If the window is open
and I find leaves or bits of twig
in my hair; if my feet
are black with chimney soot…
My apartment was a studio, sparsely furnished. I had a breakfast table, two chairs, and a mattress on the floor with large pillows and a red bedspread. The mattress was my sofa and bed; the kitchen table, my writing desk. I was a warehouseman for Hollywood Adhesives, a company that manufactured “sealing products,” including a variety of dispensers and colored vinyl. I worked on the receiving dock with an older man named Learner who had a PhD in English literature from Yale.
We had just finished printing the packing slips and shipping labels. Learner told me that I was “lucky in a way” because I never went to college.
“Not a day,” I said.
“But you read?”
“I read all the time.”
“How do you know what to read?”
“The books provide the trail,” I said. “For example, about a year ago I discovered Vladimir Nabokov. I had heard of Lolita, of course, but had no idea Nabokov was an important writer. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert reads to Dolores from a volume of Edgar Allan Poe, who he calls the ‘divine Edgar.’ That made me intensely curious about Poe—I ordered The Fall of the House of Usher online. Soon Amazon was suggesting what else I should read: Oscar Wilde, Anton Chekhov, Frost, Shaw, Hawthorne, Emerson, Sartre, Camus.”
“So you stumble along without a guide?”
“That’s right. I read a book and think about it. Sometimes I write an essay. Right now I am reading Crime and Punishment.”
“Do you have your notes on Crime and Punishment? I would be interested in what you think about Dostoyevsky.”
“I have my notebook here.”
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov devises a plan to murder the avaricious pawnbroker and to steal her money. Because he is an “extraordinary man,” a man of genius, he believes his crime is correct provided the act is justified by moral certainty. To find out, one performs a calculation of offsets against the greater good. By adding and subtracting who will be hurt or helped, the “extraordinary man” derives an ethical sum. For Zeus, it was simpler—here the protagonist must float above the City of St. Petersburg, beyond sight of signs…
Sarah, who had just turned eighteen, was waifish and pale with intelligent eyes. She wore thin cotton dresses and her hair tied in a loose braid. She was a gangly one, a beauty who laughed at her own jokes and tossed her legs like a child.
We were relaxing on the sofa when I asked her where she parked. “Where I always park,” she said. I frowned. When I reminded her that she was supposed to park at the twenty-four-hour market on Santa Monica, she said she had checked all the signs. “It’s fine.”
“We better take a look,” I said.
What she didn’t see was the array of no-parking signs hidden behind a palm tree, stacked seven high, like an urban totem pole.
“This is crazy,” Sarah said. “These signs don’t make any sense. What does the one at the top say?”
I put on my glasses. “RESIDENT PARKING ONLY.”
“What about the others?”
“This one says ONE-HOUR PARKING. The next one: NO PARKING ANY TIME. This one says: STREET CLEANING WEDNESDAY. The bottom one NO PARKING 9AM to 5PM. I have a permit, so I can park here. Otherwise, I would would get a ticket every day.”
“You didn’t warn me properly,” Sarah said.
“Not properly.” She looked glum. “They towed me! My beautiful car.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll call the towing company. Come back with me. We can pick up the car in the morning.
We’ll charge it on my card.”
She looked surprised: “That would be really nice.”
That night we lay on the big pillows and drank red wine. As the sun went down, the neon lights from the neighborhood bar cast orange and purple triangles on the walls. After two bottles, we played the game where you confess your secrets and stare into each other’s eyes. I told her about my flying dream.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I asked innocently.
“I don’t know.” She laughed. “Do you have any more chocolate-covered cherries?”
“I’m out. You haven’t blinked for five minutes.”
“I know,” she said.
“Only the young see beauty. When you stop seeing beauty, you grow old.”
“Who said that?”
“Kafka wrote the parking laws in Hollywood,” she joked. “You know, flying dreams are quite common.”
“Do you fly in your dreams?” I asked.
“Not like you.”
“You mean the scratches?”
In the morning we headed out to the Official Police Garage on Mansfield, three blocks West of Highland. The building was taupe gray with no windows and a heavy metal gate. When we rang the buzzer, a light on the security camera turned green and a dog barked fiercely.
“Do you have your driver’s license?” I asked.
She nodded. “I had just changed the oil and had it washed. I take good care of it. I don’t leave my phone in the car—that’s inviting trouble. They must have towed it sometime after six. What time did we go for our walk?”
“About eight.” I pushed the call button. “I don’t think they’re open. Let’s go get something to eat.”
Across the street was a Mexican restaurant with a service counter and picnic tables made with wooden slats and industrial-grade angle iron. We ordered rancheros and coffee and sat down on a bench close to the window. There was a sign on the wall with a galloping horse that said: RIDE LIKE YOU STOLE IT.
She sprinkled Tapatío on her eggs. “Do you speak Spanish?”
“Mas o manos,” I said.
“More or less?” she repeated.
“Perfecto,” I said.
We were both a little hungover, but the breakfast helped. We had slept side by side and had hardly moved. When I got up she was snoring. I touched her nose to see if I could stop the loud snuffling. It worked and for a moment she was Sleeping Beauty, an ivory cameo in a gold locket.
