Keith prank called his girlfriend Veronica at work.
She answered, and Keith asked for her boss, the Director of a prestigious film industry non-profit that had rehabilitated a 1920’s movie palace but couldn’t pay for the restoration. Although her job title was Associate Director of Fundraising, Veronica’s only real job was to answer the Director’s phone, because the Director was never in the office and never returned any calls.
“I’m sorry, he’s in the hospital,” said Veronica.
“That’s a good one,” said Keith. “Illnesses linger.”
“I have to hang up now,” said Veronica.
Keith’s job title was Server. His manager wouldn’t let him write his poetry or read during downtimes, and he had no phone of his own for texting and surfing, so when it was slow at the diner Keith had to find other ways to pass the time. Though all he did was pour drinks and wipe glasses from late afternoon to very early morning, it was a job that had required him to submit a headshot as part of his application.
Srdjan sat down at Keith’s counter and asked for an Arnold Palmer. Recently arrived in Los Angeles from Serbia, Srdjan was one of Keith’s regulars.
“What’s the famous Arnold Palmer quote?” asked Keith.
Srdjan, a heavy and quiet man, shrugged.
Keith deadpanned. “Give me half a glass of iced tea, mixed with half a glass of lemonade,” he said.
Srdjan exhaled and shook his head. “Keith, I am afraid that is not funny.”
“You can say that again,”
“Keith, I am afraid that is – “
“It’s an expression. It means something is more true than true.”
“So you don’t actually say it twice?”
Srdjan smiled at the greasy headshots on the wall. Keith didn’t enjoy correcting Srdjan. What he liked was this look of satisfaction.
At the end of the shift, Keith rode his bike from the diner in Los Feliz to the top of the hill in Echo Park where he shared the top floor of a Spanish duplex with Veronica. During the day, if it was clear, the views from their apartment were vast and peaceful, the sirens and freeways just whispers below. That night, as he pushed every muscle to crest the hill, the desert wind caught him for the last hard pedals, up to where he could see the tiny lights of downtown.
Keith was energetic and chipper when he got home. He didn’t have many friends, and Srdjan had put him in a good mood. Veronica was asleep, so he retrieved the paintbrushes from his cabinet in the dining room and returned to work on his latest canvas, a black square about five feet to each side, with a green and pink puddle at the center that he thought was a chrysanthemum plant dropped into a well, or maybe someone’s gangrenized foot. Pretty and lost or rotten and criminal, he didn’t know.
The bristles at the bottom of the brush in his hand made contact with the burnt gold ooze on his palette and Keith felt a shift in the room. At first he recognized it as a familiar feeling in his hand, a sting or an itch about to provoke something. But that something vanished when he heard Veronica’s voice.
“You’re not supposed to make noise,” she said, leaning naked against the door frame. “And you need to finish that chair.”
“Painting is quiet,” he said. “I’m not supposed to work on the chair at night.”
“You’re not supposed to paint at all.”
Veronica did not allow Keith to apply to art school, but she let him spend his days at home creating art you can make in your apartment. She liked when he built furniture, because it was something they needed and he had a knack for design. The execution always took much longer than he promised. A birch and cane rocker he had started a year before was finished but unbalanced. He could not decide whether to live with it like that or to reassemble it again and again to determine the loose rod or warped brace that needed to be replaced. Because he could not decide, he did nothing. The chair sat unfinished, upside down on another chair, in a dead corner of the dining room.
“You’re supposed to come right to bed,” she said.
Keith followed Veronica into the bedroom and got under the covers on his side. On her side, Veronica lay on top of both sheets, preventing their skin from touching.
Veronica had other rules. Keith was allowed to keep his small paychecks from the diner, but had to turn over his tip money to Veronica. She kept the money in a savings account in her name. She withdrew his half of the rent and utilities from the account each month. Anytime he needed to order art supplies, she approved the purchases first, then ordered them online at work with her credit card. His manager verified the tip amounts. This plan stopped Keith from buying illegal pills over the internet, because buying illegal pills over the internet had been a big problem.
It had started to get light out when Keith finally fell asleep. He was supposed to sleep past Veronica’s departure to the office, but that morning, his eyes opened much earlier. He noticed the tangle of sheets beside him on the bed, then stared at the grey-salmon sky out the bedroom window. It was another hot morning.
Keith became thirsty and drained the large plastic bottle of purchased water next to the bed. Then he had to pee, but what would it mean to see Veronica at this hour? Would he need to say hello? What was the rule? Keith considered the bottle. If only it didn’t have that suck-size opening. A woman perhaps didn’t have the precision to pee into an opening that tiny, but he thought he might. If he could empty his entire bladder into the bottle, he could avoid Veronica entirely. She always went out with her friends on Friday nights and came home on Saturday mornings. He would not have to talk to her until the next day.
