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Malibu

We sat in the recliners. I ate the cheesecake and my uncle ate the carrot cake. We watched the end of a movie called <i>While You Were Sleeping.</i> Then my uncle emptied his colostomy bag, while I sent that cheesecake down the toilet. I drank some...


Photo by Thomas Northcut/Getty

I

n order to collect unemployment benefits, I had to fill out this log of all the jobs I'd applied for. But I wasn't applying for any jobs. So I just wrote down "lawyer" and made up a phone number. Then I wrote down "lawyer's assistant" and put down the same phone number. I went on like that. "Law-firm janitor." I looked at the number I'd made up. I tried calling it. It rang and rang. Then a woman got on the line.

"Who's this?" is how she answered the phone.

"I'm doing a study," I said. "How do you feel about people seeing you naked?"

"I was a nude model for an art school," she said, "so I have no problem."

She said her name was Terri and that she lived out in Lone Pine with her mother who had Parkinson's. She said she wanted to get pregnant so she'd have something to think about all day.

"I'm an Indian," she said next. "Chumash. What are you?"

"I'm regular," I told her.

"Good. I like regular men. I wish I wasn't an Indian. I wish I was black or Chinese or something. Well," she said, "how about you come out here and we see what we can do? I'm not after your money, if that's what you're thinking. I get checks in the mail all the time."

It sounded like a vulture was squawking in the background. I thought for a minute.

"One thing," I said. "I have pimples. And a rash all over my body. And my teeth aren't great either."

"I'm not expecting much," she said. "Besides, I don't like perfect-looking men. They make me feel like trash, and they're boring."

"Sounds good," I said.

We made a date for dinner the next day. I had a good feeling about it.

It was true: I had pimples. But I was still good-looking. Girls liked me. I rarely liked them back. If they asked me what I did for fun, I told them lies, saying I jet skied or went to casinos. The truth was that I didn't know how to have fun. I wasn't interested in fun. I spent most of my time looking in the mirror or walking to the corner store for cups of coffee. I had a thing about coffee. It was pretty much all I drank. That and diet ginger ale. Sometimes I stuck my finger down my throat. Plus I was always picking at my pimples. I covered the marks they made with girls' liquid foundation, which I stole from Walgreens. The shade I used was called Classic Tan. I guess those were my only secrets.

My uncle lived out in Agoura Hills. I called him sometimes out of desperation, but he only ever wanted to talk about girls.

"I don't like anybody right now," I told him over the phone. I was looking in the mirror over the bathroom sink, doing some one-handed picking.

"But women are good," he said. "They're like a good meal."

"I can't afford a good meal," I said back to him. "Anyway, I go for quantity over quality."

He told me to go ask if Sears or T. J. Maxx was hiring, or Burger King. For someone else, maybe that was fine advice. He himself didn't need to work. He was on disability for having a gimp leg. Also, he had a colostomy bag he didn't care for properly. He used a lot of peach-scented air freshener around the house to cover the smell. He rarely left the living room and liked to order in large Mexican dinners or whole pizzas. He was always eating something and dumping out the colostomy bag right afterward.

"I don't feel very well," I told him. "I'm too sick to find a job."

"Go to a doctor," he said. "Look in the phone book. Don't be a fool. You need to care for your health."

"Can I borrow some money?" I asked him.

"No."

I found a cheap doctor in a Korean shopping mall on Wilshire.

The mall was basically empty, just a lot of fake brass and cloudy windows and orange fake-marble floors. I looked up into the galleria. The glass ceiling was cracked all over. A pigeon soared around, then rested on a strand of unlit Christmas lights. Someone had spread newspapers around the floor. There was a luggage store, a place to get your photo taken, a hair salon. That was it—all the other stalls were empty. A homeless Korean lady padded by me in dirty, quilted long underwear, pushing a baby carriage full of trash. I took a long whiff.

I found the clinic down a dim hallway of unmarked offices. On the door there was an orange poster of all the services the doctor offered. I found my symptoms: weight gain, hair loss, rash. I went inside. A fat lady stood at the counter in front of the receptionist.

"This prescription is for the yellow kind and I need the pink kind. The Percodan," she was saying.

I had a thing about fat people. It was the same thing I had about skinny people: I hated their guts. After a few minutes, a nurse told me to follow her through the office. We passed an unframed poster of hot rods and another poster of kittens inside a top hat. The nurse pointed to a man in a flannel shirt holding a yellow legal pad. He resembled a retired WWF wrestler. His eyes hid behind folds of skin and raised moles and eyebrows badly in need of plucking. He needed a shave too. Most men have no idea of how to groom themselves. From where his shirt buckled between the buttons, I could tell he wasn't wearing anything under the flannel. Wiry black hairs lay across his gut. He smelled like old food.

"Are you a real doctor?" I asked him.

He steered me onto a greasy examination table.

"So, you've got something wrong with you," he said, looking at the form.

"I try to throw up all the food I eat, but I'm still fat," I said. "And the rash." I pulled up my sleeve.

The doctor took a step back. "You ever wash your sheets?"

"Yes," I lied. "So what's wrong with me?"

"I'm not one to judge," he said, placing his hand over his heart.


Photo by Jessie Kennedy

As good-looking as I was, I was scared nobody would ever marry me. I had small hands. They were like a girl's hands, but with hair. Nobody marries men with hands like that. When I fit my fingers down my throat, it's easy. My fingers are thin, soft. When I put them down there, it's like a cool breeze. That's the best way I can explain it.

"Uncle," I said on the phone. "Can I do some laundry at your place?"

"Sure," he replied. "Come on over. But bring your own laundry detergent. And some Diet Coke!"

My uncle lived off the 101. I stopped at Albertsons for the detergent and Diet Coke. I also bought a cheesecake and a carrot cake. I used my EBT card. I never had any shame about that damn EBT card. I got a large coffee and some cigarettes from the gas station next door too. I didn't really smoke. I just lit the cigarettes and carried them around my uncle's house. It covered the smell decent.

"Look at my boy," hollered my uncle, wobbling up out of his recliner. He had a pair of spruce-green leather recliners about a foot away from a gigantic television. It was the kind of television they put in hotel lobbies. All he did was watch TV or talk on the phone or eat. He loved game shows and cooking shows. I'm not saying he was an idiot. He was just like me: anything good made him want to die. That's a characteristic some smart people have.

"Hi," I said.

My uncle's robe was hanging open. I could see that damn colostomy bag.

"Tell me," he said as I took out the cakes. "You seeing anybody these days?"

"Maybe, but I don't want to jinx it," I said. "I don't want to talk about it."

"You always let me down."

We sat in the recliners. I ate the cheesecake and my uncle ate the carrot cake. We watched the end of a movie called While You Were Sleeping. Then my uncle emptied his colostomy bag, while I sent that cheesecake down the toilet. Then I put the laundry in. I drank some coffee and went back to the toilet to throw up some more. When I was done, I picked up my uncle's razor and shaved the hair off my knuckles. I showed them to my uncle.

"Somebody should rub my feet with those hands, but not you," he said.

I sat down, sniffed the air, and lit a cigarette.

"I'm still not feeling well," I said. "And I'm broke."

"I won't give you any money," he answered. "But if you cut the grass, I'll pay you for your time."

"How much time?"

"Twenty bucks' worth."

"I'll consider your offer and get back to you," I said. My uncle liked official talk like that.

"Looking forward to it," he replied. Then he reached under his robe and shuffled the bag around. My eyes rolled.

We watched Law & Order, then Oprah, then Days of Our Lives.

I cut the grass.

I'd gone out on dates before. Nothing really spectacular ever happened. One girl had been a nun when she was younger. I liked her, but she was always talking about herself. It was like she was waiting for something in my face to light up, and nothing ever did.

"I am not a character in a television show," I explained. "All I want to do is see your naked body, then reevaluate."

She followed me to the restroom. We were at an Asian bistro in Century City. The bathroom was polished concrete. The lighting was cold and dim. She revealed herself one half at a time. First the shirt off, then back on, then the skirt down, then back up. We dated for a few weeks—just heavy petting, nothing in and out. Finally I lied and told her I had contracted cat scratch fever from a neighbor's kitten and needed time to recover, alone. She stopped calling eventually.

Only once did I pick up a prostitute. I found her sitting on the curb outside the Super 8 near Little Armenia. She had a clear plastic bag for her belongings: a small makeup case, a pair of running shoes, two bananas, and a plastic flower.

"How do I seem to you?" I asked up in the motel room. "How do I smell?"

"You smell like air freshener," she said. "You smell like nothing."

"Great," I said. I took my shirt off. "Am I fat?" I asked her.

She squinted her eyes and smushed her lips together. "You're not skinny, and you're not fat," she said. The way she pointed her finger reminded me of my high school principal.

"Does my face look swollen?" I asked her.

"What do you mean?" she said.

She pulled a banana out of her plastic bag and started to peel it.

"Can you see my pimples from there?" I asked. She was sitting on the linty bedspread. I went and stood by the window.

"Yeah, anybody can," she said.

I took a few steps away into the shade. "How about now?'

"I can still see them," she said.

I drew the blinds and asked again. She nodded.

Then I sat down next to her and splayed my hands out on the bed.

"What do you think about these?" I asked.

Nobody ever gave me the answer I wanted. Nobody ever said, "Oh, so beautiful!"

The next day back at my apartment, I still had the rash. There was nothing I could do about it before my date that night with Terri. I lay on my bed and reached down to the floor and picked little crumbs and hairs out of the carpet. My stomach ached. I hadn't moved my bowels in days. I drank a gallon of salt water and flipped on the radio. I listened to some hip-hop songs. I liked hip-hop songs because they stirred up my spirit without messing with my mind. Forty minutes later, I moved my bowels. If I ever write a book, it will be filled with tricks and tips for men. For example, if your face is puffy, fill your mouth with coffee grounds. If you have a weak jaw, grow a beard. If you can't grow a beard, wear colors lighter than your skin tone. If you want something and can't have it, want something else. Want what you deserve. You'll probably get it. Above all, control yourself. Some days, to keep myself from eating, I'd hit my head against a wall or sock myself in the stomach. Sometimes I hyperventilated or strangled myself a little with a towel. I used a permanent marker to draw dotted lines around the bulges of fat around my sides, my thighs. I did calisthenics on the kitchen floor. Instead of shaving cream, I used moisturizer. Instead of soap, two-in-one shampoo plus conditioner.

Then the phone rang.

"I'm writing my will," said my uncle. "I'm leaving everything to you, including the television," he said.

"Thanks," I said. "Think I could get 200 bucks in advance?"

"On one condition," he said. "I want my ashes sprinkled in outer space. I saw a commercial once. I think it costs more than it's worth, but I'd feel better knowing for sure nothing bad will happen to me after I'm dead. You might have to sell some of the furniture, and the TV."

"That's a lot to ask," I said. "Would you settle for a mountaintop by the beach?"

"I'd have to see the place first," he said after a long pause.

"If we could set up a meeting for this afternoon, I'd prefer it."

"You got a date tonight?" he asked excitedly. "Who with?"

"Pick you up in an hour," I said.

I had a really good feeling about Terri. I was thinking she might be the one. When I imagined her, I pictured an Indian with long braids and a feather tied to her forehead. I pictured her in a teepee, wearing a scrap of deerskin. I pictured her naked, watching TV in my uncle's recliner and yawning. I pictured her using the toilet, reading an old book about spirituality. Maybe we could go to a casino together. Maybe we could find an all-you-can-eat buffet. She said she had money, after all.

"Do you have cash?" I yelled at my uncle from inside the car, as he wobbled out from the house.

"You call this mowing the lawn?" he cried, waving his cane at the grass.

"Did you bring cash?" I needed to know. "Did you?"

"Yes," said my uncle, zipping up his windbreaker and patting down where the colostomy bag fit. He knocked on the car window with the top of his cane.

"Let me see the money," I said.

He pulled out his wallet and fanned the $20 bills.

I unlocked his door.


Photo by Christian Storm

When we got to the foot of the mountain, my uncle shook his head. "I don't like it here," he said. "Too much sunshine. Where are we anyway? What kind of a place is this?"

"Malibu," I said.

The parking lot was nearly empty, and there were picnic tables and a carved wooden sign and a trail that led into a valley of small trees. My uncle craned his neck and squinted out the window up at the top of the mountain.

"There must be animals up there," he said. "Mountain lions, coyotes. Look at all those birds!" He looked around nervously, fumbling his hands in his lap. "And there's dirt everywhere."

"You have a point," I said, rolling my eyes.

He crossed his arms and shook his head again. "I don't want animals pissing all over my ashes."

"I'll spray poison on your ashes, if you want," I said. "I promise."

"You go up there and check it out," he said. "I'm too old. I'm tired. I'll stay in the car. If you can find a place in the shade, with no animals, I guess we've got a deal."

And so I got out and started walking. But I wasn't about to walk the whole way up the mountain. I found a flat patch of grass between the trees and did some sit-ups and lunges and lay back down, and I thought of Terri. I pictured her posing nude in the desert—quiet, still, her long slippery black hair spilling across her perfect breasts. When I kissed her, her mouth was like strawberry ice cream. "You're so handsome," she'd say to me. "You're so fit." Life was wonderful, I thought, walking toward a rock jutting out from the hillside. I could see the ocean and the hills and the highway. It seemed like a fine spot to spend all of eternity. The place was full of chipmunks.

"Pretty good," I told my uncle when I got back to the car. "Pay up."

When I looked at his face, it was gray and drawn. "I was just thinking," he began. His voice was choked and high, and I could hear the phlegm in his throat clicking. "How many more times will I see you? A few dozen?" He seemed to be having trouble breathing. I slapped his back.

"Are you having a heart attack?" I asked him. "Do you need an ambulance?"

"Take me home," he said squeakily. He took out his wallet and handed me the cash.

On the drive to Lone Pine to meet Terri that night, I couldn't stop thinking about my uncle. When I'd dropped him off at his house, he hadn't invited me in or asked about my date or said anything at all. He just got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk, leaning on his cane and staring at the lawn. It was true that I hadn't mowed it properly. There were long, triangular patches that I'd missed, and I'd left the lawnmower sitting out by the driveway instead of wheeling it back to the garage. But what did he expect for $20? How could he be upset with me after everything I'd done for him?

"You made it," said Terri, standing out on the porch.

The place was a cheap ranch-style house with an old gray dog sleeping in the yard. It was evening. Birds circled around. I had a headache.

"I made us dinner," Terri said. She was short and big-hipped and seemed shy standing there in jeans and a blouse with frills around the throat. I walked up the porch steps and took a good look. She had blue eye shadow on and a necklace with long red stones dangling on it. Her chest was large, but looked like it would just sag and splay all over the place if it weren't hoisted up into a bra. I tried to imagine what those art students ever saw in her. I looked around her face. It was round and brown and had a scar running down from her left eye. I had a not-so-good feeling. Her hair was thick and pulled back in a ponytail. Her nose was squat and wide and had little pimples around the nostrils. I tried not to stare at them. "Are you hungry?" she asked, smiling. She had yellow, nubby teeth. I tried to see past her teeth into the inside of her mouth. "I've got cookies, too," she said. She pointed into the house through the screen door.

I didn't know what to say to her. The house smelled like garlic and laundry. She led me through the living room, where the sofa was covered in plastic and the furniture was white and gold and tacky. She pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and turned off the small black-and-white TV on the counter. I guessed she sat in front of it and ate cookies all day. I thought maybe she'd be OK-looking if I put her on a diet, bought her some workout DVDs, got her teeth fixed. She was not the girl I'd been picturing, but there was something sweet about her.

"Do you have a family?" she asked me, setting down a plate of Nutter Butters. I put one in my mouth and nodded. "Brothers and sisters?" Terri asked. I shook my head. She got up and poured me a glass of water from the tap. The glass was from Disneyland.

"I have an uncle," I said, taking another cookie.

"I just have my mom," she said. "She's sleeping. All she really does is sleep."

Terri's face looked puffy and sad. I figured she'd improve after a course of diuretics, some benzoyl peroxide. I ate a few more cookies.

"Are you hungry?" she asked again. I tried to imagine getting on top of her. I imagined it would be like resting on a waterbed.

"Better we do it before we eat," I said, pushing the plate of Nutter Butters away. Terri blushed. I knew I was better-looking than her. I knew she would be grateful no matter what I did to her. She stood and led me to her bedroom. I watched her struggle with her jeans. Her thighs swung around as she crawled onto the bed. She kept her bra on, thank God. "You're so handsome," she said. I stood above her and took my shirt off. Terri reached up to touch me. I wasn't all that interested in being touched. I didn't want her to feel my rash. What I wanted was to put my fingers in her mouth. I closed my eyes and felt around her face and stuck my index finger inside. She used her tongue on it and sucked it, and I put another finger in. She kept sucking on my fingers. It was such a good feeling. It was like coming out of the cold and stepping into a cozy room with a fire going. It was like stepping into a hot bath. I wanted to put my whole hand in her mouth. I held the back of her head with one hand and reached down her throat with the other. She choked and tried to speak, but I just kept shoving my hand down there. I could see my hand bulging in her throat from the outside. Eventually she stopped struggling. "Good girl," I wanted to say, but didn't. When I looked down, I could see something twinkle in her eyes.

Afterward I didn't kiss her or pet her or anything. It wasn't like that. We got up and ate the food she had made: spaghetti and meatballs and chocolate pudding. Then I threw up and said goodbye. I told her I'd call her. She stood on the front porch in a pink robe and watched me drive away.

Later, when my uncle asked me how the date went, I told him all the details.

"Terri is the most beautiful woman in the world. Luscious brown hair, little button nose, eyes like a baby deer. She's classy, you know. Not like all these sluts down here. And she's fun, too. We really did it up. We had a great time."

My uncle grumbled and adjusted the seat-back angle of his recliner.

"Be careful with women," he told me. "All they want is love and money."

"Terri's different," I said. "Can't you just be happy for me?" I put my hands in prayer and held them up to my uncle, as though I were making a plea. Ever since Malibu he acted like everything I did was stupid, like everything I did rubbed him the wrong way. He wouldn't look at me. He just stared straight ahead at the television.

"If she's so great," said my uncle, "why isn't she here spooning us up some Neapolitan ice cream? Where is she, anyway?" He took a handful of peanuts from the container in his lap and let them trickle down from his fist into his mouth. I watched him chew and poke at the colostomy bag. I never answered his questions.

Later we watched The Maury Povich Show and One Life to Live and a movie about people who live in the New York City subway tunnels.

I mowed the lawn again.

More from this year's Fiction Issue:

Case Study 2: Recognition of the Self

Werewolf

A Ghost Story