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I accepted a job out past a boulevard named Rampart, the last name anyone would ever dream up as a short diagonal through Los Angeles, California. I crossed Rampart in the morning going east, retreating over the last stretch of continental pavement I’d traveled months before. The downtown by now looked exposed, without the fortified walls.

My job off Rampart put me at the front desk of a HUD-subsidized apartment building for seniors. The rent was pro-rated according to need. Most of the residents weren’t actually dying and many spoke no English. The harried property manager explained all of this just before leaving the premises never to be seen again.

My assigned tasks included answering the office phone on the rare occurrence of it ringing and the overseeing of work forms, which I passed along to the maintenance guy. I also collected rent. But I soon understood my principal duty at the retirement home would be to assure residents that a real and healthy-like person was on their case. Things were A-OK here at wayward mission control.

Soon enough, I was grinning from my lobby office window. A man with bluish-gray skin and a safari hat shot his arm up at me like he was waving from a much greater distance. I signaled back. A woman with halved tennis balls on her walker shuffled toward the automatic doors, which whooshed open for her well before she got to them.

“Don’t let those doors trick you into thinking this a department store,” I warned, confident that no one could hear me. I helped myself to the idle fax machine. I opened the tray and began feeding my résumé into it, queuing up numbers from the Hollywood Creative Directory, Vol. 31, an industry bible I’d been advised to keep with me at all times, along with a draft of my first screenplay.

“Who you talking to?” a voice called out. The maintenance guy, a full two feet taller than anyone I’d seen so far, ambled into the lobby from the service entrance. He propped one elbow on the ledge of my front desk window.

“I’m the temp,” I explained.

“Henry,” he introduced himself, shifting elbows.

“So you’re a Raiders fan?” I noticed his silver and black sweatshirt. Henry could have even been part of an impressive defensive line, before his hair had gone gray.

“Fuck the Raiders! Sundays used to be a party!”

“Sure, I bet.”

I was getting better at steering conversations nowhere at all.

A wheezing sound emerged from the elevator. It belonged to a Korean woman in wraparound sunglasses—Mrs. Cho, I’d learn. Instead of asking me to call emergency services, she turned to Henry and held up a work order slip in her fingers. Henry, showing no interest whatsoever, walked out the front doors. She trailed him as best she could.

The lobby doors held open a moment longer, then shut silently, blocking out the noise of the otherwise spoken for streets.

 

- – -

 

I swung wide going home at the end of that day in my clean white Volkswagen Fox, the best of all rides on the Western horizon. I passed MacArthur Park with its ravaged grass like the habitat of an abandoned zoo.

Maybe one day General MacArthur shall return. But in advance, I’d shown up. And for all the predictable reasons. Until I got my hands on a job in the business of movies, until I sent letters to every meaningful contact in the Creative Directory, stationed at a HUD retirement home could be the ideal post, removed entirely from the entertainment industry yet allowing me to roam freely among its millions of players who knew which large-faced wristwatch went with which jeans and if the contact info belonged at the top of each script page.

These folks would never see me coming. I would remain just off their radar, making me all the more relevant. Heading home down Wilshire, people on phones left mirrored buildings and hopped into cars to join me on the river-wide Miracle Mile. As I turned right onto Fairfax, I came upon the CBS headquarters, referred to as its own “Television City.” As I turned again onto Sunset, the streetlights clicked on.

The traffic moved in sweeps. The new release billboards played music. The palm trees, absurd at that height, reached for the only obvious way out. The brushfires were imminent. I may, any second, spot Heather Graham robbing the Kinko’s with the diamond switchblade she received in her Kodak Theater gift bag. Though, she was more innocent than that. She was more innocent than all of us. Over herbal ecstasy and avocados, we could laugh about how I’d started a not-even-plausible rumor about her, and then we’d mourn the glittering bygone era together. I would recount the whole story to my close friends after explaining that the Raiders never left L.A.

I welcomed myself home on this boulevard. I could be the steward of this whole shebang. I could ferry every senior resident under Housing and Urban Development across the Styx of this landscape. I could marry the apparitions to the development girl’s assistant. This could all actually work in real life.

