mild autism who had designed a device, based on her skinís own simultaneous fear of touch and need for a slow steady pressure, that cradled cattle on their way to slaughter. A sort of giant hammock, or perhaps a taco shell made of a folded wrestling mat, it hugged the cows and quelled the frantic mooing as they were led through the labyrinth of the slaughterhouse. Thatís how the hills make Farris feel—not that he faces such a morbid path, but he needs the squeeze in this breathtaking valley, full of tiny lights and un-revelatory blackness.
Itís mid-afternoon. From his apartment on Calumet (ground floor, many-cornered), he walks down Carroll Avenue, the block of restored and semi-restored Victorian homes. There are wide cement staircases leading up to the houses; one has a hitching post in front, the iron cast in the shape of a bowing swan. Leaf blowers sound. He loops the block, past houses with paint not peeling so much as bearing the look of having rubbed up against something for too long, past half-painted cones atop skinny towers. Children must argue: I get the room with the tower. Farris is an only child.
He walks along and past Laveta, Bellevue, West Edgeware. He suspects the words should make him think of something.
Echo Park—the actual park—opens like a watery crotch at the bottom of the hill. Glassy and red-bridged. Full of Mexican and Salvadoran women with children and babies. In this part of the city and even by the Victim office, the women and the children in the strollers they push have matching brown skin. He sees similar-looking women in the residential areas surrounding the Winged Dollar, but the babies with them are white, the womenís voices more hushed. What happens to the brown babies and the loud voices between Cahuenga and La Brea? As always, he suspects forces at work that are larger than any of them. He feels almost silly, being such a cog. He sees these forces as great invisible rivers, some glimmering, some with currents that can crush your lungs. Sometimes he imagines himself sitting on the banks, sometimes he is paddling, sometimes the water is cold in his ears.
He spots his friend Amy. Is she a friend? Itís hard to know when publicity is involved. She is a local folk singer who happens to be a genuine albino—white sponge of hair sprouting from vein-revealing skin—and who was featured in the Halloween issue of Fashion Victim, peeping from the page with tattooed movie extras and occupants of haunted houses. She is sitting at the base of a thick tree, her unfathomably calm cat curled around her thin white neck. The cat spots him first, emitting a calico mew.
Amy looks up from a small notebook packed so densely with tiny ball point letters that one would suspect a dire shortage of paper.
"Amy Boucher—and her lovely feline companionÖ"
"Sheís a house cat, so she doesnít get out much unless I take her."
"I see. And what do we have here, more psalms for the chanteuse?"
"Mm-hm. Just the lyrics for now," she says.
"Lovely, lovely." Farris doesnít think much of Amyís songs. If it werenít for her distinctÖlookÖshe probably wouldnít get more than open mic gigs. As it is, she doesnít get much more. She is all words, and not particularly interesting words at that. As pro-lyric as Farris is, he needs melody too. What are words not set to melody? Just driveling them out in a semi-pleasing voice will not suffice. He needs chords, he needs notes held in defiance of all that tries to obliterate music.
"And whatís a pretty girl like you doing in a, shall we say, ghetto establishment like this?" Farris, with his cracking voice and big ears, has a body that infuses his statements with irony, whether intended or not. Usually itís intended. He is not able to sound serious, let alone lecherous.
"Thatís right," Amy recalls, "you met me at my momís house in Pasadena last time." Farris bummed a ride up the delightfully archaic 110 to the shaded bungalow where Amy had greeted him with lemonade on the porch—she was such a normal little thing at times. The cat figure-eighted its way through the legs of the rattan chairs they sat in. The house wasnít large or well kept up, but it had an expanse of dark green yard that made Farris nostalgic.
Amy continues. "Thereís something I canít get at when I write songs in Pasadena. I have to go somewhere else. This place isnít far." The tree above her lets out a sigh of red leaves, which flutter indecisively above Amyís pale head. "I—itís something about being somewhere too long. You start to not notice that your bedspread is yellow gingham, you know?"
Farris wants to shout yes, yes I know but his body refuses. He wants to reach out and touch her translucent 19-year-old skin. He is sure he would feel her warm, dark blood rushing in tiny rivers beneath her epidermis.
"Well, darling, your stole is genuine feline, thatís all that matters."
Amy emits a small laugh in her laryngitis-hip vocals. "Iím at Soleil Cafť every Thursday at 10," she says, handing him a dog-eared business card. "You know, if youíre free or anything. I know youíre busy—"
"Not too busy for you, my dear." He takes the card—there is a line drawing of a flower next to Amy Boucher in Playbill font—and slips it in the pocket of his jeans. He tries to recall the point in his life when he moved from open mics to openings.