He stood up to give himself the advantage of gravity. He placed the opening of the bottle at the tip of his penis. He squinted, squatted, and tried his best to leak only a tiny stream to test his placement. The warm liquid dribbled over his fingers; he heard the beginnings of splatter on the hardwood floor, and clenched to stop the flow. The bottle caught a few drops, and Keith was angry with himself for peeing on the floor.
Keith got into his gym shorts and speed-walked to the bathroom, past Veronica reading the paper on the couch. He did not even glance at her. He heard hardcore thrasher tunes playing loud through her headphones.
He stood over the toilet and the flood had just started to drain out of him when Veronica knocked and opened the door.
“Hey,” he said. “I can’t get back to sleep.”
“I have to pee now,” she said.
Keith clenched again, with even less success than before, and stepped to the sink, a few more drops escaping along the way. He turned on the water and began to wash his hands, scrubbing at some stubborn paint with his thumbnail.
Veronica sat and shifted her weight from one buttock to the other, gathering squares of toilet tissue. Keith tried to keep his eyes on himself in the mirror, check his face for spots of paint, but his focus strayed to the reflection of Veronica on the toilet, dabbing various parts with the tissue. He wondered where the pee came out, and if Veronica would have had better luck with the water bottle. She stood and flushed. Keith returned to the toilet. Veronica finished washing her hands.
“Clean the floor. Now,” she said, and walked through the narrow corridor out the bathroom door.
As Keith retrieved the bucket and other cleaning supplies from the hall closet, Veronica started to sing along to her headphone music. The singing was more like whispered screams. Keith didn’t know the song. He mopped up the drops on the bathroom floor, his mind turning the mop into a brush and the floor into a fresh new canvas. He didn’t stop at just the spot where he peed. He mopped the rest of the bathroom, the bedroom floor, too, and after a short time that passed with Keith hardly noticing, the whole apartment floor was clean, and Veronica was still whisper-screaming.
Keith retired to the bed and pretended to sleep until Veronica left for work, but when he tried painting again his hand had no direction. Just as well, he thought. Any noticeable progress on the painting would have resulted in penalties.
The Friday shift was noisy, the kitchen all yells and clanking pots. Customers clambered into booths as Keith dried milkshake glasses. There were no counter sitters; there was no sign of Srdjan. For a moment all sound dropped away except for the soft squeak of towel on glass. When he turned around, a tall woman was sitting at the counter in front of him, stooping at a gentle angle as she read the menu.
“Sorry about the lighting in here,” said Keith. “Terrible for reading.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault,” she said. Keith smiled at this open acceptance from a stranger, which, had it ever accidentally spilled from Veronica’s lips would be the most loving thing she had ever said.
The woman looked at him. She had the kind of blue eyes that sucked you in without screening you first.
“You’re an angel,” he said. He hoped that didn’t sound stupid.
She didn’t order any food. “I don’t need to eat,” she explained. “I can’t taste anything anyway. Or smell.”
The angel stayed the length of his shift, playing with the fork and knife on her placemat. When she moved them close, the handle of the knife and the tines of the fork joined together. Sometimes drunk customers would discover this magnetic attraction in the utensils, resulting in many dropped forks and requests for new ones with little apology. The angel tried lifting the fork with the knife, missing most times, and the crash of cutlery hitting the floor got lost in the diner clamor. All Keith could hear was her quiet laughter. When he wasn’t pouring beverages, he watched the length of her bending down to pick the knife and fork off the floor.
It was time to break some rules.
The angel held Keith’s hand as she unlocked her doors and walked him into her apartment. Once the door was shut, they stood in darkness. It was a cool night. The cross breeze licked his tiny arm hairs.
She didn’t turn on any lights. She didn’t say anything. The angel’s body was different from Veronica’s. More parts of her were close to his height. He raised his hand and touched her elbow, where, if he were touching Veronica, he would have touched a shoulder
Parts of her began to soften into something smoother than skin, like a sub-skin. She felt like a standing liquid. He leaned on her and she supported his weight. His mouth pressed into hers and she stayed planted. Though this angel had a solid core, she felt like waves of gauze or velvet. But nothing he did knocked her off her center. She relieved the clenched bite in his jaw with her tongue.
He whispered in her ear, “Help,” and he had no idea what he was asking for. When she touched his hair there was a prickle and lightness he had never known without drugs. He felt wordlessly accepted.
She descended to the floor and brought his body onto hers. He felt like a dumb boy, reaching for her breasts. This body that he rested on was stronger than any woman’s body he had known. And what would be so wrong if she weren’t a woman, if this person who seemed to seep into him so easily were someone more like him, like a twin separated at birth. It might explain how quickly he felt close to her.