The light went green. I whistled. From a cross street, a Camry accelerated toward me.

It crashed into my side. A sick whack hit my driver’s side front wheel and lifted the Fox in a half-turn toward the curb.

I got out of the car calmly. The rippling psychic impact of what I’d done represented the only hurt. I didn’t pause on how lucky I was. Though this is what the other driver said, looking at the front of his rumpled grill.

“Whew…you were lucky.”

I asked him if he was okay. He nodded and then glanced back to a woman still in the passenger seat, shaking her head and looking equally livid at both of us.

“Sorry, I’m still trembling,” he showed me hands that I figured never sat still, whether raised beside a wrecked stranger’s car or not. He appealed to the bottlenecked traffic, “I even work in stunts!”

 

- – -

 

“What country are we livin’ in?” Henry asked first thing inside the lobby the next morning.

“Don’t know what you’re…”

“I mean, what country are we livin’ in?”

I tried to avoid the answer we both knew. I gave up and muttered, “America.”

“In America, I don’t take my shoes off to do work!”

“That’s fine.”

My thoughts floated to the hope that Henry hadn’t seen the miserable state of my car with its mangled driver’s side and off-kilter hood, exposing the engine. I’d been on the phone with their insurance company since morning, stuck on a clause. But I’d still reported back to my temp job. The Fox still managed to bring me.

“Hold it, why take off your shoes?” I asked.

“I had to fix the escutcheon inside her door,” Henry motioned over his shoulder to Mrs. Cho, whose splintery inhales and exhales echoed his words. “I walk in, polite-like, and she points at my shoes! She wants to put me in loafers!”

Mrs. Cho carried with her the suggested footwear, red decorative bedroom slippers sized and styled possibly for Peter Pan. I turned to Henry and held out my open hands in a gesture of inclusion, diversity and mutual understanding.

“You can do it in socks, can’t you? It’s not like you need steel-toed boots.”

“What goddamn country!”

“Jesus Christ. Okay, then here’s an idea—I’ll do the work,” I said, annoyed.

This piqued Henry’s curiosity. The three of us took the elevator to the third floor. At Mrs. Cho’s door, Henry dropped a screwdriver and two screws and two washers into my hand. I pulled off my Vans and stepped, argyles to the world, into Mrs. Cho’s sparse apartment. She stared toward the keyhole on the beige door as her breathing strained and shortened.

“Wait,” I called to Henry on the other side, “what’s an escutcheon?”

 

- – -

 

My car wouldn’t make it. A shop estimated the damage as not worth it. They were offering me two hundred dollars to take the Fox off my hands. Meanwhile, the stunt man claimed the light had been green, an idea the agents at my insurance company adored.

But I wasn’t ready to junk the Fox yet. I went to the movies, to a late showing at the Beverly Center mall, the only available theater still offering the movie Boogie Nights. I entered the windowless fortress of the mall and left my car on the empty last level of underground parking.

Past the designer boutiques like darkened museum exhibits, I found the theater where the movie had already started. I felt for a seat in the dark as Heather Graham leaned over the nightclub booth to Julianne Moore and Burt Reynolds. The light of the movie alone cast a familial 70s California glow, a reminder that I lived in a land where everyone knew the fun wouldn’t last but the naive goodwill represented the most poignant way we had to go about our lives. Each scene dashed beautifully to the next. Because the microcosm was pornography, it proceeded to tell us all more about the movies, presenting the sex and the delusions first rather than last. These people were my friends and neighbors. My early hunch had been correct. I’d moved to the right place.

As desperation grew, the hero crashed his red muscle Corvette, though we only saw the resulting damage. It would be years later, oceans away from Southern California, that I’d learn an accident scene had been filmed, and subsequently scrapped.

It would be years later I’d realize the content of the movie was meant to be shocking and that the drama was more believable than my own.

 

- – -

“Take a look at this?  This is a screenplay, a copy of a screenplay I mean. Guess how much it was sold for?”

Henry shrugged his shoulders half-interested. It was Friday and he’d played his numbers that day. He dialed from the phone on my desk to get the winners.

“Eight million dollars. Tom Cruise’s company bought it. For eight million dollars.”