He visits the 99 Cents Only Store on Glendale Boulevard. The 99 Cents Only Stores—the ones that are part of a chain, not the compact 98 cents stores with hand-lettered signs and shabbier shelves—have begun to populate this part of the city with a fluorescent cheeriness. They stay lit up white all night long, glowing mother ships on the corners of grubby boulevards. A big banner hung over the front window says YOUR EASTER HEADQUARTERS. Werenít you my Halloween headquarters? thinks Farris. Also, there is the problem of it being autumn. This is just the beginning.
The shopping carts are purple plastic with turquoise baskets. He steps through the automatic doors into the rows of acme-esque products. Everything feels like a find—jello made in Mexico, placenta shampoo, failed forays by established companies into new products: a hypercolor world of Land oí Lakes dental floss, Johnson & Johnson macaroni, spoken word cassettes from Campbells. There are bottles of separated nail polish, a clear layer on top of a glitter-black layer; fashionable as he is, he canít tell if this is on purpose or if the nail polish is just old. Iím losing it, he thinks, followed by SCHISM and OIL SLICK. There is a bag of dried pasta in the shape of potted plants and footballs. Next to it, a bag labeled Imitation Noodles. Next to it, a bottle of Heinz that announces 14 Million French Fries Canít Be Wrong.
No, Farris contemplates, they really canít. What if 14 million people voted, what if he had 14 million dollars? Itís a downright army of french fries. MOBILIZE. DUNKINí. The Heinz is wearing a small generalís cap, and there are four gold stars embroidered on its label. CAMOUFLAGE, he thinks. BOOT. ZEST.
The 99 Cents Only Store broadcasts an eerie sensuality, like a bathhouse. He notes how a row of plastic back-brushes all wear the same reflection of the fluorescent bulbs in their lower right hand corners, a crescent of white on the meadow-green plastic. Everything gleams like very young teeth.
He holds a Coca-Cola glass in his hands. He can feel its misty green smoothness—only an allusion to green, really—in his throat. It is something different from the memory of drinking Coke. CELADON. The color slithers down his arm, turning his hairs to glass. He flicks one and it breaks, falling to the floor with a ping. He touches his skin with his free fingers. Itís cold andÖ.REFRESHING. There was a time when he had to be high to feel the gleam of things; now it comes on its own, but at the expense of interactions with people like Amy. With people at all really. Itís not that he doesnít find them interesting—they are, more than ever, fascinating. But the gap has widened. The things in his head and on his fingertips speak too loudly.
There are bunnies on every shelf. The difference between a store stocking Easter goods and an actual Easter Headquarters, it seems, is that at the Headquarters, Easter is not confined to just one aisle. Plastic rabbits flocked with scratchy fur hop about in fields of silk flowers, surf on day-glo paper plates, tap dance atop bottles of Aqua Net. LOQUACIOUS. One yellow bunny has sprayed its ears so they stick straight up. It models for Farris, who canít help but give the little rodent a thumbs-up.
Actually, says the bunny, Iím a lagomorph.
Farris recognizes these rabbits. They are actually banks. They have slits in their flocked backs and black stoppers in their bellies. He once gave one to the child of a coworker, thinking it was campy, but the little girl just hugged the hard plastic bunny bank until she dented its left side. Now they seem much stronger. PLASTICITY. ELASTICITY. In proverbial rabbit fashion, they are multiplying. Filling the 99 cent plastic laundry baskets that line the top shelves, munching their way through the Imitation Noodles. A littler of baby bunny banks has taken over an area previously reserved for six-packs of rubber ducklings.
A brown rabbit hops toward him, wiggling its pink spray-painted nose.
I have 99 pennies inside me, it jingles. Behind it, a narrow row of french fries marches to the beat of chopsticks on a Pringles can.
Farris wants to process this, but all he can think is PRING-UH-LICIOUS. The words are flying at him as fast as the rabbits. RUMPLE-MAP and DOOZY and THICK-RICH ringing like a cash register. LAZARUS and EGG-TIMED sliding sock-footed down the aisles. LUMPEN, FELLOWSHIP, CONSUMATE pricking the back of his neck. HAZLE and CABERNET and NEXT-SEASON on the un-opening lips of an albino bunny.
He buys a clip-on reading light, a pair of argyle socks in disagreeable colors and a dehydrated soup called Californian Meal: Spain. He wants to see if the soup will kill him. Containing dehydrated seafood, it seems more adventurous than Californian Meal: Japan or Californian Meal: USA. CRUNCH, he thinks. BOOSTER. He waits in line behind a foreign woman; it seems that in her home country there was some sort of shortage of gold lame that she is making up for now. Her parachute pants, her headband, her jangly earrings, her nail polish—all are gold, as are most of the items in her purple shopping cart: gold foil wrapping paper, gold-edged dishes, a cassette labeled Golden Oldies. Her hair, clearly the result of determined and repeated processing, is vaguely golden. Only her eyeliner is black.
Farris falls slightly in love with her, and with the idea that one color can be so magnetic as to dictate countless decisions. It is probably no mistake that she lives in the Golden State. He plucks a metallic, die-shaped key chain from an impulse-buy rack and plunks it in his basket. Its gold paint reflects the lights above and transforms it into a jewel. MOON-WINK.
For a moment, exiting the store with his purchases and feeling the every-which-way wind on his scalp, Farris is blissful. SHOWGIRL, he thinks. SLINKSTER. SEA-GLINT.
He doesnít mean to walk home, but there he is. Itís dark now. His life presents itself to him, as it always does, at the door. There is his I Love Lucy welcome mat, there is the coat rack naked as a winter tree, there is the painting an actress made for him over the course of an interview set cutely in her personal studio. The painting is abstract but not without humility. It has been rendered in blues and dabs of white. Swirls at the center unfurl at the edges like mermaid arms. He would never admit it to anyone, but he loves the painting.
He is booting up his computer when he realizes he is vaguely hungry. He always forgets to eat. Food seems beneath him somehow. His ribs threaten from beneath a layer of thin, pale skin. His knees reveal their mechanics. What is this thing, people putting food into their bodies, turning it into energy. It is literal, and ugly.
Nevertheless, he makes himself a tuna fish sandwich, half of which he sets aside for Sparticus, who, sure enough, shows up at his kitchen window.
"I met the most banal member of your species today," he informs the slender Abyssinian. "All doting and malleable. It was horrible."
Sparticus touches the toasted bread with his dry pink nose before administering a sound chomp. He is utterly uninterested in Farris; Farris is thrilled. He knows no one else who manages to simultaneously wear honesty and style. He runs a hand down Sparticusí flecked back. The catís fur twitches like a wig on an itchy forehead. Then Sparitcus demands to exit through the window, which Farris has closed to keep out the increasingly cold wind. He leans forward, over the sink, to reopen it.
The drawn-out red of the afternoon catches him in a sunset-hued square of light. This seems reason enough to glance up at the sky that has delivered it. He sees—yes—itís a black silhouette of a human, suspended in the tree-top zone of the atmosphere. It is human-shaped, but with wings. Two harp-shaped arcs extending symmetrically from the figure. Its movements arenít recognizable to his catalog of real or fictional images. The figure does not flap—nothing so ungraceful as that—nor does he soar—nothing so ethereal. Two feathers zigzag downward in a roundabout pas de deux. They are as black as Amyís hair was white. One lands on a startled Sparticus, who lashes his tail indignantly. The other drifts into the waterless jacuzzi. He sees that they are downy—the sort of feathers to be found on private, overlooked curves of wing-pit—but as large as his hand.
He doesnít know what he is seeing, but there is no doubt that he is seeing it. It is as real and as unreal as the golden die key chain. His chest gives a little spasm as he thinks, This is it—no Tam Perla or grasping at RAPACIOUS and STONE-STREWN.
The figure is gone in a flick of Sparticusí tail. No matter—he is not the sort of person who runs after scoops or even bothers to fact-check his stories. He does step outside, standing on the lumpy earth of the buildingís backyard and searching the sky, which now holds only stringy clouds and long licks of tinted smog.
He reenters his apartment for the second time that day. Now itís the 99-cents-store glow of the computer screen that greets him. But as soon as he sits down and touches his hands to the keyboard, all he can see in his mind is the Fashion Victim office: the long, earthtoned hallways, the scent that seems to emanate from the abandoned bank below, the ring of angry calls from unpaid freelancers. Each day for the past week, someone has quit. As if the building itself is sinking into the ground, being reclaimed by the vast rivers of earth beneath Santa Monica Boulevard. They congregate at nearby coffee shops to brainstorm about the new magazine: It wonít be ad-based, they say, it will be about innovation, not celebrity.
Farris feels irked. Why these sudden material thoughts? Where is the figure in the sky? His nails are bitten to the quick; they have been since he can remember.
He tries again: Think black feathers, he tells himself. Think black wings. But when he turns around, he sees red. The Tam Perla skirt has found his apartment. It was at the office, most definitely, but now it lies innocently over the back of his desk chair, then leaps to life, bunny-bouncing around the room. It hovers above him like the canvas of a hot air balloon. Its ruffle flirts in the wind. It twists and shimmies.
He shifts in his chair, cups his face with his hands. The sky wonít come. He begins to panic. No, he insists to an abstract entity, I take it back, I didnít want to see the skirt. Now he is willing anything, any other image to occupy the folds of his brain: Where is Amy Boucher? Where is Sparticus? Where are CINERAMADOME and ESPRIT? If there are words, they hide in the billows of the skirt. Everything is thick red cotton, expanding over him and fueled by a gas he cannot name. His survival has culminated in a skirt that unfurls like an endless and angry flag. It covers everything.