It was like seeing through an underwater camera lens, as if he had dunked below the surface, an enduring silence filling his ears. It was unfamiliar and blameless, womblike and unfrightening. His slipped his cock inside her, pushing harder than Veronica ever allowed him to. The angel glowed even brighter; her contented smile spread. Her eyes rolled back so far they were no longer blue but white. He tore into her, but she seemed only stirred. She was endless.
The angel reached toward the table beside them and produced a stoppered glass tube. “I want you to drink this and then tell me what you taste.”
Keith swallowed it down. It could have been peach or raspberry, or both, or neither. The angel kissed him while there were traces still left on his tongue and lips.
“It was this,” he said. “The taste was this color.”
She pressed her hands into his chest and climbed on top of him. She was strong and weightless at the same time.
The night continued in this pattern: making love and talking about the barest elements of seeing. He told the angel about the secret pills, and she didn’t mind them. Not a bit. Keith still had some on him, so he and the angel took the pills together. Finally they fell asleep. When they woke up, the angel invited him to live with her.
Veronica was still out when Keith got home mid-day, so he started up the electric sander and smoothed the tips of the rocking chair legs to get to get the angle of the rocker joints right. Then he stained and varnished the chair. While waiting for the chair to dry, he looked at the poems in his notebook, realized he was a terrible poet and set fire to the notebook in the kitchen sink. The last thing to finish was the painting, but he hadn’t even started on it when the clock struck three and Veronica came in the front door.
Keith could think of no small chitchat. “I’m moving out tonight,” he said.
Veronica started yelling, her voice a full-volume version of the whisper screams she had sung the morning before. He couldn’t tell her about the angel or the pills. She started throwing his tools and art supplies out the window. The sander crashed to the brick patio below. He hoped the downstairs neighbors weren’t smoking out there, and that their cats were safe inside. Chisels, his lathe, fabric, paint and brushes. Nothing was left but the chair and the unfinished black canvas with the flower or severed limb in the center.
“There,” she said, “you’re all moved out.”
“Some of this other stuff is stuff we bought together.”
“Because you have all my tip money.”
“No I don’t. I didn’t keep any of it. I spent it all.”
This was working out fine, he thought. He knew that getting the tip money back from Veronica would have been a lost cause if she had stored it safely in a bank under her name. Now he wouldn’t have to think of her living off smart, secure investments she had made with his money. He could imagine her losing status with her friends, maybe going broke, just a secretary at a lame nonprofit. It was easier this way.
Keith collected the canvas and the rocking chair and left. He asked the neighbor downstairs if he could use the phone.
When Srdjan’s hatchback rolled up the hill, Keith was rocking in his chair in the middle of the driveway, listening to Veronica complain to one of her friends on the phone that she had wasted her cute, young years on a loser. He just closed his eyes and imagined the angel, floating in the sky above downtown, asking him questions about every part of himself and telling him everything would be okay.
“You good to go?” Srdjan asked.
They folded down the backseat; the rocker and the painting fit.
“You’re a good friend,” Keith said.
“This is what friends are for.”
“You can say that again.” Keith stretched and yawned, looking out the window as they ascended the hill.
When Keith arrived at the angel’s building, he and Srdjan unloaded the rocking chair and the painting onto the front lawn. Keith thanked Srdjan and let himself in.
The apartment was empty. Everything he remembered from the night before was gone. On the small kitchen counter he found two of the angel’s glass beakers, each the same color as the potion she had fed him. The first one said “Drink” and the second one said “Paint.” He drank the first one greedily, hoping that somehow swallowing would bring her back to him. He waited, then waited some more.
The afternoon blaze turned into shadow, and the angel had not reappeared. Keith left the apartment, returned to the lawn and retrieved the rocker and canvas. He placed the rocker at an angle facing the two corner windows, and propped the canvas up on its arms. He looked at his painting. What was that thing in the middle? Turning the canvas, he examined the shape of the object. A flower, a foot, a disembodied brain, raw meat. He lay the canvas on the floor and stood over it. He opened the tube that said “Paint” and poured a little of the goo onto his finger.
He smelled it, and it didn’t smell like the fruit of the drink. He dabbed at the object in the center, and it began more and more to resemble entrails and hair. There was a shaft with a mushroom head that seemed to have wings, yes, white leafy wings. He had painted a cock with wings.
There was a nail already hammered into the wall. He couldn’t remember what the angel had there before, and went ahead and hung the painting up there.
It was near dark; the sun had sunk. Keith walked to the diner and asked if he could work that night. When the manager said all she needed was help with table service, he decided to try it. It wasn’t so bad. The manager even let the waiters read during downtimes.
Keith kept the shift and the next week brought a book of poetry by someone famous so he could learn how to write a poem. He would see how long the rent was paid at the angel’s apartment and stay on if he could afford it. The rocker he would try to sell at a swap meet. Maybe Srdjan would buy it, or at least drive him to the swap meet. But the painting, that slop of meat flying away, that he would keep.