Henry stopped with the phone off the hook. He picked up this script, about a man dying of cancer that someone at my last temp job had run off as a parting favor for me. Henry held the copy by one corner like it was set to detonate. He let the pages fall open, not looking at its words but rather their heft.

“Don’t forget me. There’s only one Henry. Only one.” He returned to stabbing at the numbers on the phone.

Residents moved in and out. Temperatures rose as the sun streamed in blinding white through the windows. Anyone out for a stroll needed umbrellas. I handed Henry two work orders to fix air vents that had come in overnight. He clacked down the phone.

As soon as he did, it rang. We both jerked back at its sound.

“Hey look, you may already be a winner!” I told him.

“That ain’t for me,” he laughed and picked it up anyway. A shrill voice leapt from the receiver audible throughout the lobby. Henry’s grin sank. I noticed the red light on the phone, indicating an internal call.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Someone upstairs is saying she locked herself in. Don’t sound good.”

He dropped the receiver and rounded the corner, charging up the service stairway.

“Do you need me to stay here?” I shouted to Henry, already out of earshot. I didn’t budge and then spoke again, “It’s probably nothing!”

 

- – -

Henry asked me to drive with him. I’d taken the bus into work, having relinquished my car at last. I thought he’d finally taken pity on me. But, as he explained, he had a few errands to run and wanted someone in the passenger seat of his truck so he could ride the carpool lane on 110 South.

I didn’t have anywhere to be. From a hill toward the direction of the distant water, the color gradations went from fire red to purple to diffused soot. Henry popped in a cassette of Tower of Power. He clapped along with the horns.

“Do you think she’d been waiting to fix that door then? You think that was part of her plan?” I asked.

“I can’t speak on that. She knew her time, that’s all.”

We exited somewhere in Gardena. The buildings kept a low profile and the motorists gave each other a wide berth. Henry pulled into the mostly empty lot of a hardware store. He met a group of other workmen who erupted into guffaws as Henry joined them.

“I’m here with my friend,” Henry pointed to me. The other workers leaned down and squinted at the white boy sitting shotgun in Henry’s truck. They all nodded tentatively.

Henry would turn out to be right; I would not forget him. I could tell his story one day.

“Okay, time to take you home,” he said, scooting back in behind the wheel as he chucked a sack of heavy materials into the truckbed. He turned the music back up. We coasted back to the freeway, making it look effortless.

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Nathaniel Missildine NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

4 Responses to “High Maintenance”

  1. D.R. Haney says:

    Is this the piece you mentioned in our last exchange? Either way, Nat, it’s terrific. It feels like part of a novel, and if such a novel existed, I would really be envious as I never am of most novels that are supposed to trigger envy in the writers who didn’t write them. There are so many great phrases that I can’t begin to compile a list, though if I were to start, I would of course include the last line, and work backward. Also, you manage to instantly create characters, per the woman with the halved tennis balls on her walker. One telling detail and, bang, I got her.

    I hate you, Nat.

    • It’s hard to believe that someone who’s writing is as worthy of envy as yours is would pay me such compliments, but I’ll take it.

      Yep, this was the piece I mentioned to you. I’d written a short story years ago set in the same place and with similar characters (and the exact same narrator). With this I went back to tell the messier nonfiction, so-called real version. As real as is possible anyway. After mentioning it to you and, without being dramatic about it, having your writing on movies and L.A. as something of a spiritual guide, I nearly added your name to the tags. Though in the end, I figured better to leave that implied.

      Mostly I’m just glad to have this chance to feel like I was riding the streets of L.A. again, regardless of how fitful the process of writing the piece was. It’s funny this nostalgia for things I didn’t in any way enjoy at the time. Like the old saying goes, absence from Los Angeles always makes the heart grow fonder.

  2. seanbeaudoin says:

    Love this piece, Nat. Could definitely hold the weight of a much longer exploration…

    • Thanks, Sean. I started and stopped writing this thing so many times, convinced over and over again that I’d never find the right way to tell it, that it seems like a longer work to me already. Who knows? Within a few years time, I might be able to turn it into a haiku.

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