“The gate is open now,” I said.
“We can bring our coffees.”
The gate closed again. We rang and waited. There was going to be a towing fee, storage fee, and the vehicle release fee. And maybe a flatbed dolly fee. I thought about Meursault in Camus’ Stranger. He said he was condemned to death because he didn’t cry at his mother’s funeral. That is the sign that must be obeyed.
The morning after my mother’s funeral was the first time I found my window open and the screen removed. I had dreamed she was standing at the foot of my bed. She looked like her picture on the dresser, stylish in her pillbox hat, waiting with a new suitcase outside the Drake Hotel. She pointed to my feet, which were scratched and bleeding. I went to the window and looked two stories down. There were tall bushes in the courtyard. I wondered if I had been sleepwalking. Did I leap out the window into the bushes, then walk up the stairs and go back to bed?
We got lucky because they didn’t use the flatbed to tow Sarah’s car. She asked about the dog. The manager, who was wearing a sweat-stained fedora, asked her if she liked pit bulls.
“They’re pretty cute.”
“The owner took the dog for a walk. They’ll be back soon. What kind of dogs do you like?”
That was good because I thought of myself as a dog when I didn’t shave for several days. I had long, thin arms and legs like an Irish wolfhound. When I sprang from the diving board at the public pool, the image in my mind was of a shaggy cur leaping castle hedges.
We headed back to my apartment, parking both cars at the twenty-four-hour market. It was a smoggy afternoon, dusty yellow with ribbons of brown. I noticed there was a casual-looking man sitting on the concrete block wall, guarding the parking lot. We went into the market and bought a bottle of cheap whiskey and checked to see if the guard was watching us when we left. If he was, he didn’t let on. We walked down Santa Monica Boulevard past an adult novelty store next door to a storefront church with a marquee sign that said: HONK IF YOU LOVE JESUS. TEXT IF YOU WANT TO MEET HIM.
Sarah had made a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios. She sat on the sofa with her bowl in her lap, looking puzzled: “What are the metal discs for?”
“The saucer things in the wall?”
“You mean the plates? They hold the bricks together. It’s retrofitting to make the building safe.”
She scraped the cereal bowl with her spoon. “What’s the rectangular bracket for?”
“That’s for the Murphy bed. I threw the bed away when I moved in. It was old and smelled like Salvation Army.”
“That’s a very distinctive smell. It would make an interesting ice-cream flavor.”
“Oh, you’re funny,” I said.
“That’s what everyone says.”
We had just showered. I poured two glasses of whiskey and water, and we lay back against the pillows. We were squeaky clean and I thought we were going to make love again, but she wanted to finish The Stranger. It was the pocketbook edition, published in 1954, with men on the cover in clown makeup and tall, horizontally striped hats. The book had yellow pages and large type, making it easy on the eyes. She was a fast reader, but stopped to fidget—once putting the book up to her nose and fanning the pages to smell it.
“It’s musty. Do you want me to read to you?”
“I love it when you read,” I said.
Then Marie proposed that we should swim tandem. She went ahead and I put my arms round her waist, from behind, and while she drew me forward with her arm strokes, I kicked out behind to help us on…
I closed my eyes and soon her voice faded. When I awoke, I could still remember my dream. I was arguing with an old man with arched eyebrows and a long, thin nose who looked like Learner. He shouted: “Don’t you see. We have raised a generation of impoverished minds! No greatness, no canon, no universal truth!”
“Did you write this?” Sarah asked. “Are you awake?” She had found my notes on The Stranger and resumed reading:
Meursault is an indifferent man accused of murder. What do you call it when you are so disengaged you don’t protest your innocence at trial? What is beyond fatalistic? Inert? Inanimate? They wanted him to kneel so they could cut off his head in the guillotine. Why doesn’t he argue with the prosecutor? Or the priest? He allows injustice to grind away. The thunderbird on top of the totem pole is a wooden bird that doesn’t shit or screech. Is Meursault testing the limits of absurdity? Sarah and I have tested the limits of nothing. When confronted with inequity, we paid the fine.
There is no breeze. Where am I? On my window ledge, looking up at the sky. The ledge is narrow and worn. Maybe the previous tenant spent time on the ledge? I don’t mind that it’s narrow. I’m looking for a hole in the clouds and am gathering buoyancy. When my back arches to make an airfoil. When I jump without fear. But it’s too early to fly. The sun is mixing with the smog to make pink pebble and watery gold. High flying requires darkness and troubled sleep.
Soon it will be dark.
Sarah opened her eyes. “I’m sorry. You wanted me to watch you while you sleep. Observe you. I couldn’t stay awake. Are you okay? The window is open. Did you get up? What happened? Let me see your feet. Oh look, they’re bleeding. How did you scratch them? Is that soot in our bed? And leaves! Did you fly tonight? Did you scratch your ankles on the roof tiles, my lover? Did you perch on the chimney? Wait, I’m scratched too! Did we fly in tandem when you put your arm around my waist?”
“All that, Sarah.”
If the window is open and I find leaves and bits of twig in my hair, if my feet are black with chimney soot…then I know.
“Then you know what?” demanded Learner. “What do you know? I don’t understand any of